July 21, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Justin Taylor has long been one of my favorite writers. His new memoir, Riding with the Ghost, is one of the year's most impressive books.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"This memoir sets a new literary standard for [Justin Taylor’s] work, as he aims higher and reaches deeper. Here, the author shows the precision and command of tone that has informed the best of his stories, but there’s something more at stake—for both the writer and his readers. . . . In this deeply reflective, sensitive narrative . . . there’s plenty of additional insightful observations about the stories we tell ourselves and the differences between the way we shape a story and the way we live our lives. A greater literary achievement than Taylor’s impressive fiction."
There’s a lot of music in my new book, Riding with the Ghost, a memoir about my father. For starters, it takes its title from a song by Jason Molina of the bands Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. (Quick disambiguation: the music journalist Erin Osmon’s thorough and valuable biography, Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, was published in 2017; anyone interested in Molina’s life and work should check it out.) My book has chapters named for songs by the Silver Jews (“Death of an Heir of Sorrows”), Neil Young (“Everybody Knows this Is Nowhere”) and Bob Dylan (“My Back Pages”). Then there were all the artists my dad loved: the Doors, Melanie, Billy Joel, and many more. My first instinct was to pick a representative song for every artist I name-checked. That would have been twenty-five or thirty entries, easy. But the weird thing about writing a memoir—one weird thing about it, anyway—is that it’s about your life, and it’s built from your life, and hopefully it’s true to your life, but none of that means it’s the same as your life.
Maybe this is a hundred plus days of quarantine talking, but when I think about my book I don’t always think first of the things that it’s ostensibly “about”: my father’s illness and depression, his suicide attempt, our difficult relationship, the last years of his life and my first year after his death, my friend Eli who also died, and how those two periods of mourning became entangled in my mind and in my heart (and, eventually, in my book). Of course I do think of all those things too, but first and foremost what I think of is my dad’s car, a silver 2007 Nissan Sentra. I inherited it when he died. I spent a lot of 2017 and 2018 driving that car around the middle of the country. (There was also, before he died, a borrowed Passat and some rental cars, but in my mind it’s always the Nissan.) Indianapolis, Nashville, Pensacola, Oxford, New Orleans, Gainesville. The early morning drive from Hattiesburg to Gulfport-Biloxi airport for a flight out, followed four or five days later by the midnight drive back.
These are songs from the records I soundtracked those drives with. I’ve indulged a bias toward openers and title tracks. Some of these songs are loud and some are hushed but what they all have in common, I guess, is a feeling of forward motion and some aspect that invited, and then repaid, deep attention. And we’re all dreaming more intensely during this lockdown, right? Sometimes in mine I’m back on the road, driving Dad’s car, which in reality I sold in the summer of 2019. It had a six disc changer and a headphone jack I could plug my phone into. I don’t typically hear music in my dreams but when I dream that I’m back in that car I know that this is what’s playing.
“Goin’ Home” - Albert Ayler
I don’t understand jazz well enough to discuss it in any kind of sophisticated way, but I do enjoy it. Something about Ayler, and Goin’ Home in particular, just lights me up. Part of it is probably the fact that many of these songs are traditionals (“Down by the Riverside,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “When the Saints Go Marching In”) so there’s an accessible point of entry/reference even for the rank amateur like myself—besides which I’m always ready for a good gospel record: see entries for Emmylou Harris and Charlie Parr below—but I can be just as enthralled by Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (1965) or Live in Greenwich Village (recorded in ’66 and ’67), so I know that there’s got to be more to it than just that.
“I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” - Songs:Ohia
The Magnolia Electric Co. is an all-time favorite album. It’s never really out of the rotation but I listened to it even more than usual when I was living in Indianapolis and came to associate it very strongly with the section of I-70 West that runs between Indy and Center Point. I only took that trip once, and it didn’t seem like a very big deal at the time, but it ended up becoming a crucial episode in what became the title chapter of my book.
