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July 10, 2018

Laura Catherine Brown's Playlist for Her Novel "Made by Mary"

Made by Mary

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

Laura Catherine Brown's novel Made by Mary is impressive and unforgettable.

Terese Svoboda wrote of the book:

"Excellent with dope deals, lovers lesbian and otherwise, surrogate motherhood and the unforgettable character of crystal-toting, never-grow-up Mary, Laura Catherine Brown’s Made By Mary is deeply moving. The repercussions of Woodstock have never been so wisely and vividly examined, nor the spectacle of maternal love sonogramed so well between generations."

In her own words, here is Laura Catherine Brown's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Made by Mary:

Soundtrack of Our Lives

Doesn’t everyone live in their own soundtrack? Music marks turning points or meaningful events, like my husband singing "Love Is Strange" at our wedding, which I thought magnificently beautiful and romantic. Or the first time I heard "Psycho Killer" by The Talking Heads, which my college roommate played on the turntable. I still recall her shit-eating grin, “You are going to love this!” Or the night I was in high school and my mother broke down sobbing as she danced with us in the living room to “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” by the Doors. She bawled, saying, “I want to break on through! Why can’t I get to the other side?” My friends laughed for months about it. I was mortified. Decades later, the memory brings a clutch to my chest.

But sometimes we’re unaware of the music in our background, heedless of its significance. The recognition arrives in retrospect: you hear a song and recall with instant, vivid sensory detail exactly where you were, who you were with, and how you felt, and, most poignantly, how inconsequential it seemed at the time. This is the power of our personal soundtrack: a song, the memory of it, brewing over the years, later hits us with a potency far more powerful than the first time we heard it. Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son” is a song like that.

When I was a teenager, Tea for the Tillerman seemed ubiquitous, an album, along with Frampton Comes Alive, that was in everybody’s record collection. Cat Stevens sang in the background, deceptively easy to croon along to. I remember my father listening intently, exclaiming, “My God, it’s heartbreaking! He inhabits old and young in primal conflict. Brilliant!” Though my father has been dead now for twenty-four years, I cannot hear that song without seeing him on the sofa, his elbows on his knees, head bowed, listening. It would have been one of the weekends he had custody of me and my sisters, one of the intense brief span of hours we spent with him, battling each other to be the source of his exclamation and wonder, craving his love, unable to compete with Cat Stevens.

That’s my take, and I think it’s true of all the characters in my novel Made by Mary. Each character personally connects to one or more songs. Some songs belong to various couples in the novel, and others are communal: belong to the “tribe,” or the Eleusinian Circle, as their Wiccan community calls themselves.

Mary, eternal child, ex-hippie, Wiccan, jeweler, and mother of Ann, came of age in the late 60s when rock ’n’ roll exploded, creating the anthems through which she worshipped life and freedom. The world was undergoing seismic cultural shifts. The anti-war movement, the environmental movement, civil rights, feminism, an upending of the hierarchy, the patriarchy, and capitalism itself, or so it seemed to Mary at the time, and this formed her worldview. Playing her bootleg recordings (transferred to CD) of Grateful Dead concerts she attended, Mary merges all her former and present selves. As a young woman, she danced to “Friend of the Devil” with her baby in a bandana sling bouncing against her breasts at a Grateful Dead show at Winterland Arena in San Francisco. Now, at age fifty, alone and dancing naked in her jewelry studio, she inhabits again her youthful, immortal self, creating her own reality, where giving birth confers a cosmic connection to earth mother Gaia and the universe. When she bops to “Break on Through,” she’s laughing, not sobbing.

The song that belongs to America, Mary’s faithless lover, is Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” With its symphonic echoes and watery atmosphere, it’s perfect for lying alone on your living room rug on a Sunday afternoon, stoned out of your gourd. Mary and America share Jefferson Airplane’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and “Somebody to Love.” Later, Mary shares “All You Need Is Love” when she weds another capricious lover, Peter. She mistakes her narcissistic fulfillment for monumental epic love, and loves all the wrong people indiscriminately. Ann sees this about her mother, and it makes her feel helpless and invisible.

