October 26, 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.
Tod Davies follows up her novel Snotty Saves the Day with the equally impressive Lily the Silent, the second installment in her The History of Arcadia series. This modern fairy tale smartly explores the power of storytelling in our lives, and is a rewarding book for both adults and children.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Davies’s absorbing salute to the necessity and power of storytelling promises many grand adventures while hinting that there is really only one."
I'm still that person who listens to the same albums/CDs/tapes over and over (yes! Tapes! It's true! I may be the only person in the known world who still has a tape player and a dusty heap of cassettes, and who still ACTUALLY PLAYS THEM), but hey, I do that with books too. My feeling is, if something rekindles attention that's because there is enough complexity within its structure to constantly renew interest. I'm a different person when I listen to, or read, an old favorite, from the last time I paid attention. And you know one thing I have noticed: real, true pieces of art, of any kind, are like real, true people. You don't get everything you can or should from just a cursory look at their outsides. And the more you listen, the more you realize the songs carry some common themes, and that those are the themes you're attracted to, and deal with in your own work, your own life.
Anyway, the music I listened to while writing Lily the Silent, the second of The History of Arcadia books, I did most certainly listen to over and over. Chumbawamba's Rebel Songs. Warren Zevon's Life'll Kill Ya. Iggy Pop. The Grateful Dead. Vivaldi. All of Randy Newman. And what do those have in common? I asked myself. And the answer I found: they're all about reclaiming human values in a world that increasingly encroaches on that territory.
All of the music I love the most keeps looking for that right road to being more human, and all of it calls out: "Hey! You! Over here. No, not over there. Over HERE!" For example:
Randy Newman, "Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear"
This song sounds at first listen like a children's tune ("Seen at the nicest places/where well-fed faces/all stop and stare") with its rhymes and up and down melody. Easy listening, cheerful, sunny. But what do I find when I listen again? Aha. The secretly desperate artist, keeping his desperation even from himself. ("I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear/Oh, I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear.") The one who keeps hoping tomorrow will bring him the approval he needs to keep going…not to mention the cash. ("Who needs money/When you're funny?") Oh gosh, this song breaks my heart. Every time I listen to it, I can hear dozens and dozens of actors, writers, playwrights, musicians, and painters I've known saying anxiously, "But if the work is good, it'll succeed, right?" Well. Maybe if your dancing bear is really, really, really good.
Then again, maybe not. You may just have to think about another kind of success. Not to mention shaking up that audience.
Van Morrison, "Why Must I Always Explain"
Here's Simon Smith after he's been treading the boards for a few hundred years. This song reminds me of a story that secretly enraged me, told by a then colleague. He said he'd gone to a Van Morrison concert the night before, and he and a friend went into the lobby to get a beer when the middle aged, kind of scruffy looking opening band came on. It was only when they were out in the lobby that he and the friend could hear the music, and realized that Van Morrison was the middle aged scruffy guy they'd walked out on.
"I can't be everywhere at once, there's always somebody to see
And I never turned out to be the person that you wanted me to be
And I tell you who I am, time and time and time again
Tell me why must I always explain."
Maybe if that dancing bear could firewalk, too…
Iggy Pop, "The Endless Sea"
Speaking of dancing bears who can firewalk AND swallow swords AND tell your fortune, there's Iggy Pop, the wry defender of the small and overlooked, who nevertheless manages to make an audience feel hip just listening to him ("Seen at the nicest places/where well-fed faces/all stop and stare"). And what does he have to say about that? Ah….
"Oh baby, what a place to be
In the service of the bourgeoisie
Where can my believers be?
I wanna jump into the endless sea"
Which is Simon Smith after playing the Palace one too many times for his own sanity, assessing the whole tour wryly over an after hours beer…or two or three…
Hockey, "Too Fake"
Then we have this guy (and thanks to the unnamed Japanese producer who sent this CD to our household—even our dogs love this song). Having to please and appease the audience has sent him right over the edge into an abyss, where he couldn't say a truthful thing if they paid him—which he's pretty sure they wouldn't anyway. What they pay him for is to be a complete fake, changing his position as the commercial wind blows the cultural weather vane. "Everybody's watchin', oh, but nobody cares no/Oh, wait how does it go, huh?/Nobody's watching but everybody cares/Oh, whatever, talk to you later."
He's in it for…well, he's not sure.
A terrific song. And you can dance to it. We do.
Warren Zevon, "Back in the High Life Again"
The older and wiser Simon Smith. This cover, on Zevon's Life'll Kill Ya album, where all the songs are about facing mortality and seeing what comes of it, is almost unbearably poignant. Where the original version by Steve Winwood is an upbeat anthem about a young man's comeback (check out the YouTube video, it's touching how naïve the message is), this version, by a complicated artist who knows he's dying when he sings it, has an entirely different point. It might not be one you want to take in on a casual listen, but the depth of feeling when he sings "All the doors were closed one time/will open up again" can make you feel the mortality we all share. Which is not such a downer of a message, if you have the strength to take it in. Really. It might even be a fuller one than the idea of permanent success. It might even turn out that it's that idea of never dying that's the real downer.
Grateful Dead, "Uncle John's Band"
But wait. Uncle John's Band is playing down by the riverside. And even if the singer lives in a silver mine, and he calls it beggars tomb, even if he's got him a violin, and he begs you call the tune, even if it's anybody's choice—well, at least he can hear your voice. And even if he doesn't know how the song goes, there's someone playing down by the river, playing a song to take his children home, and the singer can hear it, he's straining to hear it, because it's the one real, authentic song.
I've been crying over this song since I was nineteen years old. And that is a long time ago, and a lot of years to be getting something new with the tears every time you listen to a song.
Indigo Girls, "Let it Be Me"
You want a song that breaks your heart with the sheer joy it brings in confronting every single abyss we're teetering on the edge of? You want a song that, in the most soaringly beautiful female vocals, sends a David out with a slingshot against a skyscraper tall robot Goliath? Listen to this one. Over and over, like I do. "So the darker the age gets/There's a stronger beacon yet." And it's not a saint sending out the beacon. Or a superhero. It's her. And everyone around her. Simon Smith bowing to the audience and saying, "Let's sing this together, what do you say?"
Chumbawamba, "The Triumph of General Ludd"
From their English Rebel Songs 1381-1914 album, which I cannot praise highly enough, and which I urge every single human being on the planet who loves music and what it can do to help us remember our humble and wonderful humanity together to get this album. Chumbawamba, all of its denizens past, is/was/will be relentless in its meeting inequity, injustice, and lies with strong hearted refusal to accept anything less than our due, and sheer, tight rope walking impudent joy. This rebel song is a perfect one for singer Boff Whalley's voice, the Chumbas' version being the conscious successor to the songs of artists for hundreds of years calling for an understanding of our common humanity, and how honoring that is the only way to get the Good Life for All—since everyone is connected. And how that is the one inalterable sentiment to be celebrated in art. And everywhere else, for that matter.
That well-fed audience should get up there with Simon Smith and his Dancing Bear and get dancing, too.
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: "Winter"
I listened to this over and over when writing Lily the Silent, while my Lily was making her way with the women and children of Megalopolis over the snow-covered winter mountains back to Arcadia. It's up there that her daughter, Sophia, is born. And it's Vivaldi who reminds me over and over, what I tend to forget if I'm not reminded by real art: that in fairy tales and mythologies of every kind, it's in Winter that the Possible Future is born.
I like that about Vivaldi.
I like that about music, being reminded of the things that matter. And in every other art, too, come to think of it…
Tod Davies and Lily the Silent: The History of Arcadia links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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