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January 25, 2017

Book Notes - Andrew Krivak "The Signal Flame"

The Signal Flame

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.

Andrew Krivak's The Signal Flame is a masterfully drawn portrait of a multi-generational family affected by war.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A simple story, on its face, but full of resounding depths: a dark commemoration of a dark time but offering the slim hope that things will get better."

In his own words, here is Andrew Krivak's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Signal Flame:

Two things saved my life when I was growing up in a rural corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 70s. Books and music. I was born on the day in 1963 when Martin Luther King gave his I have a dream speech, the sixth out of seven children, my father a social-worker for the state, my mother a woman who should have gone to medical school, but who raised a family instead. Both of my parents were college graduates, so we had walls of books and were encouraged to do well in school, which often meant getting bullied and being called a bookworm. But I didn’t care. Books were my way out, I realized early on. Also, they were a place where I learned to search for wonder in the world. So too with music. Music was everywhere when I was growing up. My father was a fan of The Dorsey Brothers (Pennsylvania boys made good) and learned to love classical music at his Catholic high school in Wilkes-Barre. My mother loved the big bands as well, and I can remember occasionally catching her swing a bit to a song on the radio. It was my two older brothers, though, who shaped my musical education. They played brass and reed instruments in high school in the sixties, and then moved right into learning guitar once they graduated and could play what they wanted to. My second oldest brother, Tom, didn’t go off to college but stayed local, worked, and played rhythm guitar in a popular band. I wanted to do that. So, when started playing the piano our father had bought us for Christmas one year, I figured out how to take all of the music theory I learned at my piano lessons and transfer it to the fret board of the guitar so that I could play like Tom.

There was an eclectic mix of albums that I remember filled up entire shelves in our bedroom. My oldest brother John loved the blues and any rock and roll influenced by it, so he had albums by Ten Years After, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, early Rolling Stones, The Who, and of course Hendrix. Tom was drawn to what’s called now Classical Rock: Emerson Lake and Palmer (my first concert), Yes, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, and really early Genesis. He had an American streak in him, too, especially when he started playing guitar. That’s where I began to hear the music that taught me what a guitar should sound like. Grand Funk Railroad, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Creedence, and The Allman Brothers. As I’ve tried over the years, I could never figure out my brother Tom’s aesthetic approach to music. I think he was a frustrated lyric poet who simply looked for rapturous lines of music (whether it was played on a guitar, piano, or bassoon) in the way a romantic would look for rapturous lines of poetry.

Anyway, I often tell people, only half joking, that I write because I was never a good enough piano player to make a go of it as a musician. When I sit down to write now, I’m still aware that I’m sitting down to a keyboard, and there is always some tune, chord progression, or passage of notes in my head, because that’s what makes sense to me in the words. The music, the rhythm, and the balance of the two.

The Signal Flame is my follow-on to The Sojourn, a novel I wrote loosely based on my grandfather’s experience growing up in old Europe and fighting in the First World War as an Austrian conscript. It was told in the first person, from the distance of over fifty years of that man’s life, from a kitchen in the fictional town of Dardan, Pennsylvania. If I had been asked to make up playlist for that novel, it would have consisted of concertos by Franz Liszt and early Béla Bartók. But as I was writing The Signal Flame, which takes place in that same fictional town of Dardan during the year 1972, from April to Christmas Eve, I became aware of the fact that I was falling back into a time when I had found music as a means of escape as well as wonder. So, a great part of my writing process became listening again to those songs that my brothers had played for me when I was a boy, and the world I created in the fiction of this novel has its soundtrack linked intimately to that real, musical life.

Except in a few instances, this playlist is not intended to mirror any sections of The Signal Flame, or to provide insight into a scene. There are themes common to the novel and these songs: The place of home; nature as a character itself; love; loss; and war. The one rule I held myself to, however, is the fact that any character from the pages of The Signal Flame, could very well have heard all of these songs. Which is to say, there is not one that was recorded after 1972.


