A Literary Mixtape for The Art of the Affair

Catherine Lacey creates a sountrack for all those liberated, love-mad artists, from Josephine Baker to Lou Reed to Karen Dalton.

Why is it that almost immediately upon falling in or out of love there is often a gravitational impulse toward music? Perhaps songs can speak directly to a person in thrall because they are usually in similar state, or perhaps musical fixations are just another side-effect of being temporarily insane. I cannot pretend to know, but I have made and been made enough mix tapes to know it is the closest thing to a fact of love, of which there seems to be so few facts.

A few years ago, I began to earnestly wonder about whether one could overlay a musician’s or writer’s or artist’s biography with their output and find the connections between their love life and their work. With the zeal of a conspiracy theorist, I began collecting stories about the personal lives of hundreds of 20th century artists, charting the connections of who slept with whom, who painted whom, and who wrote about whom. How many links were there from Miles Davis to Anaïs Nin? From Lou Reed to Josephine Baker? From Georgia O’Keefe to James Baldwin?

Eventually I realized what had begun a pastime had become a part-time job, so I turned to the artist Forsyth Harmon to organize and illustrate these strands of love and influence, and thus The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury USA) was born. Here are a few songs created by or about those featured in the book.

1) “Gertrude Stein” by Ed Askew

If we could give an award to the person in The Art of the Affair who knew almost everyone and facilitated countless relationships and alliances, the award would go to, of course, Gertrude Stein. I love the wide-eyed, dazed quality of this song by Ed Askew. Plus Alice Tolkas, Picasso and Dora Maar all get name-checked. Stories about all four made it into the book.

2) “J’ai deux amours” by Josephine Baker

Seemingly thousands of American artists and writers in the mid-twentieth century fled to Paris to escape boredom, racism, homophobia or all three. Josephine Baker was one of the many artists to do so.

The title of this song translates as ‘I have two loves,” though the song is not about one of Baker’s many affairs, but about her status as an ex-pat in Paris. Baker had an affair with Le Corbusier on a transatlantic journey, an alleged affair with Frida Kahlo when she visited Paris and was part of the inspiration for Coco Chanel’s use of menswear in her designs.

3) “Forbidden Planet, Main Titles (Overture)” by Louis & Bebe Barron

This may not seem like an overtly romantic track, but Louis & Bebe Barron, an under-appreciated pair of musicians from the midwest, basically invented electronic music with this album, a soundtrack to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Even after they divorced they kept working together. Bebe was also great friends with Anaïs Nin, a writer notorious for her well-documented liaisons.

4) “Ondine” by Lower Dens

The myth of Ondine, though told several different ways over the centuries, usually contains an element of a spirit or goddess becoming human through the experience of romantic pain. Also Ondine, the Andy Warhol super star, reportedly met Warhol at an orgy.

Andy Warhol at the Factory, 1966.

5) “Potato Head Blues” by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven

One of my favorite stories in the book is the incredible love and collaboration between Louis Armstrong and his second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong. This track was also beloved by Armstrong’s fan and friend, Tallulah Bankhead, one of my favorite badly-behaved actresses of the twentieth century. She used to play it backstage before performances to psych herself up. Other backstage behaviors include causing a commotion with her lover, Billie Holiday, insulting Tennessee Williams while stark naked, and doing plenty of cocaine. Potato Head Blues! It’s a great song for all sorts of activity.

6) “Blue Room” by Miles Davis

Miles Davis produced some of his most iconic an moodiest tracks on the heels of his relationship with the French actress and singer, Juliette Greco. When Jean-Paul Sartre once asked Davis why he didn’t marry Greco, Davis replied he loved her too much to make her unhappy. American anti-miscegenation laws made their and other relationships of the time nearly impossible.

Miles Davis & Juliette Greco

7) “It Hurts Me Too” by Karen Dalton

We wanted to include Karen Dalton, an incredible and unappreciated folk singer who at one point had a relationship with Bob Dylan, but we couldn’t find the right way to tie her in. If you haven’t gotten to know her repertoire yet, prepare to be haunted. She’s one of the great forgotten musicians who didn’t even know they would some day be eligible for the Nobel prize in literature.

8) “Pablo Picasso” by The Modern Lovers

I’ve always loved this song, despite the fact that it’s about a bro complaining about how unfair it was that Pablo Picasso was popular with women and the singer, apparently, is not. “He was only five foot three but women could not resist his stare.” Jonathan Richman croons, “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.”

I don’t have a problem calling Pablo Picasso an asshole. He was, it seems, an asshole, but it does seem that had good taste in muses.

9) “Candy Says” by Lou Reed (live with Anohni)

We chose to end the book with a page on Lou Reed & Laurie Anderson, a pair who met later in their lives and married the same year that this rendition of Candy Says was recorded live at St. Anne’s Warehouse. Lou sings with Anohni (who then performed as Antony of Antony & the Johnsons), an ideal voice to evoke the story of Candy Darling, Lou’s muse for the song.

About the Author

Willy Somma

Catherine Lacey is the co-creator of The Art of the Affair, with illustrations by Forsyth Harmon. She is also author of the novels Nobody Is Ever Missing & The Answers, forthcoming from FSG, and was a 2016 Whiting Award winner.

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