Single Notes Authors Condense Lifelong Musical Obsessions Into Literary Digests

Chic, Beastie Boys, Soft Cell, Grateful Dead

In this post-album, shuffle-mode age, when the single has attained a renewed prominence it hasn’t enjoyed since the mid-‘60s, why can’t authors release digital ‘singles’ too? That’s the idea behind Rhino’s new Single Notes eBook series, where respected music journalists pick topics close to their hearts and expound on them for approximately the length of a standard book’s chapter. The advantages of operating in this short-form fashion include affordability for the reader and inclusiveness for the publisher — without the worries that go along with novel-length books and physical releases, it’s a lot easier to simply scoop up a batch of your favorite music writers and say, “Cover whatever you want.”

“This was about the best assignment anyone’s ever given me,” says veteran music critic Gene Sculatti, “‘Write whatever you want, as long as it’s about music.’” Sculatti’s Dark Stars & Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving, and Making Up With the Music of The Grateful Dead offers a unique viewpoint on the band’s legacy. “I could’ve written about any number of musical obsessions,” he explains. “Punk rock, girl groups, the Beach Boys, etc, but somehow my on-again, off-again interest in the Dead’s music jumped right to the head of the line. My take on the band never fit the orthodox Deadhead view, so I figured maybe it’d make for an interesting read — especially for younger music fans who couldn’t breach the whole tie-dye/how-great-was-our-youth riff thrown over the era and its artists by most folks my age [Sculatti first saw the band in 1966]. There’s much more to the music than that, which is what I’d hoped to put forth.” Sculatti’s no stranger to writing about the ‘60s SoCal psych scene, having authored San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip. ”This is less a critique of the Grateful Dead than a personal memoir,” he says, “from the ‘60s through the ‘00s, so it’s also a sort of time-lapse photo of how one music-obsessed guy responded to all sorts of music and events.”

Kurt B. Reighley, whose previous works include Looking For The Perfect Beat: The Art & Culture of the DJ and United States of Americana, also decided to focus on a group that had a formative effect on him as a teen, but Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Fleeting Fame & Lasting Legacy of Soft Cell involves a different era and musical world. “I get so frustrated when I see legitimate career artists pegged as one-hit wonders,” says Reighley, “and Soft Cell is at the top of that list. Yes, most people discovered them via ‘Tainted Love,’ but there are plenty of listeners who bought the accompanying Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing albums and really delved into their weird universe and stuck with them after the hits stopped. Critically respected contemporary artists like Antony and Stephin Merritt are big Soft Cell fans, and I wanted to make that connection clear to new audiences.” For Reighley, the format was akin to tackling an in-depth feature story. “I just thought of my Single Notes eBook as a Vanity Fair feature,” he says. “There are so few outlets for that kind of long-form music writing any more, and I miss getting to delve deep into my subjects.”

You may have seen Michaelangelo Matos’ work everywhere from the Village Voice to the Chicago Reader, but he also penned a book on Prince’s Sign O’ the Times for the 33 1/3 series, a close cousin of Single Notes, so he was a natural to participate in the project. Matos quickly decided to base his eBook We Won’t Settle For Less: Chic at the End of Disco around one of Chic’s ‘70s classics. “It took less than five minutes to decide on ‘Good Times.’ It’s one of my favorite records,” he enthuses, “it’s pregnant with context and subtext, some of it self-created — Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were master conceptualists, among other things — and it’s a signature New York City record. I got to write a bit about my own conflicted relationship with the city — that isn’t the lynchpin or the focus, but it’s relevant.”

And while the entries in the Single Notes series have tended toward a historical focus so far, that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a prism for reflecting on contemporary happenings in music. An excellent example is the fancifully titled Every Day I Take a Wee: The Beastie Boys and the Untimely Death of Suburban Folklore by Spin Senior Editor Christopher R. Weingarten. It’s basically a story of growing up with the Beasties, but it’s impossible to read it without the added perspective of MCA’s recent passing. “I think after MCA died you really saw how many people had very personal, intense relationships with the Beastie Boys, always raising questions of identity, race, sexism — and in the case of my Single, suburbia.” For Weingarten, Single Notes offered a chance to take an uncharacteristically intimate approach to writing about music. “I think the single format is a good chance to try stuff out,” he says. “I’m not a blogger, memoirist or oversharer, so this is literally the first time I’ve ever written about myself in a professional capacity. It was kind of terrifying every step of the way, but it was finally a chance to dump a lot of stuff that’s been floating around in my head.”

The eBooks mentioned above are only a small part of the Single Notes world. Even though it just made its debut in June, the series has already encompassed everything from first-generation punk rock survivor Binky Phillips’ memoir, My Life in the Ghost of Planets: The Story of a CBGB Almost-Was to Davin Seay’s Super Freak: The Last Days of Rick James. In an increasingly fast-paced world, Single Notes seems to offer an opportunity to indulge your inner music nerd without taking too big a chunk out of your life.

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