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Peter Seth: The music of What It Was Like

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My novel What It Was Like is about tragic teenage love and takes place in the Summer of 1968 and soon thereafter. So if I didn’t make use of all the music of that era to help build atmosphere, I would have been guilty of a Major Authorial Malpractice.

Fortunately, I wasn’t so stupid, and I filled my book with references to the music of the 60s to help the reader learn about my characters and their world. Let’s start with the basics I used –

LOUIE, LOUIE by The Kingsmen – A bedrock song of the 60s … and a key refrain in the book: “Me gotta go.” Hasn’t everybody danced around the room to “Louie, Louie?” It happens in my book.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RZJ4ESU52U

THEME FROM RAWHIDE (written by Ned Washington and Dmitri Tiomkin) – “Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin'” — Frankie Laine’s great TV-theme song is echoed many times in the book. The Doggies, campers at Camp Mooncliff, are key elements in the front of the book (and in my narrator’s life). The Smart Doggy, the Redheaded Doggy, the Fat Doggy, the Very Fat Doggy, the Doggy With Braces – they all sang it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KPplYp7K7M

THE BEATLES — The Beatles cast a large shadow over the late 1960s, and I use them frequently in my book.

“So why on Earth should I moan?” becomes a refrain in the narrator’s life. And he and his girlfriend Rachel find that lyric by listening over and over to the very famous song that contains it, to suss out the exact words. How many of us did that in the 60s?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2_A2XkXKfA

Several times, the narrator tries to remind himself that, “All you need is love.” He winds up questioning that axiom, and for good reason.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4yginLOrBQ

BOB DYLAN – Dylan also casts a big shadow over my book and its narrator. He speaks about listening to “Blonde On Blonde” about a million times on his little KLH system. (There were actually more references to Dylan in the first draft of the book. That’s entirely another blog: things I cut out of the book.) Here’s one Dylan reference I shouldn’t have cut:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVFy2YEkoLo

FRANK SINATRA – Sinatra is significant in the book because it is the narrator’s father’s favorite, and it balances out the Dylan in my narrator’s life. And at a key moment in the story — “Fairy tales come true / It could happen to you” – comes on the radio, giving the reader a sweet double moment of ironic counterpoint. With a great lyric by Carolyn Leigh, one of the few major female contributors to the Great American Songbook.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTcmCxqOE_s

JIMI HENDRIX – There are several references to Hendrix in the book, including one of my favorite sentences, one that uses “Spanish Castle Magic,” the most romantic song title in rock. From “Axis: Bold As Love.” Hendrix is still too far ahead of his time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96joNo5sBRU

THE “RUN” SONGS – “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas and “You Better Run” by the Young Rascals. I don’t consider my book to have an “unreliable narrator.” I think my narrator is telling the truth, but after I finished the book, I noticed the coincidence that twice he mentions songs about running and escape when there could have been other songs playing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFZEStjTSoY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBEt7OVMBwE

And then there are all the other random, essential mentions of music that help make the book real –

The folk songs – “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” by the Highwaymen and “Puff, the
Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary

The “two-four-six-eight” cheer

A mention of “that great Beach Boys song” about feeling the warmth of the sun

“Motown songs, Byrds songs”

And then there are the hidden musical notes …

An off-hand reference to a Lovin’ Spoonful album … an anachronistic but defensible reference to Van Morrison … and a completely anachronistic but completely harmless reference to the Jayhawks.

I bet there are more musical references in the book that I’ve forgotten just now.

I used as many as I could, but just enough to satisfy the story.

 

Peter Seth

Peter Seth is the author of What It Was Like. You can stay up-to-date on his blog posts at his website.

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On February 7, 2015
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