May 14, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Beth Alvarado's essay collection Anxious Attachments stuns with its poignancy and humanity.
The New York Journal of Books wrote of the book:
"Alvarado includes the references to current events, politics, social issues, and science, not because she's trying to make these personal essays about more than herself, but because they are about more than herself. Going from the intensely personal to the political, the social, the scientific, is what makes these essays universal."
Since Anxious Attachments is a collection of essays about events that took place over the forty years of my marriage and the years after, as I’ve been grieving my husband’s death, the music that evokes those memories and so informs my writing also ranges widely. The easiest way to approach composing a playlist, then, was essay by essay, song by song, but often, there was a constellation of songs for an essay. As I listened to the songs again, they gave rise to memories that do not appear in the essays themselves but resonate with them.
In a Town Ringed by Missiles
When you’re nodding out, you want music that drifts. But since this is an essay about quitting heroin, I choose Blind Faith’s “I Can’t Find My Way Home.” “Come down off your throne / and leave your body alone. / Somebody must change. / You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long. / Somebody holds the key. / But I’m near the end / and I just ain’t got the time. / Oh, I’m wasted / and I can’t find my way home.” This seemed as prophetic as Rilke’s (of whom, then, I had not yet heard), “there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”
We, the counselors and house parents and volunteers, drank a lot at a bar across the street from the Shelter Care. We called it “the annex,” because whoever wasn’t on duty taking care of the run-aways could be found there drinking their blues away. No surprise, given that Louis, the counselor, and Fernando and I were all ex-heroin addicts, but everyone else drank as much as we did. It was the nature of the work. Even the director, Kathy, an ex-nun, could knock back the shots. Rickie Lee Jones, especially “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” conjures those days, the smoky, jittery chaos of both the bar and the shelter, the “halfway house on a one-way street.”
The Motherhood Poems
Flash forward to 2005 and the birth of our first grandchild. Two months premature and only four pounds, he looked like nothing so much as a shar-pei puppy. The song that most reminds me of those drives to LA to visit the baby in the NICU? “Me Gustas Tú” by Manu Chao. It was quirky and catchy and had a sense of urgency: “¿que voy hacer? / je ne sais pas / ¿que voy hacer? / je ne sais plus / ¿que voy hacer? / je suis perdu / ¿que hora son, / mi corazón?”
My mother had sung in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera when she was in college. Bizet and Puccini were her favorites, but we never listened to Madame Butterfly, because it reminded her too much of her first husband who had been killed in the Korean War. If I want to feel close to my mother and to the loss that defined her life, all I have to do is hear the opening notes of the aria, “Un bel di, vedremo.”
Notes from Prague
“The national anthem of jealousy,” someone on YouTube calls the lyrics from “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. Across the street from the apartment my daughter and I rented in Prague, there was a youth hostel with a neon red arrow that pointed up the stairs. At night there was loud music and young couples followed the arrow and then sat on couches, kissing. It was hot that summer. Our floor-to-ceiling windows were open for air, but when I wanted to sleep, I closed them, hoping for quiet. Too hot without air, without air conditioning, without fans, and Kathryn wanted the windows open, so she gave me her IPod, but this is what was on it: “Mr. Brightside.” Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dosed.” Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy.” TV on the Radio, “Wolf Like Me.” Beck, “Lost Cause.” The playlist of her divorce.
Days of the Dead
Audioslave, “Like a Stone,” makes me feel that Fernando had a premonition of his own death, that it was coming sooner rather than later. I could see why he identified so much with the brooding music, with the lyrics’ regrets and religious overtones. I remember wishing he didn’t love this song so much, that something else, something more hopeful, would speak to him, but after he died, I played it over and over for a while because it made me feel closer to his sorrow than my own.
Stars and Moons and Comets
He said “American Girl” by Tom Petty reminded him of me, but I liked “Young Americans” by David Bowie. He liked “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, but I preferred “Sultans of Swing.” Van Morrison: I’d choose “Have I Told You Lately,” but he liked “Moondance” better. “Crash” by Dave Matthews Band, he loved that one, while I always wanted to dance to “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. “Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd and the Monster, we both loved that one.
After Fernando died, I spent the summer with Kathryn in Oregon. We were polishing the stone of our grief. We drove a lot, listening to CDs she had burned for our trips. Of Monsters and Men. “Little Talks.” When it started, there were horns and a snappy tune and a chorus of voices, “Hey!”—and so, every time, the upbeat music failed to prepare me for the nearly apocalyptic lyrics, the bodies on ships and “the screams that all sound the same.” The song is a duet that alternates between a man’s voice and a woman’s and the story that unfolded was just like mine: “You’ve gone, gone, gone away, / I watched you disappear / All that’s left is a ghost of you.”
Water in the Desert
After Fernando died, I had a housemate. It was the only way I could hang on to the house until I could sell it, but the woman who lived with me was very sensitive. She liked to go to bed at 8 p.m. and so, if I wanted to watch TV, I had to turn the volume down very low. If I laughed, even a quick breathy ha! ha! exhale of air, she would come out of her room and glare at me. Music would not help, she said, nor a white noise machine, nor a fan. Sometimes, though, she would go away and then I would pour a glass or two or three of wine and crank it up and dance and sing. I always started with Santigold by Santigold, “L.E.S. Artistes,” “Shove It,” “Say Aha,” and then “Creator,” as a way of both exorcising the house and of allowing my body to vibrate with sound.
When I was in Guanajuato with my cousin, we listened to strolling mariachi bands as we sat outside to eat. “Volver, Volver,” about a lover promising he will return, has always been my favorite ranchera. When I hear it, I want to dance, even though Fernando always told me that dancing with me was like wrestling. Yes, I would agree, it was. I never learned to follow.
When I was sixteen, my mother made me take voice lessons in case I wanted to “sing for my husband when he came home from work.” At least, that was the rationale she gave me. She also sent me to Charm School. If nothing else, this tells you how much my Bohemian attire and slovenly habits dismayed her. At any rate, before my recital, she gave me a shot of whiskey to calm my nerves. Years later, maybe decades, she told me that she was humiliated when I sang “Mercedes Benz,” something I wish she had kept to herself because, in my memory, I’m killing it, nailing every note.
That claustrophobic summer of the wildfires, Kathryn and I played a CD of lullabies based on Grateful Dead songs and we watched Classical Baby. The Babies each had their favorites, even at this age, when they were barely crawling, but one of mine was “Sleepy Lion” by Miriam Makeba, which reminded me of my older sister and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a forty-five she used to play when she was babysitting us.
Die Die Die
When I went to help my son, Michael, renovate his new house, I discovered that he and I had the same playlist—mine, of course, heavily influenced by playlists Kathryn had created on my laptop. Foo Fighters, REM, Soundgarden, the Fugees, Beasty Boys, Alanis Morissette, Prince. Such an odd moment when I realized that I was nostalgic for my children’s adolescence, not my own.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Grief
If I were to make a playlist for Fernando, it would be filled with guitar music. Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, Santana, B B King, Steve Winwood, Mark Knopfler. And Hendrix. Of course, Hendrix. Especially “Little Wing.” If, when someone dies, the person we were inside of them also dies, then this is the girl I am mourning when I mourn Fernando.
Beth Alvarado and Anxious Attachments links:
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
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