August 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.
Peter Orner's Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a stellar fiction collection that offers intimate glimpses into everyday lives, these are short stories compressed to their essence.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"In his second story collection, Orner (Love and Shame and Love) fires jewel-toned shards of fiction into a stunning whole."
I wrote most of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge in my garage in Precita Park, San Francisco. I listened to no music other than the footsteps of the people in the apartment above, which I enjoyed. This said, footsteps are a kind of music, no? All that pattering around up there me made me feel less alone. But while I do my writing in the garage, I do a lot of my actual work – the work of remembering – my own memories and other people's memories make up the core of what I do – in the car and that's when I listened to some of the following songs in the seven or so years I was writing the stories. Each of these songs took me someplace I needed to go – either in my own memory, or my characters. I deal in heartbreak – the sadness of it and the comedy. I'm especially fond of the 80's – it's my own weird decade, and even when I'm not writing about that time specifically, there's something about the 80's that helps me conjure the sort of mixed up emotions I'm often trying so hard to capture.
1. Prince, "Purple Rain"
His Purple Highness. 1984. What else is there to say? You know how at the end the song ends but doesn't end? That. That's what I'm talking about. When he's just about to rev it up again. Like the crease that great athletes sometimes talk about. So many of the stories I want to tell are there inside the false end of this anthem. The history of my goofy life, and so many people my age. Not his best song by a long shot, and yet its Purple Rain. What would we – and the entire 1980's – have been without it? I feel a little ridicules talking like this, but it isn't empty nostalgia. I'm trying to get at something more fundamental. I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain. This is serious shit if only because it cuts to the core of who I was – who we were – you know? I believed in the song. And when I listen to it now, I surrender again.
2. "Waiting for a Girl Like You" - Foreigner
Back in time a little. When "Waiting for a Girl Like You," dropped, it was 1981. We little boys were trying to grow up and understand the mystery of girls. There were opportunities. And the throng of bar and bat mitzvahs in which you were either invited to or you weren't invited to. In my case, there were a lot I wasn't invited to. The slow dance. The rock ballad. The demand to kiss the girl you were dancing with when the DJ murmured Champagne Snowball… Laugh at Foreigner all you want. A kind of absurd supergroup, and I never actually liked the song. But liking it isn't the point. The point is where I was when I heard the song. I put it on now, I'm back at Scornovaco's, Highwood, Illinois, on that little dance floor they had in the back, the lights floating around, and I'm holding onto Marla Weisberg's elbows like she's a kind of life preserver.
3. The Pogues, "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Everyday"
1985. But I didn't find the Pogues till college. I was too busy listening to shit like Foreigner in high school. The opening of this song. I remember when I first heard it, on a tape, I kept rewinding it again and again, just to hear the opening lines…
Oh my Name is Jock Stewart
I'm a canny gaun man
And I roving young fellow I've been
A woman singing these lines. Something so startlingly simple about the way the song opens. Among the many ingenious things about the Pogues. They shock in big ways, they shock in small ways. And I remember it knocked me out at the time. And Caitlin O'Riordan's voice. I lack the skills to describe it. All I can say is she grabbed me by the throat. I played it again just now, and it did it all over again. And this might be why I gravitate so often, still, to this greatest of all bands. It puts me squarely back to a lost twentysomething self getting my heart stomped. "A Man You Don't Meet Everyday" in O'Riordan's voice brings it all back.
4. Townes Van Zandt's "None But the Rain"
1969. There's a weird lightness in sadness, isn't there? And I always go for sad stuff. For me, there's no sadder song ever written than Townes Van Zant's "None But the Rain" It's also, for Van Zant, even a little cheesy. I think there's some flute in it. And he actually, in all seriousness, sings the word "bosom"…None but the rain should cling to my bosom. Doesn't matter, I hear the song and every mistake I've ever made in love – and otherwise – floods my head. And find me a poet who has written a line more perfect than this:
None but the wind should warn of your returning
5. Nina Simone's covering Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"
Also 1969. This might sound a little morbid I've asked my family to play this song at my funeral. I have very clue what this gorgeous Dylan song is about but every time I play it, and I play it often, I die – happily. There's something about being lost in Juarez at Easter time too, that, I don't know, I can't explain it, reminds me that my own demise will just be another demise. You know what I mean? Maybe we're all lost in Juarez at Easter time, one way or another? The song makes me think of all the ways my characters get lost. And Nina Simone gets it, she always gets it. And isn't it almost funny how we get so lost, how we wander so far from home. The key thing is not to be pretentious about it. Simone knows this too. Listen to her sing this:
Don't put on any airs
when you're down on rue morgue avenue
they got some hungry women there
and they really make a mess out of you
6. Glenn Miller, "I Got A Gal in Kalamazoo"
Something so irreplaceably goofy about I liked her looks when I carried her books in Kalamazoo, zoo, zoo…One of the great songs about the Midwest. Two of the stories in Last Car are set in 1946, a year that attracts me because the war was over and yet not quite over long enough for it to be truly over in people's minds, if this makes any sense. I like the limbo-ness of a year like 1946. And I think of my characters listening to this astronomically popular song – released in 1942 – knowing that Miller himself disappeared forever just a few years later in a plane that went down over the English Channel. It's not my era, not my time, and yet the horns that open this addictive song allow me to cheat my way into someone else's "Purple Rain."
7. Tom Petty, "Southern Accents"
Back again to familiar territory. 1985. As a Jew, I'm fairly certain there will be no resurrection, but should an exception be made for me, I've asked my family to play this in the unlikely event I rise from my grave. I'm not southern though I do like to believe I'm a rare species of Jewish redneck. I'm more at home in a small town than I am in the city. And I've worshipped Tom Petty since I dropped acid during a concert of his at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. "Southern Accents" is the last thing I heard before I collapsed into the chaos of the wet grass, and rolled down a hill into the Wisconsin night.
There's a southern accent, where I come from
The young 'uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
And by the way, I'd give my left toe to have written that. Petty is so good a songwriter we hardly notice. This is because he goes right for the heart, skipping the unnecessary brain altogether. I learn more about how to twist a line – hell, about how to twist a story itself – in the startling, stark truth of: The yankees call it dumb – than I would in a thousand books about writing. Petty reminds me that my job is to do it my way, and pay attention to the places – and the people – who are overlooked. This is where my stories come from.
Got my own way of prayin'
But everyone's begun
With a southern accent
Where I come from
Peter Orner and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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