February 11, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In his debut short story collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor captures the lives of his young characters vividly as they struggle in that precipice between childhood and adult life.
Time Out New York wrote of the collection:
"The characters presented in his debut collection are filled with the disastrous mixture of rage and malaise, unsure of themselves and unsure of the future. Taylor captures the suffocating boredom of small-town life perfectly, pinpointing how a lack of culture combined with a disappointing family situation can become a recipe for bad behavior."
I knew there was a lot of music in this book, but it wasn't until I sat down to work on these Book Notes that I realized just how much. Music figures in almost every single one of these stories, sometimes as a way for characters to define themselves (to others or to themselves), sometimes as a way of articulating a political sentiment or an unspeakable emotion, sometimes as background noise, sometimes as all (or none) of the above. I thought that instead of talking about my favorite music, or about what I was listening to during the period I was writing/editing this book, I would focus on the music that's important to the characters in the stories—the songs and bands they actually encounter in the text. Obviously, there's a lot of overlap between their taste and mine—but not as much as one might think.
Since a book of short stories is itself a kind of mix tape, I see no reason to depart from the order established by my own table of contents. I'll move through the book in sequence, story by story, picking songs out as I go.
Story: "Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season"
Music: "Hybrid Moments" by The Misfits
In the story, Amber, gives her not-quite-boyfriend Patrick a Misfits tee shirt and a pair of JNCOs to wear while his clothes dry, because he jumped in a pool fully dressed. In the early drafts, it was an AFI tee shirt, but I thought that two sets of abbreviations (side note: are they abbreviations? for what?) in one sentence was one set too many, and since there is nothing else on this earth like a pair of JNCOs, Amber became a Misfits fan. She's probably better off that way.
Story: "In My Heart I Am Already Gone"
Music: "Possum Kingdom" by the Toadies
Kyle, the narrator of this story, wants to take his fifteen-year-old cousin, Vicky to an arena concert, but her parents won't let her go. He buys her a souvenir tee shirt to add to her collection. The band isn't named, but the shirts are described as generally depicting "some red-filtered cluster of sullen, long-haired guys," which suggests to me that their taste runs along pop-metal lines, like Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails, though it could just as easily be something truly awful, like Korn. Vicky, given her age, is probably more extreme in her taste, but her age also makes her opinions a lot more malleable. All she needs is to hear In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, played by the right boy at the right time, and her whole life will change. In the meantime, however, she's stuck with her parents and her creepy older cousin. I came up with "Possum Kingdom" by performing a thought experiment: I imagined that Kyle and Vicky were, for whatever reason, stuck hanging out with me at my apartment, and I told them we could listen to anything in my iTunes library that they could both agree on.
Story: "Estrellas y Rascacielos"
Music: "My Congressman" and "We Will Win" by Fifteen; "Stars" by Hum
I know, I know. Two Fifteen songs in a row is a lot to ask of a mix-tape listener, but "My Congressman" has got to be one of the high-water marks in the history of the-punk-song-as-polemic. Jeff Ott opens by singing-chanting-shouting "My congressman says I can't give my brother a clean syringe—if he should get AIDS and die it's just too bad." It only gets more aggressive from there. Then there's this breakdown in the middle over which Ott talks you through how to use bleach to sanitize a needle, in case you can't get hold of a new one.
"We Will Win" is the song the characters are actually listening to in the story—it's playing on their house stereo. The key line of the chorus (quoted in the story) is "Kill your elected official today," which is just such a perfect example of how anarcho-punk naivete causes basically noble ideals to collapse into their own brutal opposites, though I sympathize with him inasmuch as the congressman is already essentially a murderer, his own hands stained with the blood of countless junkies and AIDS victims, etc. What was it Stalin said? One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are only a statistic…
As for "Stars" by Hum, that's definitely not a song that any of the characters in this story would listen to. It's hard enough for their taste, but the intro is too long and the emo sentiment would turn them off. I like the song a lot though, and I first heard it on a mix-tape (cassette, thank you very much) that my friend Maggie made for me, back when neither "indie" nor "emo" were terms in common usage. There was other stuff on that mix-tape—Modest Mouse, some Yo La Tengo, other then-revelations—but this song always stood out in my memory. This story shares its title with the name scribbled on the case of that mix-tape she made me.
Story: "The New Life"
Music: "St. Stephen"-->"The Eleven" by the Grateful Dead, 2/11/69 at the Fillmore East
Music is a primary way of articulating and performing identity for Angela and Kenny Beckstein, the brother and sister who are the dual subjects of the narrator Brad's awkward affection. Kenny is a budding hippie, learning the ropes of bootleg tape-trading and getting into bands like Phish and the Dead, while Angela's decisive break with the local Goth scene inadvertently triggers the story's main action. The 2/11/69 show that Brad buys Kenny for his birthday is something of a mixed bag, featuring an interruption for a string replacement on the first disc, and the tape running out halfway through the encore on the second, but there are also some truly stellar performances, including the one-two punch I've chosen here, a "St. Stephen" with the rare (later dropped) William Tell bridge-section, and an instrumental version of "The Eleven" which—with all due respect to Robert Hunter—is a stronger piece of music without the clumsy, baffling lyrics.
