Rocking the cradle

Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 10:05pm
By Susannah Felts, Chapter16.org
Mooney.jpg
Melissa Duke Mooney

Melissa Duke Mooney loved music, and when she began shopping for an ABC book for her then-4-year-old daughter, Nola, but found nothing that inspired her, she hit on an idea: What if there were an ABC book based on rock ’n’ roll artists, with famous acts representing each of the 26 letters? Being the woman she was — a doer, a crafter, an instigator of many fun projects — Mooney decided that since the book didn’t exist, she’d have to create it herself. 

The work that resulted, The ABCs of Rock, is an essential addition to the hip kid’s library, as splashy and loud and irrepressible as the artists to whom it pays homage — David Bowie, Nirvana, Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground, to name a few. (Parents who grew up on rock ’n’ roll may dig it even more than their offspring.) The book itself brings to mind an LP record (its trim size is a slightly smaller square), and the pages explode with colorful, gritty screenprints that capture the scruffy vigor of rock ’n’ roll, drawing on the iconography of the acts represented (Led Zeppelin’s zeppelin, Nirvana’s cheerleaders, Elvis Costello’s signature black frames). The artwork, by Print Mafia (Connie Collingsworth and Jim Madison) of Bowling Green, Ky., hews to the photocopier aesthetic of zines and rock-show fliers: the black-and-white speckles of enlargements, the old-school cut-and-paste collages, the beauty and electricity in imperfection. 

Tragically, Melissa Mooney never got to see her vision become reality. She died of meningitis in 2009, at age 41. Her husband, Neil Mooney, later decided to see her project to fruition with the help of some close friends. Neil Mooney graciously answered a few questions about Melissa, and the making of The ABCs of Rock, via email. 

Chapter 16: What did music mean to Melissa? 

Neil Mooney: She was a huge music fan. She listened to music constantly, and it was a big part of her/our lifestyle. We always went to see lots of bands. She was famous for throwing costume parties. Two of the best were a “Come as a Rockstar” karaoke party, and, a few weeks before she died, she had a great party at FooBar where people came dressed as their favorite record cover. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. The most fun was watching people who just happened to come to the bar that night walk in and see a room full of living record covers. There were some priceless expressions.

What was the process of choosing the bands for the book like? There must have been some tough decisions. 

There was lots and lots of brainstorming, as well as combing through the thousands of CDs we have. Luckily, I keep them in alphabetical order. We sat around for weeks, bouncing ideas around. It was very hard to choose which to use for some letters. Others, like W and Z, didn’t have a lot of possibilities. Thanks goodness The White Stripes said yes, or we might have had to use Winger or Wham! Sometimes, it came down to who would agree to be in it. Led Zeppelin was nearly replaced with Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they finally agreed at the 11th hour. Lots of the choices were some of Melissa’s favorites, like the Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello and Queen.

Do your kids listen to the bands in the book? Any favorites? 

Nola and Tallulah love music. I suppose they had to, since they grew up in a house where it is played constantly. We started them on lots of Dan Zanes and Laurie Birkner when they were little, but played them other stuff like Lucinda Williams, Bob Marley, The Ramones, The White Stripes. They are both huge Raconteurs fans. I used to sit with Nola when she was 3 and watch Rolling Stones and New York Dolls videos. Super fun. We used to have family dance parties where we’d dress up and dance in the den to their latest faves. 

When you look at the book, what do you think about?

My favorite thing about the book is that it is tangible evidence of Melissa’s spirit: her love of music, her creativity and her desire  to make the world a more fun place. If a person that didn’t know her were to ask me “What was she like?” I would hand them The ABCs of Rock and they would immediately get a strong sense of her personality. When I look at it, I think of her and of the good times we had with music. I should mention that the girls’ favorite song right now is “The Kids Are Alright.” And you know what? They both are. 

For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee