In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Erin Keane’s memoir-in-essays Runaway offers keen insight into mythologies both personal and cultural, especially where these are entwined.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
“[This] memoir expands beyond the personal to cast that same piercing gaze on cultural myths, from the obsession with nymphets to the demonization of runaways. What results is a deeply felt family memoir that also functions as an exegesis of our social texts.”
In her own words, here is Erin Keane’s Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Runaway:
My mother was thirteen years old when she ran away from home, hitchhiked across the country, fabricated new identities, had many adventures and catastrophes, and then met my father, a recovering heroin addict with a criminal past, in a Greenwich Village bar and married him when she was fifteen and he was thirty-six. He died when I was five years old and transformed into a kind of celebrity to me in his absence—intimately connected yet ultimately unknowable. I didn’t begin to think of their relationship as one built on a fundamental power imbalance until I started writing about #MeToo exposés and considering their age difference in that light. I began writing Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me with some big questions: How did this marriage happen, why did this man decide to marry this girl, and why was it allowed—even supported—by the other adults in their life? It became an essay collection that blends personal narrative and family memoir with cultural criticism, original reporting, and research, to spotlight what we lose when we downplay the complicated lives of girls and women in favor of men’s stories and narrative lenses. It turned out that a lot of what I thought I knew about my father was a lie, and that I really didn’t know my mother’s story at all.
“Cherry Bomb” — The Runaways
“Bad Reputation” — Joan Jett
Music runs throughout these essays, but the songs that became my writing anthems don’t actually appear in the book. My mother never got into punk—she preferred the vibe of the Woodstock era she had just missed when she ran away in 1971—and The Runaways came along a few years after she stopped working rock shows on the security team for New York concert venues, but they still remind me of her. The way they were packaged to play up their sex appeal, built on a combination of streetwise toughness and underage titillation, says a lot about how America viewed wayward girls. “Bad Reputation” feels like it should be a Runaways song, but it’s Joan’s off her first solo record. Once a runaway, always a runaway, though, so why not embrace your bad reputation? I like to think Joan is still singing this one for all the girls and women who have been punished for not being compliant, for refusing to only speak when spoken to.
“We Can Be Together” — Jefferson Airplane
A straight up classic youth rebellion anthem with a killer riff. Who hasn’t at some point in their teenage years felt like an outlaw in the eyes of America? Volunteers was my mother’s favorite album the year she turned thirteen, and the opening track has a way of getting under your skin: Up against the wall, motherfucker. My mother used to impress my friends by telling them she had a copy of Grace Slick’s old driver’s license that she found at a party they were both at once upon a time, or something like that. Listen, I will never be as cool as my mother, and I made peace with that a long time ago.
“Drunken Sailor” (Trad.) — Irish Rovers
My father had this album of sea shanties that I associate so strongly with him, and this tune is one whose chorus I don’t remember not knowing how to sing, down to the salty pronunciation of “earl-aye in the morning.” The solutions of what we should do with a drunken sailor range from the practical to the absurd, with “put him in the bed with the captain’s daughter” sounding like a great way to be charged with accessory to a crime. Irish Rovers have a banger version of this song, and the comments on the unauthorized YouTube upload are gold. Examples: “Only 1700’s kids will remember this.” and “This is a certified hood classic.” (The actual Rovers account, perhaps unsurprisingly, has disabled comments.) When the youths of TikTok got super into sailor songs for a minute, that was a very weird time for me. “Drunken Sailor” is also basically the same tune as the traditional Irish rebel song “Óró, sé do bheatha ‘bhaile.” Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising, wrote new lyrics for it around the legend of Gráinne Mhaol, the Sea Queen of Connacht, to ramp up its efficacy as a Republican battle anthem — the kind of thing my dad, a ruinously romantic fourth-generation Irish American, would have been way into from the safety of his East Village barstool on this side of the Atlantic. Sinead O’Connor’s version will give you chills, of course, and Seo Linn’s is haunting. (I don’t only listen to bands with accordions, but all this does explain why I like the Pogues so much, see Track #8)
“Rhapsody in Blue” — George Gershwin
I could pretend I’m someone who doesn’t associate this song immediately and irreparably with the opening montage of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but I’ll never be that person. I have no taste for Allen’s movies anymore, but I came of age in a time when he was still held up as a filmmaker to admire, and I’d be lying if I tried to play off the hold this movie once had on me as a critic and an artist. (It took me years to understand that I was seeking clarity about my parents’ relationship through the film’s central romance, which I now recognize as creepy.) Gershwin didn’t ask for that association, though; a way to reframe this song is through its longstanding link to the magical pull of New York City in general and to Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, whose reinventions remind me of my parents’ own fictions and fables.
“I Feel Free” — Cream
When my mother left home for the first time, she hitchhiked to Colorado and ended up in Aspen, where she slipped into a scene of parties and live music and carefree summer mountain life. This song was—almost unbelievably—playing on the radio in a car during a pivotal moment in her adolescence: her first joint away from home. It’s like she had her own personal music supervisor following her around the 1970s. Couldn’t create a more perfect needle drop if I tried.