1) Grand Funk Railroad: "I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home"

Grand Funk defines my life as a boy growing up in the seventies in Pennsylvania. They were a band accessible musically and lyrically. My brothers had all of their albums on vinyl and cassette, so that their music filled our small bedroom, and traveled with us in the cassette deck of the car. When I learned to play guitar, I knew that I had turned a corner when I could play "I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home," just like my brother did in his local band. That’s the song that begins this playlist for The Signal Flame. My Pennsylvania song for my Pennsylvania novel, an orchestrated work that made me wonder, when I was nine years old, what it might be like to create something that told a story – in a multitude of voices and instruments – about that longing for home, a place (I realized in my bed at night as I listened to violins lift that song to its end) the captain never reaches.

2) Jimi Hendrix: "All Along the Watchtower"
I heard Jimi Hendrix’s "All Along the Watchtower" long before I heard Bob Dylan’s original, which is strange, when I think about it now, because both of my brothers were aspiring poets who played acoustic guitar. But Hendrix it was. And, although I am one of those people who believe that Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, I think the Hendrix version of his song is better. It’s the menace of the Hendrix cover that struck me the first time I heard it – the sense of danger and head-turning worry – a sense of menace that I still hear every time. The ancient Greeks believed all literature was rooted in a struggle, what they called the agon. Hendrix, to me, played guitar like a tragedian.

3) The Doors: "Light My Fire"
There was a time when "Light My Fire" might have embodied a stereotype of The Doors, but The Doors was the first rock and roll album that I am conscious of having heard and remembered as a thing to remember for the rest of my life. So I put "Light My Fire" third on this playlist because of the sheer thrill that this song still evokes in me. When my brothers and I get together and talk about music, we never fail to begin and end by talking about The Doors. And not just about the lyric and vocal genius of Jim Morrison, but about the virtuosity of every musician in the band. To me, The Doors were always a band. Listen to Ray Manzarek on keyboards and Robby Krieger on guitar. Can you honestly believe that they are only two people? And listen to John Densmore on drums. He’s as good as any jazz or rock drummer out there. Most importantly, however, for the purposes of The Signal Flame, "Light My Fire" is here for the fact that it is and will always remain, in my mind, a love song.

4) Neil Young: "After the Goldrush"
I remember when my brother brought this album home and put it on the turntable. I picked up the sleeve and studied the face on the cover, the black and grey and shadow. I listened to those first notes of the guitar climb into the first chords of "Tell Me Why," and heard that voice of the man, high and ever-lifting, and I wanted to play and sing and write like that. I put the song "After the Goldrush" on this playlist for the narrative possibility of the song itself. Here were lyrics that made no usual sense, but were so sure and vivid and poignant that they made all the sense in the world to me. They weren’t the words of some drug-induced impressionism. They were a kind of American tableau, of a time, and a place, and a feeling. I have listened to this song over and over on more than one writing day when the writing just wouldn’t come, and it has always brought me back to that place of knowing that it’s all about trying to write a thing simple yet grace-filled.

5) Creedence Clearwater Revival: "Who’ll Stop the Rain"
I have chosen this song over the more popular "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" by CCR not just for what I believe are the better lyrics and the more focused political comment, but for the pared down sound of the acoustic guitars in the song themselves. This song is one the classics I went back to after I had written the flood chapter in The Signal Flame, and the scene in which the main character gets a ride in a National Guard helicopter over that devastation, which was real in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in June of 1972. It’s also, in my mind, one of those songs that defines the liminal years that marked the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. I say liminal, because the seventies was my decade. And this is one of my favorite songs from that decade.

6) Cat Stevens: "Trouble"
I found Cat Stevens on my own, with a little help from my oldest sister this time. She had Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman, but she told me that there was another album out there that Cat Stevens had recorded slightly earlier. When I told her I wanted to get it, she took me to the record store and I put the four dollars and ninety-nine cents I had saved up to buy Mona Bone Jakon on the counter and I took that album home. (When I lived in New York City in 1989, and WNEW offered to send a copy of The Satanic Verses to anyone who sent in a Cat Stevens album or tape, I hung on to Mona Bone Jakon). "Trouble" appears in a lot of movies and TV shows, I know. But hearing this song at the age of ten was like a rite of passage to me. It was like realizing that you are in the presence of something awesome and not to be taken lightly. I said in the intro that I didn’t have songs in mind for particular scenes in my novel, but this song is the exception. You’ll know it when you read it. It involves a woman and a child, and "death’s disguise, hangin’ on me."

7) Led Zeppelin (with Sandy Denny): "The Battle of Evermore"
Led Zeppelin IV, it must be said, is the soundtrack to the early seventies. The album is so ubiquitous, the influence of it so profound that nothing can be set in the seventies without some song from the album creeping up from out of nowhere to let you know that the band is here. "The Battle of Evermore" is my nod to IV, and to the one song that I will not ever get tired of on that album. It’s here for its distant and mythic evocation not of war as a theme but of a battle fought long ago in a place not even part of our own earth. The mandolins, the voice of Sandy Denny singing the part of some ancient and eerie chorister against Robert Plant’s vocals (in what Jimmy Page said was meant to be a question-and-answer), the fade in and fade out of the track. All of these parts make up a whole that haunt as much as any protest song from that time.

8) Bill Evans: "Peace Piece"
There is a chapter in The Signal Flame, an early flashback, in which the main character goes off to college for a semester in 1959. There he falls in love, and one night he and his girlfriend sit in a dorm room and listen to Everybody Digs Bill Evans, an album released in 1958, which became a hit beyond the jazz world. I don’t know where or when I heard Bill Evans for the first time, but I remember it as a time when I regretted not having practiced the piano more, just so that maybe I could do something close to that. I love "Peace Piece," and I put it here to counter the war, as I’m certain that others have listened to it for that same reason.

9) Joni Mitchell: "River"
I’ve always striven to evoke Nature in my books as though it were a character itself. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, nature was all around us. It was the woods, and you got comfortable being in them, because there was nothing else to do. In the winter – big winters! – a kid without the money to go skiing in the Poconos went tromping through the woods and ice skating on the local ponds. Being outside in the woods was where I came to understand constant relationship between embrace and escape, and the longing that straddles both of them. To me, that’s what "River" is all about.

10) Simon and Garfunkel: "7 O’Clock News / Silent Night"
My parents fought with us about music all the time. Classical versus the modern. But it was a good fight, and it taught me to see and appreciate the depth of tradition in all art. For their part, my parents had their moments of appreciation for what my brothers were listening to. They had a Tommy party once, in which friends of theirs came to the house for drinks and to listen to and discuss that rock opera by The Who. They also liked Simon and Garfunkel. Who didn’t? But Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme held pride of place on the turntable when it was agreed that we would put on an album that suited everyone. My oldest brother told me recently that he had bought that album in 1967 (it came out in late ’66). In 1969 my father bought a Sylvania stereo for a family Christmas present, and the first album we played was Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. I know, because the last song, "7 O’Clock News / Silent Night" scared the hell out of me when I first heard it, and I cried so that my mother had to hold me that Christmas Eve and tell me that it was just a song. But it’s more than just a song. From the notes of the carol sung so beautifully comes the voice of the newscaster, the same male voice that was providing commentary on the war each night my dad watched the news, the grainy black and white footage, the body counts at the bottom of the screen like football scores, and I remember feeling the fear that my brothers would have to go there, and then, when I got old enough, I would go there too. Because that’s what a boy did when he became a young man. The song still makes me cry when I listen to it, no less relevant today than it was in the sixties. No less terrifying a time.

Andrew Krivak and The Signal Flame links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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