October 4, 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.
Life Among Giants is many things, a coming-of-age tale, a mystery, and a drama, and Bill Roorbach's storytelling skills make this Gatsby-esque novel come to life and work on every level.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"LIFE AMONG GIANTS is a larger-than-life production. Yet all of its wild characters feel genuine, their aches and flaws and desires wholly organic; and the plot they're tangled in moves forward at a breakneck pace. It's a dizzy romp. There’s murder and intrigue and sex and terror, and Roorbach is generous with it all."
Life Among Giants is about a seventeen-year-old kid, Lizard Hochmeyer, whose parents are murdered right in the first chapter, October of 1970. Lizard is pretty sure it's about something his shady father has done, but his sister, coming unglued, thinks it's the famous ballerina who lives in an enormous mansion across the pond. Beautiful, athletic Kate has worked over there, taking care of the developmentally disabled Linsey, who is the son of the rocker Dabney Stryker-Stewart. And Dabney is one of the biggest stars of his day, up there with Mick Jagger, say, or any of the Beatles, any of the Who, even Elvis. In fact, he knows all those guys. Or he did. He's died in a mysterious car crash.
And off we go.
Lizard gets tangled up with the dancer, who seems to like him, and this association continues for life, hot and cold, back and forth, always fraught, till the secrets that caused all the trouble in the first place come fully into the light.
But before that, the dancer, whose name is Sylphide (after the Bournonville ballet La Sylphide), mounts a mega-benefit concert that travels the world in her late husband's name, pairing big-name dancers with the biggest rockers of the era to help kids in war zones, Dabney's great cause, scores of great bands and performers, some making one-night stands, some staying on for whole weeks, a couple of acts actually touring, and many great dancers. The foundation Dabney started is called Children of War, and that's the name of one of his albums, too. The benefit concerts make tens of millions in 1970s dollars for peace. Lizard acts as the dancer's executive assistant. Any sex and affection they might have is incidental!
From Life Among Giants: "Children of War was Dabney's foundation, everyone knew, a big part of why he'd been knighted, funded by the robust proceeds of his most remarkable album, Children of War, every song a hit, all those kids' voices. He himself had traveled to places like Borneo and Laos and Colombia—and of course Vietnam—always at great personal risk, supposedly, went wherever the wars were, free concerts, meetings with world leaders, visits to schools and hospitals, the fierce media focus he brought to bear like sunshine."
While meanwhile, Lizard and his sister have no peace. But that will come.
I'm picturing my playlist as the Children of War live album—there's always a live album—an album that made even more than the benefit shows, one of the bestselling albums of all time, in fact. It includes fictional songs by Dabney—sorry about that—but you'll recognize the rest, all of which continue to have rich resonance for me, and not only Lizard, who happens to be my age. I notice there aren't many women on the list—I think that's the era, for one thing, but I think it's Sylphide, too. She was very partial to men. Especially successful men. And maybe a little competitive with other famous women?
Too bad Dabney never got to hear the album.
1. Dabney Stryker-Stewart, "Love Fifteen." This was a number-one hit for the whole summer of 1968, when Lizard's sister, Kate, was 16 years old. She's a tennis champ, destined for the pro tour (also madness). Dabney's known her pretty well for more than a year. You'd think Lizard would have figured it out before now. Uh-oh.
2. John Lennon, Plastic Ono band, "Love." Love is real, real is love. John Lennon and Yoko were going around the world staging bed-ins to protest war, knowing their marriage was big news. They played this song in the Children of War benefit just once, and it was Emily Bright's debut as a dancer. Emily is Lizard's girlfriend (always in competition with Sylphide), and Sylphide's other pet project. A truly great dancer, Emily still lives with her parents: Dad is an African-American Army lifer, her mother a Korean ingénue he met during service in the Korean War.
3. Derek and the Dominoes, "Layla." Of course. Ginger Baker brought Eric Clapton onboard when Children of War got to England—in fact it figured in their rapprochement. Five performances, and Clapton every night, super generous. Emily danced to this, as well, with Vlad Markusak, one of the great dancers of his time. Ginger Baker plays drums on a lot of cuts here, and toured extensively with Children of War. He's great friends with Dabney's keyboard player, Georges Whiteside, and the two of them help recruit the big guns. Ginger has a cameo in the book: huge drum solo with dancers going wild.
4. James Taylor, "Fire and Rain." Kate learns this song on a guitar Lizard gives her when she's stuck in a mental-health ward later in their lives. It speaks to her, this guitar. James Taylor was one of the stalwarts of the touring version of Children of War, and a very good friend of Sylphide's. But not a lover, no way. He was into Carly and Sylphide, she was into Lizard (but would marry one then the next of the richest men in the world). James Taylor was very, very kind to Lizard. I happened to know him, too, just a little, as I was friends with a couple of his siblings on Martha's Vineyard, later 70s.
5. Eric Burdon and War: "Spill the Wine." Famous story: Burdon shouting at Sylphide's manager and calling him a poofter. Sylphide walks into the middle of this scene, and that's it for Burdon, who sends flowers and writes her a song and gets back in her good graces and tries again, only to play the whole thing over again. So Sylphide choreographs a dance to this great song, kind of a comedy making fun of a certain kind of macho. The Animals are one of my all-time favorite bands, by the way. "Don't Let me be Misunderstood"? One of the best songs ever.
6. The Who, "I Can See for Miles." A version just like that on Live at Leeds. They appeared once in Children of War, London show, and scared the dancers, throwing equipment around. Sylphide famously called Pete Townshend a pervert in an interview, but no one ever knew why. Still don't.
7. Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone." A version like that on Self Portrait, which was recorded at Isle of Wight Festival. Which I had in mind as a model for the Children of War in England. Only with dancers. Dylan, always crochety, had an enormous crush on Sylphide, often came to the mansion in Westport. He could hardly ever gets words out around her. She thought he was some kind of wood sprite, a fellow goer. But she was actually wrong. He just wanted to sleep with her. Never happened.
8. Joni Mitchell: "Woodstock" as it appears on Ladies of the Canyon. A lot of people don't care for this version, preferring the cover by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But I like the dirge in this and apparently it was great to dance to—Sylphide appeared onstage only once during Children of War: she'd been injured in a terrible incident witnessed by Lizard. But this was the song. She and Joni were never quite friends, neither of them that great with other women, but respectful of one another, often citing the other as inspiration.
9. Cat Stevens "Wild World." Oh, my god, that clip of Dylan meeting Cat Stevens in the Pennebaker film Don't Look Back? Priceless, talk about a couple of divas.
10. Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line." This was a fairly new hit for him in 1970, and had been a great crossover success. Sylphide was very interested in his black clothes and his stiff carriage, choreographed a corps de ballet piece, everyone in black, sort of staggering around behind Cash, real brilliance, hard to describe. Johnny Cash liked it so much he had some of the dancers on his TV show, and kept two of them on full time. Also, Children of War is where he met Bob Dylan, so it's rumored.
11. Crosby Stills and Nash: "Suite Judy Blue Eyes." These guys could never quite get it together to all show up at once, but provided this song to the benefit album, recorded elsewhere. Of course Sylphide's eyes were that rare, penetrating jade green of legend (David Crosby having gotten it wrong), but no matter, nearly every reviewer mentioned her eyes when they mentioned this song.
12. Neil Young, "Cinnamon Girl." He played this just one night in France with the touring company, but Emily danced it. "She moves like wind," said Mr. Young after. He and Sylphide were reported to be very close in subsequent years, though they didn't collaborate again. She like his sense of humor and was enchanted by his Lionel trains, hours in his basement. Later, she like him was a major investor in the company, saving it from failure.
13. Etta James "I'd Rather go Blind." Etta James had crashed, terrible heroin problem. Sylphide had made a project of her and in their dazzling Children of War collaboration James actually danced while singing, or moved at the front of a large corps of male dancers. Very poignant stuff. It didn't go well for Etta thereafter, though secretly Sylphide continued to be her patron and champion.
14. Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Llove!" One of the best performances in the two years of the world tour of Children of War—just one night in Rio, where the boys were recording an album. Like so many famous men, Robert Plant had written the dazzling Sylphide a fan letter. But be that as it may, I want Zep on the benefit album because they were part of the inspiration for the book. In that era, I lived in Weston, Connecticut (next to Westport, where much of the book takes place), and house sat (doing some repairs) an enormous, rundown, half-abandoned mansion. I played in a pretty good band, and we'd set up in the broke-down living room, play all night. Across the way there was another mansion, this one in perfect repair. And two in the morning one dark night we heard another band playing, twice as loud as us. The mailman said he'd heard some British outfit was hiding out and recording an album over there. "Led something," he said. I went over twice to offer our audition tape, but was greeted at the door by somone's insanely gorgeous girlfriend, sleepy and bathrobe three in the afternoon. She said, "Go away." The mailman said she was a dancer. All these years later, some pieces of those memories came together with others in my imagination and let to Life Among Giants.
Much like the songs.
Bill Roorbach and Life Among Giants links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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