July 24, 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.
The stories in Michael Jeffrey Lee's debut collection Something in My Eye are diverse in form but always impressive. These dark tales surprise and disturb in all the best ways.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Lee’s stories are intriguing and highly original, with a bent toward the weird, both in character and worldview. He is a master of voice, portraying the lives of men who are lost, lonely, and disturbed."
I wrote most of Something in My Eye on my front porch while music played. Either I would blast it from the stereo inside, or, if I was feeling bashful, or secretive, I'd pipe it in through my headphones. To say that music shaped the book would be something of an understatement—character and plot were often determined less by artistic design and more by lyrics or melodies that happened to enter my ears at the time. Here are some songs that, in one way or another, assisted me in writing the collection.
Neil Young – "On the Beach"
I think this track is one of his best. Such a bummed out beach song; the singer is just lost in the fog, half-formed thoughts in his head and the weight of the world on his shoulders. The paranoia and anger of the album's first half gives way to a kind of mournful indifference in the second. Pathetic verses sit side by side with profound ones; the singer's despair is real and quite palpable and yet he's distant, not completely available to us. It's a weirdly funny record, too, though I may be in the minority in thinking so. A long time ago I worked in a movie theatre and I had the golden opportunity to meet Mr. Young, who arrived one night to promote his film Greendale. My boss, knowing I was a fan, suggested that I go offer him some refreshments. So I did. I ran backstage and introduced myself and shook his gigantic hand and then asked him if he wanted something to eat or drink. Popcorn was his request. I ran back to the concession stand, filled a bag and brought it back to him, and then wasted no time in telling him that I thought he should put On the Beach back in print, because he was denying everyone all around the world the chance to enjoy it. He smiled, but said he didn't have any plans to do anything with it. Then he asked if I was serious—did I really like it?—and I assured him that I did, even going so far as to suggest that it was his masterpiece, and he sort of looked at me suspiciously in response. I didn't have anything more to say. He munched the popcorn for a bit, sharing some with his entourage. Then he handed me the remainder and said goodbye and went on stage.
Jackson C. Frank – "Milk and Honey"
I first heard this song in Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny, which plays while the film's protagonist drives some lonesome American highway at sunset. I meant to purchase Frank's only album right after seeing the film, but did not—I forgot his name entirely. I did not, in fact, purchase Blues Run the Game until a few years later, when I had stopped in Austin, Texas for the day while evacuated from New Orleans, on my way to California. I picked up the album because it looked intriguing, and it was only when I was back on the lonesome interstate, at sunset, listening to my new CD, that I realized where I had heard his voice before. I can't quite describe the feeling I had, but it wasn't exactly a good one. The situation struck me as very clownish and absurd: me, in my desolate and oblivious condition, re-enacting a scene of precious desolation from a film I once saw, even going so far as using the same song to soundtrack it, but I fought through it and drove on, and sang along, too—why not? The music was too good to care that my life had become a joke.
Geeshie Wiley – "Last Kind Words"
I first heard about Geeshie, a very obscure lady of the blues, in Greil Marcus' amazing sermon on the American character, The Old, Weird America, and then I finally heard it on the 4th volume of the Harry Smith Anthology, and was amazed. The attitude of the singer toward the calamities that have befallen her is chilling (grief seems to have induced a kind of cold clarity in her voice and delivery), although the feeling lifts a little by the song's end, when she reveals that she's in love (or is still reeling from a love gone bad). I like this song so much I may have even "lifted" a few lines from it and put them in the title story of Something in My Eye, which was conceived as a kind of blues.
Writing to this grand album always makes me believe that the lines I am typing, flowing effortlessly from my fingertips and scrolling across my computer screen, contain more grace and glory than they actually do—often I have to throw away much of what I've written after a session with Earth, but it always feels worth it.
Charalambides – "Voice for You"
I think this band is terrific and Joy Shapes is my favorite album of theirs, or at least the one I return to most. Houston also haunts me as does the black-hearted Market Square, but Joy Shapes I think is the most cathartic and beautiful. "Voice for You" is the closing track and it does, I think, the same thing that Nico's "Frozen Warnings" does: it gives the listener a terrifying little peek into eternity. I love the way Tom Carter's slide weeps and moans around the clanging chords, the way Christina's voice drops out only to re-enter again at the end, in a alien tape loop, which seduces even as it stabs. There are moments here so scary and disorienting that sometimes the only condign response seems to be laughter--dark, aghast laughter. Beginning in the country, we wind up in deep space. Definitely the sound of skin getting shed!
Mick Jagger- "Memo From Turner"
I put on this song when I feel like a hot dog, when I want to strut up and down my empty apartment. The film Jagger wrote it for, the film he actually performs the song in—wearing a business suit and sporting slicked back hair—is Performance, which, despite some of it's more dated renderings of drug induced hallucinations (particularly the shot in which a woman's breast magically morphs into an ancient pyramid) still has plenty to say about gender, repression, and the nature of violence. Anyway, the perverse thrill of hearing Jagger's character accuse a macho ganster of being nothing more than "a faggy little leather boy with a smaller piece of stick," is reason enough to see it. The whacked-out score by Jack Nietzsche is also excellent.
Incredible String Band – "Chinese White"
I'm not sure if this song had any actual influence on the collection but it's a song that my brother and I have sung to each other over the telephone with some regularity over the years, half joking and half serious, and we're particularly fond of this ridiculous (or is it ridiculously beautiful?) lyric: "And I will lay me down, with my arms round the rainbow. And I will lay me down, to dreeeeeeeeeam," while a fiddle that sounds like it's being played with sand paper drones behind. I wonder sometimes what exactly "Chinese White" is—is it the thing that's allowed the singer to feel as good as he does? Or perhaps it's something he's wrapping himself in? Either way, I want sooooooooooome.
Mick Harvey – "First St. Blues"
A friend of mine gave me a copy of this album for Christmas in 2006. He said that it reminded me of him, and naturally he wanted me to have it. It was a great gift: Mick Harvey from The Bad Seeds covering other artists in his own highly distinctive manner. Dramatic, elegant, and "romantic" songs, all sung from the point of view of men far gone in gloomy reverie. He does a great job with Scott Walker and Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Robbie Fulks, but my favorite remains the opening track, his mighty sensual recasting of Lee Hazlewood's "First Street Blues," in which a wino explains precisely why he likes wine and why he wants to keep drinking it. The dignified abjection of Hazlewood's original is gone, and Harvey, with the help of some some strings, makes the song a cathartic confessional. It makes me wince a little even as it profoundly moves me.
Michael Jeffrey Lee and Something in My Eye links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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