Literary license

How often do you hear a great record, one so good that it somehow becomes part of you, and at the same time see it slip through the proverbial commercial cracks? We all know that the creative song profession, which once provided an unusual path to renown and sometimes wealth for talented oddballs (think Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Dylan, etc.), is increasingly about that stultifying nepotism and narcissism currently colonizing TV ads, radio, mp3 downloads and disc players.

Ypsilanti resident Jim Roll is a guy whose latest record — last year’s Inhabiting the Ball, his third — is antithesis to the latter. Roll concocted a collection of songs that surpasses anything Wilco (and, yeah, the band is chosen carefully) has ever done. It’s true.

Weirder is the fact that Inhabiting the Ball features lyrical contributions from literary godheads Denis Johnson and Rick Moody, with some additional help in the form of frothy liner notes from journalistic satirist Neal Pollack. Dave Eggers’ literary quarterly McSweeney’s gave Roll a hearty thumbs-up and the company helped with distribution.

So, Roll is in damn fine company. Eight of the 13 songs on Inhabiting the Ball feature lyrics by Johnson or Moody.

Denis Johnson gained a sizable “mainstream” audience when his collection of peculiarly haunting shorts, Jesus’ Son, saw light of day as a feature film. His novel Angels, in fact, changed the way I looked at life.

Then there’s Moody. A man whose bracing Caulfieldesque turns in books such as Garden State and The Ice Storm (also made into a feature film) defined suburban existence like no other.

Hold on before you chirp hip-by-association accusations, or calculated marketing strategy for career advancement. For one thing, literary associations never amount to much, simply ’cause nobody reads books anymore. Remember Concrete Blonde singing a Bukowski poem? Remember Chuck Prophet doing Burroughs? Sure, hijacking literary cred for a pop record belongs in the shallow end of the pretension pool.

But not in Roll’s case.

Roll shares a cozy white house in a sedate Ypsilanti neighborhood with his wife, Laura. The street sits in the shadow of a giant water tank. It’s all very Midwestern, a setting similar to Roll’s upbringing in a Chicago suburb. Inside the home, books are scattered around and a dog named Bernadette scuffles about. There’s a makeshift studio in the basement.

Roll himself looks more like an author in the classic sense, with soft green eyes, fleshy limbs and an indoor pallor. His hair, a nondescript color, is pulled back off his face.

Roll, who has been sober for 15 years, played in bands around Chicago in the late 1980s before losing interest. He got a degree in social work and moved to Ann Arbor. In 1998, a little coffeehouse society there rekindled his interest in songs. He says establishments such as the Gypsy Café had an actual “scene.” His first record, Ready to Hang, came out that year.

“It’s true, if you can believe it,” Rolls says. “People would actually sit and listen to songs. It was an inspiration to play professionally.”

Roll, who lists the Who’s Who’s Next, Dylan’s Biograph, and Green on Red’s Gas, Food, Lodging as his holy trio of albums, says he asked Johnson and Moody to contribute lyrics simply because he was moved by everything they had written. Three years ago he wrote to them.

“The only skill I have is sincerity … I think they sensed that,” laughs Roll. “Things just fell into place. I thought it would be cool to do a record with book people. To me, it was an obvious thing to do for somebody that loves books and music as much as I do.”

“And right at that moment he contacted me and said he wanted to set ‘Desperado in the Parking Lot’ to music, which is like a poem that occurs in one of my books written by one of the characters,” says Denis Johnson over the phone from San Francisco. “And I said ‘Yeah, go ahead, and can I send you a couple of other things to put to music too?’ Just on his strength in his interest in that poem I thought we must be kindred spirits.”

Was there ever a time when Johnson may have thought Roll was using his name for personal gain?

“I don’t know anybody could use my name to further their career,” chuckles Johnson. “It’s true, there are people who read my work. But the truth remains I can walk into any room on earth and say ‘I’m Denis Johnson,’ and nobody will bat an eye. Mostly I’m completely unknown. There’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, it’s just that my books aren’t for everyone. I’m lucky I’m obscure enough that I don’t have to be paranoid that somebody would be using me, or something like that.” He pauses, his voice lifts to full-on laugh. “It wouldn’t be worth it to them. They could get somebody more usable.”

