February 10, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Erin Pringle's novel Hezada! I Miss You is a moving and compelling examination of love and loss in small town America.
I don’t know why I rarely pay attention to the lyrics in a song. Was it because I learned to play the piano on classical music—and not even the sort with words? Was it because of Vanilla Ice? “Ice, Ice Baby” hit the playground when I was in third grade, and I requested and received the tape for Christmas.
My sister was in her mid-twenties, married, and knew better than everyone by proxy of her husband knowing everything. He took the Vanilla Ice cassette from me and unfolded the lyric sheet. I remember his expression, his displeasure with the words, his noting several songs that I should not listen to. A hushed conversation over why my parents would have gifted me such a thing.
I listened to every song. My mom was right that I had no idea what the words meant. That was both frustrating and liberating. Frustrating not to know, liberating that he was wrong.
I insisted that I just liked the sound of the music, and I still do. I didn’t know that lots of kids said that. I’ve always been affected by the sounds of words as much, or more, than the meaning. I had only a brief period of memorizing songs, that time I rewound Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” in order to transcribe the lyrics on wide-ruled paper. That was fourth grade. I remember because I sang all the words during Jazzercise, my mother’s small-town compromise for the ballet lessons I longed for.
That was the last song whose words I worked at.
I learned enough about rock songs to understand that even when you do know the lyrics to a song, the lyrics don’t necessarily make sense. Odd phrases will just drop in, and the music is used to connect the phrase, to suggest a connection and sense that isn’t there.
Is that why I don’t bother with the words?
And yet I insist on singing along. I know just enough—a cluster here, a pair there, to to join in with verve until I skid into the wrong words (or, rather, the right words).
All of this is to say that creating a playlist for my new book, Hezada! I Miss You was a bit of an adventure because I finally read the lyrics to songs I’ve played thousands of times. There’d be more songs in the playlist if I’d known what they said, but now that I know the words, they don’t fit, and I can’t provide the imagined words as case evidence for why the song is just right for the book.
Even then, it’s a long playlist.
Take heart, the list would be longer if I knew the singers, song titles, or lyrics to much of the music I love. But often, the words I type into google aren’t the words, so you see the predicament.
One song that I would never put in the playlist is Mumford and Sons song with the word noose in it. It sends me spiraling any time I’m in a room with it. Hearing it is the equivalent experience of the several years after my sister’s death that I would open a door and imagine her dead on the other side.
Perhaps it should be in the playlist because Heza would have the same relationship with the song.
It may be that I listen to music like people get tattoos. My friend Andrew is a tattoo artist and says many people just like tattoos, having them, wearing them, the whole shebang, but at the same time feel required to have a public reason for the dove on a wrist, the skull behind a left ear.
That’s the case for much of this playlist, but all of the songs evoke for me the emotional landscape of the book and the characters who move through it—a landscape so empty that the singular voice of loss and wish rises like scared birds and ghosts.
1. Come Along – Cosmo Sheldrake
Hezada! I Miss You is set in the placeless now, a time in the rural Midwest when much of prosperity is long past, remembered not only in stories of what towns and villages used to be like, when they were built on oil and family farming, but also evidenced by the chipping advertisements on empty or crumbling buildings. This song contains the wishful mindset the villagers have in dreaming of how to resurrect their village out of poverty and into stability and, thus, the perks that accompany it (a local school, commerce, contentment, a thriving community).
2. Come Away With Me – Norah Jones
My best friend and I loved Norah Jones and listened to this often when we drove around Terre Haute, Indiana where we went to college. After my best friend died, I’ve a hard time listening to this. She’s gone and the meaning of the words have shifted so that it seems she’s singing to me from far away. Perhaps for this reason, it holds for me the longing that the villagers have for the circus—to be removed from the bleakness of reality, to find a reprieve in a way that their religion doesn’t provide when that’s the main way they’re are taught to imagine and interpret themselves and others.
3. Do You Remember – Ane Brun
Much of the novel moves between nostalgia and reality. This song I especially love because of the music video which, like the novel, juxtaposes a circus-like atmosphere with illness. It may be the only song on this list whose video I know. This song is how Kae (Heza and Abe’s mother) would sing her experience while meeting their father in the circus; he’s a Summer Boy working for the circus that summer. The beauty of the circus overtook her.
4. Fourth of July – Sufjan Stevens
I don’t know whether each death we suffer amplifies the next death. But not long after my best friend died, my sister died, and while the way of dying and my mourning were different for both, I can’t help but think of both when I listen to this song. It’s more a song I’d sing to my best friend Alexa, but its emotional resonance is close to what Heza feels in the novel. Heza is the daughter of Kae, a twin sister and child who we follow for most of the book and whose experience of loss comes closest to how I’ve experienced death—how the world reveals how surreal it is—how love and self are utterly severed, and you’re left without a way to mend them back together as they were.
5. Teeth in the Grass – Iron & Wine
Jesus, this song is beautiful. The sounds thrum me, and the strange imagery seem to depict exactly my life experience, which is to move through mown yards where amid the grass teeth are scattered, bone white with maroon scabs where they once clung to someone’s jaw. That’s what I imagine while listening.
6. Old Man – Neil Young
At some point, it seems all the people who have grown up in a rural town finally see themselves in the retirees—the meeting of two reflections on either side of the same window. It isn’t always an uncomfortable vision—but the realization itself is important. I hope that the older characters in the book have as equally complex lives as the younger characters—that no one is simplified by the age of their life experiences, and that at the same time, it’s clear how one person will follow similar life pattern as another. Many of the young people have not yet reached this realization or sung this song, but eventually they will, with varying regrets and affections—and the reader is allowed to see both this lack of recognition and its inevitable shift.
7. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
This is basically the swan song I imagined would be my own if I didn’t leave the town where I grew up of 3,000 people. I couldn’t see a satisfying future for myself there because I didn’t share the same kind of satisfaction held by the people who’d stayed, and at the time, I thought they were all pretending to be satisfied. I didn’t know for much of my life that I was gay. I grew up in a very un-gay town surrounded by religious stories of very straight people. I now wonder if my desire to leave was akin to the threat rabbits feel when a hawk’s shadow flies over them. But this is a song that I used as a cautionary tale, a reminder of why I need to leave, and now, after now living more years away from home than I lived growing up there, the song is a haunting one. In this way, the song is the novel’s song. It tears me up to hear it. I love the woman in the song so much.
8. Unforgettable – Nat King Cole
I got the sheet music to this when I was twelve or so, and it was very comforting to play. Maybe I was older. Maybe I was fifteen, at the time when my father was dying of cancer. But it was before I stopped taking piano lessons because it was Mrs. England who taught me about triples, as this was the first time I’d encountered them in music. And I loved, and still love, how the notes in a triplet begin but halt—a kind of hesitation where usually there is none, and how that brings this very satisfying yet dissonant feeling. And doesn’t that describe the inability to forget someone? It seems that most everyone in Hezada! I Miss You experiences this—from Frank, Hezada, and the circus boss who have spent their lives in the circus and remember the early spectacle of it—to the villagers who vaguely remember a long-ago prosperity or those who have heard of it until the stories function as memories. And yet, the reality. That pause between notes two and three.
9. Send in the Clowns – Barbra Streisand (from A Little Night Music)
My sister played this sheet music long before I did. She was sixteen years older, so after she moved out at age 17, I inherited what was left of her in the house: her mildewed Barbie dolls, an empire-waisted dress, a bench of piano music with a gold star beside any song she’d mastered in her own lessons.
I started playing “Send in the Clowns” before I could read music, so my mother named all the notes in blue ink pen. That would have been in fourth grade, the summer Mrs. England started giving me lessons. I would have played with just my right hand, the melody.
I still have the sheet music with my mother’s handwriting.
I have a piano again, and I play it.
The lone voice in the song wishing for a different past but forced to the reality of what’s unchangeable, and yet a call for entry at an end. This seems what’s left, too, after the show is over and the circus packs up, even when the circus is a struggling, which is the kind in the book—on its last leg, more ghost than blood.
Besides the chording, it’s the miscommunication in the song that I appreciate. The beauty of a lone female voice. The struggle to understand self and other.
10. Don’t Rain on My Parade – Barbra Streisand (from Funny Girl)
To leave the solar system of a rural town, a girl has to have the kind of moxie that the voice of this song has. Not just the internal moxie, but one that doesn’t hesitate to disagree with people who will always disagree with her ideas. The moxie that leads to self-advocating. To do so is more difficult than one who hasn’t needed to would imagine, and in Hezada! all the women have dealt with the gravitational pull that holds them where they are instead of where they could go.
We see this happening to the children, Heza and her friend, and the teenagers returning from detasseling, to the single mothers working in the diner who wear on their wrists the names of old loves beneath tattoos of flowers.
The characters who have spent most of their lives in the circus feel a similar gravitational pull that makes leaving the circus hard. Our main circus character, Frank, is near retirement but has spent his life inside the tents then outside the tents before becoming its de facto organizer.
Frank wants to retire, but the circus has consumed his life for so long that it’s hard for him to imagine a life outside of it. He craves the home he ran away from as a child, though he had to escape in order to escape the bullying he received in a rural town as a child with dwarfism. He wanted a sense of autonomy that’s difficult to maintain when everyone imagines you so differently than you imagine yourself.
I think the novel shows how the lives around us, the culture we are steeped in, serve to shape us but to root us even when we try to pull our bones free.
The collateral damage from people trying to leave their lives (or wishing they could) especially shows itself in how the people treat animals. From the abuse the elephants suffered when the circus was in its financial prime—to the point of an elephant dying by suicide—to the pigs at a rural town’s slaughterhouse and the way workers treat them. Since the people’s livelihoods are tied to their jobs, and the animals are necessary to the work, the puzzle of escaping such systems becomes clearer and far more complex than the bootstraps antidote that our society sells as a real serum instead of snake oil.
This song, then, is, I think the wish to self-advocate, the dream of running after love and autonomy that’s often removed from people’s throats before they leave childhood and enter into the patterns of behavior the culture expects.
11. King of The Road – Roger Miller
The traveling circus in Hezada! hires seasonal workers called Summer Boys. The boys come from the small towns along the circus’s route. These are the boys who have gone beyond the next county and carry romantic visions of what travel will be like—a mythical travel that will reward with a kind of masculinity and power from never staying anywhere long—of “making it”—of loving deeply but leaving quickly. And this song seems to hold both that desire and the fatigue of realizing that every town is the town you left, and all that’s left is to leave again, which is why Summer Boys never last longer than a season before returning home.
12. Independence Day – Elliot Smith
Everything Reminds Me of Her – Elliot Smith
River Man – Nick Drake
Only Love Can Break Your Heart – Neil Young
Were the novel a film, these songs would likely be playing in the village tavern where Kae’s father sits alone later in the day, after she’s died. These songs are closest to his mindset as he imagines talking to her while the tavern feels with people happy to be done setting up the circus and villagers who want to be near the circus workers.
13. If I Were a Rich Man – from Fiddler on the Roof
In fifth grade, I wanted to perform this song in the annual music contest, but my choir teacher wouldn’t let me because I was a girl, not a man. I protested. She was adamant. So, I sang “Sunrise, Sunset” from the same musical, and it is powerful when a community sings it not a fifth-grade girl from a town of 3,000.
But “If I Were a Rich Man,” I could have belted out. I could have sung it from a place I understood. Tevye sings about a life he’d have with wealth—how his wife would have “a proper double-chin,” how he’d have one staircase going up and one going down, and one going nowhere—just for show. Just for show! I loved that detail, and it seemed accurate in its similarity to my father’s vision of the world and my growing understanding of the chasm between social classes.
Besides having a beard like Tevye, my father grew up in a smaller, more impoverished town but reached the middle-class in his thirties; this was the 1970s and he decorated it with corvettes and motorcycles, hounds-tooth patterned pants and felt cowboy hats with a feather in the ban.
By the 1980s, when I was born, he’d been diagnosed with manic depression, quit working, dressed in striped Wal-Mart shirts with pockets for his notebook and pen. We lived on social security, and all the golden days I never experienced sat closed in photo albums on the closet shelves. Everything seemed to have gone still from that point on—except for his discontent with our lives, or at least with his.
So, the song is both reminiscent of my understanding of my father and how I was treated because I was a girl living inside a conventional worldview, which we see Heza experience in the novel.
14. Tom’s Diner – Suzanne Vega
This was one of my first single cassette tapes, which cost nearly $5 downtown at Arndt’s. I’d heard it on the radio—the pink one I carried with me everywhere, often listening to it outside the diner while my parents had coffee. Twice a day, at 8 AM and 4 PM, my parents drove into town for coffee at the Rex Café (later the Red Shed, later KFC, later Hardees, and now my mom drives alone to McDonalds). It was easy to imagine myself in Tom’s diner. How little I had to reach for the experience.
In the early mornings, I’d sometimes go with my father to the KZ diner where I’d get a cherry coke and a comic book. But I knew exactly what the singer means about sitting at the counter while watching someone on the other side of the large diner window.
I’ve been obsessed with window reflections for a very long time, how windows on either side of a street reflect on each other, how you can wedge yourself between them and see your own reflection superimposed on the building behind you while looking into the storefront in front of you.
It seems to serve the perfect metaphor of past and present, memory and longing—of who one wishes to be and who one fears she is.
In the novel’s village, the diner is central to the community and to the story. Kae’s standing outside the diner, waiting for her shift to start, when the circus comes to town and her life changes. In the present of the novel it’s from the diner we watch the twins Heza and Abe appear, from where we see the circus posters go up, and later the circus roll by. The diner is one of the novel’s vanishing points that shape time and perspective.
15. My Moon My Man – Feist
You’ll have to tell me when in the novel you would play this song. I think it’s toward the end when the teenagers are cruising the country roads toward the party. Or perhaps it would work better at the end, where we see the circus by moonlight. Let me know once you get there.
16. Karma Police – Radiohead
Perhaps Frank would listen to this in his camper, but he’s more of a traditionalist in the sort of music he enjoys; for example, he very much misses the large circus band that used to accompany the enterprise. But if he overheard a Summer Boy playing the song, Frank would feel deeply sympathetic to the song—both its orchestration and lyrics, despite his feeling wary of what the song means or how it doesn’t sound like most songs he likes.
He would be certain, though, not to ask the Summer Boy to turn off the song like other old men would. He’d be aware of staying silent about it, too. He has a deep internal sense of empathy, a sense of fairness, and a desire for people to live as themselves—even down to listening to songs that resonate for them.
I care for Frank a great deal and imagine him as a combination of my father and me. My father who never shook the mindset of a man born in 1935 and the me I might-have-been had I and others known I was gay as a child in the 1980s.
17. Crazy – Patsy Cline
Kae thinks about the circus as the voice of this song does. A self-blaming voice that is nonetheless crisp and beautiful.
18. Jesus, Etc. – Wilco
This encapsulates Frank’s friendship with Hezada. Perhaps it would play as they walked together on the beach after her radical mastectomy.
19. Angry Chair – Alice in Chains
Definitely the teenagers in the novel would listen to Alice in Chains in their cars and trucks as they cruise the country roads because the band seems so far away from the town and the fields where they live, and because of that, the music seems to understand them in ways adults and authority figures don’t understand.
20. Monday, Monday – The Mamas & The Papas
The emotions of the song seem akin to the feelings the circus workers have when tearing down tents and packing up after a weekend of shows. The routine of it, the reality of the bones of the circus that are hidden by the lights, sequins, and crowds during show-time.
21. Blackbird – Sarah McLachlan
Perhaps as Abe runs across the rainy field, having heard the news.
22. Riverside – Agnes Obel
This song is surely the song closest to Heza’s emotional landscape after her mother’s suicide. For the rest of her life. No matter what other songs might move through her or obfuscate this one. If she were to hear this song ever, she would weep, even though she grew nowhere near a river. She understand this one.
23. Silent All these Years – Tori Amos
It seems that this would be Kae’s song. Or perhaps Hezada’s and the Hezada before her and the Hezada before her—to be watched from the bleachers in a dusty tent as she performs above the audience, glittering but not speaking.
24. Summertime Sadness – Lana Del Rey
Surely, this is Kae crawling away from the circus tent years ago and hurrying home.
Surely, this is Heza and Abe in the rainy dark, walking the village streets the night their mother has died.
25. I Will Follow You into the Dark – Death Cab for Cutie
Imagine the dark insides of the circus tents when the lights have shut off.
Imagine the shed behind Kae’s house.
Imagine Kae walking in the playground that winter night after saying goodbye to her best friend.
26. Names – Cat Power
And isn’t the whole novel this song? It’s hard not to imagine my whole childhood as this song. The names we added to the inside covers of our school textbooks and all the names of the kids who’d used the book every year before us. The names we heard called and not called across the graduation stage. The names who were parents of, sisters of, friends of, the names who didn’t make it. The names our parents give us to share with each other of friends who have died, are dying, and do you remember her? Do you remember him? But who else will? The kids we all saw having hard times, coming from hard families, how we sat beside them, listened to the teachers chide them, watched how they slowly moved closer to the back of the room each year until they disappeared. We didn’t know how to save each other. We were just kids. We didn’t know how we were killing each other too. We were just kids. Weren’t we?
Hezada! I Miss You doesn’t forget these children, tries not to dismiss or deny or make them invisible. They are made from the love I still have for all the children I went to school with, every year the same children. The song is a love song, and I hope this novel is a love song in the same way.
27. Summertime – Kat Edmonson
This version of Summertime is haunting in the way the summer in the novel has become every summer since the village began and the circus began moving—a century of summers. In the same way, perhaps, that to hear this version of the song is to hear all the versions sung within it.
But listen to the weight of the piano keys in the background. How heavy. This summer, this song, this life despite the lightness that we all see, too, by sun or by hope. And yet the fish are still jumping.
28. Cowboy Take Me Away – Dixie Chicks/Wild Boys – Duran Duran
This first is the song of the teenage girls in the village who are counting their eggs, their futures, their possible husbands, comfortable lives, pastel kitchens. The other is the song of the teenage boys. The collision between the songs is what we see at the bonfire the night the circus comes.
29. I Don’t Know (reprise) – Kat Edmonson
It’s just so fucking sad, this song. It slices me every time I hear it. I would hope that this book will make someone feel the same way when they recommend it. So fucking sad in its honesty and wish, like Heza and Abe alone in the house where their mother was alive only this morning.
30. Message in a Bottle – The Police
Everyone in the village and in the circus knows about these messages, these bottles.
31. New York – Cat Power
You simply have to hear this version—how it collides with Frank Sinatra’s belief
in New York. A doppelganger almost that somehow uses all the same words but says the truth of such a dream. The odds. The longing. The wish to enter into a dream version of a city that you have no idea is a dream version until you’re there—really there. In the novel, the circus is New York, surely. Love is New York. Kae’s possible life is New York—until it isn’t. But, God, the voice of this song, how it tears.
32. Hurt – Johnny Cash
Were there a song that followed Kae’s father out of the tavern, this would be it. Were there a song playing when Kae’s mother runs a bath for the children after bringing them back to her house after Kae’s death, this would be it.
Were there a song that follows Frank to the swimming pool that night, this would be it.
Were there a song that played as Kae’s body lay on the autopsy table, this would be it.
33. Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers
And isn’t it so true and full of longing when we have lost our loves? Most every character in the book would nod when this song came on—whether it’s Frank and the circus boss who have countless relationships in their past travels and still hope for love, some life-altering Love to appear and become the center of their lives. Perhaps this would be the song Frank thinks of as he finds Hezada at the swimming pool.
These songs would be played toward the end of the novel, too:
Time in a Bottle – Jim Croce
Nightswimming – R.E.M
Tonight, Tonight – Smashing Pumpkins
Here Comes the Rain Again - Eurythmics
Scarborough Fair – Simon & Garfunkel
34. It’s Oh so Quiet – Bjork
Perhaps this is what plays during the reading of the dust jacket, or the acknowledgments. Perhaps this is the song of the cover.
Erin Pringle and Hezada! I Miss You 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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Flash Dancers (authors pair original flash fiction with a song
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists