Podcast: Fail Better

David Baerwald

Virtual Memories: David Baerwald – Fail Better

“Artistically, LA’s a disaster. It’s full of amazing stories. But as a city, it’s not a city. Nobody but bus-drivers see the whole place.”

Singer-songwriter, musician, inventor, dad, reader, and writer David Baerwald joins the show to talk about the ups and downs of his career in the music biz, his crazy family history, the perils of grafting personalities onto up-and-coming musicians, and why he doesn’t trust happiness. We also talk about the Watchmen-like trail of destruction that followed Sheryl Crow’s breakthrough album, why the drug business is notoriously filled with short-tempered people, how being a script analyst for a movie studio taught him how to write a song, and why he’s a firm believer in the notion that to tell a big story, you have to tell a small one.coverblock

“You just want to do something decent when you make a record, but then it becomes a whole thing. It becomes an industry, and you’re always on display and people are tearing you apart psychologically, and you just feel like a buffoon.”

We also get into the difference between writing poems and writing songs, the writers who inspired his work on the David + David album, Boomtown, and why he thinks Thomas Pynchon understood things about the world that people are only now coming to grips with. (BONUS: I clean up some loose ends from last week’s podcast with Merrill Markoe)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

David Baerwald was one half of David + David (along with David Ricketts), a band whose one album, Boomtown, scored a gold record. They split up and Baerwald put out several solo records — Bedtime Stories, Triage and Here Comes The New Folk Underground — between 1990 and 2002. He’s written songs for plenty of acts you know, and he wrote many of the songs on Sheryl Crow’s breakthrough album, which is a story he gets into in our conversation. He’s also done a lot of work in movies and TV, both scoring music and writing songs. David’s IMDB page lists many of his songwriting credits, including Come What May, the love song for Moulin Rouge, which was nominated for a Golden Globe award. He also wrote Supermodel, for the movie Clueless, which proves he’s not ALL grim and gloomy.

Credits: This episode’s music is Welcome to the Boomtown (David + David), Colette (David Baerwald), If (David Baerwald), and Heroes (David + David). The conversation was recorded in Mr. Baerwald’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Baerwald by me.


Gil in his 20s couldn’t have imagined that he’d one day put a thousand-plus-page Thomas Pynchon novel back on the shelf and think, “I will never get around to reading this.” He also couldn’t have imagined that he’d spend years reading Montaigne’s essays and, upon finishing that thousand-plus-page volume, think, “I have to go back and start this from the beginning.”

But there you are. It’s the same theme you read from me a dozen times before: As I’ve grown older, I have less and less interest in contemporary fiction. Especially the (poorly defined) postmodern stuff.

I was quite a pomo in my college days, but I’ve learned to appreciate the merits of a, well, traditional lifestyle in my later years. Unlike other college-era decisions, this one had little to do with trying to piss off my parents. I think rather I had a desire to be New. I wanted to treat This Very Moment as an unprecedented one, unconstrained by past rules and laws. I imagined that novels had to be Encyclopedic in order to capture the world.

In short, I was a bullshit artist.

In grad school I started wending my way back to the beginnings of literature — as well as science & math, politics & society, and philosophy & religion, not to mention poetry, but I’m still a sucker for novels — and began to understand how much of modern writing was merely an echo of the trends, themes and devices that were in use nearly from the beginning.

Still, the occasion of this LA Times piece on the 61 essential postmodern reads interested me a little, at least in an 0-fer kinda way. (There’s also a good 2-part interview with John O’Brien (1 and 2), the publisher of The Dalkey Archive. My tastes and interest have diverged pretty far from Mr. O’Brien’s mission, but I respect his vision for the press, his tenacity, and his attempt to justify publishing such esoterically unreadable works as Carole Maso’s AVA. It’s almost like the Bizarro World version of the Criterion Collection’s decision to put out a high-end version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon.)

Unlike previous times I’ve broken down literary lists for an 0-fer post, I found that I needed to granulate this one a little more finely. In addition to “Read it,” “Read something by the author,” “0-fer” and “Who?”, I found that there were a bunch of books on this list that I started and never finished. Rather than put them in the “Read something by” list, I decided to add “Started, never finished.” It’s probably meaningful that this list has so many books that fall into that category. I should probably add “Will never attempt to finish” and “Why did I waste my time with this?” or “Read, but regret”, but no need to go overboard. I’ll just make little annotations on some of ’em instead.

