April 12, 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.
With American Dream Machine, Matthew Specktor has written THE modern Los Angeles novel, an epic story of fathers, sons, Hollywood, and southern California.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With coolness and precision, Specktor comes across as a West Coast Saul Bellow in this sweeping narrative, but his energetic, pop-infused prose is markedly his own."
Los Angeles is a famously sprawling city, and American Dream Machine is a sprawling book, at least in terms of its locations, periods etc. I found myself leaning heavily upon the city's music while I wrote it: not just bands and songs that I liked, but ones that would evoke its various modes and moments. I listen to music constantly when I write, but there was a special pleasure this time in claiming music that was obvious, songs that I'd spent my life taking for granted because they were the ones that were always on the radio. What a joy to listen to the Eagles, finally, without shame. OK, maybe with a little bit of shame. But at least I had an alibi.
The Beach Boys – "Good Vibrations"
The ultimate Los Angeles—well, Hawthorne, South Bay—band, and one that conjures the most radiant face of the city. Also its most claustrophobic and crazy face, as Brian Wilson's psychiatric travails are well known. The novel starts in the mid-1960s, and so I listened to the Beach Boys—particularly the post-Pet Sounds material—every day while I was beginning it. I would always start with "Our Prayer," "Child is Father of the Man," and this one. Smile really is the perfect Los Angeles album: gaudy, extravagant, bright and ambitious. I buried an echo of this song in the book's closing lines too, in tribute.
The Rolling Stones -- "Monkey Man"
Another song that soundtracked the 1960s section of the book. My protagonist, Beau Rosenwald, is a big, slovenly, simian figure. I listened to a lot of songs about monkeys and dogs throughout.
David Crosby – "Cowboy Movie"
Ah, now we get into the dusty California canyon sound I love. Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name is one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone, and that scream you hear in the distance is that of my teenage, punk rock self, horrified by this admission. "Cowboy Movie" was the song I referred to repeatedly while I was writing a sequence in which Beau haplessly produces an independent movie in the vein of Two Lane Blacktop. I just love its stoned, loping, passionate feel. Even though it turns out Crosby's song isn't about a movie at all, but about the break up of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Terry Melcher – "These Days"
Terry Melcher's eponymous solo album is considerably less well-known than the other stuff on this list. Melcher was a legendary LA scenester: he sang with the Beach Boys, produced the Byrds, and was, at least apocryphally, the person the Manson family was looking for when they visited Cielo Drive. The album is messy, but fantastic, and a classic chronicle of LA life in the 70s. There's a song about his psychiatrist ("Dr. Horowitz"—I gave that name to Beau's doctor, in tribute), a droll country song about Beverly Hills (I let Beau have "dinner and drinks at the Luau," just as the song suggests). There's also an incredible cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days," which Melcher sings as a duet with his mother, Doris Day. That song is almost impossible to do badly, but Melcher's version is the most shreddingly melancholy I've heard, and makes most others sound callow. Highly recommended.
Fleetwood Mac – "World Turning"
If you're going to write about Los Angeles in the 1970s, sooner or later you'll collide with Fleetwood Mac. I spent the most time with the eponymous record that caught them on the edge of mega-stardom, which is roughly where Beau finds himself in the later 1970s as well. This song is tense, and a little malignant, rather than creamy and smooth. A slightly different perspective, thus, on both Fleetwood Mac and the city in which they thrived.
Neil Young –"Motion Pictures"
A classic burnout ballad, perhaps the classic burnout ballad, about the Industry. Which in a sense really did end around 1977, or so it often feels.
The Germs – "Lexicon Devil"
Besides Beau, the book is concerned with the big man's two sons, who were teenagers at the dawn of the 1980s just like I was. And just so, I remember the city's new mythologies: bands like X and the Germs looming into view to offer something that felt, to my young self, both interesting and dangerous. I was a typical LA kid, a bit of a thrasher, into skateboarding (not that I was good at it), marijuana, and some of the more self-consciously hip aspects of cinematic and literary culture. I gave those obsessions, and not a little of my own foolishness, to the characters of Nate, Severin and Little Will.
Guns ‘N Roses—"Rocket Queen"
The dark secret. You can't really write about Los Angeles in the late 1980s/early 1990s without covering Guns ‘N Roses. You just can't. And the idea for the book descended upon me while I was standing out in front of the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip, admiring the fur coat of a high school classmate who's become something of a rock star herself. I was right there at the epicenter of LA glamor and sleaze. I knew Guns ‘N Roses were going to factor from the beginning, although I don't think I anticipated writing a concert sequence. Nevertheless, I played this song every single day, often more than once, while I was writing. Every aspect of it—the drumming; Slash's indelible guitar tone; the recorded-live-in-the-studio sex noises, underpinning the bridge—was completely inspirational.
Eric B. & Rakim – "Never Scared"
At last, a New York record, albeit one built around an Eagles sample. As the stories of the two generations started to converge—as Nate and Severin became adults, and the book's structure became more parallel—I figured to give both generations the same music. This song is heard in Beau's car, after he has resurfaced as a successful but vulgar producer with a rich studio deal. The encoded wink is that the song sampled is "Those Shoes." Beau is the son of a shoemaker, and much attention is paid to his footwear, throughout the novel.
Animal Collective – "Also Frightened"
Finally, some actual contemporary music, or at least it was while I was writing the first few drafts. I became obsessed with Merriweather Post Pavilion for quite a while, not least because it sounded to me like the Beach Boys. It was the record that sounded to me like the book I was writing, the way I wanted the novel to feel. This, too, I played every day, without fail, while I was writing. "Also Frightened," with its tremulous hook about being "more like our dads" seemed particularly pertinent, although the whole thing offered an aqueous lens on a sun-struck landscape. It looked both gorgeous and alien, the way the story did, and the city still does.
Matthew Specktor and American Dream Machine links:
The Believer contributions by the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Kirkus Reviews profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for That Summertime Sound
Public Spectacle profile of the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release listsBook Notes - Lenore Zion "Stupid Children"
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