Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.
I’ve decided to observe Women’s History Month in somewhat atypical fashion by featuring a character with a very unique personal history. Helen, the heroine of Ann Morgan’s astutely observed and finely crafted literary thriller Beside Myself, is an identical twin and a gifted artist. As part of a childhood prank, Helen convinces her twin sister Ellie to switch identities in order to play a trick on the adults in their lives.
When Ellie denies that the switch ever happened and assumes her sister’s identity, Helen finds herself trapped in a decades-long charade. Over the course of the story, a history of mental illness within the family is revealed. Morgan writes vividly of the disorientation that Helen experiences as a result of her condition, and does a wonderful job of inhabiting the mindset of an artist in turmoil. She also explores the ways in which family history mirrors itself across generations, often with insidious results. Helen first discovers her strong ties to music after listening to a Nirvana cassette on a stolen Walkman. After years of alienation, she finally begins to feel a sense of belonging through “the music that (she) hear(s) crackling through the headphones”. Music is referenced throughout the text, and provides Helen with an outlet for her feelings and with artistic inspiration.
Here are some songs that Helen might have listened to while painting.
Blue by Joni Mitchell (1971) A spare, heartbreaking piano ballad rich with imagery and blessed with Mitchell’s raw, vulnerable vocal presence. “Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go/ Well I don’t think so/ But I’m gonna take a look around it though”
You’re The One Who Knows by Carole King (1977) This piano-and-guitar rocker finds the narrator exploring the fallout from past broken relationships. “Can you live with someone who’s a mistress of illusion?/ You’re the one who knows and now you’re gone”
*Games Without Frontiers by Peter Gabriel (1980) Darkly atmospheric and eerie, with a haunting background vocal courtesy of Kate Bush. “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games/ Hiding out in treetops, shouting out rude names”
*Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush (1985) Once again, the singular Kate Bush, this time loosing an ethereal vocal over a driving, percussive rhythm. “Is there so much hate for the ones we love?/ Tell me, we both matter, don’t we?/ You, it’s you and me”
Gigantic by The Pixies (1988) Cited by both Kurt Cobain as a direct inspiration for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and by Radiohead for their song Stop Whispering, this track features a rare appearance by bassist Kim Deal on lead vocals.
About A Girl by Nirvana (1989) Heavily influenced by the songcraft of The Beatles, About a Girl represented Cobain’s attempt to integrate his pop songwriting sensibilities into the band’s grunge sound.
Would? by Alice In Chains (1992) Over Mike Starr’s rumbling bass line, the great Layne Staley unleashes his aching, volatile marvel of a voice. “Am I wrong? Have I run too far to get home?/ Have I gone, and left you here alone?”
*Split Into Fractions by Curve (1992) On this track off of their album Doppelganger, Toni Halliday’s sinewy vocals slide all over the distortion-heavy collage of churning guitars.
#1 Crush by Garbage (1995) Featuring Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind album, this throbbing, sensual track about obsession thrives on Shirley Manson’s throaty purr.
Climbing Up The Walls by Radiohead (1997) Beautifully skewed psychological imagery over a heavily distorted string section and an ominous, descending bass line. “Either way you turn, I’ll be there/ Open up your skull, I’ll be there/ Climbing up the walls”
*Not available on Spotify
Greg Wands is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York City. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script.