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November 4, 2011

Book Notes - Christopher Kennedy ("Ennui Prophet")

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Christopher Kennedy's collection of prose poems Ennui Prophet vibrantly explores worlds personal, social, and political.

We Who Are About to Die wrote of the book:

"Not only is Ennui Prophet a bastion of cool, it is a true pleasure of craft and originality. Christopher Kennedy writes a world at turns emotionally haunting, descriptively vibrant, and at times the literary equivalent of an unnerving smirk, as in the opening line of Church of the Holy Abattoir, “I asked a dead cow her opinion of the slaughterhouse.” There is an uneasiness about and an anxious thread stitching together line to line, poem to poem. These are the surreal scenarios of a propheteering mind awash in the weariness expressed by the title."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Christopher Kennedy's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection, Ennui Prophet:

When I was working on Ennui Prophet, a collection of prose poems, I was obsessed with three things: my adolescence, Alzheimer's disease, and post-9/11 American politics. My mother has Alzheimer's, and watching her lose her past made me acutely aware of my own, and watching and reading the news made me acutely aware of how quickly we, as Americans, forget our collective past. As a result, the poems in the collection are about my misspent youth, my mother's disease, and America's obsession with what is current at the expense of what could be learned from the past. What's the common thread? Music, of course. And Mount Rushmore. How so? Well, I inherited my love of music from my mother. She has a "memory book" on the nightstand next to her bed in the nursing home where she lives. In it is a picture of Mt. Rushmore. The question under the picture asks who the presidents are. I have a poem in the book that refers to Mt. Rushmore. A friend once told me her new roommate in college, during their "break the ice" conversation the first night together, said something along the lines of how amazing it was that Mt. Rushmore had those four faces on it and all of them went on to become president. In other words, she thought Mt. Rushmore was a natural phenomenon. Only in America. And finally, the cover of my book, a collage by Guided By Voices front man, Robert Pollard, features Abraham Lincoln with some accouterments courtesy of Mr. Pollard (several extra eyes, a Band-Aid, and a smoked down cigarette). As I was listening mainly to Guided By Voices, Pollard solo records, and Pollard side projects when I was working on the book, I approached Mr. Pollard via his management (props to Rich Turiel) to get the rights to use the image after I saw it on-line. It all fell into place nicely, and so my list is a Pollard-heavy representation of what I was playing a lot while I was writing. To be sure, there are songs by other performers, but Pollard-penned tunes provided much of the soundtrack for my life during the time I worked on the book, and all the songs in this list reflect a certain nostalgia-based effect I was trying to achieve.

"Chief Barrel Belly" by Guided By Voices

This one's an early gem from the lo-fi classic album Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. The simple chorus, "He said love is the one thing/We needed in this world to be happy," repeats until I begin to think it could be true. Robert Pollard's vocals are so impassioned by the end of the song, I almost believe the things I believed as a young man about love and hope and music, while the grittiness of the rest of the song, its general scratchiness, keeps me in mind of the blue collar sensibility that informs the song (and most of the GBV canon) overall.

"Redmen and Their Wives" by Guided By Voices

The tonal shifts from quiet and introspective to loud and anthem-like alone make this one of the most dynamic songs Pollard has written. If you're a guy who knows the pitfalls of living in a place where high school sweethearts marry, have kids, work shitty jobs, and grow to hate one another, you might want to play this song and feel some sense of solace, or maybe work up the courage to sell the mini-van and buy that tricked-out Impala you've been eyeing (If you're married to that guy, I'm sure you have a very different take on this scenario). Or if you've escaped that fate, it might make you understand what it is you had to sacrifice to be where you are instead. Most likely it will make you feel things you haven't allowed yourself to feel, whatever those things are. It's the kind of song that if you were with your friends in high school, driving around in the family station wagon, drinking warm beer and smoking a fat joint, hearing it would stop you cold. You'd listen and not know why you were silent. And you would never be the same.

"I Will Dare" by The Replacements

I downloaded the raucous and reckless Replacements' last live performance, and whenever my wife brought to my attention that my relationship to all things Pollard was bordering on obsessive (she does psychological research; I get diagnosed a lot) I played it to prove that I could listen to something else. I took one of the epigraphs for the book from "I Will Dare," probably my favorite of Paul Westerberg's songs (along with "Alex Chilton"): "How smart are you?/How dumb am I?/Don't take any/Of my advice." Sounds to me like something an Ennui Prophet would say.

"Thirteen" by Big Star

When I was revising the manuscript, I heard that Alex Chilton had died in a New Orleans hospital of a heart attack. He'd been mowing his lawn. For some reason, I couldn't stop thinking about that detail. I played "Thirteen" a lot while I was working on the revisions. I wanted to feel that sense of venturing out into the unknown world of courtship and rebellion captured in Chilton's lyrics: "Won't you let me walk you home from school"/"Won't you let me meet you at the pool" and "Won't you tell your dad, "Get off my back."/Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint It Black.'" If there is a sweeter coming of age song, I don't know it. Thirteen year-old boys know something about mowing lawns, and when I picture Chilton mowing his on the day he died, I see his thirteen year-old self walking along side him, full of the wonder and trepidation that inspired his song.

"Smothered in Hugs" by Guided By Voices

This song contains some of Pollard's best lyrics, a hyperbolic statement I repeat often when in my evangelical fervor I try to convert the uninitiated: "but the judges and the saints/and the textbook committee/decided you should be left out/not even mentioned/but i believed you/no need for further questioning/i'm gonna leave with you/you can teach me all you know/which way will we go now/on our trip to taller windows/i really don't know now/i really don't know." There is a sense of longing and of blind faith that inundates this song in such a way that I am transported each time I hear it to the most naïve and idyllic part of my youth. I suspect that is the overwhelming appeal of Pollard's songs for me. I know he spent as much time as I did alternating between "The Song Is Over" and "Watcher of the Sky" on his turntable, while imagining this magical place called England, and the kinship I feel to the songs he's produced as a result of those influences is remarkably strong.

"The Brides Have Hit the Glass" by Guided By Voices

GBV purists tend to be dismissive of Isolation Drills, but for my money it's one of their best records. I understand the emotional fall out from new personnel replacing the "classic" line-up (guitarist Doug Gillard must have felt like an unpopular step-parent replacing Tobin Sprout), but the songs are fantastic and the musicianship stellar. I could have chosen any track, but "Brides" is my daughter, Tessa's, favorite song on the album, and the lyrics, "And when she holds out an empty glass/
And she comes for a handout/I ask for the same thing-it's sad/And I hold on so sure I can take all she can/Just to be around her/Just to feel bad" capture vintage Pollard melancholy as well as any he's written.

"Outside this Bar" by American Music Club

Mark Eitzel, American Music Club's songwriter/torch singer extraordinaire, writes about life inside a bottle as if he were a model clipper ship. The first time I heard this song, I wept. The opening, loud and languorous guitar chords, and the lines—"The hospital wouldn't admit you/So we go home again/Right back to the same old room/Right back to the same old thing"—resonated for me and reminded me of a trip to the emergency room I took when I was twenty years old. There's nothing like being turned away from a hospital to make you realize things aren't going well. I played this often and at full volume.

"No Island" by Robert Pollard

A heartbreaking song about lost love and the futility of trying to regain it. The refrain, "There will be no island," which is repeated several times to close out the song with Todd Tobias's simple and elegant riff playing just underneath it, works against the quasi-hopefulness of an early verse: "Sorting rocks from ashes and I…. will build again/And I would seek no true assistance/I would sleep on my island with drunken trees….my island to reach you, again." The irony of the island image with its drunken trees, and the implication that the speaker will do the sorting on his own, confounds in the way that Pollard's best lyrics do (and in my opinion, no one touches him in this realm). The island speaks of isolation; the drunken trees deepen the sense of disconnection, yet this image represents an attempt at reconnection. How so? The tone of Pollard's voice lets the listener know. It's plaintive, and Pollard's faux Brit accent is used to its maximum capabilities. The song is absurdly poignant. I played it over and over to try to approximate the same mood in my own work (without the accent).

"The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young

If a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, this song is a straight line between lost soul and surviving friend. I listen to this song whenever I'm feeling nostalgic about friends of mine who have died or whose lives have been wrecked by one form of addiction or another. When I first heard it in 1972, I knew it was about Danny Whitten, the Crazy Horse guitarist and Young sideman, whose playing complemented Young's perfectly. I remember feeling like one should feel when in church. The song stirs reverence and awe in me. There's a poem in Ennui Prophet called "In the White Hour" that was mostly inspired by this song.

"Death of the Party" by The Keene Brothers

Robert Pollard and pop guitarist extraordinaire, Tommy Keene, formed the nucleus of one of Pollard's side projects, and this is one of his best collaborations. It includes this beautiful pop song, featuring the kind of lyrics ("She used to be an American airline/Through hotels/parallels/Of the far out moon") that usually earn Pollard a dismissive mention by critics something along the lines of "Pollard's lyrics tend toward the obscure" followed by the obligatory reference to whatever band the critic believes Pollard to be channeling. Fair enough. But the obscurity is the point. Pollard is attempting to convey a feeling that doesn't have a name, so he uses words (in combination with the perfect melody) to define that feeling in such a way that the listener will feel it without necessarily being able to name it him or herself. Oh, wait. That's poetry. Fuck you, Pitchfork.

"Five Years" by David Bowie

The apocalyptic pop dirge that kicks off Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars resonated for me in the post 9/11 America era of political excess and hypocrisy: "A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac/A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that." I remember being afraid of this song when I first heard it as a seventeen-year old. I'm even more afraid of it now that the world seems to be following its script.

"Larger Massachusetts" by Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard

Speak Highly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, another noteworthy Pollard side project, showcases ex-GBV guitarist Doug Gillard. Simultaneously solemn and playful, "Larger Massachusetts," the penultimate track, showcases Gillard's melodic playing (there are no other instruments), and Pollard's vocals are crystalline clear and note perfect. As is the case with many of my favorite Pollard compositions, the song is deceptively simple. You might not notice this one the first time around. It's overshadowed by the great "Pop Zeus," but I kept coming back to it for its subversive wistfulness: "The medium-sized world is making a comeback/The world at large is drowning/Disappearing/Crawling up and out forever."

Christopher Kennedy and Ennui Prophet links:

Publishers Weekly review
Sycamore Review review

The Laughing Yeti guest post by the author
We Who Are About to Die review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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