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June 15, 2006

Book Notes - Jami Attenberg ("Instant Love")

When Jami Attenberg's collection of stories, Instant Love showed up in my mailbox, two things moved it to the top of my reading list. First, Emily Flake (a Book Notes contributor, herself) contributed an illustration for every short story. Second, Attenberg is a friend of one of my favorite bloggers and GBV fans. These eleven stories are about love and loneliness, and the narrow, slippery chasm that often separates the two. In several of these stories, music plays a big part in defining the characters, so Attenberg was a perfect candidate for a Book Notes contribution.

In her own words, here is Jami Attenberg's Book Notes contribution for her collection of stories, Instant Love:

When I was in high school my brother left for college and joined the staff of the radio station at his college (KCOU, Columbia, MO. Best college radio station ever. Or at least it was then.) and whenever he came back to Chicago, he’d bring me mixtapes and tell me what bands were cool. So right around 16, 17, I was introduced to Soul Asylum (they were good then!) and Fugazi and this great little band called Uncle Tupelo, and a bunch of obscure bands I can’t recall anymore. (I think he was trying to cure me of what he calls my “regrettable 10,000 Maniacs habit.”) To this day, the nicest thing my big brother ever did for me was force me to listen to the music he liked.

When I write I hear the background music of the story a lot of the time, what’s playing in the room during a scene, or what a character played in the morning while getting ready for work, or what someone listened to when they were in college or high school, whatever helped shapes the moment. And when I finished writing Instant Love, there was a clear soundtrack to the book – a soundtrack to the late 80s and 90s mainly – and to these character’s lives. So here are some of the bands that are mentioned in the book – mostly older stuff, but sometimes it’s fun to take a ride in a time machine – and some of my favorite songs of theirs:

Sonic Youth, Expressway to Your Skull.
The first time I saw Sonic Youth it was at the CMJ festival and I was 17 years old, a freshman at college in Baltimore, and visiting New York for the first time. My brother’s friend Carrie gave me her Missouri ID so I could get into CBGB’s. It was a secret show – Sonic Youth were billing themselves as Drunken Butterfly, or something like that – and they didn’t go on till like 2 AM, and by then we were all hammered. They then played feedback for two hours straight, or at least that’s what it sounded like. You couldn’t leave though, you had waited forever for that moment to arrive. And in the middle of all of it, they played Expressway to Your Skull and everything kind of made sense, so dreamy and grindy and then there was a pause and then a nice little punch in the head. Wake up, you’re here.

The Smiths, Some Girls are Bigger than Others
I was not a huge Smiths fan when I was supposed to be (high school), but I hung out with all the girls who were, the ones who had graduated from Duran Duran in junior high school and found a comforting home with Mr. Morrissey. But he was singing about girls in a way that other bands didn’t at the time (possibly because he didn’t want to sleep with them), and there was the suggestion that it might actually be ok to be a bigger girl, which I of course, fully support.

Rush, Free Will
I don’t want to give off the impression that my brother was always cool. I remember being maybe 12 and my brother was 15 and he was into Rush and Judas Priest then (but also Prince and Cheap Trick and Violent Femmes, which I think was what saved him in the end), and he made me listen to 2112, which he had on repeat for a few months. And maybe he had just read The Fountainhead or something, but he was like, “Listen to those lyrics, Jami. ‘If you choose not to decide, you still have made the choice.’ Do you get it? Do you get what he’s saying?” And I totally got it. Ah, youth.

Mystikal, Shake Ya Ass.
This is one of those Boring White Folks Like It Too! songs, like Hot in Herre or Hey Ya. (I am one of those boring white folks.) Whatever. It gets me going. Side note: the copyeditor on my book had a really hard time finding the correct spelling of the song. The “Ya” really troubled her.

The Pixies, Gigantic
Kim Deal, rock goddess. Also: when I was in college, there was this weird tall guy with long curly hair who worked the late night shift the local WaWa, resentfully serving hot dogs to drunk college kids. I was one of the few kids who liked indie rock so he and I got to talking, and eventually we became friends. He was in a band that was then called Coal (that was later called Mercury Rev) and he used to play me songs from their demo off a tiny tape player, and tell me stories about how he used to book a club in upstate New York. One of the bands he had booked was the Pixies, and he told me the same story about Frank Black like five times, and it went a little something like this: Before the show, he asked Frank Black how the tour was going, and Frank said, “Well, I’m trying to eat more roughage on this tour so I can take a really big crap before I perform.” Frank Black then walked into the ladies’ room and all of the women fled screaming. A couple months later the WaWa guy and I had a huge fight and started hating each other and we never spoke again. All I have to show for it is a gross story about Frank Black.

Pavement, Fillmore Jive
Pavement was the most perfect band of the 90s. And this is the song that pops into my head when I’m driving at night in the middle of nowhere on a road trip. Especially in the desert. It haunts me.

The Eagles, Desperado
More college stories: There was this frat guy named Bob who had a crush on me for maybe two weeks. This was freshman year, before I realized that I hated frat guys, and I went to some of the their parties because I didn’t have that fake ID yet from Carrie from Missouri, and it was the easiest way to get drunk. Anyway, Bob and I were sitting in his frat house one Saturday night, and he had his arm around me, and he was all wasted and dreamy and weird, and he said, “I really want you to understand me. I’m not like other guys. You know the Eagles Greatest Hits? First song, second side. ‘Desperado’ is me.” OK, you win Bob. You’re a desperado. I didn’t make out with him, don’t worry.

The Rolling Stones, Monkey Man
Do you remember that scene from that 21 Jump Street episode where Johnny Depp is supposed to be doing some sort of undercover drug bust thing but then he ends up getting high and they show him on the basketball court playing basketball and he’s all kinds of f*cked up? And Monkey Man is playing and even though it was supposed to bad that he was on drugs, didn’t you think he looked totally cool? I think that might have been the first time I experienced what it was like to be physically aroused.

see also:

Jami Attenberg's blog
Instant Love, #1 & 2

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)