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May 20, 2008

Book Notes - Lavinia Greenlaw ("The Importance of Music to Girls")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

When Sasha Frere-Jones praised The Importance of Music to Girls in a recent blog post, a friend asked if I was familiar with the book. Unfortunately, I had only read one less than complimentary review, but even that had piqued my interest.

The Importance of Music to Girls is a memoir defined by music. Lavinia Greenlaw's life is framed and in many ways defined by her life's soundtrack, and this connection is lyrically presented in the book.

Of the book, the Los Angeles Times wrote:

Greenlaw has written librettos for opera and published two novels. She is best known as a poet, and her memoir has the precision and intensity of prose poetry. Her mother's madrigal choir fills a room with "a noise that billowed and folded as if tidying itself away"; listening to music becomes "part of the day's machine." It's a machine that works, ejecting her out of rural England and into the great, busy world of adulthood and London life. "The Importance of Music to Girls" brilliantly traces the shaping of a rich, complex self. The soundtrack's not so bad either.

In her own words, here is Lavinia Greenlaw's Book Notes essay for her memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls:

Thelonius Monk – Honeysuckle Rose
(The Unique Thelonius Monk)

When I was eleven, we moved out of London to an Essex village. I was a Camden Town hippy kid, and my flared jeans and tangled hair were not well-received by the prim, well-pressed girls at school. So I stayed home, got bored and played the piano. I played rough and loud and in whatever tempo suited my mood, but I paid attention. I got to know a sonata the way someone gets to know a city: its landmarks first, then its streets and vistas. I began to make my way round on my own and recognised familiar things when seen from different angles. I liked the way Fats Waller made his sweet songs ugly, which somehow made the sweetness pertain. A few years later, I came across Monk’s version of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and was reassured that pushing something out of shape could bring out the best it had. I learned something else from Monk, which came in useful – that delicacy of arrangement was more interesting than delicacy of tone.


Leonard Bernstein - Dance at the Gym: Blues Mambo Promenade Cha-Cha
West Side Story

(Leonard Bernstein and the Broadway Orchestra, 1985)
The first records I listened to were the ones that were there. My parents had the soundtrack of West Side Story and for some time I lived in its world. If music was a way of building a city, here was a city that kept rebuilding itself. For me, this recording was a revelation as the clarity of the orchestra brought out detail I’d not noticed before. The trained singers were a disaster in terms of accent and character but when the setting required real vocal push-and-pull – high quietness, long steadiness - they came into their own. The world of the musical made sense to me – to talk as if dancing and dance as if talking. The ‘Dance at the Gym’ is the best village-hall disco I’ve ever been to - and I’ve been to a few.


Velvet Underground - What Goes On
Velvet Underground

The other day I went to a book launch at which there was a DJ. It was on the first floor of a London club (and I don’t mean night club) in a 400-year-old townhouse. ‘What Goes On’ was the last track the DJ played, by which time the 400-year-old floorboards were bouncing under our feet. A young waitress came up from the bar and asked me to get people to stop dancing as the ceiling downstairs was about to collapse on top of her customers. She gestured at a man jigging about, who looked like he’d hit the floor back with the Beatles and had stayed on his feet through to the Happy Mondays. She shook her head: ‘Ginger dancing.’ On my way home I wondered how it was that I had never thought of ‘What Goes On’ as a song to dance to, wht I had played it for decades but before that night, had never danced. And ginger dancing? Is it what you do when you have been listening to music for thirty or more years and try to dance in several ways at once? I think we were all doing that.


Eddie Floyd – Bring It On Home to Me

The best version of this song, no contest. I found it on the B-side of a single I bought at a jumble sale, already badly scratched. It has the Stax production engine seal, which keeps its parts clean, and while it suggests someone sitting at home waiting for the lover who left them behind, the music is all about getting up and stepping out. Until last year, I only had that single and so there was the added thrill of trying to hear it at all. I am careful to play it less now I have it as an MP3. I don’t want it ever to wear off.


Quincy Jones/Chaka Khan – Stuff Like That

Another single I picked up at a jumble sale, not knowing what it was. When I threw out my dance records, this was the one I kept. It is elemental: the molecular structure and essence of disco are there in this song.


The Temprees – Dedicated to the One I Love

I kept thinking the slow dance had to be The Chi-Lites ‘Have You Seen Her?’ but then last year, listening to a Complete Stax compilation given to me by a Swiss poet, I came across this. It is the slow dance in rhetorical form: hyperbolic, beautifully measured and in the tempo of swoon.


The Vibrators – Baby, Baby, Baby

The Marquee Club, early 1978. I was fifteen and wearing jeans while all the other girls were in refuse-sacks. The audience performed, the band just played. Maybe I didn’t have to perform, that is perform as a girl after all. At least not for a while. I didn’t realise it then but this was the same old love thing after all: ‘Won’t you be my girl?’


The Slits – New Town

There were plenty of girls on record covers, some even topless, but not like this: naked and covered in mud. The Slits were magnificent - all over the place but they made this incredibly original and coherent noise made out of dub and punk and unlike anything else. The sweet-ugly swagger got me all over again.


Cocteau Twins – Cherry Coloured Funk

Year after year, you concentrate because you’ve never been able to hear – not completely or properly, and Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is as passionate as it is withheld. This song swoops and soars but never comes within reach. I don’t want to know the words. Yes, I do. No, I don’t.


Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free

In 1984, I was scribbling in notebooks, temping as a receptionist and living in what was virtually a squat. I used to go to a launderette run by a fierce, beautiful Irish woman who stalked up and down, swigging Special Brew. I was sitting in the corner one day, reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, when she glanced at the back cover, which said something about being a free woman. “So, are you a free woman?” she demanded. “Are ya?”


Bonus track:

Artery – Afterwards/Into the Garden

I thought I should just close my eyes and pull a record from the stack but it turned out to be David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, which seemed to obvious so I tried again and got a 78 of T.S. Eliot reciting The Four Quartets so again but then it was Lloyd Cole - what’s he doing there? I’ve never owned a Lloyd Cole record - and then I thought of course it should be a single so will now reach across the table and see what I get.

I have no idea what this is.


Lavinia Greenlaw and The Importance of Music to Girls links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's profile at Contemporary Authors
the author's profile at Poetry Archive
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book

Bookslut review
Buffalo News review
Entertainment Weekly review
Feminist Review review
Guardian review
The Independent review
The List review
Los Angeles Times review
Mail Online review
New York Sun review
Sasha Frere-Jones review
The Spectator review
Telegraph review
Times Online review

BBC Radio 3 profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
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)


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