Michael Chabon Digs Deep About Record Stores, Race and Writing 'Telegraph Avenue'
Michael Chabon Digs Deep About Record Stores, Race and Writing 'Telegraph Avenue'

cake Telegraph Avenue author Michael Chabon at the "Brokeland Records" pop-up store inside Diesel Records in Oakland earlier this month. An effort between Harper (the book's publisher) and the store, the pop-up featured used-jazz records supplied by Berigan Taylor, whose record store sparked the original inspiration for Chabon's book.

A David-and-Goliath battle between a used-record shop and an incoming megastore might not seem like the most fertile premise for a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but it's one that Michael Chabon dives into with passion and power in his new book, Telegraph Avenue (Harper). Coming off of the alternative history of 2007's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, the 15-year Bay Area resident and longtime music fan set his new book in a world and a locale he knows well: An Oakland store populated with crate-diggers, obsessive collectors, worshippers at, as the character Archy Stallings calls it, "the church of vinyl."

Chabon, who previously wrote about the disease of comic-book collecting in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, keeps music and records at the center of the new book, which is set in 2004, without them dominating it: We follow the two store owners of Brokeland Records (one black, one white) as they face the threat of being driven out of business by an incoming megastore, and along the way delve into race relations, parenting, gentrification, midwifery, organized crime, blaxploitation stars and even a cameo from a young State Senator named Barack Obama. Billboard.biz editor Jem Aswad (a longtime record-store employee and recovering collector), spoke with Chabon about his history with music and record stores, the ones that inspired the book, the challenges of writing characters of a different ethnicity, and -- inevitably -- called him out on a couple of fact-checking details that only those far too acquainted with crate-digging would know. "I'm excited to be talking with Billboard, that's a new one for me," he said, adding with a laugh, "The whole reason I wrote [Telegraph Avenue ] was so that you would finally notice me."

Billboard: Have you ever worked in a record store?

Michael Chabon: Nope. I've worked in bookstores, and the response from booksellers has been very much like, "He's really writing about us, too."

Is Brokeland Records based on any specific store?

No, but I will say that the initial germ of the idea that became this book -- the seed was planted the day I first walked into a record shop called Berigan's that used to be on Claremont Avenue [in Oakland], not far from where I live. It's not there anymore, although there actually is another really cool used-record store where it used to be called Grooveyard. But I just made up my own ideal used record store. I've spent a lot of time in them over the years.

Why did you set the novel in 2004?

Partly because it needed to be at a moment -- sad to say -- when the threat of a big record store moving in to kill a little record store was still scary. I first conceived this as a television pilot for TNT in the late 1990s, and at that point, Tower Records was doing well and Virgin Megastores were popping up everywhere. At some point time caught up with me and I realized in order to make this story work, I was going to have to keep it at a certain moment. It turned out to be a good decision on a lot of other levels: It let me set it during the lead-up to the Kerry/Bush election, which got me ultimately Barack Obama as a state senator [making a fictional cameo in the book]; and the neighborhood that I'm writing about started to change and go more upscale afterwards.

Outside the "Brokeland Records" pop-up at Diesel Books in Oakland

It also adds this whole other layer of irony for the reader and the writer, but not for the characters: Gibson Goode, the nominal villain of the book who's going to open the megastore, has great intentions and ideas and notions of social justice, but he doesn't know what's about to hit him, and we do.

Did you have to do a lot of research on the cult of the collector, or did you already know them?

I have spent so much time in record stores, comic book stores, going to comic conventions … I'm a fan. I'm not a passionate, avid collector, but I do dabble, so I don't feel like I'm traveling among alien people when I'm among collectors. I guess it was more observation than research; looking around, paying attention. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book in the first place was because I knew going into it that "research" was going to involve mostly just walking out my front door. I pay attention to my surroundings as I'm trying to sort of transform those surroundings into the materials for a fun novel.

I like the line, early in the book, where you say that "orphaned record libraries [emitted] a distress signal" that only the store owners could hear. My friends used to say I had radar for finding rare records.

Exactly, maybe partly because as a book collector, sometimes you walk into a used book store somewhere in the country that you've never been before and can have this little premonitory tingle of a feeling that you're going to find something cool there.

Is the kind of music that they specialized in -- old jazz and funk -- where your personal tastes lie?

Initially, for the longest time as I was writing this book, I just had them specializing in jazz because that seemed to be the case with a good number of the used-record stores in the area, but that was never very compelling or exciting to me. I love jazz but I never got completely gaga about it the way I did about other kinds of pop music. Then I discovered this magazine called Wax Poetics. It's a quarterly published in Brooklyn [also a record label, apparel company, book publisher and more] and they look at black pop music from post war through hip-hop, looking at sources and things that have been sampled or have been influential in hip-hop. In reading that magazine I discovered soul-jazz, which came out of hard bop and is basically jazz with a strong backbeat.

chabonA special cake was made for the book-release party at Brokeland/Diesel

I immediately started to realize that was a thing, that it was a world, and it became apparent to me this ought to be the music of the book, the music that my guys were obsessed with. They specialized in it, played it in their band. Partly because the time period was perfect -- it was the music of the era that I was already engaging with through [some of] my characters, the early '70s, so it just felt right. As I got into it I listened to it more and more and more and bought a lot of records and got a lot of digital music as well and became a huge fan and somewhat knowledgeable about that kind of music.

Was there ever any thought of a companion soundtrack to this? Whether it's an official release or something you put on Spotify or whatever?

I actually have a Spotify playlist which I don't quite know how to make public exactly. [And voila, after an assist from Billboard, you can hear the Telegraph Avenue Spotify playlist here.] And I got invited to do a celebrity playlist on iTunes.

Who are some of the musicians you discovered when you plunged into soul-jazz?

A lot of fantastic organ music -- I have an organ player in the book, so I needed to really get into that. Charles Earland, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Charles Kynard, Reuben Wilson, Leon Spencer … there were just so many great organ players. They had musicians that associated with them like Melvin Sparks, the guitarist who died last year. Idris Muhammad, the drummer. Grant Green, who started as more of a straight-ahead jazz guitarist in the '70s, made a lot of good jazz-funk records. Then people like Deodato, who's kind of forgotten now, but he made some really cool records. He was a really gifted composer and arranger in addition to being a pretty good keyboard player. Donald Byrd also started out very associated with jazz and emerged in the '70s with these great jazz funk records. There's so much great stuff.

Were there other books or films based on the music world that influenced Telegraph, or were a sort of stepping-off point for it?

I loved High Fidelity, both the book and the movie, but I certainly didn't go back to either the book or movie while working on the novel. I didn't feel like there was a whole lot of overlap, other than the fact that they're both set in record shops. The guys in High Fidelity are younger, single…

Boy, are they single…

[ Laughs] I might guess that in the case of [ High Fidelity author] Nick Hornby, and in my own case, setting a novel in a record store was more of an excuse to really be able to get into writing about music and sort of immerse yourself in music in a way that was legitimate excuse for doing so.

Chabon cutting the cake

Speaking of film, I read that this book has been optioned. Has there been any discussion beyond that?

The talk now, which is just talk at this point, as I understand it, the producer Scott Rudin has hired [ Almost Famous/Singles writer/director] Cameron Crowe to write a pilot for a proposed television series on the book.

That's how you said you originally envisioned it.

Yeah, it would come full circle if that came about. I don't know anything beyond that in terms of how likely it is or anything.

Do you think it would work better as a television series than a movie?

M: It's such a mugs' game trying to make predictions like that. It's so … it's like Charlie Brown with the football and Lucy. I've been Charlie Brown so many times that I've finally learned my lesson. I'm just not going to think too much about what might happen.

Have you read a lot of books or seen a lot of films that have rock music at their center?

I love Almost Famous, it's one of my favorite movies. Spinal Tap. Still Crazy, it was a British movie about a band trying to reunite, it had Bill Nighy.

Did you like Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, which also won a Pulitzer?

Sure, she's great, and that was great. I mean, now it's kind of self-serving [to say that] because she gave my book a great review in The New York Times. Of course, I love her. She's a great writer.

So the only two factual errors that I found in your book …

Uh-oh, what did I get wrong?

There was a reference to a mono pressing from 1976, and as far as I know they stopped making mono pressings in the U.S. in the late '60s. And the other thing was George Clinton was not touring as Funkadelic in '89 -- it was the P-Funk All Stars.

Okay, you definitely got me on that one. I'm going to have to challenge you on the mono pressing, though. I'm going to research it and get back to you. [ An e-mail from Chabon's assistant a few days later said, "Michael asked that I convey that you totally nailed him on the mono."]

This is a slightly tricky question. You make merciless fun of the character Moby, a white dude who unsuccessfully tries to talk black. So how did it feel putting on black voices when you were writing your characters?

Well, that was the thing. I knew going into it that I was venturing into potentially dangerous territory. Historically, white people adopting black … anything is problematic at best. So whether you're talking about minstrelsy or Elvis Presley or Quentin Tarantino or many other horribly egregious examples or even some validated, acceptable examples. The things that people got away with! Porgy and Bess?! I know really, really well just how problematic it can be, and I am sort of just clinging to the finer examples -- the work of Richard Price and the TV show The Wire -- and thinking that there is a high-water mark I can shoot for, and at the same time I need to be fully aware, fully conscious of the low mark, and of the failures and the dangers that are inherent in doing this.

I tried to have ways of signaling that awareness to the reader who is going to be sensitive to such things. Blaxploitation in itself is a way of signaling to the reader, because blaxploitation is another example: Yes, there were black movies that were written and directed by black people, but most of them weren't; they were sold by white-owned distributers and studios and most of the money went into the pockets of white people. And all the references to Quentin Tarantino, who I think is successful in the most part in his use and creation of black characters -- but that's not a unanimous opinion, and I understand that.

The other way was doing this with Moby and the character of Nat, who was raised by a black woman and with black people, and yet he steadfastly refuses to "talk black" or "act black." That's part of the reason why having a character like Moby around is so toxic to him: He's so adamant in his refusal to do that, and in that whole dynamic between Nat and Moby I'm just trying to enact in many ways my own anxiety and trepidation about doing what I'm doing while at the same time feeling fully confident in my right to do it. As long as I try and do my best, so then looking at the work of someone like Richard Price or Elmore Leonard, and saying, "If they can do it -- and I think they can do it -- I can at least try."

It's dangerous stuff, and many great artists have struggled against the inherent dangers of trying to do it. Also, it's important to say that it felt completely true to the world of the book, and I observed people like Moby in record stores exhibiting behavior like that, so it's completely plausible.

Onto more serious matters, what are some Bay Area record stores that you frequent?

Well, there's still the biggies: Rasputin and Amoeba. I spend money there for sure, especially Amoeba. We have [used jazz/funk specialists] Grooveyard. 1-2-3-4 Go, which is more specialized in punk on vinyl -- it's a fun little store, they have new vinyl, too. There's a place on San Pablo [Avenue], Dave's Records. And I'm excited about this new one, Stranded, that's opening: I had a photographer walking with me, taking pictures of me for a San Francisco Chronicle interview and we came to this doorway and I saw all these vinyl records on the wall. It was a completely nondescript storefront with no signs or anything -- it's not even a storefront, I think it was a gallery -- and I looked in and there was this guy looking back at me with the same incredulous look on his face that I had on my face. I was like "What is this?" and he was like "Are you Michael Chabon?" and I said "Yeah ..." He said "I was just about to try and get in touch with you to let you know we're opening this store this week!" [ Laughs] The records just called out to me.