August 7, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kim Powers' Rules for Being Dead is a surprising and compelling novel.
When you spend every Saturday afternoon of your childhood watching movies, the soundtrack of your life inevitably comes with full orchestration. A lot of strings. A lot of schmaltz. A lot of shrieks, for the scary stuff. But when your coming-of-age is in the mid-‘60s, there’s also a lot of Beach Blanket bubblegum…not that there’s anything wrong with that. All of that music ear-wormed its way into my little grade school ears; I just didn’t realize it had been stuck there, for decades, until I wrote my autobiographical new novel, Rules for Being Dead.
In it, ten-year-old Clarke Perkins (sort of a mini-me) faces the sudden and mysterious death of his mother. It’s on April Fools’ Day, so at first he thinks it’s a joke. It’s not. Nobody’s laughing, and nobody’s telling him what happened. Nobody’s telling her either, the dead mother Creola. She’s floating in a deep-fried limbo, trying to make sense of seeing her very own body being wheeled out of her house on a gurney. From their very different worlds – one alive, one dead - she and her young son start playing detective to find out how she died. Did she die naturally? Did she kill herself? God forbid, was she murdered? Little Clarke takes refuge in the dark of the local Ritz movie theater every Saturday afternoon, carrying on the love of movies that she instilled in him, and intuitively trying to use what he sees up on screen to solve the mystery of her death. I’ve been doing something like that too, for the last forty or so years.
So as you listen to these songs, put yourself there, in that small-town Texas movie house in 1967. Try to remember all those sights and sounds and smells and sensations of when you were a kid at the movies: the stale buttered popcorn, the too-sugary syrup from a soda fountain Coke; the stickiness of that spilled Coke on the floor--at least you hope it’s just the Coke. The rusty springs of the old theater seats, poking into you. The chill in the auditorium. The excitement of being taken away, by whatever and whoever shows up on screen. Better yet, imagine you’re dropping quarters into a jukebox, filled with a tragically unhip, nostalgic set of 45 rpms. If ever a playlist screamed, “Ok, Boomer!,” this is it…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
To Kill a Mockingbird title theme – Basically, we should all make this brilliant Elmer Bernstein score the playlist of our lives, on a constant loop or planted in a microchip in our brains. It would definitely be my “desert island” pick, if I could only listen to one glorious piece of music for the rest of time. Part of it is Proustian: just those first few tinkling piano notes bring back the entirety of the movie for me, the entirety of childhood, but you could do a needle drop at any point in the score and it would find a place in Rules for Being Dead. At one point, though, Clarke and his little brother Corey are getting ready to go to the drive-in; it’s the last night it will be open before it closes for winter. Ever-prescient, almost haunted Clarke knows that something life-changing is about to happen; he feels it in his gut. He tells his little brother to be quiet, to stand still and just listen, that things will never be the same after this. They won’t. I think of that magnificent line from Harper Lee in Mockingbird, which could also describe what Clarke and Corey go through in my book: “thus began our longest journey together.” And I hear this music.
"Tammy" - The 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor, released the year I was born, was one of my mother’s favorite movies, and by extension, a favorite of my mother “character” Creola. She’s transported by its simple melody and yearning orchestration; she wants to be Debbie Reynolds/Tammy, carried away by young love. Creola first sees the movie at the local drive-in, on an early date with the soldier boy who later becomes her husband. And she sees it again on the last night of her life, when she doesn’t know how to keep on going, but prays she can find some secret in the song, that will tell her what to do to save her life. That plaintive and wistful “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love….”
"What’s New Pussycat?" – Finally, something up-tempo!! My introduction to swinging Tom Jones, who sang the theme song in the movie written by Woody Allen, starring Peter Sellars and Peter O’Toole. I don’t remember a thing about the movie, but I remember everything about how Tom yelps out that “woo-oh-oh-oh” of the Burt Bacharach song, In Rules, the two brothers go to see the movie; Clarke later uses the song to torment his little brother. Clarke doesn’t understand what he’s doing or how mean he’s being, just that he’s lost in the stream of all this new stuff coming at him: his mother’s death, his father’s dating, and this sexy Welshman, squeezed into Carnaby Street velvet suits and ruffled tuxedo shirts unbuttoned down to there, thrusting and grinding to an audience of unruly middle-aged females, and one little gay boy in McKinney, TX.
James Bond theme song – The iconic John Barry theme song I first heard in that trifecta of the original Bond films, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger. (Ah, how Goldfinger–and Sean Connery–would haunt my dreams.) Those opening horns, all that brass blasting out from the Ritz’s bleary speakers; even they couldn’t mute the thrill of the chase that was promised in those opening credits. I didn’t want to be a spy; I was pretty much afraid of my own shadow, but I did all those things that Bond did to catch the bad guy. In Rules, the bad guy is Clarke’s father, whom he thinks may have had something to do with his mother’s death. Clarke follows the Bond playbook, from planting “listening devices” to placing a hair on a door, to see if it’s been opened. James Bond was my ten-year-old dream man and his theme song was my call to action, to catch the killer.
"I Left My Heart in San Francisco" - I don’t have that many memories of my mother, but one of the most vivid and haunting ones I have is walking around the McKinney town square with her, on the hunt for that Tony Bennett single. It’s literally the only thing I remember her ever actively seeking out, something that wasn’t a necessity like groceries or school supplies, but something she wanted. She needed. Almost feverishly, she dragged me and my twin brother (the models for Clarke and Corey) around to the five and dime stores like Woolworths and Duke & Ayres, even after our chubby little legs were too tired to keep going. Somehow, I knew that that song was taking her away, at least in her imagination, to another place, in the same way her beloved movies did. Elvis movies took her to Las Vegas and Hawaii; she wanted the suave Tony Bennett to take her away to the Golden Gate Bridge, maybe to jump from it.
