Episode 034: Celestial Eyes
In which we discuss American Lit, billboards, and the Hammond organ
How can I write a beat about a book? That’s not really what I do here. But I spend so much time reading, I’ve been thinking about how to make it happen.
Maybe I can write about a book cover! That’s art. Sometimes great art. But, which one? There have certainly been a few…
I finally thought, well, since I’m probably only going to have one shot at this, let’s go for what I would argue is the most iconic cover art in this history of American literature:
Francis Cugat’s 1924 painting Celestial Eyes, the image that graces the cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby.
There are countless editions of Gatsby with countless different covers. But this is the one, without question. Celestial Eyes has endured as the all-timer, the image most associated with what many argue is the great American novel.
Here’s something nifty I learned while researching the art for this beat:
“For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book,” Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to his editor Max Perkins in 1924.
So you are telling me that the whole concept of the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg optometrist billboard—one of the great metaphors in the history of fiction—first came from the book’s future dust jacket design?
Wow. That’s art indeed.
Loved doing the reduction for this one. The colors are so beautiful. The eyes and lips were pretty ready to go, but the shining carnival [and/or city, depending on how you see it] took a bit more time.
Who wants to write 1920s-style jazz-age-prohibition-flapper music? I do, certainly. But I could never pull that off in one of these beats. It would sound ridiculously forced.
So I compromised. I stayed away from my usual atonal-polytonal-blahblahtonal thing and wrote something with a chord progression that might at a distance sound like it belongs in the A section of some jazz standard.
Ahh, but that B section. Couldn’t help myself. No way I could write something for this painting without trying to evoke those spooky eyes. I broke the whole thing down, changed keys, and arpeggiated a couple of altered chords…simple enough.
Still not spooky enough!
So when the rhythm section comes back in halfway through, I had the bass return to the bass line it played in the verses. Ah, the tension.
Finally, I thought a fun, straight-ahead Hammond solo at the end would be nice. Or…maybe a guitar solo? No wait—how about both a the same time?
That was fun.
I know, many people will read this and argue that some other cover art is greater or more famous or whatever. Art is like that.
HERE is a list of 25 of the most iconic book covers in history. Looking through them, I’m listing a few below that could give Gatsby a run for its money:
Catcher in the Rye
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
To Kill a Mockingbird
Would you have picked one of these—or another that’s not even on the list? Let me know!
Until next week, thanks for reading Polyester City. If you have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment by clicking the link above. If you know anyone who likes Music and Art and Stories [and books!], which is pretty much everyone, please consider sharing by clicking the link below.