In our Writers and Music series, authors discuss the music that has either been included in their most recent novel/play or the influence music has had on their work overall. We've talked to dozens of novelists, playwrights, and poets and discovered amazing stories of the unhinged live performances or forgotten B-sides that have inspired their work and kept them writing.
Jason Grote is the author of the plays 1001, Civilization (all you can eat), and Maria/Stuart, among others. He has written for film and TV, including season one of "Smash," and co-hosted The Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU in 2008-09. Visit him at jasongrote.com.
Has a specific song ever influenced one of your scripts?
Much of the time, yes. The most obvious example would be my play 1001, which actually calls for music in the script; when I started writing the play, I was listening to Push The Button, a Chemical Brothers' album, especially the song "Galvanize," which featured rapping by Q-Tip. I think the play was influenced by that song, which featured Muslim chanting, Middle Eastern violins, and a powerful, vaguely revolutionary message.
I also listened to a lot of electronic and hip-hop music coming out of the Middle East in the 90s and 00s, and raï music, which was a kind of Algerian rock-pop (mostly Rachid Taha). Right now I'm writing a play about Shostakovich, so obviously I'm using a lot of that music.
You were a writer for the first season of Smash. What was the biggest challenge writing for a musical series?
TV writing is a whole different animal, but one of the biggest challenges with the show was the contemporary numbers, because you would write something into the script - this wasn't a pitch but an actual finished draft - and then the music people would come back with a different number, based on their expertise, or what they could obtain the rights to, or maybe what they thought they could sell as iTunes downloads.
In and of itself this wasn't such a bad thing, because I have a really spotty knowledge of current Top 40 music and it wouldn't have been so great to have me dropping in, say, Guided by Voices or Clash songs, but it would have been better to have integrated the songs more organically into the scripts. I'm not on Season Two; maybe they'll have changed this by then.
You’ve done a lot of work and fundraising for WFMU. What drew you to that station?
I briefly worked at the Montclair Book Center in 1990, where they played the station all the time. It was a great job, except I was paid less than minimum wage, and I usually took that in used books instead of money so I couldn't pay my rent. For years after that, I would strain to get a signal and listened to it here and there whenever I could, usually in a car, but at some point in the late 1990s I started listening online. It's the best radio station in the world and everyone should listen to it at WFMU.org.
You wrote and produced WFMU’s Acousmatic Theatre Hour.
I loved going down to the station once a week to be on the radio, but honestly I just remembered it being a lot of work. It was hard coming up with something interesting to play on the radio every week (it was a radio play show, and contemporary, interesting radio plays are next to impossible to come by and extremely time-consuming to make), so we'd often play archival material from UbuWeb, PennSound, or the WFMU record library.
It was an important life lesson: I could love WFMU as a listener and volunteer, but I didn't necessarily have to go on the air. But I'm glad I got it out of my system.
What was your best and worst live music experiences?
Hmmmm...best would be tough - I saw Fishbone at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ, in 1987 in a small crowd, and it was pretty incredible, just fantastic, fun energy. My other favorites are all fairly recent: Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom on New Years' Eve 2006, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists at McCarren Park Pool in 2007, The Dirtbombs at Southpaw in 2008.
My least favorite included a truly frightening Cro-Mags/Mentors show at City Gardens, also in 1987 (though it was also really memorable), and Porno for Pyros at Roseland Ballroom in 1993. That last one ruined Perry Farrell for me - the crowd was full of moshing jocks (one of the worst things about the 1990s). The band played for 35 minutes, and Farrell ended the show by asking the audience, "How does it feel to be a bunch of cunts?"
In fact, the 1990s was kind of a lost decade for me, musically - I just saw tons of big festival shows like Lollapalooza, and then the Grateful Dead and jam bands. Though I still like The Dead and make no apologies for it.
Your play 1001, a modern retelling of Arabian Nights, has been receiving a steady stream of praise and productions since its 2007 premiere. Why do you think this play has resonated with audiences?
Who knows? I think theaters like that it's epic and ambitious, but maybe it's had a life because it's hopeful in the face of tragedies like 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilization has been well-received by theaters because it's my most similarly epic play in years, but it's much more bleak, and it's an explicit criticism of capitalism, which seems to touch a nerve - in DC in particular. The Washington Post loved it, but all these 24-year-old bloggers hated it, like viciously hated it with an unusual level of vitriol. I can only imagine it was because it makes desperate, ambitious people look like assholes. And who's more desperate and ambitious than a 24-year-old blogger in DC?
1001 also went after a much easier target, the neocons who were waging war against the Arab world, even though it felt much riskier at the time. When a liberal Democrat is in power, theater audiences don't want to hear criticisms of power quite so much. It's actually more of a taboo. Though I hear they loved Civilization in Germany!
Is there a musical act you think is criminally underrated?
Love, definitely - Arthur Lee was insane, but they were way better than The Doors, CSN, or any number of other L.A. acts at the time.
I also think there's a huge garage/psych/punk scene that's been going on since the 1980s and is still going strong today, and which deserves attention above and beyond Jack White (though I like Jack White): Dan Melchior, Billy Childish, Holly Golightly, The Dirtbombs, New Bomb Turks, Redd Kross, The Black Hollies, The Ettes, Jay Reatard, Gentleman Jesse, King Khan & The Shrines, Davila 666, The Cynics, Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees...I could keep this up forever. There were some great Boston bands from the 1980s waiting to be rediscovered, like Big Dipper and Volcano Suns.
There's some really fantastic electro/pop/punk coming from Brazil right now, and the internet has allowed for there to be literally thousands of compilations of great forgotten music from every contentent except Antarctica, though there's probably a Love Peace & Poetry: Antarctica compilation in the works that I don't know about.
Do you have any new work coming up?
I'll be reading my short story from the Significant Objects anthology, from Fantagraphics Books, at The Strand on July 10. That's going to be a pretty cool event, not because of me, but the other authors: Luc Sante, Ben Greenman, Shelley Jackson, Annie Nocenti, who wrote the best run on Daredevil in that comic's history (and yes, I'm including Frank Miller).
I just finished the program note for The Wooster Group/Royal Shakespeare Company production of Troilus & Cressida at The Globe in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and I'm very proud of that, even though it's just a program note. Civilization should be coming to
Chicago in 2013. I'm developing some original ideas for TV and film that I can't talk about just yet.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. His articles have appeared in cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)