With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a single theme.
The reader: Elizabeth Hand became known in the ’90s for her ambitious, dizzying, myth-steeped science fiction and fantasy novels, not to mention her DC Comics series Anima, co-written with Paul Witcover. A veteran of the New York and Washington, D.C. punk scenes of the ’70s, she whittled her ornate style to the bone with her current series of Cass Neary crime novels, which began in 2007 with the acclaimed Generation Loss and continued in 2013’s Available Dark. The third installment of the series, Hard Light, comes out this month—and like its two predecessors (as well as many of Hand’s books), musicians and musical subcultures are woven into the story. Cass is a washed-up, substance-abusing, punk-rock photographer whose pursuit of a lost love leads her from New York to London; there she becomes enmeshed in murder, black-market intrigue, a cult of rock groupies, and ancient revelations. Hand’s other recent book is 2015’s Wylding Hall, a supernatural horror novella set in the British folk-rock scene of the ’70s. Seeing as how music permeates her work, The A.V. Club asked Hand to choose and discuss her five favorite books about music.
Elizabeth Hand: Roxon is all but forgotten now, but in 1969 she wrote the first encyclopedia of rock. She was an Australian born critic in New York City, and she was an early adopter of so many bands and musicians, in particular Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and the whole glam scene. She also wrote an influential weekly column for the New York Daily News, which is where I first came upon her when I was 13 or 14. I had this book, but I lost it a long time ago. I desperately need another copy. Roxon died in 1973, way too young, of an asthma attack brought on by one of New York’s hellishly polluted summers.
The A.V. Club: You’re a prolific book critic in addition to being an author. Did you ever think about becoming a music critic like Roxon?
EH: I would’ve loved to have been a rock critic. When I think back on it now, I think, “God, what was my problem?” The notion of DIY—it just didn’t hit me back then. I didn’t think that I could just go out there and do that. There was a fanzine in D.C. called Vintage Violence, and it was sort of modeled after some of the punk zines in New York City. I did send something to [Vintage Violence founder] Michael Layne Heath. I don’t remember if I ever heard back or not, but a few years ago, Michael got in touch with me. He said he was going through his old files, and he put two and two together and realized that I was now this writer. He sent me back what I sent him, which was a review of a Dead Boys show. I read it, and I was like, “Wow, I definitely could have done this, if I’d just been braver or smarter or more connected.” I had the chops. It wasn’t great criticism, by a long shot, but for the time, and for how old I was, it was fine. It was one of the roads not traveled. It was probably for the best.
Legs McNeil, who I’ve gotten to know in the last couple years—he was my age. A year older than me. He and John Holmstrom started Punk Magazine in New York when they were, like, 19 years old, just balls out into the wind. I picked up the first issue Punk when it came out [in 1975]. I remember the flyers hung up around downtown Manhattan. I was like, “Who the hell is this?” Eventually I realized they were my age. They weren’t grownups. They were just doing this on their own. I never got it together back then. I was kind of a late bloomer.
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young
EH: I’ve read this three times cover to cover. It’s an amazing history of British folk music from ancient times to the present. It also shows how music influenced numerous writers, including many science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, and vice versa.
AVC: Speaking of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that’s been influenced by music: Wylding Hall is exactly such a book. Was it inspired by Electric Eden?
EH: Wylding Hall went through several failed iterations before it ended up being the book it is. Originally it had nothing to do with folk-rock. It had nothing to do with the 1970s. It was just a completely different book. The only thing it had was the same title. Then I had this revelation when I was really jet-lagged and had been reading a book about Nick Drake. That’s when I thought, “Oh, I’m going to make an imaginary folk-rock from that period.” I started doing research. I had heard of Electric Eden, so when I started framing Wylding Hall and fleshing it out, I read Electric Eden all the way through and listened to every single album that was mentioned in there. I tried to find video footage online for all these obscure bands, and the well-known ones. Then I read it again, then I read it a third time just for pleasure.
It’s just such a great book. Rob Young delves into so much material. It goes all the way back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and all the British supernatural writers of that time, like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, and how their work—even it wasn’t influenced by folk music—was definitely infused with the same energy. Or at least the same energy I get from a certain strain of British folk.
AVC: And rather than being a straight music history, it’s a very poetic and even mystical book.
EH: Yeah, exactly. It really is a mystical book. And it’s beautifully written. He follows so many different strains of music, and he goes into film and horror. I can’t recommend that book enough, even if you don’t think you’re interested in British folk music. If you have any interest in contemporary literature of the fantastic or cinema or any kind of fringe music, it’s well worth reading. Just be prepared to get lost in it.
AVC: How do you feel overall about the relationship between speculative fiction and rock music?
EH: Was it William Gibson who said something like, “David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is like this secret thread within contemporary science fiction”? A lot of the writers that I know in genre fiction—science fiction writers, fantasy writers, horror writers, even crime writers like George Pelecanos, who I know is a big rock ’n’ roll fan—are my age or younger. They grew up with rock music, and it means a lot to them. It fed into their writing. Certainly with science fiction and music, you have a noble history going back to Hawkwind and Michael Moorcock.
EH: Another book I’ve read more times than I can count. It’s modeled on Jean Stein’s Edie, and it’s indispensable for anyone interested in the New York City art and music scene from the 1960s to the 1980s. It’s also funny as hell.
AVC: Although Please Kill Me is about real-life ’70s punk and Wylding Hall is about fictional ’70s folk, the two books have similar structures: Both are assembled from first-person accounts of a certain music scene, with unreliable narrators and agendas. Was Wylding Hall patterned after Please Kill Me?
EH: Oh, yeah, it was definitely a conscious thing. I love that format, the oral history. Gillian McCain, Legs’ co-editor on the book, deserves a lot of credit. She had as much to do with putting it together as he did. But Legs definitely brought the energy to the table. He was there from day one, down on The Bowery. The assemblage of people that they interviewed, and the story they told, they were great. I loved the fact that you would have these conflicting stories. One person said this—the other person said that. Where was Johnny Thunders at that time? Well, he was here. He was there. Now he’s dead. [Laughs.] It’s really funny. Wylding Hall is probably not very funny, but I definitely had Please Kill Me in mind as a model. That period is also the backdrop for the Cass Neary books, so whenever I want a shot of that world, I pick that book up again.
AVC: Given your love of the ’70s punk scene in New York, why did you decide to make Cass Neary a photographer who came up in that scene, rather than making her a musician?
EH: Probably because I am not a musician. I know many musicians, but it’s still something I don’t know from the inside. I love photography, and although I’m not a photographer, I worked at the Smithsonian for a number of years, in their photo lab and their photo archives. I learned quite a lot there about photography, old-school print photography. I was fascinated by it. I’ve always associated the punk scene with a certain kind of black-and-white photography that I just love. I love Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” Christopher Makos’ photography, Robert Bayley’s work. Even though I was there in the punk scene at the time, and it was in color, in my mind’s eye it’s always monochrome. It always looks like Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses. All of these people were making this amazing photography, and it was in black-and-white because, among other things, color film was expensive to buy and process back then. To me, that was the way the world looked.
A photographer also has a certain amount of detachment from whatever is going on, unless you’re a portrait photographer. If you’re a street photographer or a photojournalist, you’re out there getting dirty. You want to see where the blood is. On the one hand, you’re totally immersed in that, but you’re really the consummate observer. Your eye is the camera, and at some point you have to draw back and take those pictures. That kind of detachment fit who I wanted Cass to be, which is this very damaged person, at least at the outset of the series, in Generation Loss. She’s so damaged and so much into herself, she’s barely human in some ways. [Laughs.] She’s a snarling train wreck. Over the course of the series, what I hope to do is show a character arc, like that great Mekons song, “Hard To Be Human Again.”
EH: Hell’s memoir captures more than any other what it felt like to be in downtown New York City in the 1970s—mostly a lot of middle-class kids who had grown up reading the Beats and loving rock ’n’ roll. He really captured the late-’50s, early-’60s childhood that I had—he’s a few years older than me, but not much—then going to New York City to live and to make it as an artist and a musician. He does a good job of depicting that whole mindset, that combination of nihilism and weird innocence that was really, really eager to be corrupted. [Laughs.] It was also very beautifully written. He was very honest. I didn’t get the feeling he was airbrushing it, though I’m sure he put some personal gloss on it, as we all would. I was surprised by how much I loved that book, because I was never a huge Richard Hell fan. I had nothing against The Neon Boys or The Voidoids. There were a couple songs on [The Voidoids album] Blank Generation that I liked. But I loved his persona. I loved the way he looked. He looked cool and smart.
AVC: Have you watched Vinyl?
EH: No, because I don’t have HBO. I’m dying to see it. But I’ve read a lot about it, and I’ve seen clips.
AVC: There’s also a fictional group in the show called Nasty Bits that gets compared to The Neon Boys. Hell himself gave the show a pretty hilarious review.
EH: I still really want to see it. I’m a total sucker for those kinds of things, even if they’re awful.
AVC: You’ve made up plenty of your own fictional bands. There’s Wylding Hall’s folk band Windhollow Faire, Generation Loss’ punk band Anubis Rising, Available Dark’s black-metal band Viðar, and Hard Light’s glam band Lavender Rage, just to name a few.
EH: I’ve been doing it for a long time. I had an early short story called “The Erl-King” which is about a Syd Barrett kind of character. There are also other bands in that story. There’s sort of a folk-punk singer in [Hand’s 1994 fantasy novel] Waking The Moon named Annie Harmon, and when she comes out of the closet and becomes a sort of Lilith Fair kind of singer, she changes her name to Annie Harmony. I would have to go back through everything I’ve ever written to try to find something that doesn’t have a fictional band. [Laughs.] I need to make a compilation album of them all.
AVC: Or a Lillian Roxon-style encyclopedia.
EH: I should do that on a slow day. [Laughs.]
AVC: What compels you to create this alternate-reality rock mythology?
EH: I think you nailed it, using the word “mythology.” I don’t know if that’s something we have now. I’m not somebody who says, “Oh, this music today, you kids get off my lawn.” I love a lot of new music. But I don’t think we have the same kind of mythology around musicians and performers that we had in the ’60s and ’70s. It started to wind down in the ’80s, but even then you had larger-than-life characters like Madonna or Adam Ant or Boy George. Nowadays you have Lady Gaga, but it’s a twice- or thrice-told tale. Back then, people were making it up for the first time. I think the whole sex-and-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll legacy of the ’60s—although I hate to use the word “legacy”—is still around now, but people are much more conscious. And for good reason. It was a different time. In the U.S., it was a more prosperous time. Young people could take a few years off to try to make it as musicians. People can do that now, but I think there’s a lot more anxiety attached to it.
There was sort of a romanticism in the air back then, connected with that kind of mythological strata. I’m sure there are still kids out there listening to music and feeling the same why I did. I watched But Todd Haynes’ movie Velvet Goldmine again after Bowie’s death, and every time I see it, I like it more. It does a really good job at capturing the mythology, the glow, that hung around the whole glam-rock era, which I can remember very vividly. It was a very cool time. Performers are easy to write about, especially within a genre-fiction template. It’s very easy to make a character a Dionysian figure or an Orphic figure when they can really be Dionysus or Orpheus.
EH: It’s just such a great book. For anyone who doesn’t know, Pamela Des Barres was this legendary groupie in the ’60s and ’70s. She’s comes across as an adorable, kind, intelligent person. It’s a very charming memoir of that time. And of being a groupie, screwing all those rock stars, traveling with them. It’s sort of heartbreaking in a way too. You read it and think, “Oh, why doesn’t Jimmy Page just marry her?” [Laughs.] She comes across as someone with a good self-image, who’s confident, but no ego. And she doesn’t make excuses for what she did. I don’t think she should. It celebrates that time and her younger self in a way that I find really charming and touching and exhilarating.
AVC: Hard Light is partly about a fictional group of rock groupies called The Flaming Creatures, similar to Frank Zappa’s The GTOs. What is it that you find fascinating about groupie culture?
EH: Groupies were the secret sharers of pop culture. Whether or not they actually wrote or performed it, it’s impossible to imagine the crucible of 1960s and 1970s music without them. It’s a smart, sharply observed memoir that’s memorably sweet-natured without being sugarcoated. A lot of her friends and colleagues didn’t survive, but thank god Miss Pamela did. There’s a character in Hard Light who’s an aging groupie, so when I was doing research for that book, I read a ton of groupie memoirs. I totally immersed myself as much as possible in that world. It was really depressing. A lot of those women were very scarred by what they did. But Miss Pamela’s book is very charming. I’m sure there are things in it she glossed over or left out, but it certainly reads as though it were her experiences of that time. She was young, and it was enchanted and enchanting. I think people have that experience of rock ’n’ roll too, along with the push to sell stuff and the sordid parts and everything else. There is a magic there. She really captured that. I think Almost Famous owes a lot to it.
AVC: In Hard Light, Cass finds a bar in London that has what she considers to be the world’s greatest jukebox—a vintage Seeburg stocked with 45s by everyone from Dusty Springfield to Big Star to the Sex Pistols. Were you drinking and listening vicariously through her?
EH: Absolutely. I wanted to be able to geek out about music there, which we all love to do, those of us who are music nerds. That was the ideal way to do it. Cass’ boyfriend Quinn deals in rare vinyl, so he’s the perfect character to be the provider for that jukebox. I’m an analog person in a digital world. I love old technology. Old jukeboxes, old cameras—I love that stuff. There’s something so tactile about it. The feel of those beautiful, archaic, huge, clunky machines. I love them. I understand why they’re extinct and why we don’t use them anymore. But in terms of fiction, it’s great to be able to write about that stuff. I would have a hard time lavishing a loving description of how my iPhone looks. That’s just not going to happen.