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June 8, 2015

Book Notes - Lucas Mann "Lord Fear"

Lord Fear

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lucas Mann's memoir Lord Fear is an engaging and devastating portrait of a family dealing with addiction and its consequences.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"An ambitious, literary-minded memoir of the author's relationship with his late brother, a much older heroin addict. Mann works on a number of different levels, delivering a narrative of addiction, memory, and family dynamics; of the attempt to see someone through the eyes and different memories of other people; and of the challenges faced by a writer as he attempts to fulfill his literary ambitions. Ultimately, this is a memoir about trying to write a memoir: the challenge, the impossibility, and the catharsis. . . . In constructing his aching, poignant narrative, Mann offers a fine meditation on fate and on how 'the story of addiction is the story of memory, and how we never get it right.'"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Lucas Mann's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Lord Fear:

My God, this is difficult. I'm bad at playlists even when they come without any stakes. Luckily, much of the musical taste on display here isn't mine. Lord Fear is a memoir about my older half brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when I was thirteen years old. It's about my attempt to try to know him, to understand a short, indelible life and a bad death. My own memories are mixed in with the memories of other people who I interviewed about him, as well as a lot of snippets of the writing he left behind. It is, necessarily, an incomplete portrait — a lot of images and a lot of voices moving around a man whose death left no room for a satisfying narrative. My brother's name was Josh. He was a musician, first a drummer and then he taught himself how to play the piano. Because of this, music surfaces in many different memories throughout Lord Fear, and it also lingers just outside of what made it to the page. This list is pretty straightforward: it's made of songs that are all connected to his story, for me. Either they pop up in the book, or they're songs that I remember him loving and revisit because of that, or they're songs that I played while trying to write about him. I'm pretty sure that this direct topicality is a bit lame, according to playlist etiquette, but I think it fits with the nature of the book — a collection of fragments with him at the center. Thanks for listening.

"I Love it Loud," by KISS
My favorite picture of Josh is from when he was eleven, or maybe twelve, with feathered hair and a completely unrestrained smile. He's wearing a KISS t-shirt, tight. There is no more angst free, boyhood image I can think of — big smile, baby muscles, KISS. By the time I knew him, when he used to try to teach me about what made music worthwhile, KISS never came up; it's an easy band to grow out of. But I love the way the drums hit in this song, and I like to imagine him singing along to the first line: Hands up, you don't have to be afraid.

"I Could Fall in Love," by Selena
Josh's CDs were my unofficial inheritance. Listening to them was the first act of research I ever conducted, even if I didn't know it at the time. There was a lot — metal, opera, eighties art bands with albums that I forced myself to get all the way through. What most stuck out to me, though, was the Top 40 fare that I had always considered him above, without ever thinking about why I thought that or what the thought even meant. He had Hanson's debut album; I remember that. Ricky Martin, too. And Selena. I listened to Dreaming of You more than any off the other albums he left behind, and this was my favorite track on it. At first, this embarrassed me greatly — it's a big, luscious, gooey pop song and when I listened to it I felt like somebody would catch me in the act. It wasn't a hard or intellectual enough song to grieve to. But Selena could flat-out sing, and I want this to serve as a crucial bit of playlist intimacy: the song you love, but you never admit to it.

"More Than This," by Roxy Music
This is one of the songs that actually play a part in the narrative of Lord Fear. About halfway through the book, I sit at a bar with a woman who used to be my brother's friend. She describes the way he loved this song, and the first time he played it for her through headphones on a city bus. She describes the way he placed his headphones over her ears, and the way he looked when he saw that she liked it, too. Everything about the scene is gentle, including the song choice. It dips and swells and circles back on itself. It's soft and sad, but it's beautiful, and when the lyrics cut out it feels like the synthesizers linger forever.

"Sprawl II – Mountains Beyond Mountains," by The Arcade Fire
This whole album, The Suburbs, has served as writing music for me since it came out. It's one long car ride at night, constant motion, with the world passing shadowy and blurred through the windows. Maybe I like it because it kind of simulates the act of writing, or maybe it's just a great album. I wore out this particular song while writing Lord Fear. It's full of contradictions — a bouncy, Blondie rhythm and a mournful melody; lyrics like, Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small / That we can never get away from the sprawl. It perfectly expresses the yearning, self-important ambition of creativity, what it feels like to wonder if anyone is listening. I know he felt that a lot, and I know I've felt it, too: They heard me singing and they told me to stop.

"Dear Prudence," by The Beatles
This song pops up in the book, as well, in one of my memories of Josh. It's my favorite Beatles song, but I think that's only because he told me to like it. I remember him singing the Beatles or playing the Beatles on his keyboard as much as I remember him doing anything else. I remember that I thought of his voice like a mix of John's and Paul's, nasal but still clear and strong. He told me to listen to "Dear Prudence" when I was sad, and I did. Sometimes I still do.

"Tom Traubert's Blues," by Tom Waits
This is another song that has nothing to do with Josh, but that I listened to often when writing Lord Fear. Writing music, for me, is about mood creation, anchoring me in a general feeling while I work with the details. I love the mood in this song — melancholy, slowly churning; sustained, unspecified regret for seven minutes over a piano and a saxophone. Every image is incredible, and hints at something we can feel but can't know. Here is just one example: It's a battered old suitcase, in a hotel someplace / And a wound that will never heal.

"The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get," by Morrissey
Josh's own writing features prominently in the book, much of it jotted down in old marble notebooks that he saved and then I saved. Some of his earlier notebooks feature Morrissey references on nearly every page. This song came out around the same time that he was writing a lot of these entries. What I love about it is the way it highlights Morrissey's sense of humor. It's got Morrissey's famous brood, of course, but there's also a constant, undercutting reminder that he knows how funny the sadness can be. When writing about Josh, it became hard to remember how funny he was. Humor was the least obvious thing to look for. But it was there, in all the angry and painful memories, a, snarky intelligence that is in every line of this song: Beware, I hold more grudges / Than lonely high court judges.

"The Real Me," by The Who
Keith Moon's drumming gallops through this song. This was the drumming that he loved. When I was in high school, I used to play this album in my Discman, and feel my steps quicken as I walked to school. So much of how I saw Josh, and how he is rendered in the book, is wrapped up in physicality. He was a force, always moving until he finally slowed himself down. When I was a child, his physicality was overwhelming. I imagined him when he wasn't with me, moving fast through New York City, arms pumping, long steps falling to a beat. He walked, in my mind, with this kind of rhythm.

"That's Entertainment," by The Jam
A smash of glass and the rumble of boots / An electric train and a ripped up phone booth / Paint-splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat / Lights going out and a kick in the balls

This was one of Josh's favorite songs. I like its swagger. It's about London, but it feels like it's about New York, too, or a former version of it. Lord Fear is a New York book; his was a New York life. The setting, a city full of edges that have long since been smoothed, is impossible to separate from the story.

"Pennyroyal Tea," by Nirvana
Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally

It's hard to write something new about a young artist's addiction; there are, sadly, a lot of precursors for what such a character might look like. Kurt Cobain was the strongest image I had in mind when I was first told about Josh's addiction. I did the thing that so many people did and do, combing his lyrics for some kind of explanation. "Pennyroyal Tea" is my favorite Nirvana song. It has that quality that makes Cobain so great, and that I came to associate with Josh's writing as I tried to figure him out— the feeling of a conscience laid bare, yet always opaque enough to make you wish for what you can't know.

"Oh Catherine," by Pere Ubu
This was a gem from the CDs he left behind, a band that I have never encountered outside of the context of the fact that he liked them. The singer's voice is warbling and weird. This song is a ballad of sorts, but there's an amazing surf guitar riff in it that is both out of place and not. It also has my favorite lyric about memory, a refrain that is still perfectly encapsulates the mystery in what every memoir tries to probe: Like a house on a hill / I remember you still.

"Golden Slumbers – Carry That Weight," by The Beatles
I tried to think of another song to end with, something less on-the-nose. Golden slumbers fill your eyes is the epitaph on his tombstone. But there is something worth honoring about a song etched over a grave, like a bookmark within the memories. You're gonna carry that weight a long time.

Lucas Mann and Lord Fear links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Miami Herald review
NPR Books review

Biographile interview with the author
Iowa Public Radio interview with the author
Poets and Writers interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)