October 27, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Elisa Gabbert's vivid and fully realized poetry collection L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems was inspired a character in Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner.
In 2013, I played the part of Judy in a small, private production of Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, which tells the story of the dissolution of a marriage during a time of violent political unrest and upheaval in a fictional country. L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems is a book of persona poems based on this character and the inner life I imagined for her, meant to represent a kind of diaristic interior monologue.
My relationship to music has changed since I created my last playlist for Largehearted Boy, to accompany my first book, The French Exit, in 2010. My music life was much more intentional then. These days, I barely keep up with music and rarely buy it. Days might go by where I listen to nothing. But it’s not rare for me to get obsessed with a particular song and listen to it over and over, until it plays on a loop in my head while I shower and during my insomnia. Doing so creates a latching effect, a memory hook, such that when I hear the song again later, I remember where I was in space and time in the midst of my prior obsession. Similarly, because the Judy poems are narrative, they each have a setting in my mind – usually a place in the real world where I imagine the not-real events of the poem to have taken place, almost like false (or at least alternate) memories.
The following are some of the songs that briefly obsessed me during the years that I was working on the play and on the book. (Note: These are mostly sad songs, but it’s mostly a sad book.)
“Love or Prison” by Blonde Redhead
I first heard this long, smoky, sultry song in a car at night, the ideal time and place to first hear a song. I seem to feel most wistful near a window (I remember reading that Natalie Portman had a boyfriend who called her “Moscow,” when she would look out the window in a Chekhovian way as though thinking of Moscow), and in a car one is surrounded by windows, which of course become semi-reflective at night. Reflective = introspective. (Judy: “You can’t read in a bar / without seeing yourself reading: / in the half-silvered glass // in the eyes of the women / who see you looking at them too –”)
“Intro” – The XX
This little instrumental track is so named because it’s the first on the album – but heard on its own, doesn’t it lend an air of mystery? Intro to what? Recently I’ve started to appreciate introductions to books as a genre of their own; I swear the Jacob Needleman introduction to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition of the Tao Te Ching is better than the Tao Te Ching. With many nonfiction books, it’s almost all you need to read. Not so with the intro to L’Heure Bleue, but it nicely explains how the poems developed out of the play.
“Perfume” – Britney Spears
Britney’s love songs never seem to have much cultural impact, but I find this one quite poignant in its vulnerability. It once led me to a meditation on the necessity of songs about secrets (“I’ll never tell”) being, in essence, persona poems – as another example, take Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You.” If Patsy Cline were identical to the “speaker” of the lyrics, she couldn’t very well record and put out the song – it would give her away. This adds a delicate extra layer of artifice.
“Don’t You Want Me” – Rocky Votolato and Matt Pond PA
I love covers that force you to rethink the song. The original Human League recording makes the titular lyric sound aggressive, even threatening, but here, rendered acoustic, with more tender harmonies, the central question (“Don’t you want me, baby?”) feels sincerely pleading. (Love songs that assume a position of absolute pathetic subjugation are my favorite.)
“Every Time the Sun Comes Up” – Sharon van Etten
I like how, in this not particularly slow song, the lyrics in the verses are dragged out so slowly, lullingly, with a pause after almost every syllable: “IIII – waaaashed – yoooour – diiiish – izzzz – but I – shiiiit – in your – baaaath – rooooom.” She sort of romanticizes pain, a very Judy thing to do (at least my version of Judy).
“Amy” – Ryan Adams
I recently went on a “poetry walk” with a group of Denver poets, where we read poems that were associated with particular Denver locations. I associate several Judy poems with Cheesman Park, either because I thought of the lines while running in the park, or because I imagine the park as their setting (as in “A little drunk in the park with Jack”). This song, too, I associate with Cheesman, especially in late spring/early summer when the lindens bloom. The little hiccuppy break in his voice when he sings “flowers in the love of my arms” kills me.
“Tangerine” – Led Zeppelin
Here’s another song where the intonation of a single phrase just breaks my heart – it’s the near-aside of “and I do” at the end of the second verse. But I also love the straining, strung-out birdcall of “betweeeeeeeen.”
“Silver Springs” – Fleetwood Mac
Remember what I said about desperate love songs? Judy is an abandoned/betrayed character, and this song represents a double betrayal: It’s about a jilting, but in addition, the song was needlessly axed from Rumours and relegated to a B side – and later, Mick Fleetwood would not allow Stevie Nicks to put the song (which she wrote) on her greatest hits album. For shame!!
“My Funny Valentine” – Ella Fitzgerald
I don’t listen to jazz very often, but Judy does: “Nostalgia is the only cure / for nostalgia – // listen to old jazz singers, / remember old lovers, // literally ad nauseam. / That’ll show me.” I include this for her; just the thing for padding around the house half-dressed, in red lipstick, on a gloomy Sunday.
“Blood of Eden” – Regina Spektor
I don’t know what the hell this song (a Peter Gabriel cover) means, but I find the obsessive repetition (and inversions) in the chorus very pleasing and pantoum-y:
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
With the man in the woman and the woman in the man
In the blood of Eden lie the woman and the man
We wanted the union oh the union of the woman, the woman and the man
“Vrbanja Bridge” – Jill Sobule
I was reminded of the existence of this little folk-pop song from the ‘90s when I read Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, which mentions the famous couple (dubbed Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo in one documentary), she a Bosnian Muslim and he a Bosnian Serb, shot by snipers while trying to cross the aforementioned bridge (they had been assured protection). No one would take responsibility for the shooting, and the bodies lay on the bridge for days. (I hope you’ll read the play to learn how Judy meets her end.)
“All Waters” - Perfume Genius
This reminds me powerfully of the Enya song that plays near the end of LA Story, during the scene where a storm rolls in and the plane can’t take off. It has that same feeling of a holy, epic summoning. And note, again, the connection to perfume – I love perfume, and L’Heure Bleue contains several perfume references.
Elisa Gabbert and L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems 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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