August 16, 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.
In concentrating on the final weekend of Marilyn Monroe's life, Adam Braver's novel Misfit brilliantly explores the weight of celebrity on the actress as well as her ever present struggles with inner demons.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
"Misfit is a thrilling book, a beautiful book and, most of all, a believable story at last about a woman so well known and not at all."
In writing Misfit, my interest never really lay in creating a fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe; instead, my attraction to writing about her was much more rooted to the idea of exploring vulnerability, especially as it interacts with outward gestures of confidence and strength. It was of particular interest to me how someone who could find multiple ways to take charge and command of her life could be so vulnerable at her core—a vulnerability that seemed determined to bore its way out from the center. In a way, this is the tension of Monroe that I found to be most compelling. To that end, my playlist is made up of songs that I find call up an instinctual feeling of vulnerability. I suppose it would be easiest (and most obvious) to list songs of the era from the book, but the truth is that those have little influence on my thinking, and it would be disingenuous for me to pass them off as having any real connection to my writing of the book. Instead, I stick with songs that influence how I thinking about vulnerability, and very likely have subconsciously shaped my thinking and understanding of it—songs with an unfiltered honesty that has seeped through their production and arrangements and best intentions.
(One disclaimer: At this writing there are about 20,000 songs in my iTunes library, so to narrow my list down to ten songs is a more a reflection of a moment than of any kind of hierarchy. That's just the way it is sometimes. Most times.)
"Run of the Mill" –George Harrison (demo from Early Takes #1)
It's not so much the substance of the song, but the performance. In just a couple of minutes, it captures all of the complications of needing to be someone you don't necessarily want to be.
"Idiot Wind" – Bob Dylan (acoustic version from Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3)
It could have been Sara from the Rolling Thunder Review recordings, or any of the vocals from Before the Flood. But in this take, the anger of the original version off Blood on the Tracks is distilled into the pain that had fueled that rage. You can hear it in the way the pick hits the fret board.
"Parlez-moi D'Amour" - Lucienne Boyer (Henry and June Soundtrack)
You're alone, and you're walking down cobblestone streets in the middle of the night. You're exhausted but you don't want to go to bed. You're afraid you won't be able to fall asleep. You need to keep moving, because if you stop the feelings might settle in your chest and blow you apart.
"We Don't Mind" – Hayden (Everything I Long For)
A song and performance that so perfectly captures the moment of love in which everything can go right or everything could go wrong. It's the thrill of the high wire, willing yourself never to look down, only taking one step at a time, with total faith that there is somewhere for it to land.
"Ruby, My Dear" –Thelonious Monk (Monk Alone)
It's all about the space between the notes here. That's where the really story lies. Where the hope and heartbreak battle. Where we draw our breath, waiting to see which eventually will win out.
Although well-produced with full instrumentation, hearing both of these songs makes me picture someone sitting on the edge of a bed, a guitar resting over cross legs, singing quietly, and trying to turn a lament into an act of courage.
"Miss Otis Regrets"—Richard Manual (Whispering Pines – Live)
Given that he hanged himself soon after this, Richard Manual is especially heartbreaking in this take. In this Cole Porter song, with a kind of burlesque styling, Manual brings a pathos that is his to the song, transforming this standard into an expression of a man nearing the end of his life.
"The Man Who Sold The World" – Nirvana (Unplugged)
While the original Bowie version is epic in its rendition, Nirvana's take is howl from the woods. It's the loneliness and confusion that cuts through the vocals (as well through the dynamics in the arrangement) that make it sounds accidental, as though something unintended has just been revealed.
"Nuit Sur Les Champs-Élysées (Take 1)" – Miles Davis (Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud)
Just listen to the opening notes of the trumpet, how they announce themselves with a certain fanfare, and then fade as easily. Just listen to that, and you'll get what I'm getting at.
"Late String Quartets"—Ludwig van Beethoven (Julliard Quartet, The Late String Quartets)
It really isn't fair to these works to reduce them down to a sentence or two. But there is perfect combination of rage and sorrow that bring undercurrents of vulnerability to each of these pieces. There is an exquisite layering of emotion in these quartets that I wish I could capture in sentences—pure, raw, and geometrically perfect.
Adam Braver and Misfit links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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