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December 9, 2010

Book Notes - Rob Roberge ("Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Rob Roberge's short story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life is as dark and intense as anything I have read all year. Roberge's deft humor and compassion balance his dark themes well as he illuminates his characters dire predicaments and bleak lives.

Matt Bell wrote of the collection:

"Roberge excels at placing his characters in situations that test the limits of their personal ruin, offering them the possibilities of improving their lives while acknowledging that, for most of them, more failure will likely be required before hitting the mythical bottom they seem so desperately to be seeking. Luckily for us, these myriad falls from grace are broken up by moments of sincere compassion and genuine wit, letting us laugh along with the characters even as we reservedly cheer on their crackpot schemes. These are characters whose lives teeter between mistake and miracle, and even if eventually they mostly fall to the one side, it is the hope for better endings that keeps us and them going forward from scene to scene."

In his own words, here is Rob Roberge's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life:

Music always plays a large part in my writing. I write to music. I tend to think about the form and structures of music when I revise. I read a lot of music theory—not as much as narrative theory, but close. I'm obsessed with dissonance and resolve (or lack thereof and what happens either way) in both narrative and music. So, I really can't imagine thinking about writing without thinking about music. That said, it's fun and kind of difficult to think of songs that go with the stories in my last book. For my last novel, More Than They Could Chew, it would have been pretty easy, as that book had music playing in most every scene. It was a novel with a built-in soundtrack. For this list, though, I'm going to be less literal than I might have been with the novel.

"Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life"

Since this story concerns itself, at least in part, with hermaphrodites and botched suicide attempts, it might be tempting to go right to a thematically linked tune. Say, your classic chicks with dicks songs such as "Walk on the Wild Side" or "Lola," or, going the suicide route, a tune by Joy Division or something. But I wrote the song around a structure inspired by some noir work—the book The Big Clock and DOA (the source book and the movie), where they open close to the ending, and then go backwards and get the audience/reader up to speed on what brought the narrative to that hideous moment that opens the piece (like Sunset Blvd, too).

So, I'll probably pick something sort of noir for this. I'm thinking Miles Davis' Ascenseur Pour Lechafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), which is one of his greatest albums. It's a soundtrack to a French film I've never seen, but the playing is incredible. Miles is in high form. It's the only album I like as much as the "in"' albums on Prestige (Cookin', Relaxin', Smokin' and Workin') and the first half (side one of the vinyl, to date myself) of Jack Johnson.

The music is stunning…and the record has several takes of many of the tracks that make it seem like an audio memory, going over the same thing over and over, with slight changes every time. Like memory itself. Which seems to fit this story. Both the story and the Davis' album seem haunted in some way. And the music has a great combo of dissonance and melody that sort of fits the story's ugly subject matter wrapped in a pretty (at least in structure and sentences) package.

"The Exterminator"

I'm choosing the title track of Television's classic first album, Marquee Moon. Why? Not sure, except that the main character is standing in a snowfall and looking up toward a dark sky with white snow falling from some unseen source. Which reminds me, and I can't quite explain why, of the second guitar solo in "Marquee Moon." It's dramatic. It's dark, and yet thrilling. Cold. Stylized, like this story is. Kind of crisp and cool and spare. Also, I always wish I'd written the verse that starts, "The Cadillac, it pulled out of the graveyard."

Along the same lines, and a slightly more modern pick, would be "23 Minutes in Brussels" by Luna. This has much of the same classic guitar interplay as Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, but it's more melodic and mysterious-sounding. Luna's twin guitar team of Dean Wareham and Sean Eden sound incredible on this cut—and it does with music what I look for (and try to do) in language. The choice of words, rhythms and placements adds up to a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts, somehow. My friend Steve Almond says that he writes because it's the closest he can get to approaching song. "23 Minutes in Brussels" evokes in me the feeling a great short story evokes. I'm moved, changed in some way I can't always articulate, and more in touch with the world than I was before I heard it. The great thing about music (at home, at least) and short stories is that you are alone when you experience them, but they're, at their best, as intimate and intense as being in love.

"Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams"

The obvious pick would be a Stones' tune, since the title takes itself from "Shattered's" chorus. Plus, the Stones (well, at least Charlie and Keith) actually appear in the story, as the narrator's mother is flying them from CT to NY and back while they rehearse the Steel Wheels tour. But I'm not going to go with the obvious pick (unless I get to the end of this and find I haven't used any Rollin Stones, which would just be plain wrong and for which I couldn't forgive myself). It's about an alcoholic ex-industrial painter (the people who paint bridges and airline hangars, which is what I used to do for a while) who's collecting disability. The story touches on a slow disintegration of a marriage, S&M (tangentially) and a murder the narrator witnessed when he was painting. Like most of my characters, he's an addict of some sort (like me), is pretty fucked up and suffers from PTSD (also like me). He's in some losing bout to make some sense of his world (the more I write this, the more autobiographical the stories seem, though my wife has more patience than the wife in this story, thank goodness).

