January 26, 2023
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kevin Maloney's The Red-Headed Pilgrim is one of the most absurdly funny yet poignant novels I have ever read. If Augie March had been guided by the Beats and born in Oregon, this could have been his story.
3:AM Magazine wrote of the book:
"Halfway between the ranting of a beloved, inebriated uncle at the family holiday and the working diary of an emerging standup comic, The Red Headed Pilgrim is the story of Kevin Maloney, an outcast in a world of outcasts, telling us of his adventures from existentially-unnerved teenager to neurotic father. From the very beginning, starting with the book’s charming and effective prologue, Maloney plays with the novel form, not so much breaking the fourth wall as challenging its very existence."
My novel, The Red-Headed Pilgrim, is a dark comedy about a young man who travels around America trying to find the meaning of life and accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant instead. Oops. It’s loosely based on my life. Looooosely. Reviewers keep calling it autofiction. I call it coulda-fiction. As in, it coulda happened this way. It sort of happened this way, but no…. this isn’t what happened. Not like this. Not really.
The truth is, I can’t remember what’s real anymore. I smoked a lot of pot in high school—mighty bong rips that turned my brain into Cocoa Pebbles. That didn’t help. Then I started writing books and stories based on my life, changing names and moving events around, making my protagonist smoke DMT off the hood of a cop car, when in reality I smoked pot out of a brass pipe I bought at the mall. At some point all the wires got crossed.
What follows is a soundtrack for my book, The Red-Headed Pilgrim. It’s a soundtrack for my life too and all the made-up spaces in between. These aren’t my favorite songs. That would be a lot of Jason Molina, Townes Van Zandt, and the magical/mystical piano of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. No… these are the songs that immediately transport me to a certain time and place in my life. Nostalgia heroin. A mixtape time machine, destination 1994-2007. Here we go.
“Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star
Oh god. Jesus Christ. Is there a more depressing song on Planet Earth? “Nutshell” by Alice in Chains is bleaker, but “Fade Into You” feels like being held in a womb of narcotics while your life falls forever apart. I listened to So Tonight That I Might See on repeat for most of my senior year in high school while smoking clove cigarettes next to my open window. It was raining outside. My best friend was dating my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend. That happened in real life. It happens in my book. It happens sometimes in my dreams. Everything was bad, but Mazzy sloshed through my veins like sad, beautiful poison.
“Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers
They’re probably the most hated band in America, but I love them. The guitarwork in this song is straight Jimi Hendrix. The video was directed by Gus Van Sant. It feels like a three-minute cut of My Own Private Idaho. Anthony Kiedis wears a t-shirt that says “TO HELL AND BACK.” John Frusciante wears a Nordic ski hat with ear flaps and plays his Jazzmaster like a forlorn elf possessed with magic fingers. Hearing this song for the first time in 1991 made me believe in God. I haven’t been the same since. In my novel, the protagonist gets stoned and walks around his neighborhood listening to Blood Sugar Sex Magik on his Sony walkman. That’s how I spent most of 1994. Also 1995. It was heavenly.
“Sugar Magnolia” by The Grateful Dead
I don’t love the Dead. Maybe I don’t even like them, but before Portland was a hipster paradise teeming with food carts and indie bands, it was a depressing metropolis full of rain puddles and ex-hippies brewing beer in their basements. Cute girls in the suburbs had armpit hair and wore patchouli. I was bewitched. That smell still makes me tremble with nervous pubescent joy. My best friend Zach was obsessed with the Dead. So, we listened to them. A lot. They’re all mixed up with the dozen or so times I ate psychedelic mushrooms in the late '90s. When you did drugs back then, someone in your group put on the Dead. There wasn’t anything you could do about it. You just nodded, hummed along, and talked to the rhododendrons.
“An Introduction to Indian Music” by Ravi Shankar
In the late '90s, on a whim, I bought the cassette The Sounds of India by Ravi Shankar. I thought it would open my third eye. Maybe it did. But it’s a strange album. Ravi doesn’t just play music. He teaches you how to hear it. It’s part album, part music lesson, part meditation exercise. He says things like, “The accompanying tabla gives, if I may say so, a reply to the lead instrument, such as the sitar.” Then there’s a flurry of hands and drums, followed by a trill on the sitar and lingering silence. I listened to this album the summer I lived at a roadside attraction in Helena, Montana that I call “Frontier Village” in my novel, but was called Frontier Town in real life. I was lovesick. I was always lovesick in the '90s. The internet didn’t exist. Not a good one anyway. The only thing to do was fall in love with somebody who didn’t love you back and feel miserable all the time, and try to open your third eye.
“Hearts & Bones” by Paul Simon
This might be the prettiest song ever written. Damn you, Paul Simon. He sings about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the “Blood of Christ Mountains” outside Santa Fe. Have you ever been there? You drive up this road from Albuquerque and it just gets prettier and prettier and prettier until you pull over to the side of the road and throw up from beauty. Before my first wife and I got married we drove across America. At a tea house in Santa Fe, she offered a necklace to a stone goddess. Only much later did we realize it was a fertility goddess. Oops. A month or two passed and we found out she was pregnant. I don’t care how much of an atheist you are… in New Mexico, witchcraft is 100% real. Beware of stone goddesses and birth control.
“An American Prayer” by Jim Morrison
This song is so stupid. Jim Morrison is a terrible poet. But for some reason I love this song. How do I love such a stupid song? Because I was 18 once in the suburbs and nothing was mystical. I walked outside and beheld a Taco Bell that used to be a field of horses. I was baptized in a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I went to kindergarten at American Eagle Outfitters. For us, for the 18-year-old suburbanites, there was Jim. He said, “I touched her thigh and Death smiled,” and we felt our spirits for the first time. We felt breath moving in and out of our lungs. Who cares that it was just a word-salad of serpent-talk and half-baked Arthur Rimbaud-isms? We couldn’t get enough.
Oh Neil, you beautiful perfect Canadian. There’s a scene in The Red-Headed Pilgrim that’s pretty close to real life. I’d just gotten home from a solo trip to Europe. My girlfriend met me unexpectedly at the Boston airport. We spent an incredible night in the city, then traveled the next day to Newburyport where her mom lived. We went to the beach and got sunburned, then later had sex, listening to Decade by Neil Young. It was one of the simplest, happiest days of my life. “Sugar Mountain” is a perfect song. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but you know what it’s about. It’s about your life. You and this woman lying next to you and childhood and all the agony of knowing what’s just down the road, but can’t we hide here in this moment for just a little while?
“A Love Supreme, Pt. I – Acknowledgement” by John Coltrane
What can I say about this song? It’s less music than a sonic incarnation of the sun rising in the east. It’s what the Buddha would listen to if the Buddha had Spotify. Actually, the Buddha would have Apple Music. The saxophone reminds me of what is possible in life if you stop what you are currently doing. Stop everything. Take a deep breath, then turn around and walk in the opposite direction. If my liver ever gets pickled and I decide to get sober, I’ll do it by listening to this song over and over nonstop for a year and walking around picking wildflowers and reading the Upanishads. These days so many people are unhappy but there are literally an infinite number of ways to live this life. Throw your phone away. Join a monastery. Listen to John Coltrane.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas” by Nina Simone
I don’t know how to describe what happened to me in the late '90s. One minute I was living in Beaverton, Oregon, watching MTV and Beavis and Butthead, and then suddenly for no reason I was in a Greyhound bus that took me to Burlington, Vermont, a city that exists outside the space-time continuum. I lived there for most of a decade. The '90s turned into the 2000s. Things happened. Gilmore Girls. Britney Spears. Low-rise jeans. But nobody had TVs in Vermont. Nobody had computers or the internet. You walked down the street and someone thought you looked cool and you went to their house and drank red wine and listened to records on vinyl. Somewhere in Portland or New York or L.A., Elliott Smith was introducing America to his seductive, soft croon, but I was listening to Edith Piaf and Nina Simone and reading novels by Emile Zola and Turgenev. I smoked a corncob pipe. Nobody thought it was weird.
This is the wedding song in The Red-Headed Pilgrim. Was it my wedding song in real life? I can’t remember. When my ex-wife and I first started dating, she gave me a mixtape of just Joni Mitchell songs. On the paper on the inside flap, in her weird handwriting, with gold and red pens, she wrote little notes about how good each song was. My ex-wife’s biggest advice was… don’t sleep on Hejira! I don’t think I fully appreciated this until a couple decades later when I was watching the Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Review. There’s this scene where Bob starts strumming along with Joni. She’s just written “Coyote.” She’s calling out chord changes. Bob is lost. Eventually everybody just shuts up and listens because she is in a holy place that nobody, not even Bob, fully understands.
“Decades” by Joy Division
Did I say “Fade Into You” and “Nutshell” were the saddest songs ever? Scratch that. The saddest song ever is “Decades” by Joy Division. Also: the entire album by the guy from the Microphones that he wrote after his wife died of cancer where he’s basically like, “I am looking at the bed where you used to sleep and our daughter is in the other room and she looks like you and I can’t stop crying.” Like… don’t listen to that album. Or listen to it once and then never again. It’s beautiful but it’s too much. But Joy Division, oh lovely sad friends. They came into my life kind of late. When I was 28 or so and going through a divorce. What a great time to discover Joy Division! Just when you thought life couldn’t get even emptier, listen to the prettiest music ever written by a guy who had Dostoyevsky-like seizures and then killed himself. Joy!
“The Seer’s Tower” by Sufjan Stevens
After my wife said she didn’t want to be married to me anymore, I walked out of a cave and blinked into the light and went into a bar and there were young people there. Their music wasn’t my music. It was like grunge but less distortion, more feelings. I hated it at first, then begrudgingly admitted that it was actually very good. Years later, my current wife told me about a time she met Sufjan Stevens. I misunderstood her and thought she said she had sex with Sufjan Stevens, but it turns out they just hung out and talked. I hated him for a while, thinking he had slept with my wife. Then one day, she said, “We didn’t sleep together. Where’d you get that from?” Suddenly I liked his music again. It was safe. Have you heard this song? Other ones get more attention, but this one… oh damn. Sufjan. I know you didn’t have sex with my wife, but if you had, I might have forgiven you for writing this beautiful piece of music.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” by David Bowie
In 2006 or so, I was at the lowest point of my entire life. I was drinking too much. My wife had left me and seemed to be dating my next-door neighbor. Next door as in we shared a wall in an apartment building. I wasn’t doing well. I wanted to die. But also… MySpace had just been invented and you could post whatever name and face you wanted. I decided the only way I would survive was to invent an alter ego in the fashion of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. My alter ego was named “Captain Clio.” I wore a red feather boa and a captain’s hat and lipstick and fishnet stockings and wrote most of a rock opera and played it on a few different occasions in Burlington, Vermont. That actually happened. Eventually I didn’t want to die anymore. Life got really messy, and I ended up back in Portland, Oregon, the city of my birth. There were much better musicians than me in Portland. A lot of them. I quit making music and decided to write a novel. A funny weird big mess that told the story of my life but upside-down and inside-out. If The Red-Headed Pilgrim ever gets made into a movie, there should be a scene where the sad broken hero hears “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” and outside the clouds part and a sunbeam comes through the window, and for a few seconds everything feels okay.
Kevin Maloney is the author of Cult of Loretta and the forthcoming story collection Horse Girl Fever. At times a TJ Maxx associate, grocery clerk, outdoor school instructor, organic farmer, electrician, high school English teacher, and teddy bear salesman, he currently works as a web developer and writer. His short stories have appeared