April 9, 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.
Rayya Elias's new book Harley Loco is appropriately subtitled, "A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side." Elias's story begins with her parents courtship in Syria, then follows her move as a child to Detroit, then New York city as a young adult in this compellingly told story of immigration, addiction, and redemption.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Haunting and mesmerizing, Elias’s story captures powerfully the vulnerability of being an outsider and the deep yearnings to be a part of something, to fit in."
In her own words, here is Rayya Elias's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side:
Growing up in Detroit, feeling despair at how much I hated my existence, I escaped through drugs and disappeared into music. From Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bad Co. to Houses of the Holy and Sticky Fingers. From Ziggy Stardust and Dream On to Dark Side of the Moon and Aqualung, I survived my angst by trying to inhabit the lifestyle of these musicians and make it my reality.
While working on Harley Loco, I would remember an event that I wanted to write about, and then would conjure up the music I'd been listening to at that time. This would instantly place me at the scene and bring my truth to it. Music had been a page marker. It brought immediacy to the writing and honed my senses so that I could feel, see, and sometimes even smell my surroundings, like my mother's cooking drifting into the sunroom where I played my first rented keyboard.
Traffic—"Low Spark of High Heeled Boys"
I was into the post punk/new wave club scene in 1980, but the keyboards in this song never quit me. I knew that if I wanted to teach myself how to play I'd have to learn that riff. After banging on—and almost destroying the piano my mom bought me from a garage sale, I rented a little electronic keyboard and practiced this song so much that the style of piano bled into the way I would approach the foundation of my own songs.
Human League—"Don't You Want Me"
I danced my ass of to this track at Clutch Cargo's in Detroit. It brings back all the lighthearted fun and true excavation of myself. I was so excited about the prospect of breaking out of my parents' mold, and the restraints that my high school friends tried to impose on me. I figured out who and what I was attracted to: girls, the artists and musicians, punk rock/new wave/new romantic/fluffy shirts and beads wrapped around every appendage, non-gender-specific kids with hair so avant-garde that it inspired me to become a hairdresser. It suited my lifestyle, I was good at it and, like music, it was something I could make my own..
When Phillip Glass, Kurt Munkacsi, and Tommy Robertson work on arrangements, it's no joke; the song was seared into my brain so deep and still holds up to this day.
I met Tommy Robertson while visiting New York in 1981. I was staying at the Warwick Hotel, which was pretty stodgy for a punk rock chick like me. A mutual friend told me to look him up, that he might be able to turn us on to some cool places. I was a huge fan of the band so I took the chance and gave him a call. He invited my boyfriend and me to his place on the Upper East Side. After a few drinks and a bunch of cocaine, he came down and helped us move our things from the Warwick into his place for the weekend while he and his girlfriend went to Block Island. I listened to that Polyrock record in his apartment (which made it even more special) all weekend. His home studio was there, so I took it upon myself to record the beginnings of a song on it. He found the tracks later and finished the song; it was titled "God." We became great friends and he was a huge inspiration and mentor to me when I moved to New York. I wish I had a copy of "God," and I wish he were still here.
This Mortal Coil—"Song to the Siren"
I listened to the haunting voice of Elizabeth Fraser sing this like an incantation that moved my very existence while falling deeply in love with a woman for the first time. "Swim to me, let me unfold you," I would sing to my lover who I wanted to inhabit every waking moment and surreal night: an earth-shattering love that drove me to ecstatic highs and desperate agony. I played this so hard that I had to buy another album because when it hit this track it would skip and distort, just like everything in my existence at the time. Originally written by the late, great, Tim Buckley.
Brian Eno— "Sombre Reptiles"—Another Green World
In 1985 this record was part of a going to sleep ritual. I went to bed almost every night riding the deep bliss of ecstasy, (the drug and the state), and when "Sombre Reptiles" came on, I knew there was just one more ambient track before I'd have to get up and restart my record player, but most of the time I'd pass out and wake up to the grinding sound of the needle repetitively hitting the vinyl ridge.
Siouxsie and the Banshees—"Cities in Dust"
I used to dream about Siouxsie all the time because I was in love with her, her voice, her band, her everything. I woke up one afternoon after having a vivid dream about a fantastic hook. I couldn't get it out of my head. My friend came over that night and brought over her newly released album with "Cities in Dust" on it. I couldn't believe it was the same hook that was haunting me. Had I heard the track before and mysteriously recollected it that afternoon, or was there a deep spiritual connection between Siouxsie and me?
Warrior Soul—"The Losers"
This song literally saved my life while I was on lockdown in my first rehab. No phone calls, no visitors for the first two weeks—the aftermath of a horrible methadone detox and no stimulation of any sort. My dear friend Kory Clarke gave me five songs on a cassette: a finished demo from his new album, soon to be released on Geffen Records. My therapist gave me a small cassette player to listen to, for 30 minutes a night only, and just before I went to bed. She thought it would help with my recovery, and she was right. I listened to "The Losers" as if it were my personal anthem. To be reminded of who I was and that I was gonna be okay.
David Bowie—"Five Years"
I spent quite a while in a dual diagnosis rehab center (meaning it was a loony bin) after my mom died. I was a fucking basket case. There was an acoustic guitar that the nurses let me borrow and, though I didn't know how to play, I fiddled around with it endlessly, trying to hold on to any sanity I had left. I thought I wrote this classic end of the world ballad. I really thought I did. I even changed the last verse and made the woman at the ice cream parlor with "hair long and brown" my mom. You can imagine how shocked and embarrassed I was when I came off the meds and realized that I'd been playing a Bowie song, completely destroyed on the guitar the whole time. Ugh.
I'm going to include two of my own tracks to this list because they were instrumental to me while I worked on the short stories, which then evolved into Harley Loco.
"Fever" was the first song I wrote two years after I got clean. I'd bought a little used four track, keyboard, and microphone from East Village Music. It came pouring out of me all at once like something I remembered: strong, silent, and complete. Some of the lyrics in this song are so representative of not only getting clean, but rising and embracing my life in all of its mess and glory.
"I'm on the next page, the part where the war is over.
I've lost so many battles, my scars are screaming victory."
"Got a fever in my soul, cancer in my heart, never had any place for shelter, never had any where to start."
Rayya Elias—"Loaded Gun"
Once "Fever" broke me open and I started writing music again, it was like there was no dam left to hold back any of it. This was my own baptism and prayer to the spirits to keep me strong against the drugs, because I never wanted to go back there.
"To you I say, I'm gone."
"To you I say, to let me live this life I've found."
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