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April 21, 2009

Book Notes - Steve Amick ("Nothing But a Smile")

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

Steve Amick's second novel, Nothing But a Smile, immerses the reader in the America of the 1940's. Amick's focus on the late years of World War II and the immediate postwar period is unique and refreshing.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The backdrop is captivating in its detail, and bold in scope: Sal and Wink's story plays out against wartime struggles, the Chicago underworld of the '40s and '50s, HUAC and the Red Scare and the postwar migration of Americans from the cities to the suburbs. This divine love story is as much about Sal and Wink as it is about America in that era—a great story, well told."

In his own words, here is Steve Amick's Book Notes essay for his novel, Nothing but a Smile:

Nothing But a Smile takes place from 1944-1947, so the music that comes to mind is obviously framed by those parameters. The following will be chock-o-block with plot spoilers, but I've decided to subscribe to the opinion of a certain very charitable review of the novel in which it was compared to a burlesque strip show: that you may feel you know the outcome, but it doesn't make watching it all happen any less fun.

#1 "Paper Doll" – The Mills Brothers (1943)

The novel starts in June 1944. Wink Dutton, an injured ex-illustrator for Stars and Stripes and Yank, arrives in Chicago looking for civilian work. His drawing hand no longer functions properly. So, though his portfolio is fat, his prospects are thin. He's also been asked to look in on the wife of his buddy Chesty, a photographer back in the Pacific. Sal Chesterton, the wife, is holding down the fort at the family camera shop in the Loop. Wink swings by to pass along the well wishes of her husband and is invited to stay for dinner. As they do the dishes together after, she turns on the radio. This intimate little ballad was a colossal hit over the previous fall and winter, and Wink would have heard it endlessly while stuck in the hospital, recuperating. He's unaware he's humming along until she joins in, too. This is the closest they come to flirting at this early stage, but it's the spark of a friendship, at least. The lyrics about preferring to have a "paper doll" rather than someone "fickle" and untrustworthy are especially apt when it's revealed that Sal has been making inquiries about—and even taken a stab at—shooting naughty pictures of herself to make some extra income. She is not "fickle" in the least, being very steadfast to her husband, but she is a "doll" in the vernacular of the time and she is looking to put herself down on "paper," in the sense of pulp men's magazines.

The Mills Brothers had the easiest-going croon ever—envied by even Bing and Dino—and it sounds to me like Wink's stance at this point. He's glowing in Sal's company, but he's not yet overly-invested. It's a breezy, loose-limbed attitude, like the smoothly syncopated melody against the shuffle of guitar.
But the inner turmoil Wink will soon feel in regard to his pal's smart and pretty wife is foretold in this line: "I tell you boys it's tough to be alone and it's tough to love a doll that's not your own."

#2 "Am I Blue?" - Hoagy Carmichael and Lauren Bacall (1945)

At one point, Sal and her friend Reenie meet up with black marketeers to buy real nylons for their pinup photo shoots. The meet takes place in the front row of a new movie, To Have and Have Not.

If there are moments when my two lead characters, Wink and Sal, seem to slightly swap the expected positions of their gender—Sal being all business and take-charge, Wink seemingly chaste and cautious—that gender-role reversal can be heard echoed in this: Hoagy takes the higher part and Lauren Bacall is, hands-down, the manliest voice on the nightclub bandstand. You can practically hear the massive shoulder pads in her herringbone jacket.

#3 "How Little We Know" -- Lauren Bacall (1945)

Bacall goes on to sing, with all the husky bedroom languor of a junior Marlene Dietrich, this swaying serenade to serendipity. "Maybe it happens this way…", the lyrics suggest, and "Maybe you're meant to be mine…" It's a musical shoulder shrug to the potential of fate and chance. Another Hoagy tune, this one underscores the unexpected chemistry abrew not only between the two actors on the screen—(Bogie didn't know what hit him when he met his new leading lady and future mother of his children)—but also between Wink and Sal who don't seem to have a full grasp of what's simmering. The latter couple, at this point, have much further to go before recognizing that perhaps it does happen this way; that important things in life—like love—sometimes come from unexpected and seemingly-inauspicious turns of event.

(A curious triple-underscoring of this idea happens when you consider Hoagy's personal background: the songwriter was first a lawyer, now he's playing the piano and acting in a movie with Humphrey Bogart? Talk about the unforeseen turns life takes…! )

#4 "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" – The Ink Spots (1941)

The night of her wedding anniversary, celebrating it once again on her own, Sal gets a little drunk, goes into her room and repeatedly plays this ballad of single-minded purpose on her record player. An earlier hit back at the start of the war, the tempo is almost painfully slow, the delivery precise and unmistakable. The lyrics contain the phrase, "I've lost all ambition…" which could just as easily describe both Sal's depression about her husband Chesty serving in the Pacific and the frustration of the eavesdropping Wink, in his attempt to restore his art career. When Wink goes to her to check on her, Sal embarrasses herself in the doorway by unbuttoning his shirt front and pressing her teary face against his undershirt, wanting to smell "that man smell."

#5 "I'm Making Believe" – Ella Fitzgerald & The Inks Spots (1944)

The following night, Reenie and Wink are in bed and she confesses that Sal spilled the beans to her about getting drunk and morose and forcing her nose on him. Wink hears this Ella/Ink Spots collaboration drifting from a radio across the alley. Stylistically, it feels like nostalgia. Once again, the vocal delivery is plodding and formal; incredibly stiff-upper lipped and mannered. You can picture strangers politely dancing with each other for the first time, stepping deliberately and carefully and it mirrors the sort of casual sex Wink and Reenie are engaging in. It becomes clear from the things they both say and don't say in this whispered afterglow conversation, that this thing between Wink and Reenie is not substantial but more of a make-believe. He is not offering to be her serious boyfriend. And it underscores the act of make-believe that happened between Sal and Wink the night before, when she inhaled his scent in order to think of her husband.

#6 "Peace Brothers Peace (It's Truly Wonderful)" – Royal Rhythm Boys (1939)

An uncharacteristically straight-faced gospel-lite for Slam Stewart, the sometime duet partner of the irreverent Slim Gaillard, but it's this apparent sincerity that contrasts nicely with the more complex reactions, from both Sal and Wink, to the news of victory over Japan. Neither person enjoyed the war, of course, but its end raises complicated questions about how each will continue. Wink is not one of the many men dancing in the street, grabbing strange women and stealing kisses. As "truly wonderful" as the advent of peacetime may be, life will no longer be quite so simple in many real ways.

#7 "Laguna" – Slim Gaillard Quartet (1945)

It's nearly impossible to describe Slim Gaillard to the uninitiated. Suffice it to say that this track features that aspect of his diverse vocal style that might be called "laughing gas croon." With bassist Tiny "Bam" Brown, they improvise about the seagulls out in the bay: "floppity-flop!...Swan dive-o-roony!" This isn't just gleefully wacky, its accurate: like a punch drunk haiku, these rapid-fire snatches of intelligible speech paint a picture. You can see the ocean out there; the rocky coastline.

This is the sound of Chesty's view at the naval yard in San Francisco and feeling heady with finally being back in the States; even open to a little goofing around (unfortunately.) It's also the sound of Wink and Sal at the same place, after the accident, collecting Chesty's casket, though now the playfulness sounds deadly and foolish.

I originally considered exploring a scene in which Wink takes a side trip down to LA and catches Slim Gaillard at Billy Berg's or some other club—or at least debates the idea of doing so. (Slim was playing on the west coast at this time and this track was recorded there, possibly at a live club date.) Though I do believe in the idea of the scene—that the thought would occur, in "real life," to a character like Wink and that it had merit in terms of showing how he's found himself in a situation where he must sacrifice his own personal desires to do the noble thing and babysit the widow of a friend—(who is, herself, now Wink's friend, too)— ultimately, I decided not to write it because I wanted to keep the story very tight and focused and I didn't want to create an obvious "pet" cameo that might be seen as distracting or showy or self-indulgent. But I do feel that Wink, in "real life," either went to see Slim or read that he was playing out there and wanted to go see him play, but ultimately chose not to abandon Sal.

#8 "I'm Thru With Love" – Nat King Cole Trio (1945)

On the return train trip, they stop in Nebraska to bury Chesty. Sal contemplates her prospects as a young widow. Nat King Cole's smooth delivery, more than the literal message of the lyrics, suggests Sal's true assessment of her situation. In her more contemplative moments, staring out the train window on the way back to Chicago, she tells herself that the heart eventually mends, over time, and she is only twenty-five. On the other hand, she's only twenty-five: if it somehow didn't mend, the prospect of living with a "locked heart," as the song says, until she dies of old age, is chilling.

#9 "Travelin' Blues" – Slim Gaillard's Boogiereeners (1945)

Wink considers bugging out, now that he's going to essentially be a guy living down the hall from a widow. He feels torn between personal desires, noble obligations and fears that he should be moving on and never will. And it's all pretty much spelled out exactly, with Slim Gaillard's most slit-eyed, stoned-to-the-gills very mellllllowww drawl, in this spoken blues about considering leaving Chicago. After something about getting a ticket, he begins: "Chicago's all reet but I think I'm gonna cut on outta this town/ ‘cause it's really bringin' me down…" The melancholic crawl continues, mapping out a theoretical itinerary, and ending, almost with a sigh, as he slips in, at the last second, "Everything is all right here… I think I'll stay here a while… Root!"

(If there seems to be a wealth of Slim here, it's because his hep humor and casual approach to inebriation suits Wink at this point in his life.)

#10 "Scotching with Soda" – Slim Gaillard Trio (1945)

When Wink's hero and former painting teacher, the great calendar artist Gil Elvgren, stops by the camera shop with his wife and Reenie in tow, Wink is too embarrassed to be seen in such reduced circumstances, shooting girlie photos, unable to produce "real" art, and so slips down into the cellar and ties one on with some of the first scotch available after the war. While waiting for the Elvgrens to leave, he ends up napping and nipping down there in the dark, and vividly imagines an alternate world in which things turned out differently and he became a respected colleague of the famous artist.

An easy, peppy, upbeat piano tune, with collegial joining-in on the choruses from Bam Brown and Zutty Singleton, this one sounds not unlike someone making the best of being stuck in a small room, pacing around in the shadows.

#11 "Stay a Little Longer" Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (1945)

Another late night interlude in the hallway between their apartments prompts Wink's sudden train trip to St. Johns, Michigan, a rural area north of Lansing where his Uncle Lem raised him on his wheat farm. That night, out on the porch, this hoedown of a Texas swing classic—a smash in '45—would probably come on the radio. Pre-Clash, this song, in this context, sets up the timeless topic "should I stay or should I go?" Both his Uncle Lem—and some part of himself—is voting that he stay there on the farm. Part of Wink, though, is still thinking about that moment with Sal the night before, also thinking he should have lingered a little longer in that clutch in the hallway.

#12 "But She's My Buddy's Chick" - Nat King Cole Trio (1946)

As he finally faces his feelings for Sal, the normally easy-going Wink struggles with internal debate and rationalizations. Chesty may be gone, but still—Wink's just not that kind of a guy.

Probably.

#13 "Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" -- Dinah Shore (1946)

Out of deference to the cake flour–related demise of Chesty, Sal and Wink eschew cake for pie at their wedding lunch.

At the bridge on this one, the lyrics demand: "Mama! When you bake/Mama! I don't want cake…"

This hip-swinging, infectious bit of nonsense tore up the charts that year, and it seems to speak, in a general sense, to the end of rationing and a return to those small delights that soldiers pined for for so long: the regional foods and secret family recipes. In a sense, the song says "the war is over—dig in!" The sentiment can be applied more metaphorically to Wink and Sal, as well. Enough time has passed. It's time to indulge in whatever "makes your eyes light up…"

Of all the overplayed chestnuts from that swing era, this one really still works. Part of the appeal is that, hey, that sexy voice purring along? That's Dinah Shore. Seriously. The fact that she's a real down-home, girl-next-door adds everything to the sizzle of "I never get enough of that wonderful stuff!"—just as the wholesomeness of Sal added to the hubba-hubba of her pinup shots. The thinly veiled innuendo of "Go to the oven and make some ever lovin'" recalls Sal's first successful self-shot series of pinups: the ones of cooking for "her man," posed in her kitchen right after that first meal she scraped together for Wink.

#14 "Sooner or Later" —Les Brown with Doris Day (1947)

Sooner or later things were bound to change, sooner or later they'd get in real trouble with the cops, sooner or later the idea of starting a family would arise, sooner or later someone would get "ideas" about her and things would go too far…

There's a hypnotic, slightly queasy-making churn to the horn parts that's a catchy hook, sure, but seems like a clue that something's also slightly off-kilter. Lyrically, on the surface, it is about two people finally coming together romantically—hooray!—but there's also a lot here about people coming around, hanging around and knock-knock-knocking on doors… Not so hooray.

#15 "Open the Door, Richard" – Louis Jordan (1947)

An unwelcome visitor interrupts a late night, very personal photo shoot of Wink's pregnant new wife.

A hit on the charts a month or two before this scene, the comic nuttiness of this jivey jumper plays as a nice contrast with the seriousness of the event, though the two share very similar plot points: in both the song and this part of the novel, someone has had too much to drink and is trying to bust in in a very dangerous manner. The percussive knocking, the yelled chant and the frantic exuberance all make for a creepily light underplaying of the real peril.

#16 "Hot House" – Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (1945)

This live track starts out with laughter and perhaps a lack of inattention—then the sharp raps counting it off and the urgent, descending melodic lines pushing forward with all do haste. We're somewhere new now, feeling very big city and postwar and atomic age and at loose ends. The hip-swaying, cooing sounds of the Andrews Sisters and the honeyed ooze of Glenn Miller are nowhere to be seen here. Something new and huge and chaotic is happening.

This is the sound of Sal and Wink getting the hell out of Chicago; of driving through the night in a car borrowed from Reenie. This is the sound of not packing and not planning, just going.

