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November 11, 2009

Book Notes - M. Thomas Gammarino ("Big in Japan")

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

M. Thomas Gammarino's debut novel Big in Japan is a surprisingly funny romp through rock music and Japan that isn't afraid to tackle big issues.

Ron Currie, Jr. wrote of the book:

"In Brain, Gammarino has created a perfect hero for the Age of Anxiety. Propelled by the author’s knack for both pitch-perfect dialogue and startling metaphors, the reader follows Brain on an ill-fated tour of the Land of the Rising Sun, where he loses his band but finds himself in slow, painful, hilarious fashion."

In his own words, here is M. Thomas Gammarino's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Big in Japan: A Ghost Story:

One of the earliest things I remember knowing about Big in Japan was that it would somehow trace a character's movement from a kind of heavy metal worldview towards a jazzier one. That's an idiotic oversimplification, but I was maybe twenty years old when the idea came to me, a guitarist of varying allegiances, and still close enough to high school to remember just how important musical taste can be in marking out one's identity—so the words "heavy metal" and "jazz" signified for me not just musical genres but cosmic principles of a sort, something like the Classical and the Romantic or the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

Needless to say, Big in Japan took all sorts of new directions over the years (Japan, for instance), and there are any number of ways I came to organize Brain Tedesco's development in my mind, but that dialogue between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is still there on every page, albeit largely tacit. One of Brain's many paradoxes is that by holding himself to such rigid, perfectionistic standards in his art (he's the nerve center of a prog band called Agenbite), he's become such a horrific mess in life, and when the pendulum swings towards Dionysius, it looks an awful lot like a wrecking ball. Whether Brain ever manages to effect a balance is something I'll leave for the reader to decide.
Here are ten songs I think the Brain of the early parts of the novel would like, and ten songs I think he would hate. I like them all, more or less.

"Throat Song," Tudjaat

Brain's musical tastes tend toward the "exotic," even as he's terrified of leaving his own geographic comfort zone. By way of an irresistible pun, Inuit throat-singing (no doubt a pale imitation) makes its way onto Agenbite's first album, Inwit. If you don't know what Inuit throat-singing is, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Here's a link.

"Take this Longing," Leonard Cohen

While the Ish Barban character in the novel (a kind of hippy intellectual who left Agenbite to take up French translation in Montreal) would love everything about Leonard Cohen, a song like this would be too artless and on the nose for Brain, too much like having a spy inside his head, and he would retaliate with clenched fists and a weird, smoldering anger.

"Buchimish," Petar Ralchev

Early in the novel, Brain listens to some Bulgarian folk music in his car and proceeds to meditate about 15/16 time. Brain gets high on odd time signatures like this because, while so chaotic to the virgin ear, they surrender utterly to his control once he figures them out. Blooming buzzing life, unfortunately, doesn't often yield like that. I know nothing about Bulgarian folk music beyond what it took to write that passage, but here's the first hit I got on YouTube—played, as it happens, on the electric guitar.

The Beatles

Pick the song. It doesn't matter. Brain might find something to admire about The Beatles if he'd only give them a chance, but he's clearly too insecure to enjoy something as simple as a great melody, let alone one in a danceable time signature. On top of that, he'd feel threatened by the humor, the clear-sightedness, the rawness and joie-de-vivre. Not to mention the popularity.

"To Live is to Die," Metallica

Agenbite's drummer, Nick, introduced Brain to heavy metal early in high school and taught him what CDs to buy. No doubt this was one of them, and it's this sort of heavy, regimented metal that lives in the deepest recesses of Brain's brain, I think.

"Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish," Captain Beefheart

Theo McCall, Agenbite's oversexed frontman, writes surrealistic lyrics like these, which are way too anarchical to please a control freak like Brain.

"Change of Seasons," Dream Theater

Brain likes long songs with complex changes, odd time signatures, and operatic, quasi-religious vocals. He'd have to dig Dream Theater, though he might resent their virtuosity a bit.

"Sk8er Boi," Avril LaVigne

At one point in the novel, Brain eavesdrops on some people singing karaoke. One of the songs they're singing is by "Avril what's her face." No doubt Brain knows her name, but he can hardly find it in himself to accord respect to a pop artist who makes so much money on so predictable a formula. That's not my opinion. I actually really dug that first album, albeit not enough for me to know what I think of her subsequent ones. Incidentally, Avril really is very big in Japan.

"See, And It's Sharp," Spastic Ink

This is the prog equivalent of Oulipo. Set some arbitrary formal constraints and then obey them like divine writ. Two notes make up this entire song (Can you guess what they are?). Brain likes constraints; he's used to them. It's freedom he's not so comfortable with.

"Bitches Brew," Miles Davis

Agenbite's drummer, Nick, is a big enough jazz buff that he managed to drag the band to the Montreal Jazz Festival a couple of months before the novel begins. I imagine him really digging fusion like this. Brain, by contrast, would be freaked out by the unboundedness of it.

"Flight of the Bumblebee," played by Tiago Della

Watch this if you haven't already.

Clearly this is the sound of a bumblebee on speed. The micro-precision and chromaticity of Rimsky-Korsakov's piece would sit well with Brain's obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I think, but what a source of torment it would be for him that, hard as he practiced with his metronome, he could never quite match Della Vega's superhuman, albeit sort of ridiculous, chops.

"The Messiah Will Come Again," Roy Buchanan

Born-again Matt, Agenbite's bassist, would love this tune. Brain would loathe it. The highlight is clearly the guitar solo toward the end, which has got to be one of the most soulful solos ever recorded, and which I remember as much for the well-placed noises as the notes.

"Etudes for Guitar, No. 12 in A Minor," Villa-Lobos, played by Manuel Barrueco

This is what Kerry King from Slayer would sound like if he were forced to play a nylon-string guitar, and had four hundred years to practice.

"Grateful Days," Dragon Ash

When the character Keith drives Agenbite around on their first night in Tokyo, he pops in some Japanese hip-hop. Brain finds it "shamefully derivative, a sampled Smashing Pumpkins riff over the exhausted Canon in D chord progression." This is the song I had in mind. That description is pretty accurate, but unlike Brain, I don't find it especially shameful. It makes me kind of happy actually. How many hip hop choruses culminate in an unabashedly sunny line like "Thank you father, mother, and my friends"?

"Koyunbaba," Domeniconi, played by John Williams

I've actually heard John Williams faulted for being too "perfect"—i.e. robotic—a guitarist. For Brain, of course, there can be no such thing as too perfect, and the odd tuning and Lydian airiness give this piece an otherworldly sublimity Brain would have to submit to (as I do every time).

"Tales from Topographic Oceans," Yes

Brain would want to like this for its spacey title and cover art, but ultimately he'd find it too noodly and bland, neither visceral nor technical enough. Most 70s prog would fall into this camp for Brain, I think. I myself can get into Rush, early Genesis, some King Crimson and Yes, but I confess that Brain and I are of a mind on Topographic Oceans.

"Veil of Maya," Cynic

What a weird and wonderful hybrid of death metal, prog, and something-not-wholly-unlike-jazz this is. It's tight as hell and the jazz isn't really jazz, so I suspect Brain would admire it.

"Jizz in My Pants," The Lonely Island

This track would make Brain want to kill himself. Too (paradoxically) unrepressed, too close to home perhaps, and way beyond Brain's fun threshold.

"Like Herod," Mogwai

Brain would like this, but he might not love it because, though Mogwai is 99% instrumental, they don't change things up every other measure. I love these guys. In fact, I like to fantasize that when the film version of Big in Japan goes into production, Mogwai will do the soundtrack. I think they could handle both incarnations of the band beautifully (that'll make sense to anyone who's read the book).

"Beautiful Day," U2

Obviously this is too poppy and just plain popular for Brain. I wanted to include it here because I tend to think that if a band were really to do the thing Agenbite does towards the end of Big in Japan (sorry, no spoilers), it would be this band, and they'd kick it off with this song.

M. Thomas Gammarino and Big in Japan: A Ghost Story links:

video trailer for the book

Metropolis review
Nothing More Wonderful review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks