“What came first? The music or the misery?

Rob Gordon in High Fidelity (book or film, you pick) was onto the right idea with the above quote, but I like to ask: What came first, the writer or the music they listened to? Did the down-and-out junkie poetry of Lou Reed inspire countless scribes like his band The Velvet Underground supposedly inspired anybody who listened to them to start a band? Or did anybody start writing poetry after finding out that Leonard Cohen the songwriter was (and is) an accomplished poet, prior even to his first album?

This question is visited a few times in Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives (Harper Collins) by some well-picked names who chose a wide variety of albums to praise by the pen. James Wood picks The Who’s Quadrophenia, Mark Grief of n+1 writes on Fugazi’s self-titled EP debut, and John Haskell picks Remain in the Light by the Talking Heads. In Grief’s case, I am happy that a person involved with what might be one of the most important lit-culture journals would choose to discuss an album of such significance. His analysis of what the band, and to a greater extent leader Ian MacKaye, stood for is exceptionally elegant. And books focusing on punk or hardcore music–the genres Fugazi fits into–have a tendency to fall sadly short on elegance.

Grief’s N+1 colleague, Benjamin Kunkel, also weighs in on The Smiths album The Queen is Dead, an album considered to be the magnum opus of one of the most important English bands of the last forty years (alongside Meat is Murder, I’ll let you judge). And while magazines like Mojo or the always reliable 33 1/3 series have covered, pontificated, and placed Moz, Marr, and Co. upon both cross and pedestal, Kunkel does them the justice of paying tribute as a fan who just happens to be a great writer – a feat which I am assuming is the mission of the entire book. There are sweet remembrances of folks who can be connected to soundtracks (Sheila Heti on Annie, and Claire Dederer on Hedwig and the Angry Inch), mainstream rock and pop (Joshua Ferris on Pearl Jam’s Ten or a Gloria Estefan album as Asali Solomon talks about) or the virtually unknown (Todd Pruzan’s moving piece on his love of Kiwi lo-fi soundtrack Topless Women Tallk About Their Live is totally under this category, and almost made me a little misty-eyed). Whatever the case, each entry is an honest embrace of a connection to music, and a more serious music book than those wasting our time trying to define a specific genre or period.