March 1, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Darrin Doyle's The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions is a collection of stories that both haunt and amuse.
Since a young age I’ve had an affinity for country music; I loved to watch Hee Haw, and one of the first tunes that really moved me was Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County.” While I don’t listen exclusively (or even primarily) to country music, compiling this list has shown me that classic country has probably touched me more than any other genre. The songs are simple on the surface, but the range in tone and mood – threading humor with pathos; comedy with tragedy; aggression with tenderness; pain with joy – is an aspect I strive for in my art, and especially in my story collection, The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions.
Hoyt Axton is criminally under-appreciated. His amazing voice can jump effortlessly from tender-as-a-Teddy-Bear into a frightening guttural growl. This tune is an especially great showcase for his throat skills, and it works as a cautionary tale like my short story, “The Art of the Dead,” which tells of an artist who is a heroin addict and a stalker. My favorite line from this song is “I seen a lot of people with tombstones in their eyes.” This sort of figurative language is very much in line with the narrator’s wild, unhinged point-of-view in “The Art of the Dead.”
This song features Axton at his most tender, displaying a range from warm buzzsaw to smooth falsetto. The ethereal harmony by co-writer Renee Armand elevates the tune into a beautiful, heartbreaking sadness: for missed opportunities; for lost chances; for strained relationships. The lyrics evoke an unnameable melancholy that perfectly complements my story “The Kaleidoscope,” which deals with a young married couple returning to the United States after living in Japan for a year – only to find themselves feeling like foreigners in their own homeland.
“Stand By Your Man” – Tammy Wynette
The unadorned, vulnerable-yet-strong vocals begin quietly and end with a sad (or is it triumphant?) crescendo. The lyrics are ambiguous, starting with a feminist nod (“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”) before seeming to capitulate to a husband’s bad behavior (“But if you love him, you’ll forgive him”). And what should listeners make of the line “After all, he’s just a man”? Is she giving the old excuse “boys will be boys” or saying that men are inherently, well, lesser? Is the narrator a weak woman or a strong one? I love that there’s so much depth and complexity, which is exactly what I was aiming for in my story “The Baby Doll” – about a wife who ultimately decides whether to stand by her husband after he was unfaithful and possibly involved in a suspicious death.
“In the Summertime (You Don’t Want My Love)” – Roger Miller
I’m a fan of songs that sound happy but are actually about sadness. The music here is gleeful and bouncy, fast-tempoed and light, with images of colorful birds and trees in bloom, and yet these things only remind the speaker that his heart is broken: “In the summertime, when all the trees and leaves are green / And the redbird sings, I'll be blue / 'Cause you don't want my love.” Plus you simply can’t beat Miller’s amazing vocal scatting. My story “The Odds” tells of a gambler whose grandmother needs a lifesaving operation – and he makes a wager on Death. The story uses humor to discuss the bigger, more grim questions about how we handle grief.
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” – Johnny Cash
This gospel standard is the Man in Black at his most apocalyptic: “Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand / Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man / But as sure as God made black and white / What's down in the dark will be brought to the light.” His quivering voice, like a wizened grandfather, warns sinners that their day of reckoning is nigh. My story “The Big Baby Crime Spree” is about a hospital custodian whose father is in late-stage dementia. The custodian hatches a wild plan to kidnap newborn infants to help him with a string of robberies. But all of this is of course a delusion meant to stave off the inevitable death that we all have to face.
Darrin Doyle teaches at Central Michigan University. The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions is his fifth book of fiction. He’s the author of the story collections Scoundrels Among Us and The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books) and the novels The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s Press) and Revenge of the Teacher's Pet:A Love Story (LSU Press). He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with three other humans and a cat. His website is darrindoyle.com.
March 1, 2021
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Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
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February 26, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Robert Jones Jr.'s novel The Prophets is a startling debut, a love story filled with exceptionally drawn characters both tender and cruel.
The New York Times Book Review wrote of the book:
"[An] often lyrical and rebellious love story...Jones seems to be reaching across centuries of blood and memory in an attempt to shake awake a warrior armed with weapon and wit that lies sleeping in his imagined, beloved, Black reader....Jones proves himself an amazing lyricist, pulling poetry out of every image and shift of light....What a fiery kindness that ending, this book. A book I entered hesitantly, cautiously, I exited anew—something in me unloosed, running. May this book cast its spell on all of us, restore to us some memory of our most warrior and softest selves."
It was somewhat difficult to compile a musical playlist for The Prophets because the book takes place in eras that predate recorded music, which severely limited my options if I was seeking to be historically authentic. So rather than strict authenticity, I relied primarily on emotion in the selection process. These songs evoke in me the same feelings or moods conveyed in particular passages.
“No More Auction Block For Me” by Sweet Honey in the Rock: This song reminds me of two characters in The Prophets—Maggie and Samuel, both of whom make decisions that draw a line in the sand in terms of their own liberation. They mean not to be anyone’s chattel and are willing to go to desperate extremes to ensure that. They really, truly mean “give me liberty or give me death.” The harmonious balm of a way in which this sentiment is conveyed by Sweet Honey in the Rock belies the fact that it is also a sword.
“I Heard The Voice Of Jesus” by The Famous Ward Singers: When Amos experiences a transformation shortly after converting to Christianity, the swirling of it all is at once confusing and comforting. The way in which The Famous Ward Singers sing—in that old gospel style harmony—reminds me of that tradition, like a heavenly choir watching over someone being baptized for the first time and welcoming them into the Christian way of being.
Matondoni Wedding Song (Traditional African Tribe Musicians): As I wrote of Kosii and Elewa’s ceremony, I heard music very similar to this in my head. The drums, the clashing of metal instruments, and the chanting all combining to reach the heights and frenzy of celebration. I can actually visualize the joy when I hear this.
“Sissy Blues” by Ma Rainey: The fact that Ma Rainey was singing about queerness this early in Black cultural production is astounding. The tensions described in the song (that arise from Black people not performing in their socially defined roles) captured, for me, the entire tension at the center of The Prophets in regard to Samuel and Isaiah’s love and how it’s seen by those who surround them.
“Crucifixion” by The Roberta Martin Singers: This feels like a song one might sing at a funeral and that was really the energy I felt at certain points in the book when certain characters met certain fates. It’s a heavy song, heavy vocals and heavy lyrics; and that weight has a color: blue. And it lays itself on many things in the book and I’m certain this song is the sound that burden makes.
“I’m Gonna Lay Down My Life For My Lord” by Bessie Jones: Often, to keep time and to pass time, and also to pass messages, enslaved people would sing while they were forced to work. To listeners, it sounded as though they were happy. Those listeners were mistaken. They were sad, angry, and ready. Despite its submissive lyrics, this song sounds like that to me: ready. Ready to lead. Ready to fight. Ready to be free.
“I Be So Glad When The Sun Goes Down” by Ed Lewis: This is a work song, but I also interpret it as a love song expressing a longing not just to rest, but to lie down beside a loved one, to be intimate, to make love after a long day of toil. That is exactly what I tried to capture in Samuel and Isaiah’s relationship.
Akamba Witch Doctor: Traditional African Tribe Musicians: This song makes me think of my ancestors, particularly the ones I’ve never met, who were in their own lands before they were kidnapped, who maybe made it to these cruel shores, or who, instead sacrificed themselves rather than be enslaved. There is a kind of old wisdom in this and I tried to capture this same sense in the chapters in The Prophets where the ancestors speak in direct address.
“There Is A Balm In Gilead” by Mahalia Jackson: I have a similarly named chapter in the book, a chapter about healing. And that’s what Mahalia Jackson’s voice sounds like: a healing. Somber, gentle, patient, warm, like hands laid on bodies that need touch. I can see the women of “the circle”—Maggie, Essie, Sarah, Be Auntie, and Puah with their hands raised, channeling something not many have access to in order to do some small act of good in an evil place.
African Drums Of War: Drums World Collective: Deceptively simple, this song has a very distinct purpose: to gather people for war. This is old, predating Western society certainly. But it also carries resonance for something like a slave revolt. There is something very Black about the methodical way in which this song builds, emulating the ways in which consciousness building works so that change becomes opportune.
Robert Jones, Jr., was born and raised in New York City. He received his BFA in creative writing with honors and MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin. Jones was recently featured in T Magazine's cover story, "Black Male Writers of Our Time." The Prophets is his debut novel.
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Coming soon: a Blondie graphic novel.
Craig Finn discussed the new Hold Steady album with the Spokesman-Review.
The New York Times recommended the week's best new books.
Bandcamp Daily explored Sun Ra's albums on the platform.
Stream a new song by Bachelor (Jay Som and Palehound).
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Stream a new song by L.A. Exes (Jenny Owen Youngs' new band).
February 25, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ellie Eaton's novel The Divines is haunting and complex, a captivating debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.... A layered and complex debut."
I grew up in a family with such wildly differing tastes in music I was in danger of getting whiplash. My father, who lived in the Caribbean for part of his twenties, was fanatical about reggae and soca. My mother was an opera buff with a penchant for The Boss. Two of my uncles happened to be in the industry, one the co-founder of beloved indie label, 4AD, the other an A&R exec at Warner Bros. No surprise then that the tracks on my list are a little all over the map.
Drafting my debut, The Divines, I almost always worked in silence, but after my writing day was over I liked to stick on my headphones and take a walk around my neighbourhood in Los Angeles, blasting the music of my adolescence, hoping to recapture some of that teenage energy and angst. The songs on this list are a handful of the tracks that helped transport me back to my schooldays.
I’ll Never Grow Old - The Maytals
My sister and I were both pupils at an Oxfordshire boarding school, a monotonous three-hour drive from where we lived. On those long trips my father liked to distract us from the crushing sense of dread that came with the first day of term by cranking up the car stereo as loudly as possible. Ska, soca, reggae, rocksteady. This Maytals track is a reminder of the feeling of immortality I had at sixteen when I genuinely thought I’d never grow old.
Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
The Divines is set in an all-girls boarding school where pupils plaster their dormitory walls with pictures of '90s icons. In my teenage years there was no one more idolised by my peers than Kurt Cobain. With his rasping voice, unkempt blonde hair, torn jeans and old woolly cardigans, Cobain seemed to encapsulate the spirit of teenage rebellion.
Cannonball - The Breeders
Growing up my uncle would periodically visit my family, depositing an armful of posters and cassettes on our kitchen table, the latest bands he’d signed to his record label, 4AD. Most of the artwork on my bedroom wall was by the legendary designer Vaughn Oliver—Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil—years before I was old enough to appreciate them. "Cannonball" was the song that turned me into a Breeders fan, hooked by those first few seconds of eerie vocal feedback. Something about this song reminds me of the wildness of the girls I write about in The Divines, their irreverence and unassailable bravado.
Common People – Pulp
The events of my novel largely take place in the nineties at the height of Britpop and grunge. At the time I was a devotee of New Musical Express, pouring over newspaper headlines that documented the ongoing feuds between the chart-topping bands of the day. "Common People" by Pulp is a nod to the elite bubble that the girls in my book inhabit. A gated world, the preserve of the privileged few.
Cakes - Max Tundra
London born electronic musician, Max Tundra, is a synth looping genius. The title of this glorious early album, Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be, is a tongue in cheek reference to the poisonous friendship at the heart of The Divines. While my book has somewhat sinister undertones, Max Tundra’s "Cakes," is a joyous and dreamy piece of electronic wonder, with flutes and trumpets and drum machine beats.
Little Fluffy Clouds - The Orb
When my sister and I were young we became obsessed with the idea of moving to America. Growing up in rural England, the US seemed to embody everything that we most craved; excitement, glamour, the open road. Rickie Lee Jones’s musings on the Arizonan skies of her youth, sampled in this track by The Orb, remind me of our teenage yearnings for something bigger.
Into My Arms - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
In The Divines, Joe, my narrator, describes a picture of Nick Cave she keeps by her bedside. A “signed photograph…bought from a stall at Kensington Market, a pre-Bad-Seeds-era Nick Cave in which a very young, cocky Cave smoked and gazed mysteriously upwards through quizzical eyebrows.” There’s no distance I wouldn’t travel to watch Cave perform.
Look On Down From The Bridge - Mazzy Star
The organ chords at the start of this spine-chilling track remind me of seven years of mandatory school chapel, sitting on hard wooden pews, aching for freedom. The song also makes me think of the ugly metal bridge at the heart of the school campus in The Divines, erected to keep the pupils out of the way of the (rightly) contemptuous locals.
Song To The Siren - This Mortal Coil
In Elizabeth Fraser’s hands this cover of Tim Buckley’s "Song To The Siren" is a haunting reminder of the agony of early love. How intoxicating it can feel and the bitter sting of rejection. In The Divines I tried to capture some of the pain of unrequited love which Fraser’s melancholy voice evokes so perfectly. This song is also a sly nod to the Greek mythological references that weave in and out of my book.
Girls! Girls! Girls! - Liz Phair
"Girls! Girls! Girls!" is an unapologetic song about the power of womanhood. “I take full advantage of every man I meet,” Liz Phair declares in her low-key, matter of fact tone. I want to sit down Joe, the narrator of my book, and force her to listen.
Sweet - Porridge Radio
These days almost all the new music I listen to comes from my friend Holly O’Neill who—in addition to being a supremely talented editor, writer and occasional butcher—introduced me to British indie rock band, Porridge Radio. The track "Sweet" reminds me of the notoriously tricky relationship between mothers and daughters that I navigate in my novel. The song reads like a diary entry, a flash back to the nail biting awkwardness of our teenage selves.
Born and raised in England, Ellie Eaton lives in Los Angeles with her family. Former writer-in-residence at a men's prison in the United Kingdom, she holds an M.A. in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. The Divines is her first novel.
Shorties (An Excerpt From Hermione Lee's Tom Stoppard Biography, Stream Nick Cave & Warren Ellis's Surprise New Album, and more)
Stream the surprise new Nick Cave and Warren Ellis album.
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Davido played a Tiny Desk Concert.
Stream a new Wolf Alice song.
Tim O'Brien discussed his new documentary with Fresh Air.
Black booksellers recommended books to read during Black History Month at Parade.
Stream a new Julien Baker song.
Baker also covered Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place."
Ms. Magazine interviewed poet and literary activist Marisa Crawford.
Stream a new Half Waif song.
Ibram X. Kendi talked books and reading with the New York Times.
Rolling Stone shared an excerpt from Eric Spitznagel’s book Rock Stars on the Record: The Albums That Changed Their Lives.
Anne Enright reviewed Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Klara and the Sun at the Guardian.
Bright Eyes covered Vic Chesnutt's "Flirted With You All My Life."
Paste examined the intersection of Allen Ginsberg and popular music.
Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi shared tips for pandemic productivity with Stereogum.
Avni Doshi discussed her debut novel Burnt Sugar with Shondaland.
Stream a new song by Son Lux.
Electric Literature interviewed Daniel Loedel.
Stereogum considered the Fat Boys' legacy.
The Irish Examiner recommended Irish books for Irish Reads Day.
Stream a new song by Spirit of the Beehive.
Epigram examined the Booktok community on TikTok.
The Creative Independent interviewed musician Sarah Beth Tomberlin.
Literary Hub shared a new essay by Elissa Schappell.
Uncut reviewed every album in Mogwai's discography.
CrimeReads interviewed Jeff VanderMeer.
Spoon shared the demo for their song "Lines in the Suit."
The New York Times Magazine shared a new essay by Hanif Abdurraqib.
Helado Negro covered David Bowie's "Sound and Vision."
February 24, 2021
Smart, haunting, and inventive, Julia Fine's novel The Upstairs House is a marvelously unsettling exploration of being a new mother.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"In this inventive, visceral novel, Fine creates a dark fairy tale about a woman whose career plans are sidelined by pregnancy and the birth of her daughter.... Fine depicts the devastation of postpartum depression, all too often shrouded in shame and blame, and offers hope."
I listened to music constantly while working on my first novel (What Should Be Wild), but I wrote The Upstairs House during my son’s naptime, and I savored the quiet. The following are songs that inspired me while away from the page.
Neko Case, “I Wish I Was the Moon”
Who among us hasn’t been up with a newborn and whispered, “I’m so tired”? If you’re simultaneously mid-dissertation on Margaret Wise Brown, of course you follow with “I wish I was the moon tonight.” This is a song about exhaustion and loneliness and no longer recognizing yourself—it’s the perfect The Upstairs House anthem.
Rudy Vallee, “You’re Driving Me Crazy”
I listened to a lot of Rudy Vallee while getting to know the 1930s/40s characters—particularly Michael Strange. He’s the sort of artist Michael might have had playing during one of her Upper East Side soirees—socialites drinking champagne in the luxury penthouse and looking out over the East River, dancing drunkenly to his records. There’s also a scene in the book where the music Megan has been streaming switches inexplicably from rock and roll to Rudy Vallee—how fitting that it would be this particular song.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Killer”
Nobody does it like Phoebe. “I am sick of the chase/but I’m hungry for blood/and there’s nothing I can do,” and then in the second chorus, “I am sick of the chase/but I’m stupid in love/and there’s nothing I can do.” This is a song about desire and control, and I envision it as a love letter from Margaret to Michael, and from Megan to Clara.
Rockabye Baby!, “Gold Dust Woman”
Rockabye Baby! does a series of lullaby versions of basically any artist you can imagine—from Bruno Mars to The Beatles to Beyoncé to Metallica. I considered just making this track white noise, (a constant companion to any new parent), but these are much more fun. I’m not sure that Margaret Wise Brown and Stevie Nicks would get along, but I do think they’d be something of kindred spirits. Regardless, I love the Fleetwood Mac Rockabye Baby, I love the original “Gold Dust Woman,” and I appreciate the opportunity to rock out while my kids are asleep in the car.
Bob Dylan, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”
“I couldn’t see/how you could know me/but you said you knew me and I believed you did.” This lyric perfectly encapsulates Megan’s relationship with her husband, Ben—her struggle to communicate, the tragedy of inertia, his confidence in the stability of their marriage. I’m always here for a good upbeat, messy breakup song, and I see this one as an examination of the lies we tell each other, and ourselves, during dispassionate relationships.
Billie Holiday, “There is No Greater Love”
Lyrically, this song is quite simple, but Billie Holiday’s version adds complexity that I don’t necessarily hear in other recordings. There’s something almost menacing here—the fear of losing love sits right alongside having and enjoying it, which is a key theme in The Upstairs House. This song could be sung as a purely celebratory love story, but instead becomes a multi-layered examination of what it means to be vulnerable in a relationship.
Frederic Chopin, “Op. 28: No. 15 in D-Flat Major, Raindrop”
Toward the end of her career, Michael Strange did a regular radio program during which she’d recite famous poems over classical music. Poe’s "The Raven" was paired with Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, and honestly this combination says so much about Michael. She felt things deeply and dramatically, she loved an ostentatious display (particularly when she could insert herself front and center), and she didn’t necessarily have deep wells of original artistic insight. Chopin is, however, a lovely accompaniment to writing ghost stories.
Lucius, “Two of Us On the Run”
This song builds very slowly, which I think makes it a good fit for Megan’s experience in The Upstairs House. Of course, the title is also quite fitting for the latter third of the book, when Megan sets out to excise her ghosts. It’s melancholy and hopeful and, as always with Lucius, the harmonies are absolutely perfect.
Malvina Reynolds, “Turn Around”
I dare you (a parent) to listen to even the first few notes of this song without crying. As frustrating and mind-numbing and exhausting as it is to have a newborn, the time passes, the babies grow, the generational cycles continue. My mother used to sing this to me when I was small, and now I sing it to my daughter. Listen while reading The Upstairs House epilogue.
Julia Fine is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She teaches writing in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.
Big Other shared a folio to celebrate Robert Coover's 89th birthday, including a new short story by the author and critical essays on his work.
Julien Baker talked to Uproxx about her new album.
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Poet, publisher, and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti has passed away.
Esquire listed essential books Ferlinghetti wrote or published.
Stream a new song by the Natvral.
American Songwriter profiled Chuck D.
BuzzFeed recommended the week's best books.
Hillary Clinton is co-authoring a mystery novel with Louise Penny.
Stream a Gloria Record rarity.
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Philadelphia Magazine interviewed poet and activist Sonia Sanchez.
Stream a new Fog Lake song.
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The Transmissions podcast interviewed author Peter Guralnick.
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Lucy Clarke recommended books about castaways at the Guardian.
The OTHERPPL podcast interviewed author David Tromblay.
The Rumpus interviewed author Julia Fine.
Words Without Borders interviewed poet Najwan Darwish.
February 23, 2021
Creative nonfiction is one of my favorite literary genres, and Matthew Gavin Frank is one of its most talented writers. Flight of the Diamond Smugglers blends investigative reporting, memoir, and natural history into a compelling and unforgettable book.
Bookpage wrote of the book:
"A work of strange beauty born of personal tragedy.... An often unsettling, thoroughly researched, poetically expressed mélange of memoir, historical analysis and philosophical meditation.... The narrative’s path is not linear; instead, Frank follows the flow of his prodigious curiosity.... Frank observes... with a sharp yet sympathetic eye.... Suspense builds as the pages turn.... there’s much to marvel at, from the far-reaching aftermath of diamond mining to the ways old memories have a hold on us. Readers will empathize with Frank’s efforts to process his grief and with Diamond Coast residents’ search for glints of hope in a grim desert. Through it all, pigeons soar in the sky and alight on the ground, offering companionship, a particular set of skills and thought-provoking fodder for metaphor."
My new nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, investigates the role of carrier pigeons in Southern African diamond smuggling—the ways in which workers bring their trained birds into the mines concealed in lunchboxes, pack diamonds into specially-sewn bags, attach said bags to the birds’ feet, and set the pigeons into the air, where they fly to their homes and the awaiting hands of the laborers’ families, who unpack the diamonds and make their fortunes. The book also engages the endurance of personal grief, as well as issues of climate change, social justice, environmental destruction, eco-criticism, corporate colonialism, police brutality, exploitation of indigenous people and people of color, late-capitalist greed, and animal rights. And the book also engages…well… a love for birds. Throughout, in telling these stories, I tried to be open to wonder and horror, to mystification, to quiet beauty, and to flight and to music, actual and metaphorical.
“Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba
Makeba’s song wedges joy and delight into an encompassing heartbreak, celebrating the drive to sing and dance and commune amid a looming oppression. As the book opens, I sit with a young diamond miner on a beach on the outskirts of the restricted mining town of Oranjemund, just on the South African side of the Namibian border. We both hug our knees to our chest at sunset, sitting in the sand beneath a sun-bleached sign that reads, NO ENTRY. He speaks to me of the many dangers facing those who labor in the diamond industry. He speaks to me of the danger he faces simply by speaking to me. He speaks to me, joyously, of the pigeons he raises in secret as companions, and as avian accomplices in “illicit” diamond smuggling. Can Makeba’s song help to contextualize this brew of danger, joy, sand and sunset? I don’t know. I do know that “Pata Pata” was the last song Makeba ever performed right before collapsing onstage on November 9, 2008, the night she died.
“Ketine” by Ali Farka Touré
This slow, droning, meditative blues manages to entrance, while—perhaps via the rattlesnake-y percussion—also managing to disquiet, to build a kind of suspense. It’s not entirely safe to give oneself over to its spell, but one is helpless to resist. One just has to hold on, and be transported, as if tied to the feet of a diamond-bearing smuggler pigeon as it takes off from the mine, and rises over the aerial ropeways, stout ladders joining the stepped catacombs and blind alleys, pyramids, plateaus, arroyos of mud; the boys and men who dig until their bodies break. One can only dig into the earth so deep before the earth decides to collapse.
“Andizenzi” by Kanyi Mavi
Urgent and incantatory, Mavi’s stew of synth, chorus, explosive percussion and wordsmith-ery evoke also an amalgam of beauty and brutality, anger and wonder. Until very recently, much of South Africa’s West Coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and was officially closed-off to the public for the better part of 80 years (the heyday of diamond exploration and mining in the area), plunging the local communities into a mysterious isolation. Recently, De Beers even had a shadowy agreement with satellite companies to scrub the images of this so-called Forbidden Zone from their recorded files. It was, essentially and officially, an erasure from the earth. A blank spot on the map. A redacted place. A non-country within a real country. Terra incognita-meets-planned-community. According even to the satellites, it didn’t exist. Heavily-armed security forces guarded (and still guard) its borders. And surrounding this zone is the richest bulb flora arid region on the planet— blanketed, for two weeks’ time in the middle of August, in an overwhelming kaleidoscope of orange and purple desert flowers.
“Pomp and Pride” by Toots and the Maytals
Speaking of those desert flowers, I was lucky enough—during one of my research trips to South Africa— to have witnessed this brief bloom. The world seemed to have gone Oz-like, and I drove a rental car through all of this floral psychedelia, blasting some Toots. The roads, during this two-week window, are jammed. Bloom-obsessed tourists descend on the region hoping to spot and photograph as many of the 3,000 plant species as possible, and temporary “Flower Hotlines,” replete with all the latest updates, spring up. People drive recklessly in order to outrun the dusk hours when the flowers close up for the night. In the evenings, tourists fill under-prepared cafes, sip Chenin Blanc, and compare pictures, speaking animatedly of kaleidoscopes and rain-daisies. And then the two weeks are up, and the flowers die, and the land’s apparent infertility is restored. Every time I imagine the flowers opening and closing, I imagine them opening and closing to the bounce of this song.
“Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin
When laborers affix too many diamonds to pigeons, the exhausted and overloaded birds tend to falter, and to land at random along the beaches of the Diamond Coast. When De Beers officials caught wind of this, they had it declared illegal to raise pigeons in the region. In fact, in 1998, a local lawmaker made it illegal to not shoot a pigeon on sight, should one have the means to do so. Still, so many raise pigeons in secret, and sometimes successfully smuggle diamonds using this method. If one is caught keeping these birds, the local police are given leeway to enact “unofficial” forms of punishment. Rumors abound in the region of such “offenders” having had their fingers broken, or eyes excised, or hands or ears or feet, or head cut off. Murvin’s falsetto haunts the song’s lyrical content, and yields the sort of protest that longs to ascend from atrocity, without ever turning away from it, taking to the sky, but never forgetting the blood.
“Type” by Living Colour
At one point in the book, I find myself riding on the back of a Land Rover, passing around a bottle of brandy with a bunch of gun-toting anti-pigeon militia members. Though not officially sanctioned by De Beers, these militias thrive here, contracted to kidnap people’s pets right from their coops on nighttime stealth runs, and bring them to isolated spots on the beach hidden among the labyrinth of dunes. Here, they make a game of executing the birds. As they allowed me to bear witness to the slaughter, this song—especially the live version in which Living Colour includes it in an extended melody with their (also awesome) song “Elvis Is Dead” and their cover of “Police and Thieves”— made a surprise and appropriate appearance in my head, serving to italicize my shock in the face of all of those dead birds.
“Factory” by Bruce Springsteen
In 1870, Cecil John Rhodes, founder of the De Beers conglomerate, came to South Africa from England. In diamond fields of Kimberley, Rhodes, with the financial backing of a British banking company (with whom he had familial connections), was alone in being able to afford steam pumps to eradicate the water from flooded claims, which—given that they were presumed ruined— he originally bought for a song. The miners slated for De Beers’ underground work would line up single-file by 5:00am, and trundle down the shafts to chip away at the rock with pick-axes. The workers were charged with squeezing themselves into crevices so tight that they had to chip mere millimeters from their bodies. As such, toward the end of the shift, ghostly parades of human-shaped depressions were left in the rock, hard outlines of the men who once labored there. “And you just better believe,” Springsteen sings, “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,” and, still today, along South Africa’s Diamond Coast, in bars called Diamond Hunters, and bars called Fortune’s, I saw knife-fights stop just short of the stabbing, because the men know they have to line up single-file by 5:00am, and trundle down the shafts…
“Dollar’s Moods” by The Jazz Epistles
Msizi, one of the young diamond miners to whom I spoke, loved jazz. He especially loved The Jazz Epistles, a 1950s Johannesburg-based band who recorded the first-ever album by a Black South African group in 1959. Msizi raised pigeons in secret, and, exhausted, post-shift, he would often go out to his coop and hum some of their tunes to his favorite pigeon, Bartholomew. “Dollar’s Moods,”—which somehow braids an elusive and subtle mournfulness into what seems to be a cheerful and exuberant primary line— is named for the volatile temper of the band’s piano player, Abdullah Ibrahim, aka Dollar Brand. After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre (during which South African police opened fire on Black protestors demonstrating against apartheid policies, killing 69 people), the apartheid government doubled-down on their viciousness in order to discourage future protests. As part of this doubling-down, jazz was banned—the music could no longer be performed either in public or in private, could no longer be broadcast on the radio, or sold to fans. The lives of the musicians were threatened, and less than a year after recording their first album, The Jazz Epistles were forced to break up. When Msizi hummed this song to Bartholomew, the bird would raise and lower its wings, but its feet would remain fixed—evoking the machinations of flight, without rising.
