May 12, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jessica Anya Blau's novel Mary Jane immerses you in the Baltimore of the 1970s from its first page, and its empathetically-drawn characters will linger in your mind long past the last.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Blau’s intelligent, witty novel captures the essence of the ’70s with humor and immensely appealing characters. Highly recommended."
Soundflashes: 1. My parents put on the Beatles and the whole family dances around our California living room, my brother balanced on my hip. My mother playfully bops our heads with a fist during the Bang, Bang parts of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." 2. With my saved allowance, I buy my first album, To You, With Love, Donny. I sit on the bottom bunk in my pink-wallpapered room, singing "Puppy Love." 3. My high school boyfriend and I agree that it’s time to go all the way. I decide that I want Rod Stewart singing "Tonight’s the Night" for the event. We end up doing it at the beach without music. I vomit from too much beer in media res, and the next morning I feel hungover and cheated out of Rod’s accompaniment. 4. In Europe with my best friend from college, we take a train to Rotterdam for a David Bowie concert and work our way, without proper tickets, to the foot of the stage. When Bowie plays "Young Americans" we scream the words, pointing at ourselves, near tears.
It doesn’t end there. There is marriage (Chaka Khan), motherhood (Rickie Lee Jones), graduate school (Counting Crows), divorce (Taylor Swift), moving from one end of the country to another (Prince), relocating to Canada (Sheryl Crow) and later to New York (Shovels and Rope). . . every chapter in the story of my life has a defining song.
And every book I’ve written has a defining soundtrack. I search for songs my characters would listen to, and I regularly play the Billboard top 100 of the year in which the book is set. The music puts me in the headspace of the time, the people, and the place (If you turn on the radio in Santa Barbara, California—no matter what decade—you will hit an Eagles song within an hour).
My new book, Mary Jane, takes place in Baltimore in 1975. At home, Mary Jane and her mother listen to Broadway soundtracks. At church she sometimes sings tweaked pop music along with hymns. When Mary Jane goes to work as a nanny for a psychiatrist who’s housing a rock star and his movie star wife for the summer, she’s exposed to everything from funk to folk.
Here’s a list of ten from the hundreds of ‘70s songs I listened to while writing Mary Jane:
1. "Up for the Downstroke," Parliament. I’d never heard this song until I was searching for early '70s music. Immediately it was one I played on repeat.
2. "Over the Hills and Far Away," Led Zeppelin. The tempo change from slow and soulful to head-thumping feels very '70s to me (think "Band on The Run").
3. "Love and Happiness," Al Green. One of my favorite songs. Period.
4. "Rhinestone Cowboy," Glen Campbell. I love Glen’s tangy, country voice.
5. "Willin’," Linda Ronstadt. Little Feat sang this song first, but I prefer the Ronstadt version. Is there any song that isn’t better when Linda covers it?
6. "Dirty Work," Steely Dan. I turned my kids on to Steely Dan and they loved them right away. Since there’s really nothing else like this that they’ve been exposed to, I think their immediate love says something, right?
7. "(If Loving You is Wrong) I don’t want To Be Right," Millie Jackson. To me, this is the perfect make-out song.
8. "Hosanna," Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. This is my favorite song from the musical. It has a big crowd sing in it, and I love crowd singing.
9. "Angel from Montgomery," Bonnie Raitt and John Prine. Their two voices roped together gives me the chills.
10. "Shining Star," Earth, Wind and Fire. There is no time of day or night when I’m not happy to hear an Earth, Wind and Fire song. I would get out bed at four am and dance if I were woken to this song.
Jessica Anya Blau was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. Her novels have been featured on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, and in Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Bust, Time Out, Oprah Summer Reads and other national publications. Jessica's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. Jessica co-wrote the script for Love on the Run starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey. She sometimes works as a ghost writer and has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and The Fashion Institute of Technology. Jessica lives in New York.