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September 2, 2009

Book Notes - Matthew Specktor ("That Summertime Sound")

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

Matthew Specktor's debut novel That Summertime Sound is a coming-of-age story set in the Columbus, Ohio of the mid-1980s, and music frames the narrative impressively throughout the book.

Check out the book's website to hear audio excerpts from the book read by James Franco, Jeremy Irons, Gwyneth Paltrow, J. Mascis, and Morgan Freeman.

Jonathan Lethem wrote of the book:

"Matthew Specktor's That Summertime Sound isn't so much a book as it is a door, hinged in memory, and swinging wide to every tenderhearted throb of lust and longing and precocious regret still there where you left it, at the periphery of adulthood. How does the novel perform this trick? By prose as lucid and classical as Graham Greene's in The End of the Affair, yet saturated in detail such that if you'd never had the luck to outgrow an 80s' teenage dream in Columbus, Ohio, you'll feel you had after reading it."

In his own words, here is Matthew Specktor's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, That Summertime Sound:

I tend not to listen to music while I'm writing. Except in the case of That Summertime Sound, where—since I was writing a book about rock-n-roll (and since I'm a big fan of subverting my own habits)—I further inclined towards listening to messy, noisy, indelicate stuff. The sort of sound that destroys concentration, only…well, at two AM, an MC5 record really makes you want to go for broke. A good impulse, in writing and otherwise.

The 13th Floor Elevators, "I've Got Levitation"

Garage rock was a big thing for my friends and me at nineteen. It was a little kitschy, but like the people in the book too, we responded authentically to its grievances, its energy and attitude and its social position. The Elevators sound better than most to me now: sweet like Buddy Holly, raw like Little Richard and utterly riven by Bob Dylan and LSD.

The MC5, "Looking At You"

Not the LP version, but the original 45, which might be the rawest record I know. It sounds like feral cats in a subway tunnel. In a sense, this was the sound I was chasing at that age—just like the narrator of the book, who's not into the Smiths or any of the more refined bands popular with his peers. I played the bejesus out of this single, both back then and while I was writing.

Lee Hazelwood & Nancy Sinatra, "Sand"

I found this song via a cover in the eighties, but of course it's perfect: sexy, a little ridiculous, tinny and woozy in an AM radio, just-who's-this-song-really-for kind of way. I still don't know what to make of it. The various songs that get mentioned throughout the book are all really gesturing towards the story's various metaphors and motifs (I'm not sure the novel is really about music at all). That's certainly true with this one, not to give away any surprises.

Peter Laughner, "Amphetamine"

An amazing, Cleveland based songwriter who co-founded Rocket from the Tombs and died, of liver failure, in his late 20s. I listened to a ton of Ohio bands while writing this book (others: The Mirrors, Pere Ubu, the Raspberries, the Pagans, the Ohio Players, Bootsy Collins), but poor, Dylan-fixated Peter Laughner more than most. He didn't exactly overthrow his influences, but then, you don't always have to.

Mott the Hoople, "Trudi's Song"

God. I'd always thought Mott were a second-tier glam band, but my friend—the model for the book's fictitious singer ‘Nic Devine'—just loves ‘em. So I broke these records out of the closet while writing. Suffice to say I now think they're one of the best British bands of the seventies. As good as the Kinks, better than The Clash.

Sly & The Family Stone, "Brave & Strong"

Part of the delight in writing was in rediscovering stuff I've been listening to all my life. The same friend is a huge Sly Stone fan, so I dusted off my copy of There's A Riot Goin' On. Which it turned out served perfectly to evoke for me the humidity of a Midwestern summer. It's just so incredibly, albeit narcotically, exhausted. It sounds like the most lassitudinous music ever made.

Dr. Alimantado, "Gimme My Gun"

I think we listened to everything we could find, just because we could find it. We liked the album cover, and we may have laughed for a while at a dreadlocked man in a loincloth on the street (The Best Dressed Chicken In Town?), but we learned to love it. Whatever ‘it' was. That same summer, I read in succession One Hundred Years of Solitude, John Berger's G, Rushdie's Shame, Graham Swift's Waterland, Mrs. Dalloway, Elsa Morante's History, and Anna Karenina. I don't think it's nostalgia that makes me imagine the world really did seem infinite, for a while.

Big Star, "Stroke It, Noel"

Amazing, for a book set in the eighties, how little of its music comes from that decade. Then, that was the pleasure of the time: it was new to us so it was new, period. Then, this record still sounds pretty weird. It sounds like Sun Ra, or something: crooked and astral. I put this song in the book, and the moment there described is one of the few that conforms, more or less, to so-called ‘real life.'

Great Plains, "Letter to A Fanzine"

Ah. I spend a lot of time in the book making fun (in not very cautiously coded terms) of Columbus bands other than the narrator's beloved ‘Lords.' People in that city may recognize their cartoonized "selves" today. For which I'd like to apologize. I loved this song, which asks questions of enduring relevance: Isn't Nick Cave a genius in a sense…what's better drugs or sex? Isn't my haircut really intense? Why do punk rock guys go out with New Wave girls? Answers in an email to…

Panda Bear, "I'm Not"

For whatever reason, besides just liking them—I think I was fishing for the kind of band that would've excited me when I was younger (how sad, that I should've had to ‘fish')—I listened to a ton of Animal Collective while writing this book. Feels and Sung Tongs, mostly, but also this. Which likewise sounded otherworldly, just phenomenal at two AM: that woozy, Gregorian quality slots right in with the book's spirit, I like to think, being both summery and psychedelic, being a little hard to fix, like memory itself.

Can, "Halleluwah"

My friends and I had not nearly discovered Can in the mid-1980s. I'm pretty sure it would've been a bit much for us: too proggy and peculiar, though one never knows. I did listen to this constantly while writing, though: it's eighteen minutes long and spastic and trancey. It reminds me of "Sister Ray," and of the JB's, and insofar as trying to combine those two things ("it's like "Sister Ray" played by the JB's") points towards a music that doesn't exist…well, that's writing in a nutshell, for me. The things you've read and heard and seen all gesture towards something, which is indescribable but which you try to set down anyway. That's what this book, and probably any book, is finally about, besides.

Matthew Specktor and That Summertime Sound links:

the book's website
James Franco reads "Columbus, Columbus, Columbus"
Jeremy Irons reads "The Devil in It Somewhere"
Gwyneth Paltrow reads "His Hands Were Gigantic."
J. Mascis reads "The Singer and The Drummer Were Fighting"
Morgan Freeman reads "This is Never Going to End"
excerpts from the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks