Rock and Roll Book Club: '131 Different Things' shows another side of a Yeah Yeah Yeah

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The book '131 Different Things.'
The book '131 Different Things.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Happy new year! If you didn't stay out all night on New Year's Eve, chasing an ex-girlfriend and pursued by an ex-wife, you can live vicariously through the fictional protagonist of 131 Different Things.

The novella with photos is the fifth collaboration among photographer Nick Zinner, writer Zachary Lipez, and designer Stacy Wakefield. Zinner has a unique vantage on nightlife: he's a guitarist who's one-third of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and also plays in the hardcore band Head Wound City. He's an experienced photographer who's been published in the likes of Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and Vice.

Of those three, the latter publication is the best fit for Zinner's aesthetic, which as captured here is heavy on flash photos of dark spaces: bars, apartments, stairways. The photos don't literally illustrate Lipez's novella, but evoke the story's mood and setting. In a statement, the authors explain how they work together to create books.

Nick takes pictures, constantly, with an astute eye toward documentation and wry celebration. Zack writes whatever is on his squirmy little mind, hoping to avoid romanticizing and cliché. The three meet up, for coffee or drinks depending on the hour, and wrestle with what's in front of them. Stacy is the master of seeing common threads in the work that can build on each other and become a greater whole. Stacy and Nick give Zack notes on the writing. Zack and Stacy help Nick pare down the thousands of photos. All three are as prone to ego as anyone, but the unique process and sheer length of their collaboration allows for a free exchange of views with minimal pouting.

The "things" enumerated in the book's title (and chapter headings) include seven bars, a nightclub, a loft, a diner, dogs, cats, a goat, guys, women working at night, skinheads, "bathrooms I wanted to remember," and "people doing their thing." Most of the things are featured only in the photos; the first several are in the story.

The novella wrapped in 131 Different Things follows Sam, a bartender and slacker scenester, as he prowls New York City in the company of his friend Francis. They're both looking for women, and Sam has a particular person in mind: Vicki, his ex-girlfriend who's been spending some time on the West Coast and is now back in town.

Everywhere he goes, Sam runs into acquaintances who tell him he's just missed Vicki, and then throw in their two cents about life in general. One guy says he's now dating Vicki. ("I totally respect her, man.") A woman hands Sam a scarf Vicki left behind, and Sam wears it around town as a talisman.

Throughout the night, Sam keeps running into his ex-wife, Aviva, who he left for Vicki and who now may or may not be into Francis. Will Sam ever find Vicki? Will he get beat up by a skinhead? Does Aviva want him back? By the end of the night, shots will be shot, puke will be puked, and blood will be shed. The story is like a sweater you pick up off the floor of a bar, with stains you don't even want to try to place.

Zinner's photos tell a parallel story that's less linear, but conveys the same sense of recognizing moments of beauty amid sloppy urban environments. The photos aren't captioned except by year and city, but some of them are from onstage (confetti, balloons, horns and microphones). They form an eccentric travelogue, as seen through the kind of photographer's eye you'd like to have if you were a touring rock musician.

The guitarist also lends his axe to the project in the form of a double-sided 45 that's available with some copies of the book in a special package. As a press release explains:

To set the scene for detail-oriented readers, Nick Zinner and Zachary Lipez have formed a band called The Different Things to perform two songs crucial to the text. (I'm Not Your) "Steppin' Stone," appears on page 19 on the jukebox at Pym's Cup Bar. It could be understood as the battle song for our hero, Sam, whose decision to take charge of his meandering life propels the story forward. "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight," appears on page 82 when Sam's nemesis, Flannery the Skinhead, threatens to derail Sam's quest. Flip the record back and forth as you read, and the ups and downs of Sam's night will be soundtracked like a daisy petal-pulling game of she loves me, she loves me not.

For readers who enjoy edgy rambles through the rock and roll life, 131 Different Things will be a journey worth taking. At the end, Sam only has a few regrets. "You'd need to cut off your hands to count 'em," he tells a friend. "All your hands."

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