February 29, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
I went to high school in north Alabama, not far from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Many of my friends' parents worked either directly or indirectly for the space program, and Margaret Lazarus Dean has captured the essence of their often precarious family lives in her new novel, The Time It Takes to Fall. Taking place in the mid-1980's, the book follows Dolores as her family disintegrates, eventually reaching a crescendo with the Challenger disaster.
This is the third book I have read this year that can be labeled young adult fiction. The three novels (the others are Sara Zarr's Sweethearts and Susannah Felts' This Is Going on Your Permanent Record) feature diverse coming of age themes, but share one common trait. Each is a well-written novel that can be enjoyed by both teens and adults, and are wonderful books dealing with real-life issues for parents to read and discuss with their children.
"The Time It Takes To Fall is a reminder of the Challenger tragedy -- the investigation, the speculation, the aftermath -- and ends with some little known facts about what actually happened to the seven astronauts after the explosion. An engaging, provoking, though sometimes uneven read, with a strong female protagonist at its center, this debut novel is a witness to the fall, from innocence surely, but more importantly from passive acceptance to an engaged struggle."
The Time It Takes to Fall takes place in 1985 and 1986. Dolores, the thirteen-year-old hero, doesn't talk much about music in the book, but like most thirteen-year-olds, she has started to listen to the radio obsessively and is coming to the unsettling revelation that her parents' music is lame.
What she hears on the radio is more varied than the 80s compilations would have us believe: Tom Petty, Sade, Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Talking Heads. When Dolores meets some older, cooler friends, they introduce her to music that isn't on the radio—the Ramones, Husker Du, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Love and Rockets. The resulting list of Dolores’s favorites is a weird mix of artists who would never be caught dead in the same room together, yet their 7-inches coexist happily on her bedroom floor.
Dolores’s taste is forgiving— do you remember when everything you heard sounded awesome because it was new?— but these songs are still worth listening to, even if they aren't all quite as great as Dolores thinks they are. They recall a time when synth was still often pretty cheesy-sounding, but in the hands of certain practitioners it was starting to sound as if it came to do its own thing. This was a time when the voices of pop music could be oddly grown-up; a certain world-weariness, even nostalgia, pervades many of these songs. And some of them are remarkable in the way they straddle styles that have since been segregated on the radio— soon after, white pop and black pop stopped returning each other’s calls.
May I suggest that you listen to these songs as Dolores did, as if each of them was brand new and probably the greatest thing ever recorded?
1. Prince, “Pop Life”
Dolores is completely in awe of Prince and the weird purple world he seems to inhabit. She also loves: Prince’s world-weary boredom with fame in this song, the slow funkiness, and the inexplicable riot-footage breakdown in the middle.
2. The Cars, “Tonight She Comes”
I always remember the Cars as being sort of grimacingly self-important in a seventies-rock kind of way, but this song shows them to be capable of a sweet goofiness. Dolores has seen the video at a friend’s house (she doesn’t have cable) and was surprised to learn that people this ugly are allowed to appear on MTV.
Best line: “She jangles me up / She does it with ease / And sometimes she passes through me / Just like a breeze.”
3. The Cure, “Close to Me”
I have to admit that I did not really get the Cure back in their day. Robert Smith's hair and makeup and elaborate detachment seemed... well... uncalled-for. Dolores's friends adore the Cure, though, and “Close to Me” is a perfect example of why. This song is so unbelievably catchy— you’d have to be dead not to tap your feet to it—yet it retains that cool breathy depressive quality all Cure songs have.
Best line: “I've waited hours for this / I've made myself so sick / I wish I'd stayed asleep today.” (See? A little mopey.)
4. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”
This song is like nothing Dolores has ever heard before: the funkiness, the strange industrial/sexual imagery. Older people recognize the obvious references to seventies soul, but to Dolores, Peter Gabriel invented this sound. She is also strangely compelled by the grown-up quality of his voice (he was 36). It’s the kind of song Dolores loves but suspects maybe she shouldn’t because it’s too much like her parents’ music (she’s wrong).
Best line: “This will be my testimony.”
