May 18, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Henning Koch's futuristic short story collection Love Doesn't Work is filled with sharp satire on the theme of love.
The Nervous Breakdown wrote of the book:
"Henning Koch's Love Doesn't Work, just released from Dzanc Books, is a collection of seven "dualist" tales that examine the struggles of the human condition with sharp satire but also surprising vulnerability."
When it comes to music, I have never been one of those writers who beats the keyboard very hard for hours and hours on the inside of a sound cloud. In fact I don't really listen to anything while I'm working. The music takes me over. Either I listen to it (and stop writing) or I ignore it, in which case it might as well be turned off.
When I'm writing I tend to get up at about five in the morning, and the whole point is to listen to the slow waking of the day, the passing dust-cart, the chirping birds, a toilet flushing. In western Sardinia, where I wrote my first short story collection Love Doesn't Work, my window looked out over the town, a rather small town, with higgledy-piggledy terracotta roofs outlined against the morning sea. As soon as the sky started brightening, thousands of swifts would sally out in shrieking gangs, and that's a great and stimulating sound while you are writing, because sometimes the swifts start screaming together, usually while chasing each other through the air, diving steeply between television aerials, hurtling like air force fighters through narrow alleys, passing explosively by your open window, then shooting up into the sky. I don't care what anyone says: swifts definitely enjoy flying and they make a game of it. Which brings me back to writing, also a kind of game. I don't mind a bit of aural interaction, but I have to admit I was never very patient with the builders in my road: their drills and hammers. I tended to rage at them and give the desk a good angry thump now and then. Engines and machines are generally designed for a specific purpose which does not include sounding good.
By about eight or nine o'clock, when the day's first writing session is drawing to a close, I tend to get up and start pacing round the house; maybe I'll have a sandwich or another cup of coffee and then as I bustle about in the kitchen I like to put on a bit of music.
So if you've got the fact that it's still fairly early in the morning and if you've got the fact that there are probably people sleeping upstairs, then you should make perfect sense of my playlist, which is ruminative and slow in many instances, with a couple of faster numbers thrown in for evenings or morning-afters when last night's bubbly wine is still fizzing in your veins and you know you're going to live for ever.
1. Cesaria Evora "Besame Mucho"
Whenever I am looking for a little sweetness in my soul – and I always am – I turn to female vocalists. Women seem to have a greater capacity for expressing melancholy and the variegations of love. Cesaria Evora has an understated modesty in her singing, a restraint that speaks to you like no amount of shouting, arm-waving or synchronised dancing will. She doesn't need to flash her butt either, you know she's a real woman with a whole armoury of emotions at her disposal. Listen to Cesaria Evora imploring her lover to kiss her as if there's no tomorrow. It's an ancient theme, you might say – yet one that will run… and run.
Runners-up: I was severely tested while choosing Cesaria Evora because I consider Nina Simone to be one of the finest vocalists of all time, and I especially like "I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl". I never got the sexual allusion until someone recently explained it to me. But whatever the song is about, whether it's sexual longing or a desire for life (which seem closely related anyway), Simone's voice is loaded with a yearning for love and all the good things – those things we spend so much time thinking about, and so rarely achieve.
2. Elvis Presley "I Just Can't Help Believing"
No "best ever" playlist is complete without Elvis. Some may not agree, but they are just wrong. This entry is short, because why waste words?
Runners-up: There are none, the man was in a class of his own.
3. Jeff Beck "Freeway Jam"
Jeff Beck's playing fills me with an expansive, sophisticated feeling; as if I'm driving through the desert towards Las Vegas in a huge old Cadillac with the roof down. Smoking a Havana. One hand on the wheel. And of course I'd prefer never to actually make it to Las Vegas, because who the heck wants to go there? It's the trip that counts, the flying sand, the endless horizon… and that soaring guitar… making sounds you never thought possible. It's great to listen to instrumentals at times, the human voice is unsurpassable but it craves attention.
Runners-up: John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, intricate and haunting. And John Scofield, who played with Miles Davis and managed to make Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" sound good.
Oh and Benny Goodman, the virtuoso of the clarinet! He'll blow you away!
4. Toots and the Maytals "Sweet and Dandy"
Right at the beginning of the eighties, a friend of mine came back from New Orleans, where she'd been working as a sculptor on the Mardi Gras floats. She was into Professor Longhair, Dr. John and The Staples Singers. At one of her parties she played Toots and the Maytals and ever since I've been hooked on "Sweet and Dandy", which must be one of the most positive and generous-hearted songs ever written, at least the way the Maytals did it. Frederick "Toots" Hibbert was born in Jamaica in the nineteen-forties and like many of the greats he grew up singing gospel music.
The Maytals are perfect listening before you go out – they are very, very upbeat, your feet can't stand still. If you want to drink Margaritas and talk brightly to strangers and then maybe get on the dance floor – in short if you want some fun! – this is the stuff that'll prime your fuse.
Runners-up: Hundreds of them! Other favourites, the sort of thing I might play in the background while shaving or trimming my nostril-hairs or rustling up an English breakfast would include Bunny Wailer's "Soul Rebel", Michael Palmer's "Ghetto Living" or The Gladiators cranking up their mighty "Dreadlocks the Time is Now."
5. Mississippi John Hurt "Talking Casey"
For a short while in the mid-eighties I had a job in the financial district of New York City. At the end of the day when I walked out of the skyscraper lobby and watched the bleary-eyed traders and heard the hawkers by the subway calling out "Coke! Coke! Speed! Speed! Best deals!" – I marvelled at the craziness of this huge, sprawling metropolis unlike any other in the world and kept walking with my guitar case like a suitcase in my hand through the Bovary (which has cleaned up now) until I got to the West Village (also cleaned up) and this was a sanctuary for me, far from the stretch-limos of Wall Street. My guitar teacher was an amazing man who a few years earlier had lost two fingers in an accident; but without skipping a beat he'd flipped his guitar over and learned to play a left-hander, and I never heard him complain. His idol was Django Reinhardt, for obvious reasons, but he taught me bluegrass finger styles and often talked about a great Memphis player called Mississippi John Hurt. By the time the sixties came along and all the cool white boys were learning how to do the blues, this legendary bluesman was getting old and there weren't so many recordings of him. A group of music lovers got together and paid for him to come up to New York to record his great album "Today". According to my guitar teacher, Mississippi John Hurt arrived with his guitar, sat down and reeled the songs off one by one. The whole thing took him one day. "Talking Casey" and "Coffee Blues" are filled with tenderness and a modest, practical outlook on life – no doubt he'd struggled through much hardship to get there.
Runners-up: I will readily admit that I'm a sucker for the New Orleans scene and particularly the New Orleans Preservation Hall Band. There was a singer there known as "Sing" Miller and that's pretty well all I know. At home we had an old vinyl record which I always used to play. I remember a beautiful line from it: ‘That city, it is pretty', which resonates now, I suppose, in the light of what happened to New Orleans. And then there was a great song which "Sing" Miller sang to perfection: "Baby Won't You Please Come Home." Many bands and singers have covered it, but no one ever touched "Sing" Miller.
Henning Koch and Love Doesn't Work links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
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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)
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