July 30, 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.
Royal Young's memoir Fame Shark is a richly told account of both his search for fame and his relationship with his artist father.
Francis Levy wrote of the book:
"Fame Shark is American Psycho meets Call It Sleep. A no-holds-barred saga of the extremes a human being can go to in his or her quest for attention. Young has the precocity and audacity of Shelley and the fearlessness of Philippe Petit."
As a Jewish boy growing up in New York's derelict Lower East Side of the early '90s, I always imagined my life had a soundtrack. It seemed easier to understand the wild streets around me with music magically in the air providing cues. When you should be happy. When you should be sad. When you should be scared.
I think we all sometimes have that feeling. A song comes on the radio during a stoned road trip with friends and it becomes the moment. We assign lullabies to our children, dedicate dreamy tunes to our lovers. Let ourselves be haunted by these same melodies when we are alone again. In a sense, we all create soundtracks for ourselves.
I kept coming back to this idea when writing Fame Shark, thinking about how music threaded throughout my life and the book itself. If the delirious, disgraced, debauched, innocent, joyous, jarring, depressing, inspired bits of my life that I explore in Fame Shark had a soundtrack, this would be it. Sometimes, I even cranked up record players, radios, Walkmen, stolen iPod nanos to provide the very pulsing rhythm or melancholy melody I felt that moment required in the time it was happening.
Billy Joel - "Once Upon A Time In New York City"
Before CGI, the cartoons in Disney movies had rougher edges. As a kid, friends told me a giant dick was hidden amidst the golden turrets of King Triton's castle in The Little Mermaid. I wasn't surprised. My own artist father's paintings were colorful, darkly comic canvasses that featured orgies, bondage and even darker fantasies. Oliver & Company (1988) was a cartoon where animals became Dickensian figures out of Oliver Twist. They hustled around New York and I completely related to this dangerous, crooked, wonderful, weird fantasy land. I listened to the soundtrack on repeat on my parent's record player. This song was my favorite.
Cat Stevens – "Wild World"
When I was 11 years-old I saw my first real live naked lady. She was older, a widow and a guest at the summer house where I was staying in South Hampton. I also accidentally discovered and bought an old jacket of Cat Stevens at a garage sale after the beach. When I put it on I felt like I was donning fame's faded, musty smelling mantle. Intrigued by the celebrity of the garment, I downloaded all of Cat Stevens music on Napster and was instantly captured. Something about the combination of celebrity, sex, her loneliness, mingled in my mind with Cat Steven's music. It was my first positive, alluring, seductive experience with both sex and sounds that were far away from the rugged poetry of rap that blasted from project windows down the block from me in New York.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers – "Scartissue"
The androgynous, aching soundtrack of making out with my middle school girlfriend in the backs of school buses. The song that spoke so loudly to my need to save her. I also wanted her to heal some heartsickness in me. The drama of the thin scars she left across her arms and inside her thighs with thumbtacks. Me stealing black studded wristbands for her from St. Mark's Place punk shops, running down the street like mad. Bad poetry, whispered late night phone conversations where I stretched the cord on my parent's phone into dark corners so I could jerk my hard dick with Mom's raspberry scented hand lotion while my girlfriend's soft, sometimes suspicious voice echoed in my ear. Crying on the steps of the Met.
David Bowie – "Subterraneans"
In High School I became obsessed with David Bowie and the cold, calculated glamour of a lost downtown New York my parents had been on the fringes of. Stealing from their liquor cabinet and blowing pot smoke heavy with secrecy from cracked windows into warm city nights, it seemed I could become someone bolder and brighter: a shiny-lipped youth proudly pouting in the flashes from my Polaroid camera. I stopped eating, punishing the pounds on my stomach that my father had once so loved to pinch. It seemed in leanness there was a power. I wore tight jeans and pointed boots and had my hair cut on a friend's fire escape into Bowie's shaggy mullet. I tried cocaine. Cigarettes began replacing gum. Still, my mouth was a starving one. There was a hunger in me that never went away.
I saw David Bowie in concert twice. The first time at Jones Beach in a thunderstorm, the second in a small hall at Queens College where I shoved my way to the front of a screaming crowd and felt lightning bolts do battle in my chest as he sang "Ziggy Stardust." Still in "Subterraneans" there is a darkness and hidden underground heartache that in retrospect fit me better.
Cat Stevens – "The Wind"
On my first mushroom trip at Bennington College in Vermont, a 600 undergrad clothing optional campus by law, I heard Cat Steven's "The Wind." For a city kid, Bennington was like The Shining meets Summer Camp. I felt claustrophobic, alone, alienated from my family and the frenetic pace of the city I had left behind. High out of my mind, with grass under my feet feeling almost hostile and tree branches reaching both to trap me and lift me up to some sublime heaven, this song filled me with the strongest longing and feeling of falling, back through time. Cat Stevens music will always remind me of losing innocence and being sort of ecstatic and sad about it at once.
The Smiths – "Frankly, Mr. Shankly"
The year I spent at Bennington felt like a fever dream crusted in ice. I felt like the only way to stick out in the midst of creative kids who wore flip flops and tie-dyed ponchos was to be as tough and outrageously New York as possible. I tried to smolder, like the city I had left behind. I discovered I could drink long and hard, that this was expected and admired from a tall boy in his fresh- man year at a school where there was nothing better to do. Liquor was my course of study. In the blackest of moments, I replaced the feeling that fame had given me, that power I had chased my whole life, with oblivion. Morrissey's arrogant sadness was the perfect musical shield against my fellow students, limousine liberals who claimed to love everyone and every creature but hated and distrusted my hunger for attention. I dropped out to return to New York and move back in with my parents. But I'd developed a drinking habit too big for my childhood bedroom. Instead of the success—at what and through what efforts—I believed an afterthought, I found I had come home to a place I no longer knew. Enabled by a culture increasingly obsessed with reality television and internet celebrity, I began to sleep my way to the bottom of New York high society. As Moz sang, "Fame, fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain."
New York Dolls - "Lonely Planet Boy"
I had so many bizarre celebrity run-ins that aren't included in Fame Shark. This is one of them. By 20, my parents had kicked me out of their house. Angry and alone, I finagled an invite to the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island and a special VIP after party, to meet Sylvain Sylvain, bassist for famous vintage punk band The New York Dolls. After partying, I piled into the back of Syl's car. He drove fast with all the windows down under the elevated train tracks, subway cars squealing above us as he blasted old rock 'n' roll. I sucked up huge sips of my vodka lemonade, completely abandoning myself to fantasy. If I could only switch lives, I imagined I'd go on the road with the Dolls partying backstage with beautiful girls, living like a legend. I hadn't been brought up in understaffed schools where hood classmates abused me, never lost my virginity too young or dropped out of college after getting in trouble with the police for alcohol, a legacy of failure that tugged at me, foreshadowing a future for myself I was desperate to escape. I was the son of a New York Doll.
T.Rex – "Diamond Meadows"
Stoned on coke, sprawled on a beautiful girl's oriental rug. She has depthless eyes, subtle cheekbones, and long honey hair. Her face looks different as it sways through shadow and light. Sometimes it's round and deliciously bruised, lips forming a peachy pout. Then, she's a pale Geisha in hoop earrings, eyes slanted back with slashes of thick eyeliner, hair straightened, and breasts pushed up by red lace lingerie.
This song plays endlessly in this scene from my past. It's a crescendo, a perfect fuzzy moment before cacophony. I'll lose the girl by morning.
50 Cent – "Window Shopper"
I was never into 50 Cent until I saw Get Rich Or Die Trying, the movie loosely based on his mythical life directed by Jim Sheridan. In the film I recognized a tenacity that covered up emptiness. It was an emotion I completely related to. I was also impressed by the all or nothing attitude of 50. Ghetto rules dictated success or death. There were no other options. In a way this fueled me. It was the first example I really had of hustling, attacking hard work and never tiring.
Years later, when I had finally stopped doing drugs and was taking journalism classes at the New School, an editor at the New York Times, a guest speaker said "In 20 years at the Times it was not the most talented writers who I saw succeed, it was the most obsessed."
Write books or die trying.
Twista ft. Kanye West – "Overnight Celebrity"
But I wasn't quite there yet. So often celebrity is a form of seduction. I was lured by the promise of fame into selling my body, meeting a strange woman on Myspace and posing for photographs in her sex dungeon/studio space. Sure there's an alluring decadence to this situation but I think the truth is more human. There are cracks in the sex dungeon's walls. The whips are frayed from overuse. In three years, I imagine this woman moving back to the Midwest to care for her dying mother. It's easy to throw yourself into the very vague, vacuous gloss of these moments. It was harder for me to explore deeper truths about myself. Though I don't regret the times where I blasted beats and popped 40s of Colt45 to flashbulbs on Brooklyn rooftops, the city skyline lights hanging against the smog like a string of dirty good promises. Everyone wants to be a celebrity overnight some nights.
Section 25 – "Inspiration"
It's been seven years since Fame Shark ended. My grandfather's ghost no longer knocks over my champagne glasses on New Year's Eve. My family has been mostly healed by time. The events described in the book feel so far off to me.
It's been two weeks since the book officially came out into the world. Amidst all the raucous celebrating, I feel happy, humbled, but a little removed. It's like the credits have rolled, the soundtrack has stopped and I'm left in a blank limbo land until new characters, songs appear to shape my life into what it will be next. Chasing stars, you're on your own, but writing is a way to bridge that for me.
I loved this song in high school and sometimes the future is there, rediscovered in tunes from the past. This song is about stepping forward. There's always uncertainty, but it has a pulsing beat and we can dance to it together.
Royal Young and Fame Shark links:
Cupid's Pulse interview with the author
Heeb interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
New York Observer profile of the author
NY Writers Coalition interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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 lists