July 28, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train takes place in the rural South of the early 1960s. Edgerton's deft hand with character and dialogue are evident as always, and his keen ear for music brings this Civil Rights era book to life.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Edgerton sustains a wry tone in this lightly plotted novel, where the action is confined to band practices, a chicken flung over a cinema balcony, and well-intentioned but comically inept attempts at integration. The characters are drawn with compassion and droll humor, and while not much happens to them, what happens between them is the work of a generous, restrained writer whose skill and craft allows small scenes to tell a larger, more profound story."
One Saturday night in 1963 I was standing on stage behind an electric piano playing "Please, Please" (James Brown, cape on shoulders, would famously fall onto the floor while singing that song). Six more white teenagers stood with me--a seven-piece rock and roll band called The Seven Keys--performing for a white audience in a joint called the Castaway Club. We had practically memorized, as best we could, every word and note of Brown's album, Live at the Apollo.
Our lead singer, Dennis Hobby, wearing a cape, had just fallen to the floor, screaming, "Please, Please." Next was to be a couple seconds of band silence before we all started playing again so that Dennis could stand up from the floor while singing. But not one of us moved a muscle—piano, guitar, bass, trumpet, sax, drums. We were statues. Dennis looked up from the stage floor, his eyes holding pleas and desperation. He sang again, "Please, please . . ." and we just stood there.
I've remembered the above scene for over forty years, and for the last couple of decades have thought about making it the centerpiece of a novel. That novel, The Night Train, is now finished and due out this summer. The above scene ended up on the cutting room floor--but during the writing of the book I revisited many songs of that time when I was just learning to play rock and roll and listening to the top forty while driving my daddy's blue Ford. I'd added fender-skirts to the Ford. White dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. A.M. radio was our concert hall.
1. "Night Train" The song goes way back, but there's the 1962 single recorded by James Brown that hit the charts, and then one of his later versions of the same song on the Live at The Apollo album—the album the Seven Keys memorized. Listening to the two versions of "Night Train" clarifies reasons for the excitement about "emphasizing the one beat" (in the album version of the song) as discussed by Michael Tilson Thomas in his Public Radio interview with James Brown (MTT Files, number 7) eight months before Brown died. Please, please put off everything, including eating and making love, until you hear that on-line interview, and if you can't hear all of it, then listen to the 38 seconds from 15:44 to 16:22. Please. Please! Astonishment is guaranteed.
2. "The Jam, Part 1," an instrumental tune recorded by Bobby Gregg: As I wrote my novel I remembered how much I'd loved this song but I'd not heard it in ages. The only place I could find it was on a collection called "Cameo Parkway 1957 – 1967." By carefully listening to it about three minutes ago, I learned something about why I was so devoted to it. It starts on an opening B flat chord with a sassy guitar riff, refuses to budge from that Bflat/F shuffle, though it cranks up a bit, and then at about thirty seconds in, two saxophones break in with the bridge and we get a simple chord progression: 1, 4, 2, 5. When I first heard the song I'd probably just discovered that little two-five turn around. I'm still held by the tight harmony of those saxophones, the long bending down of a note in one of the guitar solos, the cool drum groove, the very high sax note during a solo (just when you thought it couldn't get higher), the very low note sax note, the sax fade at the end, the unpredictablilty of who's taking the solo, when. There is no classic rock and roll chord progression here—it's hard to predict when the bridge is coming. The energy builds stage by stage.
3. "I Need Your Lovin' Everyday," by Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford. The best drum snare lick (not riff, but lick) in rock and roll/rhythm and blues music comes at just past halfway through (1:48) into this song—best because of what it ends and begins simultaneously. This song gives another example of an unstoppable groove, of staying fixed on the number one chord, refusing to move into a chord progression.
4. "Midnight In Moscow" is a tune recorded by the English band Kenny Ball and his Jazzman. That this jazz tune (in a minor key) climbed high on the charts in 1962 says something about the rich mix of pop music tastes in the sixties. Moving into the trombone solo there's a nifty key modulation and a brassy trombone slide starting at the end of that solo leads into one of the best yells (at 2:17) in pop music—the yell introduces a fine "take it home" stretch. In the late fifties I'd spent hours alone in my bedroom playing trombone along with Dixieland albums and to hear "Midnight in Moscow" regularly on pop radio made me as certain as pie that the world and my life and the universe was progressing in the right direction.
While working on my novel, I read Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley. This great book reintroduced me to the music and personality of Thelonious Monk. His music became part of my novel.
5. "Blue Monk." I've been playing Monk's "Blue Monk" on piano off and on for a long time. I love the way a beat seems to be skipped at the end of the melody line.
6. "Misterioso." When I first heard the initial move from the number one to the number five chord in this Monk tune, tears came to my eyes. I've tried to analyze what happened to me, and the closest I can get is that it has to do with a full third when a flatted third is expected, followed by the flatted third leading to the fifth note of the five chord—all this tapping into a sadness and longing.
This essay clarifies for me the impossibility of, you know, words describing music.
Clyde Edgerton and The Night Train links:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution review
Charlotte Observer review
Durham Herald-Sun review
First Look Books review
Independent Weekly review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Puboishers Weekly review
Wilmington Star News 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
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