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November 19, 2018

Kareem Tayyar's Playlist for His Novel "The Prince of Orange County"

The Prince of Orange County

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.

Kareem Tayyar's The Prince of Orange County is an evocative coming-of-age novel steeped in the music and times of the 1980s.

Ryane Nicole Granados wrote of the book:

"Kareem Tayyar pens a tender tale, where boyhood, basketball and a love of music turn Southern California into a time capsule of adolescence in the eighties. The Prince of Orange County, with its brilliant detail and youthful candor, speaks to a whole generation raised on hope, humor and glorious reverie."

In his own words, here is Kareem Tayyar's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Prince of Orange County:

The further I got into writing The Prince of Orange County—a coming-of-age novel that takes place during the summer of 1986 in Southern California—the more I realized how much the book doubles as a figurative jukebox for the singers and songs whose work helped to define the era. In fact, given that this was, not un-coincidentally, the same decade in which I grew up, I’ve come to suspect that I wrote the book largely as an excuse to spend the better part of a year listening to Purple Rain nonstop. Nevertheless, given that the book’s main character, ten-year-old Thomas Kabiri, an only child still young enough to think he’s going to be the second coming of Magic Johnson, is at that wonderful age where he is discovering the joys of popular music for the very first time, I was consistently reminded as I was writing that, though the 1980s may have been a terrible era for politics, fashion, the working-class, good taste, Walter Mondale, the Boston Red Sox, the Ozone Layer, Hollywood films, and anyone who’d been duped into buying junk bonds, it was an exceptional one for pop music. So exceptional, in fact, that if I were in possession of Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, I’d get that thing up to 88 miles per hour and zoom back to see Bruce Springsteen live at the Meadowlands, where he’d likely end each marathon-length concert with an extended version of “Glory Days.” Wasn’t it Norman Maclean who wrote that, in the end, “all things lead back to the Boss?” I’m pretty sure it was.

Side 1:

“Night Moves”, Bob Seger: I was nine years old the first time I heard this song, and it was as exciting and meaningful to me as boarding that spaceship must have been for Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The moment when Seger, in that cigarettes-and-sleepless-nights-inflected voice of his, sings about “humming a song from 1962”, is the moment when I first fell in love with rock- and-roll. If I died and the ghost of Orson Welles were to remake Citizen Kane with me as the lead—we’re clearly in all-time hypothetical territory here—my copy of the Night Moves LP would be my “Rosebud”, and my final words would probably involve me whispering, to no one in particular, “I woke last night to the sound of thunder.”

“Paisley Park”, Prince: This track, from perhaps Prince’s most underrated 80s record, the part-funk, part- psychedelic Around the World in a Day, remains the most sweetly utopian song in his catalogue, and is possessed of the type of joyous optimism I wanted The Prince of Orange County to have. The chorus alone—“the girl on the seesaw is laughing/for love is the color this place imparts/admission is easy, just say you believe me/and come to this place in your heart”, is impossible not to sing along with. Every time I listen to it, it’s all I can do not to quit my job, move to Minneapolis, invest in a velvet purple coat, and start a Prince cover band. Actually, this still might happen. I’ll keep you posted.

“American Girl”, Tom Petty: This song shows up at a few different moments in The Prince of Orange County. I chose it because “American Girl” was one of those songs that I remember hearing for years before I actually knew what it was called or who the man singing it was, all of which gave it a mysterious, even miraculous quality. In addition, Petty’s vocal has a genuine concern for his subject—in this case that girl “raised on promises/[who] couldn’t help thinking/there was a little more to life/somewhere else”— that so much pop music lacks. Not empathy, exactly, which is relatively easy to mimic, but genuine grief: Petty wishes things had worked out better for his protagonist, and therefore, we do too. This is to say nothing of Mike Campbell’s opening guitar riff, which is like a wave that never breaks, instead it just hits the shore and continues moving, sweeping up its listeners and carrying us all into rock-and-roll Heaven.

“River”, Joni Mitchell: When you’re raised, as I was, by a mother who went to college in San Francisco in the early 1970s (who lived in Haight-Ashbury, no less), there is inevitably going to be a lot of singer-songwriter music in the house: Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, John Denver, Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Carole King, Bill Withers. At the time I thought these songs were uniformly awful, and were sung by self- involved, whining basket-cases who constantly seemed to be sabotaging otherwise healthy relationships. But once I moved into adulthood myself, I realized that this was some of the most mature, intelligent, and soul-satisfying music America has ever produced. I chose “River” to appear in The Prince of Orange County because it has my favorite Joni lyric of all time: “I wish I had a river/that I could skate away on.” Are you kidding me with that kind of genius? She’s in W.B. Yeats territory on that one. And Yeats couldn’t play the guitar like she could. At least not that I’m aware of.

Side 2:

“I Just Called to Say”, Teddy Pendergrass: A father of one of my childhood friends was originally from Pennsylvania, and he had this incredible collection of albums featuring all of those great Philadelphia International groups: The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Lou Rawls, Patti Labelle, MFSB. While I liked all of them, Teddy Pendergrass was my favorite. He had a voice that could be tender, tough, brash, funny, or fearless, depending upon the type of song he was singing. To me, he remains the only one who could go toe-to-toe as an R&B singer with the otherwise peerless Marvin Gaye. Add to this the stories of the “Ladies Only” concerts he used to give in his prime—which to a kid like myself made him sound like a Marvel Comics superhero come to life—and there was no way around it: Teddy P. was the man.

“The Gambler”, Kenny Rogers: Another childhood friend of mine had this Italian mother who was obsessed with Kenny Rogers. Obsessed. Not only was she constantly playing his music, but she had photographs of him on their wall. Not posters. Framed photographs, like Kenny was an uncle or a cousin or another member of the family. “The Gambler” was the first song I can remember that seemed possessed of genuine wisdom. Actually, my child self was certain it had all the wisdom a man was ever going to need in his life: to “know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em”; to “know when to walk away/and know when to run”; to know “there’ll be time enough for countin’/when the dealin’s done.” Plato’s entire Republic doesn’t have one-tenth that amount of philosophical gold in it, and even though I teach Thoreau’s Walden occasionally, I’m not really sure what someone is supposed to take from it, other than that trees are pretty to look at. This is not the case with “The Gambler”, especially from the start of the third verse, when Kenny changes keys, thereby letting us know that things have gotten especially real. He’s like a professor in a bolo-tie, with an unparalleled beard and the gravitas only a man who knows he will later duet with Dolly Parton can possess. And Jimmy Capp’s guitar intro? Incredible. It somehow manages to conjure the sound of the Wild West and the money-printing machine I’m sure Kenny had to invest in after recording this song.

“Born in the USA”, Bruce Springsteen: There are three eternal truths in American Life: 1. The Grand Canyon is our greatest natural wonder. 2. Blade Runner was a better movie than Star Wars. 3. The last verse on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” remains the saddest four lines in all of rock-and-roll: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/out by the gas fires of the refinery/ten years burnin’ down the road/ nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.” It still amazes me that Ronald Reagan tried to attach himself to Springsteen’s working-class anthems during the 1984 election, considering that Born in the USA, while as hook-filled an album of rock as exists this side of Sticky Fingers, remains one of the more desperate, primal-scream-cries of alienation and loneliness in the history of popular culture.

To be a kid in Southern California in the early 1980s was to be both aware of Vietnam and unaware of it: there were a lot of veterans in the region, many of them homeless or otherwise clearly struggling, not to mention that the neighborhood I lived in was full of Vietnamese families who had experienced unimaginable horrors in their home country before immigrating to the United States. Yet none of us kids could find Vietnam on a map, nor were we old enough to know what Agent Orange was, or of the terrors that had occurred at My Lai. But whenever I heard Springsteen’s music, even in the years before I reached my own intellectual maturity, I could sense he was singing about heavier things than the average rock- and-roll musician. When the main character in “Dancing in the Dark”, for instance, sings, “stay on the streets of this town/and they’ll be carving you up alright/they say you gotta stay hungry/hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight”, I intuitively understood he was articulating a much more powerful, painful, and emotionally honest interior experience than AC/DC or Motley Crue were interested in delivering.

“Raising Hell”, Run-DMC: An important point: Run-DMC remain the greatest rap group of all time. Period. Full-stop. And like the travesty that is the National League’s continuing refusal to adopt the Designated Hitter rule, this is not open for discussion. Anyone still in disagreement about this should kindly find themselves the nearest turntable and drop the needle onto Side One of Raising Hell, which opens with “Peter Piper”, “It’s Tricky”, “My Adidas”, and “Walk This Way.” Not since the New Testament’s Gospels According to Mark, Luke, Matthew, and Ringo have there been so many incredible narratives in a row. During the summer of 1987, when I was helping a friend with his paper route, I would listen to this record before leaving the house at 5 a.m. to start our rounds at higher volume than was probably preferable to my parents. In fact, it still amazes me that my mother has forgiven me for all of the sleep she certainly lost as a result of my love for this album.

Bonus Track

“On the Road Again”, Willie Nelson: I went through a phase when I was eleven years old where I would wear a blue bandanna to school. I’d hide it in my backpack until my parents had left for work, and then I’d take it off just before my first class. This was done, not as one might think, to emulate Axl Rose’s iconic look, but to emulate Willie’s. I first heard Nelson sing when I caught a rerun of him performing “Whiskey River” on an episode of Saturday Night Live in early childhood, and I was immediately awestruck. Years later I would come to understand that the song was basically existentialism masquerading as a honky-tonk lament; at the time I just thought the line “don’t let a memory torture me”, was about as cool a thing as I’d ever heard.

Kareem Tayyar and The Prince of Orange County links:

the books'a page at the publisher

also at Largehearted Boy:

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