March 3, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Bill Hayes' Insomniac City is a compelling and moving memoir, a testimonial to both New York and his partner Oliver Sacks.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
"Like Patti Smith's haunting M Train, Hayes' book weaves seemingly disparate threads of memory into a kind of sanctuary -- a secret place where one can shake off the treasured relics of past lives and prepare to be reborn anew."
Certain songwriters, songs, and albums have influenced my writing as much as, if not more than, writers, books, poetry—never more so than with Insomniac City, a memoir about my life in New York and with my partner, the late Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author. I wrote most of the book during a 6-week period in Rome. My iPod on, songs spurring memories, I laid out a first draft page by page by page on the two facing walls of the loft in which I was living. (The walls were covered with bulletin board material.) By the time I’d finished—hundreds of pages pinned up floor to ceiling, with dozens of my street photos intermixed—I realized I’d unconsciously created a book-length equivalent of a 1970s album cover interior, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Court and Spark or Hejira—neat columns of text superimposed over photography.
Now, my playlist—thematic, not a chapter-by-chapter replay:
Coming of Age, Jay Z: Raised with five sisters in Spokane, Washington, on Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Soul Train” artists, and seventies singer-songwriters like Joni, I came out as a gay man in SF in the early 1980s, with Madonna and The Smiths on my Walkman. All of which is to say, I hadn’t listened to much hip-hop before moving to NYC at 48—my second coming of age. Here, though, hip hop was what I wanted to hear. Eight years later, I associate this amazingly cinematic song—a duet, really—with my first few months in Manhattan: “It’s time to come up / Gots to lock it down…”
Never Too Much, Luther Vandross: In reality, Bach and Mozart played in the background throughout my life with Oliver (home, office, car), and by his own admission, O knew nothing about popular music. (“What is Michael Jackson?” he asked the day after Michael Jackson died.) But I was also listening to my own soundtrack all along, at the gym or even while swimming with him (waterproof iPod!). For me, this over-the-top Luther song conveys better than Bach could how it felt—feels—to fall in love: “A thousand kisses from you is never too much, I just don't wanna stop / Oh my love….”
Ain’t Nobody, Chaka Khan + Rufus: At the same time I was falling for O, I was falling hard for New York: riding subways, encountering strangers, taking pictures, and this sexy Chaka song somehow captures that feeling: “I wait for nighttime to come / And bring you to me / Can't believe I'm the one / I was so lonely / I feel like no one could feel / I must be dreamin'….”
Your Cloud, Tori Amos: What comes after falling in love is just as nice, but different. As you settle and make a life together, it’s as if your soul is at peace for finding its mate. This dreamy cut evokes that state: “If there is a horizontal line that runs from the map of your body straight through the land… will this horizontal line, when asked, know how to find where you end, where I begin?”
Born Under Punches, Talking Heads: Long before moving here, my romanticized vision of the city was influenced by New York bands I listened to when I was 19 or 20, like the Patti Smith Band and Television and Talking Heads. This cut from the 1980 funk-infused masterpiece Remain in Light is a sonic expression of New York at its most intense, whether in a traffic jam or packed subway, with heat and humidity so high it’s suffocating: “All I want is to breathe. Won’t you breathe with me? Find a little space, so we move in between….”
Undo, Bjork: O and I visited Iceland several times, and fell in love with the country, although it was so unlike any other it seemed more like another planet. I love the message and vibe of this supernaturally beautiful Bjork song, exactly what one should play if stuck in one of those traffic jams mentioned above—or if, say, you’ve just had a little squabble with your beloved: “It’s not meant to be a strife / It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill / Surrender….”
There, There, Radiohead: The ultimate bad-news song (those drums!): Not such a bummer that you’ll be in tears, but not falsely sentimental either. I love how the ambiguous title phrase doubles as both a reassurance and a clinical clarification: “there, there.” This is the song that blared in my ears when O got a terminal cancer diagnosis in January 2015.
We Belong Together, Mariah Carey: Okay, now you can have a good cry. Pop music can get away with sentimentality when it’s as well produced, well sung, and simple, as this: “I’m trying to keep it together, but I’m falling apart / When you left, I lost a part of me / It’s still so hard to believe / We belong together….”
Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell: I led two lives in Insomniac City, one in Manhattan, one in the apartment with O. Our domestic life was quiet—cooking, talking, music, books—no computers. This Joni song is about a different kind of relationship altogether, and set in California, but even so, something in its wistfulness reminds me of O and our time together: “His eyes were the color of the sand and the sea, and the more he talked to me, the more he reached me…”
Time (Clock of The Heart), Boy George and Culture Club: I want my playlist to go out on a few pretty songs, and this is one of my favorites—Boy George’s voice at its most luscious and poignant: “Time is precious, I know…”
Goldberg Variations (for strings), variation#14, J.S. Bach: Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Gould: The purest expression of joy I’ve yet to hear, by O’s favorite composer, and in a thrilling performance by violinist Thomas Gould. Gould played this live at Oliver’s memorial service at the Royal College of Physicians in London, April of 2016.
Bill Hayes and Insomniac City links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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