Achieving Nirvana

A struggle to learn guitar and a visit from Kurt Cobain in a dream naturally led novelist Madison Smartt Bell to great story. But a record deal?

August 03, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

The way it happened, you might have thought the ghost of Kurt Cobain had a hand in this thing, because who would give odds that Madison Smartt Bell, the novelist from Baltimore, would get his own recording contract to sing and play a Les Paul guitar with back-up from Don Dixon, the legendary producer who built successful careers for R.E.M., Marshall Crenshaw and the Smithereens?

It shouldn't have happened. But it did. It's real. It's serious.

And it started with a dream of Kurt Cobain.

A few years ago, Bell got a grant and decided to take a break from his job at Goucher College, where he runs the writing program. He had a little time, and decided to teach himself to play lead guitar. The way he tells it, Nirvana was big then and he had just bought the Les Paul, so he wanted to learn how to play "Lithium," but couldn't figure out the chord progressions. It was more complicated than he thought.

"Then Kurt Cobain showed up in one of my dreams," he says, "and explained to me how to play the song, and when I woke up, I thought it might be the start of something, so I wrote a short story called Never Mind, and when I read it over it seemed like it might be a jumping-off place for a novel."

It was the start of a book about a rock 'n' roll band.

Music and writing cross over a lot in Bell's work. Musical structures. Musical rhythms. Musical characters. It finds a part in each of his 13 works of fiction.

Playing guitar also frees up some space in his mind when the action of writing and plotting bog down. Everybody knows about Bell's big historical fictions set in Haiti - a huge, ambitious trilogy that's two-thirds done. It's already made him a National Book Award finalist for the first one, All Souls' Rising, and earned him respect like you wouldn't believe. So playing music and writing little fictions about smaller circumstances help.

"There's nothing sufficiently physical in the process of writing," he explains. "It's all abstract. It's got references that are very concrete and that's what you have to stay in touch with. But unlike most other arts, there's nothing solid you can put your hands on. Music has always been my solution to putting my hands on something."

The N.C. connection

Anyway, while he was learning "Lithium," this guy in North Carolina who collects first editions, Scott Beale, wrote and asked for an autograph. One night Beale and a buddy bought a couple of fezzes (Shriners' hats), and stayed up drinking and talking about literature, and they said, "Madison Bell is really good; we should send him a fez." So they did. "A tribute to your art," Beale remembers writing on the gift.

That started a friendly correspondence. (You have to understand, both these guys are middle-aged Southerners with a certain bent and a certain sense of humor. Maybe it sounds funny, but it's real.)

About three years ago, Bell sent Beale a tape. By then the writer had picked up some student musicians from Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College and was playing lead guitar and singing. Sometimes they played at a friend's house on 33rd Street, so people would drop by to listen, and Bell got good enough to perform in front of people and to make a listenable tape of his own work.

"It was the best thrown-together band I ever played in," says Bill U'Ren, the drummer, who had played professionally in California before coming to study in the Hopkins writing program. "I've played with some session guys in L.A. before, and Madison was a solid guitar player. Too bad he's such a great novelist, because he'd be a great guitar player."

Back in North Carolina, Beale had left the tape Bell sent him in a drawer. He didn't think much about it until a few months ago, when he happened to come across it and give it a listen. Hmm, he thought, this isn't bad.

By then Bell had finished the novel that started with the dream about Kurt Cobain, and it was going to be published. It was called Anything Goes, and it was about life in a half-way successful, small-time rock band touring what they call the "Black Cat" circuit of Southern bars and cinder-block roadhouses.

The Vt. connection

To put the finishing touch on his novel, Bell had teamed up with a poet friend in Vermont, Wyn Cooper. Cooper had a big stroke of luck a few years ago when the singer Sheryl Crow used one of his poems for her chart-buster "All I Want To Do is Have Some Fun." So Bell got Wyn to write some lyrics for his fictional band.

It was sort of a gimmick.

"Here's the way I look at it," Bell says. "Wyn Cooper went to high school with Madonna, and he happened to make an 8mm movie of her when he was there where she fries an egg [while] in her bikini. Then a few years later, she emerges as Madonna, the singer, and Wyn has this tape, which you may have seen on TV. It's all over the place now. And then this thing happened with Sheryl Crow.

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