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May 15, 2017

Book Notes - B.G. Firmani "Time's a Thief"

Time's a Thief

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.

B.G. Firmani's captivating debut novel Time's a Thief is a coming-of-age story set in the New York of the 1980s.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Firmani really captures the grit and promise of 1980s New York, with too many cigarettes and dingy punk shows... A leisurely exploration of character and place that, when you connect to Chess, packs a wallop.


In her own words, here is B.G. Firmani's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Time's a Thief:



What a lot of fun it was to write this playlist. Most of these songs are mentioned by name in Time's a Thief, such as what the characters are baying out around the piano in the Marr-Löwenstein house on Eleventh Street and, later in the book, what the main character, Chess, listens to when she plugs in at her awful job. The novel's original title was from Duke Ellington's matchless "Time's A-Wastin'," a song very close to my heart, and there's a riff on it in the book, along with the great Jorge Ben's "Apareceu Aparecida," so I haven't repeated them here. Other things I write about below were a part of my specific culture of the '80s.

Fats Waller, "Abercrombie Had a Zombie" (1940)
My favorite Fats Waller quote is around him going to Paris and playing the organ at Notre-Dame with the cathedral's organist: "First Mr. Dupré played the God-box and then I played the God-box." Talk about some absurd and delicious understatement there. Waller was spendthrift with his genius and did things like compose nine songs on the fly to pay Fletcher Henderson for nine hamburgers he'd just eaten (apparently Henderson gave him ten bucks a pop for the songs instead). He was mad prolific, and speedy—and had impeccable chops. I've read that he loved the organ more than anything, and you can maybe guess this on "Abercrombie Had a Zombie." His playing at the start is very precise and churchy—it's the pre-drunk Abercrombie, the "tearoom type"—and then, once Abercrombie has his zombie, Waller swings it out, albeit very gently: his musicality and his wit are absolutely top-drawer. "Abercrombie" is a fun novelty song, and Waller didn't write it, but it sounds to me as if he likes it pretty well, because he doesn't goof up the lyrics or race through them—which he does when he's playing something soupy or uninventive. Then he's rolling his eyes, like, Oh brother, what's with this dopey song? To me, listening to Fats Waller is like having joy in the palm of my hand. Louis Armstrong called him a "solid sender" when he passed: yes, yes!

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" (1944)
It must have been my young initiation to Dr. Demento's radio show—thank goodness for my older brother Tony—that makes me love songs like this (as well as Weird Al Yankovic, a fact that baffles my husband). Watch some footage of Harry the Hipster playing the piano: he's such a frantic, ever-lovin' spaz, rolling his eyes around and mugging for the camera that he almost makes Jerry Lee Lewis look sedated. Almost. Harry went to Julliard, and you can hear it in his playing—some really rich subtlety there—and Fats Waller discovered him, which would suggest that the man was no slouch. The lyrics here are hilarious, ridiculous—She never, never been so happy, since she left old Ireland/'Till someone prowled her pantry, and tampered with her can—wham!—and there's plenty of period jive talk (like mop! and all reet). Meanwhile Harry's delivery is so slack and winky and his playing so hot that it's as if he's in his own little world. His demeanor is like something out of squash-and-stretch animation, which would suggest he's no stranger to all sorts of psychostimulants. I'd read that the song killed his career, what with the drug mentions in that very uptight era, but it seems like the advent of rock and roll is what actually did it in.

Cleo Brown, "(Lookie, Lookie) Here Comes Cookie" (1935)
Maybe it's clear by now that I love boogie-woogie and stride piano? Cleo Brown was a real beaut, a pianist, singer, and composer with a smoky, knowing little voice and a knockout playing style. She's fast, fast, and nimble, with marvelous timing: the genuine article. "Cookie" was written by Mack Gordon (of "At Last" fame) but it really feels like Brown's song—it's written from a man's point of view, given the line "Want to fix my tie," but when Brown sings those words, it's just perfect. I can't get enough of her. Brown worked throughout the '30s and '40s and then she "reformed"—what with having played all those reefer songs, like "The Stuff is Here and it's Mellow"—and joined the church. She was re-discovered by Marian McPartland in the 1980s, and there's a chapter about her in Whitney Balliett's American Singers: Twenty-Seven Portraits in Song. Otherwise there's not a lot written about her, and some of what I've seen is pretty condescending and sexist, as is so often the case for women in jazz music—something that's too slowly being remedied. Any Cleo Brown song is terrific, but check out her version of "You're a Heavenly Thing." It melts my heart.

The Fall, "Eat Y'self Fitter" (1983)
Needless to say, if you're stuck at a job you hate the best thing in the world to do is to plug in and listen to The Fall. I don't know that I need to spend quality time with Mark E. Smith but, geez, I love the way he uses language. He's a true Dadaist, one of a kind. While he famously said something like, "If it's just me and your granny on bongos, it's The Fall," I really do like the Brix era. She brought a lightness into the band. When we'd be stuck driving down a long, skinny highway in some grim suburban place, my husband Damian and I would make up Fall songs—he'd string together words from road signs like Make your own salad/you Royal Pest/How firm is your mattress/Snoopy Pops are here in a kind of flat, amazed affect and I'd make Brix sounds like a melodic fa-fa-fa or a kind of "scary" hiss noise. It's a really great way to pass the time if you're stuck in say, Delaware, which is where I grew up. "Eat Y'self Fitter" is so brilliant to me because, like many a Fall song, it feels like Mark E.'s just making up the lyrics based on things around him, but it develops a weird sort of cohesion, and can almost function as a criticism of bankrupt language and received ideas—which is reinforced in "Eat Y'self Fitter" by that insanely monotonous bass riff. I can crack myself up just by thinking of Mark E. saying: CHARMED to meetcha! or What's a COMPUTER?!

Memphis Minnie, "New Dirty Dozen" (1930)
I dearly love Memphis Minnie. Plenty has been written about the origin of the Dozens—there's an exhaustive section about it Paul and Beth Garron's biography of Memphis Minnie, Woman with a Guitar—the book's a little too theory-head for me, but among other definitions of the dirty dozens, they quote Audre Lorde's: "A Black game of supposedly friendly rivalry and name-calling; in reality, a crucial exercise in learning how to absorb verbal abuse without faltering." How great and how accurate! And no joke for a Black woman from the South. As soon as you hear Memphis Minnie's powerful strumming at the beginning of the song, it's so buoyant and definitive, you understand that she knows she's the coolest cat in town and she's going to win this throwdown. And she's having fun. I love her rangy singing on it, all the funny insults, plus the inside jokes and the playfulness—which must drive certain critics nuts, since so many seem to feel that they have to make sense of every last lyric. But sometimes, more than anything, it really is about the moment of singing: the words remain resistant to parsing. I love the pictures of Minnie with her ball gowns and big old guitar, looking so independent and so beautiful.

Lys Gauty, "Le chaland qui passe" (1934)
One of the last things I bought on vinyl in the dawning '90s was an EMI/Pathé record called "Paris After Dark," which was a sampler of "French cabaret artists" such as Piaf, Frehel, Mistinguett—all that great old leaden stuff. The liner notes said of Lys Gauty: "Her large bright eyes would reflect the intensity of the emotion in her voice, so that she appeared to be crying as she sang." Oy, vey! This sort of thing is guaranteed to clear a room of straight men under 30, but I just love it. I especially ate up the section on chanteuses réalistes in Luc Sante's indispensible The Other Paris. "Le chaland qui passe" had an interesting life—a butchered version of Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante" was released with that title, with a dopey alternate ending where Dita Parlo is listening to the song in the record store at the end, instead of the sea chantey she's listening to in the real version of the film. At any rate, in Time's a Thief, there's a part that speaks of "L'Atalante," a film I love, and then, 25 pages later, the character is listening to "Le chaland"—so, for readers who know of that association, it's a little like, Ah, I see what you're doing.