“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Atlantic City,” and “Born to Run” — Bruce Springsteen
The mysteries of the Jersey Shore, the promise of a redemption song, the lure of the open road. It all sounds almost possible when Bruce sings it. While researching the runaway scene of the 1970s for the book to understand where my mother fit into the larger cultural landscape, I learned about a cold case in New Jersey, a runaway girl who called herself Sandy who died in 1972 and whose anonymous skeleton was donated to the Smithsonian’s anthropology collection. I wrote about trying to find out more about her, and only getting as far as the cold case database, where several police sketches of her, reimagined, can be found. When my mother read about Sandy in my book, her response shook me. “Was she someone I knew? Had I failed her in some way?” she asked. The amount of responsibility these kids took on to keep each other safe on the road is staggering to me now. Anyway, I think about Sandy the girl whose real name is unknown and I think about Bruce Springsteen, singing his beautiful and haunted on-the-road and back again songs, which are always more warmly received in a man’s voice.
“Goodbye, So Long” — Ike & Tina Turner
Milos Forman’s 1971 comedy Taking Off opens with what turns out to be an audition, as a stream of teenage girls earnestly try out for a musical part in something, and the songs are utterly bonkers. A young Kathy Bates crooning about winged horsies, that sort of thing. It’s amazing, trust me. And it will clear a room so fast. I’m not going to put those songs on this playlist; you might not survive them. Taking Off is about the idiot parents (Buck Henry, Lynn Carlin, both geniuses) of a teenage girl about my mother’s own age who sneaks away from her suburban home to go into the city to this audition, and then decides she doesn’t want to be home anymore. They start out looking for their daughter but end up partying with other parents of runaways, and there’s a scene where they stop in at a hotel and get hammered while Ike and Tina perform a live version of “Goodbye, So Long” and it’s absolutely electrifying. This is the film that helped me understand how my mother’s parents could have let her stay gone for as long as they did—despite their stability and standing in their community and their status in our family, they were fallible humans doing the best they could with kids they couldn’t understand (and vice versa).
“Sally MacLennane” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” — The Pogues
The first time I heard the Pogues—their 1985 album Rum Sodomy & the Lash, with its reproduction of the French Romantic painting by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, on its cover, with all the shipwreck victims’ faces swapped out for those of the band’s—I told myself my father would have loved this group had he lived to hear them. A decade later, I’m standing in the Louvre next to my mother looking at the real, massive painting, The Raft of the Medusa, on the gallery wall. It is our first vacation together, just the two of us. The French Romantics aren’t my favorite section of the Louvre, but I lingered in front of that dark painting, unable to explain to my mother why I didn’t want to move on just yet. No matter how long I stared at the faces of the doomed sailors, they couldn’t become who I expected them to be. “Sally MacLennane” is a raucous homecoming anthem, a delightfully efficient combo of a drinking song and a funeral song. Cait O’Riordan’s rendition of the traditional ballad “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” stands as tall as Jeannie Robertson’s, the layer of irony Jock Stewart’s story gets from a woman’s voice reminding me of how differently men’s and women’s adventures are perceived in terms of propriety and admiration.
“Kiss Kiss Kiss” — Yoko Ono
My family as I knew it began its end the day John Lennon was murdered. I grew up thumbing through my mother’s newspaper clippings of the coverage, playing a cassette my parents recorded off the radio of a day-long tribute, and of course Double Fantasy, his final record, structured in alternating tracks of John’s songs and Yoko’s. I had to grow up to love Yoko’s songs as much as John’s on Double Fantasy, but now I prefer them. This song following “(Just Like) Starting Over,” that mystified me as a kid—I thought some of the simulated orgasm sounds were imitating dolphin calls. I couldn’t wait to skip over it to get to “Cleanup Time.” (Sidenote: John wrote “Cleanup Time” in Bermuda, to which he sailed in a storm, “screaming sea shanties and shouting at the gods,” see Track #2.) But when I went back and listened with older ears, I recognized immediately that “Kiss Kiss Kiss” is a weird genius bop. As nostalgic as I am for John’s songs on that album, all of Yoko’s are more interesting by far. And that’s pretty much the thesis of my entire book in one track.
Erin Keane is a critic, poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s the author of Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me (Belt Publishing), one of NPR’s best books of 2022, out in paperback now; editor of The Louisville Anthology from Belt; and author of the poetry collections Demolition of the Promised Land (Typecast Publishing), Death-Defying Acts and The Gravity Soundtrack (WordFarm). Her writing has appeared in many publications and anthologies, and in 2018, she was co-producer and co-host of the limited audio series These Miracles Work: A Hold Steady Podcast. She is Chief Content Officer at Salon.com and teaches in the Sena Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.