So, what song? David Bowie's "Always Crashing in the Same Car." It's another song with a haunted quality. It's also from his Eno period, which is my favorite of all Bowie's phases, and the piece seems to have Brian Eno's rare and unusual gift for making machines sound warm somehow. Everybody else, when they use synthesizers, they try to have them sound like violins or trumpets. But we have violins and trumpets for that. But Eno and Bowie, they use synthesizers for what they're great for—these unearthly sounds, these blurps and gurgles that no instrument or person can make. And then, when put together with the human voice, something magical happens. You hear music and noise in a different way. This song reminds me, too, of John Cale, who I love—his early essays on music and noise. On hearing the music in the sound of jack-hammers on cement, in the sound of a thousand people walking into Union Station as a train pulls in, in the sound of ice cracking in the wind on the branches of trees after an ice storm. Music becomes the world and the world becomes music.

I'm not sure that's what this story does, but it's what I'm trying to do…sort of gather the gear and tackle of a life gone wrong into some lovely junk sculpture. Taking a life we think we know, and showing that it's different than we may have imagined it to be.

"Swiss Engineering"

Well, the story takes place at an amateur demolition derby, so a slightly obvious pick here. Southern Culture on the Skids' "Mojo Box." While "Dirt Track Date" would have lined up better, title-wise, and "Doublewide" (also off the album MOJO BOX) might have lined up better with the characters in the town, "Mojo Box" just has the perfect sound for a demo-derby. Tremolo'd guitar twangs out of the speakers in a very cool I/IV/V riff that thunders over a great bass line and a rock-meets-surf snare beat. It's the kind of a song you'd play for space aliens if they wanted to know what rock and roll sounds like—and they WOULD want (and need) to know what rock and roll sounds like.

Brief interlude/aside: IF, in fact, there were space aliens and they needed to know what rock and roll was, I would actually send them "Tumbling Dice" by the Rolling Stones. If they didn't get that, well, they're hardly the kind of aliens we'd want to know, so I'd send them on their little green way. Skoot, vamoose and skedaddle, you little green Stones haters.

"Burn Ward"

I couldn't really think of a song that goes, thematically, with the story. The whole thing takes place in a burn ward, with one character who needed skin grafts and another who is in a Striker Frame and, in all likelihood, dying. But, it's kind of a claustrophobic story, so my pick is "All Tomorrow's Parties" off the first Velvet Underground album (The Velvet Underground & Nico aka The Banana Album). The repetitious drone of the song fits the claustrophobia of the song. It's relentless, yet somewhat haunted and, even in a certain light, pretty.

"Border Radio"

Since this story actually references the Carter Family, they'd be an easy pick. The story also references an actual phenomenon of the 1930's when the Carter Family (and others) were on the low- wattage of US AM radio stations, yet those restrictions didn't exist in Mexico. So, at night, when AM radio waves travel father by their nature, the signal from the 50,000 and 100,000 watt stations in Mexico would blast on radios all over the US. The signal was so powerful that it wouldn't just come out of radios, but from the wires on fences and, at times, from people's metal fillings. You could open your mouth at night in Oklahoma and have a radio signal from Mexico coming out of your mouth. And while the Carter Family would go well with this piece, I'm using The Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power" as it has the feel of a Carter Family Appalachian song, coupled with an awe and fear of technology and the upcoming Atomic Age. Also, it's a sentimental pick because the great band Uncle Tupelo did an astounding cover of this on their tour supporting their second album. To hear Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy singing over a fuzzy, Neal Young-like cover of this tune was/is an awesome sonic experience.

Honorable mention: "The Murder of the Lawson Family" a murder ballad from the 1800's that Dave Alvin did on his wonderful Public Domain album. Why? Because it's one of the great murder ballads of all time and it comes from a time and place that connects it musically with the kind of songs AP Carter "collected" and it fits the ugly murder in the story.

"Beano's Deal"

What song goes with a story about a depressed retired chimpanzee boxing champion? Something by Tom Waits, of course. There are plenty to pick from. I'll go with "Tango Till They're Sore." The writer David Lodge says the job of a writer is to "make the strange familiar and the familiar strange." It seems to me that's the job of all art. It's the way you feel when you're socked by love—that everything familiar is different and all this new and strange stuff is now part of you. I don't know of any artist in any field who does a better job of making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar than Tom Waits. He's a national treasure. An international one.


