Bushwick Book Club reads together and writes original songs based off of the books they read
Photo by Bob Krasner
There are an estimated 5 million book clubs in the USA, but if you find another one that does what the Bushwick Book Club does, let us know.
Founded 12 years ago by singer/songwriter/musician Susan Hwang, the revolving group’s simple but ambitious plan is to pick a book every month or so, read it and then gather together to present original songs ( or poems, food or drinks ) based on the work. The most recent show was live-streamed from Hwang’s apartment, but previous events have taken place at Barbes, City Winery, the Slipper Room and Dixon Place, among others.
It all started with Kurt Vonnegut and continued on with a variety of works that has included titles that range from the work of Cormac McCarthy to Amy Schumer, with Tennessee Williams and Chuck Palahniuk sandwiched in between. The club has also taken on Maya Angelou, Nabokov, William Melvin Kelley, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Carver, resulting in works such as Charming Disaster’s “What Do You Do With a Corpse ?”, Dan and Rachel’s “Lesbian Love in Victorian England”, Ellia Bisker’s ” A Hammer Doesn’t Ask Why It Strikes” and Phoebe Kreutz’s “What The F. Scott Fitzgerald ? ”
Several club meetings have been graced with the presence of the authors, adding another dimension to the event. “Having the writer there adds urgency and excitement to the shows,” noted Hwang. “In the past, we’ve had Jonathan Ames, Tanya Marquardt, and Chuck Palahniuk, who said that the project ‘ looks to be the future of literary events.” The most recent meeting of minds and music took place in Hwang’s living room in the East Village and featured not just songs but food and drink inspired by the latest work by Brandy Schillace, as well as the author herself. ‘Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’, the true story of a successful monkey head transplant, is Dr. Schillace’s fascinating account of a controversial event in 1970 that many are unaware of.
Schillace was quite happy to be part the festivities after putting two years of work into the book – which included a research trip to Moscow – and then dealing with the issues involved with launching the book in a pandemic. “To send the book out without you doesn’t feel real,” she mused. Things definitely got real after Schillace introduced herself, read from her book and then sat down to enjoy the show.
A variety of performers performed from a variety of places, with Zoom providing the means for Amanda Thorpe to present her effort from London, Don Rauf (Life in a Blender) from upstate NY, Carrie Beehan from Maine and Mason McCormick from Washington, DC, among others. Performing in Hwang’s home in front of two laptops and an iPhone – for the Facebook, Zoom and YouTube live feeds – were a group of artists who were clearly inspired by the tale of “A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul ” ( the book’s subtitle).
“It was easy to write because the book was so rich,” said Serena Jost of her song ‘We Are Thankful’. “The song poured in like the tide.” Not everyone has such an easy time of it, though. Hwang recalls that “we’ve had some people write the song on the train to the venue” and notes that “Rachelle Garniez was still writing at Barbes before going on.”
That was not the case for Jessie Kilguss, who was disturbed by the depiction of animal cruelty in the book. She mentioned that creating her tune, ‘Double Headed Dog’, was “a no-brainer.” (“Can I take that back ? she immediately asked. Sorry, no.)
Mya Byrne was “intrigued by so many things in the book,” but kept putting off writing the song. Finally, her burst of inspiration came while playing a guitar with a missing string on her mother’s porch in New Jersey, during a rainstorm.
Susan Hwang got a head start ( pun intended ) on her piece, “Ischemic Time”, which has to do with the lack of blood flow to an organ. “The song came to me in a backward way, ” she confessed. “Usually I work on the lyrics first and hear the music in the words,” Hwang explained. “But I found a chord progression while doing an improv on the piano and I knew it was my next song. I hadn’t read the book yet !”
Hwang, who, in addition to her artistic contribution also organizes each month’s event, acts as MC and sometimes as a camera operator (ok, it’s an iPhone), is quick to recognize the contributions of the crew. Charlie Nieland (also a performer) Theresa Toro and Darren Fiorino “helped to make this show the smoothest live stream yet,” she tells us.
Schillace, who created a special cocktail for the occasion – “The Humble Butcher” – was clearly bowled over by the whole thing. “To see people engage so deeply with my work that they created something new was wonderful,” she exclaimed. “My book has spawned other creations! Each additional song deepened the experience and I took something away from everyone. There are lots of ways to measure success, and today I feel like I won the world.”
Things you should know: the BBC is online at www.bushwickbookclub.com/, on Instagram at @thebushwickbookclub and lots (and lots) of tunes are available at bushwickbookclub.bandcamp.com/ (click on “more releases” for everything). The event described above is here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=
BoyHQUHkZ-0&t=1214s And one more thing! The BBC will be performing for free this Saturday at www.porchstomp.com/ porchstomp2020!