September 24, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Gary Lippman's novel Set the Controls for the Heart of Sharon Tate is an inventive, humorous, and tragic exploration of obsession.
Jillian Lauren wrote of the book:
"In this wildly inventive, highly addictive story, Lippman walks a tightrope between horror and hilarity. Set The Controls For The Heart Of Sharon Tate is an irreverent and introspective thrill ride that probes the heart of the intersection of fame and compulsion, desire and death, idols and monsters. Just as the most bizarre dreams can often expose our truest selves, Lippman’s surreal tale shines a light into the darkest corners of our common humanity."
My novel Set the Controls for the Heart of Sharon Tate recounts the darkly comic struggles of a self-proclaimed “Sharonophile”—that is, an obsessive lifelong devotee of the 1960s movie starlet (and Charles Manson murder victim) Sharon Tate. The story begins with my protagonist’s arrival at a legendary Hollywood hotel in advance of an upcoming gathering of his fellow “S-philes.” The good news is that he’s nearly finished writing a book about his beloved. (Excerpts from this “posthumous memoir” run throughout the text, dramatizing true scenes from the actress’ short life.) But the bad news for the protagonist is that someone keeps sending him ominous messages and packages, plus he’s becoming addicted to a sinister cough syrup, and he’s fallen in love with a beautiful young woman who turns out to be just as celebrity-crazy as he is, but with a very different worshiped one: Charles Manson.
Among the songs, mostly of the “power-pop” variety, that inspired me during the composition of my novel:
“STAR” by STEALERS WHEEL (1973)
In early 1991, I was living in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, and because I had no TV set, I often watched the unfolding Gulf War in local bars. My then-girlfriend and I had just broken up, and one evening, having decided to take a break from my personal pain as well as the world's latest woes, I drove across town to see a play I'd read about, a play about the Manson Family. I was sorry I'd wasted time on it. On arriving back at my apartment, I cued up on my stereo an album by the '70s Scottish group Stealer's Wheel that I had purchased the day before. Then, as I sprawled across the carpet of my living room and stared up at the slowly rotating ceiling fan, the song "(So They Made You A) Star" grabbed me immediately.
“Star’s" vocal harmonies, the fluid melody line, a ghostly player-piano instrumental break, the “doo-doo-doo” singing at the outro—all melted together gorgeously, and served as a sonic Proustian Madeleine, whisking me back to the night in the early 70s when, as an eleven-year-old, I’d first beheld Sharon Tate in a movie rerun on TV. “Unexpected psychological time-travel," one might call it.
Even today, nearly thirty years later, I will cue up “Star” on my iPod or iTunes program and, as soon as I hear the opening guitars strumming, I never fail to feel a strong tingle of sentiment. “Star” was my novel’s emotional launching pad, and has since becomes its theme song, recreating in my mind that original intention to write a book about Sharon Tate.
As does, to a lesser extent, John Wesley Harding’s brash clanging 90s cover of “Star.”
“HALF THE TIME” by THE LEMONHEADS (1990)
I began writing the first draft of my Tate-themed novel during the summer of ’93. For a portion of that season I was staying at a historically inspiring place: the very hotel where Tate had lived for several months before she moved into the Bel Air home where she would lose her life. The Chateau Marmont in ’93 was still a sort of bohemian boardinghouse, delightfully “Old Hollywood” yet still relatively affordable, and I got friendly with some fellow guests at this West Coast Chelsea Hotel. One of them was the American singer-songwriter Evan Dando, who was in town to record an album with his increasingly popular “alt-rock” group the Lemonheads.
Already a fan of Dando’s “happy-sad” music (read: bouncy while simultaneously wistful—an apt description of “Star” by Stealers Wheel, as well), I listened to the Lemonheads song “Half The Time” a lot while writing my book. I didn’t know then that Dando had previously recorded a song written by Charles Manson. And although my novel’s Manson-like rock star antagonist has nothing in common with the quite affable Dando, my description of my rock star character’s uniquely messy hotel room is not all that far off from Dando’s own suite at the Chateau (or at least my hazy memory of it).
“SHORTY” by THE WANNADIES (1997)
One of the epigraphs I use for my novel comes from the lyrics to “Big Fan,” a fun anthemic song by the Swedish pop-punk group The Wannadies. As thematically fitting as I believe the epigraph is, though, “Big Fan” does not appear on Bagsy Me, the Wannadies album I love best. I listened practically nonstop to Bagsy Me, especially its centerpiece tune “Shorty,” during the summer of ’97. That summer I lived in Manhattan and was “on a bummer trip,” as Sharon Tate might have put it. Another romantic crisis, but far more complicated this time. In fact, I felt such daily psychological turbulence that I ended up isolating myself from many friends and family. During my free time, I did little but glumly Rollerblade beside the Hudson River, read Thomas Pynchon’s just-published novel Mason & Dixon, and return to work on my own book, the Sharon Tate project.
By summer’s end, I would once more set aside Set The Controls. I still couldn’t get it right. But at least I was able to catch the Wannadies in concert at a club on the Lower East Side. Even better was the aftermath of that show, when I summoned up some social enthusiasm, introduced myself to the band, and bought all of them a round of cocktails. What I hadn’t expected was that they would insist on buying the same number of drinks for me in return.
My hangover the next day kept me in bed for many hours. No rollerblading, no reading, and no writing—not that day. Even so, the band’s performance, and their personal generosity, had lifted my mood for the first time in weeks.
“SOMEONE’S SLEEPING” by JOHN PHILLIPS (19)
In 2012 I took up my Sharon Tate novel again. Yes, I felt somewhat ridiculous in constantly resuming work on the thing and then shutting it down yet again. But this time it’s for real, I vowed to myself, and sure enough, I eventually managed to complete Set The Controls. I didn’t “complete” it definitively, of course, but at least felt satisfied enough by it to send it out to literary agencies. After a long stretch I began to work with one agent and, after another long stretch, I signed a contract with a publisher.
While completing the final draft of my book, I was able to project myself into Sharon Tate’s lost world by listening to an album that I’d discovered during high school and now returned to. This was The Wolfking Of LA by John Phillips, the former leader of The Mamas And The Papas singing group. Having been a member of Tate’s own social set of Beautiful People, Phillips wrote and sang plaintively in Wolfking about the '70s comedown suffered by those glamourous hippies (if “hippies” they truly were, given that glamour and the privilege that sustained it). This comedown—from too much pleasure, but also too much of the paranoia and terror unleashed by the Manson murders—is explored in Jeffrey Melnick’s excellent book from last year, Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl. And the melancholia of the comedown is captured pitch-perfectly by the pedal steel and melody flow of Phillips’s Wolfking song “Someone’s Sleeping” pitch-perfectly captures that melancholia.
“LUCIFER SAM” by PINK FLOYD (1967)
Yes, the title of my novel riffs on the spacey Pink Floyd song “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun,” a line that Floyd bassist Roger Waters took from the Michael Moorcock novel The Fireclown. But “Set The Controls” is far from my favorite song by this band. That honor changes continually, but most often alights on “Lucifer Sam,” in which Syd Barrett’s sinister guitar figure gives me the willies, evoking as it does the “creepy-crawly” home invasions practiced by the Manson Family.
“SUMMER’S ALMOST GONE” by THE DOORS (1968)
Multiple characters play music by the Doors during the course of my novel’s plotline, and this particular tune, from the album Waiting For The Sun, evoked a doomy 60s vibe for me whenever I worked on Set The Controls. So did “Robert Montgomery” by Love and “If Not By Fire” by Mandy More. (La More, no relation to the contemporary actress Mandy Moore, made one of English pop’s great unsung solo albums, which I heartily recommend.)
Apart from his music, Jim Morrison pops up as a spectral presence in Set The Controls. During my early twenties, I’d briefly dated a woman who claimed that she’d lost her virginity to Morrison, and I utilized a bit of this story for one of my book’s subplots, although I ultimately chose to cut it.
Speaking of Morrison, I’ve met a handful of other people over the years who’d once been personally close to him. One of these intimates pretty much despised Morrison. Another sadly lamented that Morrison never got the opportunity to go to rehab. And when I asked a third friend of Morrison’s what he had been like, this friend surprised me by saying, “Jim was a superb athlete.” Apparently Morrison had been a terrific swimmer. Who knew?
“GIVE US BUBBLEWRAP” by HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT (2008)
Twice as propulsive as The Lemonheads or The Wannadies, just as tuneful as either of them, and boasting lyrics and vocals which are stone hilarious, this punky English group was a favorite of the great deejay John Peel. It has long been a favorite of mine, too, and I borrowed this terrific song’s moral lesson, as well as its title, for a crucial monologue delivered by my novel’s most sardonic character.
“A LIKELY LAD” by HANS ROTENBERRY AND BRAD JONES (2010)
This past April, I found myself back at the Chateau Marmont for a brief visit. The hotel had, long before the turn of the millennium, begun its metamorphosis into the over-the-top Superstar Central it is today, but I still felt nostalgic there, trying to pretend that my summer of ’93 never ended. I also imagined that it was Sharon Tate’s own time at the hotel in ’68. Needless to say, I felt thrilled in April that my novel about Tate would soon be published. But I had one last labor to perform: copyedit the galleys.
Because of my typical procrastination, I wound up leaving myself a mere twenty-four hours to accomplish this task. Procrastinating no longer. So I sat down one night on a sofa in a corner of the Chateau’s empty lobby, opened my laptop, dove into a pot of coffee, and stayed up all night in order to crank out my edit.
Did I feel Sharon Tate’s spirit perched beside me on a sofa in that empty lobby in the hotel that she and I had both occupied, albeit twenty-five years apart? No. But I did not feel alone, not exactly, because I kept favorite music blaring from my laptop, especially “A Likely Lad,” which was a catchy song I came across just before dawn, took a fresh liking to, and played repeatedly.
Around eleven in the morning, I finished my edit and sent the galleys to my publisher. Then I let out a big sigh, stretched my legs, closed down my computer, and left the now-crowded lobby for my room, where I pulled the curtains closed. I may or may not have brushed my teeth. I did splash water on my face. And finally, collapsed on top of my bed, still wearing my clothes, I took hold of my iPod and cued up on it “Star” by Stealers Wheel.
Let’s hear “Star” once more, I told myself. Once more, for the proverbial “old time’s sake.”
But I fell asleep even before my novel’s theme song reached its second verse.
Gary Lippman and Set the Controls for the Heart of Sharon Tate links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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guest book reviews
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weekly music release lists