November 10, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dark and hilarious, Scott Nadelson's debut novel Between You and Meis a poignant exploration of everyday domestic life.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"An unexpected epic made from life’s minor moments."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
References to music appear throughout this book, an episodic novel that chronicles the life of Paul Haberman—"my nebbish," I've been calling him since I first started writing about him eight or so years ago—a lifelong bachelor and city-dweller who, at forty, marries the mother of two young children and moves to the suburbs. In the opening chapter, which takes place in 1981, Paul confronts a teenager wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt; later he finds himself unwittingly trapped in a mosh pit as "Blitzkrieg Bop" starts up on the speakers. Elsewhere he returns to Dylan after having abandoned him as a betrayer of the folk movement and attends a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with his stepchildren, then adults.
But rather than make a playlist based on the music that's in the book, I decided to construct one as a companion to the book, a soundtrack that someone might want to listen to while reading it. In fact, I imagined someone very particular, a character other than Paul: his stepdaughter Joy, now forty-two (my own age, coincidentally), picking out songs from her extensive vinyl collection that make her nostalgic for her youth while reading about her hapless stepfather. Each chapter of the book takes place two years apart, from 1981 to 2001, so I've chosen a song released in each of those years that, to my mind, captures the feeling of the chapter or whose lyrics have thematic resonance with Paul's experience as he navigates middle age and approaching autumn in the New Jersey suburbs. Welcome to my nostalgic tour through two decades of my youth and young adulthood.
The Undertones, "It's Going to Happen!"
This song was made to be the opening of a novel playlist. The title alone speaks to the imminence of beginnings and gets you ready for drama: it hasn't happened yet, but it's going to, just wait. I was first introduced to this amazing Northern Irish post-punk band much later than 1981, by the legendary DJ Vin Scelsa, who hosted a show called Idiot's Delight on New York radio stations for more than three decades before retiring earlier this year. The Undertones were as good as any band playing upbeat new wave pop, but their sound was stranger than most, more jagged, as if they were in the midst of being turned into cyborgs and music was the only thing keeping them human.
The Waterboys, "A Girl Called Johnny"
The opening piano chords of this song from The Waterboys' first album always gets me in the gut—there's something sorrowful in them that reminds me of an old friend who's gone—and then that big 1980s sax line comes roaring up to rouse me out of self-pity. That's part of why I like to pair this song with the novel's second chapter, in which Paul wrestles with his own self-pity while reckoning with his wife's relationship to her ex-husband, the father of her children. I also choose it for a line spoken by the song's title character: "'Don't talk about life and death,' she said. 'I've had enough of both.'" Such a great moment of characterization and one that mirrors the frustration of Paul's wife Cynthia, who tells her ex, "You've had more breaks than one person deserves," and then glances at Paul as she adds, "I don't have any left to give. Not to you, or anyone else."
Talking Heads, "And She Was"
At twelve years old, this song made me fall for the Talking Heads. Up to this point I didn't get them—the big suit jacket, the shaky vocals—but after hearing the relatively straightforward pop of "And She Was," I was hooked and eventually made my way back to all their earlier albums. In this chapter Paul, on a business trip to Europe, nearly has an affair with a recent divorcee, who's equal parts sad and defiant. At the end of the chapter he watches her puke into her purse and come up looking impassive, as if nothing at all is the matter, and I hear this song playing in the background as Paul decides she's better off without him and backs away.
The Ramones, "I Wanna Live"
Though a Ramones tune does make an appearance elsewhere in the book, this song more than "Blitzkrieg Bop" captures Paul at this particular moment—angst-ridden, full of doubt, but above all desperate to embrace life and trust that his good fortune will hold. "I Wanna Live" is as close as the Ramones ever came to a power ballad, their own revision, it always seemed to me, of "I Wanna Be Sedated," written after more than ten years on the road. This chapter is about cars—specifically Paul's relationship with his mechanic—and this is a great driving song, as are most Ramones songs, though if Paul heard it at the time I'm sure he would have wanted to cover his ears.
Love and Rockets, "So Alive"
It amazes me that this song became such a big hit in an otherwise bleak year for music. It's certainly not Bauhaus, but it's still pretty far out compared to most radio stuff at the time. The music video, full of long legs in black hose, probably didn't hurt, nor the sexy vocals and a nod to conventional "come on, baby" lyrics. But I wonder how many people really listened to the speaker's seduction of a woman whose eyes he can't see well enough to know their color. He goes from being "on a cross again" to "on top again," and he credits the woman with his transformation to feeling alive. But it sounds as if he's sucked the life out of her to get there—I always think of this as Daniel Ash's and Kevin Haskins's second vampire song, after Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead." At this point in the playlist it serves as a counter to the previous song's longing for life just out of reach; in this chapter Paul finds his voice, briefly, in retribution.
Screaming Trees, "Beyond This Horizon"
This chapter serves as a turning point, of sorts, a hinge in the middle of the book as Paul's stepkids leave home and he struggles with their coming journey into the unknown. The title alone makes this song apt, but its opening lines, too, capture the mood of transition: "Count the miles before they pass you by … Fill your head with everything you find." Probably more than any other band, the Screaming Trees is the one I associate with my life in college, especially their album Uncle Anesthesia, which I listened to obsessively my sophomore year. All I have to do is imagine the cinder block walls of my dorm room in Chapel Hill, and those opening chords come back to me, then the drums, and the sense of being lifted out of the life I'd known into one I could only just begin to imagine. Psychedelic grunge at its finest.
Digable Planets, "Where I'm From"
The cool jazz of early nineties hip-hop (as compared to the bebop of Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul), the Digables set a slow groove like no other, and this song—which comes from their first album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)—celebrates the peace and calm funkiness of the "projects, tenements, pyramids where I'm from." My five-year-old daughter loves this album, and on Saturday mornings we put it on and dance in the living room. The song sets the perfect mood for a chapter in which Paul encounters a heartbroken boy pining after his stepdaughter and grapples with his own sense of belonging twelve years after moving into his wife's suburban house.
Aimee Mann, "It's Not Safe"
Five years before the Magnolia soundtrack made her huge, Aimee Mann released I'm With Stupid, one of the best rock albums of the decade. "It's Not Safe" is the last track, an ode to being an outsider, "a fucking freak in this world / In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls," and a call for self-protection. I choose it specifically, though, for its opening lines: "All you want to do is something good / So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood." This might be Paul's motto, though he rarely tries very hard to do good; he spends more time imagining doing good than actually attempting it. In this chapter, however, he breaks out of his role as dreamy bystander and acts heroically. But of course no one notices.
The Sea and Cake, "The Argument"
I could listen to John McEntire's drumming all day, especially the crazy beats he lays down for the first two-plus minutes of this song, before the lyrics kick in. It sounds like five people are playing percussion, each with the lightest touch, and they're taking us in five different directions. The Sea and Cake is one of those great bands whose songs start to sound the same after you listen to three or four in a row, but the pleasure is in their subtle variations. "The Argument" has one of my very favorite lyrics in all of pop music: "I'm messing with the soul untied / And all it takes you is anywhere." There's so much possibility in that second line. "The Soul Untied" might make for a good alternate title for this chapter, whose name I took from another song lyric: "A Complete Unknown." At this point in the book Paul makes a big discovery, which both unnerves him and opens him up to new mystery—he's ready, almost, for life to take him anywhere.
Tom Waits, "Hold On"
Waits's loveliest ballad since Rain Dogs ("Time" and "Downtown Train" both still bring lumps to my throat), "Hold On" is about shattered dreams, the approaching abyss, and the connections that keep you from falling in. "You build it up, you wreck it down. You burn your mansion to the ground," Waits sings in a voice that sounds so fragile you think it might really give way this time and fray for good. But then his chorus comes in, offering up a life raft, battered but still afloat: "Take my hand, I'm standing right here! You got to hold on!" This is what I want to call out to Paul, who, now fifty-eight and unable to keep up with the times, is being pushed toward early retirement and a growing sense of his own purposelessness. To keep from despairing, he reaches out to a new friend who may or may not set him back on solid ground.
Sparklehorse, "It's a Wonderful Life"
I can't imagine a better song to close the playlist than this odd beauty, which opens with static and the plinking of a toy piano before Mark Linkous's high, whispery, almost sheepish voice announces itself: "I am the only one / Can ride that horse / Th'yonder." It's at once sad and celebratory, ironic and heartfelt, and it speaks to the conflict between desire and fear that rules Paul's every waking moment (and maybe my own). Now retired and facing a health scare that turns out to be fairly routine, Paul is more aware of his mortality and more alive to his own longing than ever before. And that's where we leave him, half-naked in front of a window, overcome with terror and love.
Scott Nadelson and Between You and Me links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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