February 10, 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.
Jude Cook's Byron Easy is a clever and imaginative debut novel.
The Daily Mirror wrote of the book:
"Ravishing in its evocations of beauty, sexual candor, suspense, and unusual insights into the soul-battering consequences of abuse and violence. Cook’s debut gathers force as a rolling and rocking ballad of survival and love."
Byron Easy is a circadian novel: the action takes place over a single day while the story itself take place over the course of twenty years. Set against the backdrop of the music business and 1990s London, it's significant this single day is the last Christmas Eve of the millennium – before the arrival of a savage new century: a gentler time, perhaps.
The arch, satirical first-person voice was crucial from the start – the idea was to create a non-aristocratic poet (an anti-Byron, in effect), yet one with the same linguistic reach and capacity for emotion as the Lord Byron of Don Juan and the scurrilous letters.
There are many parallels with the real Lord Byron's life and works (from Byron Easy's single pamphlet of published poems to a certain Haidee, who comes to his rescue, as does Haidee in Don Juan). The book overall is unashamedly intertextual, with many cultural references, both high and low, from St Jerome and Andrew Marvell to Kurt Cobain and the immortal hits of Soft Cell. The play-list below sticks to songs that are mentioned in the text, not the soundtrack to the book's writing (which was Cistercian silence). Some, like the Edwyn Collins' masterpiece single from 1995 define whole chapters. Others, like Dylan's 'Most of the Time', would only be recognised in the prose by diehard fans of Bob.
'Star' – David Bowie
The pumped-up soundtrack to dreams of pop stardom (as least for everyone in England who formed a band in the 1970s), this Bowie classic from 1972 is actually about being a loser. Or fear of being left behind. Bowie's friend and rival, Marc Bolan, had just overtaken him in the stardom stakes, a fact alluded to in the middle-eight's ad-libbed line, 'Get it on', against a storm of Mick Ronson power-chording. At the song's close, Bowie mutters, 'Just watch me now . . .' It's just about convincing, but there's a timbre in his voice that suggests it might all go the other way. Byron Easy repeats this line – though in his case he's talking about suicide. And we get the feeling it won't be a Rock 'n' Roll one.
'I Threw it All Away' – Bob Dylan
Byron Easy throws away his one shot at real love with diffident middle-class English Rose, Bea. He does this 'like the Base Indian, like Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline . . . also like a fool'. The reference to Dylan's great lament for male stupidity seems apt. Nick Cave thought it his best love song. Something about the light country acoustic picking and Bob's affected, Appalachian voice makes it more moving and sincere, rather than less. One thing's for certain, Byron Easy will surely be a-hurtin' a few pages down the line.
'Things Fall Apart' – Flamingoes
This song is by my old band. Or rather, it's a solo acoustic and vocal performance by my brother, James, included on our second album, Street Noise Invades the House. A break-up song, too harrowing to listen to sober, it includes the line: 'with your rain-coloured eyes'. This was too good to go unstolen, so I lifted if for the description of Byron Easy's mother, Sinead. It becomes her leitmotif – an image of desolate beauty and sadness. My brother knows about the theft, and will begin to care when the book's sales increase appreciably.
'Most of the Time' – Bob Dylan
An underrated song from the miraculous Oh Mercy! album. It's probably my favourite ever late-Dylan song, more so than 'Dark Enough' or 'Someday Baby'. A better guide to life than Montaigne. Its power comes from the fact that it admits weakness. The speaker is strong, getting his life back on track: 'I've got my head on straight/ I'm strong enough not to hate . . .' He doesn't even remember what his lover's lips felt like on his. Most of the time, that is. It's those other moments – undocumented by the song – that carry the emotional charge. What happens in them? How does he live through them? The song happens in them, that's what. During my book, Byron Easy is similarly rehabilitating himself; figuring out how to decorate the walls of his post-separation bedroom: 'Most of the time I try not to look at those empty spaces. Most of the time.' Only Nick Hornby will get the allusion.
'Fisherman's Blues' – The Waterboys
One theme of the book is emancipation, getting free from situations, dependencies and poisonous relationships. Like Wordsworth in The Prelude, Byron Easy leaves London for the north of England, but feels 'no blessing in that ungentle breeze'. Unlike the great Lakeland poet, he leaves on an intercity train, and much of his time is spent documenting what goes on out of the window as the day darkens. At one point he notes the train is: 'Crashing headlong into the heartland, in a night that's full of soul!' This is from the second verse of Mike Scott's great song of thwarted freedom.
'A Girl Like You' – Edwyn Collins
Chapter two of Byron Easy is titled after this song's refrain: never met a girl like you before. The summer he meets his future wife, Mandy Haste, is brought to mind instantly by the opening chords of this insistent tune. Or rather, chord. Like 'Tomorrow Never Knows', it only uses one, a grave C minor. The 'dark voodoo of that subterranean minor chord' – the super-distorted Isley Brothers' guitars – brings it all back, in a vivid Proustian rush.
'Love Reign O'er Me' - The Who
Overblown Mod anthem or the best love song ever written? Byron Easy is of the latter opinion, although he is smitten with Mandy by this point – 'five-ten of slinky hips, lips, tits and power'. The Who are her favourite band, and this tune greets Byron's ears every morning after jumping out of her shower. The song's link to Brighton in Quadrophenia is alluded to by Byron and Mandy's visit to the English seaside resort. It's where the question of marriage first rears its volatile head.
'Something in the Way' - Nirvana
The final song on Nirvana's Nevermind gets a namecheck in the depths of Byron's post-divorce depression. The title is the perfect description of the nameless, thwarted emptiness of clinical depression. The ghost of Kurt hangs heavy over the book, as it would over any novel about the 90s music scene. All that promise, blown away. Like Plath, there was a feeling in April '94 (the month Kurt checked out), that fixed stars were governing a life. It was inevitable that it would come to this. But nothing's inevitable, even if you have an armoury in the basement.
'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' – Soft Cell
The moment Byron Easy splits up with his devoted girlfriend, Bea, the lyrics to this song fill his mind, with a queasy irony. Given his age, he would have been twelve when the melodramatic Marc Almond classic was first released, but it still has the ability to dissolve grown men into lachrymose pools. Byron's sudden recall of the lines remains unvoiced: Take a look at my face for the last time/ I never knew you/ You never knew me . . . This is exactly what he is feeling about his chestnut-haired darling in that moment. But all he can say is a single word: 'Goodbye.'
'Motorcycle Emptiness' – Manic Street Preachers
For a book set in the 90s, Byron Easy contains remarkably few direct references to actual songs by bands of the time. This particular song is not mentioned by name, but, like Kurt, the memory of Richey Manic hangs over the text. As Bellow suggested America liked to do with its poets, so the music industry likes to do with its more sensitive practitioners. Richey disappeared on the 1st February 1995. Another tender spirit broken. As Byron observes later, like Kurt Cobain and Sarah Kane, Richey becomes just another T-shirt on Camden High St.
'Don't Go Breaking my Heart' – Elton John & Kiki Dee
In stark contrast to the Manics is this duet between superstar Elton and forgotten chanteuse Kiki Dee. But not forgotten by Byron Easy. For anyone growing up in the 1970s, this song is the high watermark of cheesy disco. Yet, in the best pop (as opposed to rock), there's something distilled and forceful in jejune lyrics that can't be expressed in any other way. There's an eternal, hopeful, naïve, impossibly stirring quality to this song of emotional vulnerability. It's there, like the best songs, in the very DNA of the music; in the chord changes, the vocal performances. In the book, it's used to soundtrack a scene of soiling domestic violence involving Byron's Satanic stepfather, Delph Tongue. As the blows – physical and verbal – fall, the young poet tries to hold onto Kiki's confident, trilled reply – its impossible note of assent: I won't go breaking your heart.
'1999' – Prince
Lastly, for a book set on the final Christmas Eve of the final year of the millennium, this one had to get a look in. Two thousand zero-zero party over oops out of time. Hard to recall now all the millenarian panic before New Year's Eve 1999, but it was unavoidable at the time. Pre 9/11, it feels quaint: a memory from a gentler, more hopeful age. As does this song by the Purple Imp. In his terrific biography of the star, Barney Hoskyns commented on the outré stage-show of Dirty Mind: 'There's nothing worse than an exhibitionist that no one notices'. '1999' was the tune that finally got Prince noticed, with its sheets of glacial synth, Nile Rogers' guitar licks and priapic vocal. And he managed to raise the startling notion of global extinction, in a chart dominated by poodle-rockers and escapist soul. He didn't want to die, he just he wanted to dance his life away. Byron Easy, by contrast, definitely wants to die. He just hasn't settled, in the manner of famous cowards, on the best method yet.
Jude Cook and Byron Easy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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