Monster Eyes

‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’

I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet.  Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account.  (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.)  Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.

But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet.  As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.

Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun.  The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together.  It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed.  It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.

You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed.  My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name.  And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial?  It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.

The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them.  Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now?  Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project.  Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.

What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions.  Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?

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