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September 18, 2018

Rita Dragonette's Playlist for Her Novel "The Fourteenth of September"

The Fourteenth of September

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.

Rita Dragonette's novel The Fourteenth of September is a thoughtful and moving view of the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of a young woman.

Foreword Clarion Reviews wrote of the book:

"The ebb and flow between a nineteen-year-old’s mistakes, vulnerability, and surprising moments of insight ring achingly true. The Fourteenth of September is a moving tribute to lives altered by chance. The draft lottery and its rippling effects highlight a generation that came into adulthood amid devastating uncertainty."

In her own words, here is Rita Dragonette's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Fourteenth of September:

The entire process for my novel began with music. The story takes place in 1969-1970, when the country was seared apart by the Vietnam War and, accordingly, the love songs of the early teenage British Invasion years had exploded into often heavy, angry anthems of rage, politics and drugs—but always with crushing chords and a great beat you could feel up your spine as if it was reaching out to demand your attention. The stakes were high, people were getting killed, decisions had to be made. The music and lyrics spoke to us—still speaks in memories as we age and the hamster wheel of history reminds us that nothing is really ever over.

As the story came to me over the years, I’d always planned to provide music cues—titles, phrases, even the actual sounds of a refrain to get the right tune humming in the reader’s mind as they were into a scene. I used music to function, sometimes as a character, but more often as a director, providing the tone of the passage. There are many references to music of this time as the “Soundtrack of Our Lives.” Opening song chords would trigger not just the memory of an old incident or love, but also engage all your senses—the quick sulphur spark of a match being lit, the dry tongue taste after a night of grass, the soreness in the back of your throat after hours of screaming slogans, the to-the-bone shivers of freezing in a clammy November march, and always…always, the relentless bass hammering away and amplifying your excitement or your fear. Those sounds played in my head in a continuous loop as I envisioned the scenes and wrote the story. There are 29 songs on the “Playlist” for The Fourteenth of September. Here are a few that mark some of the narrative action.

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”: Crosby, Stills and Nash

As the book opens, Private First Class Judy Talton, who is in college on a military scholarship similar to ROTC* has been having doubts about the Vietnam War and her role in it. She decides to celebrate her 19th birthday, the title date of the novel, by surreptitiously joining the campus counterculture—just to see how the other side thinks. She’s tentative and shy and wants to be a fly on the wall, yet the campus “freaks” immediately embrace her, calling her Judy Blue Eyes, and singing the famous dew do dew do do refrain. She meets In-A-Gadda-Da-VIDA, Sweet Little Sheila, Mustang Sally, and Wizard, as in Pinball. From there, with such attention, it’s easy to slide down the rabbit hole as she gets more and more involved, threatening her future, her relationship with her family, her life as she knows it.

“Come Together”: The Beatles

A key activity by the characters is to gather in a dorm room, hang over every surface, on bunk beds, the floor, the desks…and listen to music while passing a joint and perhaps a jar of peanut butter with a Southern Comfort chaser. Records would spin for hours, the guys focusing on the riffs, playing imaginary guitars down the backs of whatever girls were sitting or lying next to them. Judy focused on the lyrics, like most teenage girls, thinking they were speaking directly to her. After several weeks of spending time with her new counterculture friends, marching, chanting and talking, she’s finding herself more and more in the movement. One night, someone plays the new Abbey Road album and they hear “Come Together” for the first time. Wizard says:

To hear this fucking incredible music. I mean, ‘Come Together,’ what else needs to be said? That’s what’s real, man. There can be no war if we think like that.

As Judy walked back to her dorm, Wizard’s words came back to her. She was starting to feel there was an incredible groundswell everywhere she looked and in everything she listened to about love and understanding and a common agreement that there was no longer any need for war. The army was wrong and Vida was right. She felt the world had started to turn a corner, and was convinced she didn’t want to be left out of it.

“Be Free”: Argent

David, the one to name her Judy Blue Eyes, becomes her first boyfriend. He introduces her to the Argent song “Be Free.” “I said you’d be free didn’t I/ Took you up to the Sky/ Said you could fly.” It’s a synchronistic mix of the yearning for love and acceptance, and the desire to break away and find herself. She takes the lyrics as a message about her life, and a signal that he understands her better than anyone she’s ever met.

“Whole Lotta Love”: Led Zeppelin

Inevitably, as Judy spends more time in the movement, drugs become part of the experience. One evening she realizes that the speed someone gave her is actually LSD and she’s tripping, mixing up reality and hopeful fantasy. This is what it “sounds” like:

At one point, Judy heard the sound of an engine. She had never been on an airplane, but now she was. Whirling, grinding sounds were coming out of the jukebox, whipping her around:

Burrrrr . . . whOOOOle lot of love . . . grrrrrrr

whole lotta love . . . grrrrrrrrrr

The zoom and roar of the guitars were the engines revving, and she was flying. She wanted to tell David she got it now; she knew how to fly. She flew for days.

“Born Under a Bad Sign”: Albert King

David is confusing for Judy. He’s so handsome that when he takes his pancake hat off and shakes his long hair back from his forehead, she holds her breath. He’s a movement organizer who desperately wants to be big “freak” on campus, but he’s also kind of a jerk. Above all, he’s leading an effort to get ROTC off campus—a program so similar to her own that it will mean the end of her her future. And yet, he’s alluring. The first time he gets her into his dorm room alone, she sees lyrics painted on his wall, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

He spins her a sympathetic tale, and she begins to have real feelings for him, but is he sincere or is he just a seducer?

“But there’s always the chance my luck could change.” He moved a strand of hair that had fallen over her face. “You don’t want anything covering those up, Judy Blue Eyes,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her.

“See Me, Feel Me”: The Who

Events progress rapidly as the antiwar pressure builds: the Moratorium, the march on Washington. Judy has to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday and spend time with her family, hinting to them that her feelings have changed, that the army might not be the place for her after all. It goes badly. After a confrontation at dinner she escapes into her old room.

She turned her clock radio to a heavy-metal station, switched off the lights, and lay on the bed smoking…“See Me. Feel Me.”

Feel me. She wrapped her arms around herself and realized how much she wanted to touch David. It was all she had been able to think about since they had “done it,” as Vida would have said.

By the time she heard the third repetition of the phrase and its segue into touching and healing, she decided the song was speaking to her. That’s what she needed right now, healing. She let the music play until she was so depressed she could hardly stand it. It was too much. Michael gone, losing her virginity to Wil, sleeping with David, trying to figure out what to do about the army, her parents. Heal me.

“I Want You/She’s So Heavy”: The Beatles

The oppressive chords of this song appear periodically throughout the novel to signal horror. The new draft lottery hits Judy’s campus hard. Her close friend gets a low number. Fear is rampant, drugs even more so. The song is first “heard” on Lottery Night.

She maneuvered through the crowded halls on the way to Meldrich’s room and entered through a smoky haze to the pounding rhythm of “I Want You: So . . . HEAVVVVVY.” “I’m 66,” he said, “the devil sign.”

Later, when the protestors decide to focus on getting ROTC off campus, she feels pressured to cross a line against her best interests.

The pounding rhythm of “I Want You” boomed out of the jukebox. Couldn’t anyone play another song? Her head started to throb in time with the song’s ominous, endless chorus, blotting out other sounds in the Tune Room…. Her head was still pounding so loudly she couldn’t even hear the lyrics. There was nothing but the throbbing base along the floor, pulsing up the length of her body and settling right behind her eyes, louder and louder. If ROTC went, her program would be next. Her life, as she planned it, would be over.

“Let It Be”: The Beatles

The epigraph of the book is “There will be an answer, let it be.” As Judy struggles with her decision—to stay in the army and secure her future or leave to preserve her conscience, in a female version of the decision to go to Canada—this song reverberates. Her fatalistic friend Wil has always talked about how they should just chill and let things work out the way they’re intended. He says:

“Let it flow, let it be, and what happens is supposed to happen.”

“But, like I keep telling you, Judy Blue Eyes, you’ve just got to let it be. It will all become clear...”

Can Judy do this, she wonders, until she can’t wait any longer and is forced to make her decision.

Rita Dragonette and The Fourteenth of September links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Foreword review
Kirkus review
Windy City Reviews review

Big Blend Radio interview with the author
DeKalb Chronicle interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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