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May 27, 2010

Book Notes - Jillian Lauren ("Some Girls: My Life in a Harem")

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

Jillian Lauren's memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is much more than the simple chronicling of her time in the harem of Brunei prince (as the title would suggest). Lauren recounts her life from fledgling acting career to sex worker to searching for her birth mother, all with a keen reporter's eye and brutal doses of honesty in this well-written and straightforward account of her life.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"Lauren tells the story straight, without much moralizing, but the corruption of the aristocrats, the powerlessness of the women and the destitution of life outside the harem speaks for itself."

In her own words, here is Jillian Lauren's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem:

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is, in many ways, a typical coming of age memoir about a teenage girl in New York who tries to be an actress and goes way off the rails. Less typically, it happens to be set in the harem of the Prince of Brunei, where I lived on and off for a year-and-a-half.

Looking at my journey from a musical perspective, I have to begin on the Great White Way. As a young girl, my every waking moment was consumed with my passion for musical theater. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you that I wanted to be the white cat in Cats— the one with the spot lit solo at the top of the show. There are a few musicals, such as Grease and The King and I, which serve as extended metaphors throughout the book.

As a teen, I reluctantly shelved my treasured show tunes, figuring that they were at odds with my newly discovered love for punk rock. I dubbed Patti Smith my punk fairy godmother, my yardstick of all things cool and right. But even Patti Smith couldn't sway me from a series of ill-advised choices. As a result of these choices, I found myself halfway around the world, held in sway by a narcissistic playboy. I attended the Prince's parties every night, singing Asian pop karaoke and dancing in drunken conga lines with beautiful quasi-prostitutes from all over the world.

Moments sometimes turn on music and that music lives in your muscle memory. Writing memoir requires a descent into moments most people would consider better left forgotten. Music plays a big part in the actual narrative of Some Girls, but there is also invisible music buried in its pages-- music that doesn't appear in the story, but ferried me across time to get to there.

In my playlist, I tried to throw in a bit of all of it. Maybe, like pearls of mercury, these disparate songs will come together to make something whole and shining.

1. "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself well…how did I get here?

This is the epigraph to Some Girls and in many ways is The Question, right? "How did I get here?" is the moment of introspection that begets any real self-examination.

2. "Gloria" by Patti Smith

Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Slick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me.

This is the opening stanza to Patti Smith's radical reinvention of "Gloria," originally recorded by Them. I consider this to be the quintessential statement of personal responsibility, the ultimate refusal to be a victim. Throughout the book, when faced with difficult decisions, I ask myself, "What would Patti Smith do?" in hopes of tapping into the mojo of this song.

3. "There are Worse Things I Could Do" from the musical Grease

There are worse things I could do,
Than go with a boy or two.
Even though the neighborhood thinks I'm trashy,
And no good,
I suppose it could be true,
But there are worse things I could do.

This is the bad girl anthem. I defy you to show me a bad girl, a slut, a girl who wears too much eyeliner and "willingly" bangs the football team at a party one night, who doesn't inwardly do a fist pump at the justice of this song. We are the brunettes. We are the altos. We may or may not have hearts of gold but we definitely have the best fucking song in the show.

4. "Downtown Train" by Tom Waits

The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls.
They try so hard to break out of their little worlds.

This song is New York to me. I listened to it a lot in the car when I was writing Some Girls. The lyrics are gorgeous, but it's the longing in the opening guitar riff that I felt desperate to capture somewhere, anywhere, in my prose. I probably didn't achieve my goal, but I don't think the point of that kind of goal is achieving it.

5. "Shall We Dance" from the musical The King and I

Shall we dance?
Shall we then say "Goodnight" and mean "Goodbye"?
Or perchance,
When the last little star has left the sky,
Shall we still be together
With are arms around each other
And shall you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?

When people ask me about my best moment in Brunei, I tell them that my best moment happened right before I got there. My best moment occurred when I stood on a balcony in Singapore at dawn, alone and halfway around the world, with an ocean of unknown possibilities in front of me.

I included this song less for the obvious parallels between Some Girls and The King and I (like my fondness for bonnets and hoopskirts) and more for the suspended moment it captures, the one in which the dance hasn't started yet and anything could happen.


Kasih dengarlah hatiku berkata
Aku cinta kepada dirimu sayang…

"Kasih" is a cheesy Malay pop song and it was the Prince's favorite. After being ignored for my first two weeks in Brunei, the Prince's right hand man asked me to sing. I hastily learned "Kasih" overnight and managed to pull it off at the party the following evening. It was the first time the Prince really looked at me. I include it because Malay pop songs are so much a part of the soundtrack of my nights in Brunei. I can still sing "Kasih" all the way through, though I never did learn the meaning of the words. But I do know that "kasih" means "darling." I also know that "aku cinta padamu" means "I love you."

7. "Two Ladies" from the musical Cabaret

Beedle dee, dee dee dee,
Two ladies.
Beedle dee, dee dee dee,
Two ladies.
Beedle dee, dee dee dee,
And I'm the only man,

I wanted to choose a song from my beloved Cabaret, but "Mein Herr" was too obvious and "Maybe this Time" was just too pathetic. Since the bulk of Some Girls finds me hanging out with a guy who had forty other girlfriends and that's not even counting his three wives, I thought "Two Ladies" was appropriate.

As a kid, I was captivated with a young Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. She expressed exactly my sentiments about myself when describing herself as, "strange and extraordinary." I must have been so enchanted by that turn of phrase that I missed the rest of the movie, during which Sally's reckless choices force a deep distinction between her fantasy life and her reality. In her fantasies, she is a star on the rise. In her reality, she is stuck in a seedy and decadent prison of her own design.

8. "Just Want to Be Your Friend" by Puck and Natty

Now you're hanging at my house with paint on your face
And a real tight blouse.
It's not time for the G-friend and I must admit to you
I'm so horny!

First, I want to say, Who? Who the heck are Puck and Natty?

The only place I can find a reference to this song is on the Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack, circa 1992. Exactly the year I first went to Brunei.

This song was so popular at the parties that the DJ often played it twice a night. It became our informal "Time Warp," complete with choreographed dance moves. All the girls (even the ones who didn't speak English and had no idea what they were saying) would sing along and shout in unison with the part that goes, "I'M SO HORNY!"

Up until a minute ago when I looked up the lyrics, I always thought that they were saying "defect" instead of "g-friend."

9. "One Night in Bangkok" by Murry Head

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster.
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free.

This song relates to the book on many levels, not the least of which is that they're both busting at the seams with Thai hookers.

Mostly I picked this song because it's about the subversion of one's expectations. It seems that many people pick up Some Girls expecting either a romance novel (I think the word "harem" throws them off) or a cautionary tale. Nope- it's a literary memoir. Surprise!

When I researched the song, I discovered a bonus…it's a show tune! No kidding. It was written by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame) with lyrics by Tim Rice, for the musical Chess.

I also included it because at my book launch party, my friend Diamondback Annie danced to it.

To fully understand the glory of Diamondback Annie, I first have to explain to you that on the outside, she's a delicate, beautiful little cherry blossom. She inspires near fatal bouts of yellow fever in all of my sensitive guy friends who have secret "me-love-you-long-time-GI" hard-ons that they've suppressed ever since their freshmen years at Sarah Lawrence. My dude friends are gaga over Annie, to the tune of about sixteen obsessive emails after every party I throw.

Hey, that Annie is so smart.
Hey, Annie seems like such a nice girl.
Was it my imagination, or were there sparks flying between me and Annie?

I love telling them she does a burlesque show, just to see their faces turn into cartoon drawings, complete with bulging eyes and tongues that roll straight out onto the floor.

The men pile in the door, expecting some lovely tease with fans and tassels, but there's always a twist at the end of Annie's show….and that twist is generally a massive phallus of some kind. When she does her Paul Stanley routine, the phallus actually shoots confetti. The reveal at the end of the routine she did to "One Night in Bangkok" was subtler. It was a hyper-realistic semi-erect penis encased in a mesh banana hammock. Tongues rolled back into mouths and a murmur traveled through the crowd. Huh? What? What the heck? What just happened? Was that real?

I'll never tell.

10. "Hold on, Hold on" by Neko Case

In the end I was the mean girl
Or somebody's in-between girl
Now it's the devil I love
And that's as funny as real love

If you want to have cred of any sort in this lifetime, any playlist you make must contain at least one song by Neko Case. That's the rule. I didn't make it up.

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood rivals Rain Dogs for the album most listened to while lying on the floor of my office and crying, during the time I was writing Some Girls.

And in the end of time in Brunei I was exactly the girl in this song. I was the mean girl. I had traveled so far from myself.

And the line about, "hanging ‘round the ceiling half the time," perfectly describes my destination of choice during my time as a sex worker. I was hanging ‘round the ceiling while my body was on the ground making money. I didn't realize that it would take me years to figure out how to come back down.

11. "Singapore" by Tom Waits

We sail tonight for Singapore
Don't fall asleep while you're ashore

This completely mental song captures the two tonal threads of Some Girls. On one hand the song has dream-like, fairy tale ("land of nod") imagery and on the other it's just creepy and demented ("wash your mouth out at the door"). But fairy tales are almost always grotesque and dark, until Disney gets their hands on them. And even Disney can't always pound out the creepiness. Watch Pinocchio. Seriously. It's like Exorcist scary.

12. "Good Fortune" by PJ Harvey

And I feel like
Some bird of paradise
My bad fortune
Slipping away

And I feel the
Innocence of a child
Everybody has
Something good to say

This is a song about the ever-present possibility of hope and forgiveness. It's a song about the magic of having a chance to see the world anew.

I wouldn't say that Some Girls has a happy ending, but I would say that it ends with a hopeful beginning.

13. "Some Girls" by The Rolling Stones


Jillian Lauren and Some Girls: My Life in a Harem links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's book tour events
excerpt from the book (at The Frisky)
excerpt from the book (at the publisher)

AlterNet review
Fashion review
Hipster Book Club review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
Jewish in St. Louis review
Recovering Californian review
Sonic Electric review

Dave Knows Portland interview with the author
Glo interview with the author
LA Weekly profile of the author
Los Angeles Magazine interview with the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Marie Claire interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
New York Post interview with the author
NYU Livewire profile of the author
Penguin Blog posts by the author
Portland Mercury profile of the author
Reading Local: Portland interview with the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author
San Francisco Chronicle interview with the author
SF Appeal interview with the author
Willamette Week 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)
musician/author interviews
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 the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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