April 16, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Nick Dybek's When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is a captivating and complex debut novel, one that confidently explores themes of family, community, and the choices we make that affect both.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"In this tale of good men 'doing unspeakable harm to other people,' Dybek proves himself an observant, appealing writer.... Peopled with multidimensional characters and featuring well-drawn settings... Dybek writes well about family, about relationships and loyalty, about responsibility and community, and about all that passes from father to son."
When I was a freshman in high school I bought Sebadoh's Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock because I saw an older girl in one of my classes wearing a Sebadoh t-shirt. I made sure to bring up the record in her presence as soon as I could. She wasn’t all that impressed, but thank god for that t-shirt! For years I put “Brand New Love” or “Vampire” on every mix take I made, to show people that I was both very angry and very sensitive.
When I was younger, listening to music felt like the only way to know anything about myself. Sometimes I still feel this way. Talking about the music we listen to is, for better or worse, an easy way to express identity. So it’s funny to think how often the music we claim as our own starts as other people’s. By other people, I mean the artists who write and record it but also those who introduce us to it—friends, parents, crushes, those less well known but just as admired.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is about listening to other people’s music as much as it's about fishing or murder; it's about the process of making that music one's own. Below are some of the pieces and songs that I’ve tried to make my own by including them in the story.
"Quartet for the End of Time" - Olivier Messiaen
As a fiction writer, I am drawn to music that comes with a narrative attached, and the story of this quartet's composition is astonishing. It premiered in a German POW camp during Word War II, having been composed there for the only instruments available—clarinet, viola, cello, and piano. Throw out the story, and you're left with a transcendent piece of music that lives up to its title’s grandiosity—the dissonance and elusiveness of much of the piece make the cello-piano and viola-piano duets in the 5th and 8th movements feel like the world is actually ending. It was the name of the piece, actually, that helped me find a way to work it into Captain Flint. The narrator's mother is an obsessive record collector, especially of inaccessible and difficult music. But it’s easy enough to imagine the words “Quartet for the End of Time,” drawing a child in, causing him to pull the record from the shelf, easy enough to picture those words embossed on the cover of some Dark Crystal-era adventure movie.
"Idiot Wind" - Bob Dylan
The narrator of Captain Flint hears this song rage through an otherwise empty house, at a moment when he is feeling just the sort of confused, self-destructive, and objectless anger Dylan takes as his subject. I've always found something strangely inviting in this song, a rage that you could get lost in. Also the lyric that ends the first verse—“They say I shot a man named Gray/And took his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks/And when she died it came to me/I can’t help it if I’m lucky”—could not be better.
"Beauty Is a Rare Thing" - Ornette Coleman
One of the first jazz records I ever bought was Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. I was in high school at the time, and nothing seemed more sophisticated or cool to me than an album called Free Jazz! Sometimes I would invite friends over, put on Ornette, and pretend to love the cacophony coming out of my Paradigm speakers. The truth is that I rarely, if ever, listened to the record without an audience. Part of the problem was that Free Jazz offered a response to a form that I knew next to nothing about. The result sounded to me, as the narrator of Captain Flint puts it, like “the melody of a car crash.” Fortunately, he's less pretentious than I was, and doesn't have to pretend to like it. A decade and change later Ornette Coleman’s music makes a little more sense to me, especially on early albums like This Is Our Music. There may be a bit of a wink in the title of the album’s ballad, “Beauty Is a Rare Thing.” The harmonies are discordant, the drums rumble, and Don Cherry’s bright trumpet solo jars after the dirge-like melody. But the piece is, in fact, beautiful, especially the countermelody provided by Haden’s bowed string bass. Also, there’s a photo of the players on the cover, looking amazingly sophisticated and cool.
"Trois Gymnopédies, No. 1" - Erik Satie
I listened to Aldo Ciccolini’s Piano Music of Erik Satie a lot while writing Captain Flint. I doubt Satie spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, but his music has the rain-on-windows feel of its landscape. A pianist friend explained to me that even though Trois Gymnopédies No. 1 is written in ¾ the left hand never plays on the third beat of the measure, giving the piece a hollowness, a feeling of unresolved longing. Perhaps that's why no matter how many times I hear it—in movie soundtracks, as wallpaper music in restaurants, or on headphones while staring at a laptop screen—I still long to hear it again.
"Kind Hearted Woman Blues" - Robert Johnson
Though this novel is set in the Pacific Northwest, I began thinking about it when I was living in the Mississippi Delta, not far from Dockery Plantation, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” plays during a pivotal scene in the novel in part because of this connection. Also, I wanted to use a piece of music the reader could hear without knowing the song already, just by seeing the words on the page. For me, Robert Johnson is a musician whose name brings a sound immediately to mind. That faint sound is amplified by the powerful rhythm and contradictory sadness of these lyrics—“I got a kind hearted woman/ she studies evil all the time”—so that you almost don’t need to hear the music to hear the song.
"Lotus Blossom" - Duke Ellington Orchestra
As with Messiaen's Quartet, the story of “Lotus Blossom's” composition is moving. It was recorded in the aftermath of Billy Strayhorn’s death, and the album on which it appears, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, is most famous for the pieces Strayhorn wrote in the final months of his life, especially the incomparable “Blood Count.” But Strayhorn's writing partner, Duke Ellington, said that “Lotus Blossom” was the piece that impressed him most, because he could never figure out how his friend wrote it. Ellington often played the song unaccompanied, to end concerts, so it’s fitting that the version that appears as the final cut on the original record is played by Ellington alone on piano as the rest of the orchestra packs up their instruments (you can hear them in the background). The downside is that the other recording of the piece, featuring a mind-blowing, achingly gorgeous baritone sax solo by Harry Carney, had to be shelved for twenty years. It feels almost like a cop-out to describe a melody as haunting, but here is a melody that haunted Duke Ellington, of all people. That melody, and the past it evokes, haunts Captain Flint’s narrator, as well.
Nick Dybek and When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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