On Inhabiting, Johnson’s lyrics are pure atmosphere, typically loaded with empathy for the dispirited. “You” is a Johnson poem from his collection The Incognito Lounge. Backed by simple acoustic guitar, the lyrics and song are almost prayerlike, a lingering gut-hurt tune of loss: You were as blind to me/As your footprints in the snow/But I saw you dancing with that girl who wasn’t me …

Elsewhere Moody eschews his distinctive eagle-eyed narrative in favor of prickly imagery; sapphire bathtubs, grammar queens and wheels of brie infuse songs like “Killjoy” and “In-Flight Magazines.”

Having Johnson and Moody contribute lyrics certainly helped get Inhabiting noticed in lofty places. Ken Tucker featured the disc on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and he called the disc “a nice chunk of wordy rock ‘n’ roll.” Kudos came from the New Yorker and Dave Marsh, among others, and the record made the year-end top-10 list. A few hated it. Village Voice’s Chuck Eddy for one.

“Yeah,” laughs Roll when Eddy’s sour review comes up. “I also think being slightly associated with McSweeney’s pissed them off. McSweeney’s is an ultra-hip, slightly cynical literary ‘zine that has an attitude that they [Voice scribes] were not a part of. That kind of anger at the record was out of proportion with who I am and what the record is.”

Sadly, Inhabiting the Ball has sold no more than what would be considered pretty good for a first novel — 2,000 to 3,000 copies.

The authors’ contributions notwithstanding, it’s Roll’s voice, which rings bell-like throughout, and songs like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Curious One” and “To Be Alarmed,” which stand out as the best. The songs are rife with insinuating narratives and melodies, at times ramshackle, augmented with the occasional Wurlitzer, accordion and banjo.

Roll’s second record, 2000’s song-driven Lunette, was produced by ex-Silo Walter Salas-Humara. It spent weeks on the Americana charts and received rave reviews from as faraway as Playboy before vanishing into bin-clog neverland.

For Inhabiting, Roll consciously wanted to step out of traditional marketing methods common to record labels. He was weary of the glossy “hey, look at me” mechanics necessary for selling records.

“I was sick of trying to make my way in the stupid indie record business, where people don’t really give a shit,” he continues, adding that for Inhabiting, “I was just trying to be creative about how to get a record out and have it be heard. And have it be fun, more than anything.”

Was it intimidating to work with two revered novelists? Did he ever sense from them a cavalier attitude toward his music?

“Honestly, no. I never felt intimidated,” says Roll. “The songs they gave me were even humble in a way. A) I’m really confident in what I do even though I’m a little guy; and B) they didn’t overwrite or send me any tomes. It just all fit together.”

Roll rightfully scoffs at the very term “singer-songwriter.” He understands that entrenched songwriting traditions have evaporated like cheap perfume; only the marketing of faces and celebrity retains its ability to widen eyes. Hence, the record bins are crammed with mediocre songsmiths.

“I have a real love-hate relationship with the whole thing. You know, everybody’s got a guitar now. The biggest stigma of the whole thing is the self-reflective/introspective songwriter, and there is nothing that could chase a person away quicker than somebody who does that stuff poorly — those that go up and attempt to reveal their hidden thoughts, or their hidden spiritual genius or something; like we all need another guru right now. I don’t think so. Especially not with a guitar. But I do really enjoy a coffeehouse setting if people are really listening.

“There’s a little blessing in there too. It’s kinda cool that the digital revolution has given the real freaks — who nobody ever would have signed — a chance to make a record. It’s just so tough to find those records.”

Roll’s done a couple of Euro tours, and has spent months canvassing U.S. clubs, bookstores and coffeehouses, both solo and with a full band. He currently does 75 to 100 shows a year. He will perform tunes on which he collaborated for Johnson’s new play, Soul of a Whore.

For Roll, writing songs is never about choice, it’s about necessity. A truth that helps make Inhabiting the Ball one of the best records you’ve never heard.

Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail [email protected]

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