The Red Album Interview Remixed
Alex Austin's The Red Ablum Of Asbury Park Remixed tells the moving story of Sam Nesbitt trying to make the best of his life in the 60’s Asbury music scene. Booktunes did an interview with the writer and asked him some questions about the music in his life, in the novel, and his next work.
Booktunes: Do you have a history in music yourself? The text according to Sam playing music, being in a band, writing lyrics, and the insecure feelings about his music seems to be written by an insider. Or is it just a writer who knows pretty well how to transfer his own ambitions and feelings from one art form to another?
Alex Austin: I played guitar in a couple of bands and composed a few songs, but my musical talents were limited. By the time punk came around, in which I may have had a chance, my ambitions had dried up. However, my two younger brothers were killer guitarists, who played in Jersey Shore bands throughout the 70s and 80s, so my insider’s view of music was informed by their experiences. Seeing them in clubs, watching them rehearse, listening to them snipe at rival musicians was my Rock 101. When I moved to California, I started to write about music, about which I was still passionate. I co-wrote music reviews with novelist Steve Erickson for a number of California publications, and in doing so learned to view music from a much more critical stance. My graduate studies. That said, you’re right about transferring ambitions and feelings from one art form to another. The Red Album is just as much about creating fiction (or any other art form) as music. The struggle to keep writing in the face of rejection and the demands of family and society, along with the nagging fear that though you think you have something to say, you may not, or you may not have the means to say it.
BT: We made a playlist of songs being referred to in the book. Would you like to add a song that is not being mentioned in the novel, but should be on the soundtrack?
AA: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” as covered by Vanilla Fudge, unless a recording of by Springsteen exists.
BT: Could you point out one song that could stand as the main theme for the novel?
AA: “At Long Last Love,” composed by Cole Porter and sung by Sinatra. Here are the first two stanzas.
“Is it an earthquake or simply a shock?
Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock? ?
Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy?
Or is what I feel the real McCoy?
Is it for all time or simply a lark?
Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park?
Is it a fancy not worth thinking of?
Or is it at long last love?”
The song was composed in Asbury’s heyday, but Porter pares it with mock turtle soup, booze and a bit of fun. Fake, illusory, cheap. In the story, Sam is always coming up against this possibility. Is his ambition just a joke, no more substantial than boardwalk facades?
BT: When Sam and his mother drive to Manhattan to see his true father ‘Cry Baby Cry’, ‘Communication Breakdown’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’ play on radio. The analogies here are quite obvious. Can the songs in the book also be seen as an extra, non textual, layer to story?
AA: Sometimes the songs are analogous with the text, as in your example. The songs reflect Sam’s desperation and his mother’s confusion. But just as frequently, the songs are not analogous. I chose them for their vividness in my memory. I suppose you could look at it as my hit list from that era. Not that there aren’t exceptions. When Sam and Jillian are walking down Kingsley Avenue in summer, watching the circuit of cars, I wanted trivia playing on the car radios. I had to look up the Billboard top 100 songs from that summer, muttering the lyrics and melodies of songs that I had pretty much forgotten until I found my dismal candidates (Neil Diamond fans, forgive me). So, yes they are an extra nontextual layer. If in any context, I should see the words “Purple Haze,” I hear the song, see Hendrix and smell the grass. I’m hoping that happens a lot for readers. Of course sometimes Sam’s thoughts and actions are inseparable from a song’s lyrics, and he knows it. He’s conscious that the music has snatched him. I also want to mention songs that are not named but are implicit in the events. In an early draft of the book, when Sam returns to the train and is told by the conductor that it is the Diving Horse that the firemen are cleaning up, Sam's thinks it's like two Beatle songs in one. He doesn't mention the songs, but I thought the reader would figure it out: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Penny Lane," the respective lyrics being "And of course Henry The Horse dances the waltz!" and "Then the fireman rushes in From the pouring rain... Very strange." That would lead the reader to “Magical Mystery Tour.” I eventually decided to leave out Sam's thought, letting the events alone bring the two songs to mind for the reader.
BT: Is the mood in some of the songs exemplary for what Sam or other characters go through? Do some instruments, melodies or compositions represent Asbury Park or other elements?
AA: There are a lot of dark songs in the book. Although I was living in California in the 80s, I frequently visited New Jersey. I went back in the winter of 1986, when my mother was living on the eighth floor of a rent-controlled high-rise in Asbury. Her living room window offered a panoramic view of the beachfront, which I hadn’t seen for several years. When I casually looked out the window, my initial thought was “This had to be a bomb.” Almost the entire beachfront had been flattened, and what still stood was charred and mangled. It was heartbreaking, and that view stuck with me. Although The Red Album’s timeframe is earlier, that vision infuses the book.
BT: The Diving Horse of Atlantic City. What about it? The Red Album of Asbury Park has a couple of almost surreal characters and places. Both Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Peanut are strange persons. They appear and disappear every now and then, and give the reader and Sam the feeling that they have lots more to do, in a different place and time maybe. Until the scheme starts to unravel we have to deal with a bum named Almost, a strange building called The Heating Factory and a diving horse being hit by a train. All connected with each other, their relation with Asbury Park could be seen as a metaphor for the ways in which Sam tries to find his place after returning home from the war. How does the diving horse relate to this?
AA: For many years, the Diving Horse was one of the key attractions of Atlantic City, which was another Jersey Shore resort about 100 miles south of Asbury. The Diving Horse and rider would climb up and leap from a six-story platform into the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, I’d seen the attraction several times, and if surrealistic didn’t enter my thoughts as a kid, it certainly did when I entertained the memory as an adult. I imagined the horse was terrified, although some claimed he or she (they used numerous horses over the years) liked the job . For my purposes, I wanted the animal terrified. To me the Diving Horse was the ultimate boardwalk attraction, the rider and horse defying death, the pounding ocean below. The ultimate boardwalk attraction and the ultimate exploitation. The Diving Horse, Mr. Peanut, Tillie, they were all there to draw in the suckers, but over time they’ve become close to mythic, and surrealistic— a diving horse and a six-foot peanut with a monocle and a top hat, not to mention a swan as big as a Hummer, are as dreamlike as a razor to an eyeball. So, you’re right, they appear and disappear like characters in a dream. One initial problem was that the Diving Horse was not an Asbury Park attraction, so I had to finesse him into the Asbury area. I also wanted blood on the tracks, foreshadowing a lot of the novel’s events, and tying everything together.
BT: Your new novel will be set in Los Angeles. What can we expect? Any music in it?
AA: The story is set in today’s LA and concerns responsibility, guilt and redemption. There will be music and water, less music than The Red Album, but more water.
BT: Anything we should start listening to get in the mood already?
AA: Arcade Fire, Gaslight Anthem, David Byrne, Radiohead.
BT: Great, we will have a listen! Thanks Alex, we are looking forward to read the next Austin novel.
Interview by E. de Loor