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May 9, 2013

Book Notes - Michael Zapruder "Pink Thunder"

Pink Thunder

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.

Michael Zapruder's Pink Thunder is many things, including a modern poetry anthology, a music album, and grand experiment. Zapruder set many contemporary poets' works to music, and in doing so explores the connection of music to its lyrics as well as poetry to music, and he succeeds on all levels.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"If Pink Thunder has a message, it's that the relationship between poetry and music is more elusive, more conditional, than that of traditional lyrics in a song. This is the best thing about the project, the way Zapruder uses his music to mirror, or echo, his own reading of the material, and its emotional effect"

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Michael Zapruder's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection, Pink Thunder:

Side A. The Story

In 2006, I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to meet the Wave Books Poetry Bus. The Poetry Bus was a 50-day North American bus tour that brought hundreds of great American poets together to do readings at bookstores, theaters and bars, and also in car washes, White Castles, and Mexican barbershops in San Francisco's Mission District. It was great, like this:

1. Guided By Voices - "Driving in the U.S. of A. (from Suitcase)

I was on the bus to try to make songs from poems by these poets. I wanted to make songs without changing the poems at all, to see if the results might be interesting. I love what these poets write about and how they write about their subjects, questions, obsessions. I wanted to know if these poems, as songs, would still seem to be about those things. I wanted to know what might change. More than anything, I was looking for songs with no memory. Songs with no sense of history, but that still felt like songs. I adopted a childlike approach, believing that songs could take different shapes and still work. I wrote some things on the bus that made me think it might just be possible.

2. Nina Simone - "Feelin' Good"

I rode the bus for a week and then headed back to California, where I was busy and it turned out to be difficult to get big enough blocks of time to concentrate enough to write these kinds of songs. At the time, we were living in a pretty dank (and in retrospect, pretty grim in general) ground floor apartment in downtown Oakland, behind a taqueria called Happy Burrito, in a building named, of all things, Casa Feliz. I had a corner where I tried to write. An armless chair next to a digital piano in a cluttered room we painted dark red in an effort to make it library-like. It was passable, but it was the kind of space where if, for once, it wasn't damp, it was too hot. If it was well-lit and clean, the space would seem too cluttered. It never reaIly worked that well. I got a few more songs written, but didn't accomplish too much that year, and I listened to this beautiful song a fair bit at that time:

3. Of Montreal - "City Bird" (from Satanic Panic in the Attic)

Eventually I realized I was going to need solid time away from everything in order to get these things written, so I rented a little cabin in Napa, California and headed out there for 10 days to write. It was very productive. I wrote most of the songs out there. Again, there were atmospheric issues: the cabin was in a very dark redwood grove, it was December, which in Northern California means rainy and somewhat cold. The wood-burning stove had something wrong with it, so that, while about 95% of the smoke made it out of the chimney, the other 5% hung around inside with me. It was a damp and smoky time, a bit like camping, or like this:

4. Beach Boys - "Cabinessence"
5. James taylor - "Fire and Rain"
6. Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys - "My Cabin in Caroline

Even so, I had an amazing time, and loved being able to focus entirely on writing. And I was excited about the songs to which the poems were leading me. I was pretty happy. It was my Casa Feliz.

7. Sarah Vaughan - "Sometimes I'm Happy"

Now that I had the songs written, I booked some time at a studio in San Francisco. When we started though, the results were less than perfect. The songs were strange and it looked like we were going to have to start from scratch, learning how to record them. It wasn't going to be very easy.

8. The Who - "It's Hard"
9. Pet Shop Boys - "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing"
10. Patti Smith - "Walkin Blind"

After the first recording session, I did nothing on the record for almost a year. Part of that was due to the arrival of our first child, but I was also mystified as to how these songs were going to turn into good recordings. Eventually, I booked time at a studio in Oakland and things began to take shape. Or to remain misshapen, perhaps. Somehow, the combination of the time that had passed, the experience of having a child, and maybe just plain old sleep-deprivation seemed to erase any rules except the one that said to make these recordings interesting. It was liberating.

11. Soft Boys - "I Wanna Destroy You"
12. Hank Williams - "I Saw the Light"

A friend and I share a studio space in downtown Oakland, in a mostly-vacant office building with black walls, gray carpets, and enormous amounts of junk in the halls. On the way in to our studio, for example, you pass a large dresser with an attached oval mirror that's about four feet high, a graveyard of 10-15- year old computers, a console organ from the 1970's, a fully made child's bed, a stack of server racks suitable for an ambitious tech startup's needs, an old, greasy universal woodworking station, complete with table saw, band saw, and joiner, and building supplies like oversized ceramic tiles, buckets of paint, and at least half a dozen hand trucks of various sizes.

Working in our windowless studio, I performed black (or at least gray) magic on the tracks. I'm not patient enough to record things properly, so I worked quickly, sloppily, even angrily (I am easily frustrated). The end results were as interesting as my process was incorrect. They were very messed up. From there, the record began to grow, away from the light, like some kind of mutation or unidentifiable organic thing. I fed it with coffee, cookies, beer, tobacco, anti-depressants, and a grim faith that things would eventually make sense.

13. If This Is Wrong - Link Wray -

After about a year of working on my own, I went back to the studio to finish up, and, after some final struggles, the record was done.

14. Yes by LMFAO -

Side B. The Music

Although Pink Thunder was never made as pastiche, these songs provided answers in one way or another to the questions, big and small, that came up in making Pink Thunder.

1. Leonard Cohen - "Dear Heather"

This song, which I heard for the first time in the middle of making Pink Thunder, is kind of a brother from another mother to Pink Thunder. It made me almost impossibly happy when I first heard it. It still does. Musically, it's one of Cohen's typically spare, comic, casio-blues, and the lyric is a single line: "Dear Heather, please walk by me again with a drink in your hand, and your legs all white from the winter, your legs all white from the winter, and your legs all white from the winter." Over the course of four verses, Cohen and one of his lovely background singers speak the lyric, gradually deconstructing the language so that, starting in the second verse, they are spelling words instead of saying them: "Dear Heather, walk by me again with your legs all W-H-I-T-E from the winter." As the song goes on, they spell more and more words. There is no clear indication of the reason for this unusual choice, which is part of what I love so much about it. I love the way this song so innocently, directly and naively does something that is both undeniably interesting and also completely strange, unexpected irrational. The experience is puzzling, funny, and memorable. Those are exactly the kinds of feelings I wanted these songs I was working on to give people.

Here are some other songs that pertain in one way or another:

2. Anton Webern - 3 Lieder Op. 18, I. Sehr Ruhig

Years ago by some stroke of luck or chance I crossed paths with the lieder of German composer Anton Webern. He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and an atonal composer of 12-tone music that is spare and elegant - tiny songs with orchestra and soprano, lasting 45 seconds sometimes, that form an utterance that is probably as poem-like as music is capable of being. Whenever I hear these songs I think of what songs might be like in 500 years, if we're still around by then and the evil overlords haven't outlawed music. There's just a line of words and a line of music, as refined and articulated as a Japanese flower arrangement or a praying mantis. Although they don't sound like Webern at all, I see Pink Thunder's songs as a step in the direction toward that future.

3. Francis Poulenc - La Carpe (from La Bestiaire) - Piano/Vocal version (Dalton Baldwin / Chris Pedro Takas)

A rare example of a songlike art song. Poulenc had a rare sensitivity to the music of poetry, and the nature of song. This is one of my favorites of his songs.

4. Johannes Brahms - 3 Intermezzi Op. 117, No. 1 in Eb Major (Julius Katchen)

Brahms, the "great consoler." Another example of a piece of music being songlike. This time, a solo piano intermezzo of amazing beauty. I think Tom Waits ripped off some piano stuff from this one.

5. "Calice" by Chico Buarque
6. "Ohla Maria" by Chico Buarque

In the late 60's and 70's, Brazilian popular music used lots of musicians and musicality to fight the same fight that punk rock fought here in the 70's and 80's (mostly). What they have in common is a keen sense of the ethical aspects of music. Sometimes I use a lot of instruments and sounds - the sheer power of music - for punk rock purposes.

7. Free Design - "Kites are Fun"

This inspired some of the vocal harmonies, especially those in "Last Words."

8. Brian Eno - I'll Come Running (from Another Green World)

This kind of feeling ended up saving the song "Word," which was sort of floundering until I found the kind of watery bass line that Eno invented.

9. Elvis Costello - Taking My Life in Your Hands (from The Juliet Letters)

Another piece that stands on a global level as a step toward experiments with songs. Although this record probably didn't do too well, when I heard it in my 20's, it resonated with me, not so much as a favorite record (though I love some songs), but as proof that songs have unexplored possibilities.

10. Diane Marie Kloba - "Boulders" (from Boulders)

In the world of the future, who knows what will be profound. This is outsider music, I think of her as Jandek's Bride. I like hearing music that reminds me that it's possible to get so far outside that no clear judgments apply.

11. Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson - "Orange Crate Art"

I read that when they recorded this, Brian Wilson was so out of it that they just did one phrase at a time. It's such an oddity, but also incredibly meticulously done as well. Singing the poems was hard, since it was often a challenge to find a credible singing energy that the words seemed to make necessary. In my year of Pro Tools crimes, I recorded hundreds of vocal tracks and in many cases comped the final vocal from many different tracks.

Michael Zapruder and Pink Thunder links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
songs from the book

Huffington Post review
Los Angeles Times review

Boston Review interview with the author
Impose essay by the author
Poetry Society of America interview with the author
San Francisco Bay Guardian profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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