Talk Show 26 with Aimee Bender, David Leavitt, Dennis Lehane, Sam Lipsyte, Peter Rock, Dana Spiotta, A.J. Verdelle
TALK SHOW 26: First Favorite Album
Aimee Bender is the author of three books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, and Willful Creatures. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, The Paris Review, Tin House and more as well as heard on “This American Life”. Visit Aimee at www.flammableskirt.com
David Leavitt co-directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he edits the journal Subtropics. His most recent book is The Indian Clerk.
Dennis Lehane is the author of the novels The Given Day, Shutter Island, Mystic River, Prayers for Rain, Gone, Baby Gone, Sacred, Darkness, Take My Hand, and A Drink Before the War, and the short story collection Coronado. Visit Dennis at www.dennislehanebooks.com
Sam Lipsyte is the author of Home Land, The Subject Steve, and Venus Drive. He lives in New York City.
Peter Rock is the author of the novels The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, This is the Place, Carnival Wolves, and a story collection, The Unsettling. His stories and freelance writing have both appeared widely. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and other awards, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Associate Professor in the English Department of Reed College. His novel My Abandonment will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March, 2009.
Dana Spiotta is the author of Eat the Document and Lightning Field. Visit Dana at www.danaspiotta.com
A.J. Verdelle’s first novel, The Good Negress, won five national prizes and is currently in its seventeenth printing. Her second novel is an epic story, and has taken epic time. Verdelle earned her MFA at Bard, and has received fellowships from the NEA, the Whiting Writers Foundation, the Lannan Foundation and Harvard University. Verdelle also received a Distinguished Prose Fiction award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A.J. Verdelle has taught at Princeton University, the University of Vermont, and in the summer programs at the University of Iowa and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Verdelle is on the Writing Committee at the Fine Arts Work Center, and currently teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Lesley University.
––Name your first favorite album?
Bender: The first album I remember buying for myself, with my allowance, was Donna Summer, Greatest Hits, 1979.
Leavitt: The Carpenters’ album that was titled Carpenters. The sleeve was designed to resemble an envelope.
Lehane: The Pretenders.
Lipsyte: It’s a dead (and maybe humiliating) heat: Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell.
Rock: Sound Explosion, released by K-Tel.
Spiotta: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
Verdelle: Nina Simone, a red album cover. A picture of her—the first head shot I ever remember seeing—took up the whole cover, and she had her hair swept up, a real do. A hairstyle that combined the American beehive and the upsweep of an African queen. Her face was almost as large as a disk—the 33 rpm size. I don’t know that then, in the mid- to late-sixties, I had ever seen anyone parade their brown face without caricature, without overdone maquillage. She was bejeweled and clear-eyed, as I remember. The name of the album, I hardly noticed, hardly remembered. When I strain to recall the type on the cover, I think the album must have been self-titled. I know before I close the answers to these questions, I will do what we do now, and go Google to supplement my memory with the name I can’t recall. But for now, I will say that the title didn’t matter so much. The album title did not inform about the songs the album contained, and whatever words there were on the cover were made completely insignificant by Nina Simone’s proud head, her striking brown skin, her clear gaze that seemed to say, Go ahead. I dare you. Wonder.
Bender: It must’ve been on the radio (no pun intended, honestly). Her voice was great and when I saw the album cover I thought she was very beautiful, with that amazing long sweeping cloud-like hair. And I liked that the album cover was purple. I think I was nine years old.
Leavitt: On the Harmon-Kardon stereo that my father built from a kit.
Lehane: I heard “Brass in Pocket” on the radio and I asked for the album for Christmas, and my sister got it for me. I had zero exposure to punk at this point—I was 14—and “Brass in Pocket” wasn’t really punk, it was more straight rock, but then I got the album and heard “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” and “The Wait,” and it was like somebody had lit my scalp on fire.
Lipsyte: It must have been the summer of 1978. I was ten. My folks had shipped me off to a summer camp in the Adirondacks. There was an emphasis on sports and sadism, best exemplified by our cruel stud of a counselor, Jeff. Jeff wore a gold chain and bragged about his expertise at drunk driving. He handed out porn mags and told us we were faggots if we didn’t like them. He mocked me all the time for being a fat boy and a coward. He was so beautiful and arrogant and I loved him. I deserved to be mocked. Special days he would blast his eight-tracks. These two were in heavy rotation. So was Supertramp, but I couldn’t really deal with Supertramp.
Rock: I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. My parents both taught school, and are both from Wisconsin, so we spent every summer in the Midwest. This meant we spent several days each spring and fall driving various station wagons across the country. Our 1976 Ford Fairmont, flesh-colored, was one of the first American vehicles with a cassette deck. Each spring, as we packed to head to Wisconsin, each family member was allowed to purchase one cassette; then, as we drove, we took turns choosing the music. One of the unfortunate influences in these choices was my older sister; first, she “helped” my younger sister and brother select their cassette to purchase, then reminded them that they wanted to choose “their” tape to be played.
Thus, a typical five (my parents counted as one person) album rotation would go:
Barry Manilow, “Even Now” (little sister’s selection)
Barry Manilow, “This One’s For You” (little brother’s selection)*
Styx, “Grand Illusion” or Foreigner, “Double Vision” or Kiss, “Destroyer”**
Barry Manilow, “Live!” (older sister; double album counted as one selection)
Barbara Streisand or Burt Bacharach (parents)***
[repeat for 8-12 hours]
(*my brother eventually did choose for himself; in year three it was “Hotel California,” which sometimes my parents would even choose, or Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”—the latter reveals Joel’s many sides, and some fine whistling; the former may be the worst album ever made.)
(**This is not meant to suggest that I got more than one choice, only a few of my yearly selections—and the tapes did accumulate; at one point we probably had forty Manilow albums.)
(***usually by day two our parents’ selection had been surreptitiously thrown out the window.)
On one of these drives we were staying with friends of my parents, in some mountain town, and we came across a jukebox in a rustic restaurant. I chose the song for its name: “Wildfire,” by Michael Martin Murphy; I played it again and again, pressing my face against the scratched plastic bubble of the jukebox. If you don’t know the song, and have a taste for tragedy, I commend it to you. I think Sound Explosion had stuck in my mind because “Wildfire” was one of the featured tracks, and I wanted to get back to the way that song made me feel.
Spiotta: Before I had any albums of my own, I listened to my sister’s albums. She had the Beatles’ “Red” album and the Beatles’ “Blue” album. These were very popular best of albums released in the 70s. They are technically called the Beatles 1962-66 and the Beatles 1966-1970. So my sister didn’t actually own the original Beatles albums but these bogus compilations. I loved these records, but I was torn. I liked the way the Beatles looked on the cover of the Red album (clean cut, cheerful, young) but I preferred the music on the Blue album (intense, surreal, mature). I wasn’t entirely satisfied with either Beatle product. For my maybe tenth birthday, my mother took me shopping for my very first album. I think I went straight up to the clerk and said, “Do you have any Beatles?” I was really quite clueless and I had no idea which Beatles album I should buy. I picked up Sgt. Pepper because I liked the look of the Beatles on the cover: half way between the Red album’s chipper, almost chubby (at least John and Paul) Beatles and the Blue album’s hairy, sexually threatening Beatles. On Sgt. Pepper all the Beatles looked great with their satin clothes and fab moustaches. Plus all the other cool stuff on the cover. And I did look at the track listing––my favorite song from the Blue album, “A Day in the Life,” was on it. I had no doubt this was the album I should buy. I think it was $7.99. When I got home I was so excited I called my super-cool older cousin Chris to tell her I just bought my first album, Sgt. Pepper‘s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. My cousin instantly replied that I had bought the wrong Beatles album, I should have bought Abbey Road. But I when I put it on the turntable, I succumbed immediately to all its quirks and pleasures. I remember leaning back on my bed and listening to it at very high volume on my headphones. I just loved how each song flowed into the next, how the album created a little world, and it was deeply engaging and mysterious. I admired how beautiful it was even as I could never really figure out exactly what the songs meant. I invented meanings for the songs that shifted as I grew older. It really is such a weird album.
Verdelle: I couldn’t possibly say when I first heard this album. I believe I was listening to Nina’s reedy voice, before I could register who she was, and before I could read. This is why I name this as “my” first favorite album, because although the album was my mother’s, it was I who wore down the grooves.
Bender: Tower Records on Westwood Blvd was the place for record buying in those days for kids on the west side of L.A. I distinctly remember that my sisters, who were much savvier with their loves of ska and punk, scoffed at me a little for buying disco. But I didn’t know it was disco or that disco was on its way out—it was just what she sounded like and how I loved the catchy songs like “Heaven Knows”. It was an innocent pre-adolescent music purchase because I mainly liked to hear her sing; I was surprised to catch a sense that anyone might think otherwise.
Leavitt: At a record store in Palo Alto, California that was called “The Record Store.” It was in the shape of a cube, made of sanded planks (redwood perhaps) cut on the diagonal. We called it “The Box.”
Lipsyte: When I returned from camp I begged my mother to buy them for me. We went to the local record store in our New Jersey town. I was just old enough to be embarrassed about buying a record with my mother. I remember her concern about the sign in the store window that said, simply, “Meat Loaf.” She worried that immigrants would be confused and think that here was a place they could find food. I think she even got a little incensed about it all, maybe threatened to write a letter to the mayor, which was touching, and also a bit bizarre. For years I had this image of the “immigrant” staggering around town, looking for a place to buy something to fill his rumbling belly, pushing into the record store, moaning, “Meat Loaf,” only to collapse from hunger as the clerk hands the album over.
Spiotta: A Sam Goody near Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Verdelle: I first “handled” this album in the family room in the house where I grew up. And I mean, I handled it. I stared at Nina, wondered about her last name “Simone,” learned later that she was born Eunice Waymon, discovered that she grew up in Baltimore, like Billie Holiday. Lingered, and lusted, over the amazing names of songs she sang, listed in light print on the reverse. “Consummation” was the most amazing of the songs, to me.
I’ve never bought the record myself, as an adult. In the fits and starts of researching music, I’ve not encountered the record in its original form. But one night, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a friend I made in my adult life came to visit. I was in my “summer rental,” high up on the third floor of painter Pat deGroot’s house on the inimitable Provincetown Bay. My friend, an African American woman like me, yet unlike me, an academic Dean, joined with me in an almost pre-verbal love of Nina Simone. My friend, Ngina, and I spent the whole evening singing the songs from this album, in order. We did not discuss how we knew the album, although we knew each other instantly better to discover that we both knew the album so well. We are fast friends, even now, and this evening created a plateau for us, from which we’ve gone on, and developed, as friends. Our lovers were appalled, that night, at how high we raised our voices, and how off-key we sounded. We likely were off-key. Nina Simone often sings in minor keys, or in other modes—Dorian, Lydian, Locrian—used primarily jazz. Our joyful imitations could not match Nina’s major skill.
Nina Simone, I later learned, studied to be a classical pianist. She was either admitted, or not admitted, to Eastman, or maybe Peabody. Both well established conservatories. Maybe she went, maybe she graduated, maybe not. When she began to audition, displaying prodigious piano skills, she was told she needed to sing. She was devastated by this, but needed to make a life for herself, in music, with music. Her voice is as distinctive as handcarved sculpture. Our universe and planets and stardust are enriched and forever changed by her warbling and chanting and and humming and reaching and skimming the surface of the hot center of the earth. We recognize religion and righteousness in her occasional, original, shouts. I never bought the album, but the album bought me entré into music, politics, art.
