April 8, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jennifer Gilmore's new novel Something Red perfectly captures America of the late 70's and early 80's through one family's experiences. Gilmore skillfully weaves the story together as the four Goldstein family members take turns at narration in a novel where politics, activism, and even music mix gracefully.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"It’s worth bringing to the story of the Goldsteins' lost ideals and lingering illusions our own layered memories and regrets. Amid the confusion of past experiences that create and sometimes paralyze the present, Gilmore has pulled off a remarkable feat: not of fusing the personal and the political but of showing why they’re so difficult to reconcile."
A lot of writers have running playlists of their novels. While I never—ever—listen to music while writing, this changed when my book started to revolve in many ways around music. The story takes place in DC in 1979. It's about a family in which everyone—Sharon, the mother, Dennis, the father, Vanessa, the sister and Ben, the brother, and the grandparents, too—believes he is a radical. So much of the way we express ourselves and our beliefs is through music, and so each generation in the novel looks to music to help define that, both to the world, and to themselves. Plus: it was 1979. Disco was—finally!—dead. Punk rock in its hardcore form was dying too, its final nail in the proverbial coffin being the death of Sid Vicious. But on US shores we were hearing the more commercialized version when the Clash's London Calling was released. It was the height of rock and roll: Queen, Pink Floyd, and Zeppelin were all on the radio, as was the Carpenters, Elton John and the Police, and my characters resisted or embraced, as we all do, the radio friendly music of the day.
While 1979 was the year that family is fixed in, and while that is a little before my time, we are always having a dialogue with the music of our past, be it what our parents listened to as we grew up, or what we first turned to on our own, as teenagers. And those sounds change and develop, cement into something resembling taste as we grew into our adulthoods. But music is also passed on, and so while I was writing, it was three generations of music I listened to so that I could understand—and mine my personal experiences—for the way in which music reinforces or belies our belief systems. I tried to both skewer and celebrate that in the novel.
So: here's my (very) mini soundtrack to my characters' ideas of dissent, in some of its varying degrees and contexts. It's limited to music that was written in or before 1980, as listened to by my characters and me.
Bad Brains, "Banned in DC"
I have to start with "Banned in DC." Sadly, I was too young to be around for Bad Brains inception in 1977, and I never saw them live. They had relocated to NYC by the time I was in high school as they'd truly been banned from DC music venues, as the song asserts. But their fingertips left prints everything, from, most obviously, Fishbone, a band that was more my era than my characters', but also Minor Threat, and Henry Rollins, even Metallica. And while my sixteen-year old Vanessa, who is venturing away from the Elton John and the Rickie Lee Jones of her youth and tiptoeing into the hardcore scene, admires Bad Brains for their political rage, she's slightly frightened of their insane energy on stage. I chose "Banned in DC" because there was something about Bad Brains, an African American punk rock band from Prince George's County, that feels even now like it couldn't have come from "our nation's capital". Whatever hardcore was, and I know precious little about that moment from personal experience, it was not black. After seeing them, Vanessa thinks for the first time, "…DC wasn't simply a generic place for bureaucracy, administrative buildings and schools and stone monuments; it felt for once that this town that had room for more than government. Everything was as it was supposed to be."
Joni Mitchell, "River"
As much as Vanessa wants to believe in punk rock as a way to be, when she's alone, she listens to Joni Mitchell's Blue. A lot. And who can blame her? That album, from 1971, has no secrets. It's as stripped down as a person can feel, if not express, and so it's through "River" that Vanessa starts to recognize the nuances of her internal life, and the difference between experiencing music collectively, at a show, and alone, in the dark. She notes the differences in what we seek in music to elicit: "This song was a journey, a feeling Vanessa was after, and she didn't need to scream and raise up her fists and stomp her feet to match some unknowable part of her precisely."
Blondie, "Heart of Glass"
It was the ubiquitous song of that time. You couldn't turn on the radio in 1979 and not hear it. And while my sixteen-year-old girl character who's just starting to pass judgment on music disdains the radio friendly sounds of that time, (particularly, the Police's "Message in a Bottle") even she is taken in by Blondie. Who couldn't be? She—and I—admires Blondie's bubble gum voice that is simultaneously edgy, the lyrics fierce. The invincible Debbie Harry, who seems to never have had a moment of self-doubt, drums driving hard behind her voice. And, Vanessa wonders, how does she manage to actually sound blonde?
The Jam, "Thick as Thieves"
I am a huge fan of the Jam, as well as pretty much anything Paul Weller did and does, particularly The Style Council. While the Jam was very much part of the soundtrack of my youth—loud and fast, but merged with the 60's sense of rock and even pop—I had to cut the song from the book for political reasons. My character wouldn't listen to the Jam because, in 1979 when the novel is set, The Jam announced they were voting for the conservative party in the UK general election. By the time I was listening in the mid eighties, Weller had denounced this embarrassment over and over again, and I could enjoy without guilt "Thick as Thieves", for the wistfulness I was already feeling for the time. I am someone who feels nostalgic in a moment, as it is occurring, and "Thick as Thieves," about friends who grow apart, was just melancholy enough, though not too sentimental, for my tastes.
