September 23, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Juliana Hatfield's When I Grow Up is more than an indie rock memoir, the book chronicles the singer-songwriter's battles with anorexia, depression and anxiety as well as her career in music.
"Beautiful" by Ivy
When I first heard this song I was tickled by everything about it, from singer Dominique Durand's charming, French-accented "Can you- c- can- can you- can you cue me, please?" at the start to the bouncy melody and gnarly distorted bass sound. But the most intriguing aspect of the song was the fact that it seemed (to me, at least) to be a song about a blow job.
Andy Chase, one of the founding members of Ivy, produced my latest album, "How To Walk Away", and during our recording sessions I kept meaning to ask Andy if my interpretation of the Ivy song was correct, but I never did remember to ask.
Part of me likes not knowing for sure and doesn't want to be disabused of the notion that "sprawled across the bedroom floor/dripping sweat from every pore/helplessly you reach for me/but I'm already gone" refers to a deliberate act (on the girl's part) of fellatio interruptus (or unfinished-uptus).
"Theme From Mahogany'" by Diana Ross
As a pop music-obsessed child in the 1970's I would take my little hand-held battery-powered AM transistor radio to bed with me and listen in the dark. For a time, in 1975, my very favorite song was the theme from the movie "Mahogany". It was a number one hit, and in heavy rotation, so I could count on its being played fairly frequently. Each time the mournful electric piano intro came on, with the flute and the strings, and then Ross' plaintive upward-moving "Do you know", the pleasure center in my brain went nuts. If I had been prone to song-inspired goose bumps, I would have had goose bumps. The song was like heroin to me. Children's heroin. I could not get enough of it. What I am saying is that my thirst for the song was unquenchable. It was all I wanted, all the time. I even had my mom buy me the sheet music so I could learn how to play it on the piano.
I've been chasing that feeling- that crazy passionate love- since I've been sentient.
When I listen to the song now, I think it's okay- kind of pretty- but my mind is not blown like it was when I was eight years old. Who knows why that particular song had such a powerful effect on my still-developing brain/heart/soul?
"Don't" by Dinosaur Jr.
The Blake Babies (my first band) were recording during the overnight shift at Fort Apache studios in Cambridge, MA, and Dinosaur Jr. were making their album "Bug" in the daytime. I arrived early one evening and happened to catch Lou Barlow, bassist and occasional song-contributor of Dinosaur, doing a vocal take of this song in which he scream-sings "WHY DON'T YOU LIKE ME???!!!" repeatedly. It hurt my throat just to listen; Lou was throwing his whole body and soul into it. He seemed to be trying to destroy something with his voice, or to exorcise some evil demon.
It was maybe the most authentically tortured and anguished vocal performance I'd ever had the pleasure (or horror) to witness. Lou really meant it.
He came out of the recording booth and went into the bathroom and spat up blood. That's how hard he had sung. Scary, but righteous, I thought. Maybe rock and roll should hurt. If it doesn't, maybe you're not doing it right.
"All Of My Love" by Led Zeppelin
I had my first kiss when I was thirteen. It was 1980 and "All Of My Love" was playing on the stereo at the makeout party that was happening in the dark basement of a friend's house. I lay down tentatively next to John Mc-something (I can't remember his surname; he was a cute dirty-blond- haired boy of Irish descent; my new "boyfriend") among all the other adolescent couples and as the synth solo reached a crescendo John Mc-whatever stuck his tongue rather brusquely into my mouth. It didn't feel good, or natural, but I tried to play along, as all the other kids seemed to be doing the same thing John Mc-what'shisname and I were doing and I wanted to fit in.
I wondered, "Am I supposed to be enjoying this?" I found the whole thing very uncomfortable, from the hardness of the thinly-carpeted basement floor beneath me to the to the odd bit of drool that leaked out of our hastily, clumsily locked-together mouths. Up 'til then I had imagined that kissing a boy meant soft sweet lips on lips, not this- not mouths open wide and mashed together, straining, with blocked airways, and with not even one little break in the action, in which we could maybe look at each other for a second, or assess the situation.
I guess you could say that "All Of My Love"- the languid rock ballad saturated with keyboard strings- was the perfect soundtrack to a 1980 teenage makeout party but I just wasn't feeling it; wasn't feeling any of all of that love. I wanted a little less of John Mc-whoseit's love; of his tongue.
The makeout session went on for a while (it seemed like hours) and then finally I was able to break free, with a newly-wary sense of having turned some ambiguous corner in my development from girl to woman.
I broke up with John McTongue the next day.
