July 5, 2007
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
The Words of Every Song is an elegantly written debut novel bu Liz Moore. I shouldn't be surprised at the lyrical prose, Moore is also a singer-songwriter, but this book portends a future in writing as well. The fourteen interconnected chapters all focus on characters in the music industry, which Moore obviously knows all too well.
Of the novel, Kirkus Reviews wrote:
"Sweet, wistful, artfully arranged: like the best mix tape anyone ever made for you.”
It was delightful to be invited to do this, because The Words of Every Song has a sort of built-in playlist already—all the chapters start with epigraphs that are taken from songs that relate in some way to the chapter they precede.
More importantly, however, it gave me a chance to put down why I chose each of the songs I did, which is something I’ve always felt was important. I’m hesitant to infringe on the reader’s ability to draw his or her own conclusions about how the songs relate to the book, so I’m just going to explain the songs in terms of my personal experience with each them.
There’s an intense connection between music and writing for me. I almost always listen to music when I write. And because I’m also a songwriter, I sometimes find myself creating songs that are more like stories, and stories that are more like songs. I go through phases with different artists; for a while, I could only listen to the Kinks while writing. Then I was listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s version of Carmina Burana on repeat. Right now I’m listening to a lot of old blues, like Robert Johnson and Skip James.
I was listening to Leonard Cohen the whole time I was writing The Words of Every Song. He’s an inspiration because he’s a beautiful writer of both fiction and songs. My title comes from his song “Teachers”:
“I was handsome, I was strong
I knew the words of every song
Did my singing please you?
No, the words you sang were wrong.”
I guess that’s really my goal: to write music literately, and to write literature musically.
And now, the songs behind every word (sorry):
1. Leonard Cohen, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
Probably my favorite Cohen song. I am amazed that anyone can use the phrase “giving me head” so poetically.
2. Bruce Springsteen, “Straight Time”
I was totally obsessed with The Ghost of Tom Joad in high school. This is a song that I cover occasionally when I play live. I hated Springsteen growing up because I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate his iconic sound—that sort of very, very produced, synthetic sound of his—until later on. Growing up, I was into stripped-down sounds. Glossy production was okay if you were the Beatles, but that was about it. But when I heard The Ghost of Tom Joad, a mainly acoustic album, his talent as a songwriter was really apparent. That’s when I started seeing the skill behind his pop songs. I chose this song for Theo because I thought it would represent a simpler time for him, as it does for me.
3. Nirvana, “Downer”
I wasn’t cool enough to like Nirvana when they were popular. Or maybe I wasn’t old enough, as Kurt Cobain died when I was in fifth grade. But I listened to them in middle school, and wished ardently that he was still alive so he could fall in love with me. I also wore a lot of flannel shirts.
4. Leonard Cohen, “Teachers”
5. P. J. Harvey, “We Float”
This is a good song, and just felt like one that Cynthia would like.
6. J-Live, “Longevity”
I like the excerpt from this song: “Who in the world thinks they can put a stop to hip-hop / If it don’t stop til I stop and I don’t stop til it stop?” J-Live is also one of those rappers that everyone “discovers” in college, so he felt right for the setting of “Che’s Big Break.”
7. The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes”
One summer, in between my sophomore and junior years of college, I interned at a couple of different places in New York, while all my college friends went elsewhere. This was the summer I discovered “Going to the Movies by Yourself,” which I still love to do. Because of this, I became really interested in:
Andy Warhol’s gang, because Anthology Film Archives was showing a bunch of barely edited footage taken by Viva’s husband, which led me to become obsessed with Lou Reed, and then The Velvet Underground. There’s nothing like walking from your internship at a failing art magazine in Chelsea all the way up the west side to your crappy summer dorm room at 120th Street while listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico to make you feel like the most artistic and misunderstood person in the world. Though being twenty also does this to you naturally.
8. Natalie Merchant, “I May Know the Word”
I’ve actually never really listened to much Natalie Merchant, though I like this song. Tigerlily is one of those albums I have always meant to buy. I felt she was someone Nora Cross would like; the song just fit.
9. Puccini, “Nessun Dorma,” from Turandot
I have no idea. This is one of those really beautiful songs that, unfortunately, always ends up in some compilation CD being advertised on Fox at 2 in the morning. I still like it, though.
10. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
This song felt really right for the chapter. To be honest, I just asked myself what song would be playing in the type of bar Gregory goes to, and this song popped into my head. It just so happened that the lyrics also fit. Thanks, Robert Smith!
11. The Clash, “Rudie Can’t Fail”
Another song chosen mainly for its lyrics and for what the Clash represents to people like Thoreau (the character, not the philosopher).
12. Lauryn Hill, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”
The title track off one of the seminal albums of the 90s. “(Doo Wop) That Thing” was just about the coolest song that had ever happened to me in 1998. I bought her Unplugged album, which everyone loves to hate, and actually found it kind of pleasant and relaxing. She does play the same three chords for every song, though. Really—listen to it.
13. Tom Petty, “A Face in the Crowd”
I respect Tom Petty for his immutable hairstyle.
14. Billie Holiday, “All the Way”
As a senior in high school, I wrote a college application essay about “Strange Fruit.” For one two-month stretch, I listened exclusively to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. David Sedaris’s impression of Billie Holiday is amazing. I realize that these three sentences are entirely unrelated, but these are my thoughts on Billie Holiday.
15. Patti Smith, “Privilege (Set Me Free)”
Have you ever listened to this song? It’s one of the weirdest songs ever. Patti recites Psalm 23 starting a minute and twenty seconds into the song. I love her for it. I also envisioned Lenore Lamont looking something like a young Patti Smith.
Liz Moore and The Words of Every Song links:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)