“Birdland” by Patti Smith
John James Audubon on watching flocks of pigeons pass overhead: “A thundering storm of beating wings and dung like melting flakes of snow.”
A song about the role of dreaming and self-delusion in the endurance of grief and a persistent sense of estrangement (in a Didion-esque “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” sort of way), “Birdland” can serve as a sort of soundtrack to many of our myths in which pigeons and diamonds intersect. (In drafting FLIGHT OF THE DIAMOND SMUGGLERS, I had to eventually cut so many of these myths out of the book!) For instance: Indra, the bright red and four-armed Vedic deity, possessed as his weapon of choice the fearsome vajra, a thunderbolt coated in diamond dust, making it both indestructible and irresistible, the pointy ends of which were used to ritualistically eviscerate the ignorant. The vajra was forged by Tvastar, the artisan of divine gizmos, who had the ability to take the form of a dove and who would do so in order to sing angry birds to sleep. Indra’s mount, Airavata the albino elephant, was blindingly white, and generously endowed with four tusks and seven trunks, and was descended from a great serpent—the same one responsible for producing—after eons of Darwinian evolution, of course—the pigeons. As if a bird, Airavata hatched from an egg, which was nursed and pacified by the quiet hymns of the creation gods, and when this egg cracked, it yielded, along with the white elephant, an ocean of milk, which itself served as an amniotic bath to which earthbound mortals in need of hope could aspire to return, as if wayward homing pigeons to the comfort of their coops.
“Imayini Yase (Coalbrook Mine)” from This Land Is Mine: South African Freedom Songs
In one of the most ethereal dirges ever performed, a group of South African refugees commemorate the 1960 collapse of the Coalbrook Mine, which killed 408 people, at once memorializing the dead, and condemning the apartheid regime responsible for the labor laws that devalued the lives of Black workers. Though the apartheid government officially fell in 1994, many of its atrocious policies simply evolved and still haunt aspects of South African life, including those pertaining to the diamond mining industry. Oftentimes, still today, the Black security officials working for the diamond mining conglomerates have to patrol the mine on foot, while the White officials make their rounds from the comfort of white pick-up trucks, lording over the laborers who are charged with extracting diamonds from what one poetic and dystopian (and anonymous) local journalist referred to as, “A vast heaving crater. A world of dust, drought, dysentery, and flies, disease and despair, where some dig up a fortune, and others dig their graves.” And overhead, some of their diamond-smuggling pigeons fly, and some of these birds will make it home, and some people’s lives will get better and some will get worse. And did you know also that in her poem, “Pigeon Post,” Sylvia Plath wrote, “I split my soul/into twin pigeons/and hurled them hard…//With homing spiral/one drops from heaven…//my other bird,/plump-fed, admired/from an elegant nest/in the fields of hell…”? And did you know that, in Hebrew, the word yownah, or “dove,” also refers to the holy warmth generated by an act of mating? And did you know that the ancient Greeks called pigeons peristera (the female form of pigeon) and named their prettiest islands after them?
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks.
Tracy Clark-Flory's memoir Want Me is a smart, funny, and incredibly insightful coming-of-age story.
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:
"Luminous, funny, big-hearted... this is a book of insight, both cultural and personal. It is majestic to behold."
I came of age in the nineties alongside fizzy declarations of "girl power" and exhortations to “break the glass ceiling.” It was also a time of sexualized pop culture, from Girls Gone Wild infomercials to MTV Spring Break specials. I emerged with a sense that sexual empowerment meant being both like men and wanted by them—and I set out to become an expert in both, first as a young woman coming of age and then as a journalist covering the sex beat. My memoir, Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire, follows me down that path as I report on everything from adult film sets to orgasmic meditation retreats, and reckon with the disappointments of channeling my own wanting through men.
While writing Want Me, I often looked for inspiration from the music that defined various periods in my life. Some of those songs, like the ones below, viscerally transported me back to key moments of feeling and discovery. They were the soundtrack to my writing—and maybe now to your reading—this book.
“#1 Crush” by Garbage
I write in Want Me about my tweenage Leonardo DiCaprio obsession, which led me to run a high-circulation daily fan newsletter where I recounted tabloid gossip and previewed TV appearances in screaming all-caps (“EMERGENCY NEWSLETTER!!!!!!!!!!!! Leo on Inside Edition????????”). My devotion was sparked by Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, a flashy re-imagining of the classic that introduced me to DiCaprio in his most perfect state: peeking through a forelock of golden hair with a cigarette dangling from his lips, while scrawling love poems in a notebook. The film’s soundtrack perfectly captures the moody intensity of teenage obsession, but Garbage’s “#1 Crush” does so especially with its creeping beat and melodramatic lyrics. It instantly brings me back to those early awakenings of longing and lust, before my attention shifted to what boys wanted from me.
“Too Close” by Next
Here is a song all about a guy getting an erection on the dance floor (“Baby when we're grinding/I get so excited/…You’re making it hard for me”). That is to say, here is a song perfectly made for pubescent teens living for the school dance. At my middle school, there was little in the way of stiff-armed slow dances. I wrote in my 7th grade diary ([sic] here on out), “Freaking is a kind of dancing—it’s were the guy puts his leg in-between yours and his arms around you waist and your arms around his neck. And you kinda move back + forth. It really fun.” For me, this song encapsulates not only the thrill of school dances, but also my teenage fascination with boys’ bodies, and the possibilities of their bodies responding to mine. As RL croons toward the end, “You’re making me want you.”
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by Backstreet Boys
As I headed into high school, I gave up on my Leo crush in favor of AJ McLean, “the Backstreet Boy with tattoos, questionable facial hair, and crotch-thrusting dance moves,” as I write in Want Me. (One of those tattoos was a “69” around his navel.) AJ, who was known for humping the floor during concerts to the delighted screams of hundreds of teenage girls, was the designated “bad boy” of the bunch. He felt to me like a safe, vicarious route for expressing my own emerging sexuality. This isn’t the group’s sexiest song—but, man, did I run down my VHS taped copy of the accompanying music video just to hear AJ deliver this line: “Oh my god, we’re back againnn.”
“Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera
Ooof, revisiting these lyrics, it’s no wonder I belted them so intensely while watching MTV’s TRL after school:
"I feel like I've been locked in tight/For a century of lonely nights/Waiting for someone to release me/…My mind is saying let's go/But my heart is saying no/…I’m a genie in a bottle, baby/Come, come, come in and let me out.”
The sense of suppression, the conflicted desire, the wish for a man to set you free. Not to overanalyze, but I can’t help but think of the developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman who writes of adolescent girls’ “dilemma of desire,” in which their sexual feelings come up against the social and material dangers associated with their sexuality. During these years, the traditional virgin-slut dichotomy was starting to loosen for girls, leading to new sexual possibilities as well as pressures and contradictions. This song spoke to my own teenage attempts at navigating that shifting terrain—and maybe to Aguilera’s as well. In a few years, she would introduce her alter ego Xtina while singing about wanting to get “dirrty.”
“Midnight In a Perfect World” by DJ Shadow
This song is first love. It’s cutting class just to make out on a park bench with my high school boyfriend, who had great taste in music and a pair of oversize headphones always slung around his neck.
“Like a Boy" by Ciara
In my 20s, I wanted to be able to “have sex like a man," not exactly appreciating how this was guided by a distorted stereotype. I longed for a sense of sexual power that seemed to belong to men—whether it was around entitlement to pleasure or the freedom to explore. I grasped for that power through trying to be desired by men, and trying to be like them. As Ciara sings, “Wish we could switch up the roles” and “Sometimes I wish I could act like a boy.”
“Gimme More” by Britney Spears
As I write in my book of my marginally adult 20something life: I “routinely paired… Kraft dinners with cheap chardonnay followed by a solo dance party,” which often "turned very quickly into strip routines.” Britney Spears, and this song in particular, was emblematic of this period of privately performing in front of my mirror, while imagining myself reflected through any number of straight men’s eyes.
“S&M” by Rihanna
I write in Want Me about how my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis led to my experimenting with rough sex in an attempt to physically surface my all-pervasive emotional pain. Just a few months later, Rihanna released her single “S&M,” in which she sang that “chains and whips excite me.” We were still years away from Lady Gaga singing about liking it “rough” and the release of Fifty Shades of Grey. As I write in the book, “We were on the verge of a massive mainstream cultural shift around BDSM, as well as countless think pieces about a purported, though never reliably documented, ‘rise in rough sex,' but I’d already felt the rumblings of it in my immediate surrounds.”
“thank u, next” by Ariana Grande
This song perfectly channels my feelings in looking back on my 20s: “Thought I'd end up with Sean/But he wasn't a match/Wrote some songs about Ricky/Now I listen and laugh/Even almost got married/And for Pete, I'm so thankful/Wish I could say ‘thank you’ to Malcolm/‘Cause he was an angel.” It’s playful, loving, and filled with gratitude, but all without looking longing toward the past.
"WAP" by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion
“Swipe your nose like a credit card” is one of the most delightful lyrics I’ve encountered in my entire life. Clover Hope, author of The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop, writes that this Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion song wasn’t just a “perfectly crafted duet about the slipperiness of their vaginas,” but “about women making music for women’s enjoyment, reclaiming the object gaze and the vision of sexuality that men had monopolized.” This kind of reclamation has been subject to decades of feminist debate, but all I feel when listening to this song is: Yes.
Tracy Clark-Flory is a senior staff writer at Jezebel. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, Marie Claire, Salon, The Guardian, Women's Health, and the yearly Best Sex Writing anthology. Prior to Jezebel, she was a senior staff writer at Salon. She has appeared on 20/20, MSNBC and NPR. Tracy lives in San Francisco with her family.
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February 22, 2021
Rebecca Morgan Frank's poetry collection Oh You Robot Saints! is a brilliant exploration of the automata we create with our hands and minds.
Jericho Brown wrote of the book:
"'The truth is in the job, not the wound' is one of my favorite lines in Rebecca Morgan Frank’s daring Oh You Robot Saints!, a book in which the beauty, jealousy, and worship of the gods take center stage. Part of the precision of this book and every one of its lines has to do with Frank’s commitment to showing us tragedy as the Greeks would through her indomitable use of second person like a director giving instructions: 'Fill the ark: start / with the giant flower / beetle . . .' And part of it has to do with full-on Sapphic tenderness: 'The women I’ve loved and lived with are dead, / and today it felt like spring might return.' This volume proves Rebecca Morgan Frank is a poet of the exact and the harrowing."
My new collection of poems, Oh You Robot Saints! is populated with automata and their future incarnations, the rapidly evolving robots we live with now. As a Gen Xer, I grew up in the early days of electronic music, infused with robotic sounds and repetitions. I couldn’t have imagined the lasting imprint that electronic music would have, or that we would live in a world run by computers and inhabited by such realistic humanoid robots, much less a range of multi-use robotic creatures. Join me in this “robot parade” of robot songs of the last four decades. If anyone else is home, you may need to put on your headphones as we travel back in time, or maybe invite them to dim the lights and join you in “the robot and the robo-booge,” the only two kinds of dance in the future, according to the Flight of the Conchords’ song “Robots.”
Kraftwerk, “The Robots"
Martin Gore of Depeche Mode called Kraftwerk the “godfathers” of electronic music, and in the original Kraftwerk video for “The Robots,” the four members of the band pretend to be robots. Over the years of live performances, the band replaced themselves with robots pretending to be them. Now you can watch a band of Lego robots cover this song. Maybe we’re all replaceable by Legos.
