April 23, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Robin and Ruby is K.M. Soehnlein's followup to his novel The World of Normal Boys, and is every bit as riveting as the original. Set in 1985, Robin McKenzie, now 20, and his sister Ruby explore their young adulthood while Soehnlein vividly portrays the America of the mid-1980s in culture and spirit.
The Bay Area Reporter wrote of the book:
"The author's evocation of time and place – a very intensely realized 1985 – is spot-on perfection with its racial tensions (George is black, and his cynicism blooms as the novel progresses), youthful rebellion, unabashed face-to-face personalization (no Internet, no cell phones), the innovation and mounting paranoia of AIDS and HIV-antibody testing, digesting J.D Salinger's Franny and Zooey "in a trance," and, well, St. Elmo's Fire and going out clubbing in 'a fuchsia-and-turquoise shirtdress with an attached silver belt.'"
Music is very important to my writing, except when it's not important at all. When I start writing a new piece of fiction, I listen to the music of the era in which it's set, letting the soundscape provide context and inspiration. If the character might be listening to a song, I want to listen to it, too. It feels necessary. The rhythm, the lyrics, the attitudes attached to the musical genre—all of it shapes the way language emerges to tell the story. But once I've established all that, I want the music to go away. When I'm revising, I'd just as soon park myself in a café while something random, selected by the barista, plays through the speakers. For whatever reason, I'm able to block that out, much as I do the conversation going on at the next table. Best of all, I'd happily revise in silence in my cluttered home-office, curtains drawn, no light but from the computer screen, no noise but the soft clicks of my keystrokes. At that point, the music is in the text, not in my ears.
Billy Ocean, "Loverboy"
When I started writing Robin and Ruby, I was holed up in a friend's guestroom for a few weeks on a self-imposed writing retreat. This friend's daughter's music collection was piled up in the corner, and fortuitously she had a Billboard compilation from 1985, the year I knew my novel would be set. The first song on that CD was Billy Ocean's "Loverboy," four minutes of gloriously overproduced pop rhapsody. Suddenly I was writing a scene at a beach house keg party, with Billy Ocean playing in the background while drunken 19-year olds ran around throwing cups of beer on each other, all of it observed by my self-possessed heroine, Ruby MacKenzie.
Depeche Mode, "Blasphemous Rumors"
Ruby garbs herself in black, from her hair dye to her combat boots. She bonds with two girls she meets on the boardwalk by trading names of bands they like: Siouxsie and the Banshees, OMD, The Smiths. When she reunites with Chris, a boy she hasn't seen since they surreptitiously smooched on a retreat weekend for Catholic teenagers, she wonders if he has lost his faith, as she has, in the intervening years. The answer comes when he plays this song, Depeche Mode's hit, which strings together scenes depicting God's "sick sense of humor." The question of Ruby's faith plays out over the course of the book; in the end it's not as simple as she, or Depeche Mode, would have it.
"All Good Gifts" from the Godspell soundtrack
After running into Chris, Ruby remembers more and more of her religious past—a time that her brother, Robin, refers to as her "God Squad days." Unlike the fundamentalism and intolerance that saturates so much of today's middle class Christianity, the 1970s were a period of folk guitars in church, of holding hands in candle-lit rooms for "shared prayers." The image of Jesus as a loving flower-child in a Superman jersey came from the musical Godspell, so appealing to insecure Catholic kids like me in need of a God that offered forgiveness instead of doctrine. The Broadway-meets-folk-rock songs were incredibly catchy, and long after I've stopped believing, a praise song like "All Good Gifts" can still make my agnostic brain go a little mushy. In this respect, there's a lot of me in Ruby.
John Parr, "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)"
If you were twenty in 1985, as I was, you probably got roped into seeing an awful movie called St. Elmo's Fire. It was a John Hughes-esque ensemble film that replaced Hughes' humor and charm with self-importance and bathos, and starred the so-called "Brat Pack"—people like Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, better looking than you and me but suffering so beautifully. The lyrics to the theme song are about as cliché as it gets: "Play the game / You know you can't quit until it's won / Soldier on / Only you can do what must be done." It even has an insistent horn section punctuating every rhyming sentiment. When people get nostalgic for the eighties, I want to force them to listen to this, just to prove how much dreck was foisted upon us back then.
Tears for Fears, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"
And then there are those eighties songs that still seem to work. This one was a huge hit in 1985. Tears for Fears fell somewhere between pop and new wave, and just about everyone I knew—the rock kids and the club kids—liked their album, Songs from the Big Chair. I got the idea that this song would be blasting from an amusement ride as Ruby entered the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. The song's opening lyric seemed to sum up my protagonists' situations rather nicely: "Welcome to your life. There's no turning back."
Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, "I Wonder if I Take You Home"
While Ruby is doing time at the Jersey shore, Robin is waiting tables in Philadelphia. I tried to imagine what a disco-baby like him—a boy who spent half of his high school years living in New York City—would be listening to, and the answer was clear: freestyle, or Latin hip-hop. This is music I loved back then, electro acts like Shannon ("Let the Music Play"), Exposé ("Point of No Return") and my favorite of all, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. In "I Wonder if I Take You Home," Lisa Velez's voice is a cooing instrument battling it out with the syncopated bass line. The song's video—with its club-formal clothes, sculpted hair and interracial coupling—is celebratory and teasing at the same time. Robin puts this song on a mix tape for his boyfriend, Peter, but after Peter dumps him, the song goes from sounding celebratory to needy, the way that the sweetest things can turn sour when circumstances change. Of course, unlike the people you used to love, the songs are always there for you, ready to be loved once again.
Prince, "Dirty Mind"
This Prince song was released in 1980, but it's the kind of song that only got better over time. After getting dumped by Peter, Robin comes back to his apartment to find his roommate, George, listening to Prince while dancing naked in the living room of their small West Philly apartment. George dashes off to get dressed, leaving Robin quietly freaked out that he finds his longtime friend so sexy, a desire that refuses to go away as the story unfolds. I loved the image of a character like George, who's a rather buttoned-up science major, breaking loose when he's alone—and Robin getting a glimpse of that. The music we listen to when no one else is around is probably the most important music of all.
"Overture: The Abduction from the Seraglio"
The young people in the novel are all wrapped up in the music of the day, but Dorothy, Robin and Ruby's mother, sticks to the classics. Mozart is the music playing in the background of a flashback in which Ruby leaves for a date with Calvin, her film-student boyfriend, to see Amadeus, the Mozart bio-pic that was a huge hit in 1984. Calvin casually disparages classical music, calling opera "dead"—thus falling immediately and irreparably from Dorothy's good graces. I didn't specify any particular Mozart piece in the novel, but I imagine it might be The Abduction from the Seraglio, the 1872 opera that the 26-year-old composer wrote on commission from the Austrian emperor, who, in a memorable scene from Amadeus, dismisses the composition by declaring, "Too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect."
Bryan Adams, "Summer of '69"
Summer, especially an East Coast summer spent on the beach, isn't complete without an inescapable hit song proclaiming the season's special power. In 1985, this song, with summer in the title and nostalgia in every line, was on the radio all the time (back when most of us heard music amplified in a room rather than piped through our earbuds). Bryan Adams sang about getting his guitar and losing his girl; Don Henley, in his 1984 hit "Boys of Summer," sang about riding with the top down and losing his girl. Ruby hears both of these songs and wonders, "What is it about the summer that makes people nostalgic for it even before it's over?" If anyone wants to answer that question, I'm all ears.
A Flock of Seagulls, "Space Age Love Song"
If I was forced to strip out every other song from my novel and leave only one, this would be it, even though it's from 1982, not 1985—I love it out of all proportion to how good it is. But it is good, with its synthesized wall of sound that builds and builds until the yearning lyrics take over and repeat one basic sentiment: "I was falling in love." Ruby dances to this song on at a new-wave nightclub; moving to its trancey, progressive melody, she falls into a pure moment of bliss that's all about the adventure she's in the midst of and the freedom she feels because of it. "Space Age Love Song" lodges itself inside Ruby, and even after all hell breaks loose, she's still able to ride its "wave of sonic longing" into the passionate night that follows.
Al Green, "Let's Stay Together"
I remember the first time I heard Al Green's 1972 hit song "Let's Stay Together": I was totally disconcerted, because I only knew Tina Turner's mid-eighties recording—and I hadn't known Tina's version was a remake. It's a deflating feeling, discovering that a song you know so well has a history about which you know nothing. (It's like when a little kid discovers that those people he calls "aunt" and "uncle" aren't his blood relatives but just close friends of the family; it doesn't change anything, but there's an uncomfortable, irrational sensation of having been duped). Tina gives Al a run for his money, but in the end, I've got to say that I prefer Al's smooth original over Tina's bombastic cover. I gave Robin all these thoughts in the book; it was one of those moments that went directly from my own brain into my character's.
Madonna, "Into the Groove"
1985 was the year of the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, where Madonna broke out of the dance-music ghetto and wound up on the main stage, with all the world her audience. "Into the Groove" was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, which helped make her a star, and the song was one of the first of her hits to be taken seriously by critics, who started to realize she was only going to get bigger. When you look at footage from Live Aid today, it's shocking how poor Madonna's vocal control is: she's flat, sharp and just off-key at different times. And yet this was one of the iconic pop performances of the year. I made Robin MacKenzie a fan; he had to be, every twenty-year-old gay boy in 1985 was hip to Madonna. The surprise to me is that twenty-five years later, she's still reigning over the charts. Of every other 80s recording artist on this list, she's the one who hasn't stopped making hits. "You've got to prove your love to me," she sang. All these years later, I guess we're still proving it.
K.M. Soehnlein and Robin and Ruby links:
7x7 article by the author
EDGE interview with the author
EDGE profile of the author
Out in the Bay interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
San Francisco Chronicle profile of the author
San Francisco Examiner interview with the author
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