J. Vanessa Lyon’s novel Lush Lives is a compelling queer literary romance.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“Lyon writes a compelling and sexy story of the lives of queer women, both past and present, grounded in the beautifully drawn atmosphere of Harlem. The novel successfully blends real and speculative history to evoke what may hide in the silence of historical records.”
Lush Lives, the title of my queer literary romance, is a riff on Lush Life—a song I’ve loved since I was a maudlin baby dyke singing in a high school jazz ensemble. Turns out, the tune is also a favorite of my editor and publisher, Roxane Gay. I’m always thinking with and through music. Like Lucille Hopkins, the storied great aunt whose legacy drives the novel’s mystery, my tastes are eclectic. This playlist is more evocative than narrative. It’s a sonicscape of the emotional—and erotic—arcs of Glory and Parkie’s all-over-the-place love affair. Glory inherits a house full of collectible vinyl and I see her playing these albums on her treasured Hi-Fi. But some songs are pure Parkie—who surprises Glory more than once by knowing what’s good for her. Manya gets in, too, with some sexy contributions from across the pond.
Lush Life, Sarah Vaughan
If you ask me there is no queerer jazz standard than Billy and Duke’s Lush Life, finished in 1936 but not recorded until 1948. Billy Strayhorn is the brilliant songwriting complement to Duke Ellington’s composing genius. Strayhorn was a Black gay man who lived his life openly in the 40s and beyond, when it was not at all easy (or safe) to be yourself in public as a queer of any color. Lush Life is surely Strayhorn’s musical memoir. But I think it’s also a tribute to the rest of us, feeling our queer feelings which doesn’t always work out but can be beautiful anyway. Sarah Vaughan’s technicolor 1956 version is my preferred one for the English horn intro—echoing “Life is lonely again,” the song’s original title. Vaughan’s rapturous voice and the emotional depth of her delivery reminds you you’ll never be the only, lonely, homo.
Love and Affection, John Armatrading
A song for getting on with it. And getting it on. If this single from 1976 doesn’t leave you open to persuasion, double check your membership. Born in St. Kitts and raised in Birmingham, singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading is true to herself. Everything she touches is piping hot. Dr. K might have listened to this on the sly when it came out.
Too Drunk to Fuck, Nouvelle Vague
There’s a dizzy, overserved and undersexed point beyond which nothing goes well no matter how much you want it to. Camille performs the band’s cover of a Dead Kennedys song from 1981.
But then, you realize you’re falling for her. And she’s complicated and intimidating. And you like that. But you’re not quite sure who you are anymore. Or how to act in her living room. Vintage Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart from the cool, hard Epoch of Eurythmics.
It can’t just be intellectual. Like Parkie’s ancestors, Amber is Dutch. This version is the so-called Thunderpuss Remix. Dreams really do come true.
High Horse, Kacey Musgraves
Parkie bets Glory thinks this song is about her. And she should. It’s a little bit of Colorado country to go with her girlfriend’s uptown style. Classic in the wrong way. Maybe they’ll put on boots and go line dancing at the next Stud Country when the dust clears.
Beyoncé had to have Harlem on her mind when she made what should have been a Best Album of the Year award-winner called Renaissance. Nella Larsen might have appreciated (and I know, I do) B’s sampling of Ts Madison, who tells it like it is about “beige, fluorescent beige” and still Black. Bitch. Once they give each other space to get comfortable, everyone’s scars get kissed.
Sushi for Breakfast, Bayli
Food is definitely a love language for Glory and Parkie. But Bayli’s raw and raunchy song—featuring Junglepussy in the remix—is not about that.
If You Love Me, Brownstone
What does this epic (Epic & MJJ) 90s R&B track steeped in three-part harmony sung by supple female voices not say about living lushly? It’s a sonorous sapphic hymn for the bedroom or the dancefloor—all hail Queen Latifah in Living Out Loud! Despite their New Yorkish name Brownstone got its start, like Glory, in LA. If You Love Me was recorded it in 1994. Oh I, oh I, I wanna touch you, baby. And spread my love all around you, honey. Show it. Prove it. Say it. Do it.
Scared, Lizzie No
Unless, that is, you’re terrified of your feelings. This sweet and vulnerable love song by Lizzie No, is Country and Folk Americana true to Manhattan. Anyone who puts the IRS up there with a fear of coyotes and cockroaches would be right in Glory’s book; Parkie’s story is here, too.
Tenderness, General Public
Aside from the catchy fifties feel of this 1984 song about who gets to be tender, I like that the British New Wave band General Public was a Black and white duo during Margaret Thatcher’s evil regime. As to girlfriends—how about the one that makes you feel like a man, man, madman, madman?
Cabaret Prelude, Alice Smith
Alice Smith is everything. Punto.
Drop Me Off in Harlem, Ella Fitzgerald
Bookending our story is another Duke Ellington tune, written by Nick Kelly in 1933. Ella Fitzgerald made basically all the greatest jazz standards her own, including Lush Life. But this version of Drop Me Off in Harlem is especially swingin’ and though I love Louis Armstrong’s take, it simply sounds better with a woman. As I’m sure both Glory and Parkie would agree.
New Bottega, Azealia Banks
The Double-D-cup-Diva knows fashion and although Glory leans more amor Italiano than Parkie’s Chanel, she rocks Miu Miu, too, when she’d not in coveralls. Banks takes a lick and keeps on licking.
J. Vanessa Lyon is the author of The Groves (an Audible Original) and Meet Me in Madrid, which appeared under the pseudonym Verity Lowell. She is an art historian, former appraiser, and occasional curator who teaches at a New England liberal arts college.