April 10, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.
Robert Goolrick's well-reviewed debut novel, A Reliable Wife, deserves the accolades. Intense, raw, and lyrical, the book has earned critical comparisons to both Wuthering Heights and Ron Rash's Serena.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. The whole thing takes place in a fever pitch of exquisite sensations and boundless grief in a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." The word "alone" spreads through these pages like mold in the cellar, until it's everywhere."
I listen to music while I write. I listen to music, smoke cigarettes, and drink iced tea. At this exact moment, I am listening to Goldfrapp singing "Utopia," brought to me by Radio Paradise in Paradise California. Radio Paradise on iTunes has pretty much become the soundtrack of my life; they make it so easy, and the sole announcer (how does he do it?) rarely speaks.
If I don’t listen to music, my mind wanders. I daydream and can’t concentrate. With the music, and the writing going on, there’s just enough going on to completely fill whatever room I’m in.
I only like rock when it’s about sex, loss, or longing, which is pretty much a good thing, since that’s what most of rock is about, anyway. Of course, there are songs that just get you up and going and doing the things you ought to be doing with a cheerful heart, like The Hold Steady’s"Stay Positive," or even the doomed New Radicals singing "You Only Get What You Give," but the songs that stay in my head are like little short stories, and I love them for their lyrical and narrative content, however obscure or elliptical they may be. And once they’re in my head, a confluence of lyric and melody pushing the narrative forward, they stay there pretty much forever.
A certain turn of phrase, that’s what I’m after. And, even though most rock lyrics without music are just banal poetry, I’m going to quote a few anyway.
No one has ever done it better than Springsteen. “I want to die with you Wendy on the streets tonight/ In an everlasting kiss” has all of the things I look for in one single short phrase. Sexuality. Desire. Danger. Loss. The wreckage of the heart, a wreckage which is not only inevitable, but actually sought after.
So, here, in no particular order, are some songs that make my heart go bump bump bump while I’m writing about characters whose lives are invariably locked in the grip of the same desire and loss and longing.
1. Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"
A Reliable Wife has been compared in some places to Wuthering Heights, a book I must confess I have never read. The closest I’ve come is Kate, who grabs you by the throat from the opening lines: “Out on the wild and windy moors/ we roll and fall in green… And when she sings “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy/ I’ve come home, I’m so-o-o cold” she only tightens her grip.
2. The Blue Nile - "Because of Toledo"
A wildly overlooked and under-productive band, they nevertheless have a true grasp of the narrative power of songs. Listen to "Because of Toledo" from their last album High. It reads like a prefect little Raymond Carver story. “And a boy orders coffee/ And he settles down to think/ How they women that we love sometimes/ Are the water that we drink.” So sad, so lit-by-neon wistful.
3. Bruce Springsteen – Two songs, "Meeting Across the River" and "Racing in the Streets"
Both brilliant little stories perfectly and tersely captured. “Hey Eddie, can you lend us a few bucks/ Tonight can you catch us a ride?” And ending with “ I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed/ Then I’ll go out walking.” When Springsteen was young, he was the new Rimbaud. Hotblooded American boyhood at its most James Dean lustful. I’m hoping he doesn’t settle for turning into the new Pete Seeger.
4. Wilco - "Impossible Germany"
“Impossible Germany/ Unlikely Japan.” Has there ever been a more alluring opening to a song? Tweedy is a genius, and he smokes, too, or at least he did in the wonderful documentary they made about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. I have no idea what this song is about, but there is a story there, and one day I will understand it. For the moment, I’m happy just thinking: “But this is what love is for/ To be out of place/ Gorgeous and alone/ Face to face.”
5. Calexico - "Quattro (World Drifts In)"
Probably the most ravishing song ever written about what appears to be, but may not be, the drug trade.
6. Kings of Leon – "Sex on Fire"
It’s got drugs, anonymous sex—(Soft lips are open/ Knuckles are pale/ Feels like you’re dying/ You’re dying.” One account says that the song was originally called "Set Yourself on Fire." I bet the Kings are pretty glad they changed it.
7. Frightened Rabbit – "Keep Yourself Warm"
It doesn’t get any more blatant than this, and I won’t quote the lyric that says practically the truest thing about sex rock has yet to offer. But it sure stays with you. Once said, it’s said forever.
8. Patti Griffin – "Forgiveness"
“We are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well…” This song was played most startlingly by a brilliant DJ named Nicholas Hill on WFUV in New York somewhere in the night of 9/11. It was dark. You could smell the electrical smoke everywhere suffocatingly in the warm September air and there were three thousand people dead just down the street from me and nothing but sirens and gangs of people handing out bottles of water to exhausted fireman going back up the West Side Highway, and here was Griffin singing so magnificently and she said, “We made it through the night.” And I believed her and we did.
9. Everything But the Girl – "Imagining America"
An immigration story that touches my heart, partially because of the haunting blend of their voices as they repeat the lines back and forth, as though they were already far apart: “And he was so handsome/ It was 1919/ Sailing to New York. Just for you.”
10. Jennifer Warnes – "Famous Blue Raincoat"
I’m not a fan of Leonard Cohen, although his songs have been beautifully sung by other people. This is one of them. Every lyric is spare and perfect and evocative of a bohemian ménage a trois. And in Warnes’ version, you’re spared Cohen’s voice, and the self-referential ending.
The list goes on. It never stops changing, and yet, it is always the same. It is composed of songs that only rock can do, that you feel not only in your heart, but inside your body, down deep in your guts.
Robert Goolrick and A Reliable Wife links:
Baby Got Books review
The Book Lady's Blog review
The Book Chick review
Bookfoolery and Babble review
Booking Mama review
A Bookworm's World review
Boston Globe review
Charlotte Observer review
Chicago Sun-Times review
Christian Science Monitor review
Exiled at the Beach Book Reviews
Devourer of Books review
Mostly Fiction review
My Friend Amy review
So MIsguided review
Time Out New York review
USA Today review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
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)