The characters of Mary and Ann appeared to me before any of the other characters in the book. Mary was always the clearest in my mind. I knew she was a hippie, a seeker, and a self-absorbed mother. Her music followed naturally. But Ann’s character was trickier to unearth, so thinking about her musical preference and passion, particularly the song “Personal Jesus,” helped me understand and deepen her character and her desires. Since Ann has formed herself in opposition to Mary, she connects to music that lies outside Mary’s horizon, stuff Mary can’t co-opt or comment on. It’s funny, because I liked Depeche Mode in the '80s, but I never thought of them as particularly deep. Yet, that song seems to me to strike at the heart of loneliness, the need to be seen, to be acknowledged, and it does this with an irresistible beat. “Reach out and touch faith,” the singer offers the listener, “I’ll make you a believer. I’ll deliver.” The other song that belongs exclusively to Ann, is Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” which couldn’t be more different musically than “Personal Jesus.” A folksong, “Orphan Girl” is a lament for kinship, rooted in gospel and bluegrass.

Ann and Joel met and fell in love through music, through playing together in a band, where they performed an eclectic set of original songs and cover tunes. “Fast as You,” by Dwight Yoakam is one of their songs, a great rockabilly number impossible not to dance to, or at least tap your foot and snap your fingers to.

All the Ramones tunes referenced in the novel belong to Joel. “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” “Pinhead.” “I Wanna Be Sedated.” When I first heard The Ramones in the early '80s, their angry and despairing songs spoke to my hopelessness and rage, their brilliant songs ironically expressed with joyful abandon and catchy melodies. In my 20s, after graduating from art school, I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with three roommates. I was disillusioned by my job at an ad agency that didn’t pay very well, and I had to take on extra freelance work to make ends meet. This was before computers, when you could earn money doing paste-up mechanicals. At night, I’d sit at my drafting table in my bedroom, fingers coated with spray-glue, pasting lines of statistics on countless baseball cards. I got paid per card.

The work was time-consuming and utterly meaningless, so I blasted The Ramones to liven up my existence. Somehow, I needed the music to spread beyond me, past me and my bedroom, and my limited life. I wanted my roommates to shout “Gabba Gabba Hey” with me! I wanted them to rail against futility and disappointment. But my roommates weren’t into it. Grateful Dead, Neil Diamond, and Madonna were more their tastes. And they screamed at me to shut my bedroom door, to turn the music down.

Psychologically, Joel dwells in a bewildered, formless mutiny that manifests as stubbornness and passivity. But he can take charge through music, and scream, “I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more!” And burst free from his limitations for at least two minutes, the approximate duration of the song.

He opens up to Ann, falls in love, and gets caught in her “baby lust,” even though it might not have been his longing, originally. “Father and Son” is Joel’s song, but he draws Ann into it with him. Together they sing, “Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.” Another song they share, as they reconcile after their estrangement, is Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.” They anticipate the coming of light, the coming of the children they will raise together, through Mary. Sitting on their porch, strumming their guitars and singing Hank Williams, they find forgiveness and hope.

Hope is what all the characters cling to, however delusional. A little delusion is not a bad thing. Mary’s illusions become her strength. She sees the world awash in hope and color. Ann’s perception is the opposite—the world is gray and limited. And to a certain extent, the world reflects their views back at them. All the characters in the novel battle their own limitations. Ann can’t seem to transcend the abandoned-child feeling and the sense of being incomplete and unseen. Mary refuses to recognize the validity of Ann’s grievances, and chooses emotional blindness when it suits her. They share Neil Young’s rendition of “Four Strong Winds,” a song that pierces my heart every time I hear it. The tone is so melancholy and resigned. The singer is making false assurances to someone he loves, promising a future he doesn’t believe in himself. The song suggests that love can’t transcend circumstance. “I’m bound for moving on,” he sings, as if he has no choice.

The members of the Eleusinian Circle are close-knit and prone to feelings of persecution, and they all come together with Bob Marley’s “Easy Skanking,” a song that opens its arms in welcome and acceptance. They unify as they’re harvesting their inaugural marijuana crop, feeling fertile and hopeful and momentarily aligned, singing along to “Soul Shakedown Party.” Agendas and desires converge with “No Woman No Cry,” their hymn to a better future.

It probably goes without saying that all the songs in my playlist have deeply touched me at some point in my life. Many of them ignite my urge to dance and express myself through movement in tandem with the music. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that I get to create characters who can experience their own deep connection with songs that affected me.

Laura Catherine Brown and Made by Mary links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

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