January 28, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ed Tarkington's debut novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a moving and lyrical coming-of-age tale.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"This heartbreakingly effective coming-of-age story about the importance of love in one’s life is replete with moments of harsh cruelty and tender love. Beautifully written, it vividly brings to life its Southern characters, landscape, and small-town claustrophobia. Readers will stop and reread paragraphs, not because of confusion but for the pure joy of the language."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Inviting the author of a novel whose two main characters happen to be vintage vinyl enthusiasts to write an annotated playlist is sort of like asking Donald Trump to talk about himself. Naturally, the music that informs the lives of Rocky and Paul, the two brothers whose fraught journey from innocence into experience forms the central narrative of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, holds great significance to me as well, both with and far beyond the context of the novel. So I'll try to show some restraint.
The playlist business is a bit tricky for me. I'm an album guy—I still believe in putting a disc on the turntable, dropping the needle, and letting it play all the way through. To me, an album is like a novel; the high points and grace notes depend on your having been present for the whole party. Still, I've made a few mix tapes in my time, and my picks have many highlights, as you shall see.
After the Gold Rush by Neil Young
Paul Askew, the troubled, charismatic older brother of my novel's narrator, treats Neil Young as his lodestar. Paul's favorite album, After the Gold Rush, embodies the mournful mood of the 70s, when Paul and Rocky come of age. My novel's title is borrowed from track three, which I realized only as I was finishing the book had so completely infiltrated my imagination that the lyrics could be considered a synopsis: "When you were young/ and on your own,/ How did it feel/ to be alone?" This album took on another level of meaning for me in my mid-twenties. My dad had just died, I was about to wash out of graduate school, and the girl I loved had decided to marry someone else. So I put all my stuff in the back of my truck and drove out to Colorado to begin again, playing After the Gold Rush on repeat all the way from the Blue Ridge to the Rockies. No doubt, Neil's association with that experience led me to draw so heavily on songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" when I sat down to write my novel—so much so that I stole the title for my own.
The White Album by the Beatles
Since my beloved aunt gave me an original numbered copy of it for Christmas when I was ten, the White Album has been my desert-island #1. My narrator gets his nickname, Rocky, from his wayward older brother Paul, partially due to a faint resemblance to Sylvester Stallone (droopy eye, mop of curly dark hair), but also from "Rocky Raccoon." For the novel, however the critical bit of sound on this album, however, is the gibberish between "I'm So Tired" and "Blackbird," which, when played backwards, becomes "Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him."
Blue by Joni Mitchell
I came to Joni Mitchell late, thanks to one of those "get twenty CDs for a penny" record club deals we all used to fall for—usually more than once. The first time I played Blue—by myself, very loud, with the windows to my tiny cottage in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Charlottesville open in the cool twilight hours of late summer—I was immediately smitten with the girl on the cover, fragile and beautiful and sublimely gifted. My narrator Rocky's first love is his brother's girlfriend Leigh, whose long blond hair and troubled soul come straight out of the idea of Joni Mitchell wishing for a river to skate away on.
Number One Record by Big Star
I discovered ill-fated cult heroes Big Star through the Replacements, the band I most identified with when I was in high school, when a boy's operative modes of thought veer sharply between fury, mirth, defiance, and soul-searching. In Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Rocky tries to impress a girl in drama class with the classic teenage overture: a mix-tape. In the slate of classics the song "Thirteen" might be the best song ever written about young love and longing. So much of what my novel is about comes down to this one question: "Would you be an outlaw for my love?"
Let it Be by the Replacements
In the novel, Rocky and Paul are pretty indifferent to anything recorded after 1980, but the devil-may-care attitude of the Replacements infuses the character of Rocky's free-spirited pal Cinnamon Kintz. Cinnamon is based largely on my memory of a very cool older girl in my art class, on whom I formed a hopelessly unrequited crush when I was a lowly, awkward high school freshman. What Big Star's "Thirteen" is to young love, the Replacement's "Sixteen Blue" is to the loneliness, anxiety, and insecurity of adolescence—the desire to be seen and known, as well as the fear of it—something I recall all too well, and which drives young Rocky as he searches for his answers to the big questions.
The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies
Best known for a mesmerizing cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," The Trinity Session is really an early alt-country album. The band borrows from the likes of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings, but the hazy reverb of Michael Timmins' guitar and his sister Margot's mournfully angelic voice make those songs utterly their own, and got in my head like few things I've ever heard. The idea of a fragile beauty out walking after midnight informs both of my female leads, both damaged by men who were supposed to take care of them—as does the image of a wounded soul singing "Someday I'll get over you…but I'll always miss dreaming my dreams with you."
Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen
I was listening to Nebraska a lot in the years I was writing Only Love Can Break Your Heart. The song that played over and over in my head was "Highway Patrolman," in which a man describes seeing his beloved brother lose himself in booze and an urge to violence and is unable to save him from his demons. "Nothing feels better than blood on blood," Springsteen sings, proclaiming the irrevocable strength of family ties, in all of their beauty and terror.
The Wreckage by Will Hoge
My wife and I left Florida for Nashville just as the real estate market crashed. The starter home we'd expected to yield a nice down-payment on a new house plummeted in value and took nearly two years to sell. We had no friends and were living off the kindness of strangers. At our lowest point, we were living in an extended stay motel room with our five month-old daughter and our dog. A year later, we'd managed to get into a house in East Nashville, but were paying two mortgages and trying to raise a family on a fledgling teacher's salary. Around that time, I started hearing a song on the radio called "Even if it Breaks Your Heart." For a floundering writer feeling pretty desperate and starting to wonder if all the years of struggle had been a waste of time, Will Hoge's voice was like a cry in the dark. "Gotta keep believin' if you want to know for sure," he sang. Hoge knows a little something about persistence—he was still in a wheelchair when he wrote that song, recovering from a horrific scooter accident, happy to be alive but in desperate financial straits and unsure when he'd ever be able to perform again. Another year later, he was back out on the road; a year after, the Eli Young Band's cover of the song went to #1, and Hoge was nominated for a songwriting Grammy. No doubt, the message of that song and the comeback story behind it were in my mind when I started getting up at 3:30 in the morning every day to write the book that brought me here to you, dear reader. So keep on dreaming—even if it breaks your heart.
Ed Tarkington and Only Love Can Break Your Heart links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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