January 13, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeremy Page's novel Sea Change is a profound and lyrical exploration of tragedy, grief, and loss. Wonderfully written throughout, the book's ending is one of the most surprising (and finest) I have read in years.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"As introspective and painful as "Sea Change" is, it remains engaging and even surprising all the way to the end. Page knows enough about real grief to be aware that it follows no regular stages. Guy's drifting course across the sea takes him through troughs of despair and moments of transcendence, but it eventually leads him to something wholly undefined and evocative, perhaps the only possible destination after such a tragedy. This is a difficult book to recommend - a voyage into dark waters all of us want to avoid - but if something about the description resonates with you, seek it out; it won't lead you astray."
Music has always played a role in my life, and so it was unsurprising that I turned to music to be such an integral part of my second novel, Sea Change. The central character, Guy, used to play in a small scale English folk group in the pubs and clubs of East Anglia, alongside his wife, Judy. It's how they met and how they fell in love. And music, now, is all that remains of the relationship that has now vanished. Guy turns to it, for his memories, and he turns to it when he's imagining how things might have been, putting on music and driving across the southern states of America on the trip they never had. Here's the playlist I'd chose to accompany his journey.
"Kodachrome," Paul Simon
To get us in the mood, I'd have this track, for its sheer energy, its irresistible motor and its simple but fantastic lyrics. Paul Simon is everything that great American songwriting is all about – a story, a drive, and a sound that is timeless. This is music to drive to, music to stir you and - as any truly great track manages - it carves out its own space. It demands to be listened to. It's one of those tracks that you just have to go along with, stop what you're doing and start tapping that foot or drumming those fingers, or jiggling that baby on your knee. Great music should always do that – be part of the foreground, standing alongside whatever you're doing and making you a part of its world. For all these things "Kodachrome" would be on the playlist, but it's the lyrics that really makes songs like this stand out. To be able to listen to three minutes of song a thousand times, and each time hear something new said – that's special. Paul Simon's theme here, of memory, of nostalgia, of time passed and self-awareness, of wishing to record – these are themes that are highly fertile ground for a writer, and themes that I'm drawn to often. I particularly found this in Sea Change, where one of my starting points was to consider the many junction points in a life. A different choice made at any one of those decision moments, and we might be unrecognisable from the people we feel we are today. "Kodachrome" has that essence for me. It's for all those times when you feel great and you feel connected with all that you've been, but you know it could all have been so different, too.
"Muleskinner Blues," Dolly Parton
In researching Sea Change, I had one of the best trips of my life, driving across seven states in the American deep south, mostly getting off the interstate so I'd have longer to listen to the music I'd brought along. I found that in the southern states there's no need to have a road atlas, because everywhere that's made it on to a map has already made it into countless lyrics and song titles. Work out a playlist beforehand and you can pretty well navigate from the Eastern seaboard to the Mississippi gulf coast. Doing this, I happily drove from hillbilly bluegrass to mellow country, Mississippi blues and down into wild country of Cajun and zydeco. The temperature hotted up, along with the food, and so did the music. America is like no other place on earth in successfully linking its landscape with its music – it invented the road trip, and naturally came up with the music to go along with it. I love to write about characters affected by landscape, and music, in this instance, is very much part of the landscape too. In Alabama, on a road that stretched for ever, I put on Dolly's "Muleskinner Blues," where she holds the opening note for a full ten seconds before actually cracking a whip. Whoa! It was so perfect, having Dolly in the car with me, along with my wife, that I put it all in the novel, note for note. It was a great feeling and the best that a road trip can deliver – wheels rolling, an addictive tempo, continual re-invention. Everyone, at one point in their life, should be able to drive across America listening to a great track. Go on, put it on.
From Alison Krauss to the Mississippi Delta Blues
As I drove through the southern states, I was struck by how similar the landscapes were to my own part of England: East Anglia. The rolling calm scenery of Tennessee could be a version of Norfolk, and the harsh flatlands of the Mississippi delta are definitely similar to the fens of Lincolnshire. It was both familiar and exotic to me, and the music went hand in hand with that feeling – it felt right, and I felt I understood it. For this part of the novel, Guy listens to a lot of music on the car stereo. As he drives through the Smoky Mountains he listens to old time bluegrass, keeping his car's engine in tune with the whip of the banjo, in Tennessee he switches to Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris and a bit of Loretta Lynn. Alison Krauss, he considers, has the voice of an angel, and it reminds him of what he fell in love with when he heard his wife sing. In the Mississippi delta, as his relationship deteriorates, he listens to some hard angry blues – Screaming Jay and Howling Wolf, and maybe some Seasick Steve. And he realises that the playlist he has chosen is inadvertently also the tune of a disastrous road trip – he started off with the voice of an angel, and has ended up listening to one-guitar blues and screaming zydeco – which in his state of mind sounds part demonic.
