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July 27, 2022

James Greer's Playlist for His Novel "Bad Eminence"

Bad Eminence by James Greer

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

James Greer's novel Bad Eminence is linguistically playful, endlessly inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Spectator wrote of the book:

"Gleefully masquerading as an action thriller, it’s a wild trip through language, literature and translation, which may sound a bit niche, but Greer is out to persuade you that reading is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. He can be extremely funny on a 16th-century Biblical mistranslation, and throughout the book erudition jostles with wordplay. I gave up making page notes when they threatened to overwhelm the margins."

In his own words, here is James Greer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Bad Eminence:

Bad Eminence is about Vanessa Salomon, a French-British (currently living in NYC) translator who starts working on an English translation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Souvenirs du Triangle D’Or…and then the plot of that (very strange, and more than a little perverse) book starts happening to her. It’s about a lot of other things, too, but these are harder to describe. One of its major themes is perception vs. reality – especially the (extremely unoriginal) idea that all experience can be construed as a kind of translation. (One of the few things Vanessa shares with me is a fondness for annoying parenthetical asides.)

There aren’t a lot of direct music references in the book, but the three artists that are explicitly mentioned feature at the top of the playlist. The other music included here fills more of an “imaginary soundtrack” brief than a coherent playlist of music that inspired or informed the writing, partly because I’m one of those unfortunates who cannot write while listening to music – cannot do anything other than listen to music while listening to music, and must have complete silence in order to write – and partly because I can’t just put The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (six hours plus!) and call it a day, even though that’s as good a summation of Bad Eminence’s hectically eclectic vibe as anything else.

I tried to pick music that had some bearing on the above-mentioned theme, however indirectly, and then to justify those choices over-elaborately, as is my wont. Hic sunt dracones.

Sonny Rollins – “Blue 7” - Saxophone Colossus

Rollins is Vanessa’s favorite artist, and this track – the most formally adventurous from his breakthrough 1957 release – is a marvel of melodic invention, each of his three solos (accompanied by Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, and Max Roach) building on its predecessor in ways that fit together so that they have the character of a logically composed piece despite being improvised on the spot. I have yet to understand how he did this, despite years of trying (I was trained on tenor saxophone from an early age – it’s the only instrument I can really play, though I’ve fallen out of practice). Unlike Vanessa, I can no more explain what’s going on here than I can describe the color blue to a sheepdog.

The Fall – “The Classical” - Hex Enduction Hour

The Fall is one of Thomas Early’s favorite bands. Poor Tom is Vanessa’s dead lover. He jumped off the roof of her NYC apartment building. I’m not sure which Fall album is his favorite, but this is mine, and “The Classical” is the first track. A bit obvious, perhaps, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid the obvious. Craig Scanlon’s sheets of scratchy guitar laid over/intertwined with the Hanley brothers muscular, clattery racket make an ideal musical bed for Mark E. Smith’s North of England gnomic hyper-literate working class ressentiment. The Fall were so far ahead of the curve that the curve flattened into a line stretching to the horizon; at the end of that line (which doesn’t end) you’ll find Smith’s ghost scowling and muttering literate imprecations from behind a stack of empty pint glasses. I realize this makes almost no sense, which is kind of the point.

Death Hags – “Insomnia” - Big Grey Sun #2

Another of Thomas Early’s favorite artists, according to Vanessa, and not coincidentally one of mine too. Death Hags is the nom de guerre of French-American songwriter/producer Lola G. Her largely (though not exclusively) synthetic dreamscapes filtered through a pop sensibility make her exquisite music difficult to pin down, but music is not a butterfly and anyway pinning butterflies is just cruel. This track, from the second album of a projected seven album series, currently at installment #4, gives me hope for the future, despite there being no reasonable basis for hope. Most of the whispery lyrics are in French but the title tells you everything you need to know.

Milt Jackson – “Sunflower” – Sunflower

Milt Jackson is my favorite vibraphone player – due deference to Lionel Hampton, but I prefer Jackson’s slower vibrato, and to Gary Burton et al, but I prefer Jackson’s two mallet technique – and this might be my favorite Milt Jackson track. Certainly one of them. Written by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who also plays on it, and backed by Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Billy Cobham (all Miles Davis alumni), among others, this pre-fusion early '70s track can re-set your soul, should your soul require re-setting. Many people associate sunflowers with Van Gogh, and thus with France, or at least the south of France, but that’s not why I picked this track. Some things are private.

Rilo Kiley – “Pictures of Success” - Take Offs and Landings

I’ve always been a fan of Jenny Lewis’ songwriting, and still am, even as my interest in what we used to call “indierock” fades with every special new band. As much as I liked her last record, On The Line, I can’t help but prefer (especially for the purposes of this playlist) this track from her old band’s debut, before Lewis learned how to write or how to control her voice. Untutored, ambitious raw talent in its native environment is a prize above saying. And the line “the bills keep changing colors” will never not resonate. There’s a short section in Bad Eminence that takes place in a version of Los Angeles that this song evokes as well as any music could.

Miles Davis – “Nuit Sur Les Champs-Elysées (Take 2)” - Ascensceur pour l'échafaud

From the improvised score to Louis Malle’s 1958 proto-nouvelle vague classic, this track accompanies a luminous Jeanne Moreau as she wanders, increasingly distraught, through the streets of Paris in search of her doomed lover. Miles changed the course of music so many times it seems almost blasphemous to put a comparatively “minor” work on here, but the mood fits, and I chose an outtake which wasn’t used in the film both because it’s longer and because it doesn’t have the added reverb that desecrated the original commercially-released album. This came out just before the modal jazz landmark Kind of Blue, and shares some of that much better known record’s moody blues, but it doesn’t have Coltrane, Cannonball, or – arguably most important – Bill Evans. But it does have Miles soloing across the beat, straining against the chord progressions, an approach that would achieve escape velocity on the 1959 milestone. Its relevance to my novel’s disposition can be taken as read.

Herbie Hancock – “Jane's Theme” - Blow-Up (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One could argue that Bad Eminence has as many or more filmic influences as literary ones, and if that’s true (who am I to judge?), Antonioni’s Blow-Up is probably in the top five of those, chiefly because of the way it interrogates reality. Just because David Hemmings’ camera recorded an image, does that image represent a thing that happened? 26-year-old prodigy Herbie Hancock’s mostly understated score captures that theme and its undertone of melancholy mystery (mysterious melancholy?) perfectly, and Vanessa Redgrave’s Jane embodies psycho/physical ambiguity with an equivalent uncanny flair. This is her theme. Do with it what you will. Also: never play tennis with mimes. Notorious cheaters.

Laurie Spiegel – “Two Archetypes - Hall of Mirrors I” - Unseen Worlds

I don’t pretend to understand the computer magic behind Spiegel’s compositions, but this track sounds to me like what you’d hear if you could walk into a sunset, or a Turner painting of a sunset. Or a Turner painting of a sunset reflected in the titular hall of mirrors, but now I’m just gilding the lily. Which, though I’m no gardener, seems like certain death for the lily. Spiegel’s status as a pioneer in electronic music should be better known, but seeing as she turned her back on the NYC scene in the early '80s because she thought it had become too “product-minded,” she’s probably okay with it. If software exists that could turn Bad Eminence into music, it would sound like this.

François Tusques – “Golden Panther” - The B-Music of Jean Rollin 1968-1975

This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice to introduce someone to the music of French free-jazz pianist François Tusques, but (deep breath) as an exemplar of his versatility and an excellent sample of the off-kilter discordant sleazoid mood Robbe-Grillet’s less talented but similarly pervy peer Jean Rollin tried to conjure in his series of sexy vampire pics during the period circumscribed by this compilation, it’ll do. How sexy vampires are less elevated than, for example, R-G’s sado-masochistic nuns of the same era is a matter you’ll have to take up with the karma police. Anyway, check out Tusques’ vast discography for more high-minded stuff, if you’re high-minded.

Saint Etienne – “Hobart Paving” - So Tough

I don’t have a good excuse for including this except that Saint Etienne has always made music that sounded like it was written for the soundtrack to an imagined '60s film, and this song has been a favorite of mine since it was released almost 30 years ago. Don’t ask me what “rain falls like Elvis tears” means, but the gorgeous melody and almost unbearable sadness in Sarah Cracknell’s voice when she sings “Don’t forget to catch me” reduces me to a puddle of lipids every time. (Bob Stanley’s transmigration from record collector to pop historian has now resulted in two fat books on the ways and means of 20th century pop, and as much as I don’t tend to like books about music, I hope he writes more.)

Franck Biyong – “Antique Electronics” - Afro Galactic Spaceway

This 2019 record by Cameroonian jazz multi-instrumentalist Biyong infuses Afro-Futurism with electronics – on this track the “antique” electronics are probably no older than, say, a Juno-60, so I suspect the title’s not meant literally – but Biyong is both more trad-jazz and more rhythmically inventive than that brief description indicates, and a lot more post-colonial French, which makes more of a difference than you might suspect. I like to think of this track as the soundtrack to Vanessa’s hung-over jet-lagged drive from Charles de Gaulle to H2’s hotel particulier. In that passage, she specifically says she tried to listen to one of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, but her phone died and she couldn’t. Score one for Frantz Fanon.

Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman – “Lunette (feat. Les Baxter)” - Music Out of the Moon

Note: this music is not actually out of the moon – in fact if anything it’s out of the sun (or in the shade, however you prefer). Hoffman, a podiatrist/theremin specialist, was one of the first and best (theremin players, not podiatrists), whose playing on the soundtracks to Spellbound, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (an all-time favorite of mine), and The Day the Earth Stood Still, among many others, influenced both the late '50s/early '60s exotica boomlet and Sun Ra. One of his last recorded appearances was on a Captain Beefheart record. Hoffman made this EP with bandleader Les Baxter in 1947. Twenty-odd years later Neil Armstrong played it during Apollo 11’s flight back from the moon, so please ignore the prefatory note, as in fact this is literally music out of the moon. Werlein’s Music Store regrets the error.

James Greer is a novelist, screenwriter, and musician. His previous books include the novels Artificial Light and The Failure, and the story collection Everything Flows. As a screenwriter, he's written or cowritten written several movies, including Max Keeble's Big Move, Just My Luck, The Spy Next Door, and Unsane. He's also played in a number of not-very-well known indie-rock bands.

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