#17 "I Want to Go Back to Michigan" – Billy Murray (1914)

Though the Andrews Sisters probably have the most "Forties" sounding version of this, theirs wasn't recorded till the following year, 1948, along with the version that really popularized this Irving Berlin chestnut, Judy Garland's track for the movie Easter Parade. Bob Sovey put out a creamy jazz sax version that year, as well. But I believe this ancient, scratchy Edison 78 of "the Denver Nightingale" would be the sort of hokum Wink's Uncle Lem might keep, in the parlor—something he might occasionally play on the old Victrola, just to chant along with its barky, declarative: "I-was-born-in-Michigan! And-I-wish-and-wish-again!"

Complete with barnyard sound effects, it would be the sort of thing that would gnaw away in Wink's head ("I want to go back to the farm/Far away from harm") and—after Sal had been cooped up there for more than a couple days—drone on in her head, as well. I suspect it would work against the proposal of moving permanently "back" to Michigan.

Laurel and Hardy also recorded a 78 that would have existed at this time and it's fairly close to the cornball recitation of Billy Murray. Both versions are nostalgic-sounding in a way that underscores the chronological notion of "wanting to go back." Both Sal and Wink might well wish they could go back to an earlier, safer time, when they weren't being harassed by thugs and government men and things were so much simpler.

#18 Five minutes of silence.

When Sal first sets eyes on Ann Arbor, Wink takes her around on a tour of downtown. They visit several real campus-area spots that no longer exist today, including a famous little eatery called Red's Rite Spot that's been gone for forty years. My mom used to tell me about hanging out there as a coed; that they had a jukebox that featured, for a nickel, five minutes of silence, for anyone trying to study, or as in this case, for young couples trying to have an important, life-altering conversation.

#19 "At Sundown" — Jerry Murad's Harmonicats (1947)

Sal realizes they might be stuck living on the farm. With its twangy pedal steel, its flatulent Green Acres-style buzzy harp for bass and its extremely whitebread chromatic harmonica playing the zingy carefree melody like a hayseed Toots Thielemans, this instrumental is the perfect tune with which to bounce along on a tractor seat—or sit there on the porch, pregnant, watching your husband do so, with yet another sun going down and panic setting in about what's next.

#20 "Ann Arbor Days" – University of Michigan Men's Glee Club

Lyrically, the song is sheer boosterism: "Worldly cares were far away/All friendships were strong/And life a sweet song/In those wonderful Ann Arbor Days." But the angelic choral harmonies belie the darker reality Wink and Sal face when they try to settle down in one of the town's choicer picket fence neighborhoods and find their recent past has reached them even there. It takes on a certain stuffy, funereal sound, especially when placed against the backdrop of Sal and Wink being turned away from a home they aren't allowed to buy.

#21 "Twilight Time" – The Three Suns (1947)

In the final chapter, Sal and Wink find a place to live, though it's not their first choice. As they review construction of the new subdivision on the barren, frontier side of Ann Arbor, a very pregnant Sal imagines what life will be like here, with future children and trees grown in and a staid, slightly-watered down version of her former life. This easy-listening 1947 instrumental remake of the mid-war hit gently seeps along with accordion, theater pipe organ, and all things overly nice and prettified. Lilting, safe and undeniably wistful, the sound hints at the soporific cocktail music soon to come in post-war suburban American neighborhoods like this.

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of the Mills Brothers, Geffen, 2000 (#1)
Music from Humphrey Bogart Movies, The Sound Track Factory, 2002 (#2, #3)
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of the Ink Spots, Geffen, 1999 (#4, #5)
Slim Gaillard 1940-1942, Royal Rhythm Boys 1939, Chronological Classics 753, 1994 (#6)
Slim Gaillard Vout for Voutoreenees, ABM 1257, 2000 (#7, #10)
The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio, The Vocal Classics (1942-46), Capitol 724383357123, 1995 (#8, #12)
Slim Gaillard 1945, Chronological Classics 864, 1996 (#9)
The Essential Bob Wills 1935-47, Columbia 48958, 1992 (#11)
Cocktail Hour: Dinah Shore Columbia River Ent., 2000 (#13)
Doris Day: Complete Recordings with Les Brown, Jazz Factory 22846, 2002 (#14)
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, 1946-47, Chronological Classics, 2006 (#15)
Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown Jazz, 2008 (#16)
Billy Murray, I Want To Go Back to Michigan, Edison Records 2507, 1914 (#17)
Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, Selected Favorites, Verve, 2006 (#19)
The University of Michigan Men's Glee Club, Songs of Michigan, UofM, 2005 (#20)
The Three Suns, Honeysuckle Rose, Jukebox Entertainment, 2008 (#21)

Steve Amick and Nothing but a Smile links:

the author's website
the author's Facebook group

Associated Press review
Bookmarks Magazine review
Boston Globe review
New York Times review
Providence Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

Ann Arbor Chronicle profile of the author
Five Chapters short story by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for his novel The Lake, the River & the Other Lake

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
52 Books, 52 Weeks
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists

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