January 29, 2015
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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Stephen Policoff's novel Come Away is an impressive study of family, love, and loss.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My 2nd novel, Come Away (Dzanc Books, November 2014), was written with a lot of music playing both in my mind and in wherever I was writing. I tend not to read too much when I am constructing something as complex as a novel, but I listen to music constantly, and music has always been as much a stimulus to my work as language.
The folkish rock of the early 1970s was a huge influence on me when I was a very young man; two songs in particular are important to Come Away.
"Only Love Can Break Your Heart"/"Box of Rain." "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" by Neil Young, with its quavery chorus, Yes only love can break your heart/What if your world should fall apart? is a leit-motif in my first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else (Carroll & Graf, 2004). When I was trying to prod myself into working on Come Away—a companion piece to the first noveI—I was casting about for a song I could reference in the same way. My late wife Kate and I used to joke that we wanted the Grateful Dead song "Box of Rain" to be played at our funerals. For a variety of reasons, this didn't happen at Kate's funeral, but after her tragically early death, I knew "Box of Rain" had to be the ur-song for Come Away. The final line always gets me—Such a long long time to be gone/And a short time to be there. That says almost everything I wanted to say in my book.
I was never a big fan of Queen but apparently Freddy Mercury admired—was even obsessed by—the disturbing masterpiece "The Fairy Feller's Master- Stroke," by the mad Victorian artist Richard Dadd, which hangs in the Tate in London and whose sinister figures are a touchstone of Come Away.
The cover of Come Away is a detail from Dadd's painting.)
Queen's propulsive song, "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke," is not as grandiose as a lot of their songs, and captures some of the eerily interconnected imagery of the painting. It is one of the songs my character Dr. Maire, a sort of New Age philosopher, records for his granddaughter Spring to listen to on her flight to London.
The other songs on the CD he sends her are by Fairport Convention and Jerry Garcia. Fairport Convention does some great versions of traditional British folk tunes, with all that vivid, circular energy, plus a famously evocative version of "Who Knows Where the Times Goes?" The question of where time goes is a question asked—I hope—throughout my novel.
For Garcia, I was thinking especially of "The Wheel," a song from his first solo album, with the lyrics, The wheel is turning and you can't slow down/You can't let go and you can't hold on… Come Away is very much about the narrator Paul's fear of losing his child, his new-found stability, his balance. That song alludes to all of those fears.
I heard so many pieces of music in my head as I was sketching out Come Away. In both the scene at the Tate Gallery, where Paul almost has a meltdown, and later, in the scene set at the grim Neo-Changeling Center for Childhood Retrieval in upstate New York, I always heard Philip Glass’s Glassworks in the background, with its seething relentless pulsation, both beautiful and unsettling. I have a horror of sounding pompous, but I feel obligated to add that Glass's music always seems to me to be the soundtrack of consciousness.
Paul is a rather melancholy soul, an often-thwarted romantic. He can’t love anyone without fearing that he will lose her. His fear of losing his daughter Spring, who has suffered a frightening, inexplicable accident before the novel begins, is not entirely unrealistic, and is mingled with an inchoate fear of losing the life he has cobbled together with his young, more upbeat wife Nadia. As I was working out that relationship, I kept hearing the beautiful Cole Porter standard, "Everytime We Say Goodbye," with its poignant but elegant lyric, Every time we say goodbye/I want to die a little/Every time we say goodbye I wonder why a little/Why the gods above me/Who should be in the know/Think so little of me/They allow you to go…
There are many versions of this great song (Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox) but I love the Ray Charles/Betty Carter version because, come on, Ray Charles, Betty Carter…
Although it is so well-known as to be a 60s trope, the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" always evokes a shiver from me. The opening of that song, the almost hymn-like musical intro followed by I may not always love you really feels to me like something Paul would hear in his head when he is having his…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what he’s having, but it involves love and loss, like virtually everything else I’ve ever written!
Two other pieces of music belong on this somewhat eclectic playlist. The Dylan/Manuel classic "Tears of Rage," a song for a daughter which like "Box of Rain," is also a lament about the ephemerality of all we love, should definitely be in there somewhere, everywhere: Come to me now/You know we are so low/And life is brief… With its spectral vocals, the recently re-released Basement Tapes version of this amazing song is the one I love.
Finally, and perhaps a bit out of place but still…at the end of Come Away, when things have been (more or less) put right, and Paul’s life appears (more or less) (at least for now) back on track, there is a scene where Spring takes part in her preschool graduation, on an early summer morning. I always imagined Erik Satie’s limpid Trois Gymnopedie in that scene. (I favor the version by Aldo Ciccolini). It’s Satie's best known piece; and though its magical blend of joy/sorrow has been used on the soundtrack of a number of films, I still claim it for the finale. I have loved that piece of music since I was 20, and it resonates so completely with the mingling of dark/light in Come Away that it has to be part of my playlist, part of the way in which Paul perceives the world. OK, sure, me too.
Stephen Policoff and Come Away links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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