5. New Order, “The Perfect Kiss”
Early techno at its manic, self-important best. This song is flat and metallic as a sheet of tin, yet Dolores hears in it such warmth and humanity. Is this because she is too young to know better? Is it because the lyrics are so mysterious? Or is it because she and I both love that breakdown in the middle with the sound of frogs croaking?
Best line: “Tonight I should have stayed at home / playing with my pleasure zone.” (Seriously, that’s what he’s saying.)
6. Run-DMC, “You Be Illin’”
If we should feel any nostalgia for 1985-86, let it be for a time when Dolores could fall in love with this song sandwiched between Madonna and Phil Collins on Top 40 radio, a time profoundly different from our own. I love the single-finger piano vamp in this song, and the real horns. Old school perfection.
Best line: “He gave a quarter and his order: small fries, Big Mac!”
7. Prince, “Raspberry Beret”
Yes, more Prince. Speaking of warmth and humanity in synth: has there ever been a lovelier, more heartfelt combination of synth, drum machines, and real strings than the chorus in this song?
In an otherwise insightful book about Prince (Sign O’ the Times from the 33 1/3 series), Michelangelo Matos mocks the lyrics of “Raspberry Beret,” specifically the image of Prince taking his paramour "down by Old Man Johnson's farm." Scholars, Prince is from Minneapolis, a town where one can shop for rare CDs and assless pants in the hip Uptown district, then jump onto one's purple motorcycle and zoom out to a lake in the country within in a matter of minutes, a lake that is probably owned by an old Scandinavian man. I fail to see the problem with this. See Purple Rain for more details.
Best line: “The rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof / and the horses wonder who you are.”
8. The Smiths, “Rusholme Ruffians”
Whenever I read the scene where Dolores sneaks out of school with Tina and Chiarra, I have this song in mind. Perhaps in the film version there will be a montage of the girls running off the school grounds and to the mall, all to the strains of this song (are you listening, Sofia Coppola?).
As an adolescent, I secretly felt that people who liked the Smiths took them a little too seriously. Adolescence is horror show enough, I thought, without listening to Morrissey lowing self-pitying lyrics. Tina and Chiarra adore the Smiths, though, and it turns out they are right and I was wrong. This song (like many Smiths songs of this vintage) has such a happy energy to it, the sadness in the lyrics feels nostalgic and affectionate.
Best line: “Scratch my name in your arm with a fountain pen. This means you really love me.”
9. Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”
This is the only song on the playlist that was not actually released during the book's timespan. I am cheating and including it because it was very much present to fans of underground music in the mid-eighties, and to Dolores, this song sounds as if it has just been released, specifically in order to offer her an attitude to aspire to. Those sloppy drums, that slappity bass, Gordon Gano’s nasal, sincere voice…oh my god I love this song.
Best line: “Big hands, I know you’re the one.”
10. REM, “Driver 8”
A college radio staple for many years to come, this song was released as a single in September 1985. It sounds ten years newer, doesn’t it?
Best line: “He piloted this song in a plane like that one.” A vintage Stipe headscratcher.
11. Talk Talk, “It’s My Life”
Mopey new-wave synthpop: Dolores loves it. I was torn between this song and “Something About You” by Level 42, but Talk Talk wins because in the early nineties they moved into experimental post-rock that is still in heavy rotation at my house.
12. ‘Til Tuesday, “Voices Carry”
This song makes it onto all the cheesy 80s compilations, but the joke should be on Aimee Mann’s rat-tail, not on the song itself. Dolores is fascinated by the strangely adult picture of relationships presented here, especially the proto-feminist spirit of Aimee’s assertive belting toward the end of the song. Please see the video, which includes dramatic dialogue to help bring the clunky message home.
Best line: “He wants me, but only part of the time / He wants me if he can keep me in line.”
13. The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”
Subtitle: “How Cool is that Tremolo of Johnny Marr's?” This single was released on January 28, 1985, exactly one year before the Challenger disaster, the sort of coincidence that can strike a sad thirteen-year-old girl as being Very Significant. And speaking of mopey lyrics: “So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home, and you cry, and you want to die.” (Dolores suspects this song was written about her.)
Best line: “I am the son and heir of nothing in particular.”
Margaret Dean and The Time It Takes to Fall links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)