October 26, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Martha Southgate's The Taste of Salt is a compellingly honest novel about family and addiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Southgate's arresting, fluid prose and authentic dialogue come together in a resonating study of relationships, where selfish tendencies among the various characters are revealed, as are their feelings of regret. A fascinating story that shows how the mistakes people make affect all those around them."
Like Josie Henderson, the protagonist of my new novel, The Taste of Salt, I grew up in working-class, African-American Cleveland. While the character of Josie is younger than me, there is a certain quality to the music you heard drifting out of car windows and going down the street that has remained the same for many years. Josie was a teenager during the rise of hip-hop but in my mind, true to her somewhat nerdy nature, she never really got into it. She preferred R&B, Soul, some embarrassing top 40 by white people (very strange in her neighborhood). While she isn't me, I'm not gonna lie—her musical taste mirrors mine. But she's not me.
I don't usually listen to music when I'm in the act of writing. But music does surround my thoughts about a book and different kinds of music have appeared in each of my novels. I listened to a lot of the music she liked while I was working on the novel. And I listen to a lot of the music she likes now. This novel has two primary themes: the pull of family and the effort (often unsuccessful, sometimes unwise) to leave them behind. The other is the theme of addiction: to a risky relationship, to drugs, to alcohol. So of course, I've gotta have some songs about all of that. Here goes.
Prince "Nothing Compares 2 U"
This song appears in the book at a crucial moment, which is appropriate because Prince is a crucial artist. What is there to say about him that hasn't been said? Even at 50 years old, in the pouring rain at the at the Super Bowl in 2007, he brought the house down. I went to a sing-along screening of Purple Rain in Brooklyn's Prospect Park two years ago that was literally the most fun I've had in years. To hear all that music again is only to be impressed anew by his range and skill. No, not everything he's made is brilliant and it seems his best days as a composer are behind him—but what he's done already? It can't be beat.
Though Sinead O'Connor is best known for her hit version of this song, Prince wrote it but did not record it himself until after her success with it. It's only available on his compilation album .The Hits. I love it because his voice is so raw and because of his terrific backup singer Rosie Gaines.
Rufus "Sweet Thing"
Yet another crucial moment in the book—one that touches on the great cultural divide that existed in pop music through the 70's and 80's. Back then, pop music was informally, if not officially, divided into white people music and black people music. This division was so pronounced that in 1982 Michael Jackson had to fight to get the video for "Billie Jean" played on MTV (I know, unbelievable, right?). So Josie, like me, grew up with the sound of soul, both old and new, and her husband Daniel, a white guy, grew up with a very different musical experience (The Smiths, maybe?) Josie doesn't have his music in her bones, just as he doesn't have her music in his. I picked this song for her to be listening to, even though it is before her time, because I just love it. Chaka's voice at the climax is unbelievable.
Nirvana "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Josie finds the rawness of this song offputting—perhaps because she is attempting to push her own rawness away so vigilantly. It remains, some 20 years later, an extraordinary song and an extraordinary moment in pop history. When you listen closely to Kurt Cobain's repeated howls of "a denial" at the song's climax, you can understand why he didn't make it on earth. His nerves were far too rawly exposed. It's sad. But we have the music still. And that's good.
Aretha Franklin "I Say A Little Prayer"
An amazing version of a great Burt Bachrach song. Dionne Warwick's version, while better known, doesn't hold a candle to it. It's just the kind of thing she would have sung at a venue where Ray and Sarah, Josie's parents, met. The kind of African-American venue that no longer exists in the tragically economically depressed inner city of Cleveland.
Maxwell "This Woman's Work"
Longing for something one doesn't have, can't have, or regret for something one threw away, are also themes of this book. At one point, the novel's epigraph was these lines from Robert Hass's great poem, "Meditation at Lagunitas" "Longing, we say/because desire is full of endless distances…" Maxwell's voice in his recording of this Kate Bush song is full of that kind of desperate, unfulfilled, probably-gonna-stay-unfulfilled probably, longing. When he hits these lines: "All the things I should have said that I never said/All the things we should have done that we never did" well…I kind of lose it every time. Listened to this a lot while I was writing.
Mary J. Blige "No More Drama"
This doesn't have a direct relationship to the themes of my novel. I just frickin' love it. I listen to it often when I'm taking breaks (it's too compelling to listen to while I'm writing.) . When I finished my previous novel Third Girl From The Left I put it on as loud as I could and did a solo triumph dance. I also once totally humiliated myself attempting to sing it at karaoke—gave me a new respect for just how talented Ms. Blige is. If you've never seen her performance at the 2002 Grammys, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. It is mind-blowing. That level of abandon—well, I will say that wrestling with control or the lack thereof is a big theme in all of my novels. So in that way her relish in letting it all go is thematically related.
Eminem "Lose Yourself"
See above regarding control and abandon. He does not however, appear at the 2002 Grammys. This too is a terrific dancing-around-by-yourself-in-triumph song.
Dropkick Murphys "Shipping up to Boston"
Though Josie's great passion is the sea, I didn't listen to much overtly watery music over the course of working on this book. But as I worked on this list, this song kept coming to mind. It's best known for being played a lot Boston Red Sox games. It also appears on the soundtrack of The Departed, which is where I first heard it. Written by Woody Guthrie and performed by the Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys , it's a great sea song in the way it completely messes up every convention of a sailing song. The crazed Johnny Rotten style vocals over a jaunty nautical theme is pretty irresistible. A little Dropkick Murphys goes a very long way but if you're gonna go with them, this is the one to go with.
Audra McDonald "God Give Me Strength"
Really, I could have named just about any song performed by this artist—she is my total dreamgirl. If you only know her from the moronic doctor show Private Practice, do yourself another favor and check this out. While she is operatically trained, her greatest showcase has been musical theater and standards of earlier eras. She's also been a great champion of contemporary musical theater composers. She's going to be on Broadway this fall in Porgy and Bess and she's released a number of albums. The most recent, Build A Bridge contains her version of this Elvis Costello standard. She kills it. Like a lot of the songs I like, it's full of an aching longing and desire. I listen to her all the time, so her work is very much woven into anything I write. It's a part of me.
Bruce Springsteen "Born To Run"
It is difficult to find black Springsteen fans. When I've been to concerts, often Clarence and I were practically the only brown faces in the stadium. In loving this "white" music, I sometimes felt alienated from the pop music that many of my African-American peers loved. This kind of alienation has been a theme in all of my work and so it is in The Taste of Salt. Also, if you get a chance, listen to the whole album Born to Run start to finish. You will see that it is a coherent masterpiece, an album that truly suffers from the current playlist aesthetic. It's a long form piece—kind of like a novel. That's something I love about it too.
Martha Southgate and The Taste of Salt links:
Christian Science Monitor review
Entertainment Weekly review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Small Strokes review
The Washington Independent Review of Books review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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