Oct 9, 2014

FoS, Bonus Track 1: The Subtle Distinctions

As I learned in my reporting on the new musical of Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem made a two-CD "mixtape" for supplementary listening when the book was published in 2003, and he "semi-mass-produced" it for interested friends and colleagues (he estimated he made about 500 copies--enough to catch the attention of, and get a formal review from, no less an eminence than Robert Christgau). He handed over a copy to composer Michael Friedman, director Daniel Aukin, and bookwriter Itamar Moses when they embarked on their unlikely adaptation, which opens at the Public Theater in a few weeks.

With Lethem's encouragement, I tracked down the playlist online, and herewith reconstruct the jam titled "The Subtle Distinctions," after the singing group the fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior joined, then left for a challenging solo career. As Lethem put it, this isn't necessarily a soundtrack to the novel--some are the selections are "just intuitive." I'll weigh their relevance below.

Disc One
1. David Ruffin, "No Matter Where" (1974)

Ruffin, a former Temptation who went solo with less than spectacular chart results, is specifically name-checked in the "liner notes" chapter of Fortress as one of a "shadow pantheon" of "singers who just fell short" of the ranks of Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Al Green--a group of also-rans which were the inspiration for the novel's fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior.

2. The Four Tops, "Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" (1972)

Like Ruffin, Phillippe Wynne, the lead singer of the Tops, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest singers of this era you've never heard of. And, like Marvin Gaye, Wynne was raised in a syncretic faith tradition that combined Jewish and Christian practices--a trait that Lethem also gave the Rude family. As he writes in the liner notes chapters, in a parenthetical: "It's odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Phillippe Wynne, and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews.")

3. Bill Withers, "World Keeps Going Around" (1973)

Withers gets at least one name-check in the novel, though not for this song--which is a scorcher.

4. Randy Newman, "Short People" (1977)

5. Syl Johnson, "Anyone But You" (1971)

Syl Johnson gets a mention late in the novel, but for a different track (see below).

6. The Spinners, "One Of A Kind Love Affair" (1973)

7. Marvin Gaye, "I’m Going Home" (1971)

Gaye and his story hovers behind the novel (particularly in the denouement among the Rude generations), but only explicitly in the last track on this two-CD mix (see below).

8. The Prisonaires, "Just Walkin’ in the Rain" (1953)

The third section of Fortress finds its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, as a rock critic in his mid-30s, pitching a film idea to someone at Dreamworks. The story is compelling enough that it's hard to believe it hasn't been a film yet: The Prisonaires were an a cappella group that formed in prison and recorded this song on furlough--and at Sun Records, no less.

9. Hot Chocolate, "Brother Louie" (1974)

10. The Manhattans, "Shining Star" (1980)

A band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

11. Gillian Welch, "My First Lover" (2001)

This out-of-left-field and strictly speaking out-of-period choice would seem to be a nod to the folk music favored by Dylan Ebdus' mom, Rachel--though listening to it in the context of the novel, it's hard not to think of Dylan's recurring reference to Mingus, his black childhood bestie, as "the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover."

12. Marvin Gaye, "Time To Get It Together" (1978)

13. Phil Ochs, "City Boy" (unreleased demo, mid-1960s)

Another nod in Rachel's direction.

14. Billy Paul, "Let ‘Em In" (1976)

A slightly kitschy cover of the Wings hit.

15. Howard Tate, "Get It While You Can" (1967)

Another name in Lethem's "shadow pantheon," and an even more direct inspiration for Barrett Rude in one respect: Unlike Wynne and Ruffin, the group Tate was a member, the Enchanters, was pretty unknown, as was Rude's fictional Subtle Distinctions. This song, which Tate wrote, is best known for Janis Joplin's cover.

16. The Spinners, "Sadie" (1974)

17. Pete Wingfield, "18 With a Bullet" (1975)

18. Marvin Gaye, "You're the Man" (1972)

19. The Last Poets, "Two Little Boys" (1970)

20. Maxine Nightingale, "Right Back Where We Started From" (1976)

Disc Two
1. The Spinners, "Games People Play" (1975)

This song's expansive form, Lethem told me, was part of his inspiration for Barrett Rude Jr.'s fictional No. 1 hit, "Bothered Blue."

2. Syl Johnson, "I Hear the Love Chimes" (1972)

3. Marvin Gaye, "Anger" (1978)

4. Slick Rick, "Children’s Story" (1988)

Hip-hop is not a huge part of the novel, but there's a memorable scene of rival DJ crews squaring off at a nearby schoolyard, and a scene in which a bunch of white kids listen giddily to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."

5. Langley Schools Music Project, "Desperado" (1977)

One interesting footnote: In his review, Christgau takes a moment to diss Ruffin's solo work but lets this one pass--an interesting omission given his flagrant disdain for Irwin Chusid's nostalgia project.

6. The Main Ingredient, "Work to Do" (1973)

7. David Ruffin, "Walk Away From Love" (1975)

8. Timmy Thomas, "Why Can’t We Live Together?" (1972)

9. The O’Jays, "Use Ta Be My Girl" (1978)

Another band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

10. Syl Johnson, "Is It Because I’m Black?" (1969)

The adult Dylan has a black girlfriend, Abby, who calls him out for his love of "tragic negritude." This is one of the titles she repeats aloud, and askance, while surveying his CD collection.

11. The Marigolds, "Rollin' Stone" (1955)

Another iteration of the aforementioned Prisonaires.

12. The Originals, "Baby, I’m For Real" (1969)

13. War, "Why Can’t We Be Friends?" (1975)

Explicitly name-checked as the background of a scene in the novel; it's playing in a cab during Dylan's high school years, that liminal CBGBs/early hip-hop days, when he's still sorting out his musical tastes and doesn't know what to do with all the black music he absorbed in his childhood and in Brooklyn.

14. Bill Withers, "Better Off Dead" (1973)

15. The Manhattans, "Kiss and Say Goodbye" (1976)

16. Sly Stone, "Remember Who You Are" (1979)

17. Arthur Alexander, "Anna" (1962)

18. Brian Eno, "Golden Hours" (1975)

The crucial soundtrack of the novel's moving final scene between Dylan and his father: "How can moments go so slowly?" Lethem (mis)quotes the song, and "You'd be surprised at my degree of uncertainty."

19. Marvin Gaye, "Got to Give It Up" (1977)
Another key moment: At a key tween moment, Dylan jumps to catch a spaldeen while wearing an apparently magic ring, and flies a little--while the girls on the street sing this song.

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