Monday, August 5, 2019

Nailing Down the Saint: The Playlist

So I wrote another novel and it comes out tomorrow in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s called Nailing Down the Saint and it’s about Hollywood, fatherhood and levitation. Here’s 70 minutes of music of special relevance to the project, and a bunch of words about that music (and other things).

1.     Patient Zero – Aimee Mann

If Nailing Down the Saint was Season Two of a TV show[1], this song that might play over the “Previously, on” recap: A young man arrives in Hollywood. The world lays at his feet. But things don’t go as planned.

There’s this point, two and half minutes into the song, just after Mann sings, “You paid your respects like a ransom / To a moment that was doomed from the start”, and there’s this low, ominous piano note. The song continues, but that note once struck can’t be unstruck. Things have turned to shit, even if you aren’t ready to admit it yet.
Welcome to Duncan Blake’s life in LA.

2.     Bedtime – Gord Downie

This song, the 3rd track on Introduce Yerself, kicked me in the guts so friggin’ hard when I first heard it, still reeling from Downie’s death[2], knowing he wrote it as his days with his family were numbered, and have young kids myself. The song recounts the struggle to get a young child to sleep, laying them down, pulling your hands away,  “as if from a bomb”, and getting out of the room, only to be called back in and for it to “start all over again”.

In the midst of this routine, it can seem a trial. Interminable. But what goes unsaid here is this eminently and imminently mortal father would give anything to go through it again. What might sound like a lullaby to someone not paying attention is actually an ode to fatherhood and a goodbye.

In NDTS, the protagonist, Duncan, has a nearly four-year-old son, Zeb, and thoughts of time passing and not being there for Zeb fuck him up. If he heard ‘Bedtime’, he’d be reduced to a puddle of gloop like *that*.

3.     Tinseltown in the Rain – The Blue Nile

So Duncan has moved to LA to continue his meteoric rise in the world of filmmaking, but was fucked over, then fucked up by fatherhood, and finds himself working in a chain restaurant in West Hollywood.

The penultimate chapter of the first section lifts its title directly from The Blue Nile’s song. With its synth-heavy, questioning mood – “Why did we ever come so far? / I knew I'd seen it all before / Do I love you ? Yes I love you / Will we always be happy go lucky?” – it feels like the mopey section of a John Hughes movie, which is absolutely something Duncan Blake might think in the moment before he gets his second chance handed to him by Frank Motta.

4.     Horizon – Aldous Harding

These next three songs are dedicated to Felicity “Mack” MacKinnon, Duncan’s best friend from high school, who, after a period of estrangement, joins him on his Italian quest to scout locations for Frank Motta’s biopic of Saint Joseph of Copertino (more on him in a bit).

When I first heard this song in 2017, I thought: that’s Mack. Here’s something I’d already written about her (and that’s in the final novel):

‘Come on, babe, play nice.’ She’d called him ‘babe’ since forever. Had shown up at his high school calling everyone that, like some Hollywood producer posing as a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, only she seemed to be doing it ironically. As if she’d ever turn Hollywood! She was real, belonged to the world of cellulite, not celluloid, could bend old language around new corners. It was as if every ‘babe’ had an implied, parenthetical retort, like the title of an unlikely pop hit.

(You’re no picture yourself) Babe.

(Nothing you can do can get to me) Babe.

Harding’s spare-yet-epic, totally cinematic masterpiece is likewise riddled with complex, terminal “babes”.

5.     It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) – Eurythmics

The only thing is: Aldous Harding is more Duncan’s kind of music than Mack’s.

On the road trip, she’s the master of the in-car playlist, leaning much more toward the nostalgic (or what counts as nostalgia for a child of the 80’s and 90’s).

There was A LOT more banter about music while Duncan and Mack travelled around Italy in the first draft of NDTS, but this had to (HAD TO!!) be pared back. Examples of riffs that ended on the cutting room floor: how OK Computer-era Radiohead sounds like a piss-take of 90’s po-faced seriousness; on nostalgia and wistfulness; how Lennox and Stewart are a better songwriting duo than Lennon and McCartney… That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, but I will sit at the summit until some vinyl-smelling boor comes to chase me off.

6.     I Will Wait – Hootie & the Blowfish

One thing I couldn’t cut was Mack and Duncan arguing about this song.

I was very much in Duncan’s camp (i.e. it is unconscionable to enjoy, yet alone publicly endorse Hootie & the Blowfish) for most of my life[3]. But I’m now Team Mack on this particular track. Add it twice to your next road trip playlist: once to get over the hump of your fellow travellers’ prejudice and a second time for the singalong.

7.     Can’t Keep Checking My Phone – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

I saw UMO live in Wellington in December 2015, when progress on the novel was stymied. I’d written about 10,000 words the year before, then got very sick for a fortnight and couldn’t get clear of family and work commitments to get the ball rolling again. But I could still faff around on my phone and go to concerts and have transcendent experiences listening to Ruban Neilson do Prince via T-Rex through one of those tin-can-and-string telephone getups.

When I got back into NDTS the next year, UMO’s Multi Love was still on high rotate and Duncan’s cellphone became one of the major characters – a know-it-all who sucks the mystery out of tipsy wonderings but can’t help get you out of the tangle it has led you into in the medieval centre of Assisi.

Then there’s Duncan’s female friend from work in LA who’s What’s App-ing him, desperate to know how his road trip is going…

8.     Sitting in my Hotel – The Kinks

‘Celluloid Heroes’ might be the more obvious Kinks song here, but that song sucks.

This one, however, is up there with ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’ as the underappreciated Kinks masterpiece.

It has that classic, fame-is-a-downer vibe that can translate even when you’re not famous (which is, let’s face it, most of us), just simply alone in a hotel room, or, right next to your best friend in a room in Pietrarubbaia and you realise that you’ve been criminally incurious about her life and motivations.

9.     A Private Understanding – Protomartyr

The best track from my favourite album of 2017 (Relatives in Descent), the most important year in the creation of NDTS.[4]

You can read a lot of things into the lyrics, so of course I see connections with my novel, but in 2018 I learnt another thing I love about Protomartyr while preparing to see them live[5]: that the frontman, Joe Casey, didn’t join a band until he was 35 (my age at the time), couldn’t play an instrument (like me, despite those three terms of classical guitar tuition at Intermediate) and struggled with stage-fright (hence the dark glasses and static stage presence). There’s even a Tumblr dedicated to journalist’s overwrought descriptions of him.

“The one who looks like a Belgian lorry driver is lead singer Joe Casey”

And yet here he is, singing songs about the Flint water crisis, the plague of toxic masculinity and the mysterious hum that can be heard in Windsor, Ontario.

A hero for our times!

10.  My Body – David Bazan

This was my favourite song of 2018. If 2017 was all about the first draft, 2018 was about actually writing an ending (!) and rolling through the manuscript again and again until it was fit for someone else to read (the editing process took me through to mid-2019).

Bazan solo and in all his other projects is amazing. Everything is shot through with the anxiety that comes as another mediocre (or not) white dude with a microphone.

‘My Body’ speaks directly to the concerns of NDTS.

Honestly, pick any line.

Or just start from the beginning: “This feels like a disproportionate amount of longing / More confirmation I was never meant to live alone”

(I mean, who write lyrics like that?)

As Duncan gets further and further into his location scouting gig, his native scepticism about the feats of Saint Joseph of Copertino, a seventeenth century Franciscan friar who is purported to have levitated hundreds of times and performed countless other miracles during and after his time on earth, is eaten away. To the point he might admit, as Bazan does in his chorus: “My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes”. Might.

Image result for Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston
11.  Mind Games – John Lennon

I’d never really listened to, or thought about, the lyrics here until I was writing this book. I’d just assumed it was about the mind games two people in a relationship play, but it’s a much more positive type of mind game Lennon is talking about – inspired by the book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston – and totally in keeping with Lennon in 1973.

