As the about page on this blog indicates, and/or if you read it once in a while — music’s primal role in daily existence shouldn’t be in doubt.. Birth to death, love and loss, it all has a soundtrack. Naturally, that makes me a sucker for any book that conflates the story with music, lots of music is better. There’s some great non-fiction out there (Rob Sheffield is amazing), for today’s purpose I wanted to share some standout fiction.
Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby both get music in a very visceral way. Writing about listening to music, playing music and that ineffable response to a beat, a chord, a rhythm can be every ounce as difficult as writing a sex scene. It’s just as individual and the conventions aren’t there to easily create breathing imagery. The Commitments (1989, Doyle) and High Fidelity (1995, Hornby) pulse with music making the reader pull up YouTube videos and argue about covers. The subsequent movies for each film add a layer of complexity to the musical mix, and I find, perhaps, that the High Fidelity soundtrack captures the mood, the music and the book a little more authentically. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Commitments movie, it’s just compared to how I hear the songs in my head the movie soundtrack is a smidge pretty… though Destination Anywhere and Slip Away quite often find themselves on rotation in my car…
Setting Hornby and Doyle as the bar, so to speak, I want to share a few other musical novels that I’ve particularly enjoyed… even though endorsing Hornby skates rather close to hipster status or so I’ve been told. The books I’m suggesting are all YA (young adult) – stop, shh, stop the instant recoil. I do a lot of readers’ advisory and the statistic is approximately 62% of those reading YA literature are beyond the “teen” demographic. We will have an entire conversation down the road about YA, strengths and weaknesses. Right now, let’s rein the tangent back to a major scale.
First up, and arguably most popular, would be Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2006) by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. If screwball comedies of the 1930s said f*** every other word, and hook-ups were as common as gardenias – this little volume would have fit perfectly. The back and forth structure between Cohn and Leivithan is clever without being too precious. The music anchors, propels and underscores this “epic” night of adventure. I would ask, as a reader, that Norah be a little less man-centric… and the editor needed to whack a few expletives as the sheer number of them rendered them into “very” useless blocks of type. However, the book redeems itself with music, and the soundtrack that accompanied the movie included Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses and We are Scientists… nice little indie vibe going on there.
Vying for the popularity crown is The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Steven Chbosky. A cult favorite since its publication, it re-ignited with the release of the 2012 movie starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Using a series of letters, that I came to think of as addressed directly to me, Charlie explained life, tragedy, literature, friendship and so much music…. If you go into the book aware that its Catcher in the Rye adapted for MTV, your response can be pleasure at the language, the characters and the music. The playlist is wide-ranging, and you find yourself going to look for a deep cut — of Smashing Pumpkins, the Moody Blues, the Smiths, and of course the Beatles.
More obscure, and it shouldn’t be, is Jordan Sonnenblick’s Are you Experienced? (2013). Before I mention his current work, I should say I am predisposed to adore anything he writes. You see back in 2004, he wrote a heart-wrenching little volume called Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. My oldest daughter discovered the book, and it quickly became her favorite. She eagerly awaited each new book, and they were part of her “keep” books, as opposed to the stacks of library books that rotated in and out of the house. A little background, it took a long time to get my lovely girl’s asthma under control, so she had several times when she would be curled up at home to get back to a healthy respiratory state. No matter how many books we had in the house, the first one she would reach for was DG & DP. When we moved, it went into her box of special treasures, spine a little wonky, pages a little splayed. I got the joy of telling her a couple of summers ago that Mr. Sonnenblick himself was to be the “author visit” for the summer reading program. She was ecstatic — a little apprehensive about him seeing her battered book. I reassured her that would be a compliment, and she recruited her sister to read the book as well. They both came home from the signing bubbling with excitement and titles. They felt so validated, I sat down at the computer — looked up Mr. Sonnenblick’s website from his book and thanked him. His rely was so reader-driven, and so compassionate that I became a fan for life. With that small caveat out of the way, Are you Experienced is a great read. Combining family dynamics, loads of music and time travel to Woodstock — yep, time travel — the novel works. That’s in large part due to the authenticity Sonnenblick brings to the relationships between the characters (especially Rich, the 15 yr old hero and his Dad), and to the passion for music. At one part during the Woodstock segment, Rich plays an impromptu set for some folks hanging about. At the end, one of the girls “ambush kisses” him. The next sentence simply reads, “Guitars: get yourself one.” Fifteen year old boys everywhere just said, “yes.” I can’t put it any more succinctly than the venerated Kirkus Reviews, “This provocative, personal peek at legendary Woodstock rocks.”
If you’re still jonesing for a book that transports you to a rock arena or a smoky little club, a book that makes you look up music or smile at the fragment of a song in your head — check out: Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway (2008; think what happened to Delilah after the Plain White Ts said “hey, there”), Struts and Frets by Jon Skovron (2009; it has a playlist that includes John Coltrane, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Clash!), If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (2013; Native American reservation culture with a discography of the Beatles and Wings songs), and This Song Will Save your Life by Leila Sales (2013; invisible 16 year old to ass-kicking DJ)
***Oh, and just as a general rule if you want to get music fiction — you should brush up on your Smiths.
- Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom White (Chet Atkins et al. ) — one of the 1st songs I remember, my Mom stopped everything and beamed this incredibly warm smile to the air
- Delta Dawn (Tanya Tucker) — we would sit on the playground and play hand games, to create the rhythms as we sang the melody.
- Act Naturally (Buck Owens) — the CA sound — lot of country/bluegrass here. My Daddy & his buddies would play together — so it’s what I heard
- Bonaparte’s Retreat (Glen Campbell) — I preferred Paris to Wichita….
- Hey, Good Lookin‘ (Hank Williams) — on a good day, Daddy would waltz into the kitchen singing’ this in his fine baritone, and whirl my Mama from in front of the stove into an impromptu 2step.
- Harbor Lights (Willie Nelson) — lush, incredible song and Willie’s cover is just crystal
- Red Sails in the Sunset (Dean Martin) — 1st time anyone ever requested a song for me — I went on a business trip with Daddy, I was 10-ish and the guy at the piano played this for me!
- Again (Doris Day) –I do love to sing, humankind might argue my definition of song — I used to lock myself in the living room (hiding from the brothers) and perform this with my hairbrush…
- Shaw Nuff (Dizzy Gillespie) — seeing him at a tiny venue in the Foggy Bottom district of DC with maybe 25 other people in the club was one of my most favorite concerts
- Angel Eyes (Jeff Healey band) — vanity song, some forgotten boy in college told me this song reminded him of me & my expressive “forest” eyes, was what he called them. OK, I like that
- Desperado (Linda Ronstadt) — love her cover of this Eagles’ classic
- Like a Prayer (Madonna) — to be resolutely anti-Madonna, one has to ignore a good part of the late-20th century — I love the dissonance
- Any Kind of Lie (Marti Jones) — saw her with Don Dixon at the 1313 club in Charlotte — they owned the crowd
- And She Was (Talking Heads) — this just shaped music — the description of her rising above is kind of like Elton John’s Your Song or Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight — if someone described you with those songs, melting would definitely be in order
- Shadows in the Rain (the Police) — though the best version is on Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles album, with Dominic, Branford & Herbie … jeez that was a band
- Sugar Magnolia (Grateful Dead) — once upon a time, I was the “little southern girl with the mexican grilled cheese (quesadillas) — a time out of space that was magical and very memorable
- Woman in Love (Little Feat) — i discovered them concurrently with the Dead, though I was supposed to say, “dammit, Lowell George is still dead….”
- Fade into You (Mazzy Star) — her voice just slams you back into a yearny, longing place
- Nothing I Can Do (Ben Taylor) — his voice echoes his Dad’s, but has a little roughness that carries lyrics well
- I can only give you everything (Nick Waterhouse) — throbbing, hard driving R&B that I can’t believe isn’t one of the biggest acts out there!….
I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, but since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better –> William Faulkner