March 20, 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.
James Grissom's book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog offers an intimate and authoritative portrait of the legendary playwright through his relationships with the people who inspired his work and life.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"There have been plenty of books written about Williams over the past three decades, but few weave so many voices into an original and compelling portrait. Grissom honors the life and achievement of his doomed correspondent."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
In his own words, here is James Grissom's Book Notes music playlist for his book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog:
The song Tennessee Williams claimed was his favorite, and one he could sing perfectly—in a funny, campy way. This song was still on jukeboxes in New Orleans in 1982, and Tennessee could always find the bars and restaurants that would have it. It is a great song to sing to someone who has just broken your heart, but to whom you would still like to offer something joyous. "It's a very Christian song," Tenn told me.
Tennessee wrote with his heart on his sleeve. "Sleeve?" he snapped. "I have my heart on every surface nearby." Worthy writing required an open heart—and a foolish, reckless one. You can write well with your heart wide open and hanging like wash on the line of your narrative, but you can also appear foolish, so Tenn offered this song as another apology. In addition, he loved Margaret Whiting fervently, and I was happy to learn that this love was reciprocated. "No one caresses a lyric like Whiting," Tenn told me.
Tennessee loved Judy Garland—they were drunk together many, many times. During many of those drunken reveries, they found ways to heal the world, if only the world would listen. In the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the world went into a sustained "stink of the soul," as Tenn put it. Tenn has also lost his lover, Frank Merlo, and his talent seemed to be in a terminal state as well. Sundays were bad days for Tenn: They reminded him of starched collars and starched sermons in the churches of his youth (churches in which his family worked), and the long, horrible hours before he returned to the bullies of body and mind in school. It was, however, on a Sunday—dark and long and sad—that he watched Judy Garland's program on CBS and witnessed her performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an homage to the dead president. "And the dam broke," he told me. "I could weep, and I could get on. Judy avenged our loss through art, and the world picked up speed and began turning again."
"Strings and a sad voice help a woman to appear," Tenn told me. Few songs can get a woman to walk out of the fog with greater force than this wonderful Jo Stafford offering.
When the muse fails you, Tenn told me, give it a gentle finger, erotic or insouciant. Send some music out into your personal orbit that lets the world and the women in your head know that you have all the time in the world; there are other fish to fry; you don't need them. This Billie Holliday number does the trick—or did the trick for Tenn.
When you love a man—or a woman or a play or a character in a play—you need to go "balls deep," as Tenn put it. This song—an Oscar winner from the 1957 film "The Joker is Wild"—was a balls-deep, I-am-so-in-love-with-you offering. "And those strings!" Tenn enthused. "Strings tie to you to a story, a person, a time."
Tennessee loved Johnny Mercer, and could get lost in his catalog of songs for days: The songs all had a Southern, mournful feel to them. You could feel the humidity and the slowness of the days and the speech. Johnny Mercer songs evoked the good things of childhood. This song was featured in the 1965 film "The Great Race," and was sung by Natalie Wood. The official version was performed by Johnny Mathis—"the silken, soulful Johnny Mathis," as Tenn put it—and Tenn told me of this song. "It's a popular song that makes me think of the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, who told us of a similar, magical place in the forest. This song reminds us—reminds me—to dream."
Bach and Ella Fitzgerald could always get Tenn going. Here is a Fitzgerald record he loved. "She never got in the way of a song," Tenn told me. "A writer should move the same way—gently, lovingly, with kindness."
The next two entries are songs that Tennessee played "to the point of scratchy destruction" during the time he lived in an apartment on Royal Street in New Orleans. The nights were full of love—toward a man and toward a woman on the pale judgment, which is to say the blank page—and then there would be darkness and open windows and the breeze would cause the white curtains to billow like the arms of a lover, and the breeze would bring the scent of chicory and burnt pecans into the room. There would be the sound of boats slowly moving and making their sad sound on the Mississippi River, and this was a "happy time," Tenn remembered. "There was all the time in the world. Time to write and to love." The music and hunger would bring cats to the street below the windows, and Tenn would throw chicken and fish down to the cats. "It is catastrophic to be in love without music," Tenn told me.
This is long entry, but one that is necessary, because a perfect day for Tenn began with Bach. "He cleanses my literary palate," he told me. "He converses with God." Glenn Gould was one of Tenn's favorite musicians, so here is a gloriously fulsome taste of Bach and Gould.
Southerners most frequently seek rain and redemption. A break in the heat and a break in the guilt—so much guilt. This song, played frequently by Tenn during a particularly bad period for him personally and professionally, spoke directly to his psychic pain, his Mississippi heritage, and his need to tell a story and get some relief.
"I would join and support the church that used this song as its primary hymn for those seeking redemption," Tenn told me. "It is the perfect wake-up song to get going, get living. I hear it and I'm ready to write, be a friend, be alive."
The admission of love is operatic, Tenn told me. Everything is on the line. "Oh how I wish for the ability to express my love as Della does here," Tenn told me. "Oh, begin the line toward love with this song in your heart."
"And I need you more than want you," was a lyric that astounded Tennessee. "Look for inspiration everywhere," he told me, "and never more than when it has abandoned you, headed to another set of hills." In the late sixties, the Wichita Lineman was "still on the line," and so was Tenn. He offered this record to many actresses to help them get in that "glorious funk" that offers hope along with the destitution that life feels compelled to deliver so regularly.
"Bob Dylan speaks to me," Tenn told me. "I think we're on similar paths—of reinvention, of discovery, of telling a story, of trying to matter. I love women, and Dylan is loving—fully and beautifully—some woman in this song. She may become a character for me."
"But when you're looking for your freedom/Nobody seems to care." "Jesus," Tenn exclaimed, "what a lyric, what a thought." Actress Susan Tyrrell claimed that her visit with Tenn was spent playing this song over and over and over. "There's art for us at the end of this track," he told her.
"They've got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose." "The person who wrote 'They've got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose' was touched by God. I want to be touched by that God again. That song makes me believe he's still available to be found," as Tenn told me when we played this song in New Orleans.
I played an album a lot in one of those bad years--a couple of those bad years. In those years--I'm thinking of '75 and '76--there was the Bicentennial and my awkward attempts at relevance. The album was by Janis Ian [the album isBetween the Lines] and it played and it played and I listened and I could hear the storyteller and the great singer, and I could sense pages turning and lives changing, and there was fog in the distance. She had fog in her stories--much had been created and much was being shared--but the fog didn't make it to my shores, although it made it to my heart.
It's a remarkable album--one of the many albums I destroyed from overuse. The album popped and crackled and skipped, but I kept it dropping and re-playing, and it was a marvel.
Play it. Play it a lot. There are stories and women in there.—Tennessee Williams
"One should place no trust at all in anyone who doesn't cry when they hear 'The Long and Winding Road,' " Tenn told me. "The ultimate song that offers hope of reconciliation."
"All of us are longing to get home," Tenn confessed. "Where we're loved and recognized and where we can function. Christ was accepted and this song—a musical rainbow of a promise made and kept—makes me think I'll get home. And Judy [Collins] has been there for me as a woman, and she's here for me as a musician."
James Grissom and Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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