April 14, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Every year when I gather links to year-end online book lists, the lists I find most fascinating are often have narrow focus. One of these lists is Baseball America's list of the year's best baseball books, which recommended Jeff Gillenkirk's debut novel Home, Away. As I grow older I have become less a fan of the game played on the field and a greater admirer of its mythology, so books that feature the sport, especially fiction, usually catch my attention.
Baseball is deeply ingrained in Jeff Gillenkirk's debut novel Home, Away, the story of a major leaguer suddenly charged with raising his teenage son. The game provides the backdrop, but the real and moving relationships in this novel are its true superstars.
Baseball America wrote of the book:
"Home, Away works on all levels, whether viewed as a family story about baseball or a baseball story about family."
Music is a powerful subtext of Home, Away. The central conflict of the book revolves around divorced parents feuding over physical custody of their 2-year-old son as well as clashing visions of his future: the mother, Vicki Repetto, wants her son to be a musician. The father, Jason Thibodeaux, wants him to be a baseball player. All of this gets resolved in … well, I won't give away the ending, except to say that the emotional conclusion involves both a cello and a baseball bat.
Baseball accommodates music as no other sport. Both baseball and music are based on exquisitely precise timing, yet are thoroughly timeless in their expanse. As is commonly noted, there is no clock in baseball. The longest game ran 33 innings and wasn't completed for three days (delayed twice by curfews). The longest song on record is -- who knows? A song can extend for 5 minutes, 5 hours … 5 days. A song can be as long as it wants to be, just as an inning in baseball is as long as it goes. There are no minimums, no maximums, no limits. This kindred spirit could be why so many songs exist about baseball -- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio," the entire Broadway musical Damn Yankees. I can't think of any music, other than a rap song or two, inspired by the NFL, NBA or NHL.
My playlist for Home, Away goes like this:
"American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
All-American boy Jason Thibodeaux woos Stanford law student Victoria Repetto with an invitation to a Tom Petty concert. This first date leads to Vicki's pregnancy, setting the family conflict of Home, Away into motion. The adolescent yearning and sly irony of "American Girl" foreshadows the passion and discord that is to come.
"Sing for the Moment" by Eminem
Hip hop and spoken word are a huge part of our household, with stepdaughter Hazel ("the Haze") heading up the SF Bay Area group 40 Love and teaching poetry to kids through Youth Speaks. The raw expressiveness of hip hop attracts the young Raphael Thibodeaux, who grows ever more angry and alienated over his parent's misplayed divorce. After a suspension from his private arts school for performing an expletive-filled "hip hop opera," Rafe, in a pivotal encounter with his mother, quotes key refrains from the Eminem song "Sing for the Moment." This is a wonderfully evocative piece about filial anger that samples "Dream On" by the rock group Aerosmith, and includes a guitar solo by Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Steven Tyler singing the chorus.
"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from the musical Oklahoma!
Jason Thibodeaux's mother -- and mine -- loved 40's and 50's musicals, none of which captured the fabled innocence and optimism of America's heartland better than Oklahoma! Rafe uses this signature song to soften the brooding cello-driven angst of his hip-hop opera -- though it's not enough to placate his mother, her conservative Italian family, or the directors of the school. Which is just as Rafe intended.
"Jazz Cello" by Ray Brown
Raphael Thibodeaux takes up the cello in Home, Away largely because the book's author loves the instrument. But as any author knows, no character will do anything he or she doesn't want to do. Rafe's cello becomes one of the few friends he can depend on in the course of the book, and the two are loyal to each other until the mellifluous end. Classical, jazz, pop cello -- I love it all. Master jazz bass player Ray Brown turned his attention to the cello on this 1960 LP recording. "I think it's a wonderful means of expression because it contains the lower range of a guitar and the higher range of a bass," Brown said of his second instrument.
"Winter's End" by Kye Marshall
More cello music- this by the Canadian jazz cellist Kye Marshall. "Winter's End" is her first collection of original jazz compositions, which Toronto radio host Wally Dawson calls "a fantastic CD with some really fine playing. It's marvelous to hear the cello which is such a warm and lyrical instrument in a jazz context." The deep, yearning sound of the cello was a perfect fit for the emotional pitch of Home, Away, which maneuvers through the depths of family love and loyalties lost and regained.
"String Quartet No. 2, 'From the Monkey Mountains'" by the Pavel Haas Quartet
This young Czech string quartet (my teenage son got really excited recently when he could spell "Czech") has been knocking it out of the park musically since winning Italy's prestigious Paolo Borciani competition in 2005. This piece, "From the Monkey Mountains," refers to a popular Czech resort area and highlights the music's sources of inspiration: nature, folk music, and many of the same sights and sounds that the group's inspiration, Pavel Haas, evoked in his music. Haas died at Auschwitz in 1944. Again, the cello proves its unique value in plumbing the depths of the human soul.
