December 16, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Charles Bukowski comparisons are inevitable when considering Mark SaFranko's gritty novels. Hating Olivia is the intense tale of a doomed relationship, and SaFranko exquisitely paints the highs and lows of Max and Olivia with a keen eye that has no doubt seen many of these scenes firsthand.
My confessional novel Hating Olivia was not only a book about a disastrous relationship and trying to write, among other things, it was also a book awash in music. This was so for at least two reasons: one, I happened to be working as a musician, first in bar bands, then as a coffee house solo act, around the time the events in the book occurred, and two, the eponymous heroine of the title, like me, was a music lover. On paper Olivia and I had much in common; in reality, as so often happens, it didn't work out -- to say the least.
The popular music that suffuses the novel is the product of a peculiar time: the era of classic rock and the singer-songwriter was giving way to disco. Some of the music of this period I loved, much of it I loathed. I'll expand on some of the individual songs below. I was lucky enough to catch live shows by a few of the artists involved, mostly at a great, old defunct coffee house in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania called the Main Point: "the incredible Leonard Cohen," as he was referred to by the club announcers in those days before he became the international "godfather of punk" superstar he is today; the Pacific Northwest's Danny O'Keefe, a rocker/balladeer who happened to be on the same bill with an unknown guy by the name of Tom Waits; Don McLean, a few others. It was a also time when people like Paul Simon, Donovan, and Gordon Lightfoot toured regularly, and I saw them in various venues, too. Then there was the spectacle of Bob Dylan and The Band at the Spectrum on their historic 1974 tour; and The Band alone and at their best, touring to support Northern Lights, Southern Cross, on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, New Jersey. A bygone era, for sure.
While I've always absorbed music from across the spectrum, from ambient and experimental, to John Coltrane and Mississippi John Hurt, to Debussy and Ravel, to Jimmy Webb and pretty much every band that ever came across the pond from Great Britain, "Olivia" was partial to the classics and really insipid pop and disco -- in my view, at least, and at the end of the day it's all a matter of taste. One of her lovers in the months before we met was an Arab and part-time classical musician (is there any other kind?) by the name of Basil, who groused to her about the rank philistinism of Americans. "The only thing you people know is 'Light My Fire,'" he snorted to her. She agreed and felt very superior on account of it.
It may have been true of my countrymen, but I knew a few more tunes and I could actually play a few instruments. Since my life at the time was saturated not only with literature but with music, including the pieces that I was writing, it's difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of everything that was floating around inside my head. I know that certain people -- like Billy Joel, one of Olivia's favorites -- were permanently soured for me. Anyway, here are a few tunes I'll never forget and that will always be associated with that period, for better or worse:
1. "Winter Lady" -- A diminutive, mournful masterpiece from Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Also used as the basis for Robert Altman's McCabe And Mrs. Miller. Features Cohen's very unique, even strange, classical guitar work. I played it at coffee houses around the time I met Olivia. "Traveling lady, stay awhile until the night is over. I'm just a station on your way, I know I'm not your lover." Exquisite in its simplicity.
2. "Leaving Greensleeves" -- Did this number on stage too. An absolutely insane variation of the beloved traditional, complete with pre-punk screaming, from Cohen's greatest album, New Skin For The Old Ceremony. "Now if you intend to show me disdain, don't you know it all the more enraptures me....I sang my song, I told my lies, to lie between your matchless thighs." A perfect expression of hostility and anger at being enslaved by Eros.
3. "Magdalena" -- Another one I routinely did onstage. From Danny O'Keefe's 1973 album Breezy Stories. O'Keefe is mostly known for his 1972 surprise hit "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," but his body of work is large and diverse and includes several great albums with songs covered by artists from Judy Collins ("Angel Spread Your Wings") to Elvis Presley ("Good Time Charlie") to Alan Jackson ("Anywhere On Earth You Are"). "Magdalena" is a nifty and clever manipulation of the G chord in all of its various incarnations. Challenging at first, but really cool to play on the guitar. An artist's helpless meditation on lust and obsession -- which is exactly where I was. The line "She tells me that she wants me then she tells me not to bother, she tells that I couldn't hold a candle to her father" always got me.
4. "To Ramona" -- One more that I did live. A gem from Another Side Of Bob Dylan, this one an argument with someone who can't quite see the world your way for reasons beyond her control. "And one day baby, who knows, maybe, I'll come and be crying to you." Yeah.
5. "You Look Just Like A Girl Again" -- Another O'Keefe title, this one a Latin lounge cut from his 1977 album American Roulette. Many times Olivia happened to be playing it on our chintzy stereo when I walked in after escaping in the wake of another of our epic and bitter battles. The line "Tonight in the light, baby, you look just like a girl again" seemed to make her feel better about herself. As for what it did to me, well, that's another story altogether.
6. "I Will Survive" -- Gloria Gaynor, I believe. Everybody knows the words. An anthem meant to strengthen Olivia's resolve to be rid of me and us once and for all. It must have worked.
7. "The Last Dance" -- Donna Summer. One of Olivia's favorites and one of the low points of the disco craze. Another song that I run from if I'm ever unlucky enough to hear it.
8. "You Don't Send Me Flowers" -- A mawkish, badly written joke from Alan and Marilyn Bergman and performed as a duet by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. Perhaps the tune I hate most from that era. Again, everyone knows the lyric. Played by Olivia to make me feel guilty for not appreciating and loving her enough. For a long time it worked. Another one I never want to hear again.
9. "Covenant Woman" -- This came from one of Dylan's least appreciated and most misunderstood albums, the born-again-Christian-inspired Saved. I didn't care for the religious stuff, but there was a mysterious sadness in some of the songs that I related to after splitting with Olivia for good. The line "I've been broken, shattered like an empty cup," appealed to me in my state of depression.
10. "All About You" -- From Emotional Rescue. Some critics call this the Rolling Stones' low point, but I maintain it's the heroin-addled Keith Richards' shining moment. How can a betrayed and angry lover argue with "I'm so sick and tired of hanging around with dogs like you," especially if it's followed by "Then how come I'm still in love with you?"
Mark SaFranko and Hating Olivia links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists