November 20, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ben Shaberman's essay collection The Vegan Monologues is more than a book about not eating animals. Shaberman touches on political, social, and environmental issues while recounting his own experiences, always in his humorous yet poignant voice.
The Ad Hoc Soundtrack for The Vegan Monologues
In my book of essays, The Vegan Monologues, there's a hodge-podge of musical citations, most of which I use in humorous or ironic contexts. The variety even surprised me after I went back to identify all the references. The inclusion of them had never been intentional; it just happened.
Musical allusions are a powerful device for evoking all sorts of memories, images, and emotions. Of course, the music needs to be relatively well known or it's an empty moment for most readers.
Here are several of the songs and artists that appear in the book:
"The Fall of Troy" by Tom Waits
The following line from "The Fall of Troy" is the epigraph (opening quotation) for the book: "It's the same for men as with horses and dogs. Nothing wants to die." It was the most succinct statement I could identify about why I am vegan. And Waits' rugged voice has a way of reaching into your gut and not letting go. (Interestingly, the song appears on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.)
"We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters
This song is mentioned in an essay where I lament the loss of a bumper from my old Volvo, but later feel a sense of redemption for driving an old beater rather than a resource-devouring SUV. Whether or not you like The Carpenters — they're music is the epitome of easy listening — the brother and sister team were ubiquitous during the 1970s. For me, the reference is nostalgic more than anything. I was about 9 or 10 when it was hit. At the time, I wore shirts with Nehru collars and my family drove around an Impala convertible covered in flower-power stickers. Looking back, it was all pretty creepy, yet it was the happiest I had ever seen my family. While Karen Carpenter was best known for her voice, she was an accomplished drummer, as well. She was also the "she" in "She's out of my Life," a song written for Michael Jackson. Karen died in 1983 due to complications from anorexia.
"Zip-a-dee-do-dah" from Song of the South (Disney film, 1946)
Little did I know when I used this nonsensical phrase how loaded it was. It appears in an essay about eating nothing but Chinese food for 30 days, and it describes the highly active state of my gastrointestinal system from being on so much fiber. I never knew much about the song or the film it appeared in, but I later learned that it was sung by the character Uncle Remus, an African American who is having a grand old time working on a plantation. Who knew that a good soundtrack could make slavery so much fun?
"Scarborough Fair" by Simon & Garfunkel
My girlfriend and I went to see Dan Rather give a talk at the historic Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a harpist in the lobby was playing this tune. I guess you could call it live Muzak or Muzak for rich folks. While the essay is more about Rather, I also take a moment to describe the old-money opulence of the lobby. Rather's talk was impressive; he had a remarkable grasp of American history over the last 45+ years and a keen eye toward the future.
"Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel
By the way, I am a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel, especially the Simon half. He's poetic, rhythmic, emotive, and forthright. This particular song evokes a feeling of reckoning in me, and I use it to humorously refer to the experience of picking at a garden salad while large-framed people around me are stuffing themselves silly with barbecue. Simon actually wrote the song right after JFK was assassinated. "Hello darkness my old friend…"
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan
Here's another song that evokes a feeling of reckoning. It's the song that I hummed as I used an ancient push-mower to cut my girlfriend's lawn, which I refer to as a "half-acre, knee-high garden of sadism." But times change; the girlfriend thankfully hired a neighbor to maintain the lawn and Bob Dylan now has a Christmas album.
"Dust in the Wind" by Kansas
Kansas was a welcome addition to the progressive rock movement of the 1970s. Their music included symphonic orchestration and complex arrangements, and their song writing was more sophisticated than that of most straight-ahead rock bands of that era. But the group fell victim to classic rock radio, whose limited play-lists have driven many great songs and bands into the ground. I used to read to a group of seniors at an assisted-living facility in Iowa, and "Dust in the Wind" served as a fitting soundtrack for my reading of an article about how our galaxy is hurdling toward another galaxy. Worry not; the galactic collision is still billions of years away.
Most people imagine that Pink Floyd fans of the 1970s sat around in black-lighted rooms, pulling on bongs as they listened to classic albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Well, that's exactly what I did. Nothing was quite as fun as getting stoned and taking in Floyd's large, atmospheric sound. Unlike many of my smoking buddies, I also got absorbed by the dark, socially reflective lyrics of Roger Waters, who I credit with inspiring me to put pen to paper. He is a masterful lyricist, a fact that gets overshadowed by the band's musical innovations.
Here's a favorite passage from the song "Time" — the crescendo of Dark Side — which was perhaps best known for David Gilmour's soaring guitar solo: "And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking, racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death."
Four essays in my book include references to Pink Floyd, including an homage to my first live concert experience, "Pink Floyd 1977," which I report "was like losing my virginity to a super model."
My Favorite Groups and Artists — Genesis (before 1978), Tangerine Dream, Led Zeppelin, Renaissance, Steely Dan, Hem, Bill Evans, The Avett Brothers, Josh Ritter, Carole King, and anything spacey and electronic, including most artists appearing on the public radio show Music from the Hearts of Space.
Ben Shaberman and The Vegan Monologues links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)