January 27, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
I don't drink coffee, so when I need a jolt of energy during the workday I usually turn to a book of poetry (one is in my messenger bag at all times specifically for this purpose). For a couple of weeks this past year that book was Becca Klaver's brilliant debut collection LA Liminal.
Klaver paints a lively picture of Los Angeles, both past and present, with clever poems from various perspectives.
NewPages wrote of the book:
"This is a smart and obsessed poetry, a long meditation on a city unreal. Even with details of film school and smoking cigarettes on the balcony of her apartment, Klaver knows her own memories are abstractions. In “How to Abstract A Place,” she instructs, “Never go back,” and while the old saying, you can’t go home again, is always in the background, Klaver faces it head on in one of the prose pieces: 'You can’t go home again, but I did and I refused to listen, so that certain things were taken from me, or I made certain sacrifices. There seems to be a distinction there, but the results are the same. You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.'"
With the exception of one song (The Mynabirds' "LA Rain"), all of the songs below made up the actual mix I listened to while writing my first book of poems, LA Liminal. If the book figures LA as a way station, this is the music playing through shitty speakers in the depot.
This mix does some things better than the book does. For example, the California dreaming of the first two tracks never quite appears in LA Liminal, which starts out in the mire of disillusionment. Although I couldn't access that sunny mood in my own work, I liked that the songs could conjure an irretrievable old feeling: the idea that things were bigger, brighter, better in Los Angeles.
The playlist has an arc separate from the book, too. While LA Liminal is interested in breaking down mythologies, and indulges these myths in the first section or two before finally doing away with them, the arc of the LA mix goes something like this: excitement and anticipation (tracks 1-2), embrace (3), scorn/derision (4-6), satire/farce (7), death (8), melancholy (9-13), and farewell (14-16). Arranging this arc of pure feeling and listening to it over and over again allowed the poems to go where they needed to.
The Ramones, "California Sun"
I love this version of "California Sun" because it has enough power to convince you to get up and do something as big as moving across the country.
Micah P. Hinson, "Letter from Huntsville"
I saw Micah P. Hinson perform this song at Schuba's in Chicago, and I couldn't quite pin down its tone then, just as I can't now. There's so much achy longing in "I'll get to California someday," but then the horns that follow make you think, "Who needs California someday when we've got today?"
Four Tops, "L.A. (My Town)"
My dad raised me and my sisters on the Motown Sound, so there's something about the slow groove of the Four Tops and the ocean and traffic wooshing through the background that makes this song the ultimate childhood fantasy of Los Angeles. I've never heard anyone call Los Angeles "L.A. city" outside of this song, and here it both adds to the luster of the golden land and makes me giggle.
Stephen Malkmus singing "Let's burn the hills of Beverly!" feels so irreverent after living in a place constantly worried about wildfires. I also like think of this song as a great Northern-to-Southern-California eff-you: "Manmade deltas and concrete rivers / The south takes what the north delivers."
Dar Williams, "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York"
Southern California was a weird place to go to college. Western New York must be a really regular place to go to college. Or so I thought as I sweated my way through LA Decembers. When my favorite singer-songwriter from high school sings, "I think Southern California has more pain than we can say 'cause it wants to travel back in time, but it just can't leave L.A.," I was afraid that I was Southern California.
Magnetic Fields, "California Girls"
I cackled with glee when this song landed on a battle-ax attack fantasy against all of the plastic women of California. Also, "put on airs" and "faux folks sans derrieres" is a pretty stellar rhyme.
The Decemberists, "Los Angeles, I'm Yours"
In a way, this is the twin to "California Girls," full of hilarious, mocking rhymes ("Oh ladies, pleasant and demure / Sallow-cheeked and sure / I can see your undies"). This song also inspired the title for the poem "Touching You Again, Los Angeles," where hopefully the tongue can be heard in the cheek.
William Hung, "I Love L.A."
American Idol contestant Hung's cover of Randy Newman's song, buried in the center of the mix, is here for a few different reasons, depending on your mood. If you're feeling cruel, it's here to laugh at. If you're feeling a bit more reflective, you might think about that Idol pronouncement, "You're going to Hollywood!" and then think about how Hung ended up there anyway, though not by the usual rules. If you want to take it one step further, you could consider how Hung's version of Newman's celebratory tune has a more-than-ironic tone: there's something late-capitalist, end-of-days-y about how Hung was exploited so transparently (and so willingly) that there's no way to tell if his "I love L.A.!" is sincere or not. Those were the kinds of how-do-I-scrape-off-this-icky-commercialism feelings that LA could inspire in me on the worst days.
Elliott Smith, "LA"
I left LA in May 2003, and Smith killed himself that October. I was far from Echo Park, tucked away back in the Midwest, but his suicide and this song took me back to some of LA's darkest places.
Neko Case, "In California"
I first heard Neko Case's cover of Lisa Marr's song at her show at The Derby (RIP) in Los Feliz, during the tour for Blacklisted. It was the first time I'd seen Case live, but I was pretty sure I knew who the redhead was standing next to me in the crowd in a leopard-print cowboy hat while the opening band played. When she got up and started singing, I was standing a few feet away, and my jaw literally hung open: I couldn't believe her voice was real and not some kind of studio trick. Within the first few bars of "In California," I started sobbing for the first and only time at a live show. I'd never heard the song before, but it was instantly my LA anthem. My boyfriend and I were dead broke, but we raced to the ATM down the street to get $20, then raced back and bought Canadian Amp directly from Ms. Case, who is by now a Grammy-nominated, Billboard chart-topping superstar.
Loudon Wainwright III, "Grey in L.A."
The deep sadness of "In California" had to be followed by some sadness-with-levity, so I chose this song to let a little light back in. The song is—a bit ironically, then—about the disturbing effect that too much sunshine can have on people like me, who prefer to be linked to seasonal cycles. While I lived in Los Angeles, the constant sunniness would start to feel mocking at best, and at worst, menacing. When I finally went back to LA after seven years this October, it was grey (my preferred spelling, too—just seems greyer) every day, and LA seemed almost charming.
The Olivia Tremor Control, "California Demise, Pt. 3"
I like that it takes three tries to enact California's demise, I like how its passing is jaunty (almost celebratory), and I love any odd apocalyptic vision of LA, especially the angels, saints, and seatbelts of this one.
The Mynabirds, "LA Rain"
Perhaps because I heard it for the first time once the book was already out, I think of this song as a sort of gentler reprise of "In California." It's how LA feels to me now that I've stopped hating it and am grateful for the experiences, and the poems, it gave me. There's plenty of LA melancholy to indulge in here, but it's benign, and even comforting: "The sirens came and they went away / they told me I'd be fine." "LA Rain" is also the soundtrack to a little video I made of my trip back to LA this October.
Stephen Malkmus, "Trojan Curfew"
This song is included for a pretty literal reason: I went to college at USC, home of the Trojans, and when my parents came out for graduation, my dad ended up in the hospital for emergency hernia surgery. His doctor pulled a few strings to make sure he could get out in time for commencement, and as we drove from Centinela Hospital toward the university for the ceremony, this song came on just at the moment when we turned from the 105 onto the 110. Anyone who's ever driven from LAX toward downtown Los Angeles knows this place: it's a majestic moment where you're high above the city and can see for miles and miles, and soon you're driving straight toward the lights of downtown LA and the mountains behind it. This was my first image of Los Angeles at 17, and it was one of my last as my time there neared curfew.
Jolie Holland, "Goodbye California"
I think Jolie Holland is one of our great songwriters of place (see also "Mexico City"), and so I feel grateful that she wrote a song about California that allowed my feelings about the place to evolve. This song helped me say goodbye to LA over and over again; its bittersweetness felt sweeter and sweeter as I listened: "Goodbye to your waving trees / To your succulent wind and all my friends / fare thee well, goodbye, so be it."
The Mountain Goats, "It's All Here in Brownsville"
My sister Annie gave me the gift of a book trailer when LA Liminal came out, and The Mountain Goats were kind enough to let me use this song in that trailer. The music of The Mountain Goats was a steady companion during my final year in LA; it's mentioned in a poem in the book called "Southern California Gothic," which is an aesthetic that I made up to describe the deep dark feelings inspired by the land of endless sunshine. There is no more representative rhyme of SoCal Gothic than this song's "California" and "warn ya."
Becca Klaver and LA Liminal links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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