In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Vince Passaro’s Crazy Sorrow is a compelling and provocative epic that spans four decades.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“Passaro writes exquisitely at every turn, narrating with an engaging worldly-wise tone.”
When I first sit down to give serious attention to the topic of music in my fiction, I end up with the Bluetooth speaker near my skull; in part to drown out some bad party R&B playing in the backyard of the house next door, not entirely a successful task; and in part to satisfy a need. I don’t usually play music while I write: voice versus voice in my head is what it comes down to. But sometimes I need to hear a particular voice, and this is Glenn Gould, the pianist who Edward Said proclaimed was ‘the greatest musician of the 20th century’ and whose voice already occupies a significant portion of my head. I’ve come upon a recording I’d not heard before, Gould playing Renaissance keyboard pieces by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Harpsichord pieces on piano; no one can make a piano sound more like a harpsichord than Gould can. The precision of his music—the delicate precision, the mathematics and mastery and grace—match up with what I’m looking for at this moment in English sentences.
So—writing for Largehearted Boy, the spot in the venn diagram where music and literature intersect, has me reflecting on how much music there is in Crazy Sorrow, my novel that’s just coming out, and how deeply music has affected me as a writer, I’m thinking not just of the novel’s title, which comes from Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”, but of whole scenes dominated by certain music.
Near the beginning, just pages in, a young man (George) and a young woman (Anna) meet. It is July 4, 1976, and they will go to bed with each other that night, after the fireworks: they are nineteen and there’s nothing in the universe to stop them. In the fashion of the day (between the days of inviting someone up to see my etchings and the more recent days of we can watch some Netflix and hang out) George has asked Anna if she’d like to come to his room (he’s living in a summer dorm at his college) to get high and listen to some music. She knows what this means, he knows, the world knows. She grabs the opportunity, standing with him outside the dorm, to examine him, culturally as it were, to pin him down, put him on the defensive a little. What have you got? she says. She says, I know you have Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Definitely the Doors. And lots and lots of the Who…. He can’t tell exactly in that list where she started her slide toward full-fledged disapproval, somewhere in the middle of considering the Doors he’d bet, but she’s definitely in contempt mode by the time she says ‘the Who’. She knows, she adds, that he will have Kind of Blue by Miles, and that he thought it was a big deal when he got that. Whoa, he says—she’s getting a little mean. Do you have Procol Harem? she asks. He laughs at this, and at the questions that follow, about Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri—he’s a very white boy from eastern Connecticut in 1976 and so no, he says, he has only Santana.
Then she says, Glenn Gould?
Who’s Glenn Gould?
Oh, my, she says.
Of course, she goes upstairs with him anyway. They end up listening to Sketches of Spain. Followed by—the novel takes time to note—Billy Cobham, a Panamanian-American jazz drummer popular in the 1970s, and Blind Faith, a one-album supergroup comprising Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and the bassist Ric Grech. Blind Faith is a bit of a disappointment, George decides later. Meanwhile, one can see the turntable spinning (it was, I happen to know, though the novel doesn’t mention it, an AR turntable, utterly not automatic, two speeds and an on/off switch) and can watch the tone arm, gentle in its rise and fall, and hear the needle going shhiss shhiss shhiss as it circles the label, waiting to be lifted free. Boy and girl are making love on the dorm-style single bed. In the 1970s, people still thought they were making love. And if you think you are, you are—which is one of those funny mechanisms at work in the world, a subjective truth that becomes, per force, irrefutable.
This early scene is a demonstration of a habit that I suspect still prevails among younger people—back then, as likely now, you got judged by the music you chose, it placed you in the social matrix somewhere. In 1976 the categories and zones were kept quite narrow; luckily now they are larger. There are plenty of other places in the book where music carries the scene—one in which Anna, still in school but a bit older, sits on her bed considering the direction of her life while listening to Hejira, the Joni Mitchell album of odd tunings and superb poetry. The book spans forty years so we also get George decades later with his eighteen-year-old son watching Scorsese’s documentary of the Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz. The father gets emotional about these lost days—the freedom, is all he can say—and the son, as is proper, challenges him.
Thinking back today, particularly to that early scene in the book, I am contending with the knowledge that I was that boy. In sophomore year of college, or the summer prior, when these scenes are set, I didn’t know who Glenn Gould was and that was just the tip of all I didn’t yet know—there’s more ignorance there than I can bear looking back at. I knew almost nothing of music, nothing of art, a meager swath of literature and philosophy. Ginsberg, Kerouac (lots of music in Kerouac, but not always comprehensible to me), Steinbeck, Hemingway, and the big blessing in that group, Flannery O’Connor, who had, she said, no ear for music at all: her prose is elegant in the manner of a good carpenter wielding a hammer. Despite these shortcomings of mine, literature managed in due time to sweep through me, somehow, in my twenties, and music too—folk, rock, classical, jazz, world music in roughly that order from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s; early country, blues and mountain music both, before I was thirty; and then, years later, R&B, funk, hip hop. And now, without the music that lives and roams in my head all day, I doubt I’d be able to make the sentences I make or to aspire to a prose that can contain the disparate voices and sounds of our language, the music of our inner lives.
Vince Passaro is the author of the novel Crazy Sorrow. His criticism and essays have appeared in many prominent publications, including Harper’s Magazine, of which he is a contributing editor, The Nation, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Elle, Salon, and others, along with short fiction in such national magazines and literary journals as Esquire, GQ, Open City, Agni, Story, Boulevard, and Quarterly West. His first book, Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel, was published in 2002. He lives a few miles north of New York City in an old Huguenot town with his wife, son, and a smattering of film cameras, fountain pens, and other fellow-traveling refuse from the mid-20th century.