“A breathtaking read and one I’ll not soon forget.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife
Golden State began with the idea for a single scene: a husband and wife at the end of their marriage, spending their final night together in a San Francisco radio station, where the husband works as a late–night deejay. As the story developed, the one thing that remained constant in my mind was the sound of the music from the radio station. Early drafts of the novel contained a number of songs that didn’t make it into the final draft. Here are the songs that, for me, capture the spirit of the novel and of the place that has become my home:
Admiral Radley, “I Heart California” California has inspired many great songs over the years, and, like “California Dreaming,” this one is a personal favorite. The product of a one–off local California indie super–group combination, comprising members of Grandaddy and Earlimart, this song is an unapologetic celebration of the true spirit of California.
Josh Rouse, “Sweetie” This one comes from Rouse’s 2007 record, Country Mouse City House. For me, the best love songs contain just a pinch of melancholy. When I picture Julie and Tom working through their complicated relationship, I always hear this song and think of Rouse’s great line “crooked couple standing side by side / Is that you? Is that me?”
Tom Petty, “California” Like Julie, Tom Petty is a transplant to California from the South. For years, his identity was intertwined with his birthplace in Gainesville, Florida, and his stories seemed to emanate from there. Listening to his albums over the years, I’ve always been interested to hear how his southern identity has slowly evolved and reconciled itself with his adopted home. With the short, direct, and brilliant “California,” from 1996, the evolution seems complete. This song is highly personal for me. Like Petty, my roots are deeply southern, but I have made my home and my adult life on the West Coast.
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky” Another California transplant, Greenbaum moved to California at the age of twenty–three. He wrote and recorded this classic four years later in San Francisco. A Jewish kid from Massachusetts, Greenbaum reportedly penned his fun, funky, celebratory “friend in Jesus” song in less than fifteen minutes. By some accounts, he was never really sure what the song meant. I can never figure out what it means either. I don’t know what it would’ve been like to live in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, but I imagine that the vibe was very similar to what is captured in this song.
Scorpions, “Wind of Change” Written by Klaus Meine during a trip to Russia in 1989, this song celebrated the imminent fall of the USSR. Since then, of course, it has become an anthem for
large–scale movements that topple unjust regimes. At the heart of Golden State, for me, is the idea that huge, unexpected political and social shifts often seem inconceivable and impossible until the moment they happen. More important, though, this song rocks. I dare you to listen to it without feeling inspired. Long live the Scorpions.
The Mendoza Line, “Aspect of an Old Maid” As the radio plays throughout Golden State, I wanted to establish the melancholy soundtrack of mature breakup songs. No one does a bittersweet, super–complicated breakup song like the Mendoza Line. If we lived in a world where all things were fair, the Mendoza Line’s classic album Lost in Revelry would have sold as many copies as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This is one of their later songs, and it comes from their last disc, 30 Year Low.
Kirsty MacColl and Evan Dando, “Perfect Day” Though the Lou Reed original of this song is a classic, I’m always drawn to this version by MacColl and former Lemonhead Dando. You can find it on MacColl’s disc From Croydon to Cuba.
Steve Forbert, “Goin’ Down to Laurel” I can’t imagine anyone other than Steve Forbert being able to write a great song about Laurel, Mississippi. I first saw Forbert at Mercury Lounge in New York City, then at Maxwell’s in Hoboken (which now, sadly, is closed). Years later, I saw him play at a little church in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Forbert has a gift for writing heartbreaking songs and delivering them with his unforgettable voice. He’s another musician with one foot in the South (he’s from Meridian, Mississippi) and one foot in the wider, urban world.
Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells, “The Copper Top” For me, this is one of the saddest songs ever written. Everything is getting older.
Dire Straits, “Telegraph Road” Lasting more than fourteen minutes, the storytelling in this song covers a span of well over a hundred years and tells the tale of a single Detroit, Michigan, road from beginning to end. When I first started writing Golden State (which was originally titled California Street), this song was on a mix disc in my car. At the time, my son, in the back seat, always wanted the volume louder, and whether we had arrived at our destination or not, we always had to sit there until the song was over. Someday I will clean out the car, and when I do, I hope to find this disc among the Tootsie Roll wrappers and lost tubes of lipstick—and in working order.
Badly Drawn Boy, “The Way Things Used to Be” Quick, obvious songs of infatuation (think early Beatles) have never done it for me. I’m always drawn to songs about long, messy, complicated relationships (isn’t that the only kind of relationship worth having?). In that category, this Badly Drawn Boy number is one of the best.
Elbow, “August and September” What can I say? I love cover songs, and this is one of my favorites. It’s a cover of the nearly–as–good original by The The, and I found it seven years ago on a Q magazine 1986 tribute disc. It’s another sad breakup song, and although it didn’t make the final edit of Golden State, it always seemed to fit in well with the sound the novel made in my head.
Graham Parker, “Anniversary” Another song celebrating a long relationship. The words are so nice and happy; why, then, does the song sound so ominous and desperate? During the early period
of writing Golden State, I had a CD in my car with a collection of Graham Parker songs, and -the mood and spirit of this one, “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” and “Haunted Episodes,” seemed to seep into the mood of the book somehow.
Johnny Cash, “Further On Up the Road” Johnny Cash singing a Bruce Springsteen song about graveyard boots and looking for a light up ahead . . . what could be better?
Lambchop, “Let’s Go Bowling” This one is from the 1994 Lambchop album with the confusing mix of two different titles—-I Hope You’re Sitting Down and Jack’s Tulips. Although the record was their debut, it appeared with a rustic, world–weary sound that made it seem like it had been around forever. The story is a nice, foggy piece about a couple on a trip to Greece, taking pictures, wandering through the ruins of their life.
Lesley Spencer, “Childhood Revisited” My husband frequently plays this song while doing the dishes. I often hear it oozing out of the kitchen, working its way downstairs to my writing room. I love instrumentals that somehow tell a story, as this one does.
Mark Mulcahy, “A Smack on the Lips” How does love happen? What’s the magic, unnamable thing that brings two people together? I was twenty–four when I met my husband. We’ve been together for most of my adult life. While my husband is definitely not Tom, and Golden State is “purely a work of fiction,” as they say, the passion and stability of a long–term partnership is something that, fortunately, I know well. If you want to tell your spouse you’d do it all over again, play this song!
The Handsome Family, “A Thousand Diamond Rings” Albuquerque’s Handsome Family seems to know a thing or two about complicated relationships. For me, this one and “So Much Wine” are classics.
Richmond Fontaine, “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” I would love this great Portland band even if we didn’t share a name. “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” is a weird one, almost spoken word. It’s a nice tribute to the importance of being able to remember the high points in a relationship, especially when you are at a low point.
Woodpigeon, “Enchantée Janvier” Canada’s Woodpigeon was an infatuation I had during the early versions of Golden State. If you’re in need of a great, uplifting song, this is it.
Tracey Thorn, “Sister Winter” This is a pretty cover of the lesser–known Sufjan Stevens not–exactly–happy Christmas song.
Billy Idol, “Sweet Sixteen” I fell head over heels for Billy Idol as a fifteen–year–old girl in Alabama. My bedroom was pretty much wallpapered with pictures of him. It was like running into an old crush when, quite by accident, he walked into Golden State. This song goes a bit further than his others—-it’s catchy and hummable, yes, but also sad, with an indescribable vein of melancholy weaving its way through. For years, I thought this song was about a guy who’s in love with a sixteen-year-old girl. Only recently did I come to realize that this is a song about the long haul, about a man who has loved the same woman for a very long time, and who now feels the threat of losing her.