By Scott Timberg
September 22, 2009
"I'm not just the narrator," he says of his novel "It Feels So Good When I Stop," set in the dreary months of off-season Cape Cod. "I'm all the people. And I'll tell you what: That was a blast."
This perverse sense of pleasure suits Pernice, who's a decade into setting grim lyrics about heartbreak and loneliness to tuneful melodies and chiming guitars.
"I'm still creating something," Pernice, 42, says as he sips coffee at a generic airport hotel, just before flying home to Toronto. He's unshaven from a McCabe's gig the previous night and slightly burlier than your average Smiths fan. "It doesn't matter what it is -- you're making it. Even if you might be creating a moment of sadness, all I'm really seeing is, 'Are the parts working right?' "
"It Feels So Good When I Stop" is generally more bitter than the bittersweet songs he's sung with the Scud Mountain Boys and Pernice Brothers: The male bonding stings with a combination of rage and one-upmanship, and no novel can re-create Pernice's crystalline singing voice. But it's still recognizable as the work of one of rock's most respected bards. Published by Riverhead, the novel has drawn support from Nick Hornby, William Gibson and George Pelecanos.
"If Charles Bukowski had grown up in the '80s and listened to a lot of indie rock," "Little Children" author Tom Perrotta wrote in his jacket blurb, "he might have sounded a lot like Joe Pernice."
Of course, it's not just excess alcohol, too much pot and the ennui of a vacation town out of season that brings these characters down: The book is a virtual catalog of love gone bad.
"When I met Jocelyn I knew within minutes I was going to either marry her or completely destroy my life trying," the unnamed narrator tells us about 30 pages in. "It never occurred to me that both things could happen."
The characters in "It Feels So Good" live their lives through rock songs: They bond over one band, remember a breakup in terms of another. One monologue describes how an innocent bystander can be implicated in a romantic tangle: "From then on, all of Todd Rundgren's music was off limits. That included bands he produced, such as the Psychedelic Furs and XTC. It was a shame, really. None of it was Todd Rundgren's fault."
Writing and music have often been closely linked for Pernice, who grew up in a large Italian American family (his dad sold trucks while his mom raised six kids) and attended Catholic school on Boston's South Shore.
Pernice has written about the '80s, which he recalls as being "super nuclear paranoid," in a novel inspired by (and named for) the Smiths' "Meat Is Murder" album. (It was one of the first books in Continuum's "33 1/3 " series and a rare example of a project inspiring fiction, instead of criticism or essayistic musing, in one of its authors.)
Pernice spent the mid-'90s -- in which the new novel is set -- playing mellowed Appalachian country music with the Scud Mountain Boys and earning a master of fine arts degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. (Dave Berman, leader of the band Silver Jews and a poet whose book "Actual Air" has become a Gen-X totem, was a classmate.) In some cases the overlap between rock and writing was quite literal: In 1996, he flew east the day after the band's tour concluded in San Francisco to defend his MFA thesis, a collection of poetry.
The two styles of creating, Pernice says, are vastly different, especially for a songwriter whose work has always been more inspired by lyric poets -- the earthy Midwesterner James Wright, Swedish surrealist Tomas Tranströmer -- than novelists.
"I think for me, writing songs is more about creating a mood," he says. "You're not getting a picture of a character, you're more getting a whiff of them."
His songs, both with the Scuds or the more pop-driven Pernice Brothers, are neither plot- nor character-driven but often resemble what he calls "shadowy pictures."
"I don't write folk songs with 800 verses about someone who was born, then you go through their lives, then they die. Mostly I like to have one or two images that will ground you in a mood."
And while songs like "Penthouse in the Woods," "Crestfallen" and "Breakneck Speed" are burnished gems that match classic '60s songcraft with a personal brand of melancholy, Pernice says he pretty much dashes them off.
"When I write a song, it's really fun -- it's immediately pleasing," he says, explaining that even some of his most enduring tunes were written in a couple of hours.
"My wife and I will be going somewhere, I'll have 10 minutes to mess around on a guitar, and the next thing I know, she's yelling at me that we're 10 minutes late. I'll take a yard if I get an inch."
"It Feels So Good" was both harder and in some ways more fulfilling to create. Writing a novel required total immersion, or at least as close as he could get while watching his toddler for four hours a day. "I wasn't sure I could do it, so I cleaned my plate of everything. I went to bed thinking about it, I woke up thinking about it. With records, I've never had that sustained, prolonged attention to one thing."
The novel also meant getting deeper into the time and place: the mid-'90s on the Cape and in the college town of Amherst.
"It seemed back then -- and this is the state of mind I wanted my book to capture -- that people in their 20s I knew seemed to be sort of paralyzed when it came to decision making. That seemed to be the plague of Generation X, or at least the people I knew."
Some of the characters, including the narrator's ambitious ex, Jocelyn, seem to be heading in the right direction; others may spend the rest of their lives pining over old Dinosaur Jr. gigs and doing whip-its. Most share an obsession with music, whether playing in bands or just listening and arguing. Lou Barlow of the band Sebadoh makes a well-turned cameo, throwing two loudmouths out of a New York club to the crowd's delight.
"When I think of Joe's music there's a sort of emo or ethereal quality to it," Perrotta says by phone. "I had an image of him as a delicate sensibility. But the book is so comically hard-boiled. There's this willingness to be funny in a crude but verbally dexterous way."
The subtext of rock music in the book, which vaguely recalls Hornby's "High Fidelity," provoked Pernice to put together a "soundtrack" to his novel. Besides three brief excerpts of Pernice reading from "It Feels So Good," the album is filled almost entirely with cover versions, most rendered in bare-bones arrangements. Somehow, this collection of tunes by one of indie rock's finest songwriters, with only one instrumental written by him, sounds like his freshest work in years.
After more than a year when he hardly performed or even picked up a guitar -- "the world did just fine without me," he concludes -- Pernice is about to come back to music himself. Making a barely produced album with stripped-down instrumentation has encouraged him to make a similar one, but with his own songs.
And he's eager to write another novel.
"It's like a zoo when you make a record," he says of the studio chaos. "Like a sixth-grade field trip."
It's just about the opposite, then, in writing a novel. "I need that isolation too. There's a part of me that's a control freak -- I want it to go my way, amen. With a book, you can write it anywhere. And you don't have to move any gear."
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