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March 20, 2014

Book Notes - Kim Church "Byrd"


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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kim Church's Byrd is an impressive debut novel that traces the life of its unforgettable protagonist.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"Church conveys loss and longing with deft economy, in prose that is spare but lovely. She sustains the novel’s mood through well-chosen details, such as the musical references that run through the pages like a soundtrack."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kim Church's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Byrd:

The characters of my debut novel, Byrd—Addie, a reader and aspiring poet, and Roland, a blues guitar player—come of age in a small North Carolina town in the 1970s. They form an unlikely friendship when Roland invites Addie into his practice sessions, an intimacy he allows no one else.

They meet again in their disillusioned thirties, this time in California, where Roland's music career has landed him. Their brief, reckless reunion leaves Addie pregnant. As practical as she is romantic, she chooses to act on her own. Back in North Carolina, she gives birth to a son and surrenders him for adoption without telling Roland—and without imagining how her decision will shape their lives.

Told through short chapters, vignettes, and Addie's letters to her absent son, Byrd is a story about making and living with hard choices.

Throughout the book, music is the language that connects the characters. Music is forever playing in the background of the novel.

Here are a few of the many songs of Byrd. I didn't listen to them as I was writing; I didn't have to. For better or worse, they're embedded in my memory, the soundtrack of my own coming-of-age.

1. "Cactus Tree" / Joni Mitchell

A young Addie lies in her blue bedroom "with her headphones on, listening to Joni, whose high, sad voice drowns out everything." Addie idealizes Joni—poet, painter, musician, free spirit, woman of the world. "Cactus Tree," from Joni's first album, is a lament about the war between love and independence ("and her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree / while she's so busy being free"), a theme that reverberates in Addie's story.

2. "Whipping Post" / The Allman Brothers Band

1973: Roland sits on a stool holding a guitar strung backwards so that he can play it left-handed. His dark hair curtains his face. He's learning the blues from Duane Allman, playing along with the 19-minute live version of this song, trying to capture Duane's "raw, run-down, lied-to sound," using his mother's diazepam bottle as a slide. (Diazepam, "mother's little helper," used to come in brown glass bottles.)

3. "Free Ride" / Edgar Winter Group

When Addie's friend Danny Brewster—greasy ponytail, Keep On Truckin' T-shirt, banana-yellow Plymouth Barracuda—rescues her from a disastrous party, this song is blasting on his eight-track, "the bass boosted so loud it rocks the car." It's the perfect escape song, impossible not to drive fast to.

4. "Long Train Runnin'" / Doobie Brothers

Soulful vocals, tight harmonies, wailing harmonica, a percussive, funk-fueled rhythm guitar—who can blame Addie for losing her virginity to this song? From The Captain and Me, the definitive party album of 1973-74.

5. "Brown Eyed Girl" / Van Morrison

My editor hates this song, and not just because the title ought to have a hyphen. He calls it the most mediocre, overplayed white-bread song ever written. He offered to pay me to take it out of the book. "But Guy," I said, "they're at a wedding reception. Who ever heard of a wedding reception without Brown Eyed Girl?" "Yeah," he said, "but does Addie have to dance to it?"

6. "Since I Fell for You" / Nina Simone

December 1988: Addie has left her "happy home" to spend New Years with Roland in California. They're in Roland's van, driving up the coast to Zuma Beach with the windows rolled down, salt air eddying in around them. When this song comes on, Roland pulls over and they get out and slow-dance, "right there on the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway, a twinkling fence and an ocean on one side of them and the threat of traffic on the other."

Nina Simone died while I was writing this scene.

7. "After Midnight" / JJ Cale

Roland has stalled in California—no band, no gigs of his own. But he wants to perform while Addie's visiting, so he sits in with a Venice bar band. He waits all night for a break; Addie can see him "at the back of the stage, cradling his unplugged guitar, tapping his foot, fingering silent chords." Finally, on this song, he gets the nod and steps up. Addie is worried he'll overplay it—"The song is about what's going to happen after midnight. In the song, midnight isn't here yet." But Roland knows. This is his moment. It's also a moment of clarity for Addie.

8. "Up on the Roof" / Carole King

February 1989: Addie is visiting California a second time, and Roland's making a picnic, which they're going to eat on the roof of his apartment, his private sanctuary, looking out over the ocean. He doesn't know yet that Addie's pregnant. She swishes around him, singing this song, one that perfectly captures the way he feels when he's with her—open, at ease, large-hearted.

Roland doesn't have much. But everything he has—a couple of hard-boiled eggs, a can of peaches, a ladder outside his window leading to a roof with a view—he wants to share with Addie. She makes him feel generous, like a bigger man than he is—"the way you feel when you're on a roof."

9. "Till I See You Again" / Gladys Knight and the Pips

If Byrd had an anthem, it would be this song. I almost borrowed its title for the book. It's the last song on side one of the 1985 record "Life," a goodbye-but-not-forever song. Gladys's friend is leaving but he's coming back. Until he does, she's going to wait for him, dream about him, save up all her love and put her life on hold for him.

Roland plays the song for Addie the last time they're together, a scene Addie later recalls in a letter to Byrd: Your father danced with me in his kitchen. He leaned me against the counter. We knocked over a glass. It rolled onto the floor and broke, but we didn't stop, we kept dancing, through the key change, through Gladys's call-and-response with the Pips, all the way to the end of the song, when the record began to skip—"again-gain-gain."

10. "Love Train" / The O'Jays

Can't have a '70s story without disco. "Love Train," from the 1972 album "Back Stabbers," was one of the first disco songs and the O'Jays' only number one hit single. It's a great closer for Addie's class reunion and for this playlist—high-spirited and impossible not to move to (just try), an easy, four-on-the-floor line dance.

"At midnight the DJ summons everyone to the dance floor, and people line up and put their hands on each other's backs to form a love train, love train. Addie stands behind Shelia and latches on and they go chugging around the room. And maybe it's the song, or all the cranberry fizzes, or sheer relief at having made it through the reunion without having to confront Roland, but Addie doesn't want to let go. She doesn't want the train to stop moving."

Kim Church and Byrd links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at Bloom)
excerpt from the book (at The Nervous Breakdown)
excerpt from the book (at South Writ Large)

BookPage review
Hungry for Good Books? review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review

Bloom interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists