June 30, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michael Bourne brings northern California to life in his debut novel Blithedale Canyon, a true literary pageturner.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"...an acute and vulnerable expression of male angst set in Mill Valley, Calif."
“My father was always winging around the country doing record deals, and my mother was busy being that knockout blonde you see in old photos taken backstage at the Fillmore or Winterland, her arm wrapped around a shirtless drummer,” narrator Trent Wolfer recounts early in Blithedale Canyon. As the only child of hard-partying, long-divorced music-world veterans, Trent is a huge music fan, but shortly before the book opens, in the summer of 2001, he’s busted for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the owner of the liquor store where he works, and while he’s in jail, someone breaks into his apartment and steals his stereo and his computer where he stored all his illegally downloaded music, leaving him with only a shoebox of old CDs and cassette tapes to listen to. Blithedale Canyon is many things – a cockeyed love story, an addiction recovery tale, a cynic’s love letter to his hometown – but it can also be read as the story of a young man trying to reconnect with the music he lost when his life went down the drain. Here are a few songs he finds – or should have found – on his journey back.
Red Right Hand – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Early in the book, after narrowly avoiding being fired from the dead-end fast-food job he took after being released from jail and rehab, Trent sits in his car listening to Nick Cave as the traffic rips past, “carrying all the lawyers and dot-com zillionaires to their mansions” in the hills of uber-wealthy Marin County, where Trent has returned to live with his mother and her second husband. The text doesn’t name the song he’s listening to, but I always imagined it being this one, with the ominous lyrics and Cave’s singing, alternately lilting and snarling, perfectly matching Trent’s foul mood.
If I Had a Boat – Lyle Lovett
An earlier draft of that scene had Trent listening to “If I Had a Boat,” and I even toyed with using lines from the song, “And if I were like lightning/I wouldn't need no sneakers/I'd come and go wherever I would please,” as an epigraph for the book. Of course, this makes no sense. Lovett is way too country for Trent, and the melody is too soft and sweet for Trent’s vitriolic mood. But it’s still a hell of a song. Years ago, a girlfriend called my collection of early Lyle Lovett albums my “cryin’ boy music,” and it’s still what I put on when I need to marinate in self-pity.
Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Here’s some “cryin’ boy music” Trent would listen to. I’ve spent a good part of my life around addicts, and it’s my observation that addicts do love an addiction tune, whether it’s Neil Young’s old-school lament “The Needle and the Damage Done” or Amy Winehouse’s defiant anthem “Rehab.” Addicts like addiction songs for the same reason they like telling their stories in church basements: For once, it really is all about them. Neil Young got that part right: In his own mind, every junkie is like a setting sun.
Born in the U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen
Later in the book, Trent luck turns when he sweet-talks his way into a job he really wants. Driving home, he spins the radio dial until “out of the oceans of static arose the three most famous power chords in classic rock.” “Born in the U.S.A.” is loud and anthemic, a perfect sing-along victory tune, but for Trent it also has personal significance. His estranged father is a big-wheel music industry lawyer in L.A. who has represented every important musician in America except Bruce Springsteen. The album came out when Trent was a teenager and for once he had music he could claim as his own. As a latch-key kid, left to fend for himself for long periods, he says, Springsteen “was my babysitter, my best friend, the cool, wild older brother I never had.”
I’m on Fire – Bruce Springsteen
After his moment of victory, Trent gets his hands on a CD of Born in the U.S.A. and plays the album on auto-repeat for weeks, so that it becomes a kind of background soundtrack for the novel. Thematically, the album, by turns angry and elegiac, ebullient and haunting, is a good fit for Blithedale Canyon. This is perhaps most true with “I’m on Fire,” which is on the car stereo as Trent tries to work up the nerve to kiss Suze Randall, an old high school flame who, like him, has washed up in their hometown with several car loads of baggage. In the end, all Trent can do is hold her hand, which is both less than he wants and more than he ever thought possible.
Suicide Blonde – INXS
Later, Trent wrests Suze away from her two young kids for an afternoon for what he hopes will be a romantic tryst at the bunkers in the Marin Headlands. For those who don’t know Marin, the bunkers are a line of World War II-era concrete pillboxes near the Golden Gate Bridge built to protect San Francisco from a surprise Japanese attack. For generations of Marin kids, these crumbling bunkers, with their spectacular views spanning from the iconic, red-painted bridge to the white-topped Farallon Islands thirty miles out to sea, have been a party spot and lover’s lane. On the drive out, Suze roots around in Trent’s shoebox full of old music until she finds an old INXS CD, which, they quickly realize, is her old INXS CD, which she left in his car when they were in high school. Minutes later, they’re on the freeway bombing towards the Headlands, singing along with Michael Hutchence on “Suicide Blonde.”
Soul Sacrifice/Heads, Hands, and Feet – Santana
Today, Marin County is a playland for investment bankers and web entrepreneurs, but in the 1960s and '70s, when Trent’s parents were young, it was home to many of the musicians at the heart of the San Francisco Sound – the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and on and on. At one point in the book, recalling his chaotic childhood, Trent describes how “late in the summer, when the local bands came off their tours, my parents threw epic parties in their backyard. A pickup band would play, and when word got out that Grace Slick was sitting in with David Crosby and Carlos Santana’s rhythm section, neighbors piled into our yard…” This instrumental track is something like what I imagine such a pick-up band would play.
Mercedes Benz – Janis Joplin
One last Marin-themed tune to take us out. In the final years of her short life, Janis drove a psychedelic-painted Porsche around Larkspur, one town over from Mill Valley, where Blithedale Canyon is set, but she carried her outcast childhood in East Texas with her always. I’ve long thought of this song, written on cocktail napkins in a New York bar and recorded in a single take days before she died of a heroin overdose, as the ultimate elegy for the death of the Marin flower child. “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,” she sings. “My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.” So Marin.
Michael Bourne is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer at The Millions. He has written for The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Literary Hub, and Salon, and his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary magazines including december, The Southampton Review, and Tin House. Blithedale Canyon is his first novel.