On Celestial Music

And Other Adventures in Listening


By Rick Moody

Formats and Prices




$12.99 CAD



  1. ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $24.99 $31.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 21, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Rick Moody has been writing about music as long as he has been writing, and this book provides an ample selection from that output. His anatomy of the word cool reminds us that, in the postwar 40s, it was infused with the feeling of jazz music but is now merely a synonym for neat. “On Celestial Music,” which was included in Best American Essays, 2008, begins with a lament for the loss in recent music of the vulnerability expressed by Otis Redding’s masterpiece, “Try a Little Tenderness;” moves on to Moody’s infatuation with the ecstatic music of the Velvet Underground; and ends with an appreciation of Arvo Part and Purcell, close as they are to nature, “the music of the spheres.”

Contemporary groups covered include Magnetic Fields (their love songs), Wilco (the band’s and Jeff Tweedy’s evolution), Danielson Famile (an evangelical rock band), The Pogues (Shane McGowan’s problems with addiction), The Lounge Lizards (John Lurie’s brilliance), and Meredith Monk, who once recorded a song inspired by Rick Moody’s story “Boys.” Always both incisive and personable, these pieces inspire us to dive as deeply into the music that enhances our lives as Moody has done — and introduces us to wonderful sounds we may not know.


Begin Reading

Table of Contents

Copyright Page

Music and Literature

An Introduction

Here's a passage I have always loved, from Molloy, by Samuel Beckett: I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on.

And here's another, from Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis: When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother's refusing my brother's help and thus causing disturbance in him, and by her telling me of her disturbance and thus causing in me disturbance greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generally not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.

These passages have in common not only their beauty, their attenuation, their long lines, their complexity, which are estimable in an era of prose that grows ever more abbreviated, ever more fragmentary; these passages also have in common that the prose writers who fashioned them were (are, in Lydia Davis's case) musicians. Beckett played piano avidly. And Lydia Davis, like Beckett, is a lifelong player of keyboard music and an advocate of the musical classics.

There are many such examples among writers of literature. James Joyce was a gifted singer, as was Thomas Bernhard, who was held back in music by the fact of his tuberculosis. Allen Ginsberg played the harmonium. Nicholson Baker, the author of The Mezzanine, Double Fold, Human Smoke, and other works of startling diversity, studied music composition when he was an undergraduate at Haverford. George Saunders, also a stylist of a most limpid prose, is a guitar player of some note; Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season, plays flute, banjo, and accordion; Paul Muldoon, the excellent Irish poet, writes songs and plays rhythm guitar in a band. David Gates, of Jernigan fame, plays old time and is learning the pedal steel guitar. There is my friend the novelist Wesley Stace, who also plays music and records under his stage name, John Wesley Harding. Wells Tower, noted short-story writer, played in a band; Jonathan Lethem wrote lyrics for any number of musical projects. Nick Cave, the Australian musician, writes novels and screenplays, and his novel-writing voice, far from being declarative and untutored, despite the absence of an MFA, is rich, decadent, and full of linguistic excesses of just the sort I admire. And that's just off the top of my head.

There is a link, I mean to suggest, between literary writing and music—a very specific link, a link of great relevance, which finds itself in the fact that literary writing is an aural phenomenon, though it appears on the page. The origin of literature is in the oral tradition, in what is spoken. That is, literature that avoids its sonic register does so at its peril. Literature that never lived in someone's mouth, or someone's ear, is desiccated literature. And that's part of why a lot of writers have also played music (leaving aside the fact that music is delightful and it often gets you out of the house). Playing music encourages you to listen more closely, playing music makes you more concerned with the musical component of your prose, and for my money, this makes you a more interesting writer, a writer who is not engaged with how a page looks or how a plot advances itself but is engaged instead with how a line sounds in the ear, how it gets sung.

As I say several times in the essays that follow, my house, growing up, was not musically erudite, but it was musically passionate. For this I owe my mother a great debt, as she had been schooled in piano from her earliest childhood and could make her way through some Debussy with real grace. She sang, too, and does to this day. My sister played guitar, not terribly well (she didn't practice enough), but because she was three years older than I, she was the recipient of much attention around the house—attention verging on adulation—for her picking away at "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?" on her nylon-stringed guitar, circa 1969. Even my father had a couple of songs in his piano repertoire, and he had friends who liked to come around our place in the suburbs and bang on the baby grand, mangling show tunes. Show tunes! Those abominations that indicated a certain upwardly mobile artistic appreciation in the fifties and sixties. My family had all of those recordings, from South Pacific to Man of La Mancha to 1776, and on the slightly drunken nights, my parents and their friends could often be heard warbling away at "The Impossible Dream" or "Send in the Clowns."

Though we sang a lot, it didn't really occur to me that I might study music myself until I was in middle school and my parents were divorced, and my mother, among her other melancholy preoccupations, was attempting to learn Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," which, though I was mostly interested in the Top 40 of the time (the early seventies), I found mysterious, austere, and beautiful. That and Scott Joplin, who was experiencing a renaissance (owing to the score for The Sting), converted me into a music student briefly. Well, I remember also that we had weekly assemblies in the auditorium of my middle school and that a great number of these assemblies involved certain kinds of musical performance—African music, big bands, marching bands, music that was considered beneath contempt by my friends. I could not hide the way I reacted when there was music around, whether with tapping feet, or with impulsive singing, or with jubilation more egregious. Perhaps there were even shameful tears, because there were songs and varieties of music (bagpipes!) that caused weeping, and I can't really list all of these, because weeping to music ought to be a private affair, a tendency that I wasn't always sure I wanted people to know about. And so I prepared myself to try to learn something about music.

This involved, at this juncture, the piano, and a Russian guy who taught in a little office building in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut. And because I found the whole thing intimidating, embarrassing—being alone in a room with the Russian guy—because all my worldly, suburban friends thought that piano playing was somehow unmasculine, I was powerfully casual about my lessons (and I am embarrassed to say this, but I was twelve); there was the skipping of the recital on the day of the big town fair in New Canaan, after which I made up one story for my mother and another story for the Russian, who in due course sent home a note to my mother observing that though I had musical aptitude I didn't practice or give anything back at all. Soon the lessons lapsed. As the violin lessons had lapsed in the fourth grade, as the singing lessons lapsed the next year (when I was thirteen), as the piano lessons started and lapsed again (when I was seventeen), as the violin started and lapsed again (when I was forty-three).

What remained was passionate listening. These essays, which were composed over so many years now, nearly fifteen years, are a record of that pursuit, and they return to the site of the first revelation of music as though there really were a first revelation and not an entire lifetime of listening. These essays try to explain what it is that so overwhelms this writer in song and instrumental music. It bears mentioning: the inability to stop trying to explain this imprinting, this mark that music has made on me, is why some of these pieces are longer than essays normally are. I can't stop. What these songs have done to me, in remaking me, is open me up to certain kinds of feelings and perceptions, even when much of what's in the world opposes any opening up at all.

Literature, exactly like certain moments in song—like that moment in "Hey Jude" when the Beatles get ready to sing the long coda, like that moment in "Celebrated Summer," by Hüsker Dü, when the acoustic guitar breaks through the wall of noise for a minute and reminds you that it's recollection that the song recommends unto you—literature, like music, wants openness, wants experiences, experiences of consciousness, experiences of sensation, and it wants these described in a way that is felicitous and sweet. Sweetness, gracefulness, these must be auditory phenomena when we are talking about prose, and if English is not the handsomest tongue, it has its moments, and these moments are literary moments or they are moments of song, and we are improved in these instances, made more charitable, more generous, and the two are therefore the same phenomena, music and literature, or so it seems to this writer, as if there is a certain order in these things, an order such as what J. S. Bach thought he heard when he made, over a great many years, what he so laboriously made. Literary effects are like harmonic intervals are like metrical feet are like time signatures are like cycles per second.

I always return to writing—in the harder moments; I come back to these alphanumerical keys here, as if it's only with words that I can make sense of the travails of consciousness. And yet when I come back to these keys, I find that music often comes with me. Much has changed, and the kinds of things I'm listening to are nothing like what I loved when I was first listening to the AM transistor radio under the sheet; now I find that sentimentality always drives me off, and a lot of what I like is music that most people would find hard to enjoy, but the experience is the same; I could still easily pass a whole night just spinning tunes on the stereo, and I could talk the ear off a friend, indulging in the little shades of differences between certain approaches to the popular song, certain recordings. I feel very excited and happy when I encounter a person with whom I can go on in this way, and you, consumer of books, are that person today.

The suspended fourth! Why so beautiful? The major seventh! Why so beautiful? And how do these instances of sonic beauty relate to that paragraph from Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" that struck such a chord with me back when I read it in my undergraduate years (She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches), though Nabokov himself professed a nearly complete estrangement from music? Now that I have been playing music more seriously for almost ten years, in a band, now that I know a tiny bit more about the architecture of the song, I am even more helpless in my admiration. And this book is my attempt to compile my musical affiliations and, in the explaining, to say to other passionate listeners, Did you hear this? And did you hear it the way I heard it? And isn't it amazing? And do you have in your collection similar things that I should hear too? I can think of no better place to put all these obsessions than in this volume. The best books are like albums of songs. Books and albums are of one vital substance. And I hope that vital substance is apparent here.

Against Cool

DISCLAIMERS FIRST! Whatever cool is or was—that term bandied about relentlessly from the 1950s to the present (by teens, by hipsters, by cultural critics, by baby boomers), that term which lately concludes many arrangements made between young people ("So I'll see you on St. Marks Place at seven? Cool")—I, your narrator, do not now consider myself cool and never have been cool. As a teenager, when questions about cool are at their most rigorous, when a lack of cool implies the possibility of future psychotherapy, I wore Levi's corduroys in the rainbow shades—yellow cords, red cords, powder-blue cords; I wore flannel slacks, Oxford button-downs, tweed jackets; my hair was not long enough to be beatnik or short enough to be clean-cut, and it poofed in ways that best recall Michael Landon during the Little House on the Prairie years; I liked to mix plaids; I loved my parents and was all broken up about the divorce; I preferred, where music was concerned, Cat Stevens, Yes, Jethro Tull, and other bands even more embarrassing to enumerate, when all around me was Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones; I went to boarding school; I came from the suburbs; I read science fiction—for example, Frank Herbert's Dune trilogy, Isaac Asimov's Foundation books, everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published; I cried easily, was sentimental, loved New England autumns, made elaborate protestations of love from my high school radio show, fell in love as swiftly as I contracted head colds. In an area of inquiry where credibility is everything, where credentials are essential, where any deviation from this orthodoxy of the unstated and recondite is actionable, I was and am an interloper. I am, in fact, uncool.

This fact suggests an initial axiom on the subject: If you have to talk about cool, you are not it.

Second disclaimer: There is no Platonic category of coolness. As with what movies endure (your Forrest Gump is my One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or vice versa), as with what novels define an era, what is cool is often in dispute, quickly out-moded, neglected soon thereafter. The very proposition that we might say what cool exactly denotes is risky, inadvisable from the outset, since cool, in a sort of pop culture version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, alters what it pleasing finds. This book or record or movie or trend, hitherto cool, becomes precipitously irrelevant in the inexorable march of time. Cool, therefore, is not a moral question (like what is virtuous or what is beautiful), although its slipperiness may be of interest. Cool, in fact, is probably more easily reckoned by its absences than its presences (Del Close and John Brent made the same point on their 1959 Mercury album, How to Speak Hip: "It's easier to say what isn't cool"). Would we not all agree that if a school of thought or a trend becomes the subject of a feature in Sixteen or People or in like purveyors of mass trends, it is clearly no longer cool? Would we not agree that whatever cool is, it is not what the Sears catalogue once said was fashionable (foul-weather gear, camouflage pants), nor is cool apparent, in even the most infinitesimal degree, in the complete output of Michael Bolton, Barry Manilow, or Barbra Streisand, unless, and this is surely a disagreeable possibility, irony is cool?

Yet, as was once noted of the pornographic, don't we know it when we see it? We do. We do know cool when we see it. Or we can get pretty close. And therefore a discussion of its history is potentially useful. Because in an absence of clearly delineated American ethics, in a period of cultural relativism, in a political environment in which both American parties have amplified their rhetoric to such a degree that the other side is beneath contempt, in which religion seems no longer able to rationally or effectively deploy its messages except through moral intimidation or force, in which families are no longer the ethical bulwarks they felt themselves to be in the past—in such a millennial instant, cool has become the system of ethics for the young in America. Cool, it seems, is one thing that kids believe in. Cool is what they talk about, cool is what motivates them, cool is what they occasionally live and die for, at least in some precincts. So what are they saying, these kids, when they say something is cool?

Well, the OED gives us early Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon derivations for the word: cólian, cole (as in Merlin, or the early history of King Arthur, circa 1450: "As they that wolde ride in the cole of the mornynge"); colen, kola, cule, cull, coole (Coverdale, 1535: "Like as the winter coole in the harvest"), prior to our first modern usages (as in Addison, 1713: "But see where Lucia,… / Amid the cool of yon high marble arch, / Enjoys the noon-day breeze"). The word was in play throughout the nineteenth century, first as a description of temperature and then figuratively as a term (noun or verb) that might connote mood as well, as in Lord Macaulay's History of England (1848): "The lapse of time which cools the ardour of friends whom he has left behind"; it also turned up as a synonym for impudence, in, e.g., Durivage and Burnham's Stray Subjects (1846): "You are the coolest specimen of a genuine scamp that it has ever been my ill luck to meet with." There were any number of slang idioms making use of cool: cooling one's coppers, in which we treat the dehydration from a prior night's drinking; cooling the heels, or waiting, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century; cool as a cucumber, from 1700 on; a cool sum of money (a cool million, e.g.), from the 1720s; cool pleasure, from the 1820s on, as in Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)—" He took a cool pleasure in stripping the Indians of their horses"—and cool crape, which has connoted a funeral shroud since the early nineteenth century. Perhaps it's not church or door in the pantheon of often-employed Anglo-Saxon words; nonetheless cool has had a real popularity since the dawn of our tongue.

The contemporary usage, the one with which we're concerned here, seems to date from the end of World War II (only ninety years or so after Lord Macaulay) and, like so many twentieth-century English-language phenomena, to find its initial articulation on this side of the Atlantic in popular culture. In particular, what was cool, after the globe had finished its convulsions, was a moment in the history of jazz. In the late 1940s, Miles Davis, who was until then most prominently known as a sideman in Charlie Parker's band, convened an ensemble, with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan as arrangers (Davis and Evans would later go on to work on seminal orchestral jazz albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain), designed to address some problems with the form in which they were working. The Miles Davis Nonet, as it came to be known, featured six horns (trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto and baritone sax), piano, bass, and drums, and was conceived as a reaction against bebop. This bebop style, which was preeminently influential at the same time and which is credited mainly to Davis's former boss, Charlie Parker, and to Dizzy Gillespie, was fast and technically virtuosic, as Davis himself points out in his autobiography, Miles: "Bird and Diz played this hip, real fast thing, and if you weren't a fast listener, you couldn't catch the humor or the feeling in their music…. Bird and Diz were great, fantastic, challenging—but they weren't sweet."

Davis's nonet, and the sessions that came out of it, had a different intent. Sweetness and melody were their ambition, a less fiery tone. The results, dubbed Birth of the Cool by Pete Rugolo, an A&R man at Davis's record company, were, according to no less an authority than Count Basie, "slow and strange but good, really good." Davis himself says, "We shook people's ears a little softer than Bird or Diz did, took the music more mainstream. That's all it was." Davis sees this softness in the Birth of the Cool sessions as a gambit to ensure the safety of white listeners in an idiom that was primarily African American, but this seems now to understate unnecessarily the accomplishments of Birth of the Cool. The jazz of Miles Davis's nonet is evocative in its restraint, is supple and sure-footed, both in the composed passages and in the way Davis's solos eschew vibrato and begin to articulate the vulnerability and the ferocity that came to characterize his playing later. This jazz is cool, then, in Davis's devotion to expression first, to the emotional center of jazz, rather than to athleticism, rather than to mastery of an instrument.

Would Rugolo's offhand title for the nonet sessions be the first reference to this ubiquitous term as we hear it so much these days? There are a lot of opinions on the subject. Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives the sense of cool as "good and modern" as a term in jazz circles since 1945, but can give no source but an article from the Observer of 1956. Partridge also offers cool as "(of a singer) slow and husky," since 1948, or coeval with the Miles Davis sessions. Harper's Magazine, in an article of 1950, is meanwhile hip to the craze, noting "the Bop musician's use of 'cool' instead of 'hot' as a word of the highest praise." But this usage may predate the Davis sessions by years, as in Charlie Parker's 1947 recording of "Cool Blues," or in Doris Day's 1941 recording of J. P. Johnson's "Keep Cool, Fool." Gary Giddins says, "Black musicians in the 1930s used cool in the literal sense, to contain feeling, to play with restraint." Still, toward midcentury, jazz and popular music begin to affect the meaning of the word cool finally and permanently, so that Macaulay or Addison would have been surprised by its connotation à la mode. Partridge makes this transition abundantly clear, quoting F. E. L. Priestley: "Cool became a word of praise when hot ceased to be one; that is, when hot jazz went out of fashion to be displaced by bop or bebop, a later—a 'progressive' or 'modern jazz.' "

There's an implicit cultural fusion in this way of speaking. That is, a white arranger and A&R man (Rugolo) coins the term to describe sessions by a black musician (Davis), who is himself attempting a music that fuses elements of a black idiom (jazz, and especially the style and form of bebop) with a white style (a jazz slower and more given to melody than to loose improvisation). This is the way words are generated in America, I'm trying to say, by use and reuse, by experiment and malapropism, across a great spectrum of cultures and subcultures and communities ("hot" jazz originated in France, and "cool" jazz was reactively American), and so in this usage jazz serves not only as the locus for the meaning of the word cool, but also as a laboratory for the way in which the term gets disseminated: spontaneously, loosely in an improvisatory fashion, as a delineator of passions and moods and styles. Which is to say that if cool is an example, our American popular argot is now finally multiethnic and vigorous across boundaries of race, class, and religion. We chatter, and chatter is good, and in the groove of chatter words become flexible and porous and intoxicating, and they perform a breathy ars nova.

Given this kind of energy coming out of the jazz world (there wasn't rock and roll yet), it's not surprising that the next group to champion the term cool and to make it a part of the daily language, at least according to myth, was a mostly white group of writers and thinkers who brought to the term a long-lasting value and meaning in the margins of postwar America. I mean the Beats. Those coiners and harvesters of new locutions, of hip and gone cat, etc. Their appearance in American culture had quite a bit to do with cool.

Oddly, though, Jack Kerouac, who in 1948 articulated the term beat to describe his generation (borrowing it from Herbert Huncke), infrequently employed the word cool himself. Using up-to-the-minute and very cool technology—a recent CD-ROM publication on Kerouac and the Beats entitled A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus—I have been able to do a full-scale search on the appearance of the term in a large sampling of Kerouac works. Although I can find few appearances in selections of his poems, or in selections from The Subterraneans or The Town and the City, his later work, The Dharma Bums, does have eight incidental appearances of the word cool, seven of which are used in connection with weather descriptions ("The trail would suddenly come into a cool shady part" or "Then as it got cool in the late afternoon" [italics mine]). Only one passage seems tangentially to address the issue of contemporary cool, yet it is far from conclusive: "Whenever people dropped in to visit us at the cottage, I'd always put my red bandana over the little wall lamp and put out the ceiling light to make a nice cool red dim scene to sit and drink wine and talk in." (By way of a control sample, I also checked for the word hip in Dharma Bums—three mentions, of which two had to do with an anatomical part—and the word beat, of which all eight mentions had to do with drumming or fistfights.) I did find, however, that the Viking Press advertisement for Dharma Bums used the word cool in its plot summary, in the contemporary fashion: "They come swinging down to San Francisco—hot girls and cool jazz, to wild parties and wild poets…"

Meanwhile, in a passage toward the end of On the Road—Kerouac's sloppy, joyous, and fabulously passionate rant about youth in the late forties—the author does begin to articulate what cool might mean in a broader, nonmusical context, apart from the idiom of jazz. The passage in question takes place in chapter four, in the third section of the book, which begins with encomiums about the jazz written and played then by African Americans. Black jazz. The scene is San Francisco (to which city "cool" jazz migrated later in its existence) and features Dean Moriarity (a.k.a. Neal Cassady, who in any true account of cool must be said to carry the torch from the Beat years to the "hippie" enclave of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead) and Sal Paradise, a.k.a. Kerouac. Here they are visiting a jazz club on the Barbary Coast:

Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman bawling horn across the way…. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!"… Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it.

What is the celebrated it


On Sale
Mar 21, 2012
Page Count
448 pages
Back Bay Books

Rick Moody

About the Author

Rick Moody was born in New York City. He attended Brown and Columbia Universities. He is the author of four previous novels: The Four Fingers of DeathPurple AmericaThe Ice Storm, and Garden State, as well as an award-winning memoir and multiple collections of short fiction. Moody is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and his work has been anthologized in Best American StoriesBest American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Learn more about this author