June 10, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ben Greenman's new short story collection What He's Poised to Do collects five stories from his limited edition Correspondences along with nine previously uncollected stories. The common theme is the power of letter writing, and Greenman's inventive and stylish prose smartly explores the depths of human relationships.
Simon Van Booy wrote of the collection:
"Ben Greenman’s masterwork of stories inspired by letters offers fresh insight into the mysteries of intimacy. A seriously brilliant and lyrical piece of modern fiction, with characters so alive and sincere and full of longing, they may climb out of the book and follow you home."
My last Book Notes accompanied A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, a 2007 collection of short stories. About a year after that, and about six months before the 2009 novel Please Step Back, I published a limited-edition collection of stories called Correspondences. It wasn’t a book, exactly, but a box, designed by Hotel St. George Press, and the seven stories in the box (six in, actually, and one on) dealt with letters and letter-writing. My new book, What He’s Poised to Do, coming from Harper Perennial at the end of the month, serves as an extended postscript to Correspondences, keeping five stories, adding nine, and maintaining the same insistence that most important human interaction occurs in letters. In that spirit, I have selected songs that are themselves letters.
Hank Williams, "Dear John" (1951)
The “Dear John” letter, in which a woman writes to inform her boyfriend that the relationship has run its course, supposedly got its name during World War II, though the phenomenon certainly precedes the conflict. Hank Williams came along a few years later with this dramatization of the principle. The note in question is not mailed, but taped to the door, and the song's subtitle (and second line of the chorus), "I sent your saddle home," is one of the best kiss-offs in popular music.
The Mighty Sparrow, "Dear Sparrow" (1958)
A helpful prologue sets up the song: “King Sparrow is coming to tell you about a letter he received.” This calypso is a labyrinthine recounting of Sparrow’s plight, which includes betrayal, disputed paternity, and a wry resolution. As a footnote, it is worth noting that Mighty Sparrow is one of the only artists who assumed a colorful pseudonym though his real name, Slinger Francisco, was just as good.
Chuck Berry, "Dear Dad" (1965)
The last Chuck Berry song to hit the Top 100 during his first run at Chess Records, this short, sweet piece starts out in fourth gear and never lets up. It’s formatted as a letter home from college from a young man who wants a new car because his old Ford just isn’t roadworthy. The punchline comes, as punchlines do, right at the end, when the young man discloses his identity: “Sincerely, your beloved son, Henry Junior Ford.”
Bobby Blue Bland, "Dear Bobby (The Note)" (1966)
Bland’s narrator suffers in a lonely room with a letter that has been smudged mostly to incomprehensibility by his own tears. The reason? His lover has met another man. Bland’s vocal performance on this intimate duet is, as usual, breathtaking, and Vi Campbell holds her own in counterpoint.
Rolling Stones, "Dear Doctor" (1968)
This song, a country ballad about a romantically compromised young man, is one of the few light moments on Beggars Banquet. Late in the song, the narrator’s betrothed leaves him, and she leaves a note behind: “Darlin’, I’m sorry to hurt you / But I’ve no courage to speak to your face / But I’m down in Virginia with your cousin Lou / There’ll be no wedding today.” Mick Jagger sings the text of that note in a ridiculous falsetto that establishes character – both the woman’s capriciousness and his own misogyny. The song has never been performed live by the band.
John Prine, "Dear Abby" (1973)
Some letters travel between intimates. Others serve a different purpose entirely, like letters to advice columnists. What’s telling about the song is how the varied problems Prine sketches (low self-esteem, tumultuous family life, borborygmi) have identical solutions: “You are what you are and you ain't what you ain't / So listen up buster and listen up good / Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.” It’s a nice reversal of the usual case, where the letter-writer believes that he or she is presenting himself as he or she truly is; here, Dear Abby (or Prine as Dear Abby) suggests that the letter is a vain attempt to elude the real self.
Roy Wood, "Dear Elaine" (1973)
Wood is a renowned pop-music jokester, but this is a very serious, formal ballad, complete with harpsichord and courtly lyrics; the spurned lover laments that "From the gateway to your arms I am forbidden." Until the song dissolves into an orgy of multitracked vocals and variable-speed effects, there’s nothing perverse about it, and that's the most perverse thing about it.
Leonard Cohen, "Dear Heather" (2004)
Many people write letters, but only poets write letters this concise, sensual, and inviting: “Dear Heather / Please walk by me / With a drink in your hand / And your legs all white / From the winter.” And only poets like Leonard Cohen then set those concise and sensual poems in dissonant soundscapes and subject their lyrics to stretching, compression, bifurcated processed vocals and robotic spelling.
Ben Greenman and What He's Poised to Do links:
Fictionaut interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Correspondences
Largehearted Boy interview by the author with Rhett Miller
Largehearted Boy essay by the author for the theme song of his novel, Please Step Back
Memoirville interview with the author
PEN America essay by the author
Recommended Reading interview with the author
Significant Objects story by 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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
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