March 8, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jonathan Lee's novel High Dive is a vivid and compassionate retelling of the 1984 IRA assassination attempt of Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet.
KIrkus wrote of the book:
"Lee’s writing has a marked freshness, his pacing and dialogue are exceptional, and every scene is deftly handled. This is a real craftsman at work."
My novel High Dive is set in England in 1984 and revolves around a real attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. I got up early each day to write for a few hours. In breaks between paragraphs I'd listen to popular songs from ‘84. It started out as a way to relieve the oppressive silence of my own sad attempts at eloquence, but I started to think it was also a way of accessing a certain atmosphere, one that history books and cold facts alone maybe wouldn't let me in on. I felt I was tapping into music my characters might have half-heard as they moved through their daily lives. I was hearing voices from the past, sometimes garish, sometimes deadpan, sometimes aggressively sentimental, sometimes slapstick, sometimes post-punk sweet. They were little moments of recorded emotion.
I hope that some of the music of 1984 started to make its way into my sentences in High Dive, the different tones the novel tries to accommodate in its portrayal of events in England in that year. E. L. Doctorow once said that "the historian will tell you what happened, but the novelist will tell you what it felt like." That seems like a good thing to aim for, and perhaps it's why Doctorow listened to rags constantly while he was writing Ragtime. He must have hoped that music, which my dictionary defines with accidental beauty as "the art of sound in time," could help him access the inner rhythm of an era.
"Relax" — Frankie Goes To Hollywood
High Dive is set in Brighton, a town that became the center of gay culture in England in the 80s and 90s. The vibrancy of the gay rights movement is captured perfectly in Frankie's "Relax," a song that intentionally courted controversy. The band approved print ads that featured images of one of them in a sailor cap and leather vest, and another with a shaved head and rubber gloves, accompanied by the phrase "ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN" and the declaration "Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming ... making HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duran_Duran" Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes ..." BBC Radio banned the song from its shows in '84. It duly climbed from number 67 in the UK charts to number 1.
"People are People" — Depeche Mode
This was the band's first big American success—not even "Just Can't Get Enough" managed to find its way onto the Billboard Hot 100—and unlike many songs from the early 80s, it was willing to address issues of race and religion. When, in their semi-comic monotone, the band sang "People are people / So why should it be / You and I should get along so awfully," I reckon they captured, deliberately or not, some essence of Thatcherite Britain, its riots, its privatizations, its divisions, and perhaps even the blind eye turned on Apartheid abroad. It's not a particularly subtle song, but there's something interesting in its central idea that if you're unfairly accused of doing awful things, as many Catholics in Belfast were in the 80s, you might end up doing awful things as a sort of wish-fulfillment—a way to wear your own label authentically and shrug off your victimhood.
"So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" — R.E.M
I remember lying on my bed as a teenager listening to this song several years after it came out. The CD of the album, Reckoning, came with a book of lyrics, and I used to love that—being able to access the song as a poem as well as an auditory experience. Like all myopic teenagers everywhere, I marveled at how the songwriter had seen right into the heart of what I was feeling. How did he know I was lovesick? How did he know that I was having trouble communicating with this girl? It seemed unbelievable that Michael Stipe could capture the nature of my own entirely original emotions.
"Thatcher's Fortress" — The Varukers
There were a lot of protest songs against Margaret Thatcher in '84, but none faster and louder than this one. The song is a scream, a fairly senseless one at times, and a reminder that art can be angry and ugly and still get across a sense of longing. It's not a protest song I'd want to listen to twice in a row — for that I'd stick to Morrissey's "Margaret on the Guillotine" or Elvis Costello's slyly ballad-like Thatcher revenge fantasy "Tramp The Dirt Down," but there's something about its rawness that I admire.
"Borderline" — Madonna
There's a 17 year-old girl in my novel called Freya who sits behind the reception desk at The Grand Hotel, dreaming of being in a Madonna music video. I'm tempted to say this song only appears on the playlist because of her, but the truth is it's just an awesome song. In High Dive, I was writing about borders of different kinds—geographical, emotional. The title of this song gave me the excuse I needed to listen ...
"1984" — David Bowie
I'm cheating here. This song was released in the 70s, on Bowie's Diamond Dogs album, but it mingles the political and personal in the way you might expect for a piece of music inspired by Orwell's novelistic projection of what 1984 might be like. The song was released as a single in America, but failed to chart. Supposedly Bowie used it to open most of his gigs for a while, then dropped it entirely from his set-lists after '75. I liked the idea that it might stand as a kind of abandoned song, a fringe story in the larger story of Bowie's music, because High Dive is also about fringe narratives—the personal stories that exist at the edges of more media-worthy events.
"2 Minutes To Midnight" — Iron Maiden
This song is supposedly about the cold war and how close we got to "midnight"—a term used at the time to mean nuclear holocaust. The cheesy, indulgent high tension of the guitar solos is my favorite 80s thing here. It's another song that mingles the personal and the political and creates a sense of impending catastrophe. It captures something of the righteous anger of the time, I think, and the performative aspect of protest—the need not just to speak out, but to be heard.
"Nobody Told Me" — John Lennon
I have no idea what this song is really about, but it sounds like an ode to Lennon's lost privacy. Originally written with the intention of appearing on a Ringo Star solo album, it was released by Yoko Ono in '84, four years after Lennon's death. "Nobody told me there'd be days like these," Lennon sings, and I had those words come from the mouth of one of my characters in early drafts of High Dive. Some lyrics just stick in the mind. They take on a quality of truth. There's an infectious simplicity that seems to hide a complexity. Elsewhere in the song, there are references to the poem "The Eye Of The Little Yellow God" by J. Milton Hayes—verses that reveal the story of a guy in Nepal who removes the "green eye" of a "yellow god" (the emerald, perhaps, in a gold statue) and ends up, like Lennon, murdered.
"State Of Shock" — The Jacksons, feat. Mick Jagger
Thriller broke all existing sales records in the early part of 1984, and later in the year Michael Jackson and his brothers had their final major hit as a group with this song, "State Of Shock," featuring Mick Jagger. I played this a few times when I was writing scenes in which my character Freya falls into a teenage infatuation. Something about the song captures, with humor and a touch of upbeat tenderness, the earnest absurdity of those obsessive relationships we all have as teenagers. "Look at me," Jagger repeats over and over at the end of the song, sounding increasingly creepy.
"Purple Rain" — Prince
1984 brought us at least two good songs about rain, that most over-used of literary symbol for bad and sad news. The other is "Here Comes The Rain Again" by the Eurythmics. I like that Prince fans have been trying to work out the meaning of this song for decades. Is it about the end of the world, or the end of a life, or simply the end of a relationship? It's definitely about the end of something.
Jonathan Lee and High Dive links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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