The Minutemen, "This Ain't No Picnic" (1984)
This is off Double Nickels on the Dime, and there's a bunch more from that great double album that I could have picked. The band was deeply, deeply loved, and really helpful to young folks growing up weird in whatever sad, cruel backwater they were stuck in. I have a memory of being in the parking lot of the diner we all used to hang out behind in my joyless home city when the news came that D. Boon was dead: it seemed impossible. Hard to express just how profound this music was. And remains, actually—it was only when I got a little older that I could truly appreciate how inventive the Minutemen were. One thing that was so great about Boon and Watt was that they always seemed like true believers—they fought the good fight, were never snarky or puerile. They were intricate, intellectual, amused, plus they had legit working-class bona fides. I love D. Boon's singing on "No Picnic," which is full of powerful emotion, and his guitar playing is plenty funky. Watch the video from the '80s, with ol' Ronald Raygun bombing the band, and you really are back in that moment.

The Misfits, "All Hell Breaks Loose" (1982)
Again, I could pick nearly any song off Walk Among Us—and it's kind of amazing to realize that the whole album is only 25 minutes long, what?! Any Misfits fan knows how much they get into your brain and completely rewire your mental circuitry. They were so cool and great because the band was heavy but fast, very percussive, and Danzig had this huge, deep, dark, thrilling baritone, but he'd be singing these '50s cartoony horror movie lyrics: I send my Murdergram/to all these monster kids/It comes right back to me and it's/signed in their parents' blood. Oh, yay! It was gleeful and infectious, and it swept you up in it. In my novel, I have Chess wearing a "Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?" tee-shirt, which technically wouldn't exist, but I was sort of paying homage to that Pushead drawing of the skull dude with the devil lock holding up his dripping eyeball: fun! The Misfits morphed into Samhain in the mid-'80s and I liked them all right, but they got so metal and so serious, it became too cheerless for me. And then of course came Danzig, the band…I remember being at a Danzig show at the Ritz (what Webster Hall was called for most of the '80s) and seeing this girl with a massive Samhain/Danzig cow skull tattoo across her back, and realizing: Yes, I'm a big fan…but not that big of a fan.

Minor Threat, "I Don't Wanna Hear It" (1981)
I spent my late high school years in the basement of my parents' house doing my Latin homework, staring into the abyss with Joy Division, and screaming along with Minor Threat. What a gift Minor Threat was, and is, to teenagers everywhere; and to the teenaged at heart. Ian MacKaye had the perfect hardcore voice, he'd be yelling his brains out, but he could also be pretty melodic, and did that very funny Sarcastic Punk Rock Voice. Dischord, the label, of course still exists, and now anyone can buy anything at any time, but back in the day it wasn't easy to get your hands on stuff: so to put your three dollars and fifty cents cash in the mail, send it to 3819 Beecher Street NW in D.C., and be able to get back Minor Threat's "Out of Step" EP felt like a miracle. All the D.C. bands had tremendous authority in the Podunk where I grew up—our scene was like fifty people and a waffle iron—so the downside of the importance of a band like Minor Threat was that, indeed, people treated them like a manifestation of the miraculous, as in God. So folks read the lyrics very closely, took things way too literally, and tried to live by them (and so a song like "Guilty of Being White" could only confuse the well-meaning). When I got to college and met people who were out of the D.C. scene and friends with actual people in Dischord bands, it took my breath away—until I of course found my cool composure again. I picked "I Don't Wanna Hear It" because the song is the perfect gesture of plug-your-ears around the bullshit of the world—and incredibly satisfying to me to this day.

Kurt Weill, "Speak Low" (1943)
Weill wrote the music, and Ogden Nash the lyrics for this perfect song. The title of my novel is taken from the lyrics: Love is pure gold/and time a thief. I first heard the song in college, in the cornball film version of "One Touch of Venus"—Ava Gardner, who's shockingly gorgeous but really can't act her way out of paper bag, is singing it in a sort of distant duet with Dick Haymes; she's actually dubbed. The song stayed in my head and when I was in graduate school I came upon the demo version of it on vinyl, in the listening room at the library. I put the headphones on, put the record on the turntable, dropped the needle, and it was…beyond words. I flew away. The recording just starts right in with Weill singing, no fanfare at all. He's very close to the microphone and it's almost as if he's singing to himself it feels so private. To me, everything's flawless here, the melody, the words, and Weill's gentle delivery in his soft German accent. Here's a man who lost his country. Recently I saw the film "Phoenix," and it has a scene where the Kurt Weill demo is being played on German radio, which would have been impossible: but I understand the gesture, because this version is so pure and so moving.


B.G. Firmani and Time's a Thief links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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