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December 11, 2009

Book Notes - Geoffrey Becker ("Black Elvis")

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

Geoffrey Becker's Flannery O'Connor Award-winning short story collection Black Elvis is filled with sad characters in motion. These stories abound with humor that balances out the melancholy of its characters.

At BookFox, Dan Wickett wrote of the collection:

"Time after time, Becker gives us a character that we grow to quickly care about, and worry about, while still allowing us to laugh at these protagonists as well. Don't look for literary explosiveness here, nothing meta at all, but if you're looking for a subtle touch and stories that make you wonder what happens next, even after you turn the final page, Becker's "Black Elvis" is for you."

In his own words, here is Geoffrey Becker's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Black Elvis:

Of the twelve pieces in my new collection, Black Elvis, only three have nothing at all do with music. I'm a guitarist, myself – I play every day, and my Martin is never more than a few feet from my writing desk. I used to perform in bands, but I can't stay out that late anymore. I almost never write to music, though, as I find it too distracting. Music isn't background to me; if it's on, I pretty much have to listen. The following pairings make sense to me, but I've also been known to drink red wine with fish.

Story: "Black Elvis"
Music: Danny Gatton, "Sun Medley: Mystery Train/My Baby Left Me/That's All Right" off the album Cruisin' Deuces

I doubt Black Elvis, who takes himself quite seriously, would have cared much for this show-offy medley, but I think it's fun. The late Danny Gatton was a superb guitarist. Like too many artists whose gifts seem off-the-chart to the rest of us normal people, he was also apparently deeply unhappy. I don't know why. He was from Maryland, too, which is where I now live. He was gone before I got here.

Story: "Know Your Saints"
Music: Chick Corea and Return to Forever, "Captain Senor Mouse," from Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy

My story is about a guy pretending to have an Art History degree and signing up tourists for fake tours of the Uffizi. I saw Return to Forever play as the opening act for the Mahavishnu Orchestra at Jadwin Gym in Princeton, NJ, in 1973. His band included Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, and the amazing Bill Connors on guitar. Chick put a little Topo Gigio doll up on top of his keyboard for this, a Spanish-influenced jazz-rock fusion tune that mixes delicate, almost humorous passages, with big, bombastic ones. Listening to it as a fourteen-year-old, watching these musical magicians (Stanley Clarke!), I felt like a rocket ship was blasting off inside me. The connection has something to do with the place where irony and sincerity can meet and coexist, I guess.

Story: "Cowboy Honeymoon"
Music: Little Feat, "Dixie Chicken"

Little Feat is referenced in this story, when the main character, Kaufman, hears a band playing "Sailing Shoes" and tries to figure out why something he used to think was rock and roll is now called country. One of the wonders of YouTube is that I recently watched a video of Lowell George and The Factory, his earlier band, appearing in an episode of F-Troop, as a bunch of mop tops playing music that gets them booed off the stage. This ends Corporal Agarn's brief career as a music promoter. I've done versions of "Dixie Chicken" myself in various bands over the years. It's a great song.

Story: "This is Not a Bar"
Music: Joe Pass, "Stella by Starlight" off his album, Virtuoso

The two characters in this story, one just entering adulthood, the other much older and wondering what the heck happened along the way, both share a reverence for "Stella." Me, too. Pass is still my favorite jazz guitarist for how he just lived inside everything he played, how much soul he brought to the music, how bluesy he could be.

Story: "Iowa Winter"
Music: "I Love You So Much it Hurts" by Floyd Tillman, as sung by John Prine

The two main characters in "Iowa Winter" couldn't be more different from one another in most ways, but they share the fact that their love for another person has becoming their primary possession. This is a really simple song about how love can turn you inside out. I hope John Prine is still making records when he's ninety.

Story: "Imaginary Tucson"
Music: "All the Time in the World," The Subdudes from Primitive Streak

This feel-good, slide-guitar-driven tune best reflects the attitude of the male character in the story, who is willing to accept personal compromises while pursuing his career. His girlfriend would probably choose a different song from this album (they're all good), "Faraway Girl," or "Why Do You Hurt Me So?"

