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Novel writing is a good gig for Joe Pernice

With the publication of 'It Feels So Good When I Stop,' the indie songwriter has found a balance between books and lyrics.

September 23, 2009|Scott Timberg

The narrator abandons his marriage on the first day of his honeymoon. His friends -- aimless, stunted or waiting for their lives to begin -- drink alone or together, but mostly joylessly. One young woman guzzles canned beers to absorb the memory of a drowned child. Author Joe Pernice, who spent almost a year living intensely with these bleak characters, says he's been having the time of his life.

"I'm not just the narrator," he says of his novel "It Feels So Good When I Stop," set in the dreary months of off-season Cape Cod. "I'm all the people. And I'll tell you what: That was a blast."

This perverse sense of pleasure suits Pernice, who's a decade into setting grim lyrics about heartbreak and loneliness to tuneful melodies and chiming guitars.

"I'm still creating something," Pernice, 42, says as he sips coffee at a generic airport hotel, just before flying home to Toronto. He's unshaven from a McCabe's gig the previous night and slightly burlier than your average Smiths fan. "It doesn't matter what it is -- you're making it. Even if you might be creating a moment of sadness, all I'm really seeing is, 'Are the parts working right?' "

"It Feels So Good When I Stop" is generally more bitter than the bittersweet songs he's sung with the Scud Mountain Boys and Pernice Brothers: The male bonding stings with a combination of rage and one-upmanship, and no novel can re-create Pernice's crystalline singing voice. But it's still recognizable as the work of one of rock's most respected bards. Published by Riverhead, the novel has drawn support from Nick Hornby, William Gibson and George Pelecanos.

"If Charles Bukowski had grown up in the '80s and listened to a lot of indie rock," "Little Children" author Tom Perrotta wrote in his jacket blurb, "he might have sounded a lot like Joe Pernice."

Romantic tangles

Of course, it's not just excess alcohol, too much pot and the ennui of a vacation town out of season that brings these characters down: The book is a virtual catalog of love gone bad.

"When I met Jocelyn I knew within minutes I was going to either marry her or completely destroy my life trying," the unnamed narrator tells us about 30 pages in. "It never occurred to me that both things could happen."

The characters in "It Feels So Good" live their lives through rock songs: They bond over one band, remember a breakup in terms of another. One monologue describes how an innocent bystander can be implicated in a romantic tangle: "From then on, all of Todd Rundgren's music was off limits. That included bands he produced, such as the Psychedelic Furs and XTC. It was a shame, really. None of it was Todd Rundgren's fault."

Writing and music have often been closely linked for Pernice, who grew up in a large Italian American family (his dad sold trucks while his mom raised six kids) and attended Catholic school on Boston's South Shore.

Pernice has written about the '80s, which he recalls as being "super nuclear paranoid," in a novel inspired by (and named for) the Smiths' "Meat Is Murder" album. (It was one of the first books in Continuum's "33 1/3 " series and a rare example of a project inspiring fiction, instead of criticism or essayistic musing, in one of its authors.)

Pernice spent the mid-'90s -- in which the new novel is set -- playing mellowed Appalachian country music with the Scud Mountain Boys and earning a master of fine arts degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. (Dave Berman, leader of the band Silver Jews and a poet whose book "Actual Air" has become a Gen-X totem, was a classmate.) In some cases the overlap between rock and writing was quite literal: In 1996, he flew east the day after the band's tour concluded in San Francisco to defend his MFA thesis, a collection of poetry.

The two styles of creating, Pernice says, are vastly different, especially for a songwriter whose work has always been more inspired by lyric poets -- the earthy Midwesterner James Wright, Swedish surrealist Tomas Transtromer -- than novelists.

"I think for me, writing songs is more about creating a mood. You're not getting a picture of a character, you're more getting a whiff of them."

His songs, both with the Scuds or the more pop-driven Pernice Brothers, are neither plot- nor character-driven but often resemble what he calls "shadowy pictures."

"I don't write folk songs with 800 verses about someone who was born, then you go through their lives, then they die. Mostly I like to have one or two images that will ground you in a mood."

Fast worker

And while songs like "Penthouse in the Woods," "Crestfallen" and "Breakneck Speed" are burnished gems that match classic '60s songcraft with a personal brand of melancholy, Pernice says he pretty much dashes them off.

"When I write a song, it's really fun -- it's immediately pleasing," he says, explaining that even some of his most enduring tunes were written in a couple of hours.

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