“Mississippi” - Bob Dylan
There are two versions of this song on Bootleg Series Vol. 8. I picked the one I like slightly better for reasons that escape me just now. I should say too that I could have gone with something off of Blood on the Tracks, either the original or the scrapped version (which you can hear on Bootleg Series Vol. whatever it is), because both versions got played a lot in my car. I can convince myself either one is better depending what mood I’m in. “Idiot Wind,” for example, seems to possess a forlornness in its bare bones version that the admittedly fuller and more polished version loses—or maybe just exchanges for a more pointed sneer. But back to Bootleg Series Vol. 8: some of the best mid-late (or is it late-mid?) period Dylan out there. A great rendition of “Ring Them Bells,” itself one of the greatest Dylan songs you’ll never see on a list of Dylan’s greatest songs.
“California Zephyr” - Grant Hart
I saw Grant Hart play a solo show in Minneapolis in 2015 and after he died in 2017 I started spending a lot of time with his short beautiful record, Hot Wax. This is my favorite song from it, though “Barbara” and “You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water” are close seconds.
“Coyote” - Joni Mitchell
I went with this one rather than the version on The Last Waltz or the one on Hejira, even though both of those are probably better. I just love Shadows and Light, her 1980 live record, in all of its jazzed-out wonkiness. That’s Jaco Pastorius on bass and Pat Metheny on lead guitar. Miles of Aisles (1974) is a solid live album too. My dad liked Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and Blue (1971). Not sure where he stood on Court and Spark (1974).
“New American Language” - Dan Bern
My friend Adam Wilson turned me onto Dan Bern a few years ago. He’s a singer-songwriter with a lot of records and I haven’t put in the hours to get to know his work in any serious way. I’m not even really sure if I’m a “fan” of Bern’s per se. But New American Language (2001) achieves some kind of indie-pop perfection, by which I may simply mean that it feels like the best version of itself that it possibly could be. The year I was living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi I got into the habit of putting it on every time I had to take a road trip, and so the first song (“Sweetness”) would play while I was leaving the neighborhood and this song would come on right as I hit US 49. Hearing it puts me makes me want to hit my left-hand turn signal so I can merge onto the highway. I still like to kick off long drives with this record, like a superstition or good luck charm. What Jason Molina might have called a “protection spell.”
“Jesus Shot Me in the Head” - Hiss Golden Messenger
These guys have gotten big in the past few years and their sound has gotten bigger, too. I’ve seen them live four or five times and though they’ve never disappointed, I think the best show of the bunch was at Tipitina’s Uptown in New Orleans in the fall of 2017. They found their way out of a heavy jam by sliding into the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” for about a minute (just the “roll away the dew part”) and I was so surprised and happy I laughed out loud. I’d recommend any of their records—especially Poor Moon (2012) and Hallelujah Anyhow (2017) which has a song about Gulfport, MS on it—but Bad Debt is their old, original sound: lead singer M.C. Taylor singing and playing by himself. It’s a quiet record and a sad one. It’s about being bereft and desperate and alone, but it’s also about craving grace, and coming to realize that that craving is itself a form of hope, a bulwark against despair. I think this is a hopeful song, somehow. And if you like M.C. Taylor in this mode, try to track down London Exodus, recorded live in 2013. There’s a cover of Gary Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Thing,” a lovely rendition of “Jesus Shot Me In the Head,” and he dedicates “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” to Jason Molina, who had died earlier that year. William Tyler sits in on the last couple songs but otherwise it’s all M.C.
“It’s Made Me Cry” - Magnolia Electric Co.
Another Jason Molina song, this one from a 7” he put out in 2009, seemingly to mark the transition from recording as Songs:Ohia, the artist credited on the Magnolia Electric Co. album, to recording as Magnolia Electric Co. It never ceases to amaze me how big this song feels relative to how short it actually is: about 70 seconds, the last nine or ten of which are silence. The concept of the “Protection Spell” (track 4) was important to Molina. Songs:Ohia put out an LP called Protection Spells in 2000; nine songs improvised and recorded while on tour in 1999. It came out between Axxess & Ace (1999) and The Lioness (2000), the latter of which was recently re-released in a deluxe anniversary edition (Love and Work: The Lioness Sessions) with an incisive liner notes essay by the critic Sam Stephenson.
“Ring the Living Bell” - Melanie
A different version of this essay would be all about the folk singer Melanie Safka. Most people know her as the one-hit wonder of “Brand New Key” but she’s got an extensive catalogue and was my dad’s favorite singer for most of his life, though I’m not sure whether he kept track of her output past Photograph (1976). “Together Alone” (the title track of her 1972 LP) was played at their wedding. My sister is named for her. I associate this music so strongly with my father that I wouldn’t put it on unless I wanted to feel overwhelmed by him: his palpable absence; his phantom presence. Sometimes of course that is exactly what I want, and at those times I might go for Leftover Wine (1970) The Good Book (1971), or Melanie at Carnegie Hall (1973). That said, she’s one of those artists where—no disrespect intended—a greatest hits does the job nicely. There are two or three of those out there, all with basically the same track list. As long as it’s got “Together Alone,” “Leftover Wine,” “The Good Book” (my personal favorite), and her signature cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” you should be all right.
“The Poor, The Fair and the Good” - Silver Jews
A relatively deep cut from 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. David Berman, the man behind the SJ’s, has been a significant influence on all my work. He died in August of 2019, as I was finishing the copyedits on my manuscript. I love this couplet from the song’s first verse: “We were built to consider the unmanifested / And make of love an immaculate place” which is somehow very dense and very clear at the same time. Lately I’ve been dwelling on a line from the last verse: “We'll trim back the thorns around the hospital door.” Is this a riff on Whitman’s lilacs? Is it a vision of healing? What destruction or neglect brought those thorns to the door to begin with? Is the emphasis on certainty or futurity: that we will do this or that we haven’t done it yet?
“Where Could I Go But to The Lord?” - Emmylou Harris
Angel Band came out in 1987. I picked it up on vinyl for three dollars because I wanted to hear the title track, which I know primarily from Old and in the Way (Jerry Garcia’s short-lived bluegrass band). “If I Be Lifted Up,” “Precious Memories,” “Drifting Too Far,” are some other standouts from what has become one of my favorite Emmylou albums. (That’s Vince Gill on mandolin and tenor vocals, by the way.) I’d put Angel Band up there with Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner.
“Where You Gonna Be (When the Good Lord Calls You Home)?” - Charlie Parr
This song considers what you might call the inverse proposition of the song just before it. Instead of fleeing toward God for refuge, He’s coming for you whether you like it or not. Parr is a Minnesota-based musician and an incredibly talented guitar player. I’d recommend any and all of his music, but the albums I come back to most often are his pair of gospel records: Glory in the Meeting House, which is where this track appears, and Keep Your Hands on the Plow. Glory is pretty much straight bluegrass albeit with a punk spirit; Plow gets a little weirder in places, and Parr is joined on it by Alan and Mimi Sparhawk of Low. Low definitely isn’t driving music, but I do associate it with travel. I think of the second to last hour of a late flight home, a scotch on the rocks, staring out the window into the darkness, all the small lights down there. Perfect time to listen to Trust (2002) or C’mon (2011).
“Franklin’s Tower” (Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, New York, 11/9/79) - The Grateful Dead
I strongly prefer whole Dead shows to compilations. I’m interested in the narrative arc of the show, even if the story that unfolds is meandering or uneven (or forces you to listen to more than four minutes of “Drums”). So I was skeptical when the Road Trips series launched with this highlights reel from the Fall ’79 tour. But goddamn is this a fun album. The band sounds like they’re paying attention to each other, and tempos are peppier than usual across the board. One would be forgiven for wondering whether uppers were involved. If you pre-ordered this album and so received the special bonus third disc, then the total running time is approximately the length of the drive from Hattiesburg, MS to Pensacola, FL, or half the drive from Hattiesburg to Sewanee, TN. Just FYI in case you’re ever headed that way.
“Everything I Saw” - The Weather Station
A little cool down after that “Franklin’s.” Also, I wanted to end with an opener, and this is the first track off of the Weather Station’s All of it was Mine, Tamara Lindeman’s 2011 LP. Not her first record (as I wrongly thought for some time) but the first one that I heard. Like Hiss Golden Messenger, she’s gotten bigger over the years and her sound has grown along with it. Loyalty (2015) and the self-titled album (2017) are both rock records. But All Of It Was Mine packs ten songs into 28 minutes and feels to me like a complete thought unfolding in stages or waves. I hardly ever put it on unless I’m going to start at the beginning and play it all the way through.
Justin Taylor is the author of the short-story collections Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and Flings, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Sewanee Review, n+1, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub. He lives in Portland, Oregon.