March 14, 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.
Austin Ratner's novel In the Land of the Living is a delightfully sprawling family epic. Tinged with loss, this coming of age story is moving, at times heartbreaking, but always leavened with humor.
In the Land of the Living is about losing a parent before you're six years old—in other words, before you can remember it, but not before you can feel it. Maybe because music expresses passionate feelings even without any words attached, it plays a central role in the emotional lives of the characters. This novel is the closest I could come to writing a song. I wrote it instead of tattooing tears on my face. All of the following songs are directly referred to and / or quoted from in the novel:
"The Beautiful Land" (From The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
I used to listen to this 1964 musical with my parents before my father died. I had snatches of the lyrics in my mind for years and only later discovered where they came from. Allusions to the album are a motif throughout the book.
In this first musical number, a lollipop guild of childlike voices sing out: "There is a beautiful land where all your dreams come true. / It's all tied up in a rainbow, all shiny and new." Like Don Quixote, the musical brings irony to the ideal of the "beautiful land"—except as a condition of the mind and heart. I've adopted Cervantes's satiric use medieval romances like Le Morte D'Arthur in my Part I chapter titles. A Man of la Mancha reference was also inevitable.
"Overture / It's a Boy" – The Who
The Who's 1969 rock opera Tommy is probably my favorite album of all time. The story tells of a childhood trauma—specifically, the disappearance, return, and murder of Captain Walker in the earliest years of his son's life—and of how the events impair the son emotionally for the rest of his life—specifically by rendering him deaf, dumb, and blind (but virtuosic at pinball). I love it!
"The Overture" knits together the melodies to come on Tommy and serves as a microcosmic introduction to the album, which is loaded from top to bottom with a rage and creative energy that seems to flow straight out of Townshend's own childhood agony. I hope the passion that went into this novel will make an impact on readers, since I bloodied my fingers wailing on my Strat with total sincerity after the inspiring example of Pete Townshend.
Lyrics to the kick-ass song "It's a Boy," which is about being born into a situation of parental death and absence, appear in Part II of the novel. Call me the "Pinball Wizard."
"Got to Get you Into My Life" – The Beatles
This song appears in Part I of the novel when death has merely flirted with destroying some of the protagonists and not yet brought its full force against them. McCartney and Lennon were the bards of lost mother love. Both of them lost their mothers young, and love and grief for dead mothers is in every song either one ever wrote from "Julia" to "Band on the Run." I'd speculate it was a secret to the success of their creative collaboration and to the sweetness of their love songs.
"I Can't Explain" – The Who
Don't be fooled again: this is not a simple love song, but more of Pete Townshend on the unconscious mind twisting up your brain you till you bleed from your eye sockets. Appears in Part II, the adolescence part of the novel.
"I Am a Rock" – Simon and Garfunkel
I never understood the irony of this song when I was a teenager serving my self-adjudicated prison term in my room. While locked up there, I was fully committed to being a rock and an island with my books and my poetry to protect me. Alluded to in Part II.
"St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" – John Parr
This earnest, moving, slightly cheesy 80s song of overcoming features in the novel mainly because of two lines: "I can make it, I know I can / You broke the boy in me, but you won't break the man!" Appears in Part III, when the Auberon brothers are consolidating as brothers and as men.
"Here Comes My Baby" – Cat Stevens
The brothers listen to this on their road-trip in Part III, while driving up Highway 1 in California. A great song about Oedipal jealousy. Wes Anderson went straight for it in his great coming-of-age, Oedipal-jealousy comedy Rushmore.
"American Pie" – Don McLean
I'm certainly not introducing this song to anybody, but it has a special relevance to this book, as it does to anyone who's felt the sort of grief that robs you of your taste for living. The brothers listen to this classic as they cross the Continental Divide in Part III. It's a great song about grief's power to silence you and at the same time the song embodies defiance of that silencing despair with an unforgettable, life-loving, life-giving melody. The moment of the song that perhaps best encapsulates its rebellion against despair is when Don McLean sings "Eight miles high and falling fast." As he sings the word "fast," his voice is not falling fast but rather rising slow in pitch. "We sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died…." In the Land of the Living … a dirge in the dark!
"Hey Jude" – The Beatles
The story goes that Paul McCartney wrote "Hey Jude" for Julian Lennon, who was named for John Lennon's mother Julia—which makes "Hey Jude" a threnody on lost love and its permanent scars and surprisingly beautiful compensations. Structurally, the song's chords create certain expectations that remain unmet till the end of the long ballad. When in the end the song gives the ear what it wanted all along, and fills in the scale with a long missing chord, the song seems to be reflecting back on that chord's long absence. Its absence is like a missing person who is partially restored in the end not because he or she comes back but because the singer lays claim to his own longing for the missing loved one. In the Land of the Living has a related structure in that its protagonists carry constant expectations for people who never come, and those absences are motive forces in pretty much every scene. The main characters don't resurrect anybody but they do ultimately lay claim to their longing in a way that I think supplies a long awaited chord to the progression.
"Burn On" – Randy Newman
This great song about Cleveland, where I'm from and where most of my novel is set, became famous because of the 1989 movie Major League, but the song actually came out on Randy Newman's 1972 album Sail Away and it referred to an infamous event that happened in Cleveland in the summer of 1969: as Ohio Native Neil Armstrong was preparing to become the first man to set foot on the moon, his fellow citizens in Cleveland were testing the laws of physics in a different way—by demonstrating the remarkable combustibility of water in their highly polluted river, the Cuyahoga, which burst into flames on June 22, 1969. Randy Newman, who's always loved an underdog, was about the only person in the nation to sympathize with Cleveland in their moment of national embarrassment. (Cf. REM's judgmental "Cuyahoga" about the same event.) All disasters have a special power of humiliation. Cleveland knows this better than anyplace. I happen to be from there, but I couldn't think of a better setting for a childhood loss story.
"Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" – Dusty Springfield
Another song off the album The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Dusty Springfield, and other famous singers did covers of this song. An important character who enters the story near the end of the novel is named for Dusty Springfield—as discussed in Part III.
"Let's Go Crazy" – Prince
My chief protagonist goes crazy to this song with its "in-your-face, death" theme at a wedding reception at the end of Part III. I tried to get the rights to Prince's lyrics, but it proved too big a hassle. "Better live now before the Grim Reaper come knockin' on your door."
"A Wonderful Day Like Today" (From The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
I did get permission for the lyrics to this one, which is the most important piece of music featured in the novel. Just days before the novel went to press, I entered a cramped, dark, little office 17 floors high over West 37th Street in pursuit of the permission, and made a serendipitous discovery: a framed poster of The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd hanging on the wall.
You should also check out the songs "Let's Be Buried Together" and "Song of a Drunken Nightingale" by Bill Fox, a Gen X rock legend from Cleveland. The songs aren't mentioned in the book, but Fox's music is the perfect soundtrack to go along with Cleveland's downtrodden, upbeat, heartbroken, hard-rocking ethos. I like the note of survivor guilt in the title "Let's Be Buried Together." Cleveland rocks.
Austin Ratner and In the Land of the Living links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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