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August 7, 2009

Book Notes - Various Authors ("Love Is a Four-Letter Word")

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

I knew I would enjoy Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts for several reasons. I have nothing but respect for the literary taste of its editor, Michael Taeckens. The list of contributors contains many of my favorite contemporary writers (Jami Attenberg, Junot Diaz, Goerge Singleton, etc.), many who have already participated in the Book Notes series on this blog. Still, the quality of these essays overwhelmed me, especially the comics contributions by Lynda Barry and Emily Flake.

In their own words, here is the collective Book Notes music playlist from the contributors to Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts:

The contributors to Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts each selected one song to represent his or her essay. I’ve made an actual mix CD of their song choices. The wide array of musical choices are just as diverse, of course, as the voices in the book. It makes for an eclectic mix.

Wendy McClure
"We Will Become Silhouettes," Postal Service

I picked this song for its post-apocalyptic premise and the way it makes nuclear calamity sound just sort of wistful and bittersweet. I think one reason I used to daydream about mass destruction so much was because it really validated my feelings of loneliness and desperation, which is also what made the relationship I wrote about so very special. Special and pathetic. 

Jennifer Finney Boylan
"Sugar Magnolia," Grateful Dead

This is the song my guy-friends listen to after the debacle in my story, the melee that ensues after the talent show at the all-girls school turns into a bloodbath of girls on roller skates, bloody noses, broken pairs of glasses, and broken hearts. The story goes into more details on exactly how all of this hurt my feelings. What I remember is that then all the boys slunk off to Barry's house and drank beers and listened to Sugar Magnolia, which was supposed to be this hippy-dippy dance song about being in love with a girl so free. My own dilemma, of course was that I wanted to BE that girl so free, but it being the dark ages of GLB and especially T issues, well, as the story notes, there were things that could not be spoken, and ways in which things were not done. The odd thing was that, as a woman, I finally saw the Dead in May of 2009 at the Spectrum in Philly, and I danced, about thirty-five years too late, in my hippie skirt. It felt wonderful.

Dan Kennedy
"One Long Pair of Eyes," Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

A song almost custom made for anyone dating a dire and melodramatic divorcé ten years older under the type of severe weather patterns that the Pacific Northwest is plagued with. In the first verse Hitchcock makes you realize things could be worse by singing of a protagonist on fire whose doctor can't be bothered with it at the moment because the office is closing for the day. In the last verse there's all of this vaguely hopeful English optimism about someone falling on you like rain, and this question of when will it be like that again. So basically a song that tells you: f**k it, could be worse, you could be set aflame with no medical attention . . . then again, it's almost certainly going to get better next time, and your next love is out there somewhere. I'm sure if Morrissey had written something called "Aerobics Instructor on Fire" I'd have a different answer for this.

Kate Christensen
"Shadow Dancing," Andy Gibb

No song brings back the mid-70s to me like this one—the breathy Gibb vibrato, the sleazy instrumentals, the humping bass line conjure my parents' enormous, wobbly waterbed, sheets smelling of leftover incense/marijuana smoke, "The Joy of Sex" on the bed table. Just typing these words brings back a full-on attack of adolescent squeamishness. "Do it right, taking me through the night," indeed. 

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
"Regulate," Warren G and Nate Dogg

It’s a rap song that comes from the 1994 movie, Above the Rim, about a high school basketball player, starring Tupac Shakur and Marlon Wayans. I’ve never seen the movie.
Moreover, the actual lyrics of the song bear no direct correlation to my relationship with my girlfriend, Amy, except insofar as they could be heard all over New York City just as I was entering the high stages of unhappiness and claustrophobia. The song, in fact, is not about love at all, or the loss of love, but rather a mugging told from the victim’s point of view. Despite the subject matter, the song is rendered in a buoyant, amiable style that makes it unbelievably catchy. I remember, however, being struck by the singer’s capacity to acknowledge his fear and vulnerability in the face of his tormentors, an obvious anomaly in the rap world. The single line, "If I had wings I would fly," is delivered in such a plaintive, haunting manner that it stands out from the rest of the song. That line seemed to follow me everywhere I went.

Maud Newton
"It's Different for Girls," Joe Jackson

Jackson's jittery keyboards, snarling voice, and combative lyrics were a huge part of the soundtrack to my early college years—so much so that when I eventually plunged into a toxic three-year love affair with a guy I didn't actually like all that much, this song seemed like a kind of prophecy.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell
"Soda Shop," Jay Brannan

A great play between innocence and excess. Jay Brannan's lyrics perfectly capture that self-punishment of being wildly drunk, passing out in the street, and a resulting hangover. The bright, childlike melody and chorus remind me of how I treated my own indulgent (and often dangerous) behavior as a sort of fun adventure. But always, in the back of my mind, I knew my carousing had an expiration date—I just hoped it wouldn't be literal.

Margaret Sartor
"Miss American Pie," Don McLean

The story I'm telling here is about my first headlong rush—at age fourteen—into the thrills and disenchantments of kissing in cars, getting saved, skipping school, and dancing at the high school gym. As a teenage girl in Louisiana, I simply felt the song "American Pie" was written for me. Images like Chevys and levees were so familiar and I even had some meaningful encounters with whiskey and rye. The lyrics were as real and indecipherable as my own adolescent life. In the same way that the blues can make you feel so good about feeling so bad, this song's poetic melancholy always made me feel very alive.

Michael Taeckens
"What Difference Does It Make?" The Smiths

My essay is about a relationship I had in my early twenties, when I was largely in my default mode of free-floating sadness and longing, mentally turning everything into a dark lyrical poem. Of course I nursed The Smiths for all they were worth. When "Theo" dumped me, I listened to all of my depressing music over and over. As I was writing the essay, some lines from "What Difference Does It Make?" stuck with me:

But now you know the truth about me 
You won't see me anymore 
Well, I'm still fond of you, oh-ho-oh

Even though "Theo" made it clear he was not interested in me at all, I still wanted to be with him. However, by the end of the essay I come to realize that Theo was just as much of a romantic illusion as my whole outlook on life was. Almost twenty years later, my worldview isn’t so romantic, but I still have a soft spot for The Smiths.

Emily Flake
"Same Love Made Me Laugh, Made Me Cry," Bonnie Prince Billy

"Same Love Made Me Laugh, Made Me Cry" couldn't have been better named for my predicament. I fell in love with a cartoonist and he busted up my heart. Ding ding, sigh.

Patty Van Norman
"Song for the Dumped," Ben Folds Five

This is the song I think best represents my contribution to this volume and my feelings about failed relationships. When I was five, "fatso" and "ugly" were the harshest words I could think of to hurt the one I felt rejected by, but as an adult I find that "well f**k you too" is perhaps even more satisfying.

Michelle Green
"War," Bruce Springsteen

The 1984 cover of Edwin Starr's "War" by Bruce Springsteen not only shares the theme of my piece "Love and War Stories"—conflict is a black hole when it comes to human life and happiness—but it's a song that ran through the doomed love story as I lived it. "Jude," my memorably bad boyfriend, happened to be a mindless thug of a journalist who was desperate to become a foreign correspondent and witness the worst of the worst. So desperate that he let his ambition (only slightly more virulent than mine) destroy our lives together. The twist: Before it all came apart, I discovered a part of myself that was drawn to the same hellholes that Jude loved; with his backhanded guidance, I found my calling as a writer.

Brock Clarke
"Happy," Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones's "Happy," in which Keith Richards croaks "I need your love to keep me happy." That's what I was croaking, too, although with less success than Keith.

Jami Attenberg
"Since U Been Gone," Kelly Clarkson

Um, this is the best song ever obviously. I listened to it approximately nine bazillion times when I was getting over the ex I wrote about in my essay in the collection. It's not a weepy why-me-where-has-the-love-gone kind of song. It's a dance-around-your-apartment-and-celebrate-your-freedom kind of song. It kicks ass.

George Singleton
"Vicious," Lou Reed

In regards to my essay, was "Vicious" by Lou Reed about the woman in the relationship?  Maybe. Was it about me? Probably. The cat? Yes. Unfortunately, I have this song running through my head about once a day, whether writing fiction or non-fiction. 

D. E. Rasso
"Soul and Fire," Sebadoh

Sebadoh produced some of the most plaintive and lovelorn indie rock tunes ever. Their records nursed me through pretty much every high school breakup, and when the songs weren't sad, they were angry, and when they weren't sad or angry, they were cheerfully trippy. (These were my three teenage emotions.) Soul and Fire is the first track off of Bubble and Scrape, which came out in September 1993—just in time for my first college heartbreak. I'm surprised I didn't wear out the grooves on Side A listening to this song over and over again. 

Pasha Malla
"Flim," Aphex Twin

"Film" but f**ed up, not quite right. I thought I was living in a movie. I wasn't. It was something else.

Amanda Stern
"Wise Up," Aimee Mann


I realize that this song was written (and put to amazingly good use) for the film Magnolia, but sometimes I wonder whether Aimee Mann wrote it after returning from a failed camping trip with my ex-boyfriend. These lyrics are so flexible one can apply them to any unwinnable situation. It’s a "be careful what you wish for" song, a fortune cookie with a lengthy footnote. What I like most about the lyrics is the inherent contradiction (wise up, give up). She tells you that until you get shrewd, your bad situation won’t stop, but then, in the end, after telling you to wise up in order to control your situation, she tells you to give up. And it’s there, in that defeatist moment, that one finds wisdom in the fortune cookie. There’s wisdom in giving up. It all just depends how and why—and for whom—you fold.

Dave White
"Don't Give a F**k about You," Pussy Galore

If I had only returned my stalker-boyfriend's crazy, rambling answering-machine messages by playing him this song it would have saved us both a lot of time. It was what I was thinking practically every day of our "relationship" anyway, so I probably should have done that. And best of all, it neatly wraps up my self-absorbed, assholish behavior into an awesomely ugly little package.

Wendy Brenner
"Freeze and Explode," Cassettes Won’t Listen

In particular, its wistful, nostalgic melody, and video images of 'high-tech' 70s and 80s communication, the TV static, that haunting, heartbreaking 'NO SIGNAL' message and the weatherman shaking his hands in helpless frustration at the heavens (or God) during the refrain.

We'll meet again some other day
I hope you'll finally see
That the hardest thing I've ever done
is say goodbye to me --

and I dream that you're not left alone
I dream that you're not left alone
I dream that you're not left alone

Video can be found here.

Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts links:

the book's website
the book's Facebook group
excerpt from the book ("Jennifer Finney Boylan's "Women I Dated, When I Was a Man")
excerpt from the book (Wendy McClure's "The Last Man on Earth")

BookPage review
Charlotte Observer review
The Daily Beast review
Elle review
Iowa City Press Citizen review
Kirkus Reviews review
Palm Beach Post review
Publishers Weekly review
Real Simple review
Time Out Chicago review
Wall Street Journal review

Art & Literature interview with Michael Taeckens
CarolineLeavitteviulle interview with Michael Taeckens
Penguin Blog posts by the contributors

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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