Since it's a Flash Fiction, or a Short-Short or whatever they happen to be calling them these days, The Minutemen's cover of the Urinals "Ack, Ack, Ack, Ack." It may seem a little smarmy to mention a band I'm in (The Urinals), but since I wasn't in the band in 1978, when the tune came out, I have no real ego attachment to it (other than that it's fun to play and the fans—most of whom weren't born when The Urinals and Kathy Talley-Jones wrote it—seem to still love it). And, while I love the original Urinals' version, the reason I'm picking the better-known Minutemen version is because they took a 45 second song and SHORTENED it by cutting out a verse. 45 seconds was, apparently, too long. So, their version is, like, 30 seconds long and they even shortened the title to "Ack, Ack, Ack."). A couple of years ago, we did "Ack, Ack, Ack, Ack" with our buddy Mike Watt (from the Minutemen and, later, the Missingmen and the re-formed Stooges) guesting on vocals and he was asking me in the green room what the words were to the second verse. I said, "Didn't you guys do that song?" He said, "Yeah, but we cut it down." I loved the notion of cutting down a 45 second song. So, for a piece of Flash-Fiction, I'll go with the incredibly short version of "Ack, Ack, Ack."

"Whatever Happened to Billy Brody?"

The story concerns itself with a drug-addicted former child actor and there's something very LA/Hollywood about that for me. Los Angeles is a strange place to live and recognize people. In other cities I've lived, if you recognized someone, you could be pretty sure you knew them at one point in your life. Maybe slept with them. Here, reality gets a little more elastic and distorted, and often the person you recognize on the street is not someone you used to know or fuck, but an actor who used to get beamed into your living room. The people who we don't really know, but who we've seen probably more often than many people we DO know, so they burn some unnamed space in our memories where there is recognition, but no real memory of them, but who we were when we used to see them. Los Angeles is filled with people you recognize but have never met.

The song that maybe touches on this pretty well (in, obviously a slightly different way) is the Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes." It's one of many of Ray Davies' wistful, melancholic songs, with the lovely line about walking down Hollywood Boulevard and seeing the stars that you recognize and those you haven't even heard of. Yet, every one of those people was famous once—and then most lived the remainder of their lives with an ever-dwindling circle of loving strangers.

"A Headache from Barstow to Salt Lake"

The story takes place in the desert, so it leads me to a bunch of bands I love that remind me of the desert like Giant Sand, Calexico and the Meat Puppets. But it also takes place in a desert bar like the ones that used to pump out incredible West Coast country music in Bakersfield in the 1950's, like Buck and the Buckaroos and Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. It's important to remember that "Country" music used to get shelved as "Country & Western" music. When Chet Atkins ruined Nashville with violins and strings, a lot of the "Western" got taken out of the music.

Anyway, I'm going to go with a song written by maybe the greatest songwriter of all time (Bob Dylan) and played by one of the greatest underappreciated bands of the last 30 years (Jason and the Scorchers). Their cover of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" is one of the best Cow-Punk rave-ups ever recorded. That it's not on every jukebox in the lower 48 is something of a crime.

"Do Not Concern Yourself with Things Lee Nading has Left Out"

One of the newer songs on the playlist, but by one of my all-time favorite artists, the great Steve Wynn. "Bruises" by Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three fits the tone of "Lee Nading" really well. Actually, it fits most of the collection pretty well, so it seems like a good tune to end on. Most of the work here is dealing with characters without many expectations and just enough hope to keep them going on with what's rest of their lives. "Bruises" is a driving, catchy rocker with a classic drum intro by Linda Pitmon. And it has this lyric I love:

"I fall down easy
But I get up slow
I really, really hope
That the bruises don't show"

The narrator of the song, much like Hank Collins, (the main character in this story) has seen some hard times, and he'd probably guess the hard times aren't over. But he keeps going because, given the options, it seems most days like the better choice. And the song ends with a repeated refrain that could easily fit the book (and could have been an apt title for the collection if I hadn't chosen "Working Backwards…"): "This is how you learn to fall…"

And, since the whole book is pretty dark and depressing, you could cleanse the depression out of you in under 40 minutes by listening to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' Rockin and Romance. Jonathan Richman is human Zoloft, and that album may be the best anti-depressant ever recorded. You'll probably need it someday, if you don't already. So get a copy now and be prepared.

Rob Roberge and Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Matt Bell review

The Citron Review interview with the author
The Hipster Book Club interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown essay by the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists