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October 5, 2017

Book Notes - Constance Squires "Live from Medicine Park"

Live from Medicine Park

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.

Constance Squires' Live from Medicine Park is the rare rock novel that impresses on both literary and music fronts.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A rocky encounter with a rock icon changes a filmmaker's life in [Constance] Squires’ heartfelt novel. . . . Squires gets it right on both sides, making Lena a convincingly grizzled rock [and] roll survivor while giving resonance to Ray's journey to personal redemption. You don't need to be a rock fan to appreciate this rite-of-passage story, but Squires' fellow rockers will also appreciate her attention to details."

In her own words, here is Constance Squires' Book Notes music playlist for her novel Live from Medicine Park:

A line from the Rolling Stones' "If You Really Want to Be My Friend" is one of Live from Medicine Park's epigraphs: "If you really want to understand me, there's some giving up we got to do." It's about realizing that people's lives are more important than whatever story you're telling yourself about it, a lesson Ray—the novel's central character—must learn by giving up in a few different ways, each surrender bringing a person or situation more clearly into view.

"Return of the Grievous Angel," by Gram Parsons, as covered by Lucinda Williams in the peerless Gram Parsons Tribute: Return of the Grievous Angel, which will show up a couple more times on this list. The lyrics sound like the opening of a novel:

I'll show you how it all went down

Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

And a good saloon in every single town

Those lines gave me the beginnings of the Ray's voice. I'll show you how it all went down. It's car country, road culture, out here in Oklahoma and Texas, the settings for Live from Medicine Park's. We all spend a lot of time in our cars, and this song gets that transient yet historical sense of being out on the highway. It's a bit like we're turtles and our cars are our shells that we carry with us everywhere, a home with the music we love filling the interior. When I hear the word "plot," I see blacktop with a yellow centerline stretching away in front of the dashboard of a car—that's how intrinsic it is.

"Baker Street," by Gerry Rafferty

Live from Medicine Park's opens with documentary director Ray setting off to film the comeback of Lena Wells, a long-retired iconic rock-and-roll singer. I paired this song in Ray's memory with one of Lena's hits, "Trip the Wind," because I wanted to contextualize the late '70s musical moment I imagine her as part of. He was a high school kid listening to both songs over and over again at a barbecue joint, where he worked one summer in El Paso. "He couldn't remember whether he had ever liked the songs, maybe he had, but now they were too tied up with sense memories of raw flesh and flies for him to respond internally with anything but distaste when he heard them."

"Hot Burrito #1," by The Mavericks

Chapter 2's title comes from this song, also from Gram Parsons Tribute: Return of the Grievous Angel, which Ray hears a cover band perform at Lena's party as he passes through the great room. Several drunk couples are clinging to each other, and it's a particularly maudlin rendition of the Gram Parsons song (by the Flying Burrito Brothers, to be exact). Ray has just met Cy, and though he won't know it for many pages, this song isn't a bad thumbnail sketch of Cy's relationship with Lena:

Cause I'm the one who showed you how
To do the things you're doing now
He may feel all your charms
He might hold you in his arms
But I'm the one who let you in
I was right beside you in the end

"We're Desperate," by X

In chapter 4 of Live from Medicine Park's, Ray and Lena go hear the Black Sheep (Jettie, Gram, and Cy's band) play at a bar. The country-infused hardcore of X and bands like them, both the look and the sound, were how I understood the Black Sheep to be, plus the dynamic between Jettie and Gram onstage probably owes something to Exene Cervenka and John Doe. Jettie's lipstick's "impossible red of car paint" and her fuck-you quality come from the world evoked in songs like "We're Desperate":

I play too hard when I ought to go to sleep

They pick on me cause I really got the beat

Some people give me the creeps

"El Paso" by Marty Robbins

Appearing twice (once when Ray and Gram swap stories about Geronimo's and John Wesley Hardin's graves, and when Ray travels to the underworld and gets drunk at Hardin's grave at Concordia Cemetery in El Paso), "El Paso" carries through the entire novel. In both scenes, Ray sings the chorus of this song:

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso

I fell in love with a Mexican girl

Nighttime would find me in Rosa's cantina

Music would play and Felina would whirl

I think Ray connects with the song's impulsive acts and its excessive romanticism and he likes narrators who speak from beyond the grave—to hell with the impossible point-of-view problems.

"Tumbling Dice," by the Rolling Stones

In the middle of Live from Medicine Park's, there's the full text of a media kit, which contains lyrics to Lena's songs and reviews of her albums, etc. I intended this section as a tip of the hat to formal convention of rendering lyrics in rock novels, especially Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues. A review of Lena's album Rank Outsider unpacks the allusion to the Stones' lyric:

Hey now baby
I'm a rank outsider
You can be my partner in crime

As the imagined 1977 Creem review says, "indeed one can read every note on Rank Outsider as a response to Exile on Main Street and the outsider status the Rolling Stones laid claim to with that album. With this music, the claim has claws, issuing from the country's wild center, and Wells has her outsider bona fide, claiming to be the great-granddaughter of Geronimo."

"Hex" by Neko Case

Two female characters, Lena Wells and Jettie Waycross, are songwriters in Live from Medicine Park's, and I found myself using different models for each of them to differentiate their styles. The spooky misanthropic romance of "Hex" and other Neko Case songs helped me write Jettie's lyrics, which appear in several spots when she's singing.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" by Bob Dylan

Dylan songs led me into Lena's lyrical style. She's more of a balladeer than Jettie, whose lyrics are more personal and impressionistic. The story told in one song of Lena's that I wrote, called "January Ground," especially called out to the crime ballad style Dylan uses in songs like "Hattie Carroll," "Hurricane," "Oxford Town," and others. That blistering fury that leads you through the outrageous events of the story with an unblinking precision and bitter irony—I needed that for "January Ground," which tells an event that turns out to be important to Live from Medicine Park's's plot.

"Hang on St. Christopher" by Tom Waits

Late in Live from Medicine Park's, Ray takes a road trip: a bona fide journey into the underworld (Texas) to find what he lost. Lots of road music informed this section, but the wild abandon, velocity, and underlying grimness in Waits's song perfectly mirrors Ray's thinking as he heads into Texas, together with the lightly-worn and superstitious religiosity.

Hang on St. Christopher through the smoke
And the oil
Buckle down the rumble seat
Let the radiator boil
Got an overhead downshift
And a two dollar grill
Got an 85 cabin
On an 85 hill

Constance Squires and Live from Medicine Park links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for All Along the Watchtower
New Plains Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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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

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