Music: "Tennessee" by The Silver Jews
My admiration and respect for David Berman is boundless. I've spent more time listening to his music—and reading his book of poems—than I could or necessarily would want to ever account for. In certain limited but important ways, "Tennessee" is the most overtly autobiographical story in this book. My family really did relocate from Miami to Nashville, under circumstances similar to—albeit more complicated than—those described in this story, the first draft of which was the only piece of fiction I wrote during the long summer of 2005, when I lived at "home" with my folks in the town of Franklin (about twenty minutes outside Nashville) between an extended couch-crash in Portland, Oregon and moving to New York City that fall. "Tennessee" is from Bright Flight, which is probably my favorite Silver Jews album. It was also released as an EP single, which features the two greatest Silver Jews B-sides of all time, "Long Long Gone" and "I'm Gonna Love the Hell Out of You," plus a delightfully sloppy cover of Johnny Cash's "Turn Your Guns Around."
Story "The Jealousy of Angels"
Music: "The Precious Jewel" by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Joe Hill's Casey Jones" by Pete Seeger"
I've actually written about this story for Largehearted Boy before, because it was included in Best of the Web 2008 and we did a group-Book Notes for that at the time.
Story: "Go Down Swinging"
Music: "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion, "I Apologize" by Husker Du
This story features the same characters as those in "Estrellas y Rascacielos." It's set several months after "Estrellas." The story opens with David practicing his baseball swing with a mop handle while listening to Social Distortion. There are a lot of great Social Distortion songs, including their magnificent covers of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and the Rolling Stones's "Under My Thumb." But "Story of My Life" is a quintessential anthem of the f**ked life—it could be a folk song, and maybe one day it will be. As far as Husker Du goes, even during my punkest phases I didn't listen to or regard them much, but I sort of understood that they were a divisive element in certain circles: being into them (or not) meant something. I came around to them, actually, because of Dennis Cooper. Ziggy, the protagonist of Dennis's novel, Try, is a Husker Du obsessive, and puts out a zine called "I Apologize," named for the song. After I read Dennis's book, I started listening to Husker Du, for much the same reasons that an admirer of Eliot's "The Wasteland" might track down Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance.
Story: "Somewhere I Have Heard This Before"
Music: "On a Plain" by Nirvana
Nirvana was my first real musical obsession. They're still this enormous, looming force in my mind. "Lithium" was the first Nirvana song I ever heard, and remains one of my favorites, but I knew when I was composing this story that the song that would play on the jukebox had to have a lyric that could serve as the title, and "Lithium" didn't have one that fit. Kurt's lyrics are so tense and cryptic—sometimes to enormous effect, sometimes more like middle school code-poetry being shrieked at you—that it was hard to find something that worked, but this stray line from "On a Plain" was exactly what I was looking for.
Story: "A House in Our Arms"
Music: "Dig for Fire" by The Pixies
Toward the end of this story, Todd stumbles out of his lover's apartment, then ducks into a bar near Columbia University. The Pixies are on the stereo, and he recognizes the band but doesn't mention a particular song (he may not know its name) but it's probably a song like "Dig for Fire," which is a good song and all, just not much of a bar song—very talky and there's no great hook. Some grad student probably just had to hear it for whatever drunk-logic reason, and so fired it up on the jukebox, to the bemusement and/or irritation of everyone else at the bar.
Story: "Weekend Away"
Music: "Hard Traveling" by Woody Guthrie
On the road out of Portland, Oregon, headed for the coast, Rose stops for a hitch-hiker named Bruce. "You been doin' some hard travelin'?" she asks him when she first pulls up, paraphrasing the first line of Woody Guthrie's "Hard Traveling" in what she doubtless intended as a private joke. But he gets the reference, and replies with "I thought you knowed," which is the second line of the song. They bond immediately.
Not counting "This Land is Your Land," "Hard Traveling" was the first Woody Guthrie song I ever heard. I used to go to an open mic when I lived in Gainesville, FL and there was a regular there who used to play this song a lot. It was his signature cover. He played it on an acoustic guitar, but fast and hard—a very punk version of the song. I probably heard him play that song thirty times. There are plenty of versions of the song, but the one I'm thinking of, other than that open-mic guy's, is the title track of the Asch Recordings Vol. 3, released by Smithsonian Folkways.
