June 8, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
David Anthony's debut novel Something for Nothing is darkly comic and suspenseful. This story of a Bay Area used airplane dealer turned drug runner is set in the economic crisis of 1974, and Anthony cleverly uses that era to shed light on our current financial crisis on both personal and national levels.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Anthony’s first novel…speeds to an adrenaline-charged climax in a conflict fueled by greed. Provocative, genre-spanning fiction by an author to watch."
Something for Nothing is set in 1974, at the height of the Arab Oil Embargo, and the list I've come up with here is an effort to capture the mood of that era. On the one hand this means the looser, more wide open sense of things that pervaded American life back then: shaggy hair, funky clothes, kids off doing who knows what, desegregation in schools, and "women's lib" (as Archie Bunker put it scornfully in All in the Family). On the other hand, this means the dawning realization that in many ways the party was over in America. Vietnam, Watergate, Patty Hearst, the oil crisis and economic decline—suddenly we were vulnerable and uncertain.
This mix—possibility versus anxiety—is figured in the actions of my main character, Martin Anderson, who confronts his mounting debt by using his small aircraft business as a front for flying heroin up from Mexico. This combination is also, I hope, reflected in my song list, about half of which is made up of songs from this era. Martin's perspective on the world is frequently mediated by elements of popular culture—films like The French Connection and The Exorcist, and tv shows like Bonanza and Wide World of Sports. But his relationship to the world is also informed by music. Sometimes it's as if he's a character in his own movie, with a soundtrack running in his head. I won't say how that movie turns out, but hopefully the below list will give you a feel for the sort of person he is as he stumbles through the rich and wild world of early-1970s America.
"Will It Go Round in Circles" - Billy Preston
I admit straightaway to the fantasy that this is the music playing in the opening scene of the movie version of my book, as our hero drives his kids to school. It would be perfect, because this song, a #1 hit in 1973, captures in its playful funkiness the upbeat feel of the era—a feel that contrasts with Martin's actual financial situation, but reflects to his buoyant hopes. And certainly the lyrics speak to various aspects of the overall plot: references to flying, the question of whether things will come full circle, and also my favorite lines, which surprised me a little bit when I first heard them as a kid: "I've got a story, ain't got no moral/Let the bad guy win every once in a while."
"I'm Waiting for the Man" - Velvet Underground
The narrator of this 1967 song is heading up to Harlem to make a heroin buy, and that basic fact makes it a great match for my story. Better, he's clearly out of place, something signaled by the great line, "Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown?" This may as well be Martin Anderson once he steps over the Mexican border to make his first heroin pickup. The best part about this song, though, is the driving barrelhouse piano—that and the slightly dissonant nature of the whole tune. It's both intense and unsettling, and thus captures the grittiness of the drug world Lou Reed and company are depicting.
"Fake Plastic Trees" - Radiohead
This song parallels the crisis at the heart of my novel. Put simply, Thom Yorke's haunting voice tells the story of a failed search for authentic experience in contemporary society. "She lives with a broken man," he sings with bitter irony, "A fake polystyrene man." In many ways my main character, Martin, is conducting the same search. The move to the suburbs, the expensive toys such as boats and race horses—none of this is adding up as he thought it would. The result is confusion and anxiety and bad decisions. His is, I think, an early and specifically American version of the experience that Yorke sings about in his depressing but beautiful song.
"Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
M.IA.'s fantastically infectious hip-hop song is about hustling, greed, and movement. Planes, trains, UPS trucks, and (especially) people are in motion here, and much of the travel is across national borders. "I fly like paper, get high like planes/If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name." This is the postmodern, global-economy world of the 21st Century. But it's also the frighteningly dynamic world my character confronts, first when his life is changed by the closing of the oil spigots in the Middle East, and then when he makes his tentative forays into the Mexican drug trade. And of course this fluidity is all about money. "All I wanna do," M.I.A. sings, "is take your money." Everyone knows that the incredible beginning notes of "Paper Planes" sample "Straight to Hell" by The Clash. But I think the clinging of the cash registers we hear later in the song also references Pink Floyd's hit 1973 song, "Money," one of the period's most memorable critiques of greed and money lust.
"Por Amor" - Los Tigres Del Norte
At one point my character and a colleague stand on a street in Ensenada, listening to a group playing a norteno song a lot like this one by Los Tigres Del Norte. Martin, my character, is a bit puzzled by the music, especially the German and Czech-influences of the accordion. But he also likes it, in part because he hears in it strains of the region's history—this even as he's adding to the exploitation of Northern Mexico and its people.
"Cumbia" - Mexican Institute of Sound
I thought it would be fun to include something from the current Mexican music scene, which of course extends far beyond folk music. M.I.S. (who is actually DJ-turned-solo-artist Camilo Lara) is incredibly eclectic, mixing hip-hop with mariachi, rock, and lots of other genres. As this song's title suggests, one of those genres is Cumbia, a music that, via the slave trade, made its way from West Africa to Columbia's Caribbean coast, and then up to Mexico. I'm fascinated by the evolution of this music, but for the most part I just really like this song, and pretty much everything Lara produces.
"Take me Home, Country Roads" - John Denver
Not long after hearing the street group play norteno, my character finds himself singing this John Denver song in a café. Their waiter, who speaks minimal English, has produced the lyrics from his shirt pocket and urged Martin and his companion to sing along with him. Martin feels that this is an authentic experience—that he's a part of something special and real. But the problem, as always with him, is that his experience is undercut by a sense of uncertainty. What if the waiter is just playing him for a tip? And why, more generally, is he giving over to what he knows is the song's campy nostalgia? It was a fun scene to set up, both as a contrast to the previous scene with norteno music, and because I've always been baffled by my own attraction to this song and its sentimentality.
"Beyond the Sea" – Bobby Darin
The music of choice for my main character is the lounge-style crooning of people like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the young Bobby Darin. Darin's 1959 version of "Beyond the Sea"—said to have brought the gangsters and their girlfriends to tears on Saturday nights at the Copacabana in Vegas—strikes me as just right for this list. This is both because Martin spends a lot of time at sea on his boat, and because the yearning you hear in Darin's voice captures the unsatisfied longing so central to Martin's struggles.
"Monk's Dream" – Thelonious Monk
This song speaks to my writing process rather than the book's content. I wrote most of this book between 5:00-7:00 am, before my wife and son were awake, and when only coffee and Monk could lock me in. I can't listen to music with lyrics when I write, but Monk's up-tempo repetition with variation is perfect background music for me. No, there's nothing jazz-like about my prose, but it may be that the sort of associative free indirect discourse I use is influenced by Monk's improvisation.
"Pursuit of Happiness" - Kid Cudi with MGMT
My son had been listening to this catchy song for a couple of months when it dawned on me that it resonated with the central theme of my book: happiness. Or rather, the search for happiness. My main character is on a misguided pursuit of happiness much like the one Cudi sings about here. "I'm on the pursuit of happiness," he sings. "I'll be fine once I get it, I'll be good." The problem is that, just like my character, the song's narrator is looking in all the wrong places. Or rather, he doesn't even know how to begin looking for happiness, because he doesn't know what it is.
David Anthony and Something for Nothing 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