Every now and then, you run across a book that urges: "Take me home, now! You won't regret it!"
Beautiful Music is that book. I became aware of it last year, while doing my book tour for We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher & The Last Stand of a Band That Mattered. As I told author Michael Zadoorian, the moment I spotted the phrase, "the guitar- and drum-heavy songs of local legends like the MC5 and Iggy Pop," I told myself, I gotta find out more about this one.
Or, to put it another way, as much as I enjoyed High Fidelity -- a book that's already popped up as a logical comparison point -- it didn't feel like a world that I inhabited. Which doesn't mean, I didn't like it, or wouldn't read it again. I just yearned for a more immediate world, one closer to my own experience, that would make all this music nerd stuff seem worthwhile.
Part of that motivation, obviously, is personal. That started in the summer of 1980, on picking up a bargain price copy of the Five's incendiary debut live album, Kick Out The Jams (1969). For a teenage boy, it came off as the perfect riposte to an increasingly corporatized Top 40 pop world, whose emissaries sounded tired and turgid, next to the rapid fire clusters of notes that "Brother" Wayne Kramer unleashed on his guitar.
That album, in turn, opened the gateway to the remainder of the MC5's output, plus the plethora of live bootleg CDs, LPs and tapes that, grungry and lo-fi as they often sound, are an essential aspect of the story. Simply put, if you've only heard the "approved" version of a song like "Looking At You," then you haven't gotten the whole story. (Or, for that matter, the locally-issued 45 that preceded any recordings, along with "I Can Only Give You Everything," and "One Of The Guys" -- but I digress.)
In 1995, I wrote -- more or less, back to back -- two massive retrospectives of the MC5 and the Stooges for DISCoveries and Goldmine, respectively, an experience that put me in touch with the people responsible for this great music that proved so important to my formative years. Most of those encounters occurred on the phone, but not all of them -- to this day, I treasure my meetings with Wayne Kramer, and Dennis Thompson, Ron and Scott Asheton, as well as John Sinclair, whose contributions cannot be overlooked, even if the powers that be -- especially the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame -- hope you continue to do that, and just let them have their way.
In the process, I also talked to many of the movers and shakers who helped both bands do what they did well -- Danny Fields, Ron Richardson, Scott Richardson, Leni Sinclair, Jimmy Silver, the list goes on and on -- and periodically wrote about the music, off and on.
But that's only part of the story driving Beautiful Music, which focuses on Danny Yzemski, a pop radio-loving loner struggling to find himself in a city racked by racial turbulence in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. That struggle feels deeper and lonelier after Danny's father dies suddenly, leaving him to cope with a dysfunctional home life, and freshman year at a high school whose classmates seem several steps behind the cultural curve.
As Danny's mother "tries to hold it together with the help of Librium, highballs, and breakfast cereal," our press release states, "Danny finds his own reason to carry on: rock and roll." That sounded like the perfect place to start with the author, Michael Zadoorian, and explore his rationales for writing Beautiful Music, and how he went about the job. Our conversation (3/07/19) follows below.
TAKE I: "FOR ME, CREEM WAS EVERYTHING"
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Obviously, Detroit rock is a pretty important subtext in Beautiful Music. Did you actually see (artists like) Iggy and the MC5 live? Or did you come along later, like your hero?
MICHAEL ZADOORIAN (MZ): That (subtext of music) was really a conscious choice, I think, on my part. I did come along later, and so did the character of Danny, whose age pretty much parallels mine.
Certainly, that heyday of the Grande Ballroom, the MC5, the Stooges, and the summer of 1967, when Detroit was basically on fire. Those kind of things, they sort of echo throughout the book, and I meant them to be a presence. Because the presence of all those things just changed that particular period in Detroit, and Detroit music, the city and the attitudes.
So it was real important to me to do that. You had people that are well-known now, playing teen clubs in Detroit, or high school gymnasiums. I mean, I (recently) talked to somebody who saw the Who at Southfield High School, in 1967, ’68, or something like that.
CR: Sure, and I can remember people in college telling me, “Wow, those were the days! You could see Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger on the same bill, for 75 cents.”
MZ: Yeah, I don’t doubt that a bit (laughs). It was a pretty amazing time in Detroit’s musical history, and that’s not even talking about any of the other stuff going on – WCKLW, and obviously, Motown, all that stuff. It was a pretty exciting time, if you were old enough to be part of it, and conscious of it.
CR: And, of course, you have the rise of alternative culture, which you nod to, in your book – the head shops, CREEM magazine, and stuff like that, too.
MZ: Absolutely, yeah. I went to the same high school that Danny went to, Redford High. I remember waiting at the bus stop, and seeing little newspaper boxes filled with The Fifth Estate. That was some radical shit back then.
But, for me, CREEM was everything. That was obviously before the Internet, and if you were just a little music nerd, that’s where you went: “Yeah, the new CREEM is out!” It was just about trying to learn things, find out about other bands, who influenced who, and all that stuff.
CR: So what inspired Beautiful Music? Just being part of that culture, soaking it up, maybe wanting to pay tribute to it, in some way – since it was obviously a pretty important part of your formative years, right?
MZ: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was. It was interesting, because I started off writing something about an adult. And it just seemed to fascinate me: “Jeez, am I writing a YA (young adult) novel here (laughs)?” I said, “Well, whatever it is I’m writing, I like where it’s going, and I think I’m just going to explore this.”
There are definitely some autobiographical elements to the book, a fair number of them. Having just talked about the book in front of people, I realized that, in a lot of ways, rock ‘n’ roll affected me intellectually, which is, of course, not really how rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed to affect you (laughs)!
MZ: Being that little music nerd, combing through issue after issue of CREEM, and Rolling Stone, and Circus, and Crawdaddy, and all those – Melody Maker, when I could get ahold of it – I just kept learning about things, learning about stuff that was ancillary to rock ‘n’ roll, but still so important.
CREEM’s where I found out about the Beats, about Charles Bukowski, Lester Bangs, and Hunter S. Thompson, and the Rolling Stones, actually – and ultimately, that stuff, rock ‘n’ roll, and everything I read about it affected me in a greater way than I ever realized. In a lot of ways, it’s part of what led me to become a writer. So I think that was one of the…
CR: Key influences in that direction.
MZ: Yeah. I think that was one of the things that led me to keep going on this. Any time you write something that feels autobiographical, things like this sometimes become a way for you to investigate your own past – and kind of a way to explore, maybe, how you became the adult that you ultimately became.
CR: Yeah, because it’s, in many ways, it’s a coming of age story, like, The Catcher In The Rye. Except this would be the more “Downriver” version of it.
MZ: Absolutely, that’s totally right (laughs).
CR: I was either thinking, when I finished it, “OK. We finally got somebody who gave us the Downriver version of High Fidelity, or Catcher In The Rye, or some combination of both.”
MZ: Well, I’ll give you another one, too. This is something I’ve said at events, it’s not real literary to say, but I wanted to write my own Almost Famous, too, of Detroit, where no one was famous. And it was going to be a little more gritty, a little more down river, a little more bright noir, I guess.
CR: Well, to me, Detroit was always a place I thought people were semi-famous. That’s how I look at it.
MZ: Well, that’s true, too. If you want to look at a Bob Seger, he’s the perfect definition of semi-famous. He knocked around Detroit, and the Midwest, and was a regional favorite for so long, just trying so hard to break out. Then finally, it just happened. But I think that it really wore heavily upon him, that he was so close to breaking out, and find a bigger audience, and it just kept not happening.
CR: Well, look at what these guys from the MC5 and the Stooges went through. Because it took about 25 years for their time to come again.
MZ: And even then, it was just, sort of little whispers of it. To me, it’s only been in the past 10 or 15 years that Detroit, the MC5, and the Stooges have been heralded as the progenitors of punk rock…
CR: That they are.
MZ: Yeah, and it’s finally starting to be recognized. Certainly not by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or anything like that.
CR: Did you go and see the MC 50 tour? What did you think?
MZ: You know something? I guess I was just pretty damn thrilled to be there, and I had met Wayne Kramer, by that time, just briefly. But I tried to get him to blurb the book, and I’d been in touch with his wife, who’s super nice. Then she’s like, “I’m trying to get Wayne to write the book!” Later, I found out, he was writing The Hard Stuff at the exact same time I was hounding him, and his wife hounding him to maybe do a blurb for it (Beautiful Music), but…
CR: But you caught him unwittingly at his busiest year, probably, in decades.
MZ: Absolutely. That’s exactly what happened, and later, I got to meet him. Then, actually, he did finally get around to reading the book, and he just Tweeted me: “Oh, I’m lovin’ the book!” And it was like, “Okay, that’s pretty awesome, when an original member of the MC5, Tweets you, and tells you that he loves your book.”
CR: I went to see them in Grand Rapids, actually, with some of my friends. I mean, Wayne was pretty sharp, to begin with, but I was amazed at how much sharper and fluid he was, on guitar, and everybody with him (onstage) did exactly the right thing. They paid tribute to those songs, and put some of their own personalities onto the proceedings.
MZ: Yes, totally, totally agree. It was cool. And I was glad to see at least a version of them, doing it, obviously.
TAKE II: "THAT WAS THE REVOLUTION"
CR: What other changes did you make, as you were starting to write? Seems like, when we do fiction, there always are a few of them.
MZ: Yeah, absolutely. The more I wrote – I didn’t realize how important it would be, that it took place in those years after the ’67 rebellion.
It was an uncomfortable time, in a lot of ways, in Detroit, if you were at a high school in a neighborhood were things changing – and that wound up becoming more and more important in the book, as I kept writing it, and that notion of all this amazing music in the air in the late ‘60s or ‘70s.
There were radio stations that were pretty iconic, (like) WABX – and the influence of WCKLW, too, which was probably the most integrated radio station of all, at least musically. That wound up becoming an important thing in the book, where all the music in the air collided with everything else in the air, like, fear, hate, and racism, and…
CR: Kind of a lot like the climate today.
MZ: Yeah, yeah, it really was. And I realized, “I got to write about that part, too, and have it be a part of this.” That’s when the book started to (feel), “Okay, this is at least something that will, I hope, maybe elevate it a bit just above a coming of age novel. If nothing else, it’s at least a Detroit coming of age novel.”
By the way, I love coming of age novels, myself. So that became important for the book, where the music met what else was in the air, and that was when I felt like the book really started to coalesce, at least for me.
CR: How long did it actually take you to write (Beautiful Music), and shape it?
MZ: Good question, let’s see. The first draft probably took me 10 months, and then, I think, revisions and rewrites for the next year, and correct it, a little bit… so, probably about two years. I probably finished it about 2015.
It was interesting when my agent was shopping the book around. I could tell, from a publisher who I had worked with in the past – they seemed interested, but we talked, and I got a weird vibe. They wanted to turn some things down, and turn some other things up. And we both walked away from that meeting, thinking, “No, I don’t think this is gonna work!” (laughs)
One of the things that some people have pointed out, and honestly, I didn’t even notice it – often, in coming of age stories, there’s a romantic, peg, hook. And there’s nothing really like that [in Beautiful Music]. Certain things happen, but, for him, the love story is ingrained in the music.
That’s everything, that’s what helps him to survive, and it is what helps him to sort of discover himself, and also, I think, ultimately becomes his agent of change: “This is the direction I want my life to go.”
CR: Absolutely. And, in terms of where you ended up – I think you ended up in the right place.
MZ: Good. That’s where you hope, at least, you fall – that’s always a dicey thing with a novel, too, timing that arrival place. And I feel good about it, knowing that in Danny’s case, the music continues to be the thing that nourishes him.
And I realize that, well, the other shit that’s not gonna get solved – his mother, that’s not gonna get any better (laughs). Detroit’s race relations – that’s probably not gonna get any better, for awhile, anyway. So that felt like, [music] was the revolution. That was his revolution.
CR: So then, the million dollar question – will there be a sequel, or is it part of something bigger, like a franchise, or a trilogy? Because the point where you end, seems like it could lend itself to that.
MZ: Well (laughs)…
CR: Well (laughs)…
MZ: Well, you know, I’m working on something right now… It’s kind of a continuation of Danny’s story. I mean, it ends in 1974, and that was 45 years ago. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with it – which is, I guess, my modus operandi, anyway (laughs). I’m just going to continue writing until something makes sense. It kind of appealed to me, to check in on him, and find out. So it may be further along the road, than would be considered appropriate in an actual sequel.
But, yeah, I feel like I’m still engaged with him, somehow, though I’ve written another book in the meantime, and have another book coming out with Akashic next year, which is not at all related to this, other than, it’s very Detroit-centric. We’re still working on the actual title.
It’s absolutely fiction. It takes place in the Detroit of about 10 years ago, when we were really in the shitter (laughs). It’s that time, but it’s about an aging artist, and creative people in Detroit, and the arts…
CR: Oh, wow.
MZ: But there’s always been a thriving arts scene, and some of it’s about that. It is about being a creative person, as you approach middle age, and the choices you make, the compromises you need to make, in order to survive, so…
CR: There you go. Well, and depending on how you continue Danny’s story, you got to get Sonic’s Rendezvous in the mix somewhere.
MZ: Ah, interesting.
CR: Yeah. Because I’ve been listening to a lot of that stuff recently, and as far as I’m concerned, people still really haven’t caught up with what Fred and company were doing, really. It still sounds light years ahead of a lot of stuff today, even.
MZ: Yeah, that’s very interesting. This is related, yet unrelated. I was running my bike with some friends around, I think it’s Elmwood Cemetery, the one right downtown, where Fred is buried. Even his tombstone is interesting – it’s a piece of slate, basically, driven into the ground, kind of splitting the earth. I don’t know, it’s just so nice to see him getting at least a taste of the recognition that he should be getting.
TAKE III: "GET TO THE END OF SOMETHING"
CR: OK, so, that being said – what advice would you give (aspiring authors), if they were actually willing to listen, which they usually aren’t?
MZ: Hey, dude, it’s funny you should say that (laughs). Somebody who taught a class in art, pretty much said the same thing yesterday… and he was like, no one wanted any criticism, they just wanted to be praised.
CR: Yeah. But assuming they would listen, what would you tell them?
MZ: Well, first and foremost, I would just say, you have to be persistent. You have to do the work, and you can’t be discouraged. I remember one of my writing teachers talked about it: “There’s so many good writers that get discouraged and give up, because it’s hard.” The literary world never stops humbling you, in a lot of ways. It will kick your ass over and over again.
I mean, I have three novels out, and there is nine years between my first one, and nine years between my second and third one. And between both of those, or all of those books, there was a period of, “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
It was hard, and full of rejection, and despair. I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture of it. It’s just, it’s fucking hard, so you really have to just be doing it because you want to, and because it means something to you. So be persistent.
You do it as much as you can. I write, pretty much Monday to Friday, and try to write a certain number of pages a day. I’m not saying it’s genius, or anything. A lot of times, it’s, “I had to write something today, so I’m gonna write.” And I think, “Oh, my God, this is such garbage, right?”
The next day, it’s, “Yeah, a lot of this is garbage, but here’s a little piece of something that’s interesting,” and sometimes, it just takes you off into a direction that you hadn’t dreamed of, and that winds up becoming an important part, so…
CR: That’s the magic of it.
MZ: Yeah, you know? I mean, people will wind up [saying], “You read this?” What they really want is for you to say, “This is genius! I’m sending it off to my agent! And I’m sure this is a ticket to stardom.” And that’ll never happen. I’ve had four books published, and I don’t have enough juice with anybody to get anything, I’m still hustling myself.
Sometimes, you can offer somebody an encouraging word, if you say, “Yeah, I think this is good, keep doing it.” But there’s no substitution (for) doing the work, and being persistent really is the one thing that I think has gotten me through it.
My one teacher, Charles Baxter, just said, “So many good people just give up.” It’s a part of the equation for getting something out into the world: having the persistence, and believing in yourself enough, which is a very hard part of that, and an essential part of it, I think, too. There have been periods where I haven’t been able to write – I’ve been sick and depressed.
CR: Do you juggle this with a day job, or not, at this point? Because that’s always an issue for people.
MZ: Absolutely. I had a good situation for many, many years. I worked in advertising as a copywriter. I was freelancing, and somebody said, “Oh, well, wanna come work here?” And I was like, “You know, I can work part-time.” “Well, I don’t know, what are you thinking?” “I wanna work afternoons, Monday to Friday.”
I did that over two decades, at a place in the Detroit area. I would write fiction in the morning, then go in and make a living in the afternoon. I kept waiting for them to catch on and fire me. They did not catch on, so I did that for a long ass time. Then finally, about three years ago…I left.
I’ve been surviving since then, and stuff has happened. A novel got made into a film, so that helped (laughs). That was a book called The Leisure Seeker, got made into a film last year with Helen Mirren, and Donald Sutherland.
I wouldn’t say it was a mammoth hit, or anything like that, but with a couple of high profile movie stars in there, it got some attention, did okay, and…
CR: Generated enough to tide you over, as the saying goes.
MZ: Yeah, it helped. But, I’ve been extremely lucky, in many ways. You have to realize – I’ve got some novels published, and somebody’s made a friggin’ movie of one of them, which was never the intent. It was all hard enough to just get anyone to want to make a book out of it…
CR: Sure, sure. Never mind a film.
MZ: Yeah, never mind a film (laughs): “Oh, please, make a book out of it!”
CR: But I have to say, what attracted me to your book was: “OK, MC5 and Iggy, I can get behind this.” Then I thought, “It’s good to see somebody flying the flag for this kind of writing.” Because a lot of people I know, they’ve resigned themselves to cranking out stuff that they’re not interested in: “Fiction? Well, I could never really do that.”
Whereas, at some point, I want to get into it, because I had a realization – and maybe you did, too, way back when – “Wait a minute! I’ve told everybody else’s story, it’s about time I told a few of my own.” That make sense?
MZ: Yeah, it totally makes sense! Gosh, there is no reason why you can’t. I mean, I think that’s a really intelligent way of looking at it, too: “Why can’t I just tell my own story, or tell a story that I just want to tell, too? And something that interests me.”
Whenever I’ve tried to write anything that I didn’t ultimately believe in, or care about, it’s been a miserable failure (laughs). I think people that write about music and art and culture are driven by a lot of the same desires, compulsions that drive fiction writers, too. I really do have to write about something that obsesses me.
A writer friend of mine said, “When you write a novel, you find out what your obsessions are.” It’s a good way of putting things, because it’s an idea that (your) obsession is that compulsion – because you have to. I mean, it’s a lot of writing.
It’s a lot of work to write a novel, and you need to, more than anyone else, as a writer, feel that desire to keep going, going even deeper. If I could add one more tip to the beginning writer?
MZ: Get to the end. Get to the end of something. Get to the end of the short story, get to the end of a novel. Even if it feels like total crap, just keep working until you get to the end. Then you at least have a chance to figure out what that book is about, and what it is you’re actually trying to say.
I don’t think you really know it, until you’ve at least written that last page, and then you can look at the book as a whole. Because I know a lot of writers will get caught up in, “Oh, I wrote a chapter of my novel today!”
And then, the next day, instead of writing the next chapter, you go back to the first chapter, and polish it. And it’s like… Dude, if you don’t get to that next chapter, and the next and the next and the next, until you get to the last chapter, you haven’t really written anything.
CR: No, no. I think we got it. This is a good place to leave it, I think…
MZ: All right, well, yes. Thanks so much.
CR: We’ve covered a lot of ground here.
ABOUT MICHAEL ZADOORIAN
Michael Zadoorian is the author of three novels, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC (Akashic Books), THE LEISURE SEEKER (William Morrow) and SECOND HAND (W.W. Norton), and a story collection, THE LOST TIKI PALACES OF DETROIT (Wayne State University Press). A motion picture of THE LEISURE SEEKER starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland was released in 2018 by Sony Pictures Classics.
Zadoorian is a recipient of a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the Literary Arts, the Columbia University Anahid Literary Award, the GLIBA Great Lakes Great Reads Award, the Michigan Notable Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Wisconsin Review, Witness, Great Lakes Review, North American Review, Huffington Post and the anthologies Bob Seger’s House, Looping Detroit, On The Clock, and Detroit Noir. He has worked as a copywriter, journalist, voiceover talent, shipping room clerk, and plant guard for Chrysler. A lifelong resident of the Detroit area, he lives with his wife in a 1937 bungalow filled with cats and objects that used to be in the houses of other people.
(Great photographic tribute, including images of Fred Smith's and Rob Tyner's headstones -- among other iconic shots)
IGGY & THE STOOGES FACEBOOK PAGE:
(Still can't believe how many photos and related memorabilia pics pop up, after all these years -- essential!)
(Link to my massive article, posted on this French website -- everything you wanted to know about the MC5, but were afraid to ask, basically!)