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Jason Heller’s “Strange Stars” is a book that prompts contemplation about time and space, and more specifically about time and space with regard to popular music.
Heller’s book delves into a rich period of popular music spanning from the late-’60s to the outset of the 1980s, illustrating the ways science fiction and popular music grew intertwined. He touches on Jimi Hendrix’s discovery of the phrase “purple haze” in a spacey pulp novel, before moving onto stories behind the work of more prominent musical spacemen like David Bowie, Sun Ra and George Clinton. As public interest in space travel waned, popular music by acts like Devo and Gary Numan found inspiration less in space opera than in dystopic stories about communication and information.
I’ve read more than a few music-related books over the years. But Heller — a Hugo Award-winning writer and editor, a designation that matters a lot to science fiction types — finds a corner of the universe about which I’d not previously read. He’ll appear at Cactus Music on Sunday to talk about the strange stars that shine in “Strange Stars.”
Q: I feel like so much in this book was right under my nose, and I just never bothered to make the connections. I mean, Bowie’s science fiction interest is obvious. But the specificity of it, like, it never occurred to me to make a connection between his changing personae and the regenerations with new actors on “Doctor Who.”
Jason Heller discusses ‘Strange Stars’
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth
Details: free; cactusmusictx.com
A: I’m glad to hear you say that. I feel like I’ve read millions of books about music history, too. But as a music fan and a science fiction fan, I hadn’t felt like somebody tied those two things together. Occasionally somebody would write about a link. But not a comprehensive look at this secret history that was out in the open. It started small, but as I started researching, I was surprised to find this big narrative that so many of these artists feed into. I knew Bowie would be a main figure in the book. And he was the figurehead. But the more I researched the more I found little connections so that stories about Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane and Hawkwind and Devo and Parliament, they weren’t just floating stories. These were artists about the same age who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s with science fiction, and they were affected in similar ways even if the directions they took ere radically different.
Q: One of my favorite passages was about Bowie, where you wrote about his interest in debunking the idea of “authenticity” in music. Our culture seems to want to believe if a guy sings the words, he believes the words even though many singers are actors. The science-fiction music guys found worlds of allegory by bucking that trend.
A: I totally agree with that. And it got debated a lot among music critics. Music geeks love to debate the whole idea of authenticity in music. By the 1970s it had become this dominant idea: That singer-songwriters were singing with hearts on sleeves about their personal lives and feelings. Being “closer to the truth” — in quotes — made you a more worthy songwriter. But Bowie celebrated the opposite of that and embodied the opposite of that. He found authenticity in multiple points of view, different characters in different songs. It became reductive to say he was going through these chameleon character changes. He was creating a multiplicity of characters and singing from a multiplicity of viewpoints, which was more like something a novelist would do.
Q: Younger readers are sometimes surprised to learn that science fiction and a lot of genre fiction was marginalized for a long time. That its legitimacy among fiction gatekeepers is fairly new. Do you think music was held to a different standard? I see some stigma for SF-friendly bands, but not to the same dismissive degree.
A: I think some of the science fiction musicians of the ’70s encountered some version of that prejudice. It wasn’t necessarily a case of, “We don’t consider it to be real music because it’s science fiction.” But mostly the industry didn’t consider it marketable. Bowie had some hits from time to time. But even he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a science fiction musician. That would be the death of his career. If you were a musician in the early-’70s, though, making science fiction-based music, it meant you probably had a deep love for science fiction. It wasn’t the same as simply doing something space-themed. Now everybody would consider it a viable genre of music.
Q: After so many years of “my baby left me,” the possibilities it offered were broader.
A: I think so. It was a progressive era where people were looking to find bigger stories to tell and bigger ways to tell them. “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out in 1968. The moon landing was 1969. Human beings were starting to question in a different way what our place was in the universe. It was a time of redefining ourselves.
Q: Which is intriguing to me because that movie and the moon landing fall in between “Wichita Lineman” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which to me sound like similar songs expressed in two entirely different ways.
A: I can totally see that. It’s funny when I was a kid, my favorite songs were “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell and “Rocket Man.” I know people see the Glen Campbell song as silly, but to me it captured this glittery image of a performer. It made me think of stars. … Elton wasn’t much of a science fiction fan, but (lyricist) Bernie Taupin was an avowed science fiction fan. There was direct inspiration from Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and the similarities are obvious. But the idea was a working man, a blue collar guy in outer space thinking about his family while dealing with this existential isolation that would come from space travel.
Q: I was reading a book about the artificial heart and there were parallels between that and the space program in the way public interest peaks and wanes. The shuttle program simply didn’t capture imaginations the way the Mercury and Apollo missions did. But there was a shift in music’s science-fiction interest toward guys like Philip K. Dick and dystopian stories about communication.
A: Yes, Devo didn’t sing about aliens and spaceships. That wasn’t their thing. They sang about how corporate manipulation was going to be something big and problematic. It was going to be a frontier just as much as traveling through the solar system. So Devo’s view about how information could be used and controlled could seem fun or goofy, but their vision of the future was much darker than some of the other bands that worked with science fiction. Post-punk didn’t find space and aliens to hold much interest. Instead you get guys like Gary Numan thinking about Philip K. Dick, who himself was considering ideas that have to do with terrestrial everyday life, and how those things will be altered to an unrecognizable degree by technology.