April 7, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Charles Bock's Alice & Oliver is a heartbreaking and profound novel about a young married couple.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A nail-biting suspense novel that plunges headfirst into a terrifying circumstance that sends a beautiful, vibrant young mother's life into a tailspin ... Loving and memorable... Bock tells a tale that holds a penetrating mirror to our worst fears."
Alice & Oliver takes place in late 1993 and runs through 1994. Here's albums, songs, and ideas that might be vaguely connected to the project. I listened to music from lots of time periods while I wrote, but it seemed right to do it this way:
Would this be considered the grunge bible? Is it more accurate to call it the ground zero point? Semantics aside, this is the truth right here. This album, a seventy-one minute compilation of 20 songs, came out in 1988 from a label in Seattle that nobody had ever really heard of. Sub Pop also had a single of the month club: you subscribed and every month they sent a seven inch pressing — the rumor always went that the label had no clue who was recording or what they had available, and this is why it was always a mystery as to what you'd receive. Apparently these albums were kind of the compilations of those singles. Or maybe they were based on submissions, friends' bands, whatever else was lying around the office. (Grunge Is Dead: An Oral History of Seattle Rock, by Greg Prato, gets into in this more detail). Some of the bands included on this particular compilation ended up moving the needle of our great cultural weathervane — pre-Grohl Nirvana, with Cobain's voice is strong and clear and then pained), Green River (future members of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney), and yes Mudhoney, too, along with rockabilly and acoustic and riot grrrl and spoken worders. For the longest time kids went into record stores and tried to rip off pressings of Sub Pop 200; by then they'd been placed behind front counters. Of course this was when there were still record stores.
My late wife, Diana Colbert, was like so many young women who came of age in the nineties in that she loved and took inspiration from the strong righteous indie chick doing it for herself, the genius songstress with that elegant breastplate tattoo; the guitar goddess; the spiritual force that was and is. Ani now has been a touchstone figure in our culture for a quarter of a century; as college radio and DIY culture somehow morphed into an alternative and then Etsy-type of world, Ani somehow has made it into our collective DNA, strong, vulnerable, introspective, shocking, righteous, redefining, for the millionth time, what it means to be a babe. This song is not from her early years, but more of the late early years. Diana listened to it a lot during her two and a half years of illness. I have so many pictures of her from that time; most show her holding our infant daughter; almost every single one shows her glowing with happiness. I think of her bedridden from chemotherapies and radiation and a first and then a second bone marrow transplant; I see the serenity in her face while she sat and listened to visiting friends. I imagine her alone, in the dark, struggling, listening to these lyrics, finding solace, inspiration, and maybe a path. It just kills me:
i am cancer
i am HIV
and i'm down at the blue jesus
blue cross hospital
just lookin' up from my pillow
Chris Rock/ Shaquille O'Neal/ Biggie Smalls: "Can't Stop the Reign"
The January 11, 1994 Village Voice, however, features a music review by Chris Rock, yes that one. Pages 71-2 don't have the comedian reviewing Nas, Biggie, Outkast, Common, or any of the other albums which have come to define 1994 as one of the seminal years in hip hop. Rather, Rock takes on the first album from basketball star and pitchman Shaquille O'Neal. Yup. Shaq Diesel! The Voice's archives haven't yet been transferred on-line, which is a pity for untold reasons. But don't worry, readers of Largehearted Boy! Your humble servant has transcribed a good chunk of the opening paragraphs of that review. (Thank me by ordering my novel here). Rock's comedic rhythms and voice translates to the page strongly enough that you can all but hear his stand-up act:
Well, finally we have it. Finally there's a rapper out there that can back up all the shit he pops. A rapper that has as much money as he says he does. A rapper that really might have a Jacuzzi in his jeep. Who might that rapper be? Shaquille O'Neal of course. In today's rap climate, credibility has become almost as important as a phat beat. You can have the best sounding record on the street but if people don't believe you are who you say you are, you don't have shit. Credibility is not a problem Shaquille O'Neal's gonna have. You see, Shaq claims to be a rapper that plays basketball very well, and you know what? I believe him.
The other day a friend of mine showed me a picture of Dr. Dre wearing a jumpsuit with his face covered in makeup. I'm talking real make-up — eyeliner, lipstick — my man looked like a model for Crayola. The sight of this hurt me deeply… Now I still think Dr. Dre is the best producer in the biz, but if that picture gets around any more, his core audience will be RuPaul fans. But about the worst thing that could happen to Shaquille is we find a picture of Danny Ainge dunking in his face — I don't think so. Like I said before, Shaq is probably the most believable rapper there is. For instance, when Eazy-E says he's got a big dick, you look at how short he is and say, "Nigger please." But if Shaq were to say he had a big dick, you'd say, "Nigger, please don't hit me with your big dick."
It is both copacetic and normal for for a black comedian —whose comedy deals in race to — to throw some heat while reviewing a rap album in the music section of a lefty arts and culture rage, it's also safe to say that today, no website would let a reviewer toss around that word. It was a different era, obviously, and there are untold reasons this column couldn't happen now — the main one being the capacity for hyperlinked outrage. Nonetheless, page 71 of the 1/11/94 Voice happened to be an innocuous place for this piece to nestle. (Twenty plus years later, I'm one of the only people who seems to possess even a gawking, that's kinda cool, interest in it.) It's worth noting: Rock was no icon in early 1994. He was a rising, strong working comedians, a dude who'd perform sets on most if not all late night talk shows; having spent a season in the cast of Saturday Night Live, but was probably best known for his role as that crackhead wearing the American flag shirt in New Jack City. For our purposes, what matters is that Rock was coming off a year where he'd written, produced, and starred in an indie film, a faux documentary about gangsta rap called CB4. Why does it matter? Because his co-writer for the film was none other than Nelson George, one of the Voice's longtime music critics.
It's easy to imagine Nelson George convincing Rock to write something, just to see if he'd enjoy giving it a shot. The piece suggests Rock did enjoy himself; it's every bit as funny as a fan (me) would expect, and also every bit as smart. To wit, his point that because of endorsements and his public persona, "Shaq is probably the only rapper that would make less money if he went hard."
The album? Rock says it's decent, which he credits to the all the hip-hop stars who made cameos. Hey, did you know that Biggie Smalls appeared on a track? Now you do. Here's the video:
Alice Culvert, the main character, in Alice & Oliver, is one of the faceless fashion designers who hustles around downtown Manhattan, eking out a living from freelance gig to gig without having her own label, or health insurance. She and her husband Oliver live in an illegal loft that he renovated in the meatpacking district, back when it was still full of meat lockers, eighteen wheelers, after-hour clubs, and transvestite hookers. This seems like a song she would have loved. She'd have dragged Oliver, or some other friend, onto the dance floor for this.
I warn you. If cornered. I'll scratch my way out of this pen. This primal, gutshot of a song sonically captures — as much as any song can — what it's like to be trapped inside your own pain. In Alice & Oliver, Oliver Culvert watches his wife go through the hell of her disease, as well as the hell of her treatments. I think that anyone watching a loved one suffer feels a huge amount of personal guilt. Watching is tremendously hard, though there is still one thing that is worse, the one place you cannot travel, and you feel guilt about this. (You feel relief, too, but then guilt about that selfish relief). The plugged in version of What Jail is Like might be the more primal take of the song, because the acoustic version never loses control in the way that I find to be key to this song's greatness; that back electric swell where it all gets to be too much has no replication in the acoustic version. But the acoustic version has its own stripped beauty a haunting largeness, its empty spaces becoming spectral.
Also, the story of the acoustic version has a wacky nostalgic bent! The version you've been linked to was recorded on February 22, 1994, for an English talk show, The John Peel Show. I learned this from zooming into focus on the back sleeve for an untitled 10 inch record on Ebay. The compilation consisted of five songs by five bands (Whigs, Magic Donut, The Earls of Suave, Mondo Patty, and of course, Empress of Fur). The listings page where I found this stuff claims there were just 1,500 pressings of the record; however, the album sleeve claims double that number. Whatever; the only reason anyone knows this version of the song exists is, someone uploaded it to YouTube. Our dear archivist also was kind enough to include a photo montage for the Afghan Whigs, and the cover of their cobbled together album of B-sides and rarities called Now We Can Begin. Only, this song isn't on that album. For those young males in the nineties who had some kind of tertiary involvement with the friendly pissing contests and hierarchical games that were rare track collecting, owning this particular ten inch compilation would have been a score and an accomplishment. Today, though, you just type some words into YouTube. Is this the flattening of culture, or capturing it for expert curation? Progress or its opposite or both at the same time? Is it just an acoustic version of a very good song that people don't listen to so much any more? This is what jail is like.
I seem to remember lots bands doing covers in concert during the eighties, but in retrospect, usually, these were bands with just one album, as a way to flesh out their setlist. In the nineties, though, it became a thing, especially with alternative bands, you went after deep cuts, that is, performing or recording beloved songs that lay hidden deep in album listings. Showing your knowledge and/or range sort of became a matter of cred. (In a few years, the douches of Limp Bizkit would perform their particular brand of douchery on this trend, and and drive it straight into mulch). What follows is from the good times; it's the Boston-based band Fuzzy covering a deep, not-very-well-known track by the Beach Boys. Where the original has a clean creepiness that may or may not be intentional, in this cover, the blurred guitars and effect of a female lead on vocals make the song, to this listener, harder to actually interpret, but in a good way, a way that actually makes me want to pay attention. It so happens that the band's drummer, David Ryan — formerly of The Lemonheads — is a top-tier writer of short stories, and he's spent the last twenty years wrestling with questions of intention and form. Ryan's fiction borders on experimental; however, unlike so many who play with form, he's not wacky, being absurd for the sake of absurdity, or using his ventures as an excuse to avoid psychological depth. Ryan is more in the lineage of Barry Hannah, or Denis Johnson: he takes the hard stuff on. Sometimes this leaves us with those big questions, on the ledge. The view is often strange, sometimes uncomfortable, and always astonishing. Ryan's short story collection Animals in Motion, is one of my favorites of recent years. Click the song link. Check out the writer.
My wife asked for this song to be played at her memorial ceremony, so that all of her friends and loved ones could listen to it and know how much they meant to her, and how much she loved them. This is the heart that powered me to write a very difficult novel. I can't actually listen to the song all the way through without breaking down. Just the same, I still listen to it, sometimes. Please listen to it yourself, if you can, right now, and think of someone that you love, and appreciate the gift that is their presence.
Charles Bock and Alice & Oliver links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)