May 19, 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.
Momus (aka Nick Currie) has always impressed me with his music. His new book UnAmerica is a wildly imaginative satirical novel, a modern retelling of the sixth century tale "The Voyage of Saint Brendan."
Rolling Stone wrote of the book:
"It is witty, clever, well-written, and exactly the sort of project Currie can seemingly toss off at his leisure."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My usual plan when I'm writing a book is to set up a very clever and compelling high concept idea and then completely undermine it with a sort of shaggy dog structure in which each step forward, plotwise, is purchased at the price of six steps back: a shambles of digressions, impudent lies, cheeky suggestions, irrelevant asides, stumbling blocks and general plunder.
The high concept idea that structures—or fails, mostly, to structure—UnAmerica is that God hates America and wants to mount a voyage which will lead to its undiscovery and uninvention as a principle in the world. But—fortunately—it's precisely in the digressions and setbacks that we see the logic of God's distaste for a nation that seems to flout all the most reasonable Christian ethics on a daily basis. I'm not a Christian, but early Christian didacticism does interest me, and I take the tale of a 6th Century sea voyage, The Voyage of Saint Brendan, as one of my structuring models.
Music comes into UnAmerica as a series of references in these fragmentary and tangential digressions. So let's go through this as methodically as we can!
"Autobahn" by Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk are actually characters in the book. They visit Summerville, South Carolina—where most of the action takes place—in a Mercedes 600 and have a conversation about cuisine in a Tastee Freez. Florian Schneider bought a Mercedes 600 in the mid-1970s for 25,000 Deutschmarks. Kraftwerk's presence in the book is important: they represent the idea that Europe is several decades ahead of America, and that many of the "American" symbols of modernity—skyscrapers, freeways, even the hamburger and denim—are actually European inventions. The nemesis of Kraftwerk, in the book, is ZZ Top.
"Degüello" by ZZ Top
ZZ Top appear in the novel as a group of Texan socialists searching through a sporting goods store for leotards. They're in the company of a friend, the wrestler Hulk Hogan. A conversation develops at the leotard rail in which ZZ Top and Hogan disagree about Michel Foucault's positive reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Hogan (the most socialist of the friends) suggests that ZZ Top may have been distracted from geopolitics at the time by the recording of Degüello, their debut album for Warner Brothers. To be honest, I've never heard any of ZZ Top's music, and I don't intend to. I just put them in because they seem like the most stereotypically American group ever. Later in the novel Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons ("brothers turned sour with rancourous rivalry") face off with spears. I won't spoil things by telling you who wins.
"Agatha" by Francis Bebey
Bebey was a Cameroonian writer and musician who made extraordinary electronic makossa records in Paris. One of them contains a song called Agatha, based on his novel Agatha Moudio's Son. Bebey interests me for several reasons. One, I was listening to a compilation of his work called African Electronic Music 1975-1982 while I was writing the novel. Two, he does for the continent of Africa what Kraftwerk does for Europe: he proves that what we think of as modernity arose elsewhere than in America: Bebey's electronic songs predate black American electronic music pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa by several years. And thirdly, I like the plot of his Agatha Moudio novel and plunder it in my book. The song Agatha is about an African man who accuses his wife of having an affair with a white man when she gives birth to a white baby. My (white American) hero Brad Power turns out to be the one who gave Agatha Moudio her baby.
"Curlew River" by Benjamin Britten
An opera about monks and the Christian church, Curlew River is Britten's homage to the Japanese noh form. I have one of my characters listen to it on his iPod in the middle of the night at an airport where he's due to meet four "extreme watermen", the owners of the Salt Life clothing brand. He's mostly using it to drown out the sound of an out-of-tune marching band he's engaged to welcome the watermen. I think what's interesting here is the otherness of Britten's music: it's the furthest you can get from the sort of accessible popular culture America has based its "soft power" on since the end of the Second World War. But mostly it features just because it's something I was listening to (playing on YouTube) when I was writing the book.
"Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney
This song has always annoyed me intensely, especially when you put it in context with the inane stuff McCartney was writing at the time about silly love songs and Mary's little lamb. The lyrics of Live and Let Die (written opportunistically as a Bond theme) tell us that although young people used to say "live and let live", there comes a time when they get real and realise it's all about "live and let die". Give the other fellow hell! Because nature is red in tooth and claw, and it's either you or him! Zero sum! This is basically the philosophy of fascism. I use it in a chapter in which Brad, the hero, gets fat from playing Call of Duty: Black Ops too much. Somehow that contrast between the hardness of the game's outlook and the softness of Brad's couch-ridden body as he plays it is the same as the contrast you see in McCartney's mid-70s work. Being a hardass and being a pussy are just two sides of the same coin: you fight because you're scared.
"Row Fisherman Row" by The Congos
1970s reggae encodes a lot of positive values in which Christianity, in its Rastafarian guise, encodes socialistic and revolutionary attitudes to life. My book has a chapter about two American hipsters making a trip to Jamaica to meet and record with veteran reggae group The Congos, whose song Row Fisherman Row is liberally quoted: Row, fisherman, row, lots of hungry-belly pickneys they ashore. The song is about the distribution of fish according to need rather than ability to pay. The failure to organise society this way is one of the things which has pained God most about America: in the first chapter of the book God describes the ignominious fate of the Hutterites, a Christian sect who took literally the injunctions in the Acts of the Apostles to share property, and were hounded out of America for their pains. God likes reggae, I feel.
"Manatsu No Sounds Good" by AKB48
To be perfectly honest this could just as well have been any other song by the Japanese idol group: they all sound exactly the same. Brad Power is trying to teach his son Abraham about morality, but it turns out the youngster is a complete sexual reprobate: in order to get his penis sniffed by all 48 members of the Japanese idol group, for instance, he has disguised himself as a pot plant and mailed himself to their fan club. "Since AKB48 is an egalitarian pop group, the girls filed past to sniff my son in alphabetical order. They cooed their appreciation. Some took photographs, others suggested Latin species names, a couple took foreskin clippings, hoping to create a graft capable of flourishing in their own gardens. Some of the girls probably recognised the “orchid” as a penis, but didn’t let on. The idols are forbidden to date boys, Abraham tells me, and recognition of a penis might lead to suspension."
"The Grungerman of Lowestoft" by Rambling Syd Rumpo
The final part of the novel takes place at sea, where many smutty shanties are sung, mostly based on the wonderful songs of Rambling Syd Rumpo, a fake folk singer acted by Kenneth Williams on the 1960s comedy radio show Round The Horne, with songs written by Marty Feldman and Barry Took. Williams introduces The Grungerman of Lowestoft as "a lyrical and devious ditty that's sung throughout Lummestide by the dwindling band of Essex graunchers as they court their swains — a swain, you know, is a cross between a snake and a pig. Horrible really, as ugly as sin they are, but you do get marvellous streaky bacon."
Momus and UnAmerica links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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