February 7, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Carlene Bauer's debut Frances and Bernard is a compelling and poignant epistolary novel with characters based on Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell.
The Coffin Factory wrote of the book:
"Frances and Bernard is a beautiful book, made for people who like both intelligent conversation and romance (we are legion). But Bauer’s true accomplishment is not the loveliness of the prose but rather the kindness of her intentions. O’Connor died of lupus at age forty and never married, but the fictional Frances experiences true love in her stead—and may even get a happy ending."
Frances and Bernard is set in the 50s and 60s, and the main characters are writers who I imagined were, like their real-life counterparts and peers, partial to classical and jazz, and probably suspicious of the nascent genre of rock. (I want to say that writers of Gen X vintage or thereabouts were the first to come of age believing that loving rock music, or pop music, was not at cross-purposes with your literary ambitions.) So I wasn't inspired by specific pieces of music while I wrote, but there are a few songs, favorites of mine, that tell the same story the novel does--a story of impossible love, of thwarted affections. These songs have a hold on me because I'm impressed by the way they manage to illustrate these moments of impasse in just a few minutes. Never giving too much away in the lyrics, but giving just enough to keep our imaginations as engaged as our emotions. How do to the same on the page? Some days the attempt approaches a futility that can make a lady wish she'd daydreamed more about playing guitar in Josie and the Pussycats than being a writer like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
"Valerie," Amy Winehouse
Originally recorded by the Zutons--a band you wouldn't have heard of unless you're an Anglophile, and even then--it was made famous by Amy Winehouse. It seems to be a song about a man who's come back from war, or prison, or Ibiza, unable to stop thinking about a woman who's enslaved him, or other men, in a world of hurt. The version I'm partial to appears on Winehouse's Back to Black b-sides collection. Because of the spare arrangement and the slowed tempo, this song shows how singular an instrument her voice is, how worth the hype she was. Her delivery of the chorus-- "Why don't you come on over/Stop making a fool out of me?/Why don't you come on over, Valerie?"-- dignifies sorrow and pleading the way, say, Dinah Washington could. The handful of details we're given suggest a novel's worth of narrative, or a Ken Loach film, lurking between the lyrics. "Did you have to go to jail/Put your house on up for sale/Did you get a good lawyer?" the singer asks, leaving us to wonder what the hell happened. The song's touching, and yet it also makes me laugh. You've got that chorus, and then around that, the singer gently mocking the person who's put him in this position by reeling off a list of possible (and possibly criminal) things she was up to when she wasn't with him. Now I am off to make absolutely sure Elvis Costello wasn't the one who wrote this song….
"Mama Don't Like My Man," Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Another kind of impossible love: that of a daughter in love with a man her mother thinks is a deadbeat. It's not the lyrics that make this song, it's the melody and vocals. It's essentially sung a cappella, with Sharon Jones, backed by piercing harmonies, accompanied by a lone guitar and some handclaps. She frequently sounds like Tina Turner just about to throw off her gospel robe as she heads toward a James Brown-style breakdown, but the gospel-fueled Tina effect is especially pronounced on this one. A sliver of me knows I should reject all the classic soul revivalism on the grounds of--and then Sharon Jones starts singing, and whatever I was going to say doesn't matter one bit.
"CBGB's" Syd Straw
Due to an alt-rock, MTV-brined childhood, I still have a fondness for the country punk and roots rock put forward by X, Lone Justice, and Syd Straw, whose plangent, wide-open-field of a voice I still love. This song, from her 1996 album War and Peace, isn't technically about a star-crossed love affair, though it does gesture to the way we wonder about things that might have been, had it not been for--had it not been for what, again? It's really about another kind of impossible relationship, which is the relationship our older, wiser, disappointed selves have with the ghosts of our younger, idealistic, up-for-anything incarnations. The singer runs into a guy she had a moment with ten years earlier and wants to know how he's been, what he's been up to. "Are you doing what you wanted to?/Did you follow your intentions through?/And all the dreams you had/Have any or all of them come true?/If they haven't yet I hope they do." So very generous.
"Talk of the Town," the Pretenders
"It's not my place/to know what you feel/I'd like to know/But why should I?" I've heard Chrissie Hynde say that this was inspired by a kid she used to see hanging around the soundchecks on their first tour, so this makes the list because it's an evocation of the impossible love of a fan for the remote, untouchable, unknowable musician whose songs make you think you have a backstage pass to their inner lives when maybe all you really have is a front row seat to an expertly crafted persona. I've also heard, or read somewhere on some message board, that this might also be about Hynde's crush on Ray Davies. If that's true, it might explain why this portrait of a fan is sympathetic and tender rather than dismissive: she'd been that kid herself. Also, she pulls off the trick of crafting a wistfulness that resists accusations of whining.
"Train From Kansas City," Neko Case and the Sadies
This is a Shangri-Las cover that Neko Case transforms into a reminder that girl group laments are another form of folk song. In it a woman tells her fiance she's got to meet an old flame at the train station to let the ex know she's now engaged, and she tries to convince her fiance that it's over between her and the ex. So why is she meeting him at the strain station? The bridge explains: "No I never answered his letter/I just couldn't tell him that way/No I never answered his letter/I just didn't know what to say." As tragic as Anna Karenina and in a fraction of the time, with our heroine accessorized in white boots and a lot of black eyeliner.
"French Navy," Camera Obscura
Driving rhythm, intricate arrangements, irresistible melody, and tart, self-aware lyrics that cut the swinging 60s romanticism of the sound--perhaps because the lyrics spring from the well of Scottish miserablism. To wit: "You with your dietary restriction/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction." My guess is that this is about a musician whose affair with another musician just couldn't have been helped, and couldn't have lasted. Were they felled by the punishment that is the Road? Was she felled by the disease known as Frontman Charisma? (I'd say this song is about Stuart Murdoch, the ex of Traceyanne Campbell, the band's singer and songwriter, but the reference to foreign service makes me think no.) It sounds like this pirate of the indie-rock high seas swindled her out of some lyrics to boot: "I'll be criticized/For lending out my art/I was criticized/For letting you break my heart." I appreciate well-turned lines about being an otherwise sensible creature who just this once decides not to know any better, and then ends up hanging the yellow wallpaper. Or just regretting it, and struggling (a little) to keep your (trembling) chin up. See below for a variation….
"One More Hour," Sleater-Kinney
"Don't say another word/About the other girl." Enough said.
Carlene Bauer and Frances and Bernard links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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