October 3, 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.
James Meek's novel The Heart Broke In is an ambitious and unique family drama that cleverly explores the limits of loyalty and love.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Richly drawn characters behaving in unexpected ways make Meek’s (We are Now Beginning our Descent, 2008, etc.) latest a gem."
The artist Eddie Farrell introduced me to Louis Prima in one of the mix tapes he sent me from Scotland when I lived in Moscow in the 1990s and I got into It’s The Rhythm In Me in a big way during the writing of The Heart Broke In. I imagine Harry tonking this out on the piano in Scotland in 1987 while Alex is surreptitiously drumming along upstairs; in England, young Bec is playing Soft Cell on the recorder and Ritchie is playing Here Comes Your Man in his room; and in Northern Ireland, Captain Shepherd is being shot.
At the end of January 2010 I arrived in New York to spend a month in a west village studio sublet, working on the book. I wanted to get away from London and see some people. It snowed a lot. Gary Trudeau took me out to lunch and said 'New York in January? Have you never heard of the Caribbean?' and I thought: 'He's right.' Perhaps I kept listening to Lady Gaga's Bad Romance in those days because it's the kind of huge synthetic aural space my mind can fly in; perhaps, without my being aware of it, it was the lyrics that grabbed me, because bad romance was what had really drawn me to Manhattan in winter.
'So now I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?' If artists are, as I suspect, victims of a particular delusion, believing themselves to be members of a race of exceptionally long-lived beings who know that they are doomed to die young - that is, at 75, rather than their allotted span of 750 - it would explain the precocious questioning of musicians like Neil Young and Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes, whose song Montezuma these lines come from. They combine a sense of imminent mortality with the languor of their Methusalan kin, who know they can spend years doing nothing but thinking and making music, because they have centuries to spare.
If each character in The Heart Broke In were to have a song, Jackson C. Frank's Blues Run The Game would be Dougie's, the ballad of a life rigged against you. Paul Simon's old buddy didn't write much but many who've written more have never written anything as good as this. Strumming guitar badly and singing is one of my rest and distraction activities while writing and this is easy to play the basic chords of: G, C and D. In the days before buskers went electric it would have sounded great in the tunnels at Tottenham Court Road tube. It's not just that the buskers have amps, either. They're more upbeat than they used to be. In London these days you feel the buskers stake their repertoire on virtuosity rather than soul.
I saw the Arctic Monkeys in a concert in a shitty London corporate venue long after I'd got them - or an even younger version - in my head as a model for The What, the precocious rockers who try to sneak onto Ritchie's teen makeover show by faking incompetence. I love From The Ritz To The Rubble: there's a tension between the storytelling and the energy of the music. It's as if Alex Turner is trying to make himself heard over the northern English urban energy that feeds him...
...but the song I imagined The What covering in front of Ritchie and Midge is Karen Dalton's Something On Your Mind. What a voice! And what a perfect distillation of the sub-surface world of human relations. Thanks to the mixtape magician Hannah for introducing me to this song.
Leonard Cohen is one of the great songwriters. I saw him at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago and it seemed to me that in his seventies not only was his voice better than it had ever been but he was a happy old man. There are some lovely chord changes in Leonard Cohen songs, and I used one of the transitions in Sisters of Mercy for Ritchie to teach his daughter to play guitar. Cohen wrote this song for the Robert Altman film McCabe And Mrs Miller. I rented the DVD and struggled to make out what the characters were saying. I thought I was going deaf until I looked at Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and saw he devoted two pages to how bad the sound was on that movie: Warren Beatty told Biskind he couldn't understand what the characters were saying, either, and he was in it.
In The Heart Broke In Alex abandons drumming for science long before The White Stripes comes along. Too bad: there are some great numbers there for drummers whose drumming is an advanced form of fidgeting. The Hardest Button to Button is a track that anyone, but particularly a mildly asocialized intellectual who needs to be distracted in order to concentrate, can and will play along to by beating their hands on the edge of the table.
What if Linda Thompson had never met Richard Thompson? Would she have ended up with some good provider dirtbag like Ritchie in The Heart Broke In? I offer no comment on the real life on the Thompsons, of which I know nothing. But Linda's performance of I Need You At The Dimming Of The Day and A Heart Needs A Home (the BBC session version) is, to me, the lyrical, melodic expression of the hope and belief Karin invests in Ritchie when she takes a long bet on him as a family man.
The Hold Steady is the band Ritchie should have fronted. Sexy, rocking, yearning bards of chaos, brilliant, effortless, almost out of reach and still touchable, coming out with songs like Hot Soft Light: 'Started recreational/ It ended kinda medical.' Instead Karin subordinated her talent to Ritchie, and Ritchie, aiming for the Pixies, landed somewhere between Keane and Snow Patrol.
Townes van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty is the perfect song for the strumming writer to pick up and play. Five easy open chords, a clear melody and chorus, no bridge, a comfortable baritone and not much of a vocal range required. It's also a writer's inspiration; simple as it seems, the story it tells has an incredible fractal quality. It works perfectly as a four verse song, but it could just as easily be a 90-minute movie, an epic poem, or a 300-page novel.
We like sad songs for the same reason we like sadness in novels: the point is not the sadness, but the expansion of the psychic space available for suffering - cities of sadness, parks of sadness, restaurants of sadness, a world of sadness rich enough not to fee alone in, and civilized enough to lend nobility to your presence there. Juliette Greco's L’Amour Est Parti is the ticket.
When I heard The Streets' Turn The Page I didn't think 'great music' or 'poetry.' I thought 'A brilliant young English writer - they don't come along too often.'
James Meek and The Heart Broke In links:
Boston Globe review
Daily Mail review
Financial Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
The Skinny review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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