"You're In Love" by Wilson Phillips
Music brought Evan Dando and I together and kept us bonded for years. The two of us shared a love of, among other things, Wilson Phillips' 1990 first album. Only the two of us shared this love- absolutely no one that either of us knew thought that Wilson Phillips was anything less than a complete joke. No one- but no one- took Wilson Phillips seriously, in our indie-rock hipster world. But Evan and I's appreciation for the silky, shimmering, meticulous, expertly-layered three-part harmonies and radio-ready arrangements was authentic. It was not ironic like some of today's kids' mocking "appreciation" of, like, Journey.
Evan and I could see the connecting line from good, melodic pop bands like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas (those two bands spawned- literally- the Wilson Phillips girls. The "Wilson" referred to the two daughters of Brian Wilson in the band and the "Phillips" referred to the daughter of Michelle and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas) to Wilson Phillips and to the Lemonheads (Evan's band) and the Blake Babies (my band). It was all connected, all part of a pop music continuum.
Sure, Wilson Phillips' first album was probably dreamed up in a boardroom and cynically, ruthlessly designed for mass consumption but that didn't mean that it wasn't really fun to sing along to (and Joe Walsh played guitar on it!). And, yes, the lyrics were, for the most part, very uncomplicated, but, again, it was good fun. Actually, to say that Wilson Phillips' lyrics were "uncomplicated" would be a massive understatement. They were clunky and just plain grammatically wrong, sometimes, like some kind of ditzy middle-school cheerleader-speak: "I'd like to see us as good of friends as we used to be." But that was part of Wilson Phillips' appeal, I think; they didn't try to be cool. Their tunes were guileless and their act was thoroughly unselfconscious and it was refreshing. Cool gets boring real fast.
Wilson Phillips weren't afraid to lay bare their hopeful little California hearts. There was no pretense with these girls. A supercool facade is just a mask for feelings of fear and inadequacy, anyway. Wilson Phillips had stepped out onto the stage with the mask already torn off; they went straight to the vulnerable heart. They didn't try to hide the fact that they just wanted to be loved and understood and happy and empowered, same as everybody else.
Each of the three girls had a distinct, distinctive timbre or musical personality. The big one had the rich, low, earthy voice- it was kind of gorgeous- and the skinny, short-haired blond one had the higher, more girlish, anxious tone and the reddish-haired nondescript-looking one had a not unpleasant sort of nasal/guttural sound. (We knew whose voice matched whose face from seeing them perform on TV and in their videos, which were all over MTV at the time.) Their voices blended really well.
Evan and I knew every note by heart and we would sing along, choosing different girls' parts at random. In the second chorus, for example, I would sometimes take the first "You're in love" (Chynna Phillips' part) and then Evan might echo from a few steps down with another "You're in love" (Wendy Wilson's part [it was a call-and-response thing]) and then I'd continue with, "That's the way" and Evan would follow in step with "That's the way", and so on.
I still- eighteen years later- stand by my love of this song.
"Motel Room In My Bed" by X
My older brother's girlfriend came to live in our house when I was sixteen and she was twenty-three. She brought her record collection with her in two milk crates and that is how I learned all about punk and post-punk music. Before Maggie showed up I was listening to Culture Club and Pat Benatar and Foreigner. Her collection opened my eyes to new worlds of cool.
One day Maggie put one of her records on- one I hadn't discovered yet. It was X's "Under The Big Black Sun" and the needle dropped onto "Motel Room In My Bed". The song sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before. It was sing-songy but not the least bit twee; it was raw and alive and edgy and it swung and it rocked. The lyrics were arty and idiosyncratic and kind of dark; rock and roll poetry. ("I go to bed soggy and forgetful" was how the super-catchy chorus began.)
I thought,"What the hell is this? This is f*ckin' great." I went in to the next room, where the music was coming from, to listen more closely, and right then the song broke open into the chorus and the guy singer's (John Doe's) husky vibrato took over the melody while the girl's (Exene's) odd, tonally flat kind of wail harmonized, and it didn't seem like it should make any sense, but it did; all made so much sense, somehow.
It transcended genre and classification. It was unique and vital. I was a sheltered, shy teen from a small Massachusetts town, not the least bit street smart, and X's lyrics described gritty urban worlds that were completely foreign to me. But they moved me, still.
Sometimes I had no idea what Exene was singing about (motel room in my bed? Wha? "put both doorknobs on my side" ??) but it didn't matter that I didn't understand literally. The unadorned honesty of the delivery, and the feeling- longing, discontented, pissed-off, hurt, defiant, fun, smart, funny, celebratory- connected.
Juliana Hatfield and When I Grow Up: A Memoir links:
Boston Herald profile of the author
New York Times profile of the author
Paste interview with the author
Paste profile of the author
Patriot Ledger profile of the author
San Francisco Chronicle interview with the author
Spinner profile of the author
Village Voice 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
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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