In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sesshu Foster & Arturo Romo’s ELADATL is an ambitious and grand novel, an engrossing literary documentary of a fictional California airship company.
Jonathan Lethem wrote of the book:
“Foster and Romo’s ‘real fake dream’ of the future-past history of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines is a superb and loving phantasmagoria that gobbles up real histories for breakfast and spits out the seeds.”
ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, is a novel that documents the actual history of a fictional dirigible company, a book of photogenes unfolding in 3-D origami narratives by members of the lighter-than-air movement. Early 20th century airships called dirigibles, some as large as 800 to one thousand feet long, were promulgated in California by groups as diverse as Charles Dellschau’s Sonora Aero Club and William Powell’s Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which proposed to revolutionize the pre-apocalyptic Southwest and literally lift oppressed people out of racism and poverty. ELADATL charts the rise and fall of these airship movements.
In our novel, ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, references to music or musicians perform typical narrative functions. Music establishes the setting, signaling time periods and specific histories, it alludes to cultural styles or experiences, it conveys tone and indicates public ideology and emotion, and in this novel in particular, refers to a national culture, while plumbing (or attempting to) “Americana,” to construe the North American imagination in relation to people and geography in the way East Los Angeles. That’s my theory of “Music as Narrative Detail.”
Here’s a list of music and musicians in ELADATL by page number:
This Brazilian piece, ostensibly a mix of Brazilian folklore with Bach, is about transport and movement—-like a lot of music, marches, house music, cumbias, and so forth. This piece depicts a train journey from the countryside to the city. You can hear it. It has an upbeat mid-twentieth century hopeful tempo. Our book, in a way, meditates on how the 20th century thrashed those hopes repeatedly (hence the figure of the dirigible). 1930s/ 1940s sonic vistas.
2. Nels Cline solo in Big Sur, page 31
Nels Cline is the L.A. area guitarist for the band Wilco, but I like his solo projects which are some variant of free jazz avant garde noise. I imagine the internal reverberations of dirigibles sound like Nels Cline’s recreational guitar abuse.
This is the famous socialist fight song from Chile. The rebel dirigible pilot cues this track on her pirate radio broadcast at the end of the first chapter, after delivering her lovelorn co-pilot to the Orange Trash Gyre spinning through the sky. He paraglides into the vortex of the trash gyre in order to try to rescue his ex from the Sky City which, they say, is somewhere in the vortex.
4. “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell, page 61
For a decade, I drove Soto Street by a big Marlboro cowboy billboard to and from work. I like to think “Wichita Lineman” is a cowboy song about a lovelorn cowboy who climbs telephone poles. This chapter of ELADATL depicts the immigrants whose labor is the foundation of the economy across the nation in places like L.A. as steeplejacks. They get up every day and fight for survival as a war between Zeppelins and Dirigibles takes place over the skyscrapers of downtown L.A.
5. “Rata De Dos Patas” by Paquita la Del Barrio, page 84
Arturo, you want to pick a track for her and say something about it? Sure Sesshu. Two years ago, a student of mind requested that I play Paquita la Del Barrio’s “Rata de do Patas,” a song about a lover reflecting on her toxic relationship–the barbs she conjures are incredible poetry. East LA, and Northeast LA are lands of rivers, arroyos and hills. The vistas can change radically, a view from the porch of a hilltop house is overlayed with sounds that speak to community life, like private laughters, people getting home from work, like Paquita’s voice, “cuanto daño me has hecho.”
A phrase by Lead Belly rises from between the lines on these pages, but I don’t really recall what it was. It’s not quoted. It’s only mentioned in passing. Remember that Leadbelly had a scar across his neck where his throat had been cut, before his years in prison? Maybe the phrase was “I’ll see you in my dreams,” or maybe it was “in the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines/ I shivered the whole night through.”
