December 16, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Cameron MacKenzie's collection River Weather is filled with stories strongly rooted in their sense of place.
Jeanne Larsen wrote of the book:
"Resonant, spare, intense, and perfectly voiced, this book won’t back down. Cameron MacKenzie’s stories come straight at you, empowered by their perceptive humor and a steel-eyed acknowledgment of human wickedness, human hurt. No matter where you’re coming from, these tales of how men teach each other certain kinds of manhood—and what that means for all of us—will move you. River Weather sends its readers sliding down a zipline to damage, guilt, and unavoidable revelation."
Most of the stories in my collection, River Weather, are set in the early-to-mid-1990s, when I was a kid. I grew up in Northern Virginia which, at the time, was just beginning to undergo a massive change from a rural backwater to a suburban dystopia, and the sudden influx of heroic amounts of money led to fascinating collisions of race and class. There seemed to be a strange sense of predatory optimism around the adults which we, as kids, found horrific. Looking back, it's difficult to peel apart our natural teen angst—our sense of injustice and dislocation, our real-or-imagined traumas and fears—from the music of the time that seemed to speak directly to it. In truth it's all tied up together, or at least my experience of it is, which is all I can hope to convey.
"Last Exit," Pearl Jam
Most of the stories in this collection are set in the early-to-mid-1990s, when I was a kid. I wanted the first story in the book to function as a solid opener—something to let folks know the show's about to start, and Pearl Jam's "Last Exit" (the first track off of Vitalogy), grabs you by the whatever-is-just-borderline-threatening to grab, which is great, but it's also a little more appropriate for the story than the song that's actually mentioned in it, Metallica's "Fade to Black." As kids, we might've wanted to reference something unimpeachable, like early Metallica, but in truth we were still trying to decipher Eddie Vedder's liner notes from Ten.
"A Non-Smoking House"
"Rooster," Alice in Chains
Let me first say that I don't like this song. Let me rephrase: this song is fine. It's perfectly fine. It's not the best Layne Staley song ("River of Deceit"); it's not the best Alice in Chains song ("I Stay Away"); it's not even the best song on Dirt ("Would?"), but this is the song that got the most play on the radio stations that dominated Northern Virginia in the late 90s: DC 101 and 99.1 WHFS. As such, it was the Alice in Chains song that all the bros dug. If you followed those radio stations (as the characters in this story certainly would), this is the hardest and weirdest you were willing to go. George Thoroughgood was cool, but a little old; Nine Inch Nails was hard, but sexually confusing. "Rooster" hits a sweet-spot: it's about Vietnam, which plays well with the proto-"America First" crowd, and it carries the requisite AIC threat and fear and desperation that matches the tone of the story.
"Two Step," The Dave Matthews Band
Oh, Dave Matthews! When I was fifteen I thought the Crash album was an instant classic and I thought this song was maybe the greatest single track that had ever been recorded, perhaps second only to "Drive In Drive Out." I played it all the time for my dad when we would go on long drives together, and most of this story comes out of those experiences. I'd play DMB and my dad would play The Who, which I couldn't stand, but my father was a little more accepting of my choices than I was of his. That describes a lot about the story in general.
"State Trooper," Bruce Springsteen
The main character of this story loves Springsteen. I do not love Springsteen. There's a silly sweep to a lot of his music that reminds me of Elton John and Billy Joel and Broadway showtunes. I am well aware (because my Boss-loving friends tell me so) that the "sweep" I'm talking about in Springsteen is a faux-optimistic beard for his true subject matter, which is the emptiness of the American Dream etc., but I don't think Springsteen ever really gets close enough to the bone EXCEPT on Nebraska. Nebraska is the truth, to me; it redeems everything Springsteen has ever done and will do. "State Trooper," in particular, nails the Springsteen vibe: a decent guy who knows he's being pushed by an unfeeling world to his absolute limit. He's not a bad man, but he knows something has to break, and soon. Springsteen's shout in the last ten seconds of this song still sends chills up my spine, and I think it would scare the hell out of my protagonist here as well, if he could be honest enough with himself to face what's happening to him.
"Wooly Mammoth," The Local Natives
This story is partly based in the Presidio in San Francisco, where I would go on long runs to try to ignore my life, which was, at the time...fraught. There's a disconcerting propulsion and openness to this song, a big space that's filled with echoing drums, and when the chorus hits it's gorgeous and epic and yet still tinged with danger, and that, for me, matches up completely with the scope of the west coast—the mountains dropping off into the pounding sea, the blasting wind, the sense of total oblivion in a grandiose landscape. This song couldn't have been written anywhere other than California.
"Stratford-On-Guy," Liz Phair
We have still not caught up to Liz Phair, or perhaps not to where Liz Phair was with this record. I think her work has fallen off from Exile in Guyville, the pinnacle of which is "Stratford-On-Guy," but it is a high peak indeed. The characters in this story—their adolescent and unintelligent and ugly and destructive understandings of race and gender—need this song. They would understand this song; they would love this song; and in the loving of this song they would be forced to reconsider who is singing it, what her power is, what she is capable of, and by extension they would have to reconsider the power and capability of so many more people that are completely unlike them. Liz Phair could have saved these boys.
"Sit A Horse"
"The District Sleeps Alone," The Postal Service
I didn't realize it when I first wrote "Sit a Horse," but it's about the time I spent in Washington DC from about 2004-9. It's about the relationships I had there with people I loved, and it's about the way I used people and the way I was used. To get to the bottom of this story—to be honest about why I had to write it—was to recognize something deeper than I was willing to see in the first twenty or so drafts. I had to go back to that time and those people, and this album was, in those years, our soundtrack. When I listen to this song I can see my old friends sitting across the deck in Adams Morgan.
"Seasons," Chris Cornell
There is something about Chris Cornell's voice—the voice of a half-Irish, half-Jewish guy from Seattle—that sounds, to me, like the south. It sounds like home, in all of its tender and difficult aspects. Growing up in the south and feeling no connection to it, and feeling no desire to form a connection to it, is profoundly dislocating. If you can't identify with your own home, I think there is little hope for finding another one. Your home, like your name, is given to you, and my struggles with the south are struggles with a part of myself that is difficult to name, until I hear Cornell's voice on solo tracks like this and, for example, "Say Hello 2 Heaven." Cornell's sound is rooted in the south, but it's radically transformed into something both singular and unplaceable. When I bought the Singles soundtrack and heard this song—a song that wasn't The Beastie Boys or Garth Brooks or Jodeci or any of the other crap that was out there—I heard an edge and drama and soulfulness that I'd never heard before, and I haven't heard it since.
"Cold Shot," Stevie Ray Vaughn
I spent a lot of time with independent housing contractors after I graduated college—I worked with them and drank with them and hung with them on the weekends. They were a blast, but they were always more than a little suspicious of me. I would've been suspicious of me too. I was, like many writers, a bit of a voyeur, and some people don't like to be examined like creatures in an exhibit. But I remember how much those guys loved Stevie Ray Vaughn. They would try to convince me he was the greatest musician of his generation, and since I thought they, at bottom, were a bunch of rednecks, Stevie Ray Vaughn had to be, by extension, garbage. He is not. He is incredible. They were right.
"Up From Grundy"
"Zero Chance," Soundgarden
I went back to Cornell again, but I had to in order to really nail the tone of this story. It's a breakthrough story for me in that it was the first story I wrote where I wanted to aim for something at the end like hope. It's about teenage wrestlers, and as such the story is pretty cruel and twisted and violent, but the protagonist here ultimately renounces that violence in the interest of...what? He doesn't know. He just knows he's trying to rise up, and in doing so he's got to move through a lot of impacted layers of ossified shit. He doesn't know, at the end, who he wants to be, but he knows who he doesn't.
"Waitin' for a Superman," Iron & Wine
The song to close out this collection has to be slow and quiet and hypnotic; it's got to be sweet but it's got to ask questions that it can't answer, the kind of questions it wished it didn't have to ask, and the kind of questions that usually elicit lies. It's like a lullaby you've never really listened to until you sing your own child to sleep. I could listen to this track on repeat for half a day. Of course, I have.
Cameron MacKenzie’s work has appeared in Salmagundi, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and CutBank, among other places. His novel, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career, was called “poignant, brutal, and beau-tiful” by Kirkus Reviews, and “visionary” by Rain Taxi. River Weather is his first collection of short stories. He lives in Roanoke, Virginia.