"THERE IS NOTHING in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge,” Hunter S. Thompson warns in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as he freewheels across the Nevada desert in a red Chevy convertible with a trunk full of drugs and booze. (“Two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine…”)
But what would Thompson’s mescaline-fueled misadventures sound like if they were a symphony? It’s the latest challenge set by Seattle’s Bushwick Book Club, a rotating cast of singer-songwriters that performs original music inspired by a monthly reading assignment. Bushwick launched in October 2010 with a Slaughterhouse-Five session at the Can Can cabaret (and about 50 friends in the audience). Since then, they’ve tackled S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, even Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. This month, they’ll hold their biggest show yet, as the 60-piece Seattle Rock Orchestra joins them for a little Fear and Loathing at Town Hall.
“We’re going to have programs and everything,” boasted Geoff Larson, the event’s organizer, as he pulled handfuls of stickers, CDs, and homemade pins that read “I Heart Bushwick” out of his backpack and shoved them across the table at Cherry Street Coffee House. The motorcycle-riding Beacon Hill musician carries his part-time passion around with him. When he’s not putting in hours as a sound engineer at Town Hall, or picking up gigs as a stand-up jazz bassist, he’s churning out book club press releases and brainstorming with librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl (songs based on a cookbook!). He had to hire interns just to keep up with the pin making.
The book club—now with swag—has come a long way since its inception in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, where a group of songwriters decided to invade a cafe and start singing about the stories they loved. “My friend Susan Hwang told me to come hear music inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and it was awesome,” said Larson, who had relocated from Washington to Brooklyn to try to crack the local scene with his band Das Vibenbass. “The audience was totally into it. They’d all read the book and understood everything that was happening. The first thing I thought was, Seattle would eat this thing alive. They’d love this.”
Larson packed up his bass and moved back to lit-hungry Seattle with plans for a new kind of book club. Instead of sitting in someone’s living room, analyzing plot and character (translation: drinking wine and gossiping about friends), they’d meet in a bar and rap about the daft wife in The Shining or sing a folk lamentation about traveling naked through time (The Time Traveler’s Wife). Each night a few of the dozen musicians focus on a character, others on a theme. Like a real book club, some admit to not having finished the book—and their songs usually sound off-key. If they mess up, they just start over. “It’s basically an open mic, but a really awesome open mic,” said Larson. Seems the word has gotten out: The average audience has more than doubled, drawing bookworms, concertgoers, and “cool nerds” alike.
Larson cultivates a lineup of rising local songwriters each month, and they don’t skimp on the showmanship. To kick off October’s one-year anniversary show—The Shining at Columbia City Theater—a tuxedo-clad Eric Lane Barnes welcomed everyone to “stay a spell at the Overlook Hotel” while tickling the ivories like a sinister lounge singer, the kind that keeps an axe in his piano bench. Roots musician Vince Martinez strummed his acoustic guitar on a hymn to little Danny, encouraging him to “Shine, Brother, Shine” as backup vocalists lifted up the gospel refrain. It was nearly two hours of rock and rap, folk ballads and the blues. And nearly everyone was in costume.
The December show is slated to be even bigger. Jason Dodson, front man for alt-country band the Maldives, makes his book club debut, joining singer-songwriter regulars like Tai Shan; and everyone’s working with Scott Teske of Seattle Rock Orchestra to arrange the compositions for the assortment of harps, tubas, violins, and oboes set to fill the stage of the Great Hall. It’s not the orchestra’s first dalliance with pop—the all-volunteer group has made a name for itself locally with its covers of Bowie, the Beach Boys, and Radiohead. But it’s the first time Bushwick and SRO are collaborating. Pressure’s on. Even Shan, a 28-year-old Cornish grad who tours the country playing poetic guitar rock, had to clear her calendar this month to prep for book club. From her REM cycle to her waking hours, she has Hunter S. Thompson on the brain.
“I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with pieces of the song—these clips [in my head],” she said. “It’s just, like, a horn line, or a cello line.” She’ll make midnight recordings of her subconscious melodies, but the pieces haven’t come together yet. Would they turn into a rock anthem about a bad acid trip? Or an ode to searching for the American Dream in Sin City?
“I don’t know, this book’s been the toughest one for me,” Shan said. “I love Hunter S. Thompson’s writing; it’s all really vivid images. It’s so delicious. But you’ll be reading it and then suddenly you’re like, what the—I thought we were in the casino! When did we get to the airport runway? I have to go back and reread pages to see, Oh yes, you took that one drug and then you crossed over the freeway and made it to the airway strip.
“As a songwriter, I always have to find a character I can connect with so I can write a song that’s in their eyes,” she says. “But god, I don’t know what life looks like through an ether haze!”