The phenomenon of pop and rock musicians who've transformed themselves into literary types is certainly nothing new: In 2003, for instance, a short novel about The Smiths' Meat Is Murder album, penned by the singer and guitarist Joe Pernice, of the Pernice Brothers, was published by Continuum Books' 33 1/3 imprint. The pop singer Jewel also managed to alter her image -- first into that of a poet, then an autobiographer -- when her career was still shining brightly. And then there's Pete Townsend of The Who: He's not only the author of a book of short stories (Horse's Neck), but has worked as an editor at Faber & Faber in the U.K. for over two decades now.
Joe Meno, the author of the independently published yet critically lauded 2004 novel Hairstyles of the Damned (Punk Planet Books), understands the concept well: He too was a rocker before picking up the pen.
"In high school, I got into playing in punk and metal bands and stuff like that," Meno says, talking via telephone from Chicago, where he lives with his wife of five years. Meno's adolescent rock groups, he says, were generally cover bands, with more Misfits and Clash tunes in their catalogs than originals. "But at some point," he says, "we started playing our own songs." For Meno, the original tunes were a lot like poems, many of which blossomed into stories. Soon, he was writing song lyrics with a specific story and plot line already in mind.
Meno's first two novels were published by standard corporate presses. Tender as Hellfire was released by St. Martin's Press in 1999; How the Hula Girl Sings came out on ReganBooks two years later. But due to irreconcilable artistic differences (Meno didn't care for the way his books were designed or marketed), for his third effort he chose to go with the decidedly independent Punk Planet Books -- an imprint of Akashic Books, which is owned and operated by Johnny Temple, the bassist of the rock band Girls Against Boys. The decision proved shrewd: Not only was Meno given complete access to Akashic's editing and design teams, but the book -- something of a roman í clef about growing up punk on Chicago's South Side -- became a cult sensation, with more than 20,000 copies sold.
Meno's newest project -- a collection of morose short stories about, mostly, love gone wrong -- is also being published by a small house, Northwestern University Press, although it's much too early to gauge whether its popularity will match that of Hairstyles.
Titled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, it's an engaging, if somewhat dispiriting, example of what might be called "emo lit": The majority of the stories' various protagonists are either looking for love, unhappy in love, or unlucky in love. The author's explantion? "I met my wife when I was really young," he says. "And I still feel like I have to impress her. I still feel like I really have to woo her."
But in case you need one more reason to witness Meno reading aloud from Bluebirds this week, it's probably worth considering who he really writes his stories for: In a word, you. "I love writing," Meno posits. "But I don't feel like a story is really done until I'm able to read it in front of an audience. The way I write is intelligent," he says, "but it's not cerebral and it's not intellectual. A lot of times with literature, it feels like you have to have a turtleneck and a monocle on just to get in the door."