Jonathan Lethem wants to debunk any rumors that he aspires to be a rock star. “Nobody’s lives would be improved by that,” says the Brooklyn-born-and-based author (Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude). “I want to emphasize the continuing dilettante-ness of my presence in this music collective.” The collective in question is I’m Not Jim, who play their first concert ever Thursday night at Lethem’s “home field,” Housing Works Bookstore.
Don’t expect Lethem to sing (“I’m dead atonal”) or play any instruments (“I flunked trumpet in high school”). Instead, he will perform the spoken-word tracks off of I’m Not Jim’s debut, You Are All My People. The album, which hit shelves last week, and the performance have been, in a way, decades in the making. It all started when Lethem first discovered the Silos.
There exist in the fine-print footnotes of music history more than a few bands that, despite initial success and critical praise, have faded into obscurity, barely treading water, buoyed only by the enthusiasm of a cultlike following. The Silos is one of these bands. In 1985 the trio surfaced in New York with their hard-to-pin-down but essentially roots-rock sound. They released a quick succession of records, including 1987’s Cuba, which secured them Rolling Stone’s coveted Best New American Band label and cultivated a legion of die-hard fans—and possibly the most devout of these was Lethem. The 44-year-old writer gushes superlatives when describing founder Walter Salas-Humara, the only remaining original Silo. “He’s a melodic genius,” Lethem says. “One of our greatest songwriters.”
Although Lethem, a “diligent concertgoer,” had caught his fair share of Silos shows over some twenty years, he held fast to a self-imposed rule about crossing the fan-band line. But in 2004, during a moment of bliss, he crossed it. “My wife and I were in New Orleans on [our] honeymoon,” he says. “We wandered into the music quarter, just wanting to poke our heads into some clubs. I saw THE SILOS written on a chalkboard and thought, No, it couldn’t be them! The whole thing had this kismet quality to it. So I broke the fan rule and introduced myself to Walter after all the years of not presuming to.”
Salas-Humara had never heard of Lethem, so the author sent the singer a couple of his novels. The singer was impressed and the admiration was now mutual. When the two ran into each other a year or so later at a club on the Lower East Side, Salas-Humara asked Lethem if he’d like to write some songs together. Lethem was intrigued by the offer but had his doubts. “There’s nothing about my writing that begs to be in the pop format. I’m pretty brainy and verbose, whereas rock is meant to be rooted in idiom, in spoken, offhand, emotional language.”
Nevertheless, last summer, the two finally holed up at Lethem’s place in Maine. The rocker’s simplicity perfectly offset the writer’s loquaciousness, and after two days they had eleven songs. Salas-Humara recorded them as bare-bones demos, then handed them off to producers Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez, also known as the Elegant Too. “They morphed it and made it their own,” he says. “Now it’s a four-way thing.” The result, You Are All My People, sounds like an exquisitely crafted vintage Silos album, remixed.
While I’m Not Jim has only one other gig scheduled (at CMJ next month), all parties are interested in continuing if they can expand the collective. “I’d like to see Jim Jarmusch, or a theater writer or video artist, blow it up into a larger thing,” says Salas-Humara. Adds Lethem: “Maybe if we bring in a filmmaker, the next thing is a rock opera.”