First of all, to be clear:
All these songs gushing through and over these characters’ lives and out their mouths and down their desperate veins aren’t the songs that gush through and over me. At least, some of them aren’t. Some of them were my dad’s, but mostly from long before he was my dad. Some of them I came to late, or backward (as with the song that opens the novel, about which more shortly). A few I don’t even like.
These are Natalie’s and Sophie’s songs. Both characters came to me singing them. Left the same way. I don’t need the Spotify playlist I’m going to build, and post for anyone who wants it, to remember them. They’re still echoing in my head, in the hills behind my house, and there’s a wildness to them, every one. A yearning ferocious enough to qualify as hunger. And a joy too terrifying to last or even bear, and which I now think– this is what my vampire girls have taught me– may have been the secret ingredient of the real rock stuff since the very beginning. May be the secret still.
Take the song that opens the novel:
The morning I thought of the first paragraph of Motherless Child– and for days afterward– I thought I was quoting someone else’s book. Not because the opening is so very brilliant, but because it seemed to me just to have been sitting there, like lost luggage, waiting for someone to claim it. For fifty years. All it took was the memory of a misspelling I can’t possibly have been the first to have made. Instead of “ron,” I heard “run.”
Do run run.
Add one more piece of punctuation, and voila. The rhythm no longer girl group, but Cronenberg. Goldblum-in-Cronenberg. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
That’s the Chapter One title. The opening lines were even more obvious, once I’d started down that path:
“She met him on a Monday. Her heart stood still. At the time, she thought his did, too. Of course, she turned out to be right about that.”
The version Natalie hears, the one referenced by the above, is unquestionably The Crystals’.
But see, this is what I mean about this book seeming more like something I inhaled than wrote. Because like pretty much everyone, I am willing to bet, born in this country within five years of me, the version I first knew was Shaun Cassidy’s.
Even at 11 or so, when I finally caught the original on one of my dad’s oldies stations in the car on the way to my piano lesson, I recognized the difference. The Crystals hurtle by on howling saxes, the exuberance in Dolores Brooks’ voice like a wail from a rollercoaster, irresistible but also instinctive, headlong and helpless. Cassidy, by contrast, sounds so careful, note-perfect, coiffed, that instead of saxes, I hear hair-dryer.
Until just now, getting ready to write this post, I don’t think I’d even once gone back to Shaun after hearing Dolores. But somehow– because it’s a pretty great song, no matter who sings it, because the Cassidy version is so good-natured even if it isn’t good, and because maybe at six I needed my joy-in-art just a little less headlong and helpless– I always found myself rooting for Shaun, whenever I heard tell of him. I was so excited to hear about “American Gothic,” to imagine the arc of that particular celebrity life, that I spent a good half of the run convincing myself it was better than it was.
At the very least, it was exuberant. Wild, if not quite irresistible.