July 22, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sue Mell's novel Provenance is a compassionately told and moving debut.
Amy Hempel wrote of the book:
"This novel taps into the characters' reserves of motivation and strength in service of what we all want: another chance, and what might still be possible when our best efforts fall short."
A bit about Provenance:
Still grieving his wife, Belinda’s, early death, DJ has spent the last three years—and the money from her insurance policy—collecting guitars, composing music, and continuing to shop the Brooklyn stoop sales and flea markets they’d always enjoyed. When his building is sold, he takes refuge in his sister Connie’s half-finished basement, imagining a comfortable and solitary retreat in the small Hudson Valley town where they grew up. Instead, he finds himself caught up in her troubling divorce, drafted as a caregiver for her 11-year-old daughter, Elise, and unable to face or afford a storage unit crammed with hundreds of vinyl records and every other scrap of his former life. DJ gifts Elise a marbled glass egg, a porkpie hat, and one of his prized guitars. But what’s asked of him is not to give the perfect object — it’s to give of himself.
“‘Do you remember,’” Connie says to DJ early on, “‘when the best thing in the world to do was hang out and listen to records? ... Those seconds before the first track ... waiting for the piano or guitar? Knowing every turn of the music that lies ahead. The pleasure of your favorite song, even the one you wished had been left off the album inseparable from the arc of sheer satisfaction.’”
Compiling this list was like revisiting the novel’s creation—all the emotions and associations that led me to choose these particular songs, and the sequence of the scenes that called for them.
1. I Want Everything - Cracker 1993
The cumulating layers of chorus harmonies, the killer guitar solo, David Lowery’s plaintive voice . . . Because this song epitomizes the grief and yearning that fill DJ’s heart, I sprang for permission to use the first verse and chorus as the epigraph to Provenance.
2. Alone Again (Naturally) - Gilbert O’Sullivan 1972
Prone to reflexive—and not always welcome—quips, DJ’s also got a penchant for music trivia. Unexpectedly left on his own his first day back upstate, he sits on the worn leather couch in Connie’s basement, humming and Googling this song to see how long it stayed at number one (six weeks), and finds it topped in sales only by Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Perfect, he says aloud, reminded, as ever, of Belinda. In my day, people made a lot of fun of this song and its plink-y guitar, declaring it sappy. But I’ve always liked it anyway.
3. What You Won’t Do for Love - Bobby Caldwell 1978
DJ’s grief for his wife is haunted by his guilt over the love—and the friendship-wrecking affair—he had with Sarah, for whom he once stole this red, heart-shaped, vinyl single. Leaving Connie’s for a jaunt into Kingston to buy a gift for Elise, that guilt flares up when he almost immediately falls for the enigmatic Andrea, who’s filling in as a clerk at her brother’s antiques store. Such a sexy swing to this song, set against its insistent beat.
4. To Sir with Love - Lulu 1967
DJ’s always had a soft spot for David, his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law: a failing contractor, living in the large house he and Connie formerly shared, making repairs that will increase its sale value, so they can divide their assets and finalize their divorce. Inadvertently learning that David’s shady and possibly coke-driven dealings have left him behind on the mortgage, DJ considers selling his record collection for cash to help Connie. A later stop into a used book and record store yields nothing to that end, but prompts Elise to mention that stashed away in DJ’s new basement digs, is her mom’s Platterpak—a small suitcase full of 45s, many of which he’d bought for her, including this single, Connie’s favorite of favorites when they were kids, bonded by music and in faint opposition to their two older sisters. Oh, Lulu—who didn’t love Lulu? That glorious vibrato, and her touch of rasp.
5. Will it Go Round in Circles - Billy Preston 1973
David, it turns out, hasn’t been paying the mortgage at all, has given his car to a carpenter in lieu of payment for a job, and has crashed his truck under dubious circumstances. Suffering a concussion and four broken ribs—and with no one else to take care of him—he winds up recuperating on Connie’s living room sofa. For Elise’s sake, they all do their best to get along, and one afternoon DJ, David, and Elise assemble a round, solid-purple, jigsaw puzzle. While she sifts through the box for the edge pieces, they competitively list related song titles like Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and this one—which also aptly fits the moping David and his Icarus-like ambitions. Perfect for the way the horns seem to comment with a self-pitying “wah, wah, wah.”
6. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me - Dusty Springfield 1966
With David out of commission and the old house now in foreclosure, it falls to DJ to come up with whatever funds he can, shifting the sale of his record collection from a vague fantasy to something he now has to do. In search of Andrea at the antiques store, he finds her brother Alex, who’s willing, for a small commission, to refer him to a buyer. Hearing of their arrangement, Andrea asks DJ if he’s got any Dusty Springfield and sings a snippet of this song, making him fall even harder for her. The orchestration of this song, especially the opening, is pretty melodramatic. But I love the sway of the melody on the title line, and even if the rest is over the top, “just be close at hand” still hits me with a bit of genuine heartbreak.
7. I’m Into Something Good - Herman’s Hermits 1964
Inspired by Connie’s Platterpak, DJ has secretly ordered a portable record player for her. By the time it arrives, David’s still crashing on the couch, has rejected Connie’s referral to a good addiction treatment program nearby, and has decided to move to his cousin’s, several hours away, with the intention of getting clean on his own. Elise, in response, has stopped speaking to him. But when DJ sets the record player up in the living room, wanting to surprise Connie on her return from work, the three of them stumble into a light-hearted moment. DJ can’t decide what to play, and Elise, at David’s pleading behest, randomly chooses this upbeat song, whose lyrics resonate with DJ’s hopes of something developing between him and Andrea. It’s hard to fight the handclapping joy of this one.