Without further ado:


  • New York Trilogy – Paul Auster – WHY?!
  • Labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges
  • Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs – this appreciation of it will make you not want to read it
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino – I like Invisible Cities more, but it was my first experience with Calvino and the book was given to me by a high school teacher who meant a lot to me
  • House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski – did have some genuinely creepy sections, but also some useless typographical gimmicks and descents into unreadability
  • The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick – I gotta reread this sometime
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – high school; it’s on my Kindle
  • Absalom! Absalom! – William Faulkner – the favorite book of one of my best friends
  • “Metamorphosis” – Franz Kafka
  • Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov – whoa, nelly, what a mind-blowingly wonderful book . . . and Mary McCarthy agrees with me!
  • Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon – I liked it less when I reread it a few years ago, but I dug the Rilkean segments more; it’s sorta like how I was all into Rorschach when I read The Watchmen as a teen, but feel more sympathy for the Night Owl now.
  • The Counterlife – Philip Roth – reread it a year or two ago; might be my least favorite of his Zuckerman books
  • Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  • Maus I & II – Art Spiegelman
  • Slaughterhouse-Five– Kurt Vonnegut – “There’s a time and a place for everything, children, and that’s college!”
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace – I’m glad that I finished this book, if only because it enables me to warn people away from reading it, if they’re on the fence. That said, some people consider it the most important book in their lives; those people tend not to be friends of mine, so hey


  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers – bored me silly on a biz trip in 2000
  • Hopscotch – Julio Cortazar – all my pomo friends tell me it’s amazing, but I gave up when it occurred to me that it should’ve been printed in the same font as my old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books
  • Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer – I think the sections with the eastern European guy narrating were just text that was run through a thesaurus, with deliberately clunky words chosen to replace the regular ones; I quit after 50 pages
  • JR – William Gaddis – I’ll probably go back and give this a shot someday
  • The Tunnel – William Gass – I will never go back and give this a shot, despite how beautifully some of it is written, which is why I recently gave it away to someone
  • Edwin Mullhouse – Steven Millhauser – one of David Gates’ favorite books, and something I just need to make time for; I promise I’ll get back to it, not least because of its similarities to Pale Fire
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne – it’s on my Kindle


  • The Atrocity Exhibition – J.G. Ballard
  • Giles Goat-Boy – John Barth – I don’t believe I ever finished anything of his, but I liked the jaunty style of The Floating Opera, as I recall
  • The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker – I read Vox, and wondered why a guy with such a tin ear would write a novel comprised solely of dialogue
  • Great Jones Street – Don Delillo – don’t get me started
  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera – I used to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being back in college, whenever I went through a breakup; it got to a point where I could finish the book in under 2 hours
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco
  • Tours of the Black Clock – Steve Erickson – I read some of his essays, and started a nonfiction book of his on the 1996 election
  • Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem – I liked his redo of Omega the Unknown but haven’t tried his prose
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami – read most of his non-fiction book about the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attack on the Tokyo subways
  • American Splendor – Harvey Pekar – I’ve read a bunch of these comics, but not everything, because I couldn’t stand some of the more prosaically drawn strips
  • The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
  • John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead


  • In Memorium to Identity – Kathy Acker – should that be “Memoriam”? I’m too lazy to check. Maybe I’ll just appropriate the spelling from a canonical work instead.
  • The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  • 60 Stories – Donald Barthelme
  • G – John Berger
  • The Loser – Thomas Bernhard – I think I owned this and Concrete, because someone suggested I reissue a few of Bernhard’s books, back when I was a publisher, but I never opened ’em. Sigh.
  • 2666 – Roberto Bolaño – I believe no one has actually read this book, and that it will actually become the hipster pickup book of its time
  • Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  • The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor – Robert Coover
  • City of God – E.L. Doctorow
  • Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence – Geoff Dyer
  • Remainder – Tom McCarthy
  • The Lime Twig – John Hawkes – I have a copy of Second Skin down in my library; I like to think I’ll get around to it
  • The Lazarus Project – Aleksandar Hemon
  • Dispatches – Michael Herr
  • Skin – Shelley Jackson
  • Wittgenstein’s Mistress – David Markson
  • Women and Men – Joseph McElroy
  • At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien – my pal Elayne lent me this a while back, and I really need to get to it
  • Mulligan Stew – Gilbert Sorrentino - I think I used to own a Grove edition of this, but I don’t think I ever opened it
  • Trance – Christopher Sorrentino – Like father, unlike son; I didn’t even own a copy of this book


  • The Hundred Brothers – Donald Antrim
  • Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
  • I Am Not Sidney Poitier – Percival Everett
  • Notable American Women – Ben Marcus
  • PopCo – Scarlett Thomas

If you want to find out what I have read over the past 20 years, it’s just a click away!