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September 27, 2018

Camille A. Collins' Playlist for Her Novel "The Exene Chronicles"

The Exene Chronicles

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lyrical and powerful, Camille A. Collins' The Exene Chronicles is one of the best YA novels I have read in years.

Kwame Alexander wrote of the book:

"Camille Collins has a voice like water. There is lush music in her debut novel—each word flows with purpose and beauty. In the big sea of young adult literature, The Exene Chronicles casts a powerful net and takes us in—heart and all."

In her own words, here is Camille A. Collins' Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Exene Chronicles:

The most biographical aspect of my novel is the location, and how the protagonist’s favorite pastime aligns with my own passions as a kid. SoCal was the location, and the chief obsession of my closest friend and I was the punk bank X. Before X even became a thing, I’d been fortunate to grow up in a home where music played a large role, and with parents who weren’t at all restrictive or narrow minded in their appreciation of it. Stevie Wonder was the cornerstone of my parent’s soul selection. I, like many, feel Songs in the Key of Life and Talking Book, were the overriding soundtrack to my childhood. But there was also Muddy Waters, a favorite my father, himself a Chicago native son, and Tammy Wynette. My parents had lived in the southwest for a short while, where country music dominates the radio. It was there that my mother, a Jamaican girl from Kingston, developed an appreciation for Tammy’s narrative ballads. They enjoyed everything, including classical and jazz. My older brother predates my existence by nearly a decade, so it was he who first introduced me to Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Elvis Costello and countless others, mostly in the rock genre. Developing your own tastes in music as a teenager is exciting and empowering. Still, our parents must have rolled their eyes as we made our first discovery of stuff that had been around for ages. How many generations since have explored the sounds of Motown or early recordings of the Beatles and Doors, thinking they’re excavating something magical and never before known? The following are some songs to accompany my debut novel, The Exene Chronicles.

The Once Over Twice by X

All I can say then and now is just WOW. I’d never heard anything like this before and the roughness of it—the uncomplicated sound, direct lyrics and the feelings evoked by Exene’s plaintive delivery were totally captivating. “He hung me with the endless rope” was not the sort of line I’d never heard. It was expressive, raw and still emotive. Lines such as this had a lot to do with why we felt Exene was so bad ass. She was just different—outspoken, tough, poetic, vulnerable and unapologetic about any of it. For the first time in life I’d recently learned what it meant to feel melancholy, and this song provoked a gray feeling I was privileged to experiment with and indulge in, as I was very fortunate to be pretty carefree in those days without real legitimate cause to feel blue.

Why Do Fools Fall in Love by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

This group was among many we discovered and which of course were brand new to us, and reminds me of the book and main characters. I was utterly thrilled to hear him for the first time, taken in by the power and sweetness of his voice, and fascinated by someone who’d known such success at such an early age. While Frankie Lymon remains one of my mother’s favorites, I appreciate his gifts and the legacy of his contribution to music, but I think I’ve somewhat outgrown his sound and my onetime fascination with him as a kindred teenager. Still, there is something magic and bittersweet about Frankie being perpetually preserved behind glass as a fellow kid to all who discover him while still young themselves.

Bad Reputation by Joan Jett

I never dissected Joan Jett as a performer much. I didn’t analyze or internalize the lyrics to this song, or study her purposely smudged eyes and formidable leathers. She was just cool—there was no getting around it, so you readily accepted any sound and aesthetic she offered, always happy to have her sound inhabit your speakers. Only in retrospect do I see how groundbreaking and fearless she was, how she truly is a direct descendant of another lifelong obsession I’ll get to next (the inimitable Ronettes, of course) in the way that she upped the ante of the “bad girl” persona, and how perfect this song would be for a film version of my book—juxtaposed ironically beside besides Lia or Ryan in a moment of disaster, when they think they’re rebelling but only doing so in a robotic, this-is-how-all-the-other-kids-say-mischief-is-done sort of way, and not in a manner that is truly organic or exemplary of impacting change. As young women we often get rebellion wrong—we think it’s about following another person off the edge of a cliff or being enamored of someone else’s “bad” choices, whereas Joan—so clearly self-possessed, shows the only person worth rebelling for and the only ideas, good, bad or otherwise, worth following—are your own.