8. Africa - Toto 1982
Arriving in the midst of their impromptu music fest, Connie’s less than thrilled by DJ’s purchase of yet another frivolous gift. But their mood is contagious, and she briefly gives in, only to be teased without mercy when she makes this pick. Ah, the '80s. Jingle-jangly guitars, synth, and driving drums . . . But you gotta give it up for this song’s yearning chorus.
9. 3 Little Birds - Bob Marley 1977
Women have always done things for DJ, and his good friend Tracy, a sound engineer with a boutique recording studio in Williamsburg, is no different. Not only has she been storing DJ’s dozen guitars, but she’s also the one who arranged to have his apartment carefully packed up and all his things shipped to a nearby storage unit upstate. At this point in the novel, David has left, and in addition to selling his records, DJ’s decided to have Tracy sell his guitars—save the Gibson he’s brought with him, and a Yamaha he’s having her send to Connie’s for Elise. When he finally goes to retrieve his records, DJ finds that, on delivery, the movers just crammed—and possibly tossed—everything in. As he, Connie, and Elise try to dig out the cartons of records, his chifforobe—a wonky combo of drawers and wardrobe he and Belinda had found on the street—topples over, knocking down Elise, and severely spraining her elbow, which is still in a sling when the guitar arrives. Overwhelmed by her dad’s recent departure, her injured arm, and DJ’s grand gesture, she rejects his gift and storms out of the room. But she soon returns, asking to keep the guitar, and settling between Connie and DJ on the living room couch, making them—as Connie suggests—like Marley’s three little birds. Not everything—thinks DJ, the lilting melody running through his head—but maybe this one little thing will be all right. An anthem of its day, the song’s sentiment and its reggae beat live on.
10. Songbird - Fleetwood Mac 1977
In anticipation of selling his records, DJ temporarily rents a second, smaller unit, into which he’s also moved the plastic bins of Belinda’s photos and negatives. Supporting them through most of their marriage, she’d worked as a legal secretary, but had always aspired to be, and begun to have some small success as, a fine art photographer. Unable to deal with the rest of his essentially worthless stuff—and its painful associations—DJ decides to just donate everything to Goodwill. Connie mitigates this drastic plan, offering to split the rent on the smaller unit and store some of her own things there, so that, along with Belinda’s photos, he might keep a few basic pieces of furniture, making the basement a more comfortable—and permanent—home. Goodwill comes to empty the larger unit and, with the record buyer due the next day, Elise wants to see the collection. “‘Can I have one?’” she asks, running her fingers along the thin spines. Rumors is the album she randomly picks. “‘Fleetwood Mac,’” she says, flipping the cover around to the front. “‘Is this good?’” It sure is. And “Songbird”—which ties to DJ’s feelings of both romantic and familial love—is one of my all-time favorites.
11. Daydream Believer - The Monkees 1967
With the bulk of their belongings dispensed, and the pressing obligations of each day he spends upstate, DJ feels like his connection to Belinda and his Brooklyn life is slipping further and further away. In their old apartment, he would sometimes experience a visceral feeling of her presence, as though she were still alive and merely in another room while his set the needle down on this, or any number of songs she’d loved. I never had a Platterpak, but I still have this 45 somewhere, and, despite some sad associations, the clip-clopping beat and blazing horns still go a long way toward cheering me up, too.
12. There She Goes -The La’s 1988
Filling in for Andrea at the antiques store, DJ uses a soundtrack of the La’s to wipe away a distressing memory of Belinda’s last days. Moments later, Tracy makes a surprise visit, having come to deliver the money from the sale of his guitars. She’s also decided to sell her studio and move out to L.A. for a while, severing DJ’s last connection to his Brooklyn life, and tying this song to their wistful goodbye. And I just can’t contain-yiy-ain . . . this feeling that remay-yiy-yay-yiy-yains. Oh, yeah.
13. Nothing - The Fugs 1966
With the crises following his arrival and his life upstate now essentially settled, DJ faces a fixed set of familial responsibilities and the mundane boredom of the everyday. He means to return to his musical composition, but instead, with this song’s droning and dirge-like listing of the days running through his head, he falls asleep in what had been David’s spot on the couch, only snapping to when Elise arrives home from school. The next day—and in those to follow—he determines to do better, leaving us, at the novel’s end, with the belief that he will. A little Yiddish, a little nihilism, plus bongos—this song was just right for DJ’s backsliding moment of responsibility flu.
14. Stray - Aztec Camera 1990
This is the one song that’s not played or directly referenced in the book, but its haunting quality is one I’ve always associated with DJ’s story. It speaks of isolation and despair, of making and breaking a promise in a single day, but also of beauty, the consolation that music can bring, and the simple desire to hold another person’s hand. The wisp of fingers across guitar strings, an overlay of distant thunder, and a cascading piano solo all lend the feeling of the kind of composition DJ hopes to create. “Who needs the movie,” the lyrics say, “when you can see the music anyway?”
Sue Mell is a writer from Queens, NY. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson, and was a 2020 BookEnds fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. Her collection of micro essays, Giving Care, won the 2021 Chestnut Review Prose Chapbook Prize, and her collection of short stories, A New Day, was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. Other work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. Find her at www.suemellwrites.com.