October 14, 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.
Darcey Steinke's novel Sister Golden Hair is a dazzling coming-of-age novel that evokes the early 1970s in both spirit and characters.
Jenny Offill wrote of the book:
"A daring and arrestingly beautiful novel about what it’s like to walk through the world, wide awake, taking in radiant and terrifying messages about everything around you."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I came of age in Roanoke, Virginia in the 1970's, a small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I lived for a few years in a duplex complex, much like the one I write about in my new novel Sister Golden Hair. Music to me then was a conduit, an escape hatch to another life. There was not much access to culture, pop or otherwise in my small town. The radio was my link to the larger world, a dream machine that spread the message of honest desire, openness and art. The first time I heard David Bowie, I think it was "Life on Mars," I walked directly through the subdivisions all the way to the strip mall to Woolworths. There the hit 45's were suspended by hooks on the wall, I can still see Bowie's name printed in black on the white paper around the record's center. I ran home, slammed my bedroom door, put the record on and threw myself down on the bed. It sounded as if a piece of the moon were playing on my little turntable.
1. "Sister Golden Hair" - America
Long before I decided to use this song as the books title, it was my go-to Karaoke song. The first line "Well I tried so hard to make it Sunday, but I got so damned depressed, so I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed" is like a line from a Jean Rhys short story. The conventional relationships I saw around me were tense and fraught and I identified with the songs speaker who wanted to meet his lover "in the middle, in the air."
2. "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" - Cher
Cher was my dark haired Goddess, a friendlier version of the Hindu Goddess Shiva. As a blonde I felt transparent, a screen to be projected on to. But Cher gathered meaning around her like an aura. To see her, shinning and other-worldly in a Bob Mackie gown, shot me, as it does my narrator Jesse, up into outer space. The Cher mash up of American girl next door/wise ass/dark goddess was strongest in this song, which is frank about the sexual double standard for women. It was not unusual for me to lay with a Cher album on my lap staring deeply into her brown eyes trying desperately to make contact.
3. "Melissa" - Allman Brother's Band
Greg Allman's hair was just as powerful as Cher's and when they got together I thought my head would explode. Allman also sang with palpable urgency, if not, to my mind, as passionately as Cher. The guitar solo in Melissa, sweet and weepy, was the last Duane Allman played before his motorcycle crash in October 1971. After his death Greg Allman, the lost little brother, stumbled around inside the 70's in a way I found moving and relatable.
4. "Morning Has Broken" - Cat Stevens
In Sister G, the main character, Jesse, practices a dance routine to this song in a white leotard and matching white headband. The song was a pop hymn, so it made sense to me when, in 1976, Stevens gave up music for Islam. After his retreat into the Godhead, his songs sounded even more ethereal.
5. "Angie Baby" - Helen Reddy
This is one of the many songs of the period about spooky, sexy girls. Feminism in the 70's had finally trickled down to suburbia and women's changing roles and honesty about their desire were frankly freaking a lot of people out. In this song Reddy evokes Angie's desires, her fascination with the radio, her oddness (read sexuality) which got her kicked out of school. "Living in a world of make believe, well maybe." This song scares Jesse, as it did me, but the idea also thrills her, that the magic radio could shrink the neighbor boy so that Angie can use him as her "dance partner" whenever she desires.
6. "Jackie Blue" - Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Another song about a spooky girl stuck inside her room. Jackie likes to live "in a free form style" and she "lives a dream that can never come true." To me that dream was to give her desires free expression. The singer seems to be encouraging her to do this but this song reminds me of a typical male approach, which seems at first to be about accepting female complexity but in reality is all about trying to get laid.
7. "Starman" - David Bowie
In the novel Jesse can't admit her love for Bowie to her friends. When he comes up in conversation she has to work hard to keep her expression neutral. "You couldn't like anything that was too weird because that weirdness jumped onto you." Bowie's message of radical self-acceptance was too powerful for 70's Roanoke, Virginia. Like God, Bowie was best savored in the privacy of one's own bedroom. "Starman," which is a song about God, about the force that triggers forth life, that "hazy cosmic jive." Each night after I said my regular prayers I'd whisper what I thought of as The Bowie Prayer. "Let the children lose it. Let the children use it. Let all the children boogie."
8. "Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd
I never went to a high school assembly where someone did not shout out "Freebird." "Freebird" was yelled at football games and at the end of movies. When cars of teenage boys passed by on the highway, they shouted "Freebird." In Sister Golden Hair, Skynyrd is on constant rotation on the radio. Jesse points out that it was not unusual, when waiting at a red light, to have Skynyrd on your own radio as well as all the radios in the cars surrounding. In the novel Dwayne is a Skynyrd enthusiast, a rough, unsophisticated but ultimately sweet boy, emasculated by the loss of the Civil War and angry about the way the south was depicted during the civil rights movement.
9. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" - Elton John
Elton sings about his fear of being trapped in a conventional heterosexual relationship. Thank goddess for Sugarbear who sweeps in to save him from the "princess in her electric chair." Like the song Sister Golden Hair, I identified not with the jilted girl but with Elton wanting a truer relationship based on his real desires. I loved Elton, who was like Bowie, if Bowie were less fantastic and a whole lot chubbier. "You couldn't worship Elton like you could Bowie," Jessie says in the novel, "but what he lacked in star power he made up for in desperation."
10. "Stairway to Heaven" - Led Zeppelin
When I was a teenager there was a rumor that if you played this song backwards you'd hear a satanic prayer. As a minster's daughter this scared and thrilled me. I loved the idea that, like the Bible itself, a pop song could carry a message from the spirit world. As my novel comes to an end, Jesse goes to Jill's new duplex, in a shabbier complex close to the airport. Jill plays the song for Jesse, insisting it's about Jesus, that "building a stairway to heaven" means that the woman is tithing rather than communicating with the devil. Jill's theological interest in the song touches me. It's reminiscent of both Jesse's, and my own teenage self, searching for answers to religious and relationship questions in each and every pop song.
Darcey Steinke and Sister Golden Hair links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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