Although our experiences of music and fiction are very different, the two art forms are intricately bound to one another. The very oldest stories – let’s not forget – were told through song. They were written, not simply to be recited, but to be sung. The fact that Bob Dylan, America’s greatest songwriter, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature demonstrates that, clearly, the lines between storytelling and songwriting are just as blurred as ever.
In this list of the five best works of fiction written by musicians, you’ll see that a lot of time, the author’s work seems almost like an extension of their songwriting. You’d think taking on a work of fiction would mean taking a different path, to put into words something previously unspoken. But, from looking at our list, it’s clear that novels represent a chance, not to explore new territory, but to inspect a familiar idea or theme or character through a microscopic lens.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at five of the best works of fiction by musicians. From gritty murder mysteries to wholesome children’s books, there’s something for everyone.
The 5 best books by musicians:
Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966)
Before he’d even picked up a guitar, Leonard Cohen was working as a novelist, spending much of his time on the Greek island of Hydra, from where he would work until lunchtime and then swim, walk, and ponder his plots in the afternoon.
Cohen’s celebrated novel focuses on the lives of four hapless characters -three of whom are engaged in a love triangle – and their obsession with sex and spirituality. Cohen is a master of structure, igniting the story with the death of two important characters, Edith and ‘F’. It is this tragic event that acts as the catalyst for the nameless narrator’s various meditations on the nature of love via a web of flashbacks, gloriously rendered in Cohen’s immaculate – and frequently explicit – prose.
The Death Of Bunny Munro (Nick Cave, 2009)
Like Cohen, Nick Cave’s literary adventures often embrace the erotic with wandering hands. The cultural polymath’s first work of fiction, And the Ass Saw the Angel, was published in 1989 and was greatly inspired by the Southern Gothic writing style pioneered by the likes of Flannery O’Conner (Wise Blood) and William Faulkner (A Rose for Emily). 20 years later, Cave published The Death Of Bunny Munro, a book that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Cave’s second novel isn’t exactly a costly Sunday read. We spend much of our time with a particularly hateful and embittered womaniser, whose alcohol abuse and extra-marital affairs eventually lead to his wife’s (the titular Bunny) suicide. It is a book that is, at once, ridiculous, comical and deeply tragic. Indeed, Bunny’s husband’s insatiable sexual appetite leads to a series of toe-curling interactions, the excruciating and nature of which seem to disguise something much much darker. It’s one of those books that you feel you shouldn’t be reading, something that makes Cave’s book all the more mesmerising.
The Vulture (1970, Gil Scott-Heron)
When he was 19, Gil Scott-Heron decided to take some time out of university to write his first novel, The Vulture. Astonishingly, it was published the same year he released his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
Half gritty murder mystery, half psychogeographic portrait of New York in the 1960s, Scott-Heron’s novel is narrated by four men who are all connected to one murdered teenager, John Lee. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, our narrator asks us: who killed John Lee and why?
Wildwood (Colin Meloy, 2009)
As the chief songwriter of Decemberists, it comes as no surprise that Colin Meloy’s first work of fiction was an incredibly wholesome work of children’s literature. Meloy created Wildwood in collaboration with his wife, Carson Ellis, the illustrator whose art features on the covers of many of Decemberists’ records. According to Meloy, the book is “a classic tale of adventure, magic, and danger, set in an alternate version of modern-day Portland, Oregon”.
It’s a truly magical book, perfect for young readers who are just starting to develop their own literary tastes. It should also be said that the illustrations are absolutely stunning, as much a feast for the eyes as Meloy’s prose is for the imagination.
Doghouse Roses (Steve Earle, 2001)
In many ways, Doghouse Roses feels like an extension of Steve Earle’s songwriting. Songs like ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’ are pretty much stories in themselves, after all.
Doghouse Roses is a collection of short stories which, like his songs, capture something universal with an economy of language which is startlingly evocative. Throughout the collection, we travel the lonely heart of America -through, smoke-filled bars and depressing hotel rooms – and meet a host of characters whose choices have made them fate’s fool. It’s heartfelt, mesmerising, and fabulously unique.