November 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rich Ferguson's debut novel New Jersey Me is dark, lyrical, and wonderfully entertaining.
Aimee Bender wrote of the book:
"Lively, full of heart, and fun to read— New Jersey Me covers a rough stretch in a young man's life with a light and generous hand. In Mark, his protagonist and our guide, Ferguson builds a consistently appealing and engaging narrator."
In its purest sense, New Jersey Me is a coming-of-age story. Set amidst the backdrop of a troubled South Jersey coastal town, Mark McDaniel lives life Blackwater-style: netting fish that have been killed by sudden coldwater emissions from the nuclear plant; kidnapping a chimp from the local circus; selling dirty socks to a local eccentric who may hold the key to his escape; dating a one-legged girl; and observing the increasingly mysterious behavior of his best friend, Jimmy.
Throughout Mark's journey, music plays a significant role, wears different faces at different times. It serves as a form of rebellion, medication, and more. Early on in the novel, Mark reveals one of music's key roles in his life:
"I used to refer to my music as my sonic walls, the way that sound would rise all around me—thunderous drums, thumping bass, wailing guitars…my music shielded me from the outside world."
As for Mark's best friend, Jimmy—he can't get enough of Stevie Nicks. Since he rarely ventures beyond his basement room, Jimmy adopts Stevie as his girlfriend, muse, and the soothing soundtrack to his troubled life. His dad, Mr. Gigliotti, relies on Bessie Smith to be his touchstone for all that is soulful in a lackluster town. Mark's friend, Dawn Dixon, adores Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, thinks the DKs kicked ass with D.H. Peligro, and wants "Amazing Grace" played at her funeral. Even the kidnapped circus chimp, Mr. Jeepers, has a favorite song—"Spirit in the Sky".
Not only is "Spirit in the Sky" Mr. Jeepers' favorite song, it is also one very near and dear to my heart. I continually referred to it for inspiration while writing the book. This song is also Mark's favorite; the one he wants played at his funeral. When Mark and Jimmy first observe Mr. Jeepers' fascination with the track, here's how Mark explains his own connection to it:
"…there were so many appealing things about that song—the trippy guitars, the Stovall Sisters' high-flying background vocals, its elements of blues, folk, gospel, and psychedelic rock. Not only did it reference the afterlife, but also the idea of finding redemption, getting clean in this life…In his own way, maybe Mr. Jeepers was feeling all those things, too. Far better than that, though, perhaps he was hearing that song like I was hearing it that night in the basement. Why wait till I'm dead to go to the place that's the best. I wanted to discover it while I was still alive."
One of Jimmy's favorite pastimes is to cue up his Stevie Nicks Bella Donna record, play "Edge of Seventeen", then stop the record with a finger, and spin it backwards to search out hidden messages. The disc is littered with fingerprints from so many years of abuse. The song scratches on his crappy Sears record player, warbles through the speakers. Still, Jimmy can't get enough of Stevie, or that song: Well, I went today / Maybe I will go again / Tomorrow, yeah, yeah / Well, the music there / Well it was hauntingly familiar / When I see you doin' / What I try to do for me.
In a way, Mark and Patti Smith are kindred spirits. Both hail from similar parts of Jersey. Both are dreamers. Both realized the dead-end nature of their surroundings, and sought escape—Patti to New York City, Mark to California. This particular passage of Patti Smith's driving meditation sums up Mark's relationship to music and Blackwater: Sometimes I feel like I've broken through / And I'm free and I could dig into eternity / Into eternity riding the wave / And realm of the E / Sometimes it's useless.
Cancer-causing agents—cigarettes and Blackwater's nuclear power plant—pervade the novel. They cast a poisonous gloom; wreak havoc with Mark's life, and the lives of those he loves. This song—primarily composed of piano and Bessie Smith's achingly gorgeous voice—plays at a moment when Mark and Mr. Gigliotti discuss their poisonous demons.
Springsteen's 1973 debut studio album, Greetings From Asbury Park, was the first Bruce record I ever owned. In fact, this record's iconic cover art inspired the cover for my novel. And while I absolutely love the lyrical play of Track 1—"Blinded by the Light"—it's this song's words that best sum up Mark's life: I was open to pain and crossed by the rain / and I walked on a crooked crutch / I strolled all alone through a fallout zone / came out with my soul untouched / I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd / when they said, "Sit down," I stood up / Ooh...growin' up…
Callie is a sad, sweet-voiced girl Mark has known since elementary. In ninth grade, Callie loses part of a leg in a car crash. And while Mark talks a mean game of sex, Callie is the one with which he loses his virginity as a senior. Here's how Mark describes Callie as they're sitting on the beach prior to that moment:
"She kept staring at the ocean. Had her head turned in a way so I couldn't see the scar on her face. That flawless side of Callie was the side I'd imagined she'd always wanted in life. The Callie of Purity and Promise. The Callie of Unblemished Porcelain Skin. Then she turned back to me, and I, once again, witnessed the Callie I so admired: The Callie of Damage and Dignity. The Callie of the Huge Heart, Wobbly Walk, and Off-Kilter Smile…"
For a character filled with such beauty and quiet charm, wisdom and vulnerability, this song is Callie's melodic doppelgänger.
I'll once again leave it to Mark to describe another woman in his life, Baby:
"…She was everything I'd ever wanted in a girl—the intersection of Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett. The exponentiation of every rebel girl I'd seen on TV after-school specials about drug or alcohol abuse. Had she given a shit about hanging out at the lake during the summer, she would've ruled the Third. For she was mind-numbing, heart-pounding, quadraphonic rock-n-roll cranked to ten…"
While Mark occasionally quotes Springsteen, his musical tastes are varied—punk, indie rock, hard rock. Deep Purple's searing "Highway Star" orchestrates a pivotal moment in the novel when he has a run-in with one of his great enemies—Satan's Tree.
"I heard the silences between each vocal growl, drum fill, and guitar riff blaring over my stereo. I wanted to be that song. Wanted to be that Highway Star. I flashed Satan's Tree the finger. Yelled, "Fuck you." Then I slammed on the brakes, spun the wheel, and did all I could to avoid it. But it was no good."
Not only does another one of Mark's great enemies—Terry—mention this band's lead singer as a kindred soul when it comes to having a death wish, the song's opening lyrics perfectly encapsulate life in Blackwater:
Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down / They're going to destroy / Our casual joys / We shall go on playing / Or find a new town.
"White Punks on Dope" – The Tubes
This forward-thinking San Francisco-based band combined media satire, politics, consumerism, and quasi-porn. Their debut album, The Tubes, featured this song, which has been described as an "absurd anthem of wretched excess." Such a perfect record album cover in which Jimmy stores his latest stash of homegrown weed.
This song contains such a wounding beauty, how it perfectly blends high-chiming acoustic guitar with Paul Westerberg's heart-breaking, on-the-verge-of-collapse vocals. Not only does it sonically mirror Mark's life, Westerberg's lyrics specifically call out his loneliness and desperation: And everybody wants to be special here / They call your name out loud and clear / Here comes a regular / Call out your name / Here comes a regular / Am I the only one here today?
Like "Here Comes a Regular", this song begins with just an acoustic guitar and voice. It is both vulnerable and an unadulterated, balls-out anthem to alienation. Mark mentions this song periodically throughout the book. There's a reason for that. Sadly, this song sums up his relationship with his mom: How I wish, how I wish you were here / We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / What have we found? / The same old fears / Wish you were here.
Because Mark and other characters spend so much time in their cars—joyriding, going on dates, crashing into Satan's Tree—this sonic journey needs a badass driving song. It's said that Iggy Pop wrote "The Passenger" while riding the S-Bahn in Berlin. The album was recorded during a self-imposed "exile" where Iggy and Bowie sought to rid themselves of their drug habits The song's lyrics reflect a punk, loner, nomadic spirit threaded throughout the book.
No musical tour of Blackwater would be complete without this raucous party romp. This song's title is the code phrase Mark and Jimmy use to hook up with Mad Man—the local oddball that's buying the town's old socks. Mad Man is "in his late forties, and dresses like a pop-culture car crash." He's got a Flock of Seagulls-style sweep of dyed blond hair. Continually wears a pair of Sex Pistols-style ripped and safety-pinned jeans. He's Van Gogh meets The Ramones.
Whether it's the local eccentric, the son of the local police chief, a hijacked circus chimp, a one-legged beauty, a rock-and-roll rebel girl with attitude cranked to ten, or a confused teenager that can't find his way out of the basement, most of the characters in New Jersey Me share one thing in common—music is their drug of choice when struggling to make it through another day in Blackwater.
Rich Ferguson and New Jersey Me 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
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)
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)