April 18, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Joe Schuster's debut novel The Might Have Been features a baseball player, but is hardly a baseball novel. The book richly uses the sport as metaphor, and its character driven story is a vivid exploration of the choices made chasing a dream.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"This moving tale will engage even nonbaseball fans as Schuster examines, without succumbing to sentiment or an easy resolution, the cost of chasing a dream."
On the surface, The Might Have Been might seem a baseball novel. Its main character, Edward Everett Yates, spends a decade bouncing around the minor leagues in the late 1960s, early 1970s, until his perseverance is rewarded when the St. Louis Cardinals call him up. Weeks later, he suffers a serious injury that ends his season and then, in so many other ways, the game tells him it doesn't want him, but he persists, making sacrifice after sacrifice just to hang on in some way, until 30 years later, he's managing a broken down team in the low minors. I don't however, see it so much a baseball novel as a novel about dreams and ambition and what happens when you can touch the dream but not possess it, the sort of dream that you let define who you are, and what happens to your life after that—and it only happens to be set in baseball.
While I was writing it, I listened to music – I have never been able to write in silence – and for most of the time I worked on the book over nine years, I listened to the same song over and over, Aretha Franklin's "I Say a Little Prayer." I'm not entirely sure how many times I heard it in that time because I am now on my third iPod since I started writing the book and the play count did not carry over from iPod to iPod but it has to be well into the thousands and so any play list for the book must begin there.
"I Say a Little Prayer" by Aretha Franklin
I hadn't heard this song for I have no idea how long until one afternoon some years ago when I was playing hooky from working and met one of my daughters to go a movie. I was running a little late but as I pulled into the parking lot, this song came on the radio and I had to sit there and listen to it until it was over. Then, when I got home, I downloaded it and when I listened to it there, I had to hear it again immediately and then again and again. For something around fifteen years, when I wrote I listened exclusively to the Hellmut Rilling/Bach Collegium of Stutgaart recording of Mozart's "Requiem," first on a Walkman and then a Discman and finally an iPod, and so I was used to writing with the same piece of music playing over and over for hours in a sitting but the "Requiem" is fifty-something minutes long and the Aretha song just a bit over three and a half minutes and I had no idea whether I could write to it or if I soon would be annoyed by it, but at one point I started writing to it and never tired of it. From time to time, I experimented with trying to write to other songs that I thought were similar in some way to Aretha's "Say a Little Prayer"—Aretha's "Border Song," the terrific Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," which Jason Reitman uses in the soundtrack for his film Up in the Air—but I found I couldn't write to them as well as I could to "Say a Little Prayer," and so I kept returning to it.
I hesitate to analyze too much why the Franklin song worked as it did on my writing because doing so might end whatever spell it cast. I do know that using it became akin to a kind of hypnosis, because as soon as I heard the eight-second instrumental open and Aretha's background vocalists, The Sweet Inspirations, sing, "Say a little prayer for you," and then, a dozen seconds in, Aretha start, "The moment I wake up," I was back inside my novel, ready to work, and if I would even hear the song when I wasn't at my laptop – if it came up on shuffle while I was at the gym, working out, for example – my novel would push into my head.
I can, however, say this about it:
Not long before Franklin released her recording of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, Dionne Warwick had a hit with it. Warwick's version is pleasant – she has a wonderful voice and she really is the trademark singer for much of Bacharach's work– but, for me, the Warwick version never moves beyond being strictly a first-rate pop song; it's spritely and the horns that Bacharach loved give it a brassiness, but Aretha's version actually seems spiritual – Aretha and the Sweet Inspirations started as gospel singers. Unlike in the Warwick version, instrumentation hangs in the background for Aretha's, which pushes the singers even more to the fore, and Aretha makes an interesting choice with the vocals. While Warwick uses her background singers as traditional background singers, primarily adding "ooohs" and echoing words or phrases in the lyrics that Warwick sings, Aretha lets the Sweet Inspirations take the chorus whenever it comes around and it's Aretha who echoes them with "forever" and "together." There is a marvelous moment in it that never fails to take my breath away if I'm fully conscious of the song (which I'm not when I'm writing): At around the two minute mark, it begins to slow down, almost as if Aretha and the Sweet Inspirations are signaling it's coming to an end, it's about to fade out, but then it explodes into the chorus and at the 2:33 mark, Aretha lets loose with an "Eeeverrr," echoing the word in the chorus that the Sweet Inspirations are singing. That moment stops the world.
