November 4, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Stephanie Gangi's novel Carry the Dog features one of my favorite protagonists of the year, an indefatigable older woman facing crises with great doses of wit, determination, and vulnerability.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Memorable . . . Most endearing is the character of Bea, who deals with the physical, psychological, economic, and romantic challenges of aging with humor and attitude."
Three years ago, I spent an afternoon trying to either purge or organize old journals, I don’t know and still don’t know. They remain stacked on shelves near my desk. The journals are so old that my suspicious mother called them diaries before the word “journal” was invented. The notebooks hold much angst about parents, boys, school, friendships, and then as I got older, angst about men, sex, friendships, money. I was always lamenting wanting to write, not writing (even as I was writing), not being a “real” writer, instead of realizing: page after page, year after year there I was, practicing writing. I tried poems, short stories, profiles, songs, stories, chapter ones, book and music reviews, all of which stayed trapped in the notebooks.
Anyway, that afternoon I was in a panic about some gloomy health issue, and decided I had to deal with the stacks. (Really, I was thinking I should hide evidence from my daughters who would discover them one day.) I got distracted when I came across lyrics from my songwriter phase. I was 22 when I wrote “I, Alive” – a dirty song about stealing a friend’s boyfriend – and there in my sixties, surrounded by my handwritten selves, those lyrics set free images so vivid that I began my second novel, Carry the Dog. I lifted “I, Alive” from the journal page and gave it to my songwriter protagonist, Bea Seger.
Five Years, Heroes: David Bowie
I, blasphemer, admit that the magical realism and stardust and costumes were not my thing at the time. It seemed like boy-music to me, and I went along with it because, well, I liked boys. “Five Years” was my favorite Bowie song and the line “my brain hurt like a warehouse” is brilliant; it was perfect for Bea’s mission to clear out her mother’s archives. I added “Heroes” to this playlist because the last scene of JoJo Rabbit deploys it in what might be the best song-use in a movie, ever, and is about the same thing my book is about: resilience.
Sunday Morning, Pale Blue Eyes: Lou Reed
I kind of pictured Lou Reed when I wrote my aging rock star, Gary Going. I can hardly choose a song from the Velvet Underground canon. They were the pioneering New York City avant-garde band, forerunners of punk and new wave, and not popular then as they are now – certainly they weren’t played on the radio. You had to be turned on to them by a friend on vinyl and soon, mixtape, and that exchange was an intimacy that made the music more special.
Maybe I’m Amazed, That Would Be Something: Paul McCartney
In the great Beatles vs Stones smackdown, I was a Stones girl, but I did have the feels for Paul and his melted chocolate brown eyes and hair. I love these two songs, from his first solo album.
Sway, Moonlight Mile, Memory Motel: The Rolling Stones
The fictional band in Carry the Dog, Chalk Outline, gains early fame as the opening act for the Rolling Stones at the Albert Hall. These are three great Stones songs.
Trash, Personality Crisis: The New York Dolls
Bea tells her stepsister, Echo, about prom night, 1973, and ending up at a club in Queens, New York at a Dolls show, where she meets Gary Going. I did end up at a Dolls show on prom night, except I didn’t run off with a rock star as Bea does, but I did have my mind blown that night by punk rock.
Woodstock: Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, The Band, Jimi Hendrix
In flashback, I bring the reader to Woodstock (the movie is a must-watch for music lovers) with Miri, Bea’s mother, who is on photo assignment for Outtasight magazine as a tragedy unfolds back home. A few selections…
Volunteers: Jefferson Airplane
Anti-war protests escalated in 1969 and inspired hundreds of thousands of peaceniks to descend on Bethel, New York. “Volunteers” is one iconic anti-war song of the weekend, along with Country Joe and the Fish’s singalong for 400,000: “What Are We Fighting For?”
I Shall Be Released, Guilty: Joe Cocker
The ragged pleading in the voice, the intense performance, the manic druggy lifestyle, all channeled into Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. I include another perfect song, “Guilty,” which he did not perform that weekend, but I love it.
Try: Janis Joplin
Janis was wasted when she took the stage at 2 a.m. and suffered stage fright but the performance is still incredible. The voice!
The Weight: the Band
The first notes of this song – instant chills every time. It’s pure Americana. One of the best filmed performances at the festival, all stoned sweetness, so check it out. Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist, set up shop in Woodstock, lived, made music and died there in 2012.
Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, The Star-Spangled Banner: Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix might be the first music I listened to through headphones. He was a giant, fully-formed, loud, political, gorgeous, an Army vet, and in just four short years, changed music forever. “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” studio versions, are lush and sweeping. His Woodstock rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is a towering anti-war, anti-racism rallying cry.
A Case of You: Joni Mitchell
I’ve listened to the album Blue countless times, (here’s a NYT tribute to Blue, 50 years on) yet only during the writing of Carry the Dog did I “hear” the song “A Case of You” as a feminist track about a woman trying to protect her core creative nature – in Joni’s case, her genius – in the context of a love affair (with Leonard Cohen). I gave the song to my young musician, Echo, to funk it up and punk it up and make it a little bit harsh, and little bit defiant.
Starting Over, I’m Losing You: John Lennon
These two songs are from Double Fantasy, the John-Yoko album being recorded when Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota (a night during which Bea deals with her own loss). “I’m Losing You” is a powerful song and has always sounded to me like a dirge, or maybe I’m bringing the tragic event to the listening experience?
Eleanor Rigby: The Beatles
I hate this song, and I’ve said so in essays and now, a novel. Sorry!
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters: Bernie Taupin, Elton John
There’s too much to say about this iconic songwriting team, a sui generis collaboration. I picked just one song because the lyrics are about New York City, and I am instantly hooked by the way Taupin starts the song mid-thought with “And now I know …”
Ode to Billy Joe: Bobby Gentry
This song was released in 1967. I was a kid and knew absolutely zero about sex, the South, plowing the lower 40 acres, or tragic love. “Ode to Billy Joe” was a gateway drug for 12 year old me! Sultry, mysterious, dark and desirous, a perfect 3 minutes of storytelling in a pop song.
LA Woman: The Doors
I reviewed the Doors discography for this piece and it’s amazing how many songs I can name in one note. In the novel, Bea’s brothers play the Doors incessantly and she hears the music as sex-death-scary and I did too way back when. Jim Morrison was catnip to angsty teenage girls like me. I tried to pick another song for the playlist but this one, totally overplayed, still slays.
Sweetheart Like You, Idiot Wind: Bob Dylan
OK, boomer, no playlist of mine would feel like mine without Dylan. In Carry the Dog, Dylan is name-dropped by Ian McNally, publisher of Outtasight magazine, which may or may not be an allusion to Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone. My #1 Bob is “Sweetheart Like You,” crowded by “Idiot Wind” depending on the weather and my mood.
Gloria, Redondo Beach, Frederick: Patti Smith
Like Dylan, I could have typed another dozen Patti Smith songs and not even scratched the surface of her astonishing achievement in rock and roll. As revered as she is, I think she’s still (like Joni) underrated. – another female genius songwriter, musician, poet, memoirist, artist.
That’s Life: Frank Sinatra
“A Man and His Music” parts 1 and 2, was played on the “stereo” in the living room incessantly by my parents. There was no video when it came out, but Sinatra appeared in a TV “special” and I do remember my own father (like Bea’s dad, Al) singing out to this song which seems uplifting but has a very dark conclusion. I Love Frank.
The New World, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: X
For many years, the L.A. punk band X was in my pantheon, and I guess they still are, despite problematic politics and retro-racist lyrics. My older daughter sang “The New World” acapella at a school event in the '90s, and my younger daughter has “I must not think bad thoughts” tattooed on her wrist.
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, essayist, and novelist. Her award-winning poem, "Four," was published in the Hippocratic Prize Anthology. Her acclaimed debut novel, The Next, was a finalist in the Writers@Work Annual Writing Competition. Her essays have been published in Literary Hub, Catapult, The Woolfer, Bust, TueNight, and NextTribe. Gangi wrote the first draft of Carry the Dog at the Leopardi Writing Conference in Recanati, Italy, after winning the Jeannine Cooney Scholarship for Excellence in Fiction . She lives in New York City.