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August 27, 2008

Book Notes - Susannah Felts ("This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record")

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

Of all the books I have recommended to friends and family over the past year, none has been as universally enjoyed as Susannah Felts' debut novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record. From young teens to grandparents, the readers' responses have been unanimously positive. Though published as a young adult novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record can be appreciated by adults as well. The coming of age story is told through Felts' always sharp prose, and examines the true meaning of friendship through the rollercoaster of high school life.

Author Joe Meno wrote of the book:

"This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record is an incredibly intimate, thoughtfully written novel, a kind of snapshot album rendered in glimmering prose, one perfect record of the daydreams and nightmares of everyone’s years in high school."

In her own words, here is Susannah Felts' Book Notes essay for her debut novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record:

Two facts about this book, to start. Fact one: One of the cover designs considered for This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record featured a cassette with the tape spooling out to form the title, much as the film does on the cover we chose. Fact two: The title is snipped from the Violent Femmes’ lyrics for “Kiss Off.”

So you might deduce from these facts that music is significant in this book, and you would be correct. I’m not sure I could write anything about teenagers without music being significant. I still feel pretty teen-age sometimes, and I still cling to music the way I did when I was in high school, although I don’t go around wearing headphones nearly as much (back then, one schoolmate started calling me “naked” when he saw me without them). I still get the urge to make mixes for people so they will know who I am and so I can maybe make them like me or at least think I’m cool. God help me, I sometimes still think about life in terms of categories like “lame” and “cool.” I want to know which bands the people whose opinions I respect are listening to. I occasionally judge people for liking music I think is lame. I liked a lot of music in high school that I now dislike and think of as decidedly lame, and I started liking music then that I still think is not lame. I also like music that I know is lame.

All of which may be something to get over, sure. Forgive me, I grew up in the boondocks outside Nashville, Tennessee, with my alarm clock set to the classic rock station; I have baggage. Case in point: Recently I downloaded “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop and proceeded to listen to it repeatedly for days. It’s on my iTunes now, waiting for one of my many sappy and regressive moments. I listen to it and I picture drunk, lonely men and women pawing at each other at last call in small dank bars across America, while some other drunk, lonely men swagger through another game of pool, and everyone smokes. This image satisfies me. Is that because I am it makes me feel cooler, better than one of those sad men and women? Or because I feel a secret kinship with them? I am not sure.

I digress. (Classic rock will do that to you. Beware.) Despite all the truth-talk above about my own adolescence, TWGDOYPR is not the thinly veiled autobiography that some reviewers and readers have taken it for. With that in mind, here’s my real experience some twenty-plus years ago (yikes) of these songs versus their use in the book.

“On the Beach,” “Summertime Rolls,” and “Ocean Size,” Jane’s Addiction

When I visualize the cover of Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing Shocking, one of those albums that definitely Changed My Life, I see myself staring it while seated in my mom’s gray (with faux wood detailing) Dodge Caravan. Mom was driving and I think we were near Rivergate Mall. To reiterate: Me, age 15, in my mom’s minivan outside the mall, staring at that pic of the naked Siamese twin chicks with heads on fire, alone and absorbed in my fascination, with mom in the next seat over. Pretty much says it all. I must have stared at that tape insert for untold cumulative hours, but this is the moment that stuck. Sometimes you wonder why certain moments in time inexplicably stick while so much else is lost. In this case, it makes perfect sense.

In TWGDOYPR, Vaughn—our timid, camera-wielding, good-girl-dabbling-in-bad narrator—gives a CD of Nothing’s Shocking to her wild friend Sophie, to replace Sophie’s old cassette copy. The girls listen to “Summertime Rolls” on Sophie’s new boombox at, you guessed it, the start of a summer night. Naturally, transgression lurks in the hours to come.

“Ocean Size” is pure rage. They cannot move you, man, no one tries. Is there any more fitting quote for an angst-addled teen locked in her bedroom with the stereo cranked and nowhere else to escape to? There is not. And “On the Beach”? This song is either what you want to hear when you smoke pot, or when you lay on your bedroom floor with your ear next to the stereo speaker and wish you knew how it felt to smoke pot.

“No New Tale to Tell,” Love and Rockets

My first serious boyfriend had a very hot best friend who had a long string of girlfriends. One lasted a little longer than the others—she really had him snared. I can’t remember her name, I only met her a few times, but she had huge sexy eyes and heavy bangs; maybe she looked like Cat Power. Maybe she was Cat Power. She fascinated me, which meant that I was nearly mute in her presence. The four of us went out one night and she drove us in her little white Datsun. Love and Rockets was in the tape deck. I associate this song with barreling around an interstate clover exchange, the centrifugal force pushing me against the car door, and as the little car trembled and hurled forth I was more afraid of and awed by that girl than ever.

In TWGDOYPR, Vaughn does something naughty while this song is playing at a house party. Something naughtier than I ever would’ve done in high school. I think I chose this song for the scene because, ever since that night in the little white car, the song has held a trace of incipient danger for me, crystallized in the looping, cascading violin notes at the end. The lyrics—People like to hear their names / I’m no exception / Please call my name—resonate with Vaughn’s attraction to photography and her difficult friendship with Sophie, too.

“Where Eagles Dare,” Misfits

One of my best friends in high school was obsessed with the Misfits. He had hundreds of dollars’ worth of Misfits singles and other paraphernalia, a sum that very much impressed me, as I didn’t have hundreds of dollars’ worth of anything that I’d bought for myself. He didn’t drink and he didn’t smoke; he was a sweet Jewish kid who drove a sweet little standard-shift red Jetta (the super-boxy ones they used to make back before Jettas became sorority girl cars), and I can still hear him singing: Mommy, can I go out and kill tonight. “Wait—just listen to this part!” he’d say, grinning enormously at you while you dutifully listened a little closer to whatever five seconds of a given song really got him going. Eventually he sold all the Misfits stuff, and in college he found a new obsession: Phish, and Phish concert bootlegs. The objects of affection may change; the impulse remains.

In TWGDOYPR, several characters are into the Misfits—but they’re the recognizable type, the ones who, even today, might pin trademark skull patches on their black hoodies. It occurs to me now that my old friend, the most unlikely Misfits fan, is really the more interesting character. I should have put him in the book. What can I say? Fiction indeed. Maybe I’ll put him in the next book. Anyway, Sophie sings along with this song—I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch! You better think about it, baby!—while she and Vaughn are waiting for Sophie’s friend Jotham, who wears an honest-to-goodness devil-lock, to buy cigarettes at the Mapco.

Anything from Reckoning, Life’s Rich Pageant, Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction, REM

OK, here’s some common ground between me and Vaughn. She’s an REM fanatic, I was an REM fanatic. Against my better judgment, I will tell you that there exists, buried in the files, a black-and-white self-portrait of yours truly sitting underneath an REM poster in her bedroom, eyes tilted lovingly upward at Michael Stipe. Dramatic lighting and all. Can I change the subject? REM was such a perfect band back then. I always hated that I didn’t catch on to them sooner; like, I missed my chance to see them play the Exit/In in Nashville in the mid-80s (by the time I caught on, they were well into arena shows). Still, they were there when I needed them. I may often feel teen-age, but I don’t think I can feel that way about a band again.

“Add It Up” and “Kiss Off,” Violent Femmes

I wish I could remember how young me found out about the Femmes. I want someone to thank, because I could thank him or her now. I had no idea what that little girl on the cover of the self-titled album was doing there, but I knew this music was like nothing else I’d listened to before, and it paved the way for many more horizon-stretching finds in the cassette aisles at Tower Records, where I idled away no small tally of hours during high school. Now the Violent Femmes are featured in a Wendy’s commercial, where their lyrics seem a great deal less logical than they do as repurposed for the title of this book. I guess that’s how the kids like it now: all that crazy random juxtaposition and shit, and who cares if it’s all to sell burgers, because everything is selling something, right? I wonder what the Violent Femmes think about their music—the infamous celebration of masturbation, no less—ending up as the soundtrack for burger-hawking more than twenty years after its release. I wonder if they’ve made a boatload of money from said use, and if they have, more power to them. I have nothing to offer but a sincere merci, dearest Violent Femmes: your lyric fits snugly with my story on no less than three levels of meaning. Please do not come after me and demand money, because, unlike that perpetually youthful Wendy, I have none.

While “Kiss Off” gave me my title but never appears in the narrative, “Add it Up” was there from the first draft. Sophie dances around Vaughn’s kitchen to it when they are just beginning to be friends. I would love to tell you that I had a friend who delivered the Femmes, and herself, to me in just this way. I did not. Unless I’ve forgotten entirely. Which is a possibility.

Susannah Felts and This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record links:

the author's website
the author's MySpace page
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book

Birmingham Magazine review
The Book Muncher review
Enfuse review
Everyday Yeah review
Nashville Scene review
Switchback Books review
The Ya Ya Yas review
Young Adult Books Central review

carp(e) libris interview with the author
Timetable interview with the author
Venus Zine interview with the author
What to Wear During an Orange Alert? interview with 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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