Lit Riffs is a collection of short stories inspired by songs of the writers’ choosing, the equivalent of a compilation of literary covers. So I made myself a playlist and set about this audiovisual experiment.
The stories are hit and miss, which, somewhat surprisingly, had little to do with my liking of the actual songs they were based on. They seem to work better when they are only tangentially related to their source material, best when the writing evokes the mood of the song. Certainly, the least effective were the ones that went so far as to quote lyrics – JT Leroy’s take on Foo Fighter’s “Everlong” – or take the songs too literally and therefore make the story less dynamic – Anthony DeCurtis’s on The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (a pity as they are among my favorite songs included). Many of the stories try to recreate the circumstances described in the songs or how they came to be written. My favorite in that vein is “Bouncing,” Jennifer Belle’s take on Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which, as she explains in her author’s inspiration section, is a prequel of sorts to the events in the song. It takes the disconnected images, often absurd, of the song and creates a narrative of yearning for the freedom that “Graceland” brings.
Jonathan Lethem’s contribution “The National Anthem” based on Yo La Tengo’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” has a sense of yearning too, for the things past and the things that never come to be. It takes to form of a letter between estranged friends describing failed relationships and failing to live up the expectations of your younger self. Lethem notes that “anyone whose heart isn’t broken by that song hasn’t ever been in love” and his story certainly expresses that sentiment.
Most impressive was Tanker Dane’s “Hallelujah,” a three page tale of an instrument through the ages titled for Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen classic. Buckley’s version of the oft covered song has never been my favorite but Dane shines a new light on Buckley’s subdued guitar and vocals without referring to them at all, just the wonders of music and words.