September 13, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize, Jason Tougaw's memoir The One You Get is a smart and moving exploration of the self.
Siri Hustvedt wrote of the book:
"Tougaw's intelligent, funny, and deeply moving memoir is that rare thing: the story of a family that is at once particular and universal. The variously wild, tender, deluded, suffering, incorrigible, and resilient people who are so vividly portrayed in this book are nothing if not idiosyncratic. At the same time, this story of a boy growing up in California during the years of a waning counter culture deftly incorporates sophisticated reflections on the brain science of human memory and development and the ongoing mystery of why some of us survive a chaotic and brutal childhood and others don't."
When I was 15, I bought an encyclopedia of new wave called The New Rock n' Roll, by Stuart Coupe and Glenn A. Baker. It looked like a yearbook. And it was, in a way.
I learned from this book that members of Siouxsie and the Banshees had been in The Sex Pistols, that The Human League and Heaven 17 had originally been a single band, that the guys in Bow Wow Wow had been stolen like pirate treasure from Adam and the Ants (by Malcolm McLaren), that Boy George had auditioned for Bow Wow Wow, that Chryssie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux had attended early Sex Pistols gigs. More recently, Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein confirmed and elaborated on these relationships in their delicious and nutritious Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the Eighties.
The people in these bands, which I knew as famous—and revelatory—knew each other. In many cases, they'd known each other before they'd been bands or made anything or become famous. That meant worlds full of people doing exciting and unpredictable things must be real. That meant maybe I could be part of one. From this music, I learned you could make a world—or at least a slice of one, or a fantasy of one.
If you're a kid into music, your taste has a lot to do with figuring out who you are. How do you want to look? What will your mannerisms be? What's your relationship to your social class, your race or ethnicity? Your gender and sexuality? How is the music working out the culture's attitudes about this stuff that governs your life?
One thing new wave did was reconfigure rock's by-then fairly entrenched assumptions about masculinity—what it could mean to be a man. Sure, Mick Jagger played with gender, but somehow he reaffirmed masculine dominance, as opposed to David Bowie, who exploded masculinity and put it back together in personae and albums like jigsaw puzzles. And Bowie, of course, influenced every single one of my adolescent musical heroes.
Side A: New Wave
Blue Monday – New Order
This was our anthem. And it gave me a panic attack, one of my first. The bass line still gets into my nervous system in a squirmy, anxious way. And I still love it.
Orpheus – David Sylvian
The song is a portal. Like the mirror in the Jean Cocteau movie it takes its title from. The romantic grit of Sylvian's voice, the buoy of Mark Isham's trumpet. Those twelve seconds of silence at the 2:20 mark. There's a weird subject-verb moment that always puzzled me: "All of the hurdles that fell in our laps / Was fuel for the fire and straw for our backs." Sylvian is so literate. What's he up to? He sang "these fires never stop." I believed him, but it took me decades of living to really know how true that is. "Orpheus" is truth and beauty, its only irony the tragic Greek kind. I got a tattoo of Cocteau's Orpheus when I was 20 because of it. I feel gratitude and love whenever I look at this tattoo. David Sylvian helped me make good aesthetic choices for my skin at a young age.
Mirror in the Bathroom – The Beat
I learned about The Beat from this surfer kid Jeff Herbert, one of those middle school guys who seemed to be having sex and doing drugs and growing hair before everybody else. He was blonde and tan and cool and new about The Beat when everybody was listening to Journey and Asia. I loved them immediately. I was sure this song was about cocaine. The adults in my house were doing a lot of it at the time. I was confused because I didn't think my hippie elders were cool at all, but those guys in The Beat couldn't have been cooler. I'm pretty sure the song was never about cocaine, but I'll never shake the association.
