Reading and Singing

The Bushwick Book Club turns homework assignments into music.

Can you name the last time—if ever—you were in a room full of people who had all read and loved Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? Where you’re also drinking and laughing and spouting quotes and inside jokes, doing shots each time someone said “So it goes . . . “?

Slaughterhouse-Five made Beacon Hill musician Geoff Curtiss Larson a book lover. “It was the first book I’d read that made reading seem cool,” he says.

Other cool books? On the Road, Naked Lunch, Jesus’ Son. But these titles are often overlooked by traditional tea-sipping book clubs. Such books tend to be read alone, often by loners. However, when Larson visited a nightclub in Bushwick, Brooklyn (during a temporary 2009 move to NYC), he was surprised to see a whole barroom full of folks having a blast in the name of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. It was the monthly meet-up of the Bushwick Book Club, organized by his friend Susan Hwang, where a select lineup of songwriters each perform a tune inspired by that month’s reading selection. The audience, Larson among them, was captivated—not only because they liked the same book, but also because they wanted to be out at a club having fun.

Larson saw a nugget of an idea that he knew Seattleites would eat up. “In New York,” he says, “you can have the greatest idea in the world and nobody will show up, because there are a thousand other things going on in the city each night. This seemed like the kind of show that would really draw Seattleites out each month.”

Returning home last year, he gathered a dozen fellow musicians and assigned them his “favorite book of all time,” Slaughterhouse-Five. The first October show at the Can Can drew a crowd of 20 or 30. The monthly shows proved so popular that they’ve moved to larger venues, including the Century Ballroom, Chop Suey, and Conor Byrne. Past programming choices have included S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Frank Miller’s Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. “I look for a balance of humor and a serious subject,” says Larson. This year’s series has three more assignments: The Time Machine, The Shining, and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, at separate venues (see details below).

While Larson is quick to credit Hwang for the concept (which she originated in 2009), his mission is to make Seattle’s Bushwick shows a grander experience. For starters, his cast of songwriters constantly rotates. And it’s grown—from the original 12 to some 100 performers who now ask to participate. None of a night’s dozen-odd performers knows their time slot—Larson pulls names from a hat. Each gets 10 minutes to perform one or two songs. Aside from A People’s History—for which Larson assigned a chapter per performer—he gives no directions. (The only time they discuss the chosen book together is during a preshow dinner.) The musicians otherwise have free reign to interpret any aspect of each month’s selection.

For Bushwick’s March performance of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, for instance, songs ranged from odes to the hero’s contradictory desires to a tune inspired by a single paragraph. But what makes Bushwick performances memorable is that many of the songs are strong enough to stand on their own apart from the source book, such as Anna Coogan’s “Dutch Girls,” a folk-pop take on female insecurity and record-collecting boyfriends who won’t grow up.

“It’s great,” says Larson, “because everyone is excited to share their songs, but they’re also secretly trying to one-up one another. For the audience, all they need to do is have a great time reading a book, then sit back and watch people’s reactions to the book through song.”