Author Playlists

Adele Bertei’s Playlist for Her Memoir “Twist”

“These songs inspired me to push on through dark circumstances; to believe in the creative power of sound to transform that darkness into light, and at my childhood journey’s end, to arrive at the belief that God has to be music.”

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.

Adele Bertei’s memoir Twist is as innovatingly told as it is harrowing and hopeful.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

A powerful look at survival and redemption despite extremely challenging obstacles.… [Bertei] narrates with a zest and objectivity probably only possible from a long temporal remove, and she excels at bringing readers deep into the difficult circumstances of her life…. Throughout the book, Maddie comes across as curious, impulsive, and observant, fond of losing herself in books and brought to life by the music she hears—and creates.

In her own words, here is Adele Bertei’s Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Twist:

The songs listed all appear in Twist: An American Girl, a journey I recount underscored throughout by the music that moved me deeply as a child and teenager. Music served as my lifeboat while attempting to navigate the traumas of a dysfunctional family, foster homes, and institutions, as well as the turbulence of the American cultural and political landscape during the 1960s and early 1970s. These songs inspired me to push on through dark circumstances; to believe in the creative power of sound to transform that darkness into light, and at my childhood journey’s end, to arrive at the belief that God has to be music.

The Sound of Music soundtrack | Maria

My mother loved dancing and acting out musicals, and the Sound of Music LP of 1965 was a favorite. The Maria song, as sung by the nuns in the lead character’s convent, is about a young nun who is scolded yet beloved because of her untamable, joyously rebellious nature. I loved the song and its depiction of a woman as both ‘a darling’ and ‘a demon,’ that tightrope dance being analogous to my path in life. Little did I know that a few years after singing the song with my mother, I’d be spending two teenage years in a convent reformatory for girls with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Gerry and the Pacemakers | Ferry Cross the Mersey

1965 was also the beginning of the troubles in my home, when my mother’s schizophrenia began to surface. I was ten years old; home did not feel safe, or anything remotely like home as compared to my school mates. I sensed life with my mother would not continue and was petrified about the future. Of being moorless, with no way to understand what was happening. I heard this song and felt such recognition… a mirrored sadness and longing for a home, one that would welcome me unconditionally in the way Gerry Marsden sings “We don’t care what your name is boy, we’ll never send you away.”

The Boswell Sisters | Crazy People

My maternal grandmother was a stride piano player. Alone and husbandless when she had my mother, she supported herself and child by playing piano in speakeasies during the Great Depression, a perilous life for a single woman. Her sense of rhythm was phenomenal; she loved to sing, and her joy when playing music was contagious. Swing music from the early 1930s was her thing, especially the Boswell Sisters and their close harmonies. Not to mention, crazy people are my favorites—but crazy in degrees! She taught me harmony singing so she’d have someone to sing with. I inherited her love of rhythm and swing, and she is directly responsible for inciting my lifelong love of music and its performance.

Van Morrison | Madame George

Madame George appears on Van Morrison’s greatest LP, Astral Weeks, released in 1968. It’s the first song I recognized as being about a gay person—Madame George is a drag queen. Singing about a gay man, or even speaking about the subject of being queer in ‘polite’ society, let alone coming out as queer, was taboo in the 1960s, probably more so in archly religious Ireland. In fact, northern Irish Van Morrison denied it was a song about a drag queen when interviewed. Yet the shame and ostracism of being queer and its accompanying sadness drapes a funeral veil around every note… “that loves the love that loves to love.” I was a young teen when first hearing it. The song made me ponder a future of sorrow because of my nature, my loving girls instead of boys. The Kinks would follow this song with “Lola in 1970,” but growing up queer in the 1960s and early ’70s was a rough road, devoid of signposts, and kindness.

Tommy James and the Shondells | Crimson and Clover

My first sex song; the extended version that clocks in at 5:32. I was seduced by a girl in junior high school to the accompaniment of this record on the hi-fi. Out of fear of exposure and as things got hotter, the girl accused me of trying to force myself on her, and I was attacked, beaten, and bullied by a gang of junior highschoolers for being a ‘dirty queer.’ I nearly lost an eye. Regardless, that song remains one of the top hottest make-out songs in the rock and roll canon.

Mahalia Jackson | There is a Balm in Gilead

The man my grandmother married was a brute, and a ‘religious’ Protestant hypocrite. Ignorant and nearly monosyllabic, he hated the joy my grandmother experienced playing piano and vowed to destroy her happiness by replacing her piano with a monstrosity of a Hammond organ; the kind with an array of colorful levers that changed the sound to chintzy horns, flutes, and violins. Nothing like the excellent samples we work with today, the effect was like a kaleidoscopic merry-go-round in Hell. He commanded her to play only hymns from that point on, knowing she couldn’t beat out her infectious rhythms on a Hammond organ. His destruction was complete; she was forever broken. I remember her singing “There is a Balm in Gilead,” and then in turn, me singing it back to comfort her in her saddest moments.

Crosby Stills Nash & Young | Deja Vu

I ran away from the convent reformatory with another girl. We hitchhiked to Kent State University just weeks after the Kent State Massacre where four students were shot and killed, and nine others wounded by the National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam war. We were outraged and desperate to be a part of the revolution. When we arrived at Kent, we encountered a deathly silence, as if the revolution itself had been murdered. We hung out with a few students, and they played this LP. The song “Deja Vu” seemed to capture the ghostly atmosphere, with its abstract, dissonant vocal intro and jazz harmonics, and the idea of time repeating on itself as illustrated in the music. The harmonies raised the hair on the back of my neck. The song conjures an acute feeling of being lost… what’s going on down under you? We have all been here before…

The Jackson Five | The Love You Save

I spent a few years in a high security reformatory in Cleveland called Blossom Hill, and our recreation periods in the gym were all about dancing and roller-skating to the best soul and R&B songs of the moment. The Jackson Five was my favorite group. This song was a winner for roller-skating backwards while romancing your girl. Nearly all the girls inside had girlfriends. We called it ‘the game’ and we played it well… we weren’t about to have our teenage mating rituals denied us. After emancipation, many would go back to having boyfriends but for some of us, it was never a game.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, Cabaret soundtrack | Money

My first performance as a singer was as a drag king, playing Joel Grey in a drag performance of Cabaret in 1973. I had been adopted by a drag queen troupe in Cleveland, and we performed at a gay bar called the Change. The song “Money” was the hit of the show, a duet between Mona (the mother drag queen of our nest) and me.  Mona towered over me, especially in her heels (I’m a shorty) and hilarity ensued when we were supposed to bump groins to the sound of coins hitting a can— our groin heights didn’t exactly match! The queens became my soul family—they taught me to perform and, unfortunately, how to drink! Circling back to “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” the queens I call Mona and the Maudlins became the land I loved. I’d found my way home.

Betty Hutton | It Had to Be You

Don’t we all dream of a great big magical love in our lives? The one who is perfect for us, who’ll know exactly how to thrill us, to love and be loved by us? When that person finally shows up, it hits us like a punch, not only because it feels like lightning striking, but also because they do not meet our gilded expectations. Most often it’s quite the contrary! This song is a perfect illustration of the fact that we can choose who to date, who to have sex with, who to be in a relationship with, and who to marry. But we can’t choose who we fall in love with. Some things in life are fated… it’s what we choose to do with fate that counts. Betty Hutton nails the truth of falling in love in “It Had to Be You.”

ADELE BERTEI began writing and playing music in Cleveland with Pere Ubu’s legendary Peter Laughner, and as a member of the Contortions, produced by Brian Eno on No New York. She was lead singer of the first out, queer, all-women rock band, the Bloods. Her career includes 1980s dance hit “Build Me a Bridge” and UK hits “Hyperactive!” with Thomas Dolby and “Just a Mirage” with Jellybean Benitez. Bertei has recorded vocals, performed, and written for such diverse acts as Tears for Fears, Culture Club, Whitney Houston, Scritti Politti, Sheena Easton, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Jellybean Benitez, the Pointer Sisters, and John Lurie. Bertei played a lead role in Lizzie Borden’s seminal feminist sci-fi film Born in Flames. She is the author of Peter and the Wolves published by Smog Veil Books 2020, and Why Labelle Matters, published by the University of Texas Press, a finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Awards. Twist: An American Girl, published by ZE Books 2023 is her origin story.

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