Companion poem: “How to Make Your Own Automaton”
Styx, “Mr. Roboto”
Did you know that the 1983 hit “Mr. Roboto” is part of an album that’s a rock opera/concept album? The narrative of the album Kilroy was Here follows rockers jailed by the Moral Majority– “Dr. Righteous” is concerned with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, including satan backmasking. But have no fear, the protagonist escapes disguised as a robot.
Companion Poems: “The Fool of Aljaferia Palace Encounters Death”
Men at Work, “Helpless Automaton”
This was the first cassette I ever bought, purchased alongside of my yellow Sony Sports Walkman for my thirteenth birthday, spent alone at an arts boarding school. Who would have imagined that the lyrics “I stay in my room / All alone in the gloom” and “To dream of your face/But a video screen takes its place” would feel so timely again now during the pandemic? Go ahead, turn it up and dance like you can’t go anywhere!
Companion poem: Ode to Loneliness
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Go Robot”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers played in a small room at Columbia when I was at Barnard, and I have clear memories of a packed room of pungent bodies and my tiny roommate bodysurfing: I had dragged her along to her first concert ever. The thing about robots is they don’t have BO.
Companion Poem: “Mechanical Birds”
Lemonheads (with Kate Moss), "Dirty Robot"
You have to love the line, “I hate your every bolt and screw,” right? A supermodel joins the Lemonheads to cover Dutch artists Arling & Cameron’s song, “Dirty Robot” from their 2001 album We Are A & C. Check out the original and you can sing along your favorite fake robot voice with Francoise Cactus of Stereo Total, who guests on vocals: “You’re a dirty robot, I’m a dirty robot.”
Companion poem: “Here Come the Parasitic Robots”
“Fembots have feelings, too”! There’s much to be said about gender and robots, but I squeezed several of my favorite research finds into one poem, “The Mechanical Eves.” We live in a time of “real dolls,” but before that Edison made a bunch of talking girl dolls that were so terrifying they were reportedly destroyed, maybe even buried alive. (Can we do that to the “real dolls”?) Most “fembots” have been designed by men, so it’s nice to see one come from a woman, even in a song.
Companion Poem: “The Mechanical Eves”
Dresden Dolls, "Coin-Operated Boy"
Of course, then there’s the coin-operated boy of this Dresden Doll’s single: “I can’t imagine any flesh and blood could be this match / I even take him in the bath.” But when I think of coin-operated automata, I remember one of my favorite spots from my research travel for this book: London’s Novelty-Automation, an arcade of satirical automatons. Some of my favorite automata were “Pet or Meat,” “Autofrisk,” and “Is it Art?” I hope this arcade survives the pandemic.
Companion Poem: “I Don’t Like Its Computer Face”
Alexander Bonus, “Automaton Turk”
The “Automaton Turk” was an automaton chess player that toured and beat many a champion and celebrity, but in reality¬–spoiler alert–was a hoax and one of the more fascinating fake automata I wrote about in my book. It turns out there was an expert chess player crammed into a secret compartment to move the pieces. (Edgar Allen Poe debunked the automaton chess player in depth in his essay “Maelzel’s Chess-player.) This album explores the same world of early automata as my collection, and a few more songs are populated by some of the same figures as my poems, including the tracks “Automaton Monk” and “Automaton Aviary.”
Companion poem: “The False Automaton”
Daft Punk, “Robot Rock”
When Gertrude Stein said there’s no such thing as repetition, she couldn’t have foreseen electronic music. This song makes me think of the talk I recently gave on the repeated-line sonnet, except the three-word line of Robot Rock is repeated forty or so times rather than fourteen. Yes, I counted. (Has anyone made a digital track of “A rose is a rose is a rose”?)
Companion Poem: “Ode to the Robobee”
Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot”
I know, you were probably expecting this one, and I really did consider the also great “One More Robot,” which gets at the heart of what separates us from robots: we can love. In the end, not only did Yoshimi win in my quick Twitter poll, but honestly, as someone who came of age receiving mixed tapes from everyone I ever dated, I believe transitions are key, and this had to come after Robot Rock, right? And it doesn’t get better than “But you won’t let those robots eat me, Yoshimi.”
Companion poem: “Aquanauts”
Flight of the Conchords, “Robots”
From the pilot episode of Flight of the Conchords, this song is the characters’ first music video, filmed in robot costumes made out of homemade boxes. In this pretty funny send-up, the humans are dead, robots rule the world, and “There is no more unhappiness / Affirmative / We no longer say yes, instead we say affirmative / Yes, affirmative / Unless it is a more colloquial situation with a few robo friends….” The album version offers extended lyrics and, of course, the same refrain: “The humans are dead.” Perhaps a few of those humans uploaded their consciousnesses into robot heads before they died and live on, like Bina48, which was created to mirror the (living) Bina Aspen.
Companion Poem: “Imagine Loved Letter to Bina48”
They Might Be Giants, "Robot Parade"
It seems appropriate to wrap this playlist up with a little They Might Be Giants and a robot parade. In my poem “Not Everybody Else’s Bestiary (Yet),” the parade is full of such existing creatures as octobots, robot snakes, robot cockroaches, and robot children. Remember, in the future, “Robots obey what / The children say.”
Companion Poem: “Not Everybody Else’s Bestiary (Yet)”
Rebecca Morgan Frank’s fourth collection of poems is Oh You Robot Saints! (Carnegie Mellon 2021). Her debut collection, Little Murders Everywhere, was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and she is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for her next manuscript. Her poems have recently appeared such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, 32 Poems, Women’s Review of Books, and The Slowdown podcast, and her collaborations with composers have been performed and exhibited across the country. She teaches in the MFA Program in Prose and Poetry at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies and edits the online literary journal Memorious.