Beyond "Say a Little Prayer," which actually appears briefly in the novel in a coy nod to how important the song was in getting the book out of me (a character tries to sing it but forgets the words), music hovers in the background of so many scenes, as it does in most of our lives.
"Bus Stop," The Hollies
The song appears early on in The Might Have Been, on the radio while Edward Everett waits in his car at the curb beside the house of a woman he's taking on a date, someone he knew in high school and with whom he's reconnected ten years after graduation. "Bus Stop" is typical of so many pop love songs from the middle 1960s, when Edward Everett and the woman, whose name is Connie, would have been in high school since it seems possess an adolescent shy innocence about love and sex: the song never even suggests the man and woman kiss or even touch; their relationship is expressed through objects outside of themselves – the man holds his umbrella over the woman to protect her from rain and "Sometimes she'd shopped and she would show [him] what she bought." Yet, they end up marrying. I chose the song for that moment in the book because I wanted something that would evoke nostalgia for that kind of naïveté about romance, especially something that would stand in contrast to the fact that, when that song was in the top-40 while my characters would have been in high school, Connie was finding out she was pregnant by someone who would turn out to be abusive.
"The Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
While my novel never mentions this Motown classic by name, this is precisely the sort of song I had in mind when I describe, in a couple of places, the high school dances Edward Everett would have gone to when he was a teenager, like the dances I went to a few years later than when he would have been in school, when couples would cling to each other under subdued lights in an overheated gymnasium, not so much dancing as turning slowly in tidy circles, feeling the weight of their love and lust for the two and a half or three minutes the song lasted, all the while the song they were dancing to was often about heartbreak.
"What a Difference a Day Made," Bobby Darin
Another song that serves as a sort of prose soundtrack for the novel. Maybe because I've spent so much of my life with music playing in the background or foreground as I go about whatever I'm doing—on transistor radios when I was a teenager, on car radios, on record players, on stereos and Walkmen and iPods—I often find myself saying things that put me in mind of lines of a song or the title of a song and then (with apologies to everyone I've done this to) singing or humming a bit of it. In The Might Have Been, Edward Everett does this at a moment just after his life has taken a surprising turn for the better, as he's reflecting on how within a day he has become an entirely different person than he was before this particular event (which I won't describe here since it's a key turning point). While the song is more often associated with other singers, like Dinah Washington, I particularly like the Darin version because it's so wistful; as Darin personifies him, the narrator of the song seems just at the moment when he's discovering his life has changed in a single moment and he isn't yet quite certain what it means; Darin's voice is so quiet here and the song so slow, it puts me in mind of someone who's afraid to declare what has happened too loudly since that might break whatever it is. Beyond this, there is a particularly beautiful moment: Right around 2:13, there's a key change and Darin sings "What a difference a day makes," sustaining the word "day" for almost three seconds while the pianist plays a little blues trill and it breaks my heart every time.
High Violet, The National
This particular album is actually a bit of an anachronism, since The National released it in 2010 and my novel ends in 2009, although the band's appearance in the novel is not anachronistic, since they've been recording for more than a decade. They show up in the book as being the favorite band of one of the most gifted players Edward Everett Yates has ever managed, a player whose ability is matched by his cockiness and selfishness. The latter quality is manifested in a choice he makes early on, to go AWOL from the team for three days so he can go hear The National play in Chicago. In earlier drafts of the book, the band he went to hear was Radiohead, but I changed it as something of another inside nod, this time to one of my sons. After Ballantine accepted the novel, I sent copies of the manuscript to my five children—before the publisher accepted it, the only people I let see it were my two advance readers, Margot Livesey and K.L. Cook; my agent, the wonderful Amanda Urban; the editor who ended up acquiring it, the terrific Jennifer Smith; and my wife. I am a horrible pessimist about the quality of my work so I was afraid to let anyone else see it, certain they'd say, "Oh, this is terrible. You spent nine years on this? I'm so sorry." So, when Ballantine accepted it, I thought, okay, maybe it's not entirely bad after all and let my children read it. One of my sons travels a lot for his job and he read the draft I emailed him, on his iPhone, while he was flying from Arizona to Hawaii, listening to High Violet on repeat. (Perhaps this practice may be genetic.) After he landed, he ordered a copy of the CD and it showed up in my mail. He said he thought it an appropriate soundtrack for the book and so while I was working on the line edits my editor sent me and then later when I went through the galleys, that's what I listened to over and over again, just as I'd listened to the Aretha song while I was writing and revising it. So, at the last moment, "Radiohead" became "The National."
Joe Schuster and The Might Have Been links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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