JUNE/JULY 2007

David Gates

[AUTHOR/CRITIC/AMATEUR OLD-TIME MUSICIAN]

“THE FIRST TIME I HEARD BOTH BECK AND BIGGIE SMALLS, I HAD TO GO ASKING AROUND—HEY, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THAT SONG IS WHERE THESE WOMEN GO ‘BIGGIE BIGGIE BIGGIE’?”
Writer-musician analogies:
Mahler:Tolstoy
Bob Dylan:Shakespeare
Late Coltrane: Joyce
Miles Davis:Beckett
David Gates:P.D.Q. Bach

David Gates started writing fiction when he was thirty-three, on a commuter train from Connecticut to New York. He wrote two long novels and some short stories, but wasn’t published until he finished Jernigan, a blackly comic novel about a single alcoholic father. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Jernigan started Gates on a string of books about dissenting antiheroes, including Preston Falls and the story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World, both of which were nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards.

In all of his books, Gates has a distinctive gift of convincing readers to like characters who in reality would be considered rude, intellectually arrogant, and aggressively opinionated (especially when it comes to country music). He actually manipulates the reader with his pitch-perfect voice, smooth-talking us with highbrow jokes about Dickens, and then charming us with his backwoods good-old-boy slang. Like Beckett (whom Gates wrote his dissertation on) his characters’ interior voices infiltrate the reader’s mind and alter the rhythms in which we think.

Dividing his time between a Manhattan apartment and a weathered upstate New York farmhouse, Gates has worked at Newsweek magazine for the last twenty-eight years, mostly writing about music and books. He’s one of the most enthusiastic music-loving journalists around, a fine guitarist, and can sing a mean, foot-stompin’ version of “John Henry.” He also teaches fiction writing at the Bennington MFA program in a workshop with Amy Hempel.

Though this interview was conducted via email, Gates’s cowboy boots and Einsteinian haircut loomed throughout.

—Ross Simonini

*

THE BELIEVER: Would you say that music and literature go in waves of ideas? Would you say there have been any periods (other than right now) in the last hundred years where creativity has been lower than other periods? Or do you think everyone in every time period feels more underwhelmed by fresh ideas, simply because, as you said, you have to listen through a bunch of tedious product to find the few good things?

DAVID GATES: It gets tricky when you try to identify cultural waves. I don’t think waves sweep over the arts, raising all boats. I think it’s more that you get one (or several) revolutionary geniuses, from whom a larger number of people take inspiration. In rock and roll, it was first Elvis, then Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. It’s mind-boggling when you consider that there were only ten years between Elvis’s “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train” to “Like a Rolling Stone.” That’s a hell of a lot of development in ten years—surely more than in, say, the ten years between 1990 and 2000. That doesn’t mean there’s necessarily less creativity. Some wonderful music almost always gets done. It just means there’s less innovation—nothing as revolutionary as rock and roll, disco, or hip-hop. Seems to me there’s a shade of difference between creativity and innovation. You bring up a good question about whether people in every era find it hard to sift through new music without a map showing where the treasure is buried. What’s different about today is that just about everything from every previous era and every part of the world is immediately available—in addition to vast amounts of new stuff being released every day. It’s more overwhelming than underwhelming.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Ross Simonini is also known as the solo artist Rooos!, a member of Trespassers William, an editor at Resonance magazine, an editor at identitytheory.com, and a guy with half a book done.

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