Story: "Jewels Flashing in the Night of Time"
Music: "Debaser" by The Pixies
Another Pixies song. The narrator is singing the song's refrain to himself on the first page of the story. He likes how the word "debaser" sounds coming out of his mouth. He is intrigued by the idea of debasement, and of being a person who is comfortable being a debaser—of what exactly, he isn't sure yet, or can't bring himself to say. By the end of the story—almost certainly the darkest in the book—he'll have made enormous disturbing progress toward working these problems out.
Story: "Whistle Through Your Teeth and Spit"
Music: "Death Song" by Choking Victim; "Touch of Grey" by The Grateful Dead; "I Send My Love To You" by Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy; "Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan; "What Would I Want? Sky" by Animal Collective
The last story in the book warrants its own EP, and therefore its own mini-essay.
It opens more or less en medias res, following a character named Riot who wears a jacket on which he's scribbled the names of his favorite bands, one of which is Choking Victim—the legendary ‘90s hardcore band, frequent performers at C-Squat, the equally legendary New York City squat on Avenue C—a place Riot probably hung out at during its heyday (and his). "Death Song" has the lines "Tompkins Square is everywhere / it's written on the walls / they'll suffocate yer real estate / and grab you by the balls." In a lot of ways, this story is an elegy for a version of the East Village that I never got to experience—it was destroyed by Giuliani etc. long before I got to New York. The coffee shop whose closing is central to this story is (was) located on Avenue A at East 9th street, which is on the Western edge of Tompkins Square. It's based on a real place, Alt.Coffee, that I fell in love with when I moved here in 2005. It was the last redoubt of a certain kind of East Village aesthetic. I of course couldn't (can't) afford to live in the Brave New East Village, but I went to Alt as often as I could until it closed.
The story takes its title from a line in the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey." Tim, the main character, is a musician in his early thirties who plays in a Dead cover-band at a hippie-kitsch tourist trap in the West Village. He's ambivalent about the Grateful Dead, but he understands their music well enough to feel a grudging respect for them, and he gets a kind of ironic kick out of their utter lack of hipster cache, since he is a failed hipster himself. It's funny that in both stories in this book where the Dead come up, they're subjected to mockery, because my own feelings about them are totally unalloyed. They're my favorite band in the world. Jerry Garcia is basically a saint, as far as I'm concerned. But I know from personal experience that that's not a common position, so it doesn't surprise me that my characters would feel less enthusiastic about the Dead than I do. So I let them have their own say, but in the end it's my story, which is why the Dead song provides the title.
"Touch of Grey" is a dark song. Like Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years," the lyrics are cutting and cynical, but it's got such an upbeat sound that people just don't notice how vitriolic it is. As Tim mentions at one point, "Touch of Grey" was the band's only number one hit in their whole career, and I've always found it amusing that the Official Ambassadors of Good Times should have finally made #1 with something so bitter. Maybe they should have re-invented themselves as a punk band...
Late in the story, Tim overhears two people at a party talking about music, and one presents the somewhat dubious theory that Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham) is "the new Bob Dylan" and that the evidence for this "fact" lies in a comparison of how each man adapts his own songs for live performance. The theorist urges his listener to compare two versions of Oldham's "I Send My Love to You" (Days in the Wake and Summer in the Southeast) and then compare that comparison to two versions of Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm" (Blood on the Tracks and Hard Rain)—the latter recording in each case being a live one. The whole thing is insane, of course, except in that all four versions of both these songs are wonderful. I wrote this as a kind of double-satire of (1) the drunk-guy-waxing-philosophical-at-the-party, and (2) the whole idea of the search for "the next Bob Dylan"—which always cracks me up when I hear people talk about it. Especially since the first one is still alive!
I'll end on a song from the most recent Animal Collective EP, which came out at the end of '09, so I can't claim to have referenced it in the book, or that it inspired anything. In fact, I only first heard it a few weeks ago, around the time I started thinking about this essay. But Tim's one brush with fame was as part of an early ‘00s freak-folk band that I imagine sounding sort of like Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective. If Tim had the chance to hear "What Would I Want? Sky" he'd instantly recognize not just the source material, but a realized version of his own lost musical ambition. Plus, as a bonus, "What Would I Want? Sky" contains Animal Collective's first (official) sample of a Grateful Dead song. The chorus is a scramble of lines from "Box of Rain." I think the song—Animal Collective's song, I mean, though of course I love "Box of Rain" too—is just gorgeous, absolutely stunning, and its lyrics seem to offer a message of comfort and equanimity that are everything Tim needs and doesn't get in this story: everything "Touch of Grey" sounds as if it would provide, but doesn't.
Justin Taylor and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever links:
Andrew's Book Club review
The Millions review
New Jersey Monthly review
Oxford American review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out Chicago review
Time Out New York review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists