November 8, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Debra Di Blasi’s novel Birth of Eros is unsettling, exciting, and brilliant from its first page to its last.
Janet Sarbanes wrote of the book:
"In wildly inventive, propulsive prose, Debra Di Blasi’s The Birth of Eros takes us on a clear-eyed romp through the social and psychic underbelly of fifties America….at once a tale of ruthless exploitation and a rollicking ode to bodies and desire. I read it in one gasp."
Overture: Gloria: In Excelsis Deo, Patti Smith
Words and music, and the ideas inside words and music, amass like stones alongside a quarry. We dig deep, deeper in language that shapes us, and whatever’s gleaned from the depths is rarely what remains of the excavation: big unbreakable boulders that are not answers but rather questions. Years pass. Then a catalyst: Patti Smith’s Horses, and the idea of Patti Smith. In a country founded by sanctimonious Puritans and venomous with their progenies, who else had the fuck you to say, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
Throughout the writing of Birth of Eros—the first novel in a tetralogy re-examining the relationship between Freud’s theories of Eros (love, creation, sex) and Thanatos (death, destruction, war)—I kept Smith’s line as an epigraph, alongside a quote from Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It wasn’t just the connotation of the line that helped define my mytho-lyric narrator Lucy, but also the attitude in saying it. An attitude I transferred to Lucy, to her future notoriety as a proto-punkrocker and, importantly, into her explicit, remorseless language.
After the book was picked up for publication (by gutsy KERNPUNKT Press), I wrote to Smith requesting permission to use the first line of Gloria as an epigraph. Her assistant wrote back saying no; Patti was saving it for her epitaph. Nevertheless, the line remains for me an umbrella over Birth of Eros and the tetralogy.
Los Angeles 1951-53
Let’s say that the music of an era enters the bloodstream of a fictive child born into the peculiar spirit of a time and place. Shapes her character. Transmutes her fabulist Right Eye into a quantum mechanism that sees before and beyond Post-WW2 America and the Atomic Age and the Age of Consumerism running amok while the divide between the Haves and Have-nots widens. All music entangled. Cheap radios and record players oozing aural colors under klieg lights and dark L.A. skies, into an inconsolable mother’s womb wherein the child encounters her first quarry, a thing perpetually pursued: Thanatos.
From creation to destruction, destruction to creation. So many screeching phoenixes rising from bomb fires! Apart from the glitzy, cheesy pop tunes of the early Fifties that belied an end to all wars came a music written from not-having, having less, having “no one to talk with to tell my troubles to.” (Charles Brown, Black Night). Just five years after the surrender of Germany and Japan, another war began: the Korean War, often referred to by Westerners as “The Forgotten War” because so many leap over it, going from WW2 to Vietnam, even though the Korean War resulted in 5 million dead, over half of them civilians. (Semi-spoiler alert: One of the dead is Lucy’s uncle, her mother’s brother, revealed in the tetralogy’s second novel, Thanatos Ascending, as a mute ghost.)
While the dead pile up in Korea, the Golden Age of Capitalism commences. The US military-industrial complex is in full swing, employment is high, construction of the Southern California Freeway system begins; thus: O! those shiny, gas-guzzling, polluting automobiles Dick and Jane need want lust for—beauties in the eye of the [be-]holder. Economy booming and suddenly too much pocket change weighing them down. The time to buy is now, Now, NOW!
Big Bad Wolf, the novel’s nemesis, knew how to call pigs to a trough, entice them with unattainable sexy teenage Beauty and overpriced gas-n-gorp automobiles revolving on his Sale-O-Rama platform and subliminal music messages piped through intercoms, aligning Paradise with commodified sex. (Les Baxter, Because of You)
Such an unfuckable fuck, that Wolf. Unlike Lucy’s father: handsome, hung like Priapus, a 60-Minute Man fucking his way through L.A. to R&B music that gave live birth to Rock-n-Roll, like Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog years before Elvis. And Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88, soundtrack to Lucy’s conception by Beauty and Handsome fucking on a car in Big Bad Wolf’s auto showroom. And Little Walter wailing Juke on harmonica, the first instrument Lucy learns to play, a gift from her first love, Daddy Daddy (Ruth Brown). And Little Richard’s Get Rich Quick that might as well have been the fathermother’s ear worm every time they glanced into Big Bad Wolf’s cash-stuffed safe.
Whereas Big Bad Wolf counted that cash and laughed along to Doris Day singing his favorite rape song, A Guy Is a Guy, while sanctimonious sexually-repressed snake handlers ape-swayed to the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real and tearily whined lyrics to Frankie Laine’s Jezebel because all prick-boners must be blamed on all desirable women all the way back to Eden, the way it was then. And now. Real and metaphorical clitoridectomies decreed by every mother and motherfucker terrorized by their own natural sexuality made unnatural by their own manmade religious, hypocrisy intact.
Coda: How High the Moon? Mary Ford and Les Paul
Yet — and nevertheless — it’s a love story, this tetralogy. The embodiment of Eros (and, to follow, Thanatos). Love story boiled in odium, the steam of rage and sexuality in all it glorious and inglorious manifestations, seen clearly, lucidly, through Lucy’s phenomenal Right Eye. A red 1953 Ford Crestline Sunliner convertible cruising out of Los Angeles, up Mount Baldy, racous with post-crime glee. Peggy Lee’s jazzy version of Just One of Those Things blasting toward a daylight moon, a relevant lyric edited out of the final manuscript because Cole Porter’s estate lawyer asked a minimum of $250 for the reprint right to those eight words.
In the silence that follows the rhetorical last words of the last page of Birth of Eros comes a drum-thrumming and Les Paul strumming ascending like smoke from burning tire rubber, a ghostly crescendo moonward from a snow-crusted valley below Mount Baldy, with Lucy and reader left hanging in mid-air and Mary Ford singing the question nodding toward Thanatos to come: How High the Moon?
Debra Di Blasi is a multiple award-winning author of 11 books, with prose and poetry published widely in notable anthologies of innovative literature and literary journals. Her writing has been reviewed in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Kansas City Star, Brevity, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Foreword, and many other publications. She is a former book publisher, educator and art writer who continues to speak on topics related to narrative nuance in the literary and visual arts.