7. “Orange-Colored Sky” by Nat King Cole, pages 124-125
One character is offered a fellowship as Poet of the Universe at the Zoltan Monsanto Institute for Cognitive Dissension, which is a mysterious Rand Corporation-type psy-ops Lawrence Livermore Laboratory place that fades in and out of actual existence and is mostly not visible to the naked eye. The character is offered a “state of the art” 1950s all-electric apartment fully furnished with an RCA stereo console and a full complement of 1950s vinyl pop and jazz, typified by Jo Stafford and Nat King Cole—-the kind of music that I grew up holding in contempt because I grew up with classic rock and protest songs and the first record I bought was Black Sabbath. However, in this novel the skies over Los Angeles and North America are orange! Orange skies filthy with smoke and the particulate of climate-induced megafires and plastic debris. “Orange-Colored Sky”!
8. “Pinotepa” by Panoptica Orchestra and the Banda Regional Mixe, page 135 (ELAC Latin Jazz Band with flautist Sara Smallhouse)
This chapter depicts the end of the world, which takes place at Paul’s Kitchen, a corn starch chop suey joint in Monterey Park. My Nisei elders loved that place. I went there once to watch the East L.A. College Latin Jazz band play, as my niece accompanied the band on flute. Outstanding Chicana poet Marisela Norte leaned against the bar, rum and Coke in hand. All that is in the chapter and more, and for a sense of the scene, see the video of Pinotepa by Panoptica Orchestra and the Banda Regional Mixe.
9. “Cigarettes are my ruin, whisky is my grave / some of these nice-looking women gonna carry me to my grave” (174, by who?) and “Three Women Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, page 175
“So Our Best Efforts Were Undone (Includes Ulysses S. Grant’s Favorite Recipe for Pancakes)” is a chapter that interrogates Americana and the national culture (including the celebrity industry) via fictional quotes from famous people or actual quotes misattributed to historical figures. So here we have Blind Willie McTell quotes misattributed to Harry Truman and Lee Harvey Oswald. Did Harry Truman, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and vaporized 100,000 people in an instant live in the same world as Blind Willie McTell, who sung on street corners and died unknown? Perhaps not. “Now we must step up,” President Biden said in his inaugural address, “All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour?” But then of course he closed with, “May God bless America and may God Protect our troops.”
10. “Buffalo Gals” by Cisco Houston (and Woody Guthrie), page 176
“Buffalo Gals” is quoted on page 176 because where are those Buffalo Gals now?
11. “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, page 177
Blast from the past! Sometimes, in spite of everything, people are dancing in the street. I assume when there are no people left, and maybe no streets, there will still be that spirit of Martha and Vandellas dancing in ghost streets.
12. “Revolution” by John Lennon/ the Beatles, page 186
ELADATL is a novel about trying to change the world, and there are those who would suggest that the Beatles did. “You say you want a revolution. Well, we’d all love to change the world… But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know tha4t you can count me out,” John Lennon sings. Immediately followed by, “in,” because Lennon said he couldn’t make up his mind. “Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right,” the Beatles sang. On page 186 the lead character really has no idea who the Beatles were. (Maybe the world has been changed, anyway.)
More “classic rock” finds its way into the dreams of these characters. Classic rock is so over. It had its day. I look at kids and think classic rock can’t mean much to them. It’s like doo wop or ragtime or Texas swing. When I was growing up it didn’t occur to us that so much rock and roll was so much commercial product. My eldest daughter saw the Stones on screen once and sneered, deriding their geriatric look. In the dreams recorded in this chapter, the Stones become literal cardboard cut-outs of themselves. But they were the band that introduced me to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
14. “Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan, page 171 and page 220
Bob Dylan is quoted twice in this novel, once given a fictional quote and in a later chapter I appropriate a line from “Visions of Johanna,” arguably one of his best songs. Certainly, he didn’t need the Nobel Prize for Literature (and the Nobel Committee doesn’t need to keep going out of their way to discredit themselves), which would have served its purposes better in the hands of Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Raul Zurita or an unknown writer who writes in a language far from the European family of languages.
15. “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, page 247
Here Oscar Zeta Acosta, cohort of Hunter S. Thompson and one time lawyer for my neighbor Carlos Montes, snidely makes more fun of Classic Rock. In the 20th century radio played songs like this and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” a zillion times over and over till the headache made you vomit. Blame Trump on brain damage caused by overdosing on Classic Rock. Music is Death! That’s a tip for some writers and artists.
16. “Jingo Lo Ba” by Carlos Santana, page 251
Classic rock, yeah. Carlos Santana rocked Woodstock in 1969, and still lives! Because, Bay Area via Tijuana! I listen to all this stuff in my car, driving who knows where. It was playing while artist Arturo Romo and I drove hundreds of miles around East L.A. for years doing the research for this book. For me, the research was partly about directing Arturo to every taco truck we hadn’t tried yet and all the birrierias I could locate. One time I was driving a student home on from a student poetry reading. Santana’s “Jingo-Lo-Ba” came out of the car stereo and she cried, “Mister! What kind of music is that? Oh my God!” She lived off Soto on Sheridan Street with her mom and she was a terrific young poet. I bumped into her many years later in the Mexico City Airport and she admitted that she no longer wrote poetry. Now she’s a TV producer in Miami and I saw her wedding picture on Facebook.
17. Ray Palafox and Los Quemados, page 230 (“Cumbia Sobre el Rio” by Celso Piña)
Ray Palafox and los Quemados are a fictional group in this novel based on guys from East L.A. that I met in Mexico City. They played some kind of ska, like early Cafe Tacuba. But I don’t know a damn thing about ska, especially Mexican ska, so I picked this tune by Celso Piña because Ray Palafox and his band really just wished they could get everyone dancing like Celso Piña (1953 – 2019).
18. “Macorina” by Chavela Vargas, page 282
Costa Rican-Mexican lesbian ranchera balladeer Chavela Vargas (1919 – 2012) denotes, I think, that rascuache down home indigenous gritty soul that makes Mexicans real and also makes them anathema to Hollywood movies and the American media and its apartheid imagination. I guess that’s why Raul Ruiz references her in this appendix.
Then, there are the songs that poke out through various pages of the text, like they’ve been playing on loop underneath the narrative itself. They only pop up in peripheral hearing.
Yoshimura’s “environment music” is heard through the walls in some chapters of the book, including Dear Swirling Alhambra,. Yoshimura’s work served as inspiration in the development of the “inverted wave concept” interior spaces of dirigibles in the ELADATL fleet after a cassette tape of his was found in the East LA Chicano Resource Center, part of the LA County Library system.
In 1996, Maria Jolina Villalobos, also known as Ericka Llanera, niece of Maria Medel Villalobos, found and resurrected the East Los Angeles Dirigible Transport Lines, renaming it EAST LA BALLON TOURS. Running limited service from El Sereno to California State University Los Angeles, Villalobos enlisted a group of volunteers, mostly from Chicano anarchist and Zapatista inspired community spaces in Northeast LA to run day-to-day operations. When ELADATL repurposed some of ELA BALLON TOURS dirigibles for the new fleet, one airship, named Molotes, had Nuestra Tierra Anahuac stuck in its cassette deck, playing on loop.
It’s never mentioned in the text of the novel, but El Rio is Mel and Tina’s favorite band. El Rio also played ELADATL’s annual barbecue picnic. Music of the Arroyo Seco that itself calls back to the nueva cancion tradition, liberatory free jazz and indigenous music traditions of the “Americas”.
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 20 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. His most recent books are Atomik Aztex, a novel; World Ball Notebook, poetry; and City of the Future, poetry (2018). He lives in Alhambra, CA.
Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano was born in Los Angeles, California in 1980. His artwork, mostly collaborative mixed media works but also drawing, has been circulated internationally. Fluency, agency and folly are central themes in his practice; he sees his artwork as a companion multiplier, folding folds, netting nets. His art-making is pushed through explorations on the streets of East and North East Los Angeles, which feed into an ongoing series of collaborations with writer Sesshu Foster. He lives in Alhambra, CA.