Living Arts section
Friday, October 5, 2001

Crossover Appeal: Kendall's Mix of Words, Music

by Joan Anderman

Dennis Lehane, the celebrated young mystery writer, knows from literary readings: the worn tweed, the gingerly sipped merlot, the median age that usually inspires a last-minute decision not to read the scene with 15 F-words.

But there was this one night, years ago in a dark pub in a low-rent neighborhood in London, Lehane recalls. Busted glass littered the floor. Scary characters were drinking and yelling. Lehane stepped up to the mike.

"Suddenly, everyone was zippered. I read. I wasn't preaching to the choir. I walked away and said, 'This is the single greatest reading I've ever done.'"

Which is why Lehane, a Boston native, and a couple of dozen other local literary luminaries — including Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Perotta, and Andre Dubus III — were variously psyched, thrilled, and blown away to hear about Earfull, a weekly series debuting at Cambridge's Kendall Cafe Tuesday that combines literary readings and unplugged rock music performances.

Galleries and collectives on the adventurous fringes of the arts community have been mixing mediums for years, exploring fusions of the aural, visual, and interactive arts. But the mainstream tends to package and consume its art in nice, neat market niches. There's not a lot of demographic crossover between the hipsters who hang at the Kendall and the erudite book-lovers who frequent readings. And that's exactly the point, says Tim Huggins, proprietor of Newtonville Books, who dreamed up the idea for Earfull with rock musician and writer Jen Trynin.

"I've been trying to bring Jen into the book world, and in return she's been trying to make me cooler," explains Huggins, who is noted on the local book scene for his easygoing manner, his ever-present sandals, and his Books-and-Brew series — the first step in Huggins's mission to lure a new young audience to the world of book readings. "Through our friendship, we realized there are a lot of avid readers out there, people who would go to music shows, who find the idea of a reading stifling. Young people just don't go. I'm 33, and I'm by far the youngest one going. So we're having it in a bar."

For Trynin, a self-described "secret writer" from an early age, making the move from major-label recording artist to author gave her a unique perspective on the disparity, but more important the similarities, between the two scenes.

"Songs get so much attention, but stories don't," says Trynin, who is finishing a collection of short fiction; she'll read on Oct. 23 from a work in progress based on her experiences in the music industry. "I think a lot of my freakazoid music friends are wondering, 'Is this like school?' If they knew, if they gave it a chance, they would see the similarities between a pop song and a story. The rhythms, and the forms, have so much in common."

Trynin's husband, Mike Denneen, and Jon Lupfer, co-owners of Boston's Q Division Records, were intrigued enough to collaborate on the series, which Lupfer calls "Chicken Soup for the Soul Train." Between Q's roster of artists and Trynin's connections in the local rock community, a who's who of Boston talent was enlisted to take the stage with authors on six consecutive Tuesdays — among them Bill Janovitz (from Buffalo Tom), Tanya Donelly (formerly of Throwing Muses and Belly) Jules Verdone, Chris Brokaw, Kay Hanley, and Twinemen, a new trio composed of Laurie Sargent and Morphine's Dana Colley and Billy Conway.

Most nights will feature two writers — one established and one emerging — and two musicians. While there was some thought given to matching musical and literary personalities, the programming was actually based more on a mutual appreciation society that surfaced as Huggins and Trynin began talking to artists about scheduling. Huggins asked Lehane — a huge music fan who says he will decide 35 seconds before he goes on whether to read from "Mystic River" or his next novel, "Missing Delores" — if he had a preference. (Yes: the Sheila Divine). Brokaw, formerly of the indie-rock band Come, requested Oct. 30 — not because it fit into his busy schedule but so that he could be on a bill with one of his favorite writers, Jayne Anne Phillips. Earlier this week, Elizabeth Searle, who will read from her new collection "Celebrities in Disgrace," bought a CD by singer/songwriter Jules Verdone, who plays the same night.

"I think I emulate the style of musicians," says Searle. "I like the idea of turning down the lights, moving around the stage, bringing in drinks. I'm going to read a scene from the title novella where these people are acting out the Nancy Kerrigan knee attack for a video, and things turn serious and sexual. I love doing erotic scenes at readings."

The plan, says Trynin, is to alternate sets of words and music: author, musician, author, musician. But drummer Conway, who has provided improvised soundtracks for film and spoken-word performances, is not at all convinced that the evenings will go according to plan. "You never know when a jam might erupt. That's just how musicians function. It has the potential to have a really potent force."

Potent indeed, agrees Huggins, if it has the power to lure a new audience into the literary-readings fold. "If we're able to pull this off, it opens up a whole new venue, and a whole new market," he says.

Trynin takes it a little more personally. "Frankly, if I'm going into writing, it can't be drab," she says. "I'm used to flailing and cursing. I really hope this works."

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.