Largehearted Boy: Darin Strauss's Playlist for His Novel "The Queen of Tuesday"

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August 18, 2020

Darin Strauss's Playlist for His Novel "The Queen of Tuesday"

The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Darin Strauss's fourth novel The Queen of Tuesday vividly brings to life the world of Lucille Ball at the height of her stardom. A clever, compassionate, and wholly entertaining book.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"The Queen of Tuesday is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people. . . . Strauss creates a brilliant glance-by-glance re-creation. . . . We’re right there in the studio, not just laughing with the audience but moving in Lucille’s head, feeling the electric tension that’s equally hilarious and terrifying. . . . Strauss conjures up those heady days of I Love Lucy with such vibrancy that it’s impossible not to hope that everything might work out after all. . . . This is well-trod celebrity gossip, though exceptionally well told. But what makes The Queen of Tuesday so peculiar and fascinating is the story that Strauss weaves through it about his grandfather, Izzy."

In his own words, here is Darin Strauss's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Queen of Tuesday:

My new book, The Queen of Tuesday, is a kind of triple-play—the story of Lucille Ball, the story of my grandfather, the story of their barbed romance. The affair is all wild conjecture: a dead reckoning. But I open the novel with their meeting at a fun-swept party – Trump's gross father presiding; jazz on Coney Island sand; a glass-and-steel cathedral shattered. And that really happened.

I work – I have always worked – listening to music. (It’s going right now. Tell me what you hear.) My friend Rich Cohen says doing so allows you to have a little party at the office. Why not?

In writing about the 1950s, I’d play songs from that tame provisional time. For inspiration; or as a way of surfing the rhythms of a year. Sometimes I’d listen to stuff – music from any period – just to help me grab a mood or something. Sometimes, the music I chose had bupkis to do with my book. Sometimes, I merely had a strong wish for John Lee Hooker.

"Everything Happens to Me" by Frank Sinatra

If Sinatra seems dated or stale, try this Robert Christgau line; it led me over the forbidding terrain of his catalog. “Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan's, Carole King's, or Rakim's--probably more so.”

Sinatra was a complex guy. Early civil-rights spokesperson, misogynist lout, back and forth like that. And a listener might get a sense that vocal expertise was a sort of cudgel Sinatra swung – one more tool in his box of machismo. But what expertise! What a soothing cudgel! That’s what’s seductive, I guess, about good art from bad people. Technique all on its own can be a style, and (as Nabokov says) style is a kind of morality. When you hear someone sing so intimately, you identify with that voice. Sinatra shakes a note in the fist of his skill, and the reaction goes beyond the music sounding good; it feels profound.

“Everything Happens to Me” is a pop standard by Tom Adair and Matt Dennis and Sinatra recorded it three times. First when he was twenty-five. Then in his early forties, on the album Close to You. It’s the third version, cut when he was sixty-six, that I loved. Vocally, it’s the worst of the three. By far. The perfection of his instrument—usually the hallmark of his charm—had begun, by the 1980s, to wither. But my book’s heroes feel lots of meditative, golden-year regret. And there’s something to how Sinatra—who also was among the smartest interpreters of a lyric—sings: "Suddenly you're a lot older." And that something is meditative, golden-year regret, in its purest form.

Electric Blues Classics Playlist, by various geniuses. (Geniui?)

In my 20s I had to make a decision. Was I going to a) play it safe and go to law school? B) Try to write novels? C) Take the risk of playing blues guitar for a living? Seriously. (“Long Island Blues man” was a term of derision in the movie Crossroads, and this helped me make my choice.) But I was – I am – serious about the guitar. I played lead in a band with the great Jonathan Coulton, who has gone on to become one of the wittiest and most melodic songwriters in America. (I play lead on his song “De-Evolving,” the story of which can be found on “Jo-copedia,” the wiki his fans have dedicated to his music:

This is a long way of saying that mid-century electric blues has great meaning to me. I made a playlist of that stuff and listened to it as I wrote. (

The list is not exclusively the best of electric blues; some of what I consider the best I’ve heard too often; and so I had to make do with other top-quality songs. But these remain very choice cuts of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and BB King. (I would’ve called the playlist “some of the best of Chicago Blues,” but Hooker made his name in Detroit.)

The critical under-appreciation of this music is predictable and tragic. Too many (though not all!) white practitioners turned this pain-drenched genre into a kind of frat-house genre, where the primacy of the (cliched) guitar solo diminished the importance of beautiful vocals. Even the best rock-and-roll—which everyone knows came out of the blues— took much of what was profound here and replaced it with mere rebelliousness and brio. As Keith Richards put it, rock and roll is for kids, while the blues is grown-ups’ music.

Just listen to David Bowie’s cover of “”Mannish Boy” –a song whose lyrics read “I’m a man!”—and compare it to Muddy Waters’ original. Bowie is saying “I’m 21 years old! I’m not a teen anymore!” Waters tells you the 40-plus singer is a grown adult, and if you call him a “boy” you are beneath his contempt.

What Sam Philips – the man who discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis -- said about Howlin’ Wolf could stand for the whole genre. “This is it for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”

"Saint Dominic’s Preview" by Van Morrison

As part of my NYU gig, I host a reading series, and I did one the other day with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird and we had an interesting talk. We discussed how certain writers might resonate with you in a special way, and that –- even if you couldn’t claim that you found these writers the best in the world – they were favorites of yours. Or, more than favorites.

Brad Leithauser talks about there being, out on the shelves of the world, a “book of your life.” It’s a reworking of the way Melville thought about writing: that there exist certain books in whose “rainbow” we “oscillate.” That is to say, some books send out a message you receive perfectly, as if it were aiming at you alone. For me, a writer like that is VS Pritchett. I can admit The Brothers Karamazov is a better book than anything VS Pritchett ever wrote. But Pritchett is a part of me in a way Dostoyevsky is not, and won’t ever be. (For Zadie, it was Nora Zeale Hurston. For Nick, Scott Fitzgerald.)

If you’re a serious listener, you’ll find something (or a few somethings) in one or another artist’s music that will activate in you some feeling of kinship—some frizzle of recognition—a personal sound that you almost believe reaches just to you. This will inure you to the music of your life more than to other music—better music, even. When a song or a book hits you in this way, it’s almost as if you believe that it’s letting you know who you are.

I feel that way about Van Morrison. I’m not alone. He’s never been the most popular musician, or even the most critically acclaimed (though he’s had plenty of acclaim). But, to quote Christgau again, “He does have a direct line to certain souls, though.”

So, don’t insult “Saint Dominic’s Preview” around me.

"Ain’t No Way" by Aretha Franklin

Maybe the most beautiful song in (broadly defined) American pop music.

"Take it to the Limit" by Etta James

I find it fascinating when a musical performance can overcome—due to intensity of feeling, or technical prowess, or any number of reasons, I guess—the deficiencies of the material being performed. This Eagles song has a nice melody, but it’s pretty mawkish. Or, it is when the Eagles do it. But when Etta James does it – particularly in her performance in this National Easter Seal Telethon – the emotive power of her vocals steamrolls over any qualms you might have.

The lyric itself—about loss, and “nothing to believe in”—is, in a way, perfect for my character of Isidore Strauss. (Who was my grandfather.) I imagined him as a man who was defeated by his great love, and who questions his religious faith. It’s a subject matter that could veer toward melodrama, if handled badly. Or, if handled well, could be devastatingly powerful, I thought.

When I compare Etta’s version with the original, I’m reminded of a line of John Cheever’s, from The Country Husband. Cheever describes a hapless musician trying to play Beethoven. “He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance,-lonesomeness, and self-pity--of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know.” It’s Etta’s greatness to avoid a lot of eagleisms.

"I Should Care" by Thelonious Monk

I found a song that, maybe more than any other, encapsulates all I was trying to convey with this book. What was I trying to convey? Deep sentiment without sentimentality, I guess; a bit of swing; some rigor; an idiosyncratic style; and at least a little wit. Also, what one might call formal adventurousness. All of which you’ll find in the work of Thelonious Monk. Not that I succeeded. Monk is a genius; I’m trying my best. But my model in all this was a song from the period in which the book is set. “I Should Care,” from 1957’s Thelonious Himself.

All art aspires to the condition of music. The quote (Walter Pater) is so apt it’s become a bit of a groaner. But Hemingway, too, talked about seeing the effects he was attempting in another art form—in his case, the work of the painter Henri Matisse. So, what is happening in this song? According to the critic Martin Williams, towards the end, “Monk plays four chords in which, after first striking all the notes hard and sharply, he quickly releases all but one. This kind of chord distillation is one of the most radical aspects of his music, i.e., the idea that one note above all others can most succinctly represent a chord.” The effect is haunting. I tried to do something similar in the way I revealed the death of one of my protagonists. And throughout, Monk’s “a-rhythmic, unexpected moves” (Williams) create a tremendous tension. I tried to play with time in the novel to maximize the sense of excitement. Anyhow, I’ll never hear this song again and not think of my book.

Darin Strauss is the author of the bestselling novels Chang and Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You; the memoir Half a Life, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; and a bestselling comic-book series, Olivia Twist. These have been New York Times Notable Books and Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and NPR best books of the year, among other honors. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Library Association award, and numerous additional prizes, Strauss has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries. He is the clinical professor of fiction in the graduate writing program at New York University.

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