July 22, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Edie Meidav's third novel Lola, California is a complex and rewarding story of post-60s Northern California life.
The Daily Beast wrote of the novel:
"Meidav's prose is writerly: exact yet maximalist, prodigiously lyrical. Together with the novel's jump-cut structure and length, Meidav asks her readers to slow down. The opposite of a page turner in the best way, the novel prompts us to linger, re-read, flip back, and figure the damned thing out."
To write the novel Lola, California, I reached into everything I knew and felt about the following topics:
the romantic primacy of friendship (especially between girls);
the passage of time;
men, both old and young.
Music overtly and covertly appears in the book, both in the lyrics that appear and form the two central characters' mythos as well as those that are referenced, if without title, at key moments in the book.
Songs that make an overt appearance have a star next to them; those that are more covert lack the star but still offer some similar thrum of inspiration and relevance for the novel. Hundreds not included in this playlist wait outside, hoping to be let into the club. You probably can guess which. But here are the ones which jockey most loudly for inclusion today.
1. "Sugar Mountain," by Neil Young
A paean to lost youth. Is it impossible not to love Young's vulnerability? His voice cracks as he rises to his famous falsetto or turns nasal toward the end of a phrase, all while his guitar gathers beneath-the-hood passion. Those simple chords strum as if to summon a language waiting to be invented by humans while the real force is the inchoate wordlessness of youth rumbling and creating such poetry! The poetry of this song lives in its cluster of nouns.
I hear this song and think of that most beautiful of Greek-derived words: nostalgia: nostos “returning home” and algos “pain/ache”, nostalgia once considered a medical condition. For what this is worth, Young, precociously nostalgic, wrote this song when he was all the way in his early twenties. Now you say you're leaving home because you want to be alone. O to live on sugar mountain, with the barkers and the colored balloons. Though some think sugar mountain refers to cocaine, how could it when the last line is though you're leaving there too soon?
*2. "Heart of Gold, by Neil Young"
In bohemian travel days, this was the main song I could play on the guitar in Barcelona streets, accompanying a young French trumpet-player. People seemed to take pity on my poor guitar skills and, even if I was just tuning up, they'd throw money in the case. The guitar player's last words to me, before stealing my camera and most of my other belongings, were faites comme vous etes chez vous. Act as if you're at home! Which brings me back to the song: could any cry be more heartfelt? The narrator has been so many places and still searches for a heart of gold, and, jeez, what a hard thing that is to find; the quest could steal your lifetime.
*3. "Lola, by The Kinks"
The stirring bareness of those early chords kills me, as well as the femininity of Ray Davies' voice entering: he cherishes the ‘l' in Lola with such arch delight, as if already swilling cherry cola before descending into a parody of depth. In the second verse, the doubled harmony becomes an irony offering up deeper implication. Why she walked like a woman but talked like a man: what words could be more designed to hit on impact, thrilling the teenage girl's mind? Maybe there are others but these were the ones for me in the period of time which I mined for this novel.
Who knows why songs about transvestites (Davies', Jane's Addiction's, Reed's, others') have mattered so? Two autobiographical factoids: at fourteen I submitted some poems to the Berkeley Monthly under the pseudonym Lola Lavie. And only a couple of years after this song's advent in my consciousness, I thought I'd publish books under the transvestite pseudonym E.D. Can we say here that transvestism may be a useful metaphor for the act of fiction-writing and, perhaps, the performance of passion by a singer?
And there Ray is, wailing out I'm not the world's most passionate guy using the exact gruff voice of passion. Mid-section, I find myself tuning out, preferring to avoid the pushed-her-away section and very happy to return to the sweet, childlike, wistful fairytale of That's the way I want it to stay; girls will be be boys; it's a shook-up world. The narrator's confession that he had never kissed a woman, implying that experience makes the man, means that by the end of the song, everyone is a little more grown up, including his listener. If I'm not in love with how the song is produced throughout, I don't care. For me, the song is about the archetypal thrill of the beginning and bits of spice throughout: my listening is titrated toward such thrills.
Supposedly, the events described did happen to Ray Davies' manager, or someone in his orbit. The man had gone to visit a lady of the night, found himself surprised by gender, and told the story to young Ray who was struck by this scene of Shakespearean misrecognition (cf. The Crying Game for a latterday correlate). Davies' strategy is to use all the confident empathy of fiction. And yet, like the photography which aborigines consider soul-stealing, doesn't empathy always have a little dose of mischief?
*4. "Jane Says," by Jane's Addiction
A song partly about a transvestite who promises s/he's going to “kick” tomorrow. She dreams of the future, of going away to Spain: you align yourself with her dreams, complicit with her, since she has pawned someone else's television in order to pay for her habit. And again, as in the song “Lola”, you have an anthemic, unstoppable guitar lick, a melody converse to that of the Kinks' hit.
5. "California" by Joni Mitchell
This woman seemed the definition of worldly to me. Joni traveled, she was in Paris, France. She got disillusioned; and yet still there lives a utopia awaiting her, a place not old, cold, settled in its ways. Mitchell apostrophizes California: it becomes her Yorick's skull! She has folks she digs, she'll kiss the sunset peaks. She goes into her picaresque problems: someone who steals her camera (see above!) She treats us as herself, her lover, her confessional: when you're walking and the streets are full of strangers.
And then every now and then her voice rips off into one of those arpeggios, as is the case at the line ‘just give you the blues': these rips serve as if they were some great unwashed metaphysical section of a painting. She knows more than all the people who are stuck, being able to travel outside theme and tribe without sacrificing an essential curiosity. Will you take me as I am? she asks the state, and perhaps, also, all doomed possible future loves. Strung out on another man? I.e., will a narcissist who dared to care about someone else ever again be accepted by the narcissistic state of California? Will she ever be truly loved?
*6. "Wish You Were Here," by Pink Floyd
An almost sub rosa muttering begins this. If Roger Waters was, in fact, writing about ex-bandmate Syd Barrett's breakdown, the alienation melds with the truth of that guitar, crackly, conveyed over a wire. Whatever is being seen here is through the dimmest of glasses. The deep, minor voice, the grumbling cough and sniff before the song starts. And yet when the guitar comes on, answering that lower riff, it is so present and startling, the clarity could be called suicidal. You feel the fingers sliding on the strings with such palpable reality before everything washes into my favorite verse: So, so you think you could tell/heaven from hell/blue skies from pain/can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? Trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage? If you were just going to consider the marriage of melody to meaning, wouldn't this last line stand up to anything Dylan ever wrote? And yes, the chorus is another anti-anthem: Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl/year after year. The you, by this point in the song, has been lost.
My confession: I have never, in fact, heard the entire album from which this comes. I just fixated on the one song and want, always, to turn it up or have at least a moment of reverential respect for its songcraft whenever it comes on: I like to stay passive toward its apparition, perhaps because I'm not wholly in love with the repetitive instrumental middle section, which doesn't invent itself as much as other parts. I often find myself saying to writers: if you don't surprise yourself when writing, the reader won't find the delight of surprise. And yet, again, the opening and moments throughout continue both to satisfy and surprise, both inevitable, and urgent, perfect locally if not globally. The longing in this song, translated into the novel Lola, speaks for the longing of Rose for Lana.
*7. "Pretty in Pink," by The Psychedelic Furs
I couldn't get copyright clearance to include this in Lola so had to imitate it somewhere within the novel. That mysterious Caroline! Her befuddled lover! The gray hazy morning in that wash of chords! What was not appealing?
8. "Superstition," by Stevie Wonder
As noted in another post on LHB, I probably secretly wish every song had the first measures of this song, its rattling spitting bass likes. This song, as well as "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry, underwrote many of LOLA's more mystifying ur-moments. This song could have played anywhere in the background of Rose's Berkeley youth: it rattles her unconscious.
9. "The Summer," by Yo La Tengo
I used to listen to, among others, a cassette of Yo La Tengo when staying up all night painting in a shared studio in college. I liked the group's whispered casualness and hidden intimacy, the sense that you, too, could be part of a cabal of people who understood their desire to look away from emotion and yet use musical coding to convey great depth.
Near my station was the work-in-progress of the young Matt Barney, work as coded as coded gets; perhaps this is the first time Barney and Yo La Tengo appear in the same sentence, but could that form part of the mix-it-up magic of codes?
In the novel, these girls might have, during their New York time, very well heard this song and thought they lived in on the secret. Or they could have gone to see the group play at a bar where Tumbleweed, a minor character, served as the bouncer, letting them in to do their dance, the Lola flow.
10. "Pacific Ocean Blue," by Dennis Wilson
Dennis Wilson tries to go funky here and succeeds, almost. I like the Beach Boyization of funk, almost, the wahwah sound, the lower vocal track mouthing downdowndown, waterwater. His scratchy voice. Someone just shared this with me; if this song was not in my head when I wrote LOLA, I still like it as an odd cultural artifact.
Wilson can't sing a Baptist hymnal to anything but the great oceanic, reduced to saying, at some points, blue, blue, like a singer affected by echolalia if not glossolalia. In California, the individual writ of lives gets lost against the vastness of the ocean's mortality, and you can feel this struggle to matter, as an individual soothsayer, within this song.
11. "Hotel California," by the Eagles
Oddly enough, I think this is the most exported and timeless of American songs. Not Elvis, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Dylan. But Hotel California? By The Eagles? And yet it seems to be the case. Everywhere I have ever traveled, remote hillside towns in Sri Lanka where Kandyan dance and exorcism is practiced, Cuban trova outposts, sodden and isolated Hebrides islands, Pyrenees cafes, agricultural schools in southern Israel, it doesn't matter, if someone has tried to play the guitar, in addition to having tried to master some Michael Jackson moves, they have also tried learning and singing this song, and it also occurs with the greatest statistical frequency on all the Muzak players in the fancy tourist hotel lobbies everywhere.
What is it then? What are we exporting with this song? Hotel California: a new kind of American gothic, a beckoning lady, the idea of America as danger, consumption, seduction, risk, freedom, something about the dream which time forgot. And yet a religious principle behind it: the lost mission bells. It is the song a pioneer sings at the death of a dream: and yet some hope secretly lurks.
I remember one of the many ur-Lana figures of my youth trying to choreograph a dance to this in my family's living room, and how it seemed that if we could just figure out the right moves to “Hotel California” we were going to grasp some truth about, if not our future, at least California, but perhaps they were one and the same.
*12. "Push It Real Good," by Salt n Pepa
In 1988 this song was inescapable; two fresh-talking girls, Salt n Pepa, in the house, owning the tale. Unlike some other producer-confected girl groups of the time, they made up their own story. A scary techno keyboard riff comes in like a juggernaut of industry, the girls unperturbed by it, acting like sexual foul-mouthed handmaidens of the machine with their Salt n Pepa's here. Could this moment not be an entry point for a lineage away from Madonna toward latterday descendents like Lady Gaga and Missy Elliot?
May I enter here into a small riff on my longheld, private theory about the industrial revolution and hiphop?
Because of the industrial revolution's domination of a whole imported population of slaves, descendents of slaves found a Hegelian way to master the master by taking over technology, the means of production. Witness the dance called the robot, or listen to the way hiphop takes the inorganic machine, in both sound or movement, and slings it back into the body. The body, once the instrument of slavery, masters the machine and wins. To end this sentence with some grammatical copulatives, this song had a truth; the truth was about awareness as much as cheekiness. When I wrote LOLA's scene in the gogo bar, this song played in my head, as much as another quoted song with the telltale line I will be your father figure.
13. "Santa Monica Boulevard," by Sheryl Crow
This song speaks, in both form and content, to the mindless hedonism of the Los Angeles section in the life of both Rose and Lana.
14. "The Real World," The Bangles
When I was a little girl/I wanted everything ideal, yeah, and a love I could depend on. Rose and Lana crave an impossible love that will ultimately undo the basis of their craving.
15. "The West," instrumental by Kevin Salem
I love this piece from the Lola soundtrack as a way to finish this playlist because of the sense I get, when listening on what Aaron Copeland calls the “expressive plane” of listening, to an opera singer in plight along a dusty cowboy roadside. The lady sings, imploringly, from a ditch because her fate is writ. Salem's guitar proceeds along, inexorable, not wholly unheeding the opera singer and finally uniting with her in some way, yet the truth is this: despite the illusion of choice, all are constrained by the oddity of birthright which, for the sake of shortness in this otherwise logorrheic playlist, we might call destiny.
Edie Meidav and Lola, California links:
The Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
The Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
Chronogram Magazine profile of the author
The Millions essay by the author
Poets & Writers guest post by the author
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