October 22, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lara Stapleton's book The Ruin of Everything is unnerving and masterfully told, one of the strongest short fiction collections I have read in years.
Gina Apostol wrote of the book:
"An Anaïs Nin of late capitalism's bohemia, Lara Stapleton writes like an oracle of an underworld-of miscegenated loves and translocated broken souls-of characters unaware or ruinously conscious-and she inscribes that world in us with lust and wit and always that deep joy that encompasses sorrows bred in the bone, the race, the colors of one's skin, the heart, and of course the tongue: the word."
I miss the years of the smokey little jazz club. My relationship with music is an odd one. I don’t listen to much of it in my home and haven’t for many years because I am always looking for the silence that allows for epiphany, the “eureka” of language congealed. Many in my world would be shocked to hear of this lack of song in my home because I spent years seeing live music out in New York, a few nights a week. It’s one of my favorite things to do; mostly I saw jazz and Latin music. I love the aesthetics of the two intertwining genres, the rhythms, deeply layered, like boisterous community in conversation: communing, passions, aligned conspiratorial whispering, laughter, weeping, arguing, lovemaking. I love the way the genres are deeply seamlessly emotional, the sophistication of dissonance, anxiety in dance with harmony. The music I know best, to where I know the lyrics and with which I associate my own Rustbelt teen longings, is classic rock, which we listened to in my town in Michigan up until punk rock hit, all years after these things happened in the coast. But if I hear a Doors or Hendrix in a café I might well up, and I think that’s because these are the years in which our emotions are so unbridled, we long and love so recklessly. That this was the era of working-class White musicians profoundly influenced by Black American musicians was something I didn’t understand then, but is deeply important to the tale, a parable of this country; these are the anthems of my youth. It makes sense I learned them in the Rustbelt.
When I began with this playlist, I was afraid I couldn’t do it because I feel as if don’t have that much music in my life anymore. I even started working with friends to ask for help, as if I’d let them do it for me. But then, I discovered, I did have much more knowledge of songs I knew and loved than I’d realized. It was emotionally difficult to accumulate so many songs about loss and longing and grief that are appropriate to The Ruin of Everything. It made me sad, sadder than when I wrote the stories. It was also beautiful. Ultimately, I’m happy with what I came up with.
“Glory Box” Portishead for the book
The collection has been described as tales of abandoned children in adult bodies. It’s also about the moment in which fear takes over. My narrators believe their relationships come to an inevitable end as their partners shift, the inevitable callousness that comes to the heart of the Great Love. But in actuality, the characters are the ones who shift on their fears, and they let their panic destroy the relationships. I see the stories as full of lugubrious sorrow and longing, mostly by women, though there are men too, and so I believe “Glory Box” is a fit for the entire book. It also refers to perspective, “We’re all looking at a different picture;” something the book investigates with its permutations on The Loss. I think “Glory Box” is a song about that terrible longing, that aching, wounded love which may have one person, or the world, as an object.
“Creep” Radiohead for “Alpha Male”
The story is about a man who is seen as very special by much of the world, a very successful actor. This is my slick Hollywood story, but that is not how he sees himself. His success has been driven by a need to prove himself worthy after a youth of family rejection both distinct and subtle. So, there comes a point, when he is madly in love, thinking he’s found this unbelievably perfect woman, that he begins to see the world as that abandoned child. He’s the creep, he doesn’t deserve her. His fear poisons the relationship.
“When the Levee Breaks” Led Zeppelin for “Intention Neglect”
People should also check out the first recorded version by Kansas City Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. As I mentioned, classic rock songs from the '70s were a massive part of my teen years, for some reason we looked back that way before my community in Michigan got into punk in the late '80s, much later than the coasts. Of course, this blues song is rooted in African-American music, and the meaning shifts when interpreted by White artists. The Zeppelin version is gorgeous, haunting, full of desire and regret and terrible choices. We shouldn’t forget that these internationally known White bands were considered rebellious, sexy and daring because they studied Black music so intensely. And it’s a blues song that appears to be about a supernatural force, “If it keeps on rainin, levees goin to break,” but as so often in the genre, it’s also about human cruelty. It’s a song about the Great Migration, and having to go to Chicago, and leave one’s loved ones because there’s no work in the South, but also because of the inhumane conditions: violence and poverty experienced by the narrator’s people. “Intention Neglect” is about how poverty forced the main character’s mother to leave the Philippines and make choices that destroyed her brother. She has a sense that she and her mother survived their own dislocation because her father is White, but her full Filipino brother was abandoned. We are so often talking about race in subtle ways we might not recognize. It keeps on raining, the brother can’t overcome his wounds, and the family breaks. In the blues tradition, the lyrics describe a “mean ol’ levee,” but it’s not an inanimate object that is truly the force of cruelty.
“People Are Strange” Eric Lewis for “New”
Lewis is a contemporary pianist whom I’d describe as rooted in jazz, but he does all kinds of contemporary music as well. I’ve seen him live many times, and he does this fascinating thing where he’ll take a 21st or 20th century song, and unwind it seamlessly to its roots in older, African-American music. It’s very post-modern, though that makes it sound clinical and it’s truly very organic and seamless. He does this more live, saw him do it with Coldplay and others, but the best recorded version of this is probably this song. I pick it for “New” because it’s a story set in New Orleans. It’s kind of essayistic, and at least in part about transculturation and the way US cultural roots, our aesthetic, are so rooted in that city.
“Tusk” Fleetwood Mack for “Glory Of”
This song makes me think of triumph, the build, the expanse, though the lyrics are about sex, and loss. “Glory Of” contemplates the loss of that expanse.
“They Don’t Care about Us” Michael Jackson for “The Other Realm”
This is my favorite MJ song. It can be interpreted politically, and I prefer that interpretation, but I attach it here because it expresses the point of view of the narrator who feels disconnected, that the world is entirely cruel, while she spins off into fear and isolation.
“El Gato Tiene Tres Patas” Machito and Graciela for “Godspeed”
I love Spanish Caribbean music. So much of it has this intense feeling of looking back with longing, like leaving a place you love forever. The saying “don’t search for the cat with three paws” means, from what I understand, don’t insist recklessly on things that damage, like looking for trouble, but I think sadder and heavier. It also seems very sexual. This story is about responding to pain with a sexual recklessness.
“Strange Relationship” Prince for “Arrythmia”
This song nicely describes a bizarre, painful, non-relationship, but it’s from the pov of the the man in the story, not the narrator. That person who is more powerful in the equation is just as broken and in pain as the mistress. “I didn’t like the way you were, so I had to make you mine.” My god, who is so honest about such things?
“World Gong Crazy” Han Han x Datu x Hataw for “Until It Comes to You”
I cannot imagine a more perfect song for this story. Han Han is a Canadian-Filipino musician and nurse (a very common profession for Filipinos in the US and Canada, the way many of our families immigrate). The story is both very western lounge and rap and pre-Hispanic gong music; it’s nuts how intellectually interesting this song is while being hot as fuck too. Like the Eric Lewis song, very historically referential and post-modern. The story is about another wounded soul, a Filipino-American wandering the club scene in Manila, and then kind of releasing into madness that may or may not be rehearsed. The song uses both Tagalog and Cebuano. “World Gong Crazy,” the title, also refers to the loss of the colonized culture.
“A Night in Tunisia” Dizzy Gillespie featuring Charlie Parker for “Flesh and Blood”
I had wanted to make this the anthem of the entire book. I see the song as about this exquisite night with a lover who was never seen again, this perfect memory that will remain for life, but truth is, it’s too upbeat of a song to match the entire book. It feels a warm nostalgia, not excruciating longing. My wanting to choose it has to do with how I’d like to be seen, I think, ha ha. I imagine this newly met couple wandering around to chic lounges through the night until their exquisite hours alone in some hotel, sun coming up. This perfect memory, and the longing looking back is not too painful. “Flesh and Blood” is the one story in which the narrator is not broken by her loss (or at least so she thinks, for now). She liked her relationship, but she also is deeply in love with life, or trying to learn to be, so it doesn’t ruin her. This is not the Ruin of Everything, it’s the Fight for Life, Love in the sense of non-possessive world love, magnanimity (but also, the narrator may be delusional).
Lara Stapleton is the writer of a television series 1850 set in New Orleans before the Civil War, about mixed people, mixed couples, taboo and the color line. She is partnered with producer and co-creator Rachel Watanabe-Batton and producer Djaka Soare. Lara is also the author of the short story collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing (Aunt Lute, 1998), an Independent Booksellers' Selection, and a Pen Open Book Committee Selection. She edited The Thirdest World (Factory School, 2004) and co-edited Juncture (Soft Skull, 2007). Her work has appeared in dozens of periodicals, including The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Poets and Writers, Glimmer Train, and The Indiana Review. She was born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan. New York City has long been her home. A graduate of NYU's creative writing program, she teaches for Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.
October 22, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sarah Kornfeld's book The True is a fascinating trail of where grief can lead us.
Steven Scott-Bottoms wrote of the book:
"The True is a compelling, troubling, and painfully honest story about the world we live in now—a world of fake news and alternative facts in which we believe what we want to believe and ignore or deny those nagging voices that tell us otherwise. The True lures the reader in with its dark poetry, and then refuses to let us go."
I wrote The True in a mad fever dream after discovering that I had been caught in a scam of the heart, a complex con that ate two years of my life. Writing the book, I turned to music to, and even though I had been caught in a web, I went to the web, to social media, where I engaged artists I loved, drawing from their strength and honesty in order to write a narrative non-fiction book echoing our contemporary tempo.
Among other things, The True is about renowned Romanian theater director Alexandru Ducu Darie and about a deranged woman who convinced me there had been a conspiracy behind Ducu’s death. Ducu and I were lovers in the early 1990s and stayed very close after breaking up. Following his death, I traveled to Bucharest twice to try to find out what killed him. Listening to music held me together. I think that being caught in an elaborate scam to hide any truth resulted in me longing to watch live performances; these performances embody the rage I felt, the longing, and, most importantly, the rebellion of truth-telling.
Here is my music playlist for The True:
1. “Gloria,” by Patti Smith: 1979, Live from Germany
Patti Smith has always been my saint. The first time I heard the lyrics “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” I thought it was the coolest, most Jewish thing ever. Smith’s not Jewish, but to say these words aloud gave me a sense of strength and place I don’t think I’ve recovered from. I grew up in the avant-garde theater of Greenwich Village, and Patti was around because she was with Sam Shepard. I wish I could recall what Smith was like back in 1979, when I saw her hanging out at cafés and performing. Writing my book, I played this live performance and remembered living with Ducu in an apartment facing the back of the Chelsea Hotel. How brave Smith was then, and remains. She shows up a few times in the book.
2. “Alive,” by Pearl Jam: Live, Pinktop 1992
In 2018, I sent this video to Ducu who was directing a sixty-person, modern version (set in modern Iraq) of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. This video, with a young Eddie Vedder, is a gorgeous time-capsule of some of the energy of the early 1990s— the hair, the mosh pit, the yawp to the world that we are actually alive—all of it, brought me back to when I was younger and in love, and very angry. Floored by this performance, Ducu captured some of its vitality by staging the play’s crowds like a mosh pit. I wish he’d used the audio of the performance in the production because really, it’s epic.
3. “Stormy Weather/If You Believe, by Lena Horne: Live On Broadway
I remember my father coming home one night with tears in his eyes, saying he’d seen the best performance ever: Lena Horne. He saw her perform three times, taking me along once where we sat in the front-row. I still remember Horne’s sweat rolling down her chest, the elegant fabric of her dress sticking to her, how she embodied her life story. This reinterpretation of “Stormy Weather” cuts to the core of loss, forces you down the well that is grief. “If You Believe” follows it and kicks your ass out of any form of sadness and self-negation. In other words, Horne demands you wise up and keep going.
4. Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas,” Performed by Ladisi: Royal Albert Hall, 2019
When Ducu died in 2019, I could not feel. I could only search the internet for answers. And then I found this amazing performance by Ladisi, and I played it over and over. This is the only song that helped me cry, and I played it while writing a good portion of the end of the book. Iggy Pop’s performance of this classic Brel tune is great, but it’s Ladisi who gets at the stupid hopelessness and the ways we hold on even when love is dead.
5. Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” Performed by Lotte Lenya
During the scam (not knowing it was a scam), I wrote a screenplay for Diana Ross. The pandemic was at its height and I had nothing but memory and imagination. I wrote a script about a mother and daughter, a hidden secret, and a violent coup in the United States that Diana (all decked out in black) fights on the streets. I heard this song in my head. I heard Lotte Lenya, her craggy, weird, and elegant phrasing, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Sometimes a performance is timeless because of its style; that’s the case with this one, though buried deep, Lenya also sounds like she is being forced to reconcile to the truth. Age gets you in the end.
6. Miles Davis Quintet: Teatro dell'Arte, Milan, Italy, October 11th, 1964
Discovering I was caught in a scam, I listened to jazz, exclusively. I also thought a great deal about how Davis fled the U. S. for Europe, and how artists still or at least often have to split this scene for one that’s free from our history. Dissonance and counterpoint are vital frameworks for responding to our country’s many ills, including its racism. As nationalism rears its ugly head, I turn to Davis over and over again to see what great bravery looks like: blowing your horn and listening at a level most can’t dream of, and finally, telling it like it is, one note at a time.
Sarah Kornfeld is the author of The True: A Trilogy of Ghosts, What Stella Sees, and The Lovedeath of Clowns. She is the founder of Rising Media, a research and consulting company serving the ecosystem of the creative economy (museums, policymakers, guilds, and cultural institutions). Graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she lives by the sea in the Bay Area of California.
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mike DeCapite's novel Jacket Weather is an inventively told and unforgettable portrayal of middle age.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Spare and lyrical . . . DeCapite has a poet’s eye for the city’s majestic details, and illustrates how his characters come to see the same things differently over the years . . . A worthwhile meditation."
Here’s a playlist of some songs that informed my novel Jacket Weather but that aren’t mentioned in it.
“Sweet Jane,” The Velvet Underground (Loaded version)
I always felt this song was better than any version I’d heard of it, including this one. But Jacket Weather opens with “standing on the corner,” and among the dozens of songs that contain that line, “Sweet Jane” is the obvious reference for a New York book. And the way it starts, the curtain is opening. Or we’re coming down to street level, sharpening focus. And now I realize this is the ideal version, after all. Sometimes you can’t hear how good something is because it’s perfect.
“Bang Bang,” The Joe Cuba Sextet
This introduces us to Philly, one of the guys Mike knows from the gym, who represents a seam of living history running through the book. Philly’s always talking about the old days in New York, like when he used to go dancing at the Village Gate. Boogaloo (like No Wave) is a sound that immediately means New York to me. It’s one of the flavors that make the city what it is. In this case, literally: the singer (Jimmy Sabater?) is so swept away by Nuyorican culture he’s shouting “Lechón! Lechón!”
“Let Me Have It All,” Sly and the Family Stone
Within days of reconnecting with June, Mike is thinking about her continuously. He can’t sleep and can’t eat, and jokes that he’s “leaving all that behind anyway, the physical realm. Transmuting to pure awareness.” Sly’s line “You have turned into a prayer” reminds me of The Way of the Pilgrim, an account of a Russian monk who aspired to constant prayer.
“Real Good Looking Boy,” The Who
Tormented and catatonic with separation anxiety on a trip back home to Cleveland, Mike goes for a drive one evening. He gets to the top of a freeway ramp and sees a big pink cloud, and he knows everything’s going to be okay. Pete Townshend’s crashing chords on this song are that big pink cloud. An early epigraph for Jacket Weather was “And I felt then / that I moved / with all those lucky fucks and angels / high in the theatre in the sky.”
“High in the City,” Lou Reed
This is the glow I was hoping to capture in Jacket Weather, this orange, late-in-the-day light. And the song is about walking around New York, “seeing what we could see,” as June would say. It moves at a walking pace. “I’ve got the time / I’ve got my feet / Let’s go hit the street.” Feels like after work, when your time is your own again and you’ve earned it. You’re walking a line between self-awareness and knowing you’re part of the fabric of things. The mood is rosy but it’s realistic. Yeah, you’re seeing things in a certain light, but you’re seeing what’s there. And like any high, you’re aware it’s going to end. It’s “Perfect Day” without that song’s moment of self-hatred. And there’s a steel drum.
“A Boat of Courage,” Michio Kurihara
There’s a passage in which Mike is walking up Seventh Avenue at the end of July, end of the week, “at the day’s exact climax, the moment when it meant something bigger than itself, something more than here, like God, or something more than now, like history.” I played this while writing that passage at my green Formica table in Brooklyn. It must have been playing when I started, and it seemed to get at what I was trying to get at, so I played it over and over and over. And over.
“There She Goes,” Sixpence None the Richer / ”There She Goes Again,” The Velvet Underground
Until it turned out to be too expensive to use them, there were lyrics throughout Jacket Weather. I couldn’t resist a segue from the sunny, sweet longing of this song to the dark, angry jealousy of one with nearly the same title, as a little joke about the complexity of Mike’s feelings toward June at the start of their relationship. I hated to strip out the lyrics, but once I did, I was glad to be rid of them.
“Have Love, Will Travel,” The Sonics
What is there to say? This song should be on every playlist. This sort of thing is an instant turn-on for June.
“Here Comes the Whistleman,” Rahsaan Roland Kirk
In the locker room, Philly’s talking about seeing Roland Kirk at the Vanguard. Kirk came off the stage in the middle of a solo and made his way through the crowd, up the stairs, and out of the club to Seventh Avenue, still playing.
Marquee Moon, Television’s first record, is New York at night. That’s actually the least of what it is, as I’m still finding out after listening to it for more than forty years. For me, it’s the sound of a living consciousness in those moments it’s most aware it’s alive. Put more simply, it’s the sound of life. And because you can’t put a whole record on a playlist, I chose one song, “Venus,” to correspond with a passage about walking around the city at night (even though that passage starts out back on the corner, this time with Mick and Keith: “Standin’ on the corner of West Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue . . .”). Has anyone ever written a better line about the experience of beauty than “And I fell / right into the arms / of Venus de Milo”?
“You Said Something,” P.J. Harvey
Here’s a moment of perspective, like when you look out the window of a car at night and see your face reflected back, or a breeze blows through where you’re sitting and rattles the bags that the food or the beer came in. For a moment, you’re in touch with the deeper currents of your life: you’re cinematized. I took a couple of lines from this for a paragraph about June and Mike on the roof of her building at night. One of those moments that feels like it’s part of a montage, when you’re alive, and you know it, and you feel time on your face.
“Mother of Pearl,” Roxy Music
I was at a party on East 11th once when the host kneeled beside the couch where I was sitting. She put a tab of acid on my tongue and left me there while, gradually, the room came into stark focus and started to wink at me, like this song does. I chose it to cover a scene where June and Mike are smoking hash and listening to his iPod on shuffle.
“Yancey Limited,” Jimmy Yancey
June and Mike are high when a Jimmy Yancey song comes on. Mike says “There’s 35 songs on here, all identical. ‘Yancey Special,’ ‘Yancey Limited,’ ‘Yancey Stomp.’ All the same.” He says it doesn’t matter, because if you could do this at a piano, why do anything else? This bit of dialogue didn’t make it into the final draft, but I still hear it there.
“By the Time It Gets Dark,” Sandy Denny
June comes home after a long day at work with a bunch of sunflowers. As a guy, it’s hard not to hear this song and feel ashamed. Because guys are grouchy and self-pitying and petty and selfish and morose, and here’s this person innocently trying to cheer you up——you know, risking your anger or resistance to get you to some simple gratitude for being alive. Not for her sake, though her days are numbered too, but for yours. Snap out of it, man: why spoil even one of her nights? You know how some artists bypass thought and act directly on your nervous system and before you know it, your face is wet? Sandy Denny does that to me. I look down there’s an arrow sticking out of me, I’m already bleeding.
