So, Less Than Jake is coming to Seattle soon, and I’m wondering if I should go…
When I was in high school I loved Less Than Jake, the ska-punk band from Florida. I loved their their fast-and-furious sound, their urgent, angsty, lyrics, their wild, high-energy shows. The shows were like out-of-control carnivals, with water guns and showers of confetti; kids crowd-surfing, people on stage dancing in animal costumes. Once I nearly died at an LTJ show because I was trampled by a tightly-packed herd of hyper fans, and one of the highlights of my 16-year-old life was when I got pulled up on stage by Roger, the bass player for LTJ, and was allowed to sing/scream along into the microphone during the song “Jen Doesn’t Like Me Anymore.”
Speaking of “Jen,” Less Than Jake also had a song called “867-5309 (Jenny)” off their album “Losers, Kings, and Things We Don’t Understand” (1996). Obviously, this was a cover of the Tommy Tutone hit from 1981, but seeing as how I was an infant in 1981, that wasn’t immediately obvious to me, and I thought it was an LTJ original. I even came up with an elaborate story about how one of the guys in the band must have dated a girl named Jen/Jenny and written the phone number song when they first met. “Jen Doesn’t Like Me Anymore,” which was on a later album, must have been written about their break-up.
When I finally realized that “867-5309” was a cover, I was slightly disappointed, but mostly I didn’t care. I liked the LTJ rendition way better. Tommy Tutone’s version was too slow, I thought, and involved none of the swinging ska beats that I so enjoyed. I was happy that Less Than Jake had taken the song and done it their own way.
The other night I had drinks with my friend Jessica, who is also a fiction writer. She told me she’s working on a novel, but a friend recently told her it has almost the exact same plot as The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. Hearing that, Jessica felt disheartened. Why should she finish writing her novel if a world-renowned author has already written about the same thing?
“Sometimes I feel like all the ideas I want to write about have already been tackled by other writers, you know?” she said.
I told her I often felt the same way. “I came up with a title for my novel,” I said, “and I thought it was such a great, original idea. But then I googled it, and it turns out there’s already a book with the same name.”
In fact, when I reflected on our conversation later, I remembered a time last year, when I was in the thick of writing a historical YA novel and found out there was already a published YA novel with the exact same premise. I might have stopped writing mine then and there if it hadn’t been so obvious by the book jacket blurb that the other author had tackled the idea in a very different way than I was. Still, it was frustrating to learn that I wasn’t so original after all.
Leo Tolstoy said “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” It’s also often said there are only seven basic stories in fiction (or five, or twenty, depending on which maxim you go with.) In any case, we start to feel like there are only so many “original” stories out there, and that maybe all the good plots have been taken. Does that mean we should stop writing? Does that mean there’s nothing left to say?
Sometimes people say the same thing about music – there are only so many melodies, and all the good songs have already been written. But that doesn’t take away our desire for new music. Sometimes a cover song done in a new way can be just as inspired as the original. Take Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” for example, or Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Maybe even Less Than Jake’s “Jenny.”
In the end, I told Jessica not to let Barbara Kingsolver stop her from writing her novel. “Because even if you have the same plot,” I said, “you’re going to tell the story in your voice, with your characters, in your own style.”
After all, if there are only so many stories to tell, maybe it’s not so much about the story itself – it’s about the way you tell it.
“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”
― Umberto Eco, PostScript to the Name of the Rose
The 7 Basic Plots:
1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. [wo]man
3. man vs. the environment
4. man vs. machines/technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. god/religion
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
Other Cover Songs by Less Than Jake:
I Think I Love You
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Teenager in Love
Secret Agent Man
Dukes of Hazard
most of the Grease soundtrack