May 6, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michael Lowenthal's collection Sex with Strangers explores our need for connection with wisdom and poignancy.
Justin Torres wrote of the book:
"This book, just like seeking sex with strangers in real life, is sometimes risky, sometimes about loneliness, and continuously offers lessons about the roots and vagrancies of our own desire. Sex with Strangers always leaves an impression and reminds us of the eternal resurrection of hope in the human heart."
Music used to be a huge part of my life. Throughout high school and college and into my early twenties, I played jazz and classical trumpet, as well as folk and bluegrass on the banjo and guitar. I was constantly performing, listening to records, making tapes (yes, tapes; this was the ’80s and ’90s) for friends, going to shows. But then somehow it all stopped. I moved from a farmhouse in New Hampshire to Boston, into an apartment building where I knew I would disturb my neighbors if I played. Plus, I was starting to get serious about writing, and when I’m writing, music (or any sound, really) derails me. I wrote with earplugs in my ears, plus noise-cancelling headphones. So somehow I got into this terrible habit of not listening to music. Fast-forward to 2021, and I don’t use Spotify or iTunes; I rarely listen to CDs in my car, opting instead for NPR or podcasts or audiobooks. About the only time I listen to music is at the gym, where I blast motivational techno into my ears. (Or did, before the pandemic.)
All of which is to say, when I first considered making this playlist, I suspected music had not had much to do with my writing of Sex with Strangers. And yet, as I thought of the stories, I realized that they all do have strong musical connections—songs that are either mentioned directly in the text or that I associate with the times, places, and situations that gave rise to the fiction. Music must still be part of me in ways I’m not quite conscious of. Which is a relief.
Here’s one song for each of the collection’s eight stories.
1. “Madagascar,” Art of Trance
In the first story, “Over Boy,” the youth-obsessed protagonist goes clubbing on his twenty-ninth birthday, “the last birthday when, if he told people the occasion, and they asked how old he was, he could truthfully say a number starting with twenty.” He goes to Campus, which was very much a real club in Cambridge, Mass., located between Harvard and MIT, popular with college students and their admirers. I have great memories of dancing at Campus, and I can close my eyes and see my friend Ricky strutting up and down the dance floor to Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.” But that’s not the song I’m choosing. The story is also about taking Ecstasy for the first time and giving yourself up to a kind of collective joy. And when I think of the experiences that inspired that part of the story—unforgettable, endless nights of dancing in the late ’90s and early aughts, sometimes at Campus but also at clubs in Boston, New York, London, and elsewhere—I think of the trance music that was so intensely gorgeous it made me stop dancing and just stand on the dancefloor and absorb it. My favorite track was “Madagascar,” which is like souls turned into sound.
2. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” Harry Belafonte
In “You are Here,” a newly ordained Catholic priest, as a prize for having the highest marks in his seminary class, gets a junket on a Caribbean cruise, where he serves as the ship’s chaplain. Just as he’s starting to come to terms with having chosen a life of celibacy, he runs into his ex-girlfriend, who is the ship’s Shore Excursion Manager. In one scene, they go to the Jolly Roger Room, where Kip’s Kalypso Kings libidinously perform. Kip is a “jowly, ash-skinned man who, according to his bio on the drinks menu, once sang backup for Jimmy Buffett.” He croons “Day-O” as if it were a love song. (I can remember my dad singing this song in the car, during summers on Cape Cod.)
“Uncle Kent” is maybe the least musically oriented story in the book—the only one, I think, that doesn’t mention a song. But it still has musical associations for me. It’s set on Christmas day, when the narrator, her thirteen-year-old daughter, and her honorary “Uncle” Kent (the mother’s fun but problematic ex, who has just come back from living overseas) are cooking a holiday dinner. On the surface, all is festive as they make Brussels sprouts and stuffing and angel-food cake. But there’s an undercurrent of discomfort, culminating in a moment when the mother has to reckon with whether, now that her daughter is a teenager, their relationship with Kent may need to be reconsidered. As someone who was raised Jewish and bristles at Christianity, one of my darkest secrets is that I love Christmas music. Not the poppy Muzak shit, but real Christmas music: old German and English carols, boy choirs. My favorite Christmas songs—the ones I listen to on Christmas morning as I’m cooking for a holiday I don’t believe in—are those that, like this short story, have an undernote of darkness. I especially like “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
4. “Beijo na Boca,” Axé Bahia
“Thieves” involves a fraught sexual liaison on a fictional Brazilian island, for which I drew inspiration from the island of Itaparica, off the coast of Bahia, where I was lucky enough to spend two months at an artists’ residency. While I was there, I fell hard for all things Brazilian, very much including the music. I listened to the great Tropicália singers as well as more contemporary pop artists like Ivete Sangalo, plus traditional Northeastern forró and lots of Axé, the style that originated in Salvador, the city I’d take a ferry to on weekends. But while I could pick sublime examples from any of those genres, instead I’m going to go with the ridiculous: “Beijo na Boca,” a cheesy but infectious track by a super-commercial Eurodance-y group called Axé Bahia. When I got involved with a local guy (remember, I fell hard for all things Brazilian), this became our song. We would sing its ludicrous lyrics to each other and laugh and laugh and laugh. The chorus, translated, goes something like: “French kissing is old-fashioned/ The in thing now is making out naked.”
5. “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” Liza Minnelli
In “Stud,” the seventeen-year-old narrator is a music-club busboy who has a momentous sexual encounter with a performer during intermission. I based the club on the Iron Horse Music Hall, in Northampton, Mass., where I got my first job after college. I was a dishwasher, which was tough work, and I couldn’t see much of the shows through the dish room’s smudged porthole. But there were speakers on the wall above the sink, so I could hear everything. In this way, I “attended” shows by Richard Thompson, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Taj Mahal, and dozens of other fabulous musicians. There’s a moment in the story that I stole directly from something I witnessed at the Iron Horse: an a capella group (was it the Nylons?) was doing their sound check, and to test the levels in each mic, the singers, one after the next, going from zero to sixty in a millisecond, would belt out “You’ve made me so very happy, I’m so glad you came into my liiiiife.” Just that one line, over and over. Campy and operatic and unforgettable. The recorded version of the song that best matches my memory is Liza Minnelli’s.
6. “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” Aretha Franklin (and the whole Songs of Faith album)
“Do Us Part” is a story about a man and woman who, despite being mismatched in all too many ways, get married. “They had so little in common. But wasn’t that the excitement?” the woman tries to convince herself. “Weren’t those differences the magnet-pull of their love?” One example of the mismatch: she likes to belt out Woody Guthrie songs in the shower, imagining herself rousing a crowd of workers, but he scoffs at her: “Please. You’re from Scarsdale—a woman of the people?” In another scene, she takes him out on the town for his birthday: fancy dinner, then an Aretha Franklin concert at the Orpheum. She thinks she’s pulled off a perfect night—including the birthday present she gave him, a CD of fourteen-year-old Aretha, pre-stardom, singing gospel in her father’s church—but on the subway ride home, suddenly he pulls away and becomes inscrutably hostile. It’s a harbinger of the darkness to come. But teenage Aretha singing gospel? Sublime!
7. “Frio Frio,” Juan Luis Guerra
“Marge” is set in a tough city neighborhood, back in the early 1980s. The title character is a trans woman (although her neighbors don’t give her the respect of seeing her fully that way) who is both bullied and fetishized, and who arouses poisonous shame in those, including the teenage boy narrator, who can’t come to terms with their attraction to her. I kept the setting purposefully vague—it’s urban, pre-gentrification—because I wanted the story to seem gritty but almost mythic, just as Marge herself, to those around her, is unable to be seen as the specific woman she is, and instead looms as a kind of symbolic figure. I also kept the race and ethnicity of the characters somewhat vague, though some of them have Latino names. For twenty-five years now, I’ve lived in and around the parts of Boston that have thriving Dominican communities, and I guess it was inevitable that when I was dreaming up my fictional places and people, I borrowed from elements of the neighborhoods I’m familiar with—even though, as I’ve said, I didn’t set the story exactly there. One thing I love about these areas is the sound of Dominican music booming from the porches of traditional triple-decker houses. (I feel a special affinity for the Dominican Republic, where my parents lived in the 1960s and where my sister was born.) I can imagine the characters in “Marge” on a too-hot summer day, sitting on their stoops, listening to Juan Luis Guerra. I especially love his Areito album, with tracks like “Frio Frio.”
8. “Missa Luba,” Muungano National Choir Kenya
The collection’s last story, “The Gift of Travel,” is the one most firmly rooted in an autobiographical situation. It’s about a young writer trying to salvage a long-distance relationship while caring for his mentor, a gay erotic writer dying of AIDS. The mentor is based strongly on John Preston, who took me under his wing before his death in 1994. John was very sexually in-your-face; he’d worked as a hustler in San Francisco; he edited a series of erotic anthologies called Flesh and the Word; among his best-known books were the S/M classics In Search of a Master and Tales of the Dark Lord—but in his everyday life, by the time I knew him, he was surprisingly avuncular and conventional. Less bondage, more Brooks Brothers. And although he was wonderfully irreverent, as he faced death, he found some comfort in the religious traditions in which he’d been raised. He specified everything he wanted at his high-Episcopal memorial service, to be held at St. Luke’s Cathedral, in Portland, Maine. (The Harbor Masters, an LGBT leatherfolks’ group, showed up in full leather gear.) At the service, “A Mighty Fortress” and other hymns were sung, but the religious music that I most recall John appreciating in his final months was the “Miss Luba (Kyrie Eleison).” I really like the version from the Muungano National Choir, from Kenya.
Michael Lowenthal is the author of four novels: The Same Embrace, Avoidance, Charity Girl, and The Paternity Test. He lives in Boston.