Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Repost: A Man Melting, The Playlist

In June last year, in the lead up to the July 2 release date for my short story collection, A Man Melting, I posted a playlist for the book in three parts.

I'm reposting it in one grand pubah of a post now for those of you who missed it the first time around and to make it easier to link to in the future...

A word about my selections.

While there are a number of references to musical artists in the collection, most of the time they are only in passing. A song on the radio (Nelly Furtado's 'Maneater') or a bored teen’s Wikipedia fix (Styx, Stones and Serj Tankian). Instead, I've tried to marry each story with a song that both speaks to the content of the story and it's mood. Some matches are more successful than others.

As the manuscript was pretty much completed in 2008 (save for the addition on one story and final edits), I've also tried to stick to songs I would have listened to during that period. Indeed, I wrote about many of these artists on my blog back in 2008, and I'll link to any such posts where applicable.

1. Seeds

The story: Aaron’s life story in 3.5 pages featuring imaginary friends, cockroaches and an intrusive narrator.

When Aaron was five and a half he had an imaginary friend called Groucho. They had a great time together, getting into mischief, making potions from cleaning products underneath the washhouse sink, pretending to be aeroplanes in the autumn winds.
But then Groucho had an identity crisis…

The song: 'If I could talk I'd tell you' - The Lemonheads

What better way to start a playlist than with a zippy, sub-three-minute pop song... which is the same reasoning behind ‘Seeds’ opening my collection.

If I could talk I'd tell you
If I could smile I'd let you know
You are far and away
My most imaginary friend

2. Manawatu

The story: Glen returns to Palmerston North for the holidays, gets depressed and considers jumping off his auntie’s balcony.
Leaning out from the balcony, he sized up the jump. It’s only one storey. It’s nothing. I’m going to jump. Young Heart, Easy Living, the slogan for the Manawatu region. Is there anything easy about living with a young heart, always thirsting for something else, something hidden like the river I want to be immersed in right now but I’m still on the balcony? Still sizing it up…

The song: ‘Jump’ – Van Halen

When I was younger my mum told me this story the morning after my father’s work Christmas party: When ‘Jump’ came on, my dad climbed on to the banister of the mezzanine level and started miming / performing his daredevil David Lee Roth. People either thought he was drunk or serious about jumping, though he was neither.

I think this story was there, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, when I wrote ‘Manawatu’.

Ah, might as well jump. Jump!
Might as well jump.
Go ahead, jump.

3. Copies

The story: A son reflects on the life of his father, an artist who liked to photocopy famous artworks over and over and over, and what his own future may hold.
My earliest memory of my father is probably like these copies: a string of memories, moving from the original moment — if it ever happened — to my current recollection like a Chinese whisper, changing slightly each time I trawl it up.
The song: ‘Diminishing Returns’ – Harvey Danger

Harvey Danger? You know, those one hit wonders responsible for 1998’s ‘Flagpole Sitta’. They released their 2005 album, Little by Little for free on the internet (well before that was the thing to be doing) and that’s how I came across ‘Diminishing Returns’ – a song that seems to speak to the movement away from the original (be it a moment, a parent or a piece of art).

Progress shall be defined
By your position on the bridge
As it burns
When populism, activism, urbanism fail
My cooler head, my cooler head will prevail
When there are no more gods left to anoint
No more noses to bend out of joint
I'm gonna meet you at the point of diminishing returns

Footnote: Photocopier by Fujiya and Miyagi deserves a mention here, but failed to make the list because I hadn’t heard the song in 2008.

4. Oh! So Careless

The story: Penny and Leo go on an overland tour of South-East Africa at a rocky point in their relationship.
And so Penny spent the seven hour drive north through the Drakensburg Ranges with an empty seat next to her. The others played cards, exchanged flight stories, and made iPod playlists which would last three songs on the stereo before being pulled in favour of a fresher mix.
The song: ‘Under African Skies’ – Paul Simon

It took me a while to warm to Graceland as an album – I think I felt Simon was riding the coattails of another culture and music, but eventually the songs won out. Like ‘Oh! So Careless’, Africa is merely a setting in ‘Under African Skies’ – both the song and the story are concerned with more than red dirt and giraffes.

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

5. Parisian Blue

The story: Megan set out to travel the world with Tessa, but after an almighty argument in Paris, she goes it alone.
In Kampong Som, Megan enjoyed a strange form of celebrity. She was not the only white person, but the others came in hand-holding pairs or giggling, uncountable packs. Perhaps, she wondered on her first day, the lack of females traveling alone was a fluke. A seasonal quirk. She had been to rougher places by herself, after all. But in Dar es Salaam or Khartoum people weren’t surprised — they were perhaps a little offended, but not surprised. Here she stood out.
The song: ‘Home’ – Foo Fighters

"Echoes and silence, patience and grace" is both the name of the album (minus an “and”) from which this song is taken, and a line within 'Home'. Echoes and silence are also a big part of the final scene in the story, as are the sense of homesickness (or homelessness) and regret that pervades this song.

Wish I were with you
I couldn't stay
Every direction
Leads me away
Pray for tomorrow
But for today
All I want is to be home

[And here's my accidental review of Echoes Silence Patience and Grace back in December 2007].

6. The Tin Man

The story: Jason, a “book-shaped kid in a ball-shaped school”, is the victim (or is it beneficiary?) of the school bullies’ latest scheme.
Jason Stride is being wrapped in tinfoil and no one really knows why, it just has to happen. This is often the way with high school: deep down no one really believes it is the real world, so no one insists that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Embarrassment can happen without reason, violations can go unpunished and minding your own business can get you wrapped in tinfoil.
The song: ‘The Hard Way’ – The Kinks

I listened to a lot of the Kinks in 2008, and I blogged about them four times in a two month span. This song, from School Boys in Disgrace, is from the perspective of a teacher, but it could equally be Jason’s thoughts at the opening of the story about his tormentors.

Boys like you were born to waste,
You never listen to a word I say
And if you think you're here to mess around,
You're making a big mistake,
'Cos you're gonna find out the hard way,
You gonna find out the hard way.

7. Untitled (Crimson and Gold)

The story: Laura is trying to put the past behind her and move on with the help of her therapist and his handy techniques.
[Dr. Rothko] told me everything I was doing was okay. That I could feel guilty about the accident, but shouldn’t waste my guilt on secondary or tertiary things like how I sometimes pretend it was someone else’s accident, that the slippers were possessed, that it was Lennon’s fault.
The song: 'Untitled #1' - Spain

As a rule I dislike untitled things (my story actually has a title which just happens to include the word 'untitled'), but this song, from the compilation Piece of Cake: 20 Years of Ryko, ticks a lot of boxes…

Walked away released from all my crimes
Walked away released from all my crimes
But I could never hide what I kept inside

8. Another Language

The story: When James' grandfather tells him he moved to New Zealand because of his stutter, wee Jim sets out to see if you can really stutter in one language but not another.
After choir I said, ‘You don’t stutter when you sing!’
‘I wish I didn’t stutter at all.’
‘You should live in a musical,’ I said, and thought about my grandfather. Moving to New Zealand would have been like coming to live in a musical for him, except he was sad and quiet. I thought, what’s the point in moving somewhere you can talk without stuttering if you aren’t going to talk?
The song: ‘Singing in the Rain’ – Gene Kelly

My favourite musical and one of my favourite films, this is the sort of moment I’m sure James is thinking of when he imagines living in a musical.

I'm singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
I'm laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love

9. Give Me Bread and Call Me Stupid

The story: Bembe and Rosa leave Madrid to revive their flagging English with a year in Edinburgh, but find the job hunt fraught with frustrations.
He had been in Edinburgh for six weeks by this time, but English still felt like wearing a stranger’s suit. His subconscious, however, seemed to be adapting more quickly. His dreams all seemed to revolve around Spanish-English puns.
A team of archers firing grains of rice (arroz)
A horse and cart, except the cart has been replaced with a giant letter (carta) from his grandmother.
A line of coy, blushing women, all clearly pregnant (embarazada).
And when he laid eyes on Lindsey that first time, the word octopus had popped into his head.
The song: ‘Bye Bye Pride’ - The Go-Betweens

I lived in Brisbane on and off for almost four years; discovering The Go-Betweens is one of the few things I can point to from my time in the sun that I still cherish. ‘Bye Bye Pride’ (or adios orgullo) is exactly what Bembe must say when confronted by the challenges of a different culture, a different language and a slightly unhinged recruitment agent. Bonus points for the song having a line in Español: In la brisa de la palma, which I used to think was a reference to Brisbane, but just means ‘In the breeze of the palms’.

He goes home again.
He dreams resistance,
They talk commitment,
Things change over long distance.
Took the shirt off his back
The eyes from his head
And left him for dead.

10. A Man Melting

The story: Hamish starts melting, and nothing can stop it, not even poetry.
He was quite a sight for the eight year olds: a skeletal man sitting in a paddling pool, sipping from his water bottle via string of straws Sellotaped together, softly talking about poetry. He didn’t have many poems to read the class because he didn’t collect them. He just left the napkins and the flyers and the newspapers where he found them. Disposable poetry. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re time is nearly up. But he read them the poem he had written on the back of his bus ticket:
Think too much do too little
Think too much say too little
Do little say little
Think think much much
Too too much
The class stared at him. To him they looked like meerkats.
The song: ‘Poets’ – The Tragically Hip

I could probably do an entire playlist using just Tragically Hip songs. According to, I listened to over 1000 hips songs in 2008 (the Kinks were second and Warren Zevon third, both around 600). And I've blogged about the band often (like my claim the album Day For Night is 'song noir'; or my top five Tragically Hip earworms). What better place to use my one Hip song, then, than as a match with the title story?

Don't tell me what the poets are doing
On the street and the epitome of vague
Don't tell me how the universe is altered
When you find out how he gets paid, all right

11. Touch

The story: The narrator uses all his wiles to try and hook-up with a friend of a friend at his significant other’s birthday party.
‘I’ll be on the balcony,’ I said and eased away, not letting her say a word — another secret of mine. How do you think I wound up with a catch like Alice if I didn’t have a few secrets? I’m savvy. I’m a hunter. Sure, I was a little out of practice when Delancey showed up — semi-retired might be another way to put it. But the greats, they never lose their touch.
The song: ‘All The Wine’ – The National

2008 was the year I discovered The National (I blogged about them first in August). When I set out to make this playlist I knew I’d have to include a National song: they are the perfect background music when writing. When I started looking around for songs for ‘Touch’, the National provided a number to choose from: ‘Secret Meeting,’ ‘Karen’, ‘Guest Room’, ‘Apartment Story’… But in the end I’ve gone with ‘All The Wine’, which reeks of booze and hubris, much like the narrator in ‘Touch’.

I'm put together beautifully, big wet bottle in my fists, big wet rose in my teeth
I'm a perfect piece of ass like every Californian
So tall I take over the street with high-beams shining on my back
A wingspan unbelievable, I'm a festival, I'm a parade
And all the wine is all for me

12. Orbital Resonance

The story: A story in five parts which are seem quite discrete, but orbit the same question of loneliness and connection.
At parties he used to talk about orbits. How they relate to more than just planets. He would ask his audience to imagine two people running around an athletics track: it didn’t matter what speed they ran, if they ran for long enough they would come level again. The runners behave differently, he would explain, just before they are level, while they are level and just after they are level…
‘The rules changes when two people come together,’ he would say, and lean in to kiss whoever he was talking to.
It didn’t work often, and certainly not in South Africa, where people couldn’t understand his accent when alcohol was involved.
The song: ‘Parklife’ – Blur

One of the many songs that make an appearance in ‘Orbital Resonance’ (though obliquely), ‘Parklife’ also captures that loneliness/connection vibe…

I feed the pigeons I sometimes feed the sparrows too
It gives me a sense of enormous well-being
And then I'm happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge
There will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it
All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife

13. Fat Camp

The story: Danny and Sophie open a weightloss camp for teenagers in the Scottish Borders, but it’s not exactly Danny’s dream job.
As he stood at the front gate the next morning to welcome the parents and their chubby spawn, he could pick the cars which were there to drop off kids before they even indicated.
4WD – Yes
Hatchback – No
Jaguar S-type – No
Toyota Minivan – Yes
Mr Whippy ice cream van – That poor kid.
The song: ‘Fat Children’ – Jarvis Cocker

No comment needed here:

Oh, the parents are the problem
Giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies
So pander to your pampered little princess
of such enormous size
Fat children took my life

14. Facing Galapagos

The story: When David starts receiving emails from someone claiming to be Charles Darwin, he is forced to consider evolution from a new perspective.
‘Many people still believe the Galapagos are as untouched as when I arrive the first time. Despite there being no indigenous population, the islands are no home to over forty thousand inhabitants. Not bad for a few lumps of basalt in the middle of the Pacific. Not that I am trying to discourage you from paying a visit, far from it. But it would be remiss of me not to mention the Earth’s enforced evolution at the hands of human beings. Many would say devolution, but has this planet ever looked like this before? We’re still moving forwards, even if our destination is oblivion.’
The song: 'Revolution Rock' – Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

One of the unexpected joys of traveling in South America was hearing Spanish cover versions of English songs. Like hearing ‘Eclipse Total del Corazon' in a taxi, and clicking that it was a cover of Bonnie Tyler.  Technically I hadn’t heard Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ cover of The Clash’s ‘Revolution Rock’ in 2008, but it was on my computer when I expanded the story in 2009 to include the section in Ecuador,  so I’m going to excuse myself just this once.

Oye, revolution rock
revolution rock estoy en estado de shock
Revolution revolution ah ah
revolution revolution...
Todo el mundo a mover los pies
y a bailar hasta morir
esta musica causa sensacion
este ritmo golpea la nacion

15. Evolution, Eh?

The story: A minor hoodlum kills time with a friend in Midland Park.
I was thinking about all the tricks as I rode the escalator up, until I saw a dead leaf and a cigarette butt at the top of the escalator getting pushed up against the comb thing that the steps go into. People were just stepping over the leaf and the butt like they didn’t notice or like they didn’t want to notice, but I thought it was cool.  The leaf and the butt looked like they were dancing as they bounced against the comb and the steps slid into the floor. Like they were happy or something. Even though it was a dead leaf and a cigarette butt.
The song: ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ – The White Stripes

The most poetic song Jack White has written.  Sure, his dead leaves are things of sadness, and the leaf in ‘Evolution, Eh?’ is much more hopeful, but it’s close enough.

Dead leaves and the dirty ground
when I know you're not around
shiny tops and soda pops
when I hear your lips make a sound

16. The Spirit of Rainbow Gorge

The story: Noah ‘Rusty’ Kissick achieves his lifelong goal of being elected mayor, only to find he has something bigger to contend with: nature.
The rain kept falling during his interview. ‘I really am proud of this community,’ he told the reporter, a young man with short hair which had curled tightly in the rain. ‘This is the Rainbow Gorge spirit. We’re more than just a fishing spot, we’re a lifestyle.’ A gust of rain-heavy wind blew Kissick off balance and he stumbled backwards, but was saved by a pile of sandbags waiting to be arranged.
‘As you can see,’ the reporter said, the camera now back on him, ‘Rainbow Gorge is a town under siege. With water levels rising, and help slow to arrive, this may be the one that got away. Back to you, Russell and Jacqui, in the studio.’
The song: Blame it on the Rain – Milli Vanilli

No one ever seems to have voted for a suddenly unpopular politician.  Same goes for once liking an unpopular pop group. If you approach ‘Blame it on the Rain’ as a piece of fun, suddenly the miming ain’t such an issue. But is there anything redeeming about a ‘driven but limited man’ like Noah Kissick?

You want her back again
But she just don't feel the same
Gotta blame it on something
Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain that was falling, falling
Blame it on the stars that did shine at night
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah

17. The Sceptic’s Kid

The story: Jamie, the son of the President of the NZ Sceptics Society, is understandably fascinated by claims that extinct animals are reappearing around the globe.
‘Then they caught the really big eagle,’ Melanie said, ‘ yanking his hand to make him pay attention. ‘I think it was the government.’ I nodded. ‘They tried shooting it was darts to put the eagle to sleep, but it was so big they had to shoot a lot of darts into it, and when it finally went to sleep it didn’t wake up again. The scientists did tests on it and said it was a Fast Eagle—’
‘She means Haast’s eagle.’
‘—which everyone thought was extinct!’
The song: ‘Birds’ – Paul Weller

Neil Young’s avian love song was well covered by Linda Rondstadt but my favorite version has to be Weller’s. Any story about New Zealand’s native fauna is its own avian love song.

When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It's over, it's over.

18. Unnatural Selection

The story: After six years in Boston, Rachael returns to New Plymouth to work in a bank, buy a house and spend weekends in the garden...
Over the next week I saw three more teachers from St Stephen’s, though like Mr Haines and Mrs Shipley, they all had other jobs.
Mrs Chapman, running a lawn-mowing franchise with her husband.
Ms Matai, though she may have married since those days, ruling over the customer service desk at Woolworths.
Mean old Mrs Yew, the parking warden.
New Plymouth was crawling with teachers, ex-teachers crawling with my distant, near forgotten past.
The two teachers I knew I would not be seeing on the streets of New Plymouth any time soon were Jim Lewis and Kerry Drewe.
The song: ‘It's Only Natural’ – Crowded House

I couldn’t very well go an entire playlist without a single Kiwi artist.  And it’s fitting to pair this piece of Kiwiana (don’t be fooled because it’s not black and white, and two-thirds of the band were Aussies when this song was recorded, this song will be around a long time) with a story obsessed with the homecoming.

Ice will melt, water will boil
You and I can shake of this mortal coil
It's bigger than us
You don't have to worry about it
Ready or not, here comes the drop
You feel lucky when you know where you are
You know it's gonna come true
Here in your arms I remember

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