"Sonatas for Cello & Piano" by Johannes Bach. Audio CD, October 25, 1990, Deutsche Grammephon
When played expertly, to my ear the cello sounds connected directly to the source of life itself. It's the sound of birth, of longing, of love, of breath, of bone. I could hear a cello playing at many key moments of Home, Away. In fact, at many key moments of the book a cello was playing. My love for this instrument has a long personal history. On my 35th birthday, my 77-year-old friend -- the first woman to ever play for the San Francisco Symphony -- took her cello out of retirement and serenaded me with a solo from a Bach Sonata. She hadn't played since her husband, the principal oboist for the Symphony, had died eleven years before. It was the best birthday present I'd ever gotten beside the Davy Crockett hat my parents gave me when I turned 7.
"Baseball" Theme Time Radio Hour #4, with Bob Dylan
The Theme Time Radio Hour, hosted by Bob Dylan, ran from May 3, 2006 to April 18, 2007 on XM Satellite Radio for a total 50 shows. Episode 4 was all about baseball and opened with an a cappella version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" by Mr. Dylan himself. (Check out the whole series, by the way: musical hours are built around the themes of Marriage, Divorce, Mother, Father, Jail, Drinking, Guns, Hair, Thanksgiving Leftovers, Trains, Cars and Texas. Each episode is a wonderful adventure emceed by the raspy, sardonic maestro of modern American music, Bobby Zimmerman Dylan.)
Theme Time Radio Hour #4 is a full hour's worth of music on the theme of baseball. If I'm missing a similar symbiosis of music with other sports -- soccer, basketball, pro golf -- please let me know. This collection affirmed my love for baseball and its part in the lore of America. Among the musical pearls in Bob Dylan's baseball Theme Time Radio Hour are these numbers:
"Baseball Boogie" by Mabel Scott
Mabel played with the Jimmy Lunsford Orchestra and was featured at the Club Alabam in Los Angeles during her prime. This is an upbeat big-band number about hardball, with more than its share of memorable refrains: "I need a pinch hitter because my last batter just walked out" is one. "Get your bat ready, Baby, and let’s see what you can do," is another. And then the saucy, impatient rhetorical flourish, "I mean baby, do you really know the game?"
"Home Run" by Chance Howard
In the 1950s, Dylan narrates, everybody either wanted to be a baseball player or Elvis Presley. This song combines both strains, driving the listener through a bluesy score that evokes the drama of baseball and the frenzied grace of a couple jitterbugging across the dance floor. "Strike two, ball three, you scored a home run with me," Howard sings. "Come on baby, let’s cross home plate."
"Baseball Baby" by Johnny Darling
This fast-paced doo-whop elegy to the national pastime captures the passion and innocence of baseball combined with the purebred American irony of rock and roll. "Baseball baby, you better hit a home run with me," Johnny Darling sings, yearning and burning for acceptance.
"Three Strikes and You’re Out" by Cowboy Copas
Cowboy Copas was a honky tonk singer from the late 1940s who died in the same plane crash that took Patsy Cline. This song is more about love than baseball, but with a masterful use of the national pastime as metaphor: "You cheated and you lied, you were never satisfied. You made three strikes and now you’re out."
"Joltin Joe DiMaggio" by Les Brown and his Band of Renown, with Betty Bonney
There’s also a rare vocal appearance here by Joe DiMaggio himself, who sings, "We need a hit, so here I go." Willie Mays appears on a later recording by The Treniers entitled "Say Hey," with the "Say Hey Kid" participating in a call and response that goes, "Say hey!" "Say who?" "Say hey, Willie, that jive kid is great."
"You Gotta Have Heart" from the original 1955 Broadway play Damn Yankees
This long-running play was built around the Faust myth and the frustrated aspirations of perennial major league losers, the Washington Senators. "You gotta have heart, all you really need is heart," the chorus sings in its most recognizable number. "You gotta have hope, mustn’t sit around and mope."
"Agua" by Futuro Picante
In addition to the hip hop offerings of stepdaughter "Haze," son Lucas Gillenkirk plays flute with the San Francisco Mission District youth band, Futuro Picante, and bassoon with the orchestra of San Francisco's School of the Arts. Here's a version of "Agua" by Futuro Picante, at a "battle of the bands" held at San Francisco's Jewish Museum. The twelve kids who make up this group range from 11-23-years-old: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ww6Pt8gGh8.
Jeff Gillenkirk and Home, Away links:
Bailey's Baseball Book Reviews review
Baseball America review
Book Chase review
The Daddy Doctrines review
The Evolution of Dad review
Guys Lit Wire review
The Hardball Times review
I-70 Baseball review
New York Journal of Books review
Reading Through Life review
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)
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