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May 5, 2016

Book Notes - Dylan Hicks "Amateurs"


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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dylan Hicks' second novel Amateurs is one of the most fun books I have read all year, an unforgettable coming of age story.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"An improbable and wildly enjoyable mix of a comedy of manners, a road-trip story, and a slacker coming-of-age tale. Hicks manages to turns what could easily have made readers stumble—multiple protagonists in multiple time lines—into a winning narrative style. . . . Though the story lines themselves are engaging, it is Hicks’ ear for dialogue, humor, and detail that makes the novel shine."

In his own words, here is Dylan Hicks's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Amateurs:

The narrator of my first novel referenced old country forty-fives, jazz pianists, Joni Mitchell lyrics, and invented one-hits wonders with perhaps compulsive frequency. Had it not been for his faultless taste, I would have reined him in. For my new novel, written in the third person from several vantages, I initially tried to avoid music altogether, just as I've often tried to suppress my intimidating command of higher mathematics. After a while I decided that self-denial might be more pernicious than repetition, and I see now that a playlist of music I couldn't keep myself from mentioning or alluding to in the book could be twice as long as what's below.

The Incredible String Band, "The First Girl I Loved"

Of the book's principal characters, the one to whom I feel closest is an employee-benefits specialist and onetime actor named Karyn Bondarenko. For several years she's been working privately and without ambition on a play whose protagonist is a supporting member of a Scottish psych-folk group patterned after the Incredible String Band. The ISB was led jointly by the strange and at times mystical Robin Williamson and the somewhat more straightforward Mike Heron. Their music has a sort of sylvan (or gnomeish) mystery about it, and is one of hippie eccentricity's purest expressions. Much of it was world music avant la lettre; this tune, among other things, is a braid of British balladry, blues riffs, and scales probably picked up on Williamson's travels in Morocco. The best version, from The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967, but maybe the title gives that away), is played in an open guitar tuning that lets lots of bass notes sound fatly just above F, along with other rich stuff in the low end: drones from what must be Williamson on bowed gimbri, and characteristically expressive playing by the upright bassist Danny Thompson. Judy Collins's interpretation, recorded a year later, is more conventionally played and arranged but also excellent and, of course, gorgeously sung. Carolyn Swiszsz, who did the artwork for Amateurs, took cues from the cover of the String Band's '68 album, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.

J Dilla, "Waves"

An extended period of underemployment has forced the novel's Lucas Pope to sell all his DJ equipment. He now sometimes pauses to look back wistfully on certain artful cross-fades. Like a lot of hip-hop heads, he idolizes the late producer J Dilla, whose swan song, Donuts, was a set of thirty-one sometimes fragmentary instrumentals largely recorded in the hospital and released days before Dilla died of a rare blood disorder in 2006. The track's key samples estrange and lend sincere gravity to 10cc's "Johnny, Don't Do It," a parody of the teenage drag-strip tragedies of the fifties and sixties.

John Zorn, "Poverty (Once Upon a Time in America)"

This comes from Zorn's 1986 album, The Big Gundown, on which he arranges, refracts, and otherwise pays tribute to the music of film composer Ennio Morricone. I've picked it because it features the Belgian harmonicist, guitarist, and siffleur Toots Thielemans, whose music plays in the background of one of the novel's scenes. Here, Thielemans is joined by harpist Carol Emanuel and accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Their spare, delicate rendition drifts to us through alley-facing windows after passing between dusty fan blades; it makes the film version seem decadently orchestrated.

Miranda Lambert, "Bathroom Sink"

Karyn is at one point seen wearing a Miranda Lambert T-shirt, and though this song was released a few years after the novel's action wraps up, for me it best represents the loneliness and fortitude I had in mind for the character. Lambert is convincing in a variety of modes; this is her doing the Rolling Stones by way of Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams and some extra sheen. In its commitment to loudness as a salve for depression, it also reminds me of Hüsker Dü.

The Guess Who, "Shakin' All Over"

Karyn's cousin Archer, a Winnipeg-bred writer of vast independent means, tends to drive the book's plot, so in deference to him—and to a reference that didn't survive the novel's final draft—I'll throw in the first hit by Winnipeg's the Guess Who. Their arrangement of "Shakin' All Over" departs only slightly from the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates original, but despite some undercutting burlesque screams at the end, it's a more assured and in all respects louder performance, particularly from guitarist Randy Bachman's whammy bar.

John Adams, "Christian Zeal and Activity," performed by the San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor

Adams is briefly mentioned when someone misattributes his Nixon in China to Philip Glass, irritating another of the book's characters, the generally punctilious Sara Crennel. "Christian Zeal and Activity" is part of a larger piece, American Standard, a 1973 triptych calling for the incorporation of found sound. This 1986 version loops and reconfigures a recording of a sermon drawn from the story, in Mark, of the Sabbath healing of a man with a withered hand. It's in the tradition, then, of It's Gonna Rain, the 1965 piece Steve Reich built from tapes of the street preacher Brother Walter. Here, though, the preacher's musical delivery is an additive element lending ambiguous tension to stretched-out, hymnal chords and slowly building harmonies.

Craig Mack, "Flava In Ya Ear" (remix featuring Notorious B.I.G., Rampage, L.L. Cool J, and Busta Rhymes); TLC, "Creep"

Lucas blasts this in the car with Karyn and her preadolescent son, Maxwell. I miss some lines from Craig Mack's album version ("you're crazy like that glue"), but the remix has some well-loved verses, especially Biggie's. For its insistent simplicity, the two-note keyboard riff that runs through Easy Mo Bee's production reminds me of the synth-trumpet that sings out E-flat, or rises from C to E-flat, on TLC's "Creep," another great single from 1994. Your hook only needs two notes, if you know where to put 'em.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, "My Block/Be Real Black for Me"

Lucas and his onetime bike-frame builder, John Anderson, catch the Robert Glasper Trio at the Village Vanguard. As it happened, a few days before I turned in a revision of the novel, I saw Glasper give a duet concert with Jason Moran, a fellow Houston-born jazz pianist. One of the highlights was their nostalgic interpretation of Houston rapper Scarface's "My Block," whose musical foundation is a pitched-up soul-jazz sample from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's "Be Real Black for Me."

Laura Nyro, "Blackpatch"

Experimental pop-soul from the brilliant writer and intrepid singer Laura Nyro, to whom one of the book's older characters once alludes. I picked up a battered copy of Nyro's first record when I was a teenager, but I didn't really delve into her music till after I was very familiar with Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Steely Dan, and other artists she influenced. For a few weeks I spent a lot of time by my stereo thinking, Oh, that's where they got that!

LCD Soundsystem, "Home"

The above-mentioned John Anderson once attends a party where he nearly meets "the guy from LCD Soundsystem," which of course is a terrible story. John was more socially active when the group's early records were coming out—"Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" and some of those—but this invitation to pensive dancing is more in the book's spirit. I'm also drawn to it as an answer to Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," my all-time favorite love song.

Mike Heron, "Flowers of the Forest"

One shouldn't let an artist make more than one appearance on a mixtape, even a theoretical one, but since the Incredible String Band turn up throughout the book, I'll make an exception for this tune from Mike Heron's 1971 solo album, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. Karyn and her cousin Archer enthuse over "Flowers in the Forest" toward the end of the book, and they're right: it's a transportingly romantic song. Heron sings with high emotion at the upper limits of his range, and he gets loping, dynamically shifting support from A-squad British folk-rockers: Richard Thompson plays lead guitar pretty much throughout the song but never gets in the way; String Band member Rose Simpson knows just when to follow Heron's melody up the fretboard of her bass; and drummer Dave Mattacks is loaded with elegant fills and offbeat accents. "It's gonna be all right," Heron sings at one point, and as when Bob Marley issues a similar assurance, you believe him.

Dylan Hicks and Amateurs links:

the author's website

Atticus Review review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Boarded Windows
Largehearted Boy interview with the author

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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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