September 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.
Jess Row's debut novel Your Face in Mine one of the year's most provocative books, one that boldly explores themes of race and identity in America.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"This book is adult in its weight and complexity, and formidable in its thoughtfulness... [Row] doesn't shy away from the hard intellectual and moral questions his story raises, or from grainy philosophical dialogue, but he submerges these things in a narrative that burns with a steady flame. You turn the pages without being aware you are turning them."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Your Face in Mine is a novel built around certain pieces of music, so of course I have to start with them: Bob Marley, "Exodus," Public Enemy, "Fight the Power," and Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess (the entire album).
"Exodus" is the song that gives Martin Wilkinson—the character in the novel who starts out life as a white, Jewish kid in Baltimore and in his twenties is transformed, through surgery, into an African American man—the inspiration for his journey to blackness. Obviously it's a song about the Rasta Exodus, about movement, about yearning to return to Zion, to Africa, literally (depending on which Rastas you're talking to) to Ethiopia, the home of Haile Selassie. But the Exodus in the song is also an immanent, continuous, psychological process of freeing oneself from the values of Babylon and identifying with the values of a new homeland, which may exist purely in the mind. I think that's part of why Rastafarianism, which began as a very small, esoteric, new religion, has taken on worldwide appeal, even to many people not of African descent: it recasts the central event of the Hebrew Bible, one of the central narratives of Western civilization, as a mental revolution against Western civilization. If you listen to "Exodus," I think, you can't help but feel a sense of that whole symbolic order being undone in a joyful way.
"Fight the Power," of course, is the song that opens Do The Right Thing, which was a transformative moment for Kelly, the white narrator of the book, who saw Do The Right Thing at age thirteen, just like I did.
Porgy and Bess is one of Miles Davis's collaborations with the great composer, arranger, and pianist Gil Evans (another is the album Sketches of Spain). There's a great compilation album Columbia put out, The Best of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, which gives you a sense of the variety of music they produced together. Porgy and Bess itself is one of the richest and most complicated examples of American art about black people but written by a white man, and then layered on top of that you have the Davis-Evans collaboration, between a white arranger and perhaps the greatest black musician of the twentieth century, so you couldn't ask for a work that has a clearer transracial pedigree than Porgy and Bess. But I chose it for a particular moment in the novel because the music is extremely thoughtful and slow, and the orchestration is almost unbearably heavy, all these layers of horns on the low end. You can hear each of the instruments clearly, and the effect is that it just stops you in your tracks and forces you to listen. Gershwin's compositions are complicated enough, but Evans and Davis push them in the direction of European, post-WWII, new music. You hear the presence of all these different cultures and trajectories right there in the score.
Another song that is pivotal in the book is the Fugazi song "Styrofoam" from their first full album, Repeater, released in 1990. This takes place at the moment of the LA riots in 1992, which was a time when the line, "We are all bigots, filled with hatred," really came home to me. "Syrofoam" was the one song quoted in the novel that I need to get permission to republish, and I was very grateful, though not surprised, that Dischord Records (unlike most copyright holders) allowed me to do so for free.
The years that I spent writing Your Face in Mine were years in which I was discovering a lot of indie or underground hip hop—a scene I only followed very loosely before about 2008. When not writing (because I can't write listening to music with vocals) I listened constantly to: El-P, Danger Doom, the Roots, Sage Francis, Shabazz Palaces, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Action Bronson, Killer Mike. And on and on. I was hugely affected by watching Dave Chappelle's Block Party, one of the most joyful and large-hearted concert movies ever made.
While writing I spent almost all of my time listening to jazz, mostly piano and guitar trios. Jim Hall, who died earlier this year, is perhaps my favorite of all jazz guitarists, and his albums were on constant rotation: Jim Hall Live!, It's Nice To Be With You, Intermodulation, Intercontinental, plus his duo albums with Ron Carter, his many albums with Paul Desmond, and his recordings from the years that he played with Sonny Rollins, particularly The Bridge. As always, I also spend much of my time listening to Keith Jarrett. Jarrett's playing embraces the whole range of improvisational music and American music; it can be non-linear and jagged or gospel-like and joyful, and yet somehow you always know it's him. (Even without the kazoo-like noises he makes, which drive some people crazy). He's also a player who embodies the racial ambiguity, and anxiety, of jazz history, which was much on my mind as I wrote Your Face in Mine, though it doesn't enter into the novel directly. After reading Jeffrey Renard Allen's new novel Song of the Shank, I've been wishing I could write a novel about one of the great lost figures in jazz history—Albert Ayler, for example.
Jess Row and Your Face in Mine links:
Los Angeles Times review
Miami Herald review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists