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April 7, 2009

Book Notes - Arthur Phillips ("The Song Is You")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Many books try to make music a plot device, but The Song Is You excels at this as its protagonist not only examines his past through connections to songs, but also his growing friendship (and obsession) with a singer-songwriter.

Publisher's Weekly wrote of the book:

"Phillips is in top form and does a brilliant job of transcribing the barrage of Julian's sensory data into cool and flexible prose. This is a triumphant return for Phillips to the level he achieved in his wonderful debut, Prague."

In his own words, here is Arthur Phillips' Book Notes essay for his novel, The Song Is You:

The Song Is You is a novel about playlists, about the shuffle mode, about the song that reminds you of the time, of the girl, of the kiss, of your child and of you as a child, of your dad, of the epiphany and later, when you realized that epiphany was stupid… No, the song doesn’t remind you of those things—that’s too rational—the song removes you, shoves you back there—maybe against your will—before you can hit the skip button.

And it’s a novel about the desire to be taken away by music, the fantasy that music can fix everything you’ve broken, that a pretty Irish girl singing in a Brooklyn bar somehow has all the answers to life’s questions.

The book is full of songs, of course, and these eight play critical roles:

1) “Space Oddity” as performed by Cat Power on a Lincoln Mercury a

There are only 30 seconds available of this version as of February, 2009, but I’m hopeful we’ll get the whole thing soon.

The novel’s main character, Julian, is a TV commercial director, a man who has been using his favorite music to sell products for too long, and I wanted an epigraph to illustrate that. A true and colorful anecdote: originally, I had wanted the epigraph to read: “You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world – Nike ad, 1988.” A certain band’s music publisher did not see the joke. I’d rather not say who. For fear of litigation.

2) “My Finest Hour” – The Sundays

If, by chance, you hear the word “Sunday” and immediately think of Harriet Wheeler, and then you have to sit down and hold your head in your hands and feel the need to rethink your whole life, then I’m pretty confident in suggesting you buy this novel.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, download the Sundays’ hit “Here’s Where the Story Ends”, then buy my book anyhow.

3) “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” – The Smiths

I generally feel that what happened in Manchester, England, between about 1982 and 1992 is on a par with Renaissance Italy or the legend of Paris in the ‘20s. A ludicrous number of highly talented people inspired each other, competed with each other, cooperated with each other, and laid down the foundations for culture that still matters today. Parents! Teach your children! The Smiths! New Order! Happy Mondays!

This song appears in the book sung a cappella by a woman listening to it on her iPod, that foolish moment where you assume because you can’t hear anybody else, they can’t hear you. She’s sitting in the dog park in Brooklyn (the big one in Dumbo), while Julian spies on her. It’s creepy and loving at the same time, if you know what I mean. Unless that makes me sound stalkery.

4) “I Cover the Waterfront” – as sung by Billie Holiday on “Lady in Autumn”

Just before the song starts, a man in the audience requests, “Waterfront!” And she sings it. That became the opening of the novel, as it was Julian’s father who called out his desire to his goddess, and she acknowledged him. Whoever your singer is, the one you secretly suspect understands you: what would you feel the moment you actually won his/her attention?

5) “Song for Whoever” – The Beautiful South

Paul Heaton’s church-boy tenor and Buddy Holly vocal effects usually disguised wicked satire in this and his previous band, The Housemartins (okay, Hull produced some good music as well as Manchester). Here he skewers songwriters (or any other artists) who need to see loved ones suffer in order to make art. “The number one I hope to reap depends upon the tears you weep, so cry, lover, cry…”

6) “Foxey Lady” by Jimi Hendrix as performed by The Cure

When the Irish girl’s guitarist was twelve years old, his parents bought him an electric guitar. This was the first song he learned. For me, it’s the sound of my cooler older brother introducing me to the bands he was listening to in college. He gave me this on a TDK SA-C90 cassette, with a The The album on the other side (Soul Mining, if you’re still with me).

(He’s still cooler than I am, considering he’s a war correspondent. And I spend my days sipping tea and writing down fantasies about girl musicians. Jesus.)

7) “Monkey Man” – The Rolling Stones

The song plays an important role in the novel, but I just have to let Mick speak for himself here: “I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around/By every she-rat in this town… I was bitten by a boar/I was gouged and I was gored/But I pulled on through.”

8) “A Little Less Conversation” – Elvis Presley

"Julian’s father manufactured—a profitable but small portion of the business—personal comfort inflatables, available only by private mail order: Air-dorables, Floating Venus, Weightless Tess, Pump ‘n’ Hump, and Silent Nights, the last in a package emblazoned with the Elvis Presley lyrics, ‘A little less conversation, a little more action.’

If you want to buy them, here are the links at iTunes:

Space Oddity - David Bowie (although Cat Power does it in the Lincoln-Mercury ad)
My Finest Hour - The Sundays
The Boy with the Thorn in His Side - The Smiths
Song for Whoever - The Beautiful South
I Cover the Waterfront  - Billie Holiday (from album Lady In Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years)
Foxey Lady - The Cure
Monkey Man - The Rolling Stones
A Little Less Conversation - Elvis Presley   

Arthur Phillips and The Song Is You links:

the author's website
the author's book tour
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (chapter 1)

BookPage review
Daily Candy review
Denver Post review
Library Journal review
New York Times review
Omnivoracious review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publisher's Weekly review
Time Out New York review
Washington Post review

Asthmatic Kitty blog post by the author
Brooklyn Based interview with the author
New York Times Paper Cuts blog post by the author
Powell's interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)