Last year I made the weirdest book I’ve ever made. Not weird-weird, but simply a massive amount of work for what amounted to just two copies, so I’m sure more people will read about this book here than ever actually see it. The book I’m referring to is Will Sheff’s (of Okkervil River) selected writings, I Want to Go Home with a Book in Each Hand. I describe my reason for making it in the forward, which I’ve copied out below, but I didn’t mention anything about how the book got made, so here goes: first, I went to the university library and made a request for ever article by or about Will Sheff I could find, then I typed em up, and did the typical fact-checking, copy-editing, and proofreading that I would for any other book. After that, I typeset it in Fred Smeijers’ Quadraat with Hans Reichel’s display font Dax, in two colors throughout. The trim size is 9.5 x 5.5″, a tall, narrow format that I’ve always fancied for prose. At this point, I’ve been working on the book for a couple hundred hours, very gradually, happily, for two years. I had it printed on a color laser printer in Minneapolis, four-up, and shipped flat to bookbinder C.J. Martin in Colorado, who folded the sheets into quartos and got to work on the hardcover binding. Meanwhile, I asked my friend Max Koch to make some photopolymer plates so I could do the covers on the letterpress with matching endpapers, etc. When the books came back from Colorado, just two copies, I sent one to Will’s publicist in Brooklyn, read my copy, and put it on the shelf. I received a very sweet note from the author. Here’s the forward, and if you want to read some of the essays in this book, you can visit Will’s website.
My friend Steve threw a party one night in Austin, and somehow through the twists and turns of great conversation he began telling me how totally floored he was by Will Sheff’s essay on Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s appearance on a late-night German television show in 1974. Esoteric, but yeah, off-the-hook interesting to me. He went on with enthusiasm, virtually insisting that I read it immediately. So when I got home later that night I went to Sheff’s website to print up a copy of the Dr. Hook essay and sat down on the couch with a nightcap and wow, Steve was right. I read it twice in one sitting, quietly celebrating the rich layers of detail, the care in analysis, and most of all, the poetic quality of the writing itself, casually framed in a rockumentary context. I mean, it was really great, in form and content alike. Within a few days I had printed up and read all of the essays on the website and assembled them neatly in a three-ring binder because I can’t really engage with meaningful writing online.
It was as exhilarating as encountering my longtime heroes of rock writing, like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, as a teenager, but parallel to my later experiences in poetry and visual art, and it dawned on me for the first time that I often prefer the way that musicians talk about their work more than critics, recalling Barnett Newman’s classic, “aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds.” Way more. Think of Agnes Martin, Robert Smithson, Carolee Schneemann, Bruce Nauman, or even poets writing about art, like Eileen Myles, Robert Creeley, Bill Berkson, or Peter Schjeldahl. They make you want to make—they don’t explain, per se. They illuminate, extrapolate, draw your attention towards the things that they celebrate; or as a dear friend once defined “culture” as “the celebration of things shared.” I like that approach, difference being integral to the common celebration. Another remarkable friend, a painter from Vermont, once told me, standing before a Chuck Close self portrait, that he would have painted such-and-such differently, gesturing with his arm. “Differently?” I asked, not being a painter. “Yeah,” he said, and in that moment I realized what it meant to be inside the work, to feel like a participant, and in some ways an equal, rather than a pedestrian consumer of all things “finished.” Artists can say things that critics can’t because they write from inside the work, because they are part of it, not mere spectators, and they’re under no obligation to make academic arguments or write within a particular discourse. American sublime.
Assembled, these essays struck me as a poetics written by one of my favorite songwriters. Sheff writes about how music makes him feel, about the feeling of music, in one of the most articulate and heartfelt lexicons I’ve ever experienced, as a means to get closer to understanding and nourishing one’s own writing and coming to grips with the lineage that Sheff’s own work is a substantial part of now. Like Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael or Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, there is a New England study in affinity that resonates with my own sense of time and place that generously offers a humble and hungry sense of perception rare among rock stars of any generation. Close listening infused with a questioning imagination. To me, these essays are a window into Sheff’s echoes and influences, a thoughtful and purposeful perspective on some of the personal and profound moments that brought me closer to thinking through writing and listening, that made me want to write and listen harder, as a friend with sound, rather than a consumer of.
Anyway, a couple weeks later it was my birthday, and over dinner with a friend I was rambling about how much the Dr. Hook essay meant to me; the terrific tale about the Roky Erickson liner notes award; the pure description of the photograph of Little Beaver on the Party Down LP; Tim Hardin’s hardships; Françoise Hardy and the meaninglessness of language; and so on. She said: “hey, you’re a great publisher, why don’t you invite Will to do a book?” “Great idea” I thought, so I sent a letter that night and heard back from Sheff’s publicist a few days later, essentially saying that he was busy with the Down Down the Deep River movie (turned out great by the way), and could I check back in a year? I did. Then a year later. Still busy. Then it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to publish this book? That maybe, just maybe, my affinity for Sheff’s writing could be expressed in an utterly personal, singular, format. So I decided to make a book, this book, just a copy for me to replace my battered three-ring circus of a binder, and maybe one for the author, so I can have it in my library with all the other books that changed my life. Anyway, writing like this is a reason to keep reading, and listening closer to everything. The title is from the John Berryman-inspired Okkervil River song that closes The Stage Names.
— Kyle Schlesinger