"Alfie" – Ah, the incredible Burt Bacharach, who to my mind composed the soundtrack of the '60s and '70s, the soundtrack of my childhood and teenage years. In 1967, I wanted to sing his “Alfie” for my audition for a summer community theater production of Peter Pan. (Perfect for a little boy auditioning for one of the Darling children, don’t you think?) “And if LIFE belongs, only to the strong, Alfie….” Alfie was one of those very grown-up movies I shouldn’t have been allowed to see but I did, even though I didn’t understand much about it. (Why did Michael Caine keep talking about birds? Was he a bird watcher??) My neighbor Jacque Poston down the street had the sheet music, and tried to teach me to plunk it out on her piano. It felt like my earliest existential song, as if Samuel Beckett and Burt Bacharach had a love child. Sort of “I can’t go on/I will go in…WHILE SINGING.” I ultimately decided “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music would be a more appropriate audition song. It must have been, because I got the part I wanted, of little Michael Darling.
“I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady - The one time my father showed any interest in the movies my twin brother Tim and I watched every weekend was when the smash hit movie of My Fair Lady came to the Ritz. It was advertised as a “special event” and cost extra money; my father said that was the most important business lesson I could ever learn, that if you called something “special” you could charge extra for it. But pay the extra money he did for us all to go, because he had also invited his new girlfriend to go along with us, on what was supposed to be a “boys’ night out.” That girlfriend (who later became my stepmother) bought us the soundtrack of it, and dancing along to “I Could Have Danced All Night” the next morning--Tim wearing my father’s pajamas and me wearing my dead mother’s nightgown–I swung my brother into a sharp corner of the couch, and sliced his head open. I don’t know which horrified my father more: me parading around in a flowing nightgown or my brother bleeding out. He rushed us to the hospital, and all I could think about the whole time was how President Kennedy had been in a Dallas hospital not far away, with doctors trying to sew his brains back into his head. Tim was left with a scar that was visible whenever he got his hair cut really short; I turned my scar into Rules for Being Dead.
”Just a Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins – Did Walt Disney or the Sherman Brothers ever realized their jaunty little ditty would become one of the saddest songs ever, at least in my book and imagination? Mary thinks she can accomplish anything with her spoonful of sugar, and little Corey in my novel thinks he can too. He decides he can heal his perpetually sad mother the same way, by putting a spoonful of sugar into a glass of chocolate milk…ALONG WITH a big spoonful of his ground-up anti-seizure medication (he has epilepsy.) That action, and what happens afterwards, will haunt him for the rest of his life. I can’t unsee that scene when I listen to the song now, which seems more Edward Gorey than Walt Disney.
“Senza Mamma” from Suor Angelica – If you ever need the most glorious song ever written to kill yourself to, this is it. It all but guarantees you’ll go out on a high note (many of them, actually) of anguish and beauty. Suor Angelica is the middle act in Puccini’s triptych opera Il Trittico. I’m not an opera buff, or Catholic, but I feel this aria intensely. Sister Angelica, whose little boy has died, is in charge of the convent’s garden; she mixes a brew of poisoned plants to take, so she can be with her son in death. This finale has everything: glory and despair in equal measure, all delivered in high notes that essentially scream, “I’m sorry but I can’t go on anymore. Take me now. Please Virgin Mary, forgive me of my sins and let me die.” Been there/done that, as we say in the short English translation. In Rules for Being Dead, I had to imagine my mother’s last night: writhing on what becomes her death bed, her husband off God knows where, pain medicine gradually numbing her mind and body. To get to that place, to access the soul of a woman contemplating her life and what her death will mean to the children she leaves behind, I needed the grandest and most devastatingly triumphant music I could find. This was it.
Cinema Paradiso – I couldn’t leave you hanging in a place of such despair (although Sister Angelica DOES get to heaven!), so I offer up this entire Ennio Morricone movie score as a palate cleanser. (Ironically, coincidentally, bizarrely, sadly – on the day of this writing, July 6, Morricone died, at the age of 91. Don’t write an obituary, just listen to his transcendent scores.) Morricone wrote the iconic scores to so many of the films mentioned in my book, so it’s fitting that my favorite score of his, to the beautiful Tornatore film Cinema Paradiso, is the soundtrack I went back to again and again during the years of writing Rules. The story of an old man who runs the only movie house in a small Italian village, and the little boy who comes of age watching those movies, carried me through the toughest times of writing, and trying to give a measure of grace to all of us in that family, who just did their best to get from one day to the next. It’s sweeping and melancholy, jaunty and devilish, all the things life is. All the things I hope you experience in Rules for Being Dead.
Kim Powers is a two-time Emmy winner and author of the novels Capote in Kansas and Dig Two Graves, as well as the memoir The History of Swimming, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award winner and Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Memoir of the Year. He also wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film Finding North and the new play Sidekicked, a “one broad comedy” about Vivian Vance. Powers is the Senior Writer for ABC's 20/20, part of the team that has received three consecutive Edward R. Murrow Awards. A native Texan, he received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. In 2007, he was selected by Out Magazine for the influential "Out 100" list. He lives in Manhattan and Asbury Park, NJ.