Sex (I'm A) – Berlin
A radio station changed my life. My best friend Paul and I were in seventh grade when 91X scratched the record halfway through "Stairway to Heaven" and slammed on Berlin's "Sex." Terri Nunn panted. She was a goddess, she was a whore. She invited us into a dizzy world of synth sounds. We went with her. To be honest, I'm still there. A few years ago I DJ'd an 80s festival in San Luis Obispo. I was on the fucking stage with Bow Wow Wow, The English Beat, and Berlin. I was dancing in heaven. Terri Nunn put on the best show of the night. She looked and sounded amazing. She crowd-surfed, at fifty-something. She's one of my role models for how to age like a new wave hero.
Love Action (I Believe in Love) – Human League
It was too hard to pick a Human League track, but I decided to go for the joy. That synth line hook between verses is sheer new wave sublime. Phil Oakey's drone manages to be pure pop when it should be impossible. I love the meta moment when he sings "This is Phil talking and I want to tell you what I know to feel to be true." He knows there's no lord above, but he believes in love. I needed to hear that as a kid.
Changes – David Bowie
My cousin Angela dressed as Boy George when she was nine—to school, at dinner, for walks around the lake. She listened to Bowie's Changes One on a loop. Okay, it was a compilation. She didn't know. I was five years older, and I didn't know. To us, it was an album. Angela was ahead of her age. She was an inspiration.
Human's Lib – Howard Jones
My friends thought I was a dork for loving Howard Jones. We were supposed to be listening to Bauhaus and Joy Division and The Cure. But Howard Jones was the philosopher of synth, and I was devoted. Plus, he sang about wanting to have sex with 100 women or men. He was my first concert. I saw him five times during high school. Once, my friends and I got to the front row. We made a plan to jump on stage. But they tricked me: They pushed me up and didn't join. I ended up slammed against Mr. Jones's torso (and keytar). He was wearing a white satin blouse and white leggings. I was dressed almost identically, but in black. A security guard grabbed me by the stomach and threw me back into the crowd. The next day I had a bruise in the shape of a huge handprint.
Concrete Jungle – The Specials
I didn't want to carry a knife or have people threatening my life, but by 15 people were trying to shame me into not dressing the way I wanted. They wanted me to cut my bleached bangs and wipe off my makeup. I wanted to join The Specials in a fucking city, full of city people of all creeds and colors, people with style and ideas. I wanted to float along that manic bass line. If I was going to listen to guitars, I wanted horns with them. If I was going to wear a suit, I wanted it to be sharkskin. I wanted people to leave me alone. I wanted to go out. I wanted to be in a Nite Klub.
Collapsing New People – Fad Gadget
Fad Gadget, Frank Tovey's one-man band, is not well remembered. But he was the beginning of Industrial. He had a dark, futuristic, anti-capitalist vision. "It takes hours of preparation," he sang, "to get that wasted look." My friends and I danced to his heavy grooves, imagining the end of the world. We didn't like the world, so we reveled.
The Chauffeur – Duran Duran
My neighbor Summer, two years younger than me, was the ultimate Durannie. The walls and ceiling of her basement bedroom were plastered with them. She was also a girl whose mother lied about who her father was, a guy who molested her. That was the term we used then. This was reality, Duran Duran our refuge. "The Chauffeur" is the most mysterious song on Rio, a throwback to DD's earlier, more experimental days. Simon LeBon has said it's their best song. I couldn't choose, but I think I agree. Summer died too young. In some ways, my book is a memorial to her. I've also made her the protagonist of a novel I'm working on. May she live for another day, the front of her dress all shadowy-lined.
Killing an Arab – The Cure
New wave was literary. If you were truly devoted, and you had to be, you read the books you found in the songs. The Cure brought me to Camus, that tale of injustice, about a guy prosecuted for not displaying the right feelings. What were these right feelings supposed to be? If you listened closely, you noticed this was also a spare, jangly anthem about racism and xenophobia. All you could do was stare at the sea and the sand reflecting on why people suck so much. We're all The Stranger. What are we going to do about it?
Mad World – Tears for Fears
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had. Now that's a line made of a maudlin teen's fragile dreams. The whole album, The Hurting, is written from the perspective of a teenager, a smart one angry at the adults for getting it wrong, getting him wrong. "Mad World" broke through to the mainstream, like it was fighting for us all. It's been covered Twenty-One Pilots. They sing it on ‘The Voice.' It reappeared for a new generation of angry kids in Donnie Darko, in Gary Jules's sublime version.
Somebody – Depeche Mode
I wrote the lyrics in my notebook and whisper-sang it to myself for a week, to pick at the scab of my wounded heart. I met this New Romantic kid Ron at the mall. We went to this older punk girl Angel's house and made out for hours. I was in love. He didn't call. I heard he was having sex with this kid from Poway High. I wanted somebody to share my intimate details, somebody who'd listen even if my ideas were perverted, somebody who wouldn't be easily converted. Ron was not that boy.
To Cut a Long Story Short – Spandau Ballet
People don't know Spandau Ballet spent five years being avant-garde before they went full sugar pop. Don't get me wrong. I love the sugar, but I want people to know about the unfathomably esoteric music they made before 1983. This song was so erotic to me as a youth, with its repetitious guitar line, its relentless bass, and its story about being a beautiful man—very, very young—sitting on a park bench waiting for another man to come.
Aphrodisiac – Bow Wow Wow
Anabella Lwin was 15 when she was naked on the cover of See Jungle! She sang about aphrodisiacs and wanting candy, along to raucous drums. People worried she was victimized by Malcolm McLaren and the music industry. I can't speak to that, but she was tough, a girl ready for anything. Decades later, I met her and had a long and unexpectedly intimate conversation with her, about our fathers, about abuse, about drugs, about music. This was a time of meeting my new wave heroes, and I'm going to drop names. I'd ended up hanging out with Malcolm McLaren for a summer in Paris. It won't surprise anybody who knows him that he was a really good storyteller. He told a lot of stories, many about discovering Anabella working in her parents' laundry. Her heard her singing while she worked and asked her to join a band (which he was stealing from Adam Ant). She said no way. He persisted. Finally she said she'd do it if she could have all the clothes she wanted from the famous Sex punk clothing shop McLaren owned with Vivienne Westwood. It was a deal. When I told Anabella about this, she asked me, almost breathlessly, what his tone had been. It'd been affectionate and reverent. She teared up when I said this. They'd had years of legal battles. McLaren was notorious for hoarding the spoils. But Anabella, a person with about as kind a demeanor as you can imagine, wanted their mutual affection to live. How did I get to be a messenger between them? My teen self would never have believed it. Thank you, universe.
Down in the Park – Gary Numan
Gary Numan is science fiction. Everybody knows that. I was sure he was gay when I was a teen listening to him on headphones, marveling at the sound sculptures he created. Like the Spandau Ballet song, this one's about meeting somebody in a park, to do something clandestine. Numan's park exists in a world that never was, never would be. The humans are running out, but he'll keep waiting to meet that other guy. They're probably going to plot revolution, but I was just so sure they were going to have sex. And that maybe these were the same thing.
She's Lost Control – Joy Division
When he was still alive and in the band, Ian Curtis worked at a government office that helped people with disabilities get jobs. He was never a full-time musician. This song is about one of his clients, a girl with epilepsy, like him. Unlike him, she didn't have the whole world watching his epileptic moves on a stage, just waiting for him to collapse into a puddle. He died at 24, never really knowing he was a legend, apparently not realizing that he delivered a lyric like nobody ever had or would. But he immortalized that girl. I wonder if she's alive. I wonder if she knows.
Side B: Before New Wave
Take a Giant Step – Taj Mahal
I learned recently that as a teenager, my father loved Taj Mahal—played him for anybody. I love this idea of my father, just before he got serious about heroin, running around turning his friends on Mahal's far out music. When I was six weeks old, I had major surgery (for a condition called pyloric stenosis). My father disappeared. He was nineteen, he'd found out that his infant son might die, and he got serious about heroin. I imagine him soaking in opiates, listening to the fine grit of Mahal's voice, his bright guitar, singing about leaving your mind behind, taking a giant step outside your mind. Mahal was making promises, my father breaking them. But the heroin would have erased the distinction.
Imagine – John Lennon
My mom cried so much when Lennon died. I was eleven. I didn't really get it until I cried so much when David Bowie died. "Imagine" was the hippie anthem of my mom's generation. Every time it came on, she told me to listen to the lyrics. This was important to her. Once it came on while we were driving in the car of her greasy boyfriend Cecil, whose big nostrils screamed cokehead. My mom got tender and told Cecil, "I love you." He replied, "That word is overused." This was right around the time I developed a phobia of the word love. I couldn't get it to come out of my mouth, for ten years. But I agree with my mom. "Imagine" is obviously one of the great songs in the history of pop music, and I spend a lot of time imagining there's countries, nothing to kill or die for.
Do It Again – Steely Dan
I vomited on the floor of my mom's two-toned Metropolitan when I was three. She drove it and me to the hospital, where they worried about meningitis and gave me a spinal tap. The song soothes me. I'm told by musician friends that when you want to test a sound system, put on Steely Dan. The slick production gives you a lot to listen for. People seem to disdain Steely Dan for not being rock enough, or being yacht rock. Maybe this is why their sound soothes me, in spite of the vomit and spinal tap.
Emotional Rescue – The Rolling Stones
Nick was 23. My mom must have been 30, because I was 11 or twelve. He was a lanky Mexican stoner with a shag. After he saw the Stones, it's all he wanted to talk about. His breath smelled like pot. He had copies of High Times and Penthouse hidden in my mom's closet. He sang along to Jagger's falsetto in this way that sounded like pure filth to me. I have a vague sense that Stones fans didn't approve of their disco turn. Nick savored it, like a taco filled with cow brains. Then he crashed his motorcycle, got beat up by cops, was in the hospital for weeks and came out addicted to the morphine they'd given him. So he had to find heroin. He beat my mom, she beat him. They screamed at each other. When they calmed down, he'd try to get me to look at his filthy records. I needed my own record collection.
The End – The Doors
The lore has it that my mom and dad dropped acid while my mom was pregnant with me. She may or may not have known yet. In the book, I imagine the scene, on the beach in Del Mar, California—in front of the house my grandparents built. My father and his friends called the house The Mausoleum. It was shaped like one, a three story faux Spanish beachfront anomaly, a monument to the wealth they still had (just barely). "The End" is the soundtrack, Morrison's voice soaring over their heads, Robby Krieger's guitars squeezing through my parents' doors of perception, leaking into my fetal nervous system. It's a morbid beginning, except that hippies like my parents wanted the end of everything that stood. They wanted to make it new. I was going to be new.Desperately in need of some stranger's hand.
The One That I Want – Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta
Like young faggots everywhere at the time, I choreographed routines to every song on the Grease soundtrack. My favorite was doing "The One That I Want" with my cousin Nichole. She'd get sassy with her long hair and perky butt. I'd mime the chills electrifying me. We'd act out this mystifying adult metaphor of a song we almost knew was about losing your virginity. I'd long to be Olivia Newton-John and lust for John Travolta.
Shadow Dancing – Andy Gibb
Along with Shaun Cassidy, Andy Gibb was my first celebrity crush. Don't dismiss him. This is a groove for the ages. If I put this on when I'm DJ-ing a party, the dance floor is always full. I always want to be out there with the crowd. Baby, you do it right.
This Is It – Polly Cutter
The title for The One You Get comes from the theme song for One Day at a Time, written by Jeff and Nancy Barry, Brill Building pros. This is life, the one you get. Rest assured, you can't be sure at all. Oh, how many times Nanny, my beloved grandma, sang those words.
Jason Tougaw and The One You Get links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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