Before I dive into chapter by chapter, song by song commentary for L Extreme I wanted to provide a little background on how this came to be.
Let’s start at the beginning…
July 2009: I purchased the special music issue of The Believer magazine at Skylight Books in LA. It was a total impulse purchase based on the theme, the cover, knowledge of Dave Eggers’s involvement and the fact that it came with a CD ala the old British music mags I was obsessed with as a teenager. It would be a couple months before I got around to reading it, but I find it fascinating that I can trace this book back to this exact moment.
When I finally dug into the magazine was a red-letter date. On 9/7/09 I purchased A Love Extreme and added it to my iTunes library. Followed under a week later by The Ballad of Hope Nicholls by Benji’s 90s band Muscadine, a clear signal that an obsession was brewing.
Flash-forward some unknown period of time, once again at Skylight Books. I had forgotten this, but my wife vividly remembers watching me browse the spinning metal rack of 33 1/3 music criticism books and saying: “Somebody should write one of these about A Love Extreme. No—I should write one of these about A Love Extreme.”
That explains my archive of 37 articles / interviews with Benji found online spanning 2006-2018. But when did I switch the concept from non-fiction to fiction(ish) magic realism? I honestly don’t remember, but I have some vague flashes of forces pushing me in this direction from both the research and the music:
“Oh definitely. There is a theme there. I don’t want to say anything about it. Maybe it’s love. There is something that the whole thing’s all about.” — Artist Direct Interview, 2008
“There’s not gonna be a 2019 A Love Extreme re-release with bonus tracks we didn’t put on there.” — Seeds Entertainment, 2010
“I want to be in your book—the front page of your life.” — lyric from A Love Extreme track “So Well”
“Don’t forget to write me when you’re famous.” — lyric from unreleased song played during Largo residency, 2010
Something I do remember is sitting on the couch listening to A Love Extreme for the umpteenth time and telling my wife “I bet I could write a novel based on this whole album.” She definitely rolled her eyes, and probably went to bed.
I found a file on my hard drive dated 2/18/13 (President’s Day! And possibly the same day as the above memory) titled “A Love Extreme Notes” that contains very brief bulleted sketches of the first thirteen songs plus “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips.” Aside from noting the instrumentals should be dreams it doesn’t really mirror the plot of the novel at all, but shows some spark of inspiration. The text file was never edited after its creation. (I didn’t even open it during the later writing stages since I forgot it existed.) Maybe I got distracted, or didn’t think anyone cared. More likely I didn’t feel capable of pulling off a storyline based on one album’s worth of songs.
Next is another text file, this one dated 9/21/14, 11:20pm Pacific time. A short story based on “The Mummy.” For years I’d written little fiction pieces about songs to amuse myself or my wife or my friends. Usually they go unfinished. A script for a made-for-TV movie based on “Taxi” by Harry Chapin. A short about a car breaking down on the side of the road inspired by “My Name is Jonas” by Weezer. A Twilight Zone style anthology series with the pilot episode adapting the Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch version of “Wildside” (with apologies to Lou Reed).
This Mummy story wasn’t very good, but it still amuses me to no end. Most importantly, it sets up a framework for what followed. As best I can recall, my brainstorm went something like this:
Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy are roommates in a band with a Monkees type living situation. They’re watching the Slow Century documentary about Pavement in their small apartment on an okay side of town and arguing about who gets to perform at the prom.
But monsters are too obvious. I’ll call Dracula “Count” and make him speak in numbers, sort of like an adult version of the Sesame Street character. Frankenstein is just a big guy named Frank who may or may not be a monster. Who’s the mummy? A reincarnated Egyptian pharaoh? Somebody’s mom?
That was enough to get me off the couch and over to the computer. During the very short jaunt down the hallway I scrapped the mummy character in favor of a fictionalized version of the actual Benji Hughes for reasons completely lost on me. I wrote:
Benji and Count were watching “Slow Century” for the fiftieth time while they waited for Frank to show up. They knew it was the fiftieth time because that’s what Count did — he counted.
989 words later I had a dumb little ditty that started with those three characters living the lyrics of “The Mummy” and ended with a riff on the lyrics from “Everybody Falls In Love“—a different Benji song recently released on XXOXOXX (later re-issued as Another Extreme)—part of a 4 (!!!) CD set of new albums we got pre-release copies of when my wife mentioned her plan to surprise me with a trip to NC to see a Benji Hughes show to a co-worker who responded: “I didn’t realize you liked him—I kinda know him…” That album was added to our library on 8/26/14, less than a month before I wrote the Mummy short. It was the missing piece of creative connective tissue I needed. Don’t only write about A Love Extreme; write about ALL THE SONGS!
Inspired, I ran with the idea as my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, writing just shy of 17K words about Benji, Count, Frank and Benji’s mysterious ex-girlfriend L that November. And the next November. And the one after that. 2014-2018, every November spent chipping away with another 10-18K words song by song, chapter by chapter. A lot of it got scrapped—there’s 30K words of outtakes in what became an 87K word book—but a lot of it worked far better than it had any business doing under the circumstances.
Of course, there was this looming moral/copyright/intellectual property gray area issue to resolve. I figured I’d toss the hail mary of a pitch to Benji down the road if/when it was ready, and most likely rework the whole thing to scrape off the serial numbers and remove the references when I got either a no or a no response. But I was having so much fun it was the least of my worries at the time…
Stay tuned for Part II of how this zany project got off the ground—probably after a few chapter commentary posts…