"Beware of Darkness," George Harrison
I love this track. I have three versions of it, the orchestrated version produced with Phil Spector, the version played live at the Carnegie Hall (during the concert for Bangladesh) and, probably my favorite, the version where George Harrison first sung it in a studio, not knowing he was being recorded. In all versions the common link is simple: a man with a guitar, singing a beautiful, sad, wise song. In Sea Change, the main character, Guy, lives on an old converted Dutch barge in the estuaries of East Anglia. I'd have this for Guy's quieter moments, when he is alone on the boat, with a view of a very large sea outside his windows. The song is tremendous. And I love the lyrics – watch out now, take care, beware of soft shoe shufflers dancing down the sidewalks…
"Wild Horses," The Rolling Stones
In the Stones' documentary Gimme Shelter, there is a scene where the group are sitting around in the FAME studio at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, kicking back and listening to the track they've just recorded. It's "Wild Horses," and it's fairly clear, as they listen and we watch them listen, that they've just achieved something special. Every so often, music seems to do something very extraordinary – it plays bigger than its constituent parts, and seems to wrap people together in a group, and make them acutely think about that group and their place in it. When I left my first university, I remember a party where this track was playing, and it kind of stopped the room – we knew the next stage of our lives would mean we'd probably lose contact with each other. It was very moving and poignant, and a similar moment seems to happen each time I hear this track playing. People stop, they note each other, they let the music play, they pause. When music makes a silence like that, it's tremendous. I tried to capture this in several scenes and remembered moments in Sea Change, when Guy and Judy, as musicians, lose themselves, or allow themselves to be transported during the playing of a song.
"The Light," Philip Glass
I'm not able to write with music in the background. It seems to me that the majority of a writer's life is trying to get away from distractions and wondering why you can't get down to doing work even when you are free of those distractions, so it always surprises me when I hear of writers writing to music. Especially if it has lyrics. But there are exceptions, and if I need to quickly assert a mood then I often try minimalists like Glass. "The Light" is a good example. It's thoughtful, evocative, and non-prescriptive, and has a drive to it that seems to fit the process of writing. Maybe the pace is similar to my typing speed, and I type to keep rhythm – who knows? I've not considered that before. For me, it works in the way that an espresso works. It gets you started.
The Unknown Singer / Folk Band in an Irish Pub
Useful, when you're putting together a playlist, to come up with actual names of singers and groups, but in this case I'm deliberately going to ignore it. Because once in a while it is still possible to stray into an English pub, way off the beaten track in East Anglia or the South West, and there, at the corner table, where he's sat for several generations, is an old man who is happy to nurse a pint of warm nutty ale and sing his heart out. He'll sing sea shanties, old farming melodies and the occasional semi-dirty ditty about gals that were way out of his league. He expects nothing but the enjoyment of singing, and at the end of the night he'll wander back up the lane in darkness. My playlist has to have him, the unknown singer in an English pub, because the tradition of men singing is a beautiful thing, and it's a transformative and inspiring moment to experience.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might encounter a folk group doing the same thing. In my novel, Guy and his wife's folk group were largely inspired by seeing these kind of players doing their gigs at informal settings like country pubs. I have always loved the way a band becomes a family, and then how that family learns to interact. The music alters them, as does the act of playing in front of others. This was a key theme for me writing this story – how music creates its own space, but it's a space which can sometimes protect you, and sometimes expose you.
Peter Grimes / Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten
Guy's world is a landscape dominated by the sea, and more precisely the tide, which floods the land and saltmarshes twice a day. This is the landscape I grew up in, and it's been a frontier that has always fascinated me. In England we don't have the frontier places of deserts, mountain ranges or jungles, but we do have the sea, on our doorstep, surrounding us. Nothing stops you going out into it, and a few miles from shore it is suddenly a primal landscape, and can be very frightening. Sea Change is a lot about the sea, it is where Guy chooses to take his boat out into, to challenge himself, to find what he lost on land. And there is no greater sea music than Benjamin Britten's. Britten lived in East Anglia, too, and if you want to hear the beauty, the bleakness and the strangeness of the North Sea, then it is all there. In particular, the sea interludes of Peter Grimes, where you can almost hear the sandbank bell that rings off Shingle Street in Suffolk. Peter Grimes is a fascinating story about marginalization and fear, itself a re-working of George Crabbe's enigmatic poems set in Suffolk. But for experiencing the raw power of the North Sea - which certainly happens in the last part of Sea Change - I would have to choose a section from Britten's Billy Budd. There is nothing like the progression of dissonant chords that he put together before the climax of the opera. It is storm and triumph and fear and beauty all in one. For me, that is the playlist for the North Sea.
Jeremy Page and Sea Change links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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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)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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