Bender: I listened to it a lot. I didn’t understand any of the songs but I did love the idea that someone could leave her cake out in the rain.
Leavitt: I think I was seven years old. There was a song called “Hideaway” that included the line: “Where will I find another you?” My older brother drew a cartoon of a ram singing, “Where will I find another ewe?” and told me that he would send it to the Carpenters and that I would never again be allowed to buy one of their albums.
Lehane: I listened to it nonstop in my basement for a solid three months. “Precious” was the first time I’d heard “fuck off” in a song, which really left an impression, and just the whole stripped-down, tear the roof off ethos of the band was electrifying. Plus, it was a chick—a snarling, pissed off chick—who was leading this sonic revolution. Then James Honeyman-Scott, the lead guitarist, died and they never quite recaptured the sound, and I moved onto Patti Smith and The Clash but I never lost the feeling of what that album did to me.
Lipsyte: I knew every word of every song on both records. I lip-synched the songs into a hockey stick in front of a mirror every day. A few years later, at seventh grade parties, my friend Henry Kwak and I would wow the other kids with our lip-synched rendition of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” The songs on Bat Out of Hell are basically show tunes, and we put on quite a show. Henry always made me do the girl part, even though I looked more like Meat Loaf. It was intense how committed he was to me doing the girl part. Later he became fixated on “Miami Vice” and turned his bedroom into an exact replica of Lieutenant Castillo’s office. He even had the Venetian blinds and the absolutely bare desk. But that was later. Now we were both kneeling in the shag in somebody’s rec room, both of us waving our arms and moving our mouths in perfect alignment with the voices of Marvin Lee Aday (Meat Loaf’s real name) and Ellen Foley, me begging Henry to “take me away” and “make me his wife.” It didn’t make us popular in the ways I think we thought it would. As for The Stranger, that was more of a private thing. But it seeped in very deep. Many years later, after countless hours listening to and studying the “real” stuff – The Ramones, The Velvets, The Stooges, Wire, The Birthday Party and so forth – I was recording some vocals for a project I was doing with the guitarist of one of my favorite bands, Six Finger Satellite, a brilliant and merciless noise juggernaut. After I did a few takes, trying to sound as death-savvy and unsentimental as possible, the guitarist came out of the control booth shaking his head. “What the fuck?” he said. “Did you listen to a lot of Billy Joel when you were young?” I wanted to cry, but I thought that might give me away.
Rock: Lord, the damage we did to bedsprings while this LP spun in my downstairs bedroom! Jumping, I mean, from twin bed to twin bed. There was the excitement of “Sky High” and “Get Down Tonight” and the uplifting spirals of “Fly Robin Fly,” the slightly forbidden “You Sexy Thing,” then the sweetness of “Midnight Blue” as we began to wind down. And, yes, the windswept tragedy of “Wildfire.”
Spiotta: I needed to be exclusively and obsessively devoted to something outside of my meager pre-adolescent existence. Sgt. Pepper was the perfect fit. This album demanded close and repeated listenings. I loved—and had never heard anything like—the moans, laughs, heavy breathing, and odd sounds that were left in or added to the ends of the songs. I loved the marginalia on that album. The little Beatle aural orgasm at the end of the cute narrative song “Lovely Rita” just killed me. To this day I get this little indelible thrill when I hear the album and feel that ingrained anticipation and expectation as each song segues to the next. The pleasure of knowing an album well (and the reprise of the song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” emphasizes this) and living in it was new to me. It would be an experience—solitary, dreamy, and comforting—that I would repeat with many favorite albums through out my teen years. But this was the first one. I dug it. No expertise required, just headphones and many, many hours of devotion.
Verdelle: Extremely. She sang one song that amazed me then, and that, to this day, I can recite, and sing, asleep or awake:
See, the little brown girl / she’s as old as me.
She looks just like chocolate / oh, Mama can’t you see.
We are both in first grade.
She sits next to me.
I took care of her Ma / when she skinned her knee.
She sang a song so pretty / on the jungle jim.
When Jimmy tried to hurt her / I punched him in the chin.
Ma, can she come over / to play dolls with me?
We could have such fun Ma…
Ma, what’d you say?
Well, why not?….
Oh …I … see …
This is exactly how things were when I was very young (first grade age). I, with my chocolate body and big mind, was a fascination for the few uncolored girls I knew. They liked me, and wanted to invite me to houses that were bigger than houses I knew girls grew up in. The invitations never panned out, although we talked animatedly about the good times we could have. Nina explained this to me in words my friends and I did not yet have. My situation was slightly different in that I was more likely the protector, but nothing in art is ever exact. As I recall, this song (sung a capella) did not seem to be listed on the album contents. I think my mother suggested that maybe the song was an interlude. I have asked many people—by way of singing—over the years whether they know this song. So few people know this song.
Bender: I haven’t heard any Donna Summer in years but I do think some of her songs have been good covers—notably “I Feel Love” as the big Bronski Beat dance hit in the mid eighties which swept my high school and college dances.
Leavitt: Who isn’t?
Lehane: Of the album, yeah. Huge. Honeyman-Scott’s guitar playing is so ferocious and original, it’s like a tragic gift because you only hear it on the first two albums and pieces of the third. I was listening to “Tattooed Love Boys” just the other day and some of the lyrics––”Stop sniveling—you’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man” or “I shot my mouth off `til you showed me what that hole was for”—snap me to attention even now, so I can only assume how bug-eyed I was to hear them at 14.
Lipsyte: I’m not sure I can answer this without therapy.
Rock: Now these songs serve as a kind of historical shorthand for my sister and me. Various tragedies and complications can be understood or defused with a lyric from Sound Explosion.
Spiotta: Let’s put it this way: if Paul McCartney walked into my office right now, as he is now, 65 or whatever, there is a good chance I would start to weep.
Verdelle: Absolutely. I met Nina Simone in person, twice. Destiny. Once at the South Shore Country Club, in Chicago. This black country club had been closed for years, and underwent a major renovation and a grand reopening. Seemed to me that Nina Simone was the first concert there, but I could be elevating what I first noticed to everyone else’s first choice. She came and played riffs that us long time devotées could easily recognize. I applauded some of these riffs, almost alone, in that full house, that rapt auditorium. She responded, challenging us, playing strong as a stride pianist, “I need that applause, I need that applause.” When I went backstage that night, insistent on seeing this huge talent, this practical expatriate, up close and in-person, she asked her manager what I wanted, and when I explained to her, to him, that I just wanted to meet her, she asked him to give me tickets to her upcoming concert, in London. I was in college, at the University of Chicago. I did not have the money to go. Although I did dream about the good time I could have. I asked whether she spoke French. She told me she spoke street French. I have since learned to speak that language. She asked whether I was married. I told her I was not. She told me she’d like to be married.
The second time I met her was in New York City. She was on her way out of this life. I waited for her backstage at Carnegie Hall, where, by then, I could get my name on the backstage list. Nina came in in a wheelchair, assisted, and not by the manager with the London tickets. More than twenty years had passed since the South Shore Country Club. Her feet were as swollen as fresh artichokes, each one. Her tongue was slow to move. She gave a decent concert, though the strong Nina Simone had retired, apparently. She said nothing to me personally, from the stage or more directly. I followed her party to Ashford and Simpson’s after-spot; I think maybe it was called the Shark Bar. Can’t remember. Upper West Side. She sat at a table for twelve, with people she didn’t seem to recognize. What or who she recognized—anything or anyone—was patently unclear. I said nothing to her personally; she seemed glazed. But I needed to see her, one more time. Nina Simone brought me out as an artist. Her reedy voice, her triumphs and catastrophes, her admissions and petulant responses, her grand talent, her huge piano, her musical sensibilities, her mystery, her daring. Even now, I could go on. The name of the red album is “Silk and Soul.”