January 20, 2014
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.
Christopher Bundy's Baby, You're a Rich Man is a captivating debut novel, a creatively told exploration of our celebrity obsessed culture.
Laura van den Berg wrote of the book:
"From the first page, Christopher Bundy's Baby, You're A Rich Man drew me seductively into its world and never let go. This engrossing novel is filled with the spark of adventure and a hero whose relatable pains are rendered with striking originality."
Baby, You're a Rich Man follows American Kent Richman in Japan. The down-on-his luck, former B-level variety star on Japanese television once built a name for himself on Japanese television as a John Lennon look-a-like and a panel show guest. He married a beautiful Japanese model, bought a penthouse in Shibuya, and developed a mild methamphetamine habit to keep up with it all. When he slept with the wrong woman, he lost it all, nearly dying for it
Forced to go into hiding when he becomes the target of his nemesis, now an escaped prisoner, Kent winds up at a Buddhist retreat for all the wrong reasons. Here he embarks on a journey of mishap, paranoia, desperation, and self-discovery that leads to an illuminating showdown as he attempts to right the wrongs of his past.
"Big in Japan" – Tom Waits
Baby was inspired by a verse and a chorus from this song:
I got the style but not the grace
I got the clothes but not the face
I got the bread but not the butter
I got the window but not the shutter
But heh I’m big in Japan
I’m big in Japan I’m big in Japan
Heh ho they love the way I do it
Heh ho there’s really nothing to it
The song opens with Waits sort of banging and beatboxing alongside pounding snare and bass drums. And when I heard those opening lines, I knew that I wanted to create a character like Waits describes, someone who has all the superficial qualities of celebrity but little talent beneath. And what’s flimsier than being famous because you look like someone famous? The working title for the novel was always "Big in Japan," and I carried this pounding song in my head throughout.
The short story from which the novel grew was published with this title in Thug Lit.
"Baby, You’re a Rich Man" – The Beatles
My protagonist name is Kent Richman. Besides the Dickensian last name, Kent is named after the two most famous gaijin talents on Japanese TV, both named Kent, and affectionately called the "Two Kents." I liked the idea of another one.
With the Lennon allusion, I couldn’t resist going to the Beatles again. And this song parallels the Waits’ nicely. Beautiful people. The inherent irony and eventual new truth of the title when this returns in the epilogue.
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part I & 2" – Flaming Lips
There is a chapter in the novel in which Kent is wandering Tokyo looking for his wife Kumi. She’s not really his wife anymore—has kicked him out and vanished. But he sees her in everyone, even a comic book he finds on the train. It’s a big city, he’s homeless but for a pod in a pod hotel, and he is alone for the first time in years. The songs are so contemporary, so weirdly pop, and Baby is a contemporary pop story. Really, the Flaming Lips could score the whole fucking book.
"Sci-fi Wasabi" – Cibo Matto
Another weird contemporary pop song, like if the Lips had sisters who were Japanese and played weird contemporary pop songs. It’s the song spinning when I describe a cigarette commercial in which Kent Richman appears, like John Travolta with his paint can at the opening to Saturday Night Fever, that assertive, buoyant gait as "Stayin’ Alive" bounces. This is Kent’s "Stayin’ Alive" moment, except he’s strutting down a Tokyo sidewalk with these big horns and steady beat beneath a stilted but foxy rap. The song kept my sentences active, and Kent on the move.
"Sea of Love" – Cat Power
A lot of songs can make me cry and this is one of them. But let Chan Marshall hit it with an autoharp and her voice. I’d listen to it on repeat and just sit there weeping as I wrote. Kent isn't the most sympathetic character in the world, so I didn’t want to use him as a punching bag. There were moments where I needed the reader to sympathize as much as I did with him. I wanted the reader to understand why he did the stupid shit he did.
"And the Glitter is Gone" - Yo La Tengo
When I needed white noise guitar, a sturdy bass, and a thumping beat. Head bobbing and finger tapping.
"Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
This was always the Kent self-pity song, and one we all sing. Because sometimes it’s true.
"Sister Morphine" - The Rolling Stones
Kent needs a fix (for him, it’s shabu, a heady Japanese form of meth) through most of the book. He doesn’t always get it and it doesn’t always help. Then again, it always does. When are you coming round again…?
"Wouldn’t it Be Nice?/You Still Believe in Me" – The Beach Boys
My Wong Kar Wai cinematic moment. The perfect ironic pairing to any violent scene. Like Bach played over a fight in slow motion, this song is actually playing on Kent’s stereo when the antagonist Ozman accidentally shoots his wife, Kent’s mistress, in the jaw. It’s a key scene from Kent’s past, in which he is given the opportunity to kill Ozman after he has abused Kent’s wife Kumi.
The song is followed by "You Still Believe in Me" in real time as we hear the lines "I know perfectly well I'm not where I should be," and Kumi begs Kent to shoot Ozman now that he has the gun. I liked that it balanced the viciousness of the scene and allowed me to focus on atmosphere and tone rather than the play-by-play details of what is happening. It’s my slow motion scene.
"Deep Blue Sea" – Grizzly Bear
A haunting song that rises as it goes, gathering gravity, sound and energy. It launched a short story that became a chapter in the novel.
"The Beast in Me" – Nick Lowe
Lowe reminds me of Vic Chestnutt here. And Vic Chestnutt has the most honest croon. Kent Richman, when he finally learns how to tell the truth, could sing this song.
"Piano Sonata #3" – Ernst Krenek, as interpreted by Glenn Gould
This record plays in a peculiar coffee shop in the central Japanese mountains. It’s a moody piece of music, atonal and utterly modern. Kent’s already shaken but when he enters and hears this wonky music in this cluttered coffee house and sees himself interpreted in black and white across the pages of a comic book, he snaps his leash and hightails it for the river.
"King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1, 2 & 3" – Neutral Milk Hotel
A hell of a way to start a record. This surprising medley never failed to put me in a singing mood—marking the end of a writing session, when the drink took over and the songs just gutted me. I’m putting the period on the last sentence, which always has to be a good one, and screaming, "I love you, Jesus Christ…!" as the song winds up its springs and surges.
Footnote: I always imagine myself marching, arms pumping, out of the study as "Untitled" from this same album plays. A five-star finale. Congratulations, you wrote for an hour.
"Night & Day" – Esquivel
Kent Richman’s dad played Esquivel. Oji-san, Buddhist priest, cosplay enthusiast, and Kent’s unorthodox spiritual guide, plays Esquivel. Under the gauze of exhaustion brought on after days of sucking the pipe, Kent hears this song and dreams of rallying.
"Tangled Up in Blue" – Bob Dylan
Plays behind Kent as he records a YouTube video message to Kumi, wherever she may be. Is there a more hopeful beginning than, Early one morning the sun was shining… ?
"Salvador Sanchez" – Sun Kil Moon
God, the opening chords, such breadth in them, got to play them loud like they’re telling this tiny one-man story, but it’s everybody’s story. In his best Neil Young, Mark Kozelek whines. This song got under my skin at a crucial revision moment, where I had to make big decisions, decisions that led to cutting 25% of the book. Gave me the space to think.
"Jesus" – The Velvet Underground
The whole of fiction fits into this song. What else does a character want but to find their place in the world? Lou Reed’s talking-singing holding hands with Nico’s folky soprano, the simple melody sketched out on a guitar. It’s like church without the religion.
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
Cause I'm falling out of grace
By the end of the book, I’ve reinterpreted this song for Kent, though neither it nor the original appear anywhere in the book. But the song means something different for me as I consider Kent’s arc. I listened to Gabe’s wonderful remix of the song, which we also used—and remixed again—for the book trailer.
Christopher Bundy and Baby, You're a Rich Man links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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