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March 5, 2018

Book Notes - Natalie Singer "California Calling"

California Calling

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Natalie Singer's memoir California Calling is an innovative and enthralling exploration of identity.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

"In her captivating literary memoir… Singer's story comes through brief and lovely snapshots of moments, captured in language that is visceral and vivacious… a work that is both raw and incandescent, but whose most powerful reveals will perhaps reemerge in the reader's consciousness only after the fact. This is a California that, as promised, truly does belong to all."

In her own words, here is Natalie Singer's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir California Calling:

Led Zeppelin – "Going to California"

In an early scene of my memoir, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, I say that this song is the music of my leaving. I hear it in my head on a loop as I fly away from the city of my family and my childhood, Montreal, to the state I've been dreaming about since I first learned of its existence: California. When you are sixteen and leaving behind everything you know and love, including your first boyfriend, who plays the drums and reads Isaac Asimov and introduced you to Zeppelin and to the cannon of his other musical idols, there is an aching in your heart. But also an anticipation. And to combat the guilt of this anticipation, you need to wallow in the unfairness of your fate--this assuages the guilt and creates a cosmic balance that will eventually permit you to assimilate into a new place, culture, and version of yourself. Until that happens, play Zeppelin on repeat.

The Beach Boys – "God Only Knows"

The Beach Boys almost single-handedly defined the California Sound and by doing so, helped crystallize in pop culture the concept of the California myth--the belief that in the land of sunshine and swaying palms anything is possible and happiness is just a beach boardwalk away. My book challenges that myth and, more broadly, the authority of our personal mythologies, by investigating what it means to belong somewhere or to someone. It's hard to choose which Beach Boys song is most emotionally resonant for me, because this was the soundtrack of my childhood (my father has seen the Beach Boys in concert something like 25 times). But something about the particular harmony and devotional-ish rounds of "God Only Knows" jumpstarts an instant nostalgia and invokes the fantasy of California as a salve for whatever ails, which I sometimes still believe is true.

Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade – "Baroque Hoedown"

First, I'm sorry for this. I'm sorry, and I'm not. You have no idea what this soundtrack meant to the 4-, 6-, 8-year-old me. I first heard it when I was a preschooler, when my parents took me to Walt Disney World sometime just after the decade swung around the corner into the 1980s. Picture a little girl with enormous, long pigtails, curly brown hair frizzing in the Florida steam, grasping the hands of my parents--dad lanky in white Levis and a big Jew 'fro, mom tanned and svelte, a human version of Bambi's beautiful doe mother. The vision of that nighttime Disney parade, with its rainbow-lit floats, its Mickeys and Minneys and poor motherless Dumbos and rose-lipped Snow Whites, lodged romantically in my mind for years. My parents bought me the 7-inch record of the soundtrack, which I played and replayed on my child-sized turntable. The parade soundtrack was considered groundbreaking when it came out; its underlying theme song, called "Baroque Hoedown," was originally created in 1967 by early synthesizer pioneers Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. In 1977, according to Wikipedia, it was updated and arranged by electronic music artist Don Dorsey and Jack Wagner, and this was the theme that was used until January 2009 in Disney's Electrical Parade. I learned from a search, about 25 years after my own childhood copy went missing, that the vintage records go for $40 on eBay. Yes, I bought one.

Bruce Springsteen – "Hungry Heart"

I picked this song for the bare truth of it. Everybody does have a hungry heart. This was something I had to look directly at in order to write a memoir that dealt honestly with people who sometimes made bad or questionable choices, including myself. I've often been ashamed of my desire for connection, both romantic and non-romantic. Many times in my life I have allowed that desire to sit on my sleeve, and later felt overly exposed in doing so but also powerless to rein in my wanting. "Hungry Heart" invokes a sense of longing and, obviously, gestures to an act of infidelity, which is a strong motif in my book. California Calling is the story of a girl's rocky coming-of-age, but also the story of a family's relentless pursuit of love that would finally sate them.

The Eagles – "Heartache Tonight"

More heartache, ha ha. I like this song for its clairvoyance. If there was a psychic soundtrack to my parents' early marriage (and to the marriages of the parents of so many of my childhood friends), before things skid off the rails, this would be the headliner. My parents married very young, like people did in the seventies--they had been high school sweethearts. That fact combined with the individualism of the "Me Decade" makes it seem inevitable now, looking back on that time, that "somebody's gonna hurt someone." But somehow the song seems sanguine to me. Maybe it's Glenn Frey's handclapping. Maybe it's just the sense of surrender to our sometimes irrepressible instinct to connect, no matter the consequences. If you can't beat them, join them?

Sophie B. Hawkins – "California Here I Come"

This was probably the song I listened to the most while writing my book. Embedded deeply in the California myth is the risk of retribution for following one's desires: the Donner Party deaths; the earthquakes; all our failures to fully capitalize, personally and economically, on the opportunities afforded by California, and the schadenfreude of everyone else watching you miss if things don't work out like the commercials. Obviously there's an undercurrent of religion here--the purifying power of reinvention or rebirth; the Puritan guilt woven into the nation's history. This idea comes to life in the video for “California Here I Come,” in which a sexy, East-Coast-freed Sophie speeds into sun-drenched California in a convertible and dives into sparkling swimming pools while a preacher clad in black holding a staff follows her disapprovingly around the desert.

Beck – "Loser"

One thing you can do with a fear of failure is to turn it on its head and mock the pursuit of success. There are varying opinions on whether "Loser" is a parody of Generation X slacker culture--Beck denied it, saying the song's sneering edge is more of a self-reproach of his poor rapping skills. Whatever, right? For me, the song perfectly encapsulates the early nineties around Silicon Valley, and the way that the reality of the California I landed in--beautiful high school girls, neighborhoods of new-money mansions with requisite swimming pools sparkling out back, wealth that taunted but seemed unattainable--didn't match up with the mirage. To combat this realization, my mother and I would drive around with the windows downs, blaring "Loser," shouting along with the lyrics beneath the California sunshine, which was endless and free.

Robert Plant – "If I Were a Carpenter"

Plant's 1993 recording of Tim Hardin's folk song pulls a lever that yanks a chain that rings a bell directly at the heart of my "first teenage love" memory center. That first love put this recording, along with a slew of other memorable tracks, on a mixtape he gave me when I moved across a continent to another country. It's worth taking a moment here to remember mixtapes and the power that they had to shift a person's reality--to jumpstart a relationship, to end another, to provide deep insight into the mixtape maker's very soul. What liner notes did he write? Did he create the cover from handmade art? Does the song arrangement have a narrative arc? Well then, he must truly love you. As for my song choice here from that perfect mixtape, it's new young love manifested aurally.

"Save my love through loneliness, save my love for sorrow. I’ve given you my only-ness, give me your tomorrow."

When you're swamped by first love, those are the stakes--they seem massive: trading your tomorrow for his only-ness. Quite a few artists have recorded this song; my second-best favorite is Bob Seger's 1972 version. But the way Plant sings it makes it seems as though you, in your new and so very non-permanent love, are on the cusp of something simultaneously incredible and horrible, which is exactly where you are.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – "Dani California"

I hate to say music often comes back to boys for me, but … the pleasure centers are linked, I think. I got really into the Chili Peppers the year before I moved to California, when a boy I liked turned me on to them. Coincidentally, or not, the boy looked exactly like Anthony Kiedis, so they blurred together in my mind. This was the boy I pursued the perfect pair of Doc Martens for, who, when he said with an unconcealed hint of admiration, "Four eye, huh?," made me swoon. Turned out the boy was into Anthony much more than he was into me. I never stopped loving the band, though, and "Dani California" is one of my all-time favorite songs. It's about a girl with a hard life but I always hear it as a kind of anthem for California, too:

"She's a lover, baby, and a fighter
Should've seen it coming when I got a little brighter
With a name like Dani California
Day was gonna come when I was gonna mourn ya
A little loaded, she was stealing another breath
I love my baby to death"
Kinky – "Cornman"
Kinky was a band I started listening to right before I left California. I discovered this music with my fiance at the time because the Mexican band was super popular in the Coachella Valley where we lived. "Cornman" was one of the biggest songs on their 2002 self-titled album, and when I hear it, I feel like it defines a period of time for me when I had really gotten things together--things were starting to happen for me, and life felt very full and in focus, blazing with possibility. A few years after we left California, during a rough patch while we were trying to get pregnant, we went to a Kinky show in Seattle. Jumping around on the sticky venue floor to that music from our early days together in California, I believe we became lighter somehow, and that enabled a certain magic to stir in our cells. Now when I hear Kinky I try to remember back to my years in California, drunk on sunshine and youth and possibility, and I wonder: What did it all mean? Did it really happen, or was it all just a fever dream?

Natalie Singer and California Calling links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Foreword review
Kirkus review

Hypertext interview with the author
True interview with the author
Writing Is My Drink interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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