Guest contributor: Mac Bates

Rock Lit 101 (or: Rock and Roll for English Majors)

categories: Cocktail Hour



[Today’s guest blogger is Mac Bates, who writes about Rock ‘n’ roll on his website All Those Wasted Hours.  He’s Bill’s brother in law, and lives in Snohomish, Washington.  The portrait is by MacKenzie Brewer and Mac’s daughter (Bill’s niece), Isabella Bates.  Mac is an English teacher, mountaineer, record collector, and author.]



As a teenager besotted by rock and roll, except for the one night when I sneaked into my parent’s liquor cabinet and sipped my way through a little vermouth, a little sherry, a little drambuie (A note to the kids: Do not try that at home, trust me), I wanted more than anything for my parents to love the music, which ran counter to one of the basic tenets of rock: we love rock and roll because our parents hate it. That Mom and Dad didn’t hate it was a tribute to their open-mindedness; that they would sit down and listen as my friends and I debated the merits of Buckley vs. Jagger vs. Dylan was a tribute to their patience.

When Simon and Garfunkel first strummed “Hello Darkness, my old friend…” I knew I had found the music to bridge the generations. Paul and Artie were literate and no adult could deny their scholarly chops. I mean, “She reads her Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost.”  Literary up the wazoo was they. How could my parents not take to the guys? And they did. A few years later they became McGovern Democrats. Coincidence, I think not.

Rock and Roll has always had a literary/artsy side: “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news, just like Romeo and Juliet and one pill makes you smaller and Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to…(rolling drums) AAARRRRRGGGGGH!” (Morrison must have been a pretentious twit in bed.)

As much as I wanted to kick out the jams, motherfuckers, I also wanted rock and roll to be recognized as art. As a result I jumped all over pretentious posers: Ars Nova, The New York Rock Ensemble and the Nice. Somewhere in my album collection I have the Electric Prunes “Mass in F Minor” and Chad and Jeremy’s “Of Cabbages and Kings.” Execrable!

In the ’70s I stopped trying so hard and was happy when I stumbled across the occasional literary allusion. Steely Dan comes to mind.

I believe that writers want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be writers. Writers have on occasion teamed up with rockers to collaborate with varying degrees of success. I happen to be one of the few people who liked the Ben Folds-Nick Hornby album. Rick Moody is a member of the Wingdale Community Singers, and I know that Sam Shepard played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders. Patti Smith was a poet who became a rocker while John Lennon was a rocker who wrote poetry; so did Jewell. Whoops, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough…Little known fact: James Joyce played hammered dulcimer on early Chieftains’ albums.

This week I have put together my rock and roll literary anthology. Some on the playlist are obvious, others not so much.

  • Shakespeare’s Daughter–The Smiths
  • Lorca’s Novena–The Pogues
  • Song for Myla Goldberg–The Decemberists.

The Decemberists‘ Song for Myla Goldberg refers to the author of The Bee Season. I get all those bee novels mixed up.

  • Wuthering Heights–Kate Bush
  • Mother Greer–Augie March
    I chose Augie March for a number of reasons. They have a literary rep. They take their name from a Saul Bellow novel and the song is sort of about Germaine Greer. And I need to listen to them more.
  • The Perpetual Self, or What is Saul Alinsky For–Sufjan Stevens
    I had to throw in Sufjan’s ode to Saul Alinsky, the much maligned activist and writer, and a hero of mine in the day. Okay, now I need to rant here. I am so pissed off at the Glen Becks and Sean Insanitys of the world who decided that doing right by the working stiff in America is somehow not only communist but almost satanic. Saul Alinsky has been dead for decades and those dickheads have the temerity to jump all over him as if he was Adolf Hitler. Fuck you Glenn Beck. Saul Alinsky was a supremely principled man, something you would never understand, you self-aggrandizing prick. I am now taking a deep breath, but fuck Glenn Beck!!!!!! (Notice, I used multiple exclamation points.)
  • Big Sur–Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard
    Big Sur by Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard is from an album tribute to Kerouac’s novel Big Sur.
  • Cloud Song–United States of America
    Cloud Song by the good ol’ US of A takes the lyrics from a Blake poem. I was in love with them in the late ’60s and using a Blake poem gave them an intellectual cache–me too.
  • On the Road–Tom Waits
  • Romeo and Juliet–Indigo Girls
  • Rapture–Laura Veirs

Rapture by Laura Veir alludes to Basho and Virginia Woolf. And, as a side note, even though this is not on the side–work with me here–Laura Veirs is a national treasure. Will you trust me on this one?

  • Rexroth’s Daughter–Joan Baez
  • Alexandra’s Leaving–Leonard Cohen

Alexandra Leaving by Leonard Cohen is based on a Constantine Cavafy poem (probably the most obscure reference in the bunch). And I was introduced to Cavafy at an Outward Bound instructor training in 1979 by Don “Man” Peterson, a legend in his own mind. Somehow, I was supposed to become a better instructor by understanding not only Cavafy but Martin Heiddiger. Okay,  is there anyone out there who can make heads or tails of Heiddiger? Swear to God, Heiddiger and Cavafy never came up during my years in the hills. But somehow I am glad that Don “Man” pumped those dudes into my brain. He also suggested at the end of our first OB trek that we have the students kill a sheep and roast it over a campfire. WTF?

  • Star Me Kitten–R.E.M.

Star Me Kitten is read/sung by William Burroughs. Is this a Burrough’s piece? If it isn’t, good on you REM for having the B man read your song. Can you imagine the dinner table conversation between Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Regis Philbin? For the ages!

  • Sometimes a Great Notion–John Mellencamp
  • Frankenstein–Antony and the Johnstons
  • Moby Dick–Led Zeppelin

Just be glad I didn’t include The House at Pooh Corners and Starry Starry Night. (Yeah, I know it’s about Van Gogh, but it sucks to high, high heaven.)


There were a number of songs that didn’t make the cut: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Emmy Lou Harris; Virginia Woolf by the Indigo Girls; The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen; Frankenstein by Edgar Winter’s White Trash;  and any number of songs by Talib Kwelli, who references, among others, Dante, Octavia Butler, Brett Harte, Voltaire and Kurt Vonnegut. And, of course, Sugar Sugar by The Archies.


My blog partner, Jonathon Cowan, had a completely different take on literate rock and roll; he found the soundtrack for his favorite novels. Our musings on all things rock can be found at




  1. E.T. writes:

    “I believe that writers want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be writers.”

    I have to admit that many (most?) of my favorite rock stars are so because they might be better served as writers. A couple of thoughts:

    – Craig Finn, of Hold Steady fame, strikes me as one of the more literary rock stars around. In addition to his reference to Sal Paradise in “Stuck Between Stations,” Finn’s lyrics have a kind of short story quality to them. This carries over into his new solo work. The recently-released “Clear Heart Full Eyes” is filled with songs that seem like they’d work just as well as vignettes read by candle light. (See “Jackson”).

    – Adam Duritz, of Counting Crows fame, is similar for me, though maybe more explicitly and obviously influenced by literature. His song “Rain King” is about Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, one of Duritz’s self-expressed biggest influences. I once read somewhere that Duritz credits Carolyn Forche (and specifically her book of poetry “The Country Between Us”) with the inspiration for his breakthrough album August and Everything After. I’ve often called Duritz the best lyricist of his generation, and I stand by that because his writing has this beautiful literary component that few can master.

    – I’ve always had a soft spot for Ryan Adams’s “Sylvia Plath.”

    • malcolm writes:

      Yeah, Craig Finn, for sure. I am hearing good things about his new solo album. His music is often an allusion-fest. I just got done reading Colin Melloy’s novel for young adults, “Wildwood.” It’s the real deal. He is is effing amazing.

  2. Jeff cox writes:

    1970 I was in the Philippines listening to Ray Conniff, Tiajuna Brass, and The Kingston Trio on my parents Magnavox console. Not exactly rock lit material. Maybe The Kingston Trio. They told a good story anyway. Oh and don’t mix straight Tang with vodka.
    Thanks for the memory.

    • malcolm writes:

      Jeff, I seem to recall a song from the Whipped Cream album that was all about Magical Realism: “A Taste of Solitude.” Look it up. And really, Tang goes with anything!

  3. Bill writes:

    How about “Ramble On,” by our mop-topped (and in some cases dead) friends Led Zeppelin. Something about Mordor in there, and Gollum, and a girl so fair… Tolkien’s favorite band, from what I hear.

    • malcolm writes:

      The Zepsters are indeed literateurs. References to the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley abound. And when I was looking up the spelling of his name, I found out that he had made the first attempt on Kangchejunga in 1905. Another way to get high, heh, heh, get it?

  4. monica wood writes:

    Wow, what a thoroughly entertaining post. Reminded me of the time my hopelessly square mother said, while watching the Beatles on television, “Well. They seem like nice boys.” Pause. “That one could use a haircut.”

    I never did know which of the identical heads of hair she was referring to.