July 12, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Matt Dojny's debut The Festival of Earthly Delights is one of the most imaginative books I have read all year, an epistolary novel bursting with wonders and surprises.
Author Ben Greenman wrote of the book:
"Comic novels can be whimsical, or clever, or delightful, or witty, or canny, or powerful. Rarely are they all of those things. Matt Dojny's large-hearted, bright-minded novel has drawings and letters and love and loss, and now you do, too."
"'Til I Die" (Beach Boys)
"If We Wait" (Guided by Voices)
"Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" (Glen Campbell)
"Outdoor Miner" (Wire)
"I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" (The Byrds)
"This Will Be Our Year" (The Zombies)
"Shake Some Action" (The Flamin' Groovies)
The Festival of Earthly Delights takes place in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Puchai, and is based on my experiences living in rural Northeastern Thailand fourteen years ago. I traveled to Thailand with a girlfriend who was friends with the musician Matt Sweeney (who was frontman of the late, great [and possibly reunited?] band Chavez, as well as being the go-to indie rock session man for everyone from Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Cat Power to Billy "Smashing Pumpkins" Corgan). Sweeney had made her an incredible mixtape that I ended up listening to incessantly during the six months that we lived in Khon Kaen, and the songs on it became my soundtrack to life in Thailand.
There were no song/artist titles listed on the cassette case, so the mix took on an especially talismanic power due to the fact that the music's provenance was unknown to me, and undiscoverable. (This was in 1997—a simpler era, when all such information was not instantaneously accessible via The World Wide Internet.) The songs were mostly pop tunes from the 60s and 70s, each with a similarly melancholic, dislocated aura that collectively spoke to the sense of dislocation that I myself was experiencing. I knew none of the songs, and yet they all sounded somehow powerfully familiar—it was as though they were culled from the records that my parents listened to before I was born, and I was accessing dim, embryonic memories of them. Despite the fact that I wasn't the intended recipient of the mix, I couldn't help but feel as if every song spoke to me directly in one way or another, either by articulating a romanticized vision of my emotional state (I'm a cork on the ocean / floating over the raging sea…), or by offering me coded messages that seemed fraught with significance, if only I could unpack the oblique lyrics (No blind spots in leopards' eyes / Can only help to jeopardize / The lives of lambs, the shepherd cries…).
I unfortunately lost custody of the mixtape after my girlfriend and I parted ways, and so, over the years, I've had to reverse-engineer the tracklist. The thing is, by this point, I can't remember the songs on the mix unless I happen to randomly stumble across one somewhere—overheard at a party, or on Pandora, or while waiting on line at Old Navy. At those moments, I experience a small moment of pure joy, knowing that another track has been unearthed. So far, over the past fourteen years, I've been able to identify the above eight songs, but there's more than half of my mystery mix floating around out there that still needs to be heard, remembered, and identified. The excavation is perpetual.
Neu! 2 (album)
When you're trying to write a novel while holding down a day job, you have to get creative in terms of finding time to work. At some point in the process, when I was desperate to make some headway on the project, I started getting up at 5 AM every morning (well, most mornings) to write. During those twilit hours, I would generally ease into consciousness by listening to something low-key—an Erik Satie album, or maybe some Thelonious Monk. And then, after I'd had breakfast and had begun my labors in earnest, I'd put the album Neu! 2 on repeat.
The record begins with the eleven-minute song "Für Immer," a languid, shimmering slab of Krautrock that somehow perfectly replicates the experience of one's brain blossoming under the influence of caffeine. As the album goes on, though, it gets progressively stranger. Supposedly, in the midst of the recording process, the band blew their entire budget on new equipment and couldn't afford any additional studio time to finish the album. With half an album in the can, and an unsympathetic record company, Neu! decided to kill two birds (finishing the record and annoying their label) with one stone by taking the existing material and manipulating it in various ways (via editing, varying the tape speed, etcetera) so that the already-recorded songs could be recycled into new material. (Bear in mind that this was in 1973, before the dawn of the remix.)
Consider the song "Super." In its original version (which is the final track of the album), it's a New Wave-ish number that sounds like PiL trying their hand at motorik. Then there's "Super 78," in which the track is sped-up, turning it into a manic, Chipmunks-esque thrasher. And finally, there's "Super 16," in which the song is slowed down, and to terrifying effect—it sounds like the soundtrack to an underwater nightmare induced by drinking too much Robitussin (and has, in fact, appeared on two film soundtracks that I know of: the Hong Kong fight flick Master of the Flying Guillotine, and Kill Bill Vol. 1).
The mysterious alchemy of these repurposed tunes never failed to lull me into a proper writing-trance, and, by the time I'd listened to the album twice all the way through, my wife was just waking up, and I'd churned out a couple of pages. I can't say for certain if it's due to the influence of Neu! 2 that my novel possesses a certain scrappy, kitchen-sink quality to it; but, I'd like to think so.
"Peanut Duck" (Marsha Gee)
"Didn't I" (Darondo)
"Buying a Book" (Joe Tex)
"Tonight Is Ours" (Bo Diddley)
"Black + White Unite" (Body & Monkey)
The protagonist of my novel purchases a bootleg mixtape (called BLACK-EYE SOUL) containing a favorite song from his childhood, "Black + White Unite," by the (fictional) duo of Angel & Mann. (Angel & Mann are ostensibly two men [one African-American and one Caucasian]—although, as it's later revealed, both parts of their duets are, in fact, recorded by a single middle-aged Native American woman with a seven-octave range named Evangeline Little Cloud.) The above songs are some tracks that I think might've been included on BLACK-EYE SOUL. There's the unhinged hollering of Marsha Gee; the just-ever-so-slightly-off but ultra-soulful crooning of Darondo; and the great Joe Tex, preaching on the subject of Mars versus Venus. And then there's "Tonight Is Ours."
I first heard this Bo Diddley song on a bootleg cassette that I bought at a truck stop my senior year in high school. It's a generally unsurprising live album, with Bo doing some slightly-subpar versions of his classic hits, and "Tonight Is Ours" is a fairly standard soul ballad—except that Bo is singing a duet with a woman, and on this particular live recording, the woman is shockingly off-key. It's laughably jarring at first, but as the song progresses, something about her plaintive, off-kilter singing becomes heartbreaking. I found myself creating various backstories for this duet: the woman was Bo Diddley's wife, who'd just discovered moments before going onstage that he'd been sleeping with her sister; or perhaps the woman was Bo Diddley's estranged daughter, who had decided to reconcile with her father by performing this one song onstage with him. Sadly, I haven't been able to find this tape for many years, so the link above is to the album version of the song, which, with its competent backup singing, lacks the high-stakes frisson of the version in my head.
And, finally, against my better judgment, I've included a link to Body & Monkey's no-fi rendition of the fictional song "Black + White Unite." (Full disclosure: Body & Monkey is a literary supergroup—not unlike the Rock Bottom Remainders—consisting of myself and Lowboy author John Wray. [If you're a rising literary superstar and/or can play bass, get in touch.]) Not originally intended for public consumption, this video is perhaps best viewed with one's eyes half-closed and the volume down low, so that you can all the better imagine Evangeline Little Cloud's sober baritone and soaring falsetto in lieu of my own caterwauling.
"Lufuala Ndonga" (Konono N°1)
"Khoudrini (Lemchaheb)" (Troupe Majidi)
"Kuen Kuen Lueng Lueng" (Sroeng Santi)
"Kratae" (Johnny's Guitar)
My novel features a band of musicians called Kati Na-Gareng, comprised of young malchak musicians playing a noisy, punked-up version of their traditional music. ("Malchaks" being the much-maligned ethnic minority group in Puchai.) Kati Na-Gareng holds secret underground shows around town, illegally tapping into the power grid, and plays on jerry-rigged electric toe-pianos made from scrap metal. They're inspired, in part, by the great Congolese group Konono N°1 (both in their mixture of traditional and non-traditional elements, as well as in their D.I.Y. approach to making instruments). Kati's t-shirt design is pictured above.
When I began the process of creating a "trailer" for my novel, I attempted to find a soundtrack that replicated the music of Kati Na-Gareng that I heard in my head. I imagined it sounding like traditional Thai Luk thung music, but with the energy and fuzzed-out dissonance of Konono N°1, and with an experimental "noize" edge and punk-rock energy. I pictured something akin the Troupe Majidi song above, except, obviously, more Thai-sounding—and also more Western-sounding. A tall order, indeed.
I briefly considered changing tactics and simply using Sodsai Chaengkij's peppy cover of Neil Diamond's "The Boat That I Row" for my video; but then, I stumbled across Sroeng Santi's wonderful "Kuen Kuen Lueng Lueng," which starts off with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" riff before switching gears and morphing into a wholly unique (and very addictive) song of its own. (For the intro to my trailer, I used a snippet of the song "Kratae," which I discovered on the groovy Thai-psych compilation Thai A Go-Go.) Although Sroeng Santi's music doesn't perfectly match the sound of Kati Na-Gareng, I feel like he definitely would've enjoyed having a beer with the members of my imaginary band.
THANK YOU LIONEL RICHIE*:
"Easy" (The Commodores)
In April 2005, I started work on The Festival of Earthly Delights. I wrote whenever I could find the time: on the weekends, and early in the morning, and after work, late at night. By April 2008, I'd written about 650 pages (double-spaced), and there was no end in sight. My book had become sprawling and cumbersome and semi-plotless, and I was beginning to secretly suspect that I had no business writing anything at all, and that I should quit while I was ahead.
One morning around that time, I was sitting on the subway on my way to work, reading a printout of my novel and feeling dispirited and sleepy and slightly hungover. I was having trouble concentrating because the woman next to me was having a sneezing fit, and also because a homeless guy had just gotten on at the far end of the train and was semi-tunelessly singing an unrecognizable song in a weird high-pitched voice and asking for change as he slowly made his way towards my end of the train. I did my best to block him out as I read my story: A secondary character in my book named Mr. Horse had just dressed up as Lionel Richie, and was about to get onstage and perform. The homeless guy was getting closer to me now, and I dimly noticed that his voice was actually weirdly beautiful—it was tremulous and halting and pleasingly sorrowful, and reminded me a bit of the jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott. I redoubled my efforts to ignore him, and focused on reading the text. My character, Mr. Horse, had begun to sing a Lionel Richie song, and I'd excerpted some lyrics: "Because I'm easy... I'm easy like Sunday morning... That's why I'm eaaaaaaasy... I'm easy like Sunday mo-o-o-ornin'…"
And, as my eyeballs scanned those words printed on the page I held in my hands, a bizarre and remarkable thing happened: at that same exact moment, the homeless guy—who was now directly in front of me—was singing those identical lyrics as I read them silently to myself, as if he were looking over my shoulder and singing my novel aloud to the subway car. He'd been singing "I'm Easy" ever since he'd gotten onto the train, and I just hadn't realized it.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I started crying a little bit, and I gave him a five-dollar bill, and then he got off the train.
Soon thereafter, I took a month-long leave of absence from work, which turned into a four-month leave of absence, and eventually, I finished the book and sent it to a few literary agents, including a woman whom I'd met at a party and had told this story to. She agreed to represent me.
The Festival of Earthly Delights was published in June 2012.
Thank you, Lionel Richie.
*The above anecdote and illo first appeared in THE MOMENT: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure (Harper Perennial, 2012), edited by Larry Smith.
Matt Dojny and The Festival of Earthly Delights links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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