Largehearted Boy: Debora Harding's Playlist for Her Memoir "Dancing With the Octopus"

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September 22, 2020

Debora Harding's Playlist for Her Memoir "Dancing With the Octopus"

Dancing With the Octopus by Debora Harding

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.

Debora Harding's compelling memoir Dancing With the Octopus is an intensely personal account of trauma and resilience.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This moving story of grit and resilience will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned."

In her own words, here is Debora Harding's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Dancing With the Octopus:

I like to think of Dancing with the Octopus, A Memoir of a True Crime as a mashup between a bildungsroman, true crime, psychological thriller, and a great love story. The narrative alternates between past and present, and though the plot is driven by the crime, the story really begins after I move to London to marry my British husband at the age of twenty-eight, and I started experiencing undiagnosed symptoms of complex PTSD. Lucky for me, my husband proved to be an ideal partner in this journey.

The songs I’ve selected for my playlist largely reflect my 1970s childhood in my beloved Midwest. My family tease me for my musical taste but I like to think I have a depth and breadth to a genre spread that they lack.

We didn’t get FM radio in the Midwest until the late 1970s, we didn’t have Spotify or Pandora back then of course. Albums were incredibly expensive as a teenager and the music in our home was mainly Christian rock from the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. My “secular” tastes were shaped in the same way most of my peers were by Casey Kasem’s Top Forty, which played on the weekend along with the songs I heard at our local movie theatre. It may be helpful to know that though I’ve lived in England for almost twenty years, I am at heart a Nebraska and Iowa girl. America is my homeland and I often ache for it.

So here’s my list of songs that go with my book “Dancing with the Octopus”.

Octopus’ Garden, by the Beatles. Ringo Starr’s song captures the mood my Dad would bring when he’d arrive home. He was a traveling salesman so would spend most weeks on the road. The title of the book, originates from a fun family moment when he pulled into a new strip mall near our house called the Old Mill Shopping Centre and began talking to an octopus he claimed hitched a ride back from Florida on our family vacation. He invited it to live in this decora-tive pond, that had a churning mill wheel as a feature, and promised we’d visit him. Occasionally after that, when we were passing by, he’d pull in and drive a few donuts in the parking lot, saying we were dancing with the octopus. The image evolved into the metaphor that seemed to capture the violence of my childhood and the way Dad taught me to cope with it, by turning denial into a fun imaginary game. An octopus was also a great image for capturing the difficulties of managing the multiple traumas I had to “un-sucker” myself from later in life. Apparently, Ringo Starr had been scared of octopuses until he learned that they liked to pick up colorful toys off the sea floor and take them back to their caves. Their playfulness inspired him to write Octopus’ Garden. The popularity of the song, not to mention the Muppets rendition of it, speaks wonderfully to this benefits of sugar-coating a potentially dangerous beast.

Rainy Days and Mondays by the Carpenters. The wallpaper of my childhood was the ever-present feel-good wholesomeness of Karen and Richard Carpenter. You couldn’t turn on a car radio without picking up one of the songs from what was to become their Classic Gold Album. My personal relationship to the song was really cemented, became my six-year-old soul cry, when my mother went into the hospital to give birth to my youngest sister, Jenifer. My parents ar-ranged for my sisters and I to stay with a friend and I remember feeling tormented by impatience. Seeing my reaction to the Carpenters’ music, our hostess taught me how to use the record play-er. I played it over and over again, and this song in particular flipped a switch for me. Because Jen was much younger than me we didn’t share a big part of our lives. But I just loved her in a completely un-judgmental way. And she still gets a pass on just about anything, because of it. She’s recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, hardly the baby of the family anymore, but I’ve still got that feeling of pride and protectiveness I felt toward her then.

If I Were a Rich Man from Chaim Topol’s performance as Tevya in Norman Jewison’s 1971 production of Fiddler on the Roof. My father went through a phase when he’d come home after a week on the road and sing a rendition of this song that would send my sisters and I howling. It was a great performance, we’d be hugging our sides with the intensity of our laughter, but I think we were just high with the joy of seeing him home because the mood of the house would shift so dramatically. But I remember always feeling that underneath the show was the same kind of pain you see in the face of Topol, the pain of a man struggling to stay above water financially in efforts to support his family, with the weight of a changing world pressing in on him, where everything he held important in terms of traditional family values was coming under attack by his own daugh-ters. Which was also to be our fate. When I really miss my father I listen to Topol, which brings him right back.

Run Joey Run by David Geddes, came out in 1975 and was pretty eccentric for a massive hit. I suppose its operatic sensibility appealed to me and my young corny sense of humor. In the song, a girl’s gun-toting father goes out to kill her love, Joey, and she pleads with Joey to run. The sense of danger and drama is palatable. Instead of shooting Joey though, the father accidentally shoots his daughter. I fastened into the sense of danger in the song and I suppose I identified with Joey. Instead of running from some girl’s gun-toting father, for me it was from the murderous rage of my mother. I revisited the song when I was writing the scene in the book when I tear the heads off the barbies belonging to the children next door and then leg it out of the neighborhood. An act I was still so embarrassed by that I really questioned putting it in the pubic domain. And of course, it is the one scene that friends who have read the book tease me about mercilessly.

You Can Fly! by Bobby Driscoll, For some reason, I really dug this song from Disney’s film ‘Peter Pan’. I first saw it one summer at a drive-in movie theater. I remember, we had to get dressed in a pajamas before we left our house and running around on the playground before the movie started with all the other kids, who were also dressed in their onesies, then sitting on the hood of the car with our popcorn. This song in particular, You Can Fly, was kid self-help on steroids. I must have been searching even then. It also brings back great memories of listening to the soundtrack album with Gayle on our bedroom floor for hours, that and the Jungle Book. I also have great memories of the adaptations of Peter Pan we neighborhood kids would stage for our parents. I cornered the role of Captain Hook, who didn’t get to fly, but sporting the hook and mustache kind of made up for it.

One Way by the Boone Family. There’s a scene in the book where I recount the night my mother came home wearing a pair of flared bell-bottomed jeans printed with scenes from a Pat Boone concert, and gives me a cross necklace that becomes important in the crime. When I began writ-ing this scene in the book I was curious to see if I could find the album and, sure enough, it was on Spotify. As I started listening, I was prepared to judge it but was really surprised at how groovy of a mood there is to One Way. It was one of the happiest chapters of my childhood, these couple of years where my mother fell in love with Jesus through the tutelage of Pat Boone’s Christian rock.

The Age of Aquarius by The 5th Dimension. This song brings back the zeitgeist that formed my childhood. I remember being impressed with the cool psychedelic look of the band. The song of was featured in Hair, but I knew it way before the musical came out. It captured the desire for progressive change that, even as a kid, I knew was needed. My parents became youth group leaders at our liberal protestant church and hosted a few potlucks at our house. I remember be-ing in awe of the outfits of those teenagers who struck me as pretty exotic, the miniskirts and go-go boots, the long-haired dudes with their bandanas. Harmony and Understanding was thick in the air. But so was Vietnam and I remember meeting an older brother of a school friend who had just returned, and sensed there was tragedy as well.

Feels Like the First Time by Foreigner. One of my favorite week-end activities was car-pooling it to the roller-skating rink with the neighborhood kids. I can still feel the beat to Feels like the First Time as I’d pick up speed, and cross-stepped it around the curves, glittering reflections from the disco ball casting pebbles of color everywhere. Every 15 minutes or so, the staff at the rink would blow their whistles and we’d form long snake lines where we’d have to put the hands on the hips of the person in front of us and fling and jig and shimmy our way around the rink. And then there was the hokey-pokey which was always a little sloppy. The real show-offs would do a perfect tiny circle. And then there was the couple dance, where one of you would have to skate backwards and they’d turn the lights down low. It was one of the rare occasions where I’d get close to a boy. They were kind of foreign in our family of four girls. Being a tom boy I always wanted a brother.

I Am Woman by Helen Ready. This song was the ultimate political rally cry for women in the 1970s, at a time when the fight for the ERA was in full swing. At first, I was slightly embarrassed for my mother when she’d pridefully belt out the lyrics, mainly because she was so terribly off-key. To be fair, Australian Helen Ready sings it at a pitch that is hard to hit. But I still make it a point to ask the young women in my life if they’ve heard it, and make sure it’s added to their playlists if they haven’t. I was coming of age at a time when Second-Wave Feminism was seeing the benefits of at least a decade of renewed activism. Legislation recognizing the importance of women’s rights over our bodies and lives was passed at the national level. This was around the time that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Kate Millet’s The Second Sex, the seminal feminist text were both published. My mother’s mental health visibly shifted as she went through her own transformation: the polyester elasticated waistband pants were replaced with pant suits and vinyl boots. She cut her hair. And she went to work for the first time, and then enrolled at the University of Omaha to study Political Science. I’ll never forget her gifting me the classic Our Bod-ies Our Selves when I was twelve, a book which started as an underground and quite radical sort of manual for the female body, published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, which then became a huge commercial success in 1973. So the lyrics to Helen Ready’s song, ‘I am woman hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore . . .’ shaped me into the political activist I became.

Hooked on a Feeling by Bo Donaldson. This one goes back, again, to golden times with my Dad. When this song came out, he picked up the ‘ooga-ooga-ooga-shocka’ part of the chorus and had a driver’s seat dance that went with it. When the song came on the radio, we would all just wait in anticipation for the background vocals and then join in singing it with the same sort of neck jiving beat. It turned into this nonsense game that Dad and I played for the rest of our lives called “the zap”. It was a kind of prank that we’d go to elaborate lengths to play, where we’d try to get each other to ask what someone said. And then we’d say ooga-ooga-ogga-shocka. My husband and daughter know if the songs starts, I’m gone until its over, and they kind of hope it doesn’t hap-pen in public.

The Joker by The Steve Miller Band. This was the first 45 LP I bought with my own money I had earned from a paper route. I was twelve years old at the time, and the furthest thing you could imagine from a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker. But if music had the power to corrupt, then that’s probably where my descent started. I loved the slide on the guitar. And I remember sing-ing it upstairs in my bedroom thinking I was really getting away with something. When I tried a joint a year later, and my mother took me to the police station to have me arrested, I had this song playing through my young mind as a spirit protector.

Day by Day by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle from the musical ‘Godspell’. Though I was increasingly getting into delinquent behavior, my favorite social place was still my progressive liberal church. We had a great youth program, a huge choir that toured the western states, and a co-ed sum-mer bible camp that I loved going to. Unfortunately, I was abducted on my way to church choir practice, and after the near-death experience that followed the crime, when God didn’t make an appearance to save me, it made it impossible to return to the firm belief I had. But ‘Day by Day’ was one of my top three campfire songs. It still is.

Roll Me Away by Bob Seger. I can’t listen to this song without tearing up with feelings of missing America. It is the ultimate road song and really captures those painful crossroads in life when you’re low, but have to make a major life decision about direction— “east or west”? You’re filled with anxiety, but then the decision gets made, the doubt begins to lift, hope begins to return, a sense of elation and freedom follows as you’re moving again — it’s all in the story of the song and the feel of the music. One of my all time favorites memories with my father was when he took me on a business road trip from Nebraska to New York. His aim was to slow my descent into juvenile delinquency. Along the way, we stopped at factories so he could demonstrate the cutting-edge robot he had bolted to a trailer that we pulled behind us. It was a hydraulic lifting arm that could save the workers from back pain. It’s the first time I was introduced to the steel union leaders, because Dad had to sell them first. But even more exciting were the convoys we’d form with the truck drivers, and the hours of conversation we’d have on the CB radio. I’d love nothing more than seeing one of the semis suddenly appear behind us, because a driver would pick up speed or slow down to get a glimpse of the Taurus, and then they’d sail by pulling the rope of their horn. So Bob Seger is one of those essential soul-lifting songs I put on, if I’m needing the thrill of being on the road again. And all those steel union workers and truck drivers I met, come back to me in spirit.

Gonna Fly Now by Bill Conti from the movie ‘Rocky’. On that same road trip, Dad wanted to stop in Philadelphia to see ‘Rocky’. I wasn’t thrilled about watching two-men boxing each other senseless, but he was so excited, so I went with it. Once we were sitting in our chairs and the movie’s title sequence began with the opening song, we were about knocked out of our seats. It was such a bonding moment for us. A couple of years later, after we’d moved from Nebraska to Iowa, we’d get up early in the morning and go up to the high school gym, put ‘Gonna Fly Now’ on and run up and down the bleachers. And then when my first depression hit while I was living in Washington D.C., Dad sent me the tape cassette to the movie soundtrack along with a walkman. I’d listen to it when I ran up the steps of the Lincoln Monument and the flights of stairs up to the U.S. Capitol. Later, I used it again when I was writing my book. There were a few times when I needed a real emotional break and recharge, so I’d go out for a walk in the valley we now live in — it has huge sweeping views — and I’d put this song on and it always moved me into that spirit-building space that Rocky, and Dad, inspired.

Be by Neil Diamond from the movie ‘Jonathon Living Seagull’. Since we are talking about spirit building, the film ‘Jonathon Livingston Seagull’ came out the year before I was kidnapped. It’s an-other film about a soul seeking rebirth after experiencing the trials and traumas of life. As I lost the comfort of my Christian faith that night, I found the music from the soundtrack particularly for-tifying and soothing and spent hours and hours listening to it in the dark. I think it’s because the lyrics in this song are poetic, but in a mystical sense. Neil Diamond’s smooth rich voice was so reassuring, it guided the traumatized fourteen-year-old me to a place of safety and calm. I think it is a stunning piece.

Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. I didn’t really appreciate the importance of where American composers sat in the history of classical music until I discovered the tone poems of Aaron Copland. For me, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ captures the American character like no other piece of music I know. And this is why it grew in importance. A couple of weeks after graduating high school, my mother kicked me out of the house without notice (she was always threatening to kick someone in the family out — but that time it was for real). At the time I was a young Republican and I joke that I was adopted by the Democratic Party, as a state senator gave me a couch to sleep on. I managed to get financial aide and enrolled at Iowa State Universi-ty but dropped out after the first year to join Gary Hart’s Presidential Campaign and ended up working on national staff in 8 different states over the next couple of years. I think that travel, coupled with the trips I did with my Dad, gave me a real love and appreciation for the pure rug-ged beauty of America. After I settled down in D.C. I experienced a serious episode of depres-sion and to help myself through it, I signed up for this cross-country bicycle ride that was raising money for the homeless. That’s when I met Thomas, my husband. We started in Portland, Ore-gon, and finished in Washington D.C. averaging 70 miles a day. In order to beat the heat, I’d get up right before dawn, hit the road, put my Aaron Copland on, and watch the sun rise over the horizon with ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ playing in my ears. It was spectacular with the varied backdrops, the Grand Titans, the Rocky Mountains, the Nebraska prairie, the gentle rolling hills of Iowa, the Appalachian Mountains. When I’m homesick, I just reach for it.

Love and Affection by Joan Armatrading One of the joys of my British husband and I getting to know each other that summer on Bike-Aide, was discovering the difference in our cultural back-grounds. I still get teased about the gaps in my music knowledge. By the time I met Thomas, I hadn’t heard of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, or David Bowie. When we arrived in D.C. the first thing he did was buy me a Joan Armatrading’s album, and we sat and listened to this together in my tiny apartment in Foggy Bottom. I was completely overwhelmed by her voice, this song, and how it captured the sort of torture of our being in love when there was no hope for the relation-ship as he was going back to England. ‘I am not in love, but I’m open to persuasion…’ It caught the mood.

Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver. Have to have this one on the list. After Thom-as and I lived in England for ten years, and our children turned two and three, we decided we wanted to down-size and move off-grid because neither of us liked how hard we were working. We picked Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a small historic town 60 miles outside of D.C. and spent a bliss-filled ten years as a family. Naturally, this was the family song.

I’m Still Standing by Elton John. It’s the question I get most often — how are you still standing? I’m not sure, but I know this song speaks to it in a pretty direct way and is a great finale.

Debora Harding has had varied professional experiences including work in national U.S. politics for ten years, co-founding the UK's first local terrestrial television station, and management of a bicycle business. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and elsewhere. The mother of two children, she spent her childhood in Nebraska and Iowa, and now lives in England with her British husband, the writer Thomas Harding.

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