“Manhattan,” Cat Power
There are moments in spring and autumn when time stands still. When this world feels like the reflection of a realm where nothing changes. It’s something you feel only in moments, but those moments feel like a glimpse of the truth. This whole record puts me in October. Cat Power’s in touch with something else, something beyond the here and now, it’s in her voice. I hear this and I see rooftop ventilator pipes against a soft blue sky in the afternoon, or icy clouds behind the Empire State Building at night.
“Breakin’ in My Heart,” Tom Verlaine
“Breakin’ in My Heart” gives the book one of its epigraphs: “I saw the color that sent the geese south.” I’ve waited decades to use that line. This is just one of my favorite things ever, this song. Those two guitar breaks describe the workings of the universe, for me. Here, Mike is crossing Tompkins Square Park when a flock of geese flies overhead. But this song represents the whole book, really.
“Blow, Daddy-O,” Pere Ubu
This sounds like November to me. A wind blowing through the year. With winter at the back end of it. The wind that takes down the last of the leaves. The words are actually online at a karaoke site, next time you’re out with the girls from the office.
“Coney Island Baby,” The Excellents / “Coney Island Baby,” Lou Reed
Again here, before I took all the lyrics out, I’d shuffled two songs of the same name together: the old doo-wop song “Coney Island Baby” and an alternate version of the Lou Reed song, one of those songs in which he touched the infinite. He’s at the shore, looking out. Maybe the ghost of these songs is still Jacket Weather’s December chapter. I hope so.
“In Your Mind,” Bryan Ferry
I see this playing over the closing credits, over a shot of 14th Street. It’s December, and the song begins with bells, and the words “Hark the herald chimes of winter.” Maybe some people think Bryan Ferry is simply a romantic, but in this I hear a romanticism that transcends realism. As there’s the innocence of the inexperienced, and then again there’s an innocence on the other side of experience. That’s how I see this book.
Mike DeCapite has published the novel Through the Windshield, the chapbook Creamsicle Blue, and the short-prose collection Radiant Fog under the banner of Sparkle Street Books. Cuz Editions published his story Sitting Pretty, later anthologized in The Italian American Reader. DeCapite grew up in Cleveland and has lived in London and San Francisco, but has spent most of his time in New York City, where he now resides.
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October 21, 2021
Quincy Scott Jones's Playlist for His Poetry Collection "How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children"
Quincy Scott Jones's poetry collection How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children is powerful and important.
Yolanda Wisher wrote of the book:
"These poems are dying to stay tender in the plumage of rage. These poems are cry-laughing to keep from killing somebody. These poems are the knife's edge of nightmare scoring the fertile threshold of song. They unflinchingly ask and answer: What use is a poem on this American killing floor and its cooling board of rhetoric?"
How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children – the soundtrack
How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children is a meditation on racial violence and raising children in a world that seems to cater to this violence. While writing this book, too often the soundtrack was news reports and the sound of grieving parents. But there’s always music: music to cry to, music to heal, music to live.
I mean, I think there is.
Honestly, when I was offered to make a playlist for this book, I became as scared as I was excited. I’m the comic book nerd, the sci-fi nerd, the cinema nerd; not the music nerd. My wife is the one that can pull the deep cuts and offer an on-the-spot thesis both informative and entertaining – music nerds are the coolest nerds of the nerd tribe. But music is a great influence of mine, and while my mixtape will be mostly radio edits, I combed through the book and rediscovered fifteen songs either mentioned directly or made their presence known even while playing in the background of the poem. So, I would like to offer the How to Kill Yourself Instead of Your Children soundtrack, if it’s cool with you.
Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
I have no proof, but I can imagine on stage no matter how high Lady Day was, she snapped out of it when it came time to sing this song of American lynching. No drug is strong enough to spare her from this reality, so in turn she does not spare us.
In the 1995 TV film The Affair, the white Englishwoman played by Kerry Fox and the Black American GI play by Courtney B Vance listen to a recording of “Strange Fruit” in the kitchen during World War II.
“What poetry!” says the Englishwoman.
“Poetry? This is happening!” says the G.I.
Shortly after, they have sex.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the film ends with death and detached sympathy. Feel free to guess which character experiences which.
Simon and Garfunkel - Sounds of Silence
When I was young I was haunted by two men calmly singing about reality randomly tearing apart revealing a window into a dimension where a mass amount of people worshiped a shapeshifting deity that resembled the signs hanging in the windows of dinners and Blockbuster Videos. This was my introduction to extended metaphor.
As I grew older I came to understand this was not a song about alternative realities but about social realities, the inequities of society and our refusal to speak about them. At this point, I was no longer haunted by the images, but by calm itself: the men sing their protest in a whisper, barely louder than the silence they fear.
Nina Simone – See-Line Woman
Who better to chase away the constant storm of silence than the protest of Nina Simone? “Four Women.” “Mississippi God Damn”. “Ne me quitte pas.”
Then there’s “See-Line Woman”, a song I’m honestly not one hundred percent sure what it’s about. I know it has to do with prostitutes lining up on the shore waiting for sailors, but it could also be a play on Sea Lion Woman, which makes me think of mermaids and sirens and other women white mythology taught us to fear because they were too powerful.
Empty his pockets
And wreck his days
Make him love her
And she'll fly away
Sometimes protest is retelling the story.
Jea Millz - “No No No No”
In the early '00s, several hip-hop artists tried to sample Dawn Penn’s classic “No No No,” but the then 20-year-old Jea Millz takes the crown, creating a swagger sprinkled with politics and patois that’s punctuated with the soulfulness of Penn’s voice. But all that swagger’s more than tough talk, it’s a voice of authority, a warning of love, one coming from an adult who was once a child who was all too used to being told “no.”
Dawn Penn – “No No No No”
Of course, nothing beats the original. Penn’s voice haunts me as much today as it did when I first heard the song. The rhythm, the plea, the sound of the tears in the reverb. Is this the seduction of loss? Is this a beauty that only comes when one has felt the absence of an embrace?
2PAC - Words of Wisdom
Is it hip hop? jazz? A poem? a speech? Is this from the same guy singing background vocals on the “Humpty Dance”? Quick fact: September 13, 2021 marked twenty-five years since Tupac Shakur, music icon and the nephew of Assata Shakur, was killed. If he was alive today, he would only be fifty. By September 13, 2022, he will be absent from this world for more time then he was with us.
Vaughan Mason & Crew- Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll
It was incredible to learn Jordan Davis loved to skate. I, like many kid, grew up not too far from a roller rink. In junior high I would watch my my father zoom around the like he was born with wheels on his feet. In high school I caught my younger brother making out with some girl when I went to pick him up. And at all ages, I would strap my skates on, jump out into the rink come crashing down on my butt within the first ten seconds. Skating was never really my thing. And yet, the few times I went, sore tail bone aside, the rink was a place a joy, Black joy.
In an attempt to defend a discriminatory “anti-riot” law, a lawyer for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - the governor of the same state that initially acquitted Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis – pointed to a Juneteeth celebration as evidence the law stilled allowed Black people the right to protest. Mark Walker, the U.S. District Judge in the case, noted “a public gathering of Black people celebrating ‘Black joy’ and release from bondage does not automatically equate to a protest.”
“‘Black joy’…does not… equate to a protest.” And yet, somehow it does.
The Rolling Stones (feat Merry Clayton) – Gimme Shelter
There are places in this world where one can find this manuscript in its earliest form under the then name “shot away”:, a title that ultimately leads the question “Did you see the documentary 25 Feet From Stardom.”
Short answer: “Why, yes” (see also Kate Rushin’s The Black Back-ups.)
Long answer: I often heard, but saw for the first time Merry Clayton, a Black woman in '60s clothing, and hence in the clothing of America, belting out “rape and murder” as if she was belting out all of history. And yet, in this song, it is the white man who is asking for shelter.
Prince - “Partyman”
Maybe it’s the way the horns keep the rhythm or how the synthesizer plays in the staccato of the lyrics, but in my youth Prince’s “Partyman” always felt like a bridge between classic big band swing and this new thing at the time called “hip-hop.”
This is his follow-up to “Batdance.” This is the video where Prince jumps ten feet in the air, does a split, and comes down like it’s nothing. This is the soundtrack to Jack Nicholson’s rampage through the art museum - my first lesson in how to deal with a Western canon that refuses to let BIPOC artist in:
Smash. Smash. Smash. Sma – “I kinda like this one, Bob.”
Jr. Walker & The All Stars – Shotgun
In my youth, when the old heads claimed young people’s music was too violent, I would counter with the 1965 lyrics ‘Shotgun / Shoot ‘em ‘fore they run now.” I don’t much else about the song except:
1) In 1965 the performance of this song marked the first television appearance of a certain backup guitarist by the name of Jimi Hendrix.
2) Despite my obvious superior rhetorical abilities, I have yet to win an argument with any old heads.
The Notorious B.I.G. - One More Chance
I was half sleep on a couch in my first-year college dorm when I learned of the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. from a ten-year-old blonde-haired kid standing next to his family presumably visiting his older sibling. I wanted to pop and yell “what?” but I was worried I would frighten the kid and his whole family would scream.
Teaching high school years later, I would mark the day by writing a quote on the board by poet Christopher Wallace. Only once did a fellow faculty member stop, approach me, and say “Is that Biggie?”
The Beatles - Twist and Shout
I probably would gain more cred if I included the original Top Notes version of this song, or the Isley Brothers cover, or even the Salt-N-Peppa deep cut, but I have to shout-out the Beatles, mainly because of their performance of this song at the 1963 Royalty Variety Show, and mainly because I may have “borrowed” Lennon’s joke about class inequities and clapping from the cheap seat.
I mean, the Queen was there. That’s gangsta.
James Brown - “please please please please”
When I teach first-year writing, I tell my students the truth: writing conclusions is hard. I don’t tell the absolute truth: as long as they live, they will never write a conclusion better than the James Brown turning a 2-minute song into a six-minute religious experience on the 1964 T.A.M.I. show.
James Brown sweating like a preacher. The drummer keeping time with the proverbial amens. The fans cheering in tongues. And then, in the last few seconds, the camera turns around to the audience, and there’s one woman in black who doesn’t seem to get it. There’s always one.
Nina Simone - Sinnerman
Can anyone follow James Brown? Well, yes, a jazz-inspired, classically trained, spiritual an encore from the one and only Nina Simone.
If there’s one song they play at my funeral, let it be “Sinnerman.” I want a story. I want anaphora. I want a soul clap and piano solo. I want rolling snare and a base guitar. And I want it all to end in a wail so deep it has to be a prayer or a history or a lover’s plea. And like a prayer or a history or a lover’s plea it must be most definitely felt, though most likely it will go unheard.
Quincy Scott Jones is the author of The T-Bone Series (Whirlwind Press). His work has appeared in the African American Review, the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, and Love Jawns: A Mixtape. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a VONA Alum. With Nina Sharma he co-curates Blackshop, a column that thinks about allyship between BIPOC artist. He teaches in the NYC area and is working on his first graphic narrative.
Interview magazine interviewed author Colm Tóibín.
The New York Times profiled Helado Negro's Roberto Carlos Lange.
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Stream a new Animal Collective song.
The Creative Independent interviewed author Hanif Abdurraqib.
Indy Week profiled Anjimile's Anjimile Chithambo.
Anjimile’s music is often compared to that of Sufjan Stevens. The soft sounds and Biblical and literary allusions make the comparison apt.
The Guardian recommended true crime novels.
UPROXX interviewed Clinic's Ade Blackburn.
Electric Literature shared an excerpt from Gene Kwak's novel Go Home, Ricky!.
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The Rumpus Book Club interviewed Wendy J. Fox.
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The Rumpus interviewed poet Avni Vyas.
Joy Oladokun covered Bonnie Raitt’s "I Can’t Make You Love Me."
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The New Inquiry interviewed author Andreas Malm.
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The OTHERPPL podcast interviewed author Catherine Raven.
October 20, 2021
Gregory Galloway's novel Just Thieves is brilliant noir, as dark as it is surprising.
CrimeReads wrote of the book:
"When a book begins with a dead horse, you know it's going to be good, and Just Thieves, a taut, understated, brilliant noir, is not only good but great."
There’s a brief examination of thievery in my new novel, Just Thieves, where the narrator imagines that the act of stealing goes all the way back to our very beginnings (Eve and the apple), with a mention of musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin taking whatever they wanted for themselves. I was a little surprised how defensive readers got at the mention of Zeppelin. I guess Elvis is a given, Dylan is forgiven, and Zeppelin needs to be defended. Maybe it’s because of their track record of getting caught, and losing at least five plagiarism lawsuits, including “Bring it on Home” (Willie Dixon), “The Lemon Song” (from Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Killing Floor”), and “Whole Lotta Love” (from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love”). Led Zeppelin loved the blues (is the argument), but if they loved it so much, why didn’t they give the guys who invented it proper credit in the first place?
Of course ripping off black musicians has been a successful strategy for plenty of acts, and plain plagiarism ranges from the obvious - George Harrison taking Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord,” or Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams pre-emptively suing Marvin Gaye’s estate over “Blurred Lines” (claiming the estate did not own the copyright). Thicke and Williams lost in court (to the tune of $5.3 million) for their heist of “Got to Give it Up.” - to the less so (Bob Dylan frequently refers to, quotes, and alludes to other songs and writings - more collagist than cadger - but he rarely out and out claims entire songs for himself. Please note the rarely.). Here’s some of my favorite steals:
“Dazed and Confused” - Taking candy from a colleague. I can’t resist to call out Jimmy Page one more time. It’s one thing to pay “homage” to your heroes, but it’s another to steal from your contemporaries. Folk singer Jake Holmes opened for the Yardbirds in 1967, where Jimmy Page heard Holmes’ song “Dazed and Confused.” The Yardbirds soon began playing the song in their live shows, and when Page formed Led Zeppelin in 1968 it was the second song the band recorded, with Page given sole songwriting credit. Holmes (who went on to have a lucrative career writing ad jingles, including “I’m a Pepper,” and “Be all that you can be”) wrote the band seeking credit, but received no reply. It wasn’t until a lawsuit was filed in 2010 (settled out of court) that Holmes’ original was acknowledged (but only as “inspired by” instead of songwriter).
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” - “t’ make new sounds out of old sounds.” Folksinger Paul Clayton taught Bob Dylan the traditional song “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone,” which Clayton used as the basis for his own "Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I'm Gone?" Dylan used the public domain melody and a few lines from Clayton in his version, which prompted a lawsuit, an out-of-court settlement and acknowledgement from Dylan that "'Don't Think Twice' was a riff that Paul [Clayton] had” in the Biograph liner notes.
“Crocodile Rock” - When getting caught is the point. Elton John’s goof on '50s dance crazes and tribute to 50s music was a playful pastiche of the instantly recognizable sounds of the era, so it was sort of beside the point when someone sued John for theft. The fact that the lawsuit came from the guys who wrote “Speedy Gonzalez” was both insulting and spot-on. While the falsetto “la-la-las” of “Crocodile Rock” are almost exactly like the Pat Boone hit, the songs have little else in common. Responding to the claims of plagiarism (settled out of court), Sir Elton said, “Of course it's a rip-off, it's derivative in every sense of the word."
“Come as You Are” - “name me someone that’s not a parasite.” According to Nirvana’s manager, Danny Goldberg, Kurt Cobain was nervous about releasing the song as the follow-up single to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because the guitar riff sounded similar to Killing Joke’s “Eighties” (1984). Killing Joke claims they filed a lawsuit, while Goldberg says he never knew about any legal action, and none was ever taken. It might be due to the fact that both guitar riffs sounded like the one in “Life Goes On” by the Damned, released two years before “Eighties.” In the end, a riff is not a song, and Killing Joke and Dave Grohl “had a good laugh” over the dispute when Grohl played drums on their self-titled 2003 album, Killing Joke’s first album in seven years.
“The Old Man Down the Road” - self-incrimination. The ugly truth of the music business is that most musicians don’t own their own songs. So while they’re busy sniping and swiping with each other, the record labels and/or publishing companies are robbing them all. It’s usually these companies that file the copyright claims in most lawsuits, which all came to a farcical conclusion when John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing himself. Fogerty had given the rights to his songs with Creedence Clearwater Revival to Fantasy Records in order to be released from his contract. And it was Fantasy who sued Fogerty, claiming that he had stolen “Run Through the Jungle” (which Fogerty wrote in 1970). Fogerty famously took the stand with his guitar and demonstrated how the songs were different. A jury not only decided the case in Fogerty’s favor, but awarded him $1.3 million (for his attorney fees). Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1993, where it was upheld 8-1 (with Clarence Thomas writing a concurrence, agreeing with the outcome of the case, but did not believe it should be precedent).
“Alone Again” - and the law won. There was a time when hip hop was an exciting experiment, swiping snippets of beats, riffs, hooks, whatever they could get their hands on to create entirely new music. The Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and a whole host of other artists packed their songs with samples. It was great. And then the grown-ups ruined it, when '70s hitmaker and '90s has-been Gilbert O’Sullivan sued Biz Markie for his “unauthorized” use of a sample of “Alone Again (Naturally).” Markie doesn’t hide his use of the song (he even sings “alone again, naturally” in it), but he arguably makes it something else. The court didn’t buy that argument, however (the judge’s decision begins by quoting Exodus 20:15: "Thou shalt not steal”), and stopped sales of Markie’s album, awarded O’Sullivan 100% of the royalties, and determined that all samples (which O’Sullivan’s lawyer said was “a euphemism in the music industry for what anyone else would call pickpocketing”) had to be cleared before release, making it cost-prohibitive for most artists to attempt.
“Creep”/”Get Free” - When thieves cry thief. Recorded in a single take, Radiohead’s debut single was a Top 40 hit and something of a grunge anthem. During the recording, guitarist Ed O’Brien supposedly pointed out that the song sounded an awful lot like “The Air That I Breathe” (a Top 10 hit for The Hollies in 1974). Sure enough, the publishing company sued, and songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood were awarded songwriting credits and a share of the royalties (Hammond praised the band for being “honest” about their use of the song). Fast forward to 2018, when Lana Del Rey announced that she was being sued by Radiohead for copyright infringement of “Creep” on her Top 20 hit “Get Free,” and Radiohead was demanding 100% of the royalties. Radiohead’s publisher stated that they wanted songwriting credit, but denied that the band was seeking all royalties. Despite the fact that “many of the phrases found in the verse and chorus” of “Get Free” use exactly the same notes in the same order as “Creep” (according to one musicologist), no lawsuit appears to have been filed, and no songwriting credits changed.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” - I took it; it’s mine. “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” is obviously cribbed from the British national anthem, but the tune for “The Star-Spangled Banner” is also swiped from the Brits, taken note for note from “The Anacreontic Song,” a popular 18th century gentleman’s club tune celebrating wine and women.
There’s something pathetic about it all (we’re so unoriginal that we can’t even have our own song?) but also a cocky swagger to the appropriation. It’s a rebellious claim to own something that’s not really ours (and can never truly be. Whenever I hear “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “God Save the Queen,” I think, “oh yeah, we stole that”), but it’s also a reminder that we’re forever bound to our past, our licentious gains covered with the dust of other people’s labor. (Ok, I stole that last bit. Sue me).
Gregory Galloway is the author of the novels The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand and the Alex Award-winning As Simple As Snow. His short stories have appeared in the Rush Hour and Taking Aim anthologies. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently resides in NW Connecticut.
Lala Lala visited The Current studio for an interview and live performance.
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Brandi Carlile covered Elton John's "Madman Across the Water."
Jeff Tweedy covered Neil Young's "The Old Country Waltz."
Jane Wong talked to Morning Edition about her new poetry collection.
Stereogum interviewed Tori Amos.
Sonya Huber recommended great novels that take place in a day at Literary Hub.
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The 2021 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize shortlist has been announced.
TaraShea Nesbit talked books and reading with Book Marks.
October 19, 2021
Awarded the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Blake Sanz's collection The Boundaries of Their Dwelling bustles with life and constantly surprises.
Brandon Taylor wrote of the book:
"The stories in Blake Sanz’s The Boundaries of Their Dwelling pivot on acute moments as the hilarious gives way to the painful, the painful to the beautiful, and the beautiful to the truth. The characters in these stories are not lifelike so much as they are alive, rendered warm-blooded and human by Sanz’s pitch-perfect details and lucid prose. Here is a collection of dreamers young and old, all in search of home, family, love, a place where they can be fully themselves. It’s a riotous collection of stories that together capture the tumult of what it means to be alive."
The stories in The Boundaries of Their Dwelling take place in the Gulf South (most notably New Orleans) and Mexico (most notably Veracruz), and so this list is filled with songs associated with those areas. Since the stories are about characters who don’t quite know how they fit in the places they end up, I’ve picked songs that speak to things that might cause people to feel uncertain about their circumstances—songs about flooding in Louisiana, or government oppression in Mexico, songs whose sound is so definitive of a region that they feel like home to a native, but maybe are off-putting to someone who doesn’t feel like they belong. Hopefully, in that way, this music captures something true about the story collection.
“Louisiana 1927,” Randy Newman
Water has always plagued Louisiana. “Hurricane Gothic” is a story about a carpenter who lives through forty years of flooding in rural Louisiana, rebuilding his house each time a river overflows or a hurricane’s storm surge passes through. Newman’s dirge about the Mississippi River flood of 1927 captures the emotions of many people from that region in such moments, from their sense of despair and stoic focus on the facts of some particular devastation, to their distrust of federal promises for help.
This song is rough, angry, raw. In my story, “Mysteries of the 19th Olympiad,” an art student in Mexico City in 1968 joins the protests there before the Olympics begin, when the government rained gunfire down on a crowd and many innocents were killed. Performed by a Mexican punk band named after that very event, “No Estamos Conformes”—“we aren’t compliant”—is as angry and frustrated as those protestors in the summer of ‘68.
“I’m Coming Home,” Clifton Chenier
At certain dance halls in Acadiana, to utter the name of Clifton Chenier is to evoke a reverence and exuberance usually reserved for the Greek gods of Mardi Gras. The King of Zydeco, Chenier still gets played in Lafayette like it’s 1973. “In the City of Murals,” a story about a Mexican immigrant artist surviving by airbrushing T-shirts in a small Cajun town, features Chenier playing at a local festival where Manuel plans to sell his wares.
“A Woman Left Lonely,” Janis Joplin
Technically, Janis Joplin is from east Texas, but since the main character of “Frog Festival,” like Joplin, is nicknamed Pearl (also the title of one of Joplin’s studio albums) and lives in a small Louisiana town just a couple hours east of Joplin’s hometown and she’s searching for her husband who’s left amid financial failure, “A Woman Left Lonely” feels like a perfect anthem for her story.
“Cumbia de los Muertos,” Ozomatli
In “¡Hablamos!” two teenage girlfriends from Mexico City win a chance to play roles on a Spanish-language reality show filmed in Miami, and the trip becomes their first experience of the U.S. The wild friend listens to Ricky Martin, the quiet one to Ozomatli. The original version of the story included these lyrics from this song, cut in this collection for copyright reasons: “aquí no existe tristeza; solo existe la alegría.” Here there is no sadness, only happiness.
“It’s Raining,” Irma Thomas
It doesn’t get more New Orleans than Irma Thomas. Her voice defines soul in that city, and the longing in her voice here matches the mood of the protagonist in “The Laurel Wreath,” a bartender and New Orleans lifer who creates a shrine to his dead mother by turning her old house into a bar. It’s the most New Orleans story in the book, and at a heightened scene where he’s pulled over for a DUI, our man idles in his car as this song plays on the radio.
“Coin-Operated Boy,” Dresden Dolls
Amanda Palmer is a kindred spirit with the title character of “Mary Vásquez Teaches Burlesque,” a Dallas Chicana who secretly gives burlesque lessons in the rec room of a Catholic rectory. Mary’s a trickster and an old soul, and when she performs in dive bars in Deep Ellum, I imagine it being sometimes to a song like this.
“Model Ex Citizen,” Quintron
The German-born engineer in “Oh, But to Be a Hearse!” is adjusting to life in New Orleans. He gets that things are different and he’s intrigued, but he’s not sure if he wants to participate. When I wanted him to face either being drawn into the city’s counter-culture or rejecting it, I pictured him deciding to go to a now-defunct bar on Saint Claude, The Spellcaster Lounge, to see Quintron playing songs like this one while Miss Pussycat, Quintron’s partner, puts on a puppet show. My favorite line from this raucous tune: “I sold my soul to the big gumbo.” Which is what this character contemplates doing.
“Die, Die My Darling,” The Misfits
The Misfits are big in Mexico, which is maybe not a surprise if you consider that country’s intimate relationship with death and horror. In “Godfather,” a young Chiapaneca and her newborn are riding north through Veracruz toward Texas with an American oil executive. As the teen mother sits in the passenger seat, she sees that he has Walk Among Us in his console and asks him to play this song. Her interest in it, and her knowledge of the English lyrics, become a mystery he wishes he could unravel.
“La Bamba,” José Gutiérrez & Los Hermanos Ochoa
In the U.S., we know “La Bamba” as that Richie Valens hit from 1958, but the song’s much older than that. It comes from an old Veracruzano musical tradition called son jarocho. There’s a reference to son jarocho in “Cazones, 2016,” when an American son and his estranged Mexican father set out on a trip to the coast of Veracruz in search of an ex-military man rumored to have been part of the massacre in 1968. When they find this guy, he tells a harrowing story about the Cuban revolution and playing son jarocho for revolutionaries. For the father, who grew up in Veracruz, the musical reference evokes his own youth. For the son, who grew up in Louisiana, the reference means nothing, and so he’s left out of that moment of connection.
Blake Sanz is the author of The Boundaries of Their Dwelling (October 15, 2021; University of Iowa Press), which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. He has published fiction in Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and elsewhere. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Denver, Colorado and teaches writing at the University of Denver. You can visit him at blakesanz.com.
Guernica interviewed author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.
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First Draft interviewed author Richard Powers.
October 18, 2021
Colleen van Niekerk's novel A Conspiracy of Mothers is a fierce and unforgettable debut.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"The fierce maternal instincts of an entire community of women drive this unforgettable debut novel. Van Niekerk paints a vivid portrait of how the political was personal, and often tangled to the point of rot, in this time and place. These characters, their resilience, and van Niekerk’s reverence for her native South Africa make for an unforgettable read."
Music has a certain mystery to me. I marvel at how people conceive of it and write it, at the technical complexities and how that’s blended with words and woven with emotion over the span of something measured in minutes. A great track is a deeply satisfying experience. For a couple characters in A Conspiracy of Mothers, music is woven into the story as a way for the reader to understand who they are and how they think. This is a round up of tracks that either got me in the zone to write, kept me there, describe Cape Town at a certain time, or are otherwise relevant to the story.
“Mannenberg is where it’s happening” by Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand (featuring Basil Coetzee)
This song is a quintessential example of Cape Jazz. More than that though, in its story and the story of the lives of the musicians who created it, you really have the entire experience of those from the Cape Flats who endured the ills of apartheid. There have been reissues and retitles and variations of this track, but you can play a clip of it to any Capetonian of a certain age and we’ll instantly know what it is. Manenberg (this is the correct spelling) is an actual suburb on the Cape Flats so is a physical place but also symbolic: forced relocations under the Group Areas Act saw people moved from the downtown core of Cape Town to Manenberg and many other suburbs that were deemed ‘coloured’ but were really human dumping grounds. Despite all that, the human spirit, and the capacity to weep, laugh and dance is a thread in this song and the lives of those whose story it is a part of.
“Weeping” by Bright Blue
This is a South African pop song from the '80s on which Basil Coetzee, a saxophonist originally from District Six, is also featured. It captures in so many ways what the eighties were like with the various states of unrest, and the anger on the streets at the actions of an ever more vicious “law and order” centred apartheid government. The lyrics convey the heart-rending state of existence during that period with an unmistakable Cape feel and sound.
“Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA
Ska ! The ire of the apartheid government ! This song had it all ! It’s kind of weird to look back on it now, but there were a number of books, records and films that were banned in South Africa under apartheid for obvious, subversive reasons. This song was probably #1 on the banned list and yet somehow it was just around, mostly on scratchy old mixtapes.
“Lirandzo” by Tananas
Gito Baloi, who died far too young, had a voice that touches the soul. He was the Mozambican vocalist and bassist for this band. This is such a pretty, joyful song. It makes me dance with arms wide open. Tananas was a unique and wonderful amalgam of the very best of southern Africa musically-speaking. I love their entire jazzy catalogue but this song is a special gem for me. Another brilliant song of theirs is Seven, different tone altogether and just plain groovy.
“YVR” by YoungstaCPT
I was watching the South African series Blood & Water on Netflix and heard this voice repeating ‘Young van Riebeeck’ over and over again at the end of an episode. It made me curious. Jan van Riebeeck was the first Dutch settler in the Cape so his settlement was the thin edge of the colonisation wedge in many ways. This track and everything this emcee does is great. He rhymes in Kaaps, which is the language or Afrikaans dialect endemic to the Cape Flats and has conscious lyrics that come from the tradition in the Cape of older hip hop crews like Black Noise, Brasse vannie Kaap, Prophets of da City and Godessa. Kaaps was and remains denigrated in many ways so I appreciate hearing it in various places and seeing it properly recognised (a dictionary is in the works).
“Scatterlings of Africa”by Johnny Clegg
I have this memory from childhood of Black choirs on TV on Sunday afternoons. These full, deep, sonorous voices that are so affecting and beautiful. I love this song for that reason. But being outside the country, I feel like a bit of scatterling at times too, but then you realise that African roots run deep and hold steady.
“It’s about Time” by Boom Shaka
The early '90s, when this novel was set, is when Kwaito really came up in South Africa and for a period on the radio there was no other band but Boom Shaka and no other song but this one. It has an optimistic feel to it that really captured the euphoria of the time as the country wore the mantle of the Rainbow Nation.
“Sheela-Na-Gig” by PJ Harvey
One of the characters in this novel, Ingrid, is coming of age as the story unfolds. Her musical tastes lean towards late '80s and '90s alternative and this song with that line of “Look at these, my ruby red, ruby lips” as well as the symbolism of the Sheela Na Gigs (they are a real thing), is emblematic in this novel of desire and sexuality, which is a part of her journey.
“Yes it's fucking political” by Skunk Anansie
This song kept surfacing for me as I wrote the novel and it recurred in my head over the last few years as the discourse of politics has become so polarised. The idea that the personal and the political are separate is false. The idea that we can police the personal through the political is so dangerous and problematic whether you’re talking about race, gender, reproductive rights, you name it. The lyrics don’t speak directly to either of these ideas necessarily but I just love the statement “Everything’s political” because man, it’s so true.
“Sleep 1” by Sigur Ros
Liminal Sleep is my go to album when trying to write while blocking out household noise. This is the first track off that album which I’ve probably listened to loads of times now. I can’t speak a lick of Icelandic so I don’t have to process what they’re saying and can just enjoy the warm, welcoming bath of sound that gets me into the zone.
“Exit” by U2
This song is referenced at a critical scene in the novel. It has these elements of a quietly menacing kind of tenderness that is appropriate to the action at that point in the story. The Joshua Tree ranks as one of my favourite albums, with tracks that have this big, spacious sound just like the landscape where the trees stand.
“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley
I grew up listening to a lot of roots reggae. There were a lot of common elements between the Black liberation movement in South Africa and Rastafarianism. While Peter Tosh was my favourite Wailer, there’s no getting around how this song from Bob just stands out. It’s plaintive and simple and yet somehow all encompassing of the road behind and the road ahead.
Colleen van Niekerk was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Vancouver, Canada. This is her debut novel.
Morning Edition interviewed poet Victoria Chang.
Rolling Stone shared a conversation between Lorde and David Byrne.
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The Oxford American shared new fiction by Dawnie Walton.
NPR Music reconsidered Tracy Chapman's self-titled album.
Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny discussed their new thriller with Weekend Edition.
The Current interviewed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.
Bustle recommended creepy short stories you can read online.
All Things Considered visited Nashville's new National Museum of African American Music.
Deep Sea Diver and Damien Jurado covered Alanis Morrissette's "Hand in MY Pocket."
The Creative Independent interviewed composer Danny Elfman.
Electric Literature interviewed author Albert Samaha.
Bandcamp Daily delved into the history of Shrimper Records.
PopMatters reconsidered Stephen Malkmus's solo debut album on its 20th anniversary.
Bookworm interviewed poet Rita Dove.
Stream a new Tori Amos song.
The 2021 Harvey Awards for comics have been announced.
Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers covered Loudon Wainwright III's "One Man Guy."
The Rumpus recommended the week's best virtual literary events.
Stream a new song by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier.
The finalists for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction have been announced.
Stream a new song by Beacheads.
The Guardian interviewed author Penelope Lively.
BOMB interviewed author Claire Vaye Watkins.
Stream a new song by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
Poets & Writers named its 2021 5 Over 50 award winners.
The Southern Review of Books interviewed Margaret Renkl.