Author Playlists

Amy Grace Loyd’s Playlist for Her Novel “The Pain of Pleasure”

“The songs in the playlist for The Pain of Pleasure are not strictly songs that influenced the writing of the new novel—though some very much did. Instead, its playlist emerges from the story itself, from its foreground and background. The cast of characters use these pieces throughout to amplify events, to let go, heal and in one instance, to seduce, manipulate.”

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.

Amy Grace Loyd’s The Pain of Pleasure is much more than smart climate fiction, it is a brilliant novel of desire.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“In her second novel, Loyd explores how suffering and our efforts to escape it define us… [She] is a sensuous writer who lingers over details… no 21st-century reader needs an explanation for aberrant, alarming weather, and Loyd’s choice to just make this part of the background of her fictional world creates a wonderfully eerie undertone.”

In her own words, here is Amy Grace Loyd’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Pain of Pleasure:

The songs in the playlist for The Pain of Pleasure are not strictly songs that influenced the writing of the new novel—though some very much did. Instead, its playlist emerges from the story itself, from its foreground and background. It’s cast of characters uses these pieces throughout to amplify events, to let go, heal and in one instance, to seduce, manipulate.

Many of the tracks are weather related and come from a radio show, titled “The Wind Report.” It punctuates the action of the novel. New York City, where the book is set, is experiencing wild winds, lasting for weeks into months, and the show’s host plays tunes between conversations with guests and call-ins, hoping to console and companion city listeners through the upheavals out there. Of course, the unpredictable weather is also song unto itself—the wind trills and howls—and makes for other kinds of unpredictability on both human and meteorological levels.

Then there’s a church at the center of the book, deconsecrated, and something of an old fortress. It houses a headache clinic where more and more patients are turning up, thanks in large part to the impact of fluctuating barometric pressures. It may no longer be a sacred place, St. Gabriel’s, or not officially, but it still functions as a refuge. So does the music in the novel. It pulls things wide: provides crucial and timeless commentary on how we weather storms (both inside and outside us), on the extremes of human experience (from pain to pleasure and back again), and if we’re lucky, on how we find our footing through all of it, how we survive and endure.

Songs/pieces order of appearance in book:

1) Stabat Mater composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1736) performed by London Symphony Orchestra directed by Claudio Abbado (p. 36-41 and recurs at the end of book)

I was introduced to this composition—and in particular to its otherworldly opening movement—thanks to a French boyfriend. He was older and so smart and sophisticated that I often felt like a rough bolt of cloth. He took on exposing me to a range of lesser-known classical compositions and some jazz as a kind of corrective cultural mission (poor undereducated American). Among the pieces he shared was Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and it’s been with me ever since.

It’s about the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross, but that doesn’t tell you enough, not how haunting it is or how starkly beautiful, how the two voices (generally women’s voices and my preference), a soprano and alto, of that first movement work with, against, and up and out of the orchestra and its supporting baseline, or the heights reached: “The voices separated… the alto trailed the soprano again before they returned to stah—A vowel turned a vehicle of sound—the soprano scaling up and up again. It was a cathedral or a skyscraper she was making—not made from pride but from longing.”

Pergolesi was ill when he composed Stabat Mater, likely with tuberculosis, and passed away not long after, at age 26. He’d been afflicted with polio, and his siblings and parents all died before he did. The youth and fragility of its composer, who was best known not for sacred work but for comic opera, makes the piece all the stranger and more startling. It manages to convey the fullness of human suffering and dignifies it, but also, to my ears, through its beauty, defies it.

In The Pain of Pleasure Mrs. Adele Watson, a wily, outsize force in the story, uses this opening movement and of course the story of Pergolesi’s short life to seduce a young woman, a nurse, into letting down her guard and any resistance to being whatever Mrs. Watson needs her to be as an employee and acolyte. That was likely my French boyfriend’s hope too, at least in terms of the being-whatever-he-needed part, and I assure you sometimes, owing to the music (and what music!), I was pretty willing.

2) “Stormy Weather” by Lena Horne (p. 77), is the later version, not the 1943 film version, but from 1956.

This song is another meditation on grief, about romantic loss, but the stylization of Horne’s version, particularly the 1956 version, which I was thinking of for this moment in the novel, brings such sensuous textures, vocal range, and verve to the song that while you don’t doubt the singer is weary and stripped bare by her heartbreak, there’s little doubt she will overcome and that the power of her feelings is in fact her deliverance.

This is the first song played as part of an initial burst of the radio show in the novel. It’s heard by Doctor Louis Berger just after attending to his patient and employer Adele Watson, who suffers from chronic migraine. He has no ambivalence about being a medical professional–he believes in the oath he took—but has plenty of mixed feelings about Adele, who is in love with him and as he’s attending to her, begs him to “lie with her.” He resists but not with the same clarity of purpose and feeling as usual.

He’s generally “as sober as a vault,” but not on this night with the wind and his own resentments kicking up: “If he eased himself down next to Adele now? To feel her hummingbird circulatory system agitating against him on a bed that looked fit for a queen, and as soft. She was so small, all the more so now, so reduced. She trusted the Doctor wouldn’t hurt her, turn the tables right here. Take whatever he wanted. Everyone seemed to feel it irresistible to test him, to see if he’d show something of himself that he couldn’t. Not again.”

3) “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow” by Nina Simone (p. 105)

What is there to be said about this song but “Nina Simone!”— the rich depths of her voice, that even when she’s pining—“going where [her] daddy’s waiting for her”—she’s all power, that beauty wasn’t the point in her performances (though there’s plenty of rough beauty in this track) but the right to her authority and  freedom from her circumstances.

I picked this song for this moment in the story, to wind up another short segment of “The Wind Report,” because the winds aren’t quitting and the locals are weary, even afraid, and the host of the show wants to reassure his listeners best he can: “Imagine that, would you, dear listeners? That moment when the wind dies. Everything’s calm. We may see that again, any day now: gentle breezes out there. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait, or maybe…we need to travel a little, all of us, go where the chilly winds don’t blow? Nina Simone knows all about it, doesn’t she? She’s going where there are red roses around her door. Where someone is waiting for her, where the chilly winds don’t blow. Listen to that voice… C’mon, let’s go..”

4) Concerto for Violin in E Major, 2. Adagio, BWV 1042, composed by J.S. Bach, Itzhak Perlman, English Chamber Orchestra directed by Daniel Barenbohm (p. 110)

Bach did not write many violin concertos. He preferred the harpsichord to the violin and in fact did recast this for that instrument, but to me it has none of the same expressiveness or impact. It is the contrast of things here: the pace of this this second movement—the orchestra like a weather front taking over in increments, in no hurry, and at such size—and then the one sinuous violin piercing through its progression (much as the two voices do in the first movement of Stabat Mater).

That violin sings into and up out of the weather, taking flight and yet soon it collaborates with the orchestra, giving the whole thing an intimacy, a relieving feeling of agreement and grace.  An LA philharmonic critic called it “Bach at his most exalted” and “a kind of exquisitely controlled poignancy that is Bach’s inimitable version of Baroque romanticism.”

It struck me as the perfect choice for the second time Adele Watson uses music to seduce. It sets the stage for her to tell the story of an erotic encounter she had in Paris with one of her husband’s lovers (a story that may or may not be true), which includes a concert performance of the concerto. Adele is a magnificent narcissist, but she understands well the stories that music can tell and helps to shape.

I cut this out of the current version of the novel, Adele’s describing the music in her own words —there wasn’t the room—but here’s her take on the adagio: “The orchestra builds slowly, creeps, sighs, and out of it emerges one violin, aiming high above the orchestra. It begins to lead the orchestra, then it follows, and finally they are in step, partners; many have called this mournful in feeling, but for me it’s about tenderness. It’s the assignation after much resistance and fear; it’s the moment when anticipation ends and the fulfillment begins which means there must be care not to ruin so precious a thing, a moment, yes? Touch must be careful, unrushed, and there’s gravity too, maybe pain– who are these lovers? And who are they betraying, what marriage, what spouse? Or is it a man and woman who have come back to one another after a crisis and one is telling the story and the other follows, listens?”

5) “Like a Hurricane” by Neil Young (p. 143)

This song comes at the end of another “Wind Report,” just after it’s reported that bricks have fallen from the facade of a building in the high winds and injured passers-by. They still don’t have all the details, if there were any fatalities, and the radio host, once again, is trying to reassure: “While we’re gathering information for you, dear listeners, here’s Neil Young… Don’t get blown away. Hang on. You hear me? Hang on, my friends. There is calm after the storm. Look for it.”

Young with his reedy, sinewy, and plaintive voice is singing about wanting to love someone but is holding himself back, “to somewhere safer where the feeling stays.” Many of the characters in The Pain of Pleasure find themselves weighing who they can trust and love and who they can’t or shouldn’t. The Doctor wanted to love his patient, Sarah, but denied his feelings, played it safe. Soon, of course she’s out of reach, vanished, which fills him with endlessly circling regret. Ruth did love her husband and loved hard until it all fell into destructiveness, another story of domestic abuse in a world with too many already. What was a safe place soon wasn’t and emphatically so. But all of the characters here, including Adele, can’t help but long for romantic connection, even if it’s born more from their dreams than from reality or from what’s possible or just not meant to be as in Young’s “Like a Hurricane”: “And you could have been anyone to me/ Before that moment you touched my lips/ That perfect feeling when time just slips/ Away between us on our foggy trip”

6) “Didn’t It Rain” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (p. 201)

This is another track from “The Wind Report.” The radio host has just lost a caller who called in to share her concerns about more catastrophic flooding in Staten Island, which of course was hit so hard by Hurricane Sandy: “How about some more high spirits from a woman who beat the odds, Sister Rosetta Tharpe? The godmother of rock and roll. Elvis, Aretha, Johnny Cash? They all lifted directly from her book. Here’s ‘Didn’t It Rain?’ Maureen— we lost you, but I know you’re still out there—listen, in no time we’ll be looking back on this and saying, didn’t it rain? Under clear skies, we’ll marvel at it together, how it rained and rained.

If you’ve never seen the clip of Tharpe playing “Didn’t It Rain?” as part of a concert at a train station in Manchester, England, while it’s in fact raining, and recorded by Granada Television, then you’ve been missing out on some pure delight. As one of the commenters on YouTube writes; “Ain’t nobody cool as Sister Rosetta playing an SG [Gibson solid body] at the train station, in a jeweled fur coat. What a legend.” And someone else asks “Did I just watch a woman take a horse and carriage to perform a Rock and Roll show!?” Yep. One of the first popular recording stars of gospel, Tharpe became a pioneer of electric guitar and influenced far more than the three musicians the novel mentions, including legends like Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, among others. Her performance of “Didn’t It Rain” is divine funk, an invitation to live out loud, sing out loud, no matter the weather. It’s pure resilience, style, and spirit.

7) “Blue Skies” by Dinah Washington, Irving Berlin (p. 236)

There’s a moment in the novel where the weather becomes seasonal again, late spring feels like spring — the winds stop, there are wide-open blue skies. A joyful frenzy overtakes the city: “countless people turned out of the countless buildings, populating benches and stoops, picnicking, sunbathing, their legs and arms bare, midriffs exposed.”

“The Wind Report” opens its broadcast with “Blue Skies”: “Blue skies smiling at you. Nothing but, my friends. That was Dinah Washington, from 1954, making each phrase a song of its own. And her band? When they hit their stride? A controlled kind of combustion.” And he’s right, but it leaves out what nuance Washington brings to her opening of the standard.

In a later version, which I wish I’d chosen for the novel so am choosing for this playlist, the version on her Gold album, her tone of her opening intro to the song is just as shapely, but it’s full of pauses, breaks into silence, near whispers. There’s resignation mixed in, real life experience, knowledge that blue skies aren’t always enough or just don’t last, which is all the more poignant when you consider Washington died at only 39. In both versions, however, the song swings, shakes, is a declaration of life’s pleasures, too, that they can be had right now, in fact, while listening to Washington sing — go ahead, why not?  

8) “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra (p. 267)

This is played in a café after Jeff, a patient at the clinic and an arborist trying to help save the city’s trees from the winds, finds Ruth in a panic, from a sense someone may be stalking her. While they sit, have a beer, and let Ruth recuperate, the bartender, a friend of Jeff’s, assumes they must be on a date and plays music to test that assumption. He puts on Coltrane’s “Love Supreme,” not knowing of course that it wasn’t romantic love Coltrane was writing about but his love and gratitude to God. Then he turns to Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” that classic of blue-eyed soul, so lulling and wonderfully uncomplicated in its wholesale appreciation of love.

But it’s the Sinatra track that hits it just right, comes at a moment when Jeff and Ruth have begun to feel something shift between them, feel something lift in their mood—in Ruth’s mood especially—a sense romance could be possible for a young woman for whom romance had become a danger. “They hummed with the song, laughing again, at the idea of spring on another planet entirely—why not Jupiter? why not Mars?—just as the song said, with Sinatra’s dangerous velvet insistence (“baby, kiss me”) pursuing them outside, into an evening cooling and purpling with the sun’s disappearance.”

I picked it for this moment because the song’s swing feels forever young, as renewing as any piece of music out there. Quincy Jones in producing the song for a Basie album upped the song’s tempo from 3/4 to 4/4. Sinatra stuck to that tempo and lent his own signature swagger. On the version from Sinatra: Nothing But the Best, Sinatra is less muscular in his approach than in many of the live versions. There’s a lot of subtlety — can’t deny the tenderness there in his asking for his lover simply to “hold his hand”—but when the performance takes off, it goes right to the stratosphere; it’s explosive and utterly persuasive: He’s in love all right, his heart is full of song that, while we’re listening, makes us all believe we too can lift out of the usual confines of time and space, his declaration of love sung “forever more.”

9) “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell (p. 271)

Mitchell’s classic is featured in another “Wind Report” broadcast right after one of the show’s guests, a veteran climatologist, tells the story of the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane, the deadliest on record, killing at least 8,000. The American weather bureau didn’t heed warnings from Cuban forecasters, all Jesuits, who “could read the clouds. Especially Father Benito Viñes. If we had meteorological saints,” the climatologist explains, “he’d be one of them.”

Of course, being a nutso fan of Joni Mitchell’s, I knew I’d include this song here, not just for the cloud reference, but for the concession to how we all evolve, have to, and to the limits of our knowledge.

I didn’t specify which version of “Both Sides Now” the show plays in the novel, but if I had, I would have chosen Mitchell’s 2007 version, all lower register. Mitchell is singing into how living has changed her in fact—that signature trilling soprano of hers long gone to cigarettes and time—while the strings and horns of the orchestration complement her terser phrasing and the hard-earned wear in her voice. It’s both mournful and affirming, thanks to the rawness and generosity of her honesty here. Like good literary work—what I aspire to as a writer and what I prefer to read—the song takes on existential mysteries, how we keep in conversation with them about what’s real and what isn’t, and sometimes have to surrender to not knowing for sure, which to me, can be a huge solace, that letting go at last: “I really don’t know life at all.”

For a novel like The Pain of Pleasure, about weathering upheavals, inside and out, much of which we can’t foresee or forestall, Mitchell’s voice from her later life, singing about the gains and losses of enduring, is pitch perfect. 

Amy Grace Loyd is an editor, teacher, and author of the novel The Affairs of Others, a BEA Buzz Book and Indie Next selection. She began her career at independent book publisher W.W. Norton & Company and The New Yorker, in the magazine’s fiction and literary department. She was the associate editor on the New York Review Books Classics series and the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine and later at Esquire. She’s also worked in digital publishing, as an executive editor at e-singles publisher Byliner and as an acquiring editor and content creator for Scribd Originals. She has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia University MFA writing program and a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow.

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