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Feelings of nostalgia and longing factored heavily into author Meg Wolitzer’s song choices in her Guest DJ set. She selects songwriters with a strong point of view and a knack for tapping into deep emotions, from Patti Smith to Bobbie Gentry. Meg’s latest book is called The Interestings.
For More: http://www.megwolitzer.com/
1. Hammond Song - The Roches
2. Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking) - Janis Ian
3. Gloria - Patti Smith
4. Walk Away Renee - The Left Banke
5. Ode to Billy Joe - Bobby Gentry
Eric: Hi I'm Eric J. Lawrence and I’m here with best selling novelist Meg Wolitzer whose latest book The Interestings has been garnering quite the critical acclaim. Today we'll be talking about some songs that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW's guest DJ project. Meg, thank you so much for joining us.
Meg: Oh, thanks for having me.
Eric: So what's the first track you got for us?
Meg: The first song is the "Hammond Song" by The Roches.
You know, it’s a song that I think is one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard and, sort of coincidentally, Suzzy Roche of The Roches, became one of my close friends. But years and years before that happened, I was in the audience at The Bottom Line in New York listening to The Roches. It's just got these killer harmonies and really, really kind of amazing words.
In fact, I called Suzzy Roche today because I told her I was doing this segment on KCRW and I said: "What can you tell me about this song?" and she said: "Hmmm, tell them that it was so hard that, when we were doing it, I cried. It was so difficult doing it. And I can sort of see that. It is just so complex and well made.
Song: The Roches – “Hammond Song”
Meg: What's interesting about this song is that it's in a plural voice. There is a story behind the song and nobody really knows what it is. If you go down to Hammond you'll never come back. It's like, it's a wee voice sort of scolding this person, warning this person, if you do this, this is going to happen. So it's got this kind of authoritative feel to it, which is what I look for when I read a novel.
Eric: That was The Roches with "Hammond Song" from their debut album as selected by our guest Meg Wolitzer. What's the next track you got for us?
Meg: The next track is "Society’s Child" by Janis Ian.
As somebody who started writing early and published my first novel, you know, very, very early. I'm sort of interested in what happens to people when they really do start producing very young. I mean, she's a real prodigy. She was brought out by Leonard Bernstein on TV, on one of his young people’s concerts and introduced to sing.
This song, you know, famously a DJ got beat up for playing it because it's about an interracial love affair, but for me here I love how young she is. I just love that there's this kid basically saying I've got something to say, I can put it together, I can write my own music, I found my way to the right people -- and she became a big star.
Listening to some of her more obscure songs the lyrics are so intelligent. They're writing like poets and novelists and, in fact, Janis ian had a collection of poetry published that I bought at the Strand bookstore when I went into the city.
Eric: Well, here it is, a classic from Janis Ian, “Society’s Child”
Song: Janis Ian – “Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)”
Eric: That was Janis Ian with “Society’s Child”, as selected by our guest, novelist Meg Wolitzer. What's the next track you've got for us?
Meg: The next track is something a little different. It's “Gloria” by Patti Smith.
It's such an exciting song. It's just very sexy and its sort of gender playing and it's wonderful. And when I hear those sort of opening chords, you know the way when you hear the opening chords to some songs you sort of perk up kind of like a dog hearing its master’s footsteps in the driveway I feel that way about the opening of “Gloria” which just is tremendously thrilling
Eric: Is there something about the female perspective that connects with you?
Meg: You know, folk was sort of the way in for a lot of women, the kind of straight-haired women, you know, the Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez. All the women with j's in their names.
That was the way into power was through a kind of lyrical soulfulness and purity. But Patti Smith is really not about purity at all. I mean, obviously there were other singers along the way too. Janis Joplin is somebody I really loved, but Patti Smith, again as a poet, basically it's sort of about agency. It’s kind of about taking control, about being powerful and not second guessing the self which I think has been easy for people to see women doing.
Eric: Well, here it is a classic from Patti Smith, the track is “Gloria”.
Song: Patti Smith – “Gloria”
Eric: What the next track you got for us?
Meg: “Walk Away Renee”. The Left Banke -- which has an e at the end of course. I think that maybe they thought that would be the real thing that was going to lead to their longevity. ‘Hey, let's put an e after bank, that'll do it.’
This song, again, as I sort of said about “Gloria”, the opening of this song is so exquisite. This isn't really for me about lyrics, but it’s just about the beauty of the song, the pure beauty of this track. I feel that's it’s about longing and about aching and that's a kind of feeling that you want to get in your fiction. You know, for me again, everything is sort of seen through the filter of writing. So I kind of look at the world that way, and when music overlaps with that, you think ‘oh that's right, that's the same that thing I was sort of trying and maybe failed to do in a piece of writing I was doing’.
But, with a song, because there's the performance aspect, it's not just the written word, it's not just the written notes, it's how it sounds.
You know there was something I read in the New Yorker years ago about how basically you can't take in music after a certain age in the same way neurologically that you take it in when you're young. There is something that happens and, you know, I'm putting it in dumb terms because I don't remember anything from this piece except thinking ‘Oh that's right That’s why my iPod is like stuck in 1968, 1972’. That’s the stuff that kind of stuck.
Something like “ Walk Away Renee” just had an ineffability, a quality that's very, very hard to describe that just seemed to be about longing. For me that's the longing song, that’s the end of relationship song. That’s the song, when I hear it, it's so perfect. And I even kind of love how it is in the tomb of the one big hit by the doomed left banke.
Eric: Well, here it is. It's “Walk Away Renee”.
Song: The Left Banke -- “Walk Away Renee”
Eric: That was “Walk Away Renee” performed by The Left Banke and selected by our guest, novelist Meg Wolitzer. What’s the last track you've got for us?
Meg: The last track is “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobby Gentry.
This is song basically is a novel. I mean, it was made into a movie. It opens like a novel. The opening was (she sings) “ it was the third of June another sleepy, dusty delta day”.
There, I butchered that.
So, it's very specific. And when you talk to students about writing fiction, you’re saying your story doesn't take place on any day, it takes place on a particular day.
Pick a day that is kind of like a bullion cube of days, that it's sort of a concentrate of days. So in this song, something happens on this day. It'snot really clear what the whole story is, but there's a whole family, the father dies, something's thrown off the bridge. Is it a stillborn baby? I mean there were all kind of discussions about this. And maybe people do know what the song is about. I don't think I do, but it hints at a plot which is really, really interesting. It’s more than I love you, I don't love you anymore. I mean there's a family and the father up and dies and I remember, like, crying. This unnamed father, this unnamed family in another part of the country, you know, so different from my suburban rambler driving, tongue sticking out in the backseat of the car, childhood. This spoke of pathos and tragedy.
Song: Bobbie Gentry – “Ode to Billy Joe”
Eric: You obviously have an intimate relationship with music, is it the same way with books?
Meg: There was a piece that I read about how that if you want lifelong readers, sort of make reading kind of an illicit thing. Like have books taken away from children, you know lights out, you know put that away. That's one way to do it. That to create the notion of the book as a hot object, as an illicit thing.
I think that is really kind of a great way to view it. I mean, I don't believe in taking books away from children, just candy. But I think that books are very private and are so, so intimate. And when we think about is the reading culture changing, we're really talking about the culture of intimacy. I mean, in what ways is that changing?
Eric: Well, Meg, thank you so much for joining us on KCRW.
Meg: Thanks for having me.