Story: "Man Under"
Music: "Money Changes Everything" by Tom Gray of The Brains, as done by Cyndi Lauper on She's So Unusual

I'm a big Cyndi Lauper fan. In 1980 or '81, I got assigned by a newspaper in New Jersey, The Aquarian, to review her and her band, Blue Angel, at a nightclub called the Royal Manor. The band was great, but she was amazing – by the end of the night, she had climbed up to the top of a speaker column and was throwing stuff down at the drummer. What a voice! Anyway, this particular song, which she covered on her next, solo, album, says something about the spirit of the times, something I hope my story addresses, too, if obliquely.

Story: "Another Coyote Story"
Music: "God's Comic" by Elvis Costello off Spike

The narrator of my story is recently deceased, and now finds himself trapped in an absurd situation, giving readings from a book he hasn't written and doesn't understand. The story's action also unfolds in reverse order. The speaker in this catchy song is also a dead guy. He meets God, who is listening to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Requiem and "wondering if I should have given the world to the monkeys." Another Costello song I love is "Suit of Lights," off King of America, which also seems to have a dead guy in it, too, who gets pulled up out "of the cold cold ground" and dressed up in a "suit of lights." I have no idea what that song is about, but I don't care. I love pretty much anything by Elvis Costello.

Story: "Jimi Hendrix, Bluegrass Star"
Music: "Sitting on Top of the World," Les Paul and Mary Ford

I first heard this when I was twelve or thirteen. I didn't know anything about Les Paul, other than that a fancy guitar was named after him. The guitar parts are manipulated (he recorded at a slower tape speed, in a different key), but I didn't understand that, I just figured the guy had set the land speed record for the instrument. His playing sounds almost computer-generated. I knew the song was corny, but I still liked it. Listening to it now, what strikes me is also how weird and experimental it sounds – more like an art project than a 1950's pop song. I literally bumped into Les in 2004 at the World Guitar Congress, on my way to get a brownie at the opening reception. I apologized, he smiled, that was about it. I remember thinking I should say something, but the only thing I could think of was, "You're Les Paul," and I figured he knew that already.

Story: "Santorini"
Music: Yiannis Halikias (Jack Gregory), "Mourmouriko – Zeimbekiko" from the album Mourmourika Songs of the Greek Underworld 1930-1955

In this story, two women travel to a Greek island for a vacation, accompanied by the teenaged son of one of them. Along the way, some bad choices are made.

When my son was an infant, the only way to get him to fall asleep was to strap him into his stroller and put this album on. The music is related to Rebetika, another subculture, and the subject of the songs is usually prison, heroin addiction, etc. I like how challenging it is to tap your foot to the songs. They seem really simple, but they aren't at all; the time signatures are very unusual to the western ear, some in nine, others in five, etc. It got so all we had to do was start the album and the boy would shut his eyes. This particular cut is from 1933 and is mostly a bouzouki solo, with a little singing about dope and ouzo thrown in later.

Story: "The Naked Man"
Music: "Nothing from Nothing," Billy Preston

Another performer I saw as a teenager who made a big impression on me. His live version of "Satisfaction" was pretty good, too. The character in this story sings songs to his pregnant wife's belly. The things we hear early in life do tend to stick with us.

Story: "Black Days"
Music: "Toussaint L'Overture," Santana, from Santana 3

I was going to pick "Soul Man" by Sam and Dave, as performed by the Blues Brothers, just because The Professor in my story is so sure of himself, yet so hopelessly an outsider in his chosen musical genre, no matter how well he might play. But that just seems too cynical. Instead, for a story about the end of a relationship, I'm picking this instrumental from the third and last album by the flat-out amazing, original Santana band. Neal Schon is on here (he was a teenager), and he and Carlos trade blistering rock solos against the steady Afro-Cuban groove the band lays down. All these styles coming together and creating something new and exciting – this tune makes never fails to make me grin.

Geoffrey Becker and Black Elvis links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

BookFox review
Hipsterbookclub review
Publishers Weekly review
Scholars and Rogues review

Story in Literary Fiction interview with the author

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