July 11, 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.
Motherless Child is a crisply told and original vampire novel.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The clash of human and vampire worlds in the tumultuous final showdown presents a satisfying, startling, conclusion and infuses this work with both literary and genre merit."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel about single-motherhood, a road novel about coming home to a home you already know is no longer there, and a blood-soaked thrill ride. In other words, it's a book of many moods. From its opening lines—"She met him on a Monday. Her heart stood still."—it is also threaded with overt and oblique references to dozens, hundreds of songs. They are the songs Natalie and Sophie, the story's two victimized, resilient heroines, sing to and at each other, and also what I was singing to myself almost the entire time I was writing. Every track listed below gets mentioned or referenced somewhere in the narrative.
The basic situation is this: on a rare night out, Natalie and Sophie, best friends and single moms, have an encounter with a shadowy, legendarily gifted musician known only as the Whistler. When they become aware of just how significantly the Whistler has changed them, and in terror of what they can feel themselves becoming, Natalie and Sophie leave their babies with Natalie's mother, tell her to get out of town and never let them find her, and flee in Natalie's rebuilt GTO. Neither motherhood, their new and terrible realities, nor the Whistler turn out to be so easily fled, though, and they eventually turn around, hurtling toward a confrontation they already realize they have no hope of winning.
This is their music:
Warren Smith - "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache"
This is the song Natalie and Sophie hear the Whistler play on the night he seduces and alters them. The Whistler is indeed a master musician, a mimic, an artist in the George Jones mold, drawing relentlessly on explosive emotions he sees people feeling but can't seem to experience himself. As for the song, it seemed the right one here for several reasons: it's got that melody, that rhythm, first of all, so sweet and scary at the same time. When Warren Smith's jilted lover sings, "Who you been lovin' since I've been gone/A long tall man with a red coat on," I both hear his heartache and find myself more than a little afraid, maybe for the singer, but just as much for the red-coated stranger, and most of all for the woman. There's a sort of love in this music. But there's also a primal, barely acknowledged fury.
Chuck Berry - "Memphis Tennessee"
The greatest midnight phone-call in the history of rock music isn't to a lover, but a daughter, and so inevitably surfaces in Natalie's thoughts as she tries, and fails, repeatedly, to accept the fact that her son is no longer with her. Natalie is the more grounded, more thoughtful, and moodier of these two lost women, Sophie her sunnier, lighthearted opposite, but both of them are applying the considerable force of their respective personalities to coming to terms with their grief. Natalie wants "to feel, yet again, the full force of the emptiness there, where her child had been. To know it was permanent. She needed to know that, if she hoped to go on. If she did." So this is what she sings. And as with "Red Cadillac," there's a magic in the melody itself that doesn't so much mask the grim subject matter as bathe it in beautiful, almost alluring light. Which, again, makes it terrifying to me.
Wanda Jackson - "Fujiyama Mama"
In addition to Natalie and Sophie—vulnerable, killable, but not conquerable—there is another ferocious female presence in this book: Natalie's widowed mother, Jess. She was the great revelation during the writing of the novel, and very nearly walks off with it. She's a Baltimore Orioles fanatic, a tiny mama lion in a Walgreens uniform, not at all a music connoisseur, and the jaw-dropping poor taste in these lyrics would no doubt appall her. But she's a survivor, a fighter, and though Natalie has only begun to know it, her strength and her moral compass come directly from this source.
Terry Jacks - "Seasons in the Sun"
In so many ways, this is an awful song, a puddle of sop too sticky even to trigger tears. Except, just maybe, if you're in a rebuilt GTO in the middle of the night in the middle of South Carolina on a road trip with the best friend who has been your best friend almost since you were born, and who may well be the only friend you have left or will ever have left. Natalie is a music snob (with superior taste), Sophie a music lover (not necessarily the same thing). Sophie's selection of this song to play one night triggers the following conversation, starting with Natalie:
"Terry Jacks? Have you learned nothing, all these years with me?"
"Like, that music matters?" Sophie said.
"Like, which music matters."
"Oh, I get that well enough. I'm just not sure why mattering matters."
"Because it does."
"Not if it keeps you and me from singing Seasons in the Sun."
Otis Redding - "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay"
It's the Whistler who carries this one around. Partially, this is because he loves the story of the song's recording (it was finished days before Redding's plane crash), and so that iconic, whistling fade-out becomes, for this guy, "The greatest whistling part—the whistle of the singer's own death coming." But also, this track is a devastating evocation of entropy—"Looks like nothing's gonna change/everything still remains the same"—and since that is the emotional state the Whistler comes closest to achieving, or at least understanding, he identifies with this more than any other song.
Judy Roderick - "Walking Slow Behind You"
While the menace in most of the music above is veiled, sometimes not even intentional, the threat in this one couldn't be clearer, or more gleeful: "They'll take you out to you know where/And lay you in the shade/Then proceed to pat your ugly features with a spade/So allow me to remind you/They'll be walking slow behind you." This is the music Natalie grabs in a late-night record store in Columbia, South Carolina, right after leaving home. It's not a psych-up for her, or wish-fulfillment; it's the closest thing she has left to a promise. All you Jolenes, Red Cadillac watchers, Whistlers: I'm walking slow. So you should run.
(Go Home Productions Mash-up) - "Velvet Sugar"
In last Saturday's Orphan Black, Sarah and her mercurial, monstrous clone-sister Helena are in a car, break out the Archies' "Sugar Sugar," and have a moment. It's a great moment, the Orphan Black moment of the year, hilarious and hummable and disconcerting. It's also way too close to a similar scene in Motherless Child (written, obviously, long before), except that what my hopefully lovable monster-women are singing is the above version, in which that irritating, irresistible, winking melody gets grafted over the opening of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for My Man," maybe the most primal and resonant riff of the ‘60s (yeah yeah Rolling Stones, blah blah Beatles, this is the one that does that to me). What gets created here makes you laugh, rips you open, and sets you singing, all at the same time. And that's pretty much what I was hoping to do with this book.
Glen Hirshberg and Motherless Child links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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