Paul Williams, "Love is All Around"
The theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show! Mary Tyler Moore has always reminded me of my mother, who had a full time career when a lot of my friend's mothers were still at home. But that's a whole different story. Here, it figures in the novel in many ways. Sharon, the mother, is grappling with the new "rules" of the burgeoning women's movement and, in an attempt to deal with the malaise that has resulted from her son's leaving home for college, she turns to an EST-like cult. Her father, a B-movie maker (and also a conservative who likely turned in a few friends during the Red Scare) bemoans how television is ruining movies. It turns out that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is filmed on that same lot where he made his movies. To me, Mary Tyler Moore has always stood for the working woman struggling in a man's world. (The song is sung by a man, extolling her winning smile and the "sexy look" that will "do wonders for you".) But it's a great song! And it freezes that moment of duality of women in the work place in 1 minute and 46 seconds. Sharon says, "God how she wanted to throw a hat up into the sky that way… I want to feel like Mary fucking Tyler Moore…Sharon's eyes leaked with tears: You're gonna make it after all."
The Waitresses, "Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful"
From the album of that title, with the single "I Know What Boys Like," this song is just plain great. I love the energy and the beat and the lyrics and I love the Waitresses. Has there ever been a better song title? It's both a throw back to sixties girl bands and at the same time, it's a totally forward pop punk that makes fun of and embraces the women's movement. There are all candy shiny pretty parts of being a girl in here, but it also says some serious stuff that, when I was listening over and over on my turntable in the eighties, I wasn't hearing much of in pop songs. The Waitresses seemed more complicated to me than, say, the Go-Go's, who, though they were together in 1978, didn't release Beauty and the Beat until 1981. I don't know how I got the dates wrong on my head, but Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful came out in '82—the band broke up about a year later—and I couldn't use it! But I could still listen to it: will yesterday be better? What a perfect thought.
Pete Seeger, "We Shall Overcome"
Even though it was originally published in 1947, this song—as we all know—became the embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement. But we also sang it when we marched in Washington at the Pro-Choice rally in 1991. And I imagine some college students protesting any number of today's injustices, holding hands in a circle on any campus, singing it too. It's a song without end, that links every action, rally and protest in this country.
And it's this song, sung by Seeger, that Sharon and Dennis, associate with the bright optimism of their youth. Dennis thinks of those days of feeling he could effect change, often: "That was the day they had all stood up for Civil Rights and he had held his son high above the crowd and spun him around so Ben could witness the protest. We shall overcome some day ayayay. Sharon had run off with her roommate to egg on the police, but still he had felt the magnitude of all those people marching together to right an injustice, singing as one; he had felt it so deeply. He had thought that the world would be brought closer together, not blown apart."
And his son, too, remembers the way the song felt to him, and he tries to use it to understand the ideas he confronts in college: "But what he had really thought, truly, was: when would it be enough to simply believe? It was sad for Benji because briefly he had touched the faith he'd held as a child, those moments on the Mall, Pete Seeger with his banjo, everyone swaying back and forth, Everyone now!, Peter Seeger had said. Altogether. Pete Seeger hadn't wanted to sing alone, and the whole fucking crowd had sung with him: We shall overcome some day ayayay."
The Grateful Dead, "Ripple"
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it would have been hard growing up anywhere near the seventies and eighties and have missed some aspect of the Grateful Dead. Vanessa's friends disdain hippie culture, and listen to the Teen Idles' "Deadhead," Ian MacKaye screaming, The only good deadhead is one that's dead. But Benjamin falls in love with the band, which he is introduced to through his new socially conscious girlfriend. His first Dead show is revelatory. Looking for change, and for a sense of place, and for his own brand of peace, Ben finds that notion of loyalty and community in the parking lots and VW buses of Grateful Dead shows. And the hallucinatory drugs help, too.
Simon and Garfunkel: "American Tune"
This was in many ways the crux of Something Red for me, Simon and Garfunkel singing together to a zillion people in Central Park on a summer night, a little over a decade after breaking up. Even though the concert is in 1981, the song was written in the early seventies, and I listened to it all the time when writing the character of Dennis, the father who has made a lot of revisions in his belief system as he ages. He isn't terribly sure where he stands any more, or if he can live up to—or live down—the legacy of his activist father. In perfect harmony, Simon and Garfunkel get to the problem and beauty of that post-sixties era: Still I think of the road we're traveling on, I wonder what's gone wrong. And it speaks to how I felt as the writer, now, part of a generation paralyzed by the hangover of all that unresolved, drunken idealism: We come in the age's most uncertain hours and sing an American tune. This is my sentimental favorite.
Johnny Cash, "Ring of Fire"
I had to cut this song from the book because of several plot points, but this was Dennis's song, and I listened to it, and the many covers of the song, while writing. Though no one sings it—or sings much of anything for that matter—better than Johnny Cash, I have the most affection for the Social Distortion cover. To me, that gets to the cruelty of love that the lyrics directly state, but the tempo and tone doesn't allow. The Social Distortion version is from 1990, though, a decade after the world of my novel. Blondie did a cover in 1980; Vanessa could have heard it on the B-movie classic, Roadie, and it could have crystallized the musical difference of the generations; her father's music—it was written in 1963 by Johnny and June Cash—interpreted, just like radicalism by the next generation.
Jennifer Gilmore and Something Red links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists