For the last decade, Salman Rushdie has lived with a price on his head. In 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence, or fatwa, against Rushdie, claiming that the Indian-born, Muslim-raised author blasphemed Islam in his phantasmagorial novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie – whose other acclaimed books include Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh – now takes on a different sacred history, the story of rock & roll, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Henry Holt and Co.). It is a sprawling fable, an apocalyptic, late-twentieth-century adaptation of the mythical Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, liberally spiced with allusions to real-life superstars such as John Lennon and Madonna. Echoing Rushdie’s blur of fact and fiction, U2 – who brought the writer onstage, in a gesture of solidarity against the fatwa, during a London concert in 1993 – have recorded a new song, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” using lyrics written by Rushdie for the book. Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location in London, Rushdie, 51, says gleefully, “That something that was designed to exist only on the page should burst into the real world – I like that enormously.”
I always thought serious novelists considered rock & roll to be a frivolous subject. Conversely, rockers may think you have as much business writing about pop music as David Bowie does staging exhibitions of his paintings.
I wasn’t just writing about pop music – more about the idea of song. Everybody wants to sing; some of us can’t. It’s the one thing I share with the narrator of the novel, Rai, when he says he can’t hold a note. When I was invited onstage with U2 in London during the Zooropa tour, my teenage son said to me, “Look, Dad, just one thing: Don’t sing.” I said, “Why not?” “Well, if you sing, I’ll have to kill myself.”
What inspired you to create your rock-star characters, Ormus and Vina?
I have quite a few friends in this world: David Byrne, Lou Reed, Brian Eno. I suppose the book came out of that. I even had a memorable weekend with the Everly Brothers.
Well, you don’t have a weekend with the Everly Brothers. You choose your Everly, because they don’t get on. I had a Don Everly weekend. He came for lunch; he was food shopping at Harrods and came laden with flavored potato chips.
The Rhythm Center – the Bombay record shop where Ormus and Vina meet over Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” – was a real store where you first heard that record. Did you have a similar epiphany?
I didn’t meet any tall, beautiful, underage girls [laughs]. The extraordinary thing about rock & roll in India in the Fifties was that this music didn’t seem foreign. It happened everywhere to young people in the same way at the same time. In the novel, I have this conceit of Ormus saying he’s getting the music first [channeled spiritually through a dead twin brother], to suggest the strength by which we felt it was our music.
You went to England in 1961 to go to school. What were your impressions, as an immigrant teenager, of Swinging London?
It was very good for getting girls. India was fantastically sexy at the time. If you came from India, people would say, “Wow, India, man. Maharishi. Ravi Shankar.” I’d grown up in a big Indian city, wholly contemporary. To be thought of as some unearthly, mystical entity – it seemed like complete nonsense.
Like you should be wearing saffron robes.
Chanting a lot. Having great flexibility of limb. One thing in this book is the way these two cultures have looked at each other – the way the generation growing up in India looked West. But the West it was attracted to didn’t exist. And vice versa.
How did U2 get you onstage?
I met them some years before. Someone had given Bono my little reportage book about Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile. He read the book, we met and got on. They invited me to that show without suggesting anything about going onstage. It was a last-minute idea.
What did you think of U2’s tour security, compared with your own security arrangements?
They have much more! They’ve got tens of thousands of people chasing them out of stadiums. A relatively small operation surrounds me.
I always felt I had the problems of rock & roll without the music or the groupies [laughs]. But these people whom we make into contemporary icons – they face this great deformation of ordinary life. I think that ordinary life is a need, almost as important as food or drink. To have the dailiness of life destroyed is an incredible deprivation.
Have you developed an armor of suspicion?
It’s not suspicion, exactly, I have become a security expert. I know an enormous amount about the business of protection.
Any special tips?
A simple rule of countersurveillance is, behave in an irrational way. You go around a roundabout [traffic circle] twice. Or you crazily vary your speed. You go from 30 miles an hour to 110, then down to 60. Nobody would normally drive like that. If anybody else is doing the same thing, they are following you.
How did your lyrics for the book become a U2 song?
There were a few people to whom I sent early copies of the manuscript: [U2 manager] Paul McGuinness, Bono, Mark Knopfler. I wanted to make sure the world I had made was credible to them. When Bono read the book, he said would I pull out the sections where there were lyrics, just give him those as a separate typescript? A few weeks afterward, he said he’d written this melody.
Have you heard the music?
It’s a sad love song. It was written to be a sad love song, so I knew it wouldn’t be a foot tapper. I felt thrilled, because it seemed to have exactly the emotion of the words.
This is not your first attempt at songwriting. As an ad copywriter in the 1970s, you wrote a jingle for the Burnley Building Society.
I wrote hundreds of jingles. But that is one of the worst. The guy who composed the music was evidently so proud of it that he put out a freebie 45. The great thing about writing jingles is, nobody knows who’s written what. But because the thing actually got printed as a record, with credits, it had my name on it.
What were some of your better jingles?
I’ve forgotten. I can’t remember. [Pause] I’m not telling you [laughs].
As a free-speech icon, how do you feel about the debate over misogyny and violence in rap?
As a person responding to the records, I don’t like it. But the defense of free speech begins when someone says something horrible. It doesn’t end there.
I’ll give you an example. There was a movie made in Pakistan [International Guerrillas], in the years just after the fatwa, which portrayed me as a murderer, a sadist, a drunkard, a person wearing an unfortunate range of safari suits [laughs]. It was about me being pursued and assassinated by the forces of fundamentalism.
When it came to England, it was denied a certificate; the British Board of Film Classification saw that it was obviously defamatory. I didn’t want to be defended in a free-speech fight by an act of censorship. I wrote to the BBFC, saying I was waiving my rights to legal recourse and would they please give the film a certificate.
The film got the certificate, and the producers booked a large cinema in Bradford, which has the largest Muslim population [in Britain] and, indeed, was where they burned The Satanic Verses. Well, nobody went. Because nobody wanted to see a rotten movie.