May 20, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.
Peter Selgin's debut novel Life Goes to the Movies is a powerful exploration of male friendship from the 2008 winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction (for his short story collection, Drowning Lessons).
Because my novel Life Goes to the Movies was written across a period of more than fifteen years, a great deal of music of all different kinds attended its composition. I will try my best here to talk about what I can remember in chronological order.
First, though, the reader who comes innocently to this novel should know that the greater part of it is autobiographical; as a matter of fact those sections most like to be deemed sensational and even unbelievable are also most likely to be informed by, if not verbatim records of, true experiences. The narrator's character is indeed based (no surprise) on the author; as a freshman in art school he did indeed encounter a veteran of the Viet Nam war turned filmmaker, with whom he became close friends, and with whom he underwent (I was going say "endured," but that's not right: we mostly had a blast together) a series of adventures. This person remains a friend to this day—though that friendship was severely tested by the novel in question.
Like the characters in my novel, Patrick (my friend's real name) and I really did live in a cold-water tenement, though not in Long Island City, Queens, as in the novel, but in Brooklyn, near the Heights. And as in the novel, the apartment was dominated by a lion's claw bathtub that took center stage in our modest kitchen. In that tub drained of water we would stand, Patrick and I, wearing cheap wigs that he had found in the trash somewhere, armed with mop and broom guitars, belting our hearts out to Beatles songs played on what was already then an antiquated reel-to-reel tape recorder (this would have been the late seventies). The songs I remember us singing to most were "Ticket to Ride" and "I'll Be Back"; indeed, whenever I hear those songs today I'm transported back to those days, back to that kitchen bathtub with my friend Patrick.
"I'll be Back" is an interesting Beatles song, the only Beatles song, as far as I know, that owes something to flamenco. It begins with a flamenco guitar riff, of something derivative thereof, and maintains its Spanish zeal while driving along at a standard 4/4 signature. As John Lennon himself complained, the "middle eight" is "a bit thick," with that drawn-out first person pronoun stretching awkwardly across what seems (to my non-musically trained ears) like at least three bars, one thin syllable stretched past the breaking point. Not that it matters: it's one damn great song, the sadness of its lyrics perfectly balanced by the bouncy exuberance of its rhythms. Listen to it and dare to disagree.
When not singing together with Patrick in our kitchen tub I was often alone in those moody starving artist days when all I thought of was fame, all ears turned to the soundtrack that almost never ceased to perform in my head. At one point in the novel my narrator-doppelganger, Nigel, stands at the railing of the Brooklyn Bridge looking down "through air frigid with the smell of dead fish" at the fishmongers as they unload crates of frozen fish from the backs of trucks lined up at the Fulton Street fish market. As he watches, Leonard Bernstein's theme from On the Waterfront courses through his cold head. As he was one of mine, Marlon Brando is Nigel's hero, and so music from Brando's movies was, so to speak, instrumental both in living and reliving those days. I still listen regularly to Alex North's score to A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the all-time best movie scores ever composed, and among the first to be influenced by jazz. Without ever quite being jazz, or even quoting it, the score cleverly carries the flavor of jazz, while investing the listener deep into the honky-tonk atmosphere of Bourbon Street in the New Orleans' French Quarter, and exuding the musical equivalent of male musk (which, I'm told by those who were there, could be smelled from the back row of the theater where Brando played Stanley on Broadway).
Another score running through those years is Gato Barbieri's to Last Tango in Paris. It, too, stands firmly apart from the film it was created for—a film that, according to Dwaine Fitzgibbon (my novel's protagonist), is one of life's pleasures best experienced alone—along with a walk on the beach or "a good bowel movement." With respect to holding up, the score fares better than the film, in which Brando's less successful improvisations come off as caricatures of his earlier roles, and the plot itself is an adolescent male fantasy, and no more credible. Still, when paunchy, short-of-breath Marlon pursues Maria Schneider through the streets of Paris, who can remain unmoved? Here is the former Stanley Kowalski, plucked of his peacock feathers, turned inside out and rendered as vulnerable as the child we always suspected him of being.
While mentioning movie scores, I can hardly omit Bernard Hermann's score to Taxi Driver, the movie that inspires Dwaine to become a filmmaker. Those harp strings plucked to the vision of a Checker cab "moving through red steam clouds like some glazed yellow apocalyptic beast slinking its way through the inferno"— who can forget either? (Is it permissible to quote oneself this way? But then this is an essay about music and a novel, mine, and the words were written very much with the aforementioned music and scene in mine.)
There were others tunes, too many to elucidate. I'll mention a few more below. Suffice it to say that during that time when, for better or worse, my life went to the movies, for better or worse music much helped get it there.
I'll Be Back, Ticket to Ride—The Beatles
Theme to On the Waterfront—Leonard Bernstein
A Streetcar Named Desire (soundtrack)—Alex North
Last Tango in Paris (soundtrack)—Gato Barbieri
Taxi Driver (soundtrack)—Bernard Hermann
I Just Called to Say I Love You—Stevie Wonder
Lay, Lady, Lay and Hurricane—Bob Dylan
No Woman No Cry—Bob Marley
Baker Street—Gerry Rafferty
Peter Selgin and Life Goes to the Movies links:
Emerging Writers Network guest post by the author
Hitherandthithering Waters guest post by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for Drowning Lessons
The Rumpus guest post by the author
also at Largehearted Boy: