Not all rock stars spend their spare time consuming narcotics and canoodling with groupies. Boring as it sounds, some actually read — a lot. And some of what they learn even makes into their music.
Thursday night, SPIN’s Liner Notes series, an offshoot of the SPIN.com Book Club, brought together the San Francisco quartet Dredg and their literary muse, Salman Rushdie, for an intimate evening of music, literature, and atheism at Housing Works’ Bookstore Café in Lower Manhattan. (Housing Works — a NYC AIDS charity — received all proceeds from the event.) The atheism came courtesy of Rushdie’s essay “Imagine There’s No Heaven” — addressed to the world’s newly born 6 billionth citizen — which warns its young reader that “the ancient wisdoms are modern nonsenses.” The essay directly inspired Dredg’s latest record, The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion.
Still, all shared interests in secular-humanism aside, how exactly would a seasoned prog-rock band from California and a 62-year-old Booker Prize-winner from Bombay get along? Fine, actually. Rushdie clamored onstage first, noting that he was “surprised and touched that this piece of mine had helped [Dredg] with their work,” before reading a few selections from his 2000 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. After joining Rushdie onstage during the reading of his essay, Dredg added a touch of somber keyboards and guitar as Rushdie’s voice rose to advise his small, hushed audience to “refuse to allow priests, and the fictions on whose behalf they claim to speak, to be the policemen of our liberties and behavior.”
Dredg picked right up where Rushdie left off, with frontman Gavin Hayes proclaiming on “Pariah,” “Oh delusions! / Only to justify, justify the things you do.” The quartet’s short set, lifted almost entirely from their new LP, scaled the band’s ambitious scope down to a more amenable prog folk — just two keyboards, an acoustic and electric guitar, and Hayes’ soaring tenor. The band’s sound is often elaborately conceived on record. But last night, tunes like “Pariah” and “Information” managed a soft, informal elegance that had Rushdie grinning and nodding along. Dredg also unveiled a somber b-side, “The Ornament,” which they’d never performed live before.
The evening’s concluding Q&A session neatly split the audience into Rushdie and Dredg fans. There were questions from dudes in baseball caps about b-sides and whether the music or the lyrics came first. There were questions from elegantly dressed ladies about Sartre and existentialism.
Yet Rushdie always managed to bring everyone together with a little black humor. He hilariously recalled a thwarted attempt at collaboration with Blur that was derailed when bassist Alex James, drunk on a bottle of absinthe (and imitated by Rushdie in a slobbering Cockney accent), declared that he’d write the lyrics if Rushdie, with no musical training, could write the melodies. And, when asked if he meant for The Satanic Verses to be so controversial: “Not really,” Rushdie smirked. “Being sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini really ruins your weekend.”