Be My Baby by The Ronettes

I must have been in middle school before The Ronettes became a part of my conscience. Who knows weather I heard them or saw them first—that they sounded as good as they looked and looked as good as they sounded is only one of innumerable reasons that makes them essential. This song is timeless—the delivery is just great. Ronnie leads with a forcefulness sometimes missing in the sound of the other girl groups from the era. Although they were never officially part of Motown, for me the Ronettes fell under the same umbrella and were part of my “Motown” discovery of other all-female acts like The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. I’m sure at the time, these women felt pretty constricted by what they could and could not do, could and could not wear—and certainly, speaking of the girl groups in general, they probably didn’t always have the freedom to even write or select their own songs. Still, the vision of them, the sound of their voices as all female acts was an empowering thing to see and it left an impression. As for the look, I was and still am utterly captivated that women once made themselves up in big bouffants and heavy eye makeup routinely—it’s kind of unbelievable now, as much as getting up and donning corsets and floor length gowns would be today. But to me, the Ronettes epitomize a kind of dreamy glamour that never gets old. Always, ever since I made their discovery, every time I don liquid black eyeliner it’s for them—for Ronnie, Nedra and Estelle.

Shades of Cool by Lana Del Rey

I love much of what Lana does. I think she’s a genius at infusing style and atmosphere into music while still making songs that impact on their own merit. This song, like so many others of hers, captures a bygone era and milieu while still sounding modern. Also, in the story the girls have recently discovered vintage clothing, just like myself and my friends had. The thrift stores in California at the time were crazy with treasures for two and three bucks apiece. This song could be many things I suppose—but to me it’s very California. It’s the vintage clothes we first discovered, it’s a forlorn woman in a long paisley dress crying her mascara off alone by a swimming pool—it’s also evocative of real emotion and the indulgence of feeling feelings, albeit darker ones, like those first conjured by The Once Over Twice. I love this song and I think in some way it’s kindred in tone and the feeling to the next song on the list, Blue Spark.

Blue Spark by X

I just love the rhythm and refrain of this song. The blue in the chorus and the lyric “he waits in the beach apartment” is probably what gives it a California vibe to me. I always imagine a very modern yet abandoned edifice along the water. The “blue spark” also brings the image of a blue flame—or perhaps a midnight blue vintage mustang speeding to that building in a hurry to attend to some urgent matter of the heart. Apart from just being a great song, this tune always sounded a bit mysterious and very grown up. It’s full meaning eluded me then, and still does, so the intrigue keeps me guessing and the slow but driving beat is infectious.

Not Fade Away by the Supremes

The Supremes are referenced in The Exene Chronicles too. As with The Ronettes, I was instantly captivated by their sound and look. A recently released album of rarities showcases the Supremes in totally different form that what you get with classics such as Baby Love or Stop! In the Name of Love. Their rendition on this album of Not Fade Away is totally cool. There tempo picks up and there is a pronounced electric guitar you typically don’t hear on their numbers. I like the song for what it is and also for what it conjures in my mind—something that doesn’t quite exist yet. An all-girl band of black girls trio or quartet of black girls, free of any constrictions. Cruising in Aretha’s proverbial Pink Cadillac, as bossed up and fearless at Joan Jett, Exene or Big Mama Thornton. As free to epitomize the California esthetic as their own, without irony or constraint.

Walking in the Rain by the Ronettes

It’s a sweet song. Another classic with a tinge of sadness. There can never really be too many Ronette’s tunes on a list, or X songs for that matter. The song not only captures another era in music, but it also takes me back to images of the old New York. The New York of those wonderful old pictures with people dressed for a day out, and plenty of neon dotting the landscape. As an African-American, the past sometimes seems safer than the present. Considering the 50’s and 60’s, fighting for a freedom never known certainly could not have been easy, but it had to be more heartening and inspiring than the matter of awakening to the reality that things haven’t changed nearly as much as you thought, or hoped.

Camille A. Collins and The Exene Chronicles links:

publishers page for the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

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