Magazine Review #12: Radio Silence


What is the impact on the human condition when we expect to have everything we want, whenever we want it?

So asks Zach Rogue in the first issue of Radio Silence. This is the question that will define my generation, and a question that I have struggled with for my entire adult life. When I was younger I spent the majority of my time in tangible places: record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, libraries, concert venues. I was constantly in search of new albums and books. Nearly every moment that I wasn’t in school, I was reading and/or listening to music. These two things are the only two things that I have done every single day of my life since I can remember. Books and music were (and are) my lifeblood.

But everything feels different now. I don’t find new albums by flipping through them on a rack; I find them by checking out related artists on Spotify. I don’t think this is a necessarily good or bad thing, but what I really notice is that it’s so easy now. I’m old enough to remember making mixtapes, from the radio. I would have a blank tape loaded up in my stereo at all times, and whenever a favorite song came on I would literally dive across the room and hit the record button. I had stacks of these wonky mixtapes, with songs that were half cut off, or choppy DJ voices, or starts of ads, all abruptly stopping with this chunky audible click of the button. Half the time the station wasn’t even tuned in clearly. I loved these mixtapes.

Radio Silence, a new magazine about “literature and rock & roll,” reminds me of that kind of passion. That kind of teenage nerdiness I had when I was holed up in my room recording stuff off the radio and obsessively playing songs over and over again, long after I was supposed to have gone to bed. Music and literature have this common bond: the ability to consume us. The way we interact with music is not unlike the way we interact with literature. The key to both is an emotional connection. Neither works on an intellectual level, although they can (and often do) cause us to think. Successful art is not about being intellectual; it’s about evoking a feeling. It makes us cry or smile or die a little.

Radio Silence taps into that world of emotional connection. It includes pieces by both musicians and writers—a mix of fiction, personal essays, and interviews. A.E. Stallings writes about the anomaly of hipness and the cult of REM in Athens, Georgia in the 80s and 90s. Tobias Wolff remembers playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a road trip with his kids. Adrian McKinty writes about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Geoff Dyer writes about Family, the first band he ever saw live. Every piece in this issue is interesting. But what I loved most was the pairing of “Winter Dreams,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and an essay by Blake Hazard, half of the band the Submarines, who happens to be Scott and Zelda’s great-granddaughter.

“Winter Dreams” was first published in Metropolitan Magazine in 1922. According to the editor’s note, in the later version, published in All the Sad Young Men (1926), Fitzgerald had stripped a few passages and used them in The Great Gatsby. It’s a fascinating read because you can see and feel The Great Gatsby in this story. You can see the seeds of Gatsby and Daisy formulating in the unmistakable language of Fitzgerald. Immediately following this story is an essay called, “Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past,” by Blake Hazard. Hazard has been in the Submarines for the past six years, and she recounts a recent tour with the Eels:

“I climb the iron staircase to the main dressing room, as I’ve been asked up for a celebratory drink with E, the Eels frontman. It’ll be the first time we’ve spoken, apart from stage-side banter between sets. I swoon past Jon Hamm on his way out—one in a string of celebrity Eels fans. E is upstairs in his low-lit Hollywood dressing room. I’m excited to finally thank the man who has brought my band around the country, allowing us to play in front of his audiences night after night.

I’ve brought him two of my favorite books as a gift: Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As I hand him the books in a paper bag, he asks, “So, is it true that you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter?”

My heart drops. I wonder, “Is that the only reason he brought us on this tour? Did he even like my music?” I bumble a reply, “Well, yes, but of course, I never knew him—he died long before I was born.”

I sense a certain disappointment in the room, as there always is when people realize that I’m not old enough to have known someone who was in his prime in the 1920s—especially someone who, rather famously, died young. I turn shy and slip out soon after, clattering my high heels back down the metal stairs.”

Hazard has been tied to this famous couple for her entire life, and as a creative person, people are bound to make comparisons and hold her up to this impossible standard. Celebrity has a strange power over people, and the Fitzgeralds are such major players in American literature, it’s hard not to romanticize them, to want to find them in her. Hazard tackles the subject so profoundly in this essay, exploring both the reality of Scott and Zelda’s lives and the burden of living under a creative legacy. Ultimately, Hazard takes comfort in her work and though there are no finite solutions, she writes, “No matter how our families have shaped who we are as artists, these pursuits and struggles will always be our own.”

I know a lot of writers who are passionate about music. I wonder if this is because writing is a very lonely vocation and we need someone to keep us company while we stare at our screens day after day. In this issue of Radio Silence, Rick Moody interviews Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly) and in fact has a stellar music column right here on The Rumpus. Moody, (and Lethem and Dyer, etc.), writes about music like more than just a fan. He writes about it like he can’t live without it. And this feeling is infused into the entire magazine. Radio Silence feels like a magazine that was created by someone who has been obsessed with music and literature for their entire life.

In his introduction, Editor-in-Chief Dan Stone writes about his history of interviewing writers, musicians, and artists, and as the conversations strayed to other topics he found that artists were often inspired by art from other genres. He writes, “So why literature and rock & roll? They felt like a natural pairing. They are both elementally built on sound. Both can be enjoyed as an intimate conversation between artist and audience or as an experience shared by large crowds. And the traffic of inspiration and influence between the two genres has a long and important history.”

Stone also quotes playwright David Ives who once said, “A good rock & roll song can be three or four minutes long and when it’s over, if it’s been made right and played right, you feel like you’ve gotten into a bar fight, had a love affair, and ridden a convertible down Pacific Coast One on the most beautiful day of the year, all in three minutes… As far as I’m concerned, all plays, short or long, should aspire to the conditions of rock & roll, whose purpose is to make us aware of our mortality and the fact that we’d better get with it before the song ends. Not a bad rule of thumb for art as a whole.”

This is what I mean when I say music and literature have the power to consume us. I have felt more emotional about a three-minute song than I have about some real-life breakups. I have read books that have caused me to change the entire course of my life. I’m not sure what it means that I don’t spend as much time in music shops or bookstores as I used to. Maybe the world just moves faster now. I sit in front of a computer all day long and because of that I’m surrounded by music and words all day long. But I’m not convinced that their power has been lessened by their ubiquity.

In his essay, Zach Rogue writes, “There are efforts to make the online shopping experience simpler, cleaner, and more adept at helping you find what you want—recommending things based on your taste or things you have purchased in the past. But the truth is, there will never be a more perfect interaction than a well-stocked bookstore. The smell of paper awakens the part of my brain that looks for chance discoveries.” Yes. Nothing can replace the experience of browsing in a bookstore. But, I discovered this magazine because a friend posted about it on Facebook. Maybe not exactly the same as pulling it off a shelf at Booksmith, but isn’t it the discovery itself that matters, not the mode?

Maybe this magazine feels even more relevant because of the deluge of content around us. There is a lot of talk about the lack of humanity on the web, the abundance of manufactured content, etc. But there is a surprising amount of humanity on the web if you know where to look for it. I spend a lot of my time on websites that are curated by actual human beings (Hey, The Rumpus, for one!) and there is a noticeable difference from say, browsing around on Amazon. I’m excited for all the online content that Radio Silence will have—streaming concerts, mobile apps, etc.—to me, it only adds to the print experience. Reading this magazine is a different experience than absorbing the content on Radio Silence’s website. The two things are not competing; they are complimentary.

I’ve always been someone who loves to read, alone, quiet for hours at a time. As readers of this column well know, I’m a devotee of printed matter. But I’ve also become used to this instant-gratification world. When I want to hear a song, I’m just a click away, and I don’t enjoy it any less than I did when I used to dig it out of a bin in a music store. Music is music. It still taps into my heart, just like it always did. Radio Silence seems to span the old and the new: a beautiful print pub and a dynamic website. But really, at the heart of the magazine is a fundamental reminder of why we love to read and listen to music. No matter what the medium, that part of the human condition will never change.

Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: More from this author →