June 6, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Andrew Altschul's debut novel Lady Lazarus is filled with pop culture allusions and social commentary. I have always enjoyed and respected Altschul's pieces at the Huffington Post, and his imaginative debut novel brims with humor, and is one of the first books I have been recommending as perfect summer reads.
The Sacramento News & Review wrote of the book:
"While it doesn’t take a graduate degree in English to follow, recognizing the allusions no doubt adds to the fun. This is irony, not sarcasm, and as such, it can get pretty subtle. But what’s most intriguing about Altschul’s writing is the obvious empathy he has for his characters, especially Calliope. He’s not poking fun at people, but at pretensions."
Lady Lazarus is the story of Calliope Bird Morath, the daughter of famous punk rockers Brandt Morath and Penny Power. Her father committed suicide when she was four years old, and she has grown up to become "the most famous poet in America, perhaps the most famous poet in American history" (the title is from Sylvia Plath), hounded by the media and haunted by memories of her father. It's set in Southern California during the "grunge revolution" of the early 1990s, as well as in the crazed celebrity culture of the 21st century (think: Gawker), and is partly narrated by a washed-up music journalist who’s obsessed with Calliope, her father, and the connections between punk rock and poetry.
Truth is, I used to be a music journalist myself – though the novel’s not autobiographical (even though the narrator’s name is, um, Andrew Altschul). I did some radio, too, back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. About six months after I quit radio, Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. I can remember sitting in my driveway in Providence, RI, on a winter morning when I had just scraped the windshield and was waiting for the car to heat up, listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with my mouth wide open and my breath fogging up the windows. Part of why I wrote this book was to remember what that felt like.
While I was writing, I listened to a lot of that ‘90s music. Since my main character is a young woman, I kept coming back to the female artists – the Riot Grrrls, the Suicide Girls, the angry, sexy, in-your-face girls, the runaways, the drama queens, the girls making records on 4-tracks in their bedrooms. The pissed off girls who refuse to keep their mouths shut. To me, female anger is just more interesting and complicated than male anger, which bores me at this point. Lady Lazarus tries to talk about the ways in which it’s always harder, more complicated, for the girls than for the boys. These songs still sound as fierce and vulnerable and beautiful to me as they did back then.
PJ Harvey, “Rid of Me”
Believe it or not, I found out about PJ Harvey from Beavis & Butthead. They were watching a video of “50ft. Queenie” and I think Butthead said something like, “Uh, this chick is weird…” Boy, was he right! There’s no one I can think of who’s done more to keep the spirit of rock music alive in the last 15 years, and just about everything she’s ever done is soaked in anger, loneliness, bravery, and genius. My “desert island discs” are all Polly Jean’s.
Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”
When I was first on the radio, it was a classic rock station. I didn’t know shit about “alternative rock.” I thought Sonic Youth had made that song “Pass the Dutchie.” When Goo came out in 1990, my program director handed me an advance copy of the video for “Kool Thing” and made me go sit in the production studio and watch it. “Don’t come out until you understand,” she said. I understood pretty quick – but I didn’t come out for hours, just watching Kim Gordon demolish the patriarchy again and again and again.
Patti Smith, “Privilege (Set Me Free)” and “My Generation”
Okay, it’s not the ‘90s. But Patti Smith is the godmother of the Riot Girls. She’s got the emotional range of an opera star, the vocabulary of a sailor, and the pipes of a banshee. It’s been great watching her evolve into a kind of “elder stateswoman,” but listening to the first albums still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was no precedent.
Sinéad O’Connor, “Jackie”
Britney Spears, eat your heart out! It was Sinéad O’Connor who invented the public meltdown, and no one since has really measured up. If you want to know how complicated it is to be a woman in the public eye, watch her tearing up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, and remember how violently she got trashed for it; or listen to the songs on her second album to hear her a woman overwhelmed by celebrity, trying to stitch her psyche back together. This track opens the first album, The Lion and the Cobra. Oh, what a voice!
Listen up: Live Through This is a f*cking brilliant album. I don’t care how fashionable it’s become to trash Courtney Love and dismiss her music, or even to argue that she didn’t write it. I don’t care what a buffoon she’s made of herself since Kurt Cobain died. None of that matters. Just listen to this track – it’s a f*cking chainsaw, and you’re a tree.
The Breeders, “Raw”
Sure, the Breeders were more of a novelty act than the Pixies. But Kim and Kelly Deal also knew how to crank the distortion and bust out the punk spirit when they wanted to. Listen to their cover of John Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” or to this one, from Last Splash – there’s something really dangerous, sexy, and weird going on here.
Tori Amos, “Me and a Gun”
There was a time when I would evaluate potential girlfriends by their feelings about Tori Amos. If they were big fans, I was outta there. But I have to admit it: For all of her bottomless self-absorption, her flowery, goddess-y femininity, and her infinite melodrama, Tori Amos is a guilty pleasure. She can bring tears to my eyes with a whisper. And when she turns up the volume and climbs up the octaves, watch out.
Liz Phair, “Flower”
Exile in Guyville is one of the few albums I will only listen to from beginning to end, uninterrupted. With this song, Liz Phair turned male sexual aggression on its head and made all the world’s frat boys think twice about the “blow-job queens” they love to humiliate. I had the opportunity to interview Phair once. I asked her what her mom had thought about Exile in Guyvilleand she said her mother cried. “She felt like there was a whole side to me that I’d been hiding.”
Fiona Apple, “Sleep to Dream”
What happens when you put spoken word poetry, classical piano training, and some serious post-adolescent darkness into one song? “Sleep to Dream” opens Fiona Apple’s first album, lumbering in on the crest of a window-shuddering bassline, followed by an alto as rich and smoky as a fine bourbon. As soon as that piano hits, I’m a goner.
Cat Power, “Metal Heart”
A child raised by wolves. A waif. A basket case. Moon Pix was the first Cat Power record I heard, and my reaction to Chan Marshall’s voice was like watching a car crash: I couldn’t look away. What I love about this song is how it starts out as a big musical and emotional mess but eventually, against all odds, finds its way to clarity and strength. (A progression not unlike writing a novel, now that I think of it…)
P.J. Harvey, “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”
Dear Polly Jean: Will you marry me?
Andrew Foster Altschul and Lady Lazarus 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)