For a while I wanted to call the novel Absolute Elsewhere, after a lyric in this song[6]. Instead it’s just a chapter title (along with another lyric, ‘Out of the Now’) and I let someone in sweatpants mangle it on guitar to a pizzeria full of cult members.

12.  Strange Torpedo – Lucy Dacus

Another chapter title.

Dacus has explained that she was inspired by a line in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I still can’t avoid the phallic associations of a ‘strange torpedo on the loose’ – which fits in with the theme of Hollywood enabling the unchecked masculine gaze…

Having said that. the strange torpedo in NDTS is a dead blackbird a young girl is trying to bring back to life in a convent carpark.

13.  Stay Lost (acoustic) / Tinseltown Swimming in Blood – Destroyer

This double shot from the deluxe edition of Destroyer’s Ken (2017) rounds out the Italian portion of the novel. Not gonna divulge any spoilers, but from the song titles themselves you can begin to surmise how things round out for Duncan with Mack and Motta.

14.  The French Inhaler – Warren Zevon

Early in the novel, there’s a discussion of Frank Motta’s oeuvre, including a film called French Inhaler, about “the ultimate kiss-off song [i.e. Zevon’s]. A cross between a talking heads documentary and crime scene re-enactment.”[7]

Thematically, this track and the way it crosses the line for both misogyny and self-loathing fits much better at the tail end of this playlist and the moment for Duncan “when the lights came up at two”.

15.  Mariners Apartment Complex – Lana Del Rey
16.  Green Light – Lorde

Image result for lorde lana del rey

It’s important to finish this playlist with some younger, female voices for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who gets to the end of NDTS.

I’ve long been a sucker for the overtness of Del Rey’s façade and the performativeness of her songs, but ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ appears to mark a more personal turn in her song writing. When she sings, ‘I’m your man’, in the chorus, it’s about self-empowerment and reclaiming gendered language and everything you want to surround your kids – female, male or otherwise - with.

Then there’s Lorde.

Melodrama came out in 2017 and was on high rotate as I wrote NDTS. But I was also in the US in 2013 when ‘Royals’ started to blow up (and Ellie Catton won the Booker Prize) and it was this amazing moment for young Kiwi women and I was struggling to start something new after my novel, The Mannequin Makers, had come out and would struggle for another four years…

So when Lorde kicked off her sophomore album with ‘Green Light’, a perfectly complex dancefloor jam about almost having the licence to just let go, it struck a chord with this thirty-something, who, like Duncan Blake, had “skin the colour of old lace, a penis and a second chance.”

[1] It’s not – it’s a standalone novel – but if it was…

[2] If you get to the end of NDTS, or if you’re like me and you read the acknowledgements page first, you’ll see that I dedicate the book to the memory of Gord Downie, the Canadian musician, writer and humanitarian best known as the frontman of The Tragically Hip. Downie recorded his final solo album, Introduce Yerself, while in the late stage of his battle with brain cancer. It was released 10 days after his death in October 2017, when I was in the midst of writing the first draft of NDTS. I’d been a rabid fan of The Hip and Downie’s solo work for more than a decade, and had shared a brief email exchange with him in the early 2010s which included me sending him my first book, but it felt to personal, too chummy, to have the dedication open the book. So that’s why it’s tucked away in back.

[3] I once flatted with a person who was inconsiderate, untidy and morally bogus (she expected us to lie to her husband when he called), but at the time I thought our most emblematic exchange was when, the one time she actually decided to clean the kitchen, she was blaring an FM station and said to me, “I just love Hootie and the Goldfish, don’t you?”

[4] The formula is pretty simple if you wanna pander to my tastes: dark, brooding music with evocative yet unpindownable lyrics = fantastic music to listen to while writing = dozens of streams.

[5] It was a great show BTW.

[6] Bullet dodged.

[7] One of the cool things about creating multiple filmographies was coming up with movies I wish someone would make. I mean, this craze for basic pop biopics baffles me when there’s so many more interesting stories to be told. Listen to ‘The French Inhaler’ and then Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘Hollywood Hopeful’ and tell me these songs haven’t just conjured up 90 minutes of screen time you’d actually leave the house for.