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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In Memory of Harry Crews: The Gospel Singer/Harry Crews, and More

Novelist Harry Crews died last week at the age of 76. In an obituary in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that Crews's novels "out-Gothic Southern Gothic by conjuring a world of hard-drinking, punch-throwing, snake-oil-selling characters whose physical, mental, social and sexual deviations render them somehow entirely normal and eminently sympathetic. . . . Despite their teeming decadence, or more likely because of it, Mr. Crews’s novels betray a fundamental empathy, chronicling his characters’ search for meaning in a dissolute, end-stage world. His ability to spin out a dark, glittering thread from this tangle of souls gave him a singular voice that could make his prose riveting."

Crew's novels include The Gospel Singer (1968), Naked in Garden Hills (1969), Car (1972), A Feast of Snakes (1976) and The Knockout Artist (1988), among other works of fiction. He also wrote a celebrated memoir called A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978).

Crews and his work have been embraced in various corners of the music world:

The  website for the band Men Without Hats features a quote from Crews's story The Hawk Is Dying: "Find what was real in the world and touch it, that was what a man ought to do." The band's 1991 album Sideways includes a track called "Harry Crews," but, the website states, "the links between Sideways and the author run even deeper. Like Crews, the album is characterized by this search for what is real and meaningful, and is bound to real places, people and memory, offering a new perspective to those who think they know Men Without Hats…. Sideways is a testament to a way of life championed by the Bukowskis and the Crews of the world--that is, the idea of living life and music by the moment." Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk sums up Crews's writing style by saying, "He's really real. . . . He wrote a lot of things for Playboy magazine and Esquire and he's just real--like Bukowski's Barfly."

Season to Risk has a song called Snakes on their self-titled first album, released in 1993. The song is inspired by the Crews novel A Feast of Snakes, which centers on the bizarre ritual of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in a small Georgia town. Another band, Drag the River features a song called Mr. Crews on their 2006 album Its Crazy. The lyrics begin: I was a gospel singer feasting on rattlesnakes, and continue with a grab bag of Crews references. The song also captures the spirit of Crews's work with the lines: I never seen this kind of beauty before/Mud, blood, lost love, liquor, guns, whores.

In 1989, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth), Lydia Lunch, and Sadie Mae formed a band called Harry Crews and released one album, a collection of live performances, called Naked in Garden Hills after Crews's novel. As Spin Magazine points out in a review, "lyrics to some of the songs—notably 'The Knockout Artist,' 'The Gospel Singer,' and 'Car'—are inspired by Crews's stories, though the connection is loose, a sort of Cliff's Notes/free-association combo. Once in a while the lumbering brake-shop squall of the music suggests something of Crews's stories…."

If Spin did not embrace the album--"The stated good intentions of the project (promoting Crews's work and reading in general) count for something, but more effort should have gone into composition and execution"--Crews himself was even more dismissive: "Anybody that thinks this album in any way illuminates my work or is somehow related to my work except in instances lifted out of my books—my reaction is that whoever thinks that, they have misread me," Crews told Spin. "I wish [the band] well. But my feeling is, if you want to do something with your life, that's great, but don't jack around in mine."

One other related note: Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon's Sonic Youth band mate and husband, provided a blurb for Crews's short novel An American Family: "God bless Harry Crews, America's best writer. He'll break your heart but he'll always bring you love. They just don't make 'em like this anymore."

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