May 4, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
With language poetic, exacting, and often hilarious, R. Zamora Linmark's novel Leche immerses the reader in the modern day Philippines with its story of an emigre's return to the country as a young man.
Booklist wrote of the novel:
"Linmark delivers a harrowing tale of love, family, and cultural bewilderment, a sardonically funny and vibrant novel about one man’s journey to his past. . . . Linmark’s novel reads like a bittersweet love letter to a vast and perplexing nation. This is a story of heritage, sexuality, and self-discovery that is as riveting as its locale is complex."
Hangover or not, nothing beats waking up to Joao Gilberto singing "So Danco Samba" with Stan Getz on sax, or aggressively brushing my teeth to the echoing laughter of Yaz's Alison Moyet in "Situation."
Music goes great with caffeine, with anything fibrous. It stirs up moments, intensifies unwanted recollections. It's Virgil, steroid-free, screaming for that extra push as I gasp up and down the neon-lit hills of a treadmill. It gets me through all kinds of kinks, all sorts of moods. It makes an excellent third party with cognac and chocolates. It's my confidante until I am confident enough to go to work solo. Profession – still-life violator.
It completes the M quartet – Movies, Memories, Madness.
It's life's soundtrack, and I cannot imagine Leche without one. For the novel, about a Film and Lit major (played by Vince De Los Reyes) who returns to his childhood home for the first time after thirteen years, is as much about music as it is about movies, memories, and chaos-magnet Manila.
From the opening chapter to the last, there's music. Music blasting from worn-out radio speakers of jeepneys and second-hand cabs. Music attracting memories, sometimes comforting Vince, oftentimes not, like Prince's "I Would Die For You," Paula Abdul's "Promise of a New Day," and "Up Where We Belong," the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman. There's a karaoke-on-the-bus scene where passengers, thanks to bottleneck traffic, exhaust the greatest hits of Anne Murray and endless renditions of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" harrowing enough to turn the crooner's blue eyes to fuschia. Vince can't even take a dump in peace at Kenny Rogers, famous for its chicken rotisserie, without Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton serenading him overhead with their number-one hit "Islands in the Stream."
In Leche, there is a soundtrack for each of Vince's Manila vignettes, for every memory, wanted or not.
But for the reader's sake (morel like mine), I've decided to narrow the list from 354 (number of pages) down to the Fellini number of 8 1/2 – since it's one of Vince's favorite films and directors. Like the novel's non-linear structure, I'm creating the playlist, not in any chronological or significant order, but in the random style of a classical Japanese diarist posing as a nun and faithfully following the brush strokes of his memory.
Memory + Music = Shuffle.
1. "Libertango" composed by Asturo Piazzolla.
If I have to choose only one track for Leche, it's "Libertango" by the Argentine master of heartbreak tango. It's seductive, sexy, dangerous. It's desire testing you for its trap. It's the blade of a knife scraping its way into a buried wound. It's the kiss before betrayals. It's the sigh that makes every second of every pain of remembering worthy.
I hear this song accompanying Vince's adventures inside the labyrinths of Manila, his daydreams and nightmares, or when he's plastered on the vinyl couch still wrapped in the manufacturer's plastic, sticky and perspiring, battling inertia with a weak electric fan, then the electricity goes out, replaced by the light of a small memory that, accompanied by Piazzola's bandoneon, cello, piano, and violin, becomes grander until Vince's past takes over the entire room.
2. "The Times of Your Life," as sung by Paul Anka.
It's what was playing at the Manila International Airport when Vince, along with his brother Alvin and sister Jing, the three of them decked out in disco suits, refuse to part with their grandfather and maid. I can't think of any other song that can best accompany an anxiety-separation scene, made even cheesier by the fact that the characters are wearing polyester and come from a race known globally for turning trivia moments into camp or drama.
Popularly played at high school graduating ceremonies, proms, dentist's office during root canals and wisdom tooth extractions, wedding anniversaries, twelve-step programs, and wakes and funerals. What more can one ask for with lyrics as instructional ("The seasons are passing one by one / So gather moments while you may / Collect the dreams you dream today) and as ominous (You wake up and time has slipped away / And suddenly it's hard to find / The memories you've left behind. Do you remember / Do you remember the times of your life?") An inspirational, if not, wake-up call for recovered drug addicts and the perfect ringtone for the departing.
3. "In the Wee Hours of the Morning," as sung by Frank Sinatra.
Leche cannot have a playlist without a Frank Sinatra track, especially since Filipinos, as reported in The New York Times, have killed or died in karaoke joints and beer houses because of their (mal) interpretations of "My Way." But there's no "My Way"-related manslaughter, or any killings in my novel, except chapters that involve the Marcos regime.
Back to Sinatra: he's much more interesting than shoes and fake war medals…
Known for his distinctive phrasing, Sinatra is a master at storytelling, such that when he tells you, "It's quarter to three / There's no one in the place / Except you and me," you know exactly where you are: inside a dim-lit bar, on a night like that captured in an Edward Hopper painting, with Sinatra right beside you, making a toast while his heart is breaking – one to that brief episode called Love, and the other, for the road.
With Sinatra every word counts, it has weight and the power to shift its meaning.
Even words like the "of" and the "all" in "In the Wee Hours of the Morning," which is what I imagine playing on the radio in the living room of Vince's ancestral home, on one of those ordinary late afternoons when Vince's grandfather is staring out the window, awaiting nightfall, smoking Marlboro Reds, one foot tapping on wooden floorboards as Sinatra confides in him about the unbearable everness of the wee hours, when you miss her most, then hangs on to the song's final two words as if they're made of eternity. Of. All.
4. "Manila" by Hot Dog.
It took twelve years to get me to Leche, while its prequel Rolling The R's I wrote in less than a year, for reasons too long to jot down and which requires a playlist of its own. Many memories, minor and major, came and went, but some hung on to the present. Trivial and not, they're the ones that matter. One of them is the making of this book project, my constant companion that no matter how much I set it aside, I wanted to give it up (and I did, or so I thought I did), I always went back to it, or something always drove me back to it, like "Manila" by Hot Dog.
Recorded by the pop-rock band Hot Dog, this track was one of the first OPM (Original Pilipino Music) to top the Philippine charts dominated for many years by American and other foreign recording artists. For the first time, local bands were taking over the music scene with songs that were distinctly Filipino.
With an infectious melody and upbeat tempo, this seventies hit song has become the anthem of every homesick Filipino working and living overseas. "I walked the streets of San Francisco / Tried the rides in Disneyland / Dated a million girls in Sydney / Somehow I feel like I don't belong. It is the closest to home, made authentic by the opening background noise of street life and jeepneys (Leche's cover). I hear this song starting as the Philippine Airlines plane carrying Vince emerges from the Ozone layer and begins its descent into the international airport.
5. Main theme from The Last Emperor, composed by David Byrne.
From Bertolluci's Oscar-winning film and penned by Talking Heads' David Byrne, this track serves a dual purpose in Leche. First, the drums, marimba, and violins evocative of Imperial China compliment the scene where Vince, afflicted with stomach cramps, dashes from one salesclerk to another, asking for the men's room and receives, in return, lengthy directions in English (but not Vince's version). Second, one of Vince's exes uses this biographical movie about the last ruler of the three-thousand-year-old Qing Dynast to get aroused.
6. "Desafinado" as sung by Joao Gilberto, with Stan Getz on sax
Perfect song for a nightcap, or, rather, for smoothening the wrinkles of the day. I hear it coming from Vince's grandfather's radio or accompanying Vince at night. With Joao Gilberto's soothing voice and Stan Getz's sexy sax solo, longing is bearable, and sadness, beautiful. Like Sinatra, Gilberto, who dreams just when the sun is about to shine, forces you to listen. He silences you with his soft voice so you can retreat from the world, focus on the fragility of the moment, the next memory. "I wrote this song for you don't care / It's a crooked song, ah, but my heart is there," he sings. And the irony, of course, is that there's nothing out of tune in Gilberto's singing or in Jobim's composition. And if there is, it's untraceable, if not necessary. It is the stain behind every masterpiece – the memories that makes and breaks and remakes us. It is what the Spanish poet Antonio Machado calls "the sweet honey from my old failures."
7. "La Passerella D'addio" by Nino Rota.
From Fellini's classic film 8 ½ and one of Vince's favorite movies. It is played at the end when all the characters that had a role in the memories of the director Guido Anselmo gather and dance in a circle. The tune is vibrant, with flute and clarinet solos backed up by trumpets, tubas, and drums. Playful and beautiful, it captures Fellini's frenzied style and evokes images of clowns at circuses or a provincial town's brass band during fiesta. It's the kind of song you play in your head when you're weeding through the ups and downs of your life thus far.
This may or may not be part of the soundtrack. It has to do with the creative process – like Fellini's 8 1/2 — and what artists do when their muses ups and leaves them to go on a shopping or shooting spree. I usually go into the dreams of my characters – a shared secret among artists before Hollywood turned it into a Leonardo DiCaprio nightmare. But, sometimes, this approach doesn't work – their dreams either lack caffeine or they run out of metaphors. This is when I turn to close friends, like the poet Lisa Asagi, who had witnessed Leche go from one makeover to another, one identity crisis to another. In her last e-mail that night, she wrote, "Have faith in Leche, always." Then, as postscript: "By the way, what is Vince listening to now?" My reply: "This Charming Man" by The Smiths. Right now, this very minute, as I write these words, barely a month after I handed in the final copyedit to my editor Anitra Budd, Vince is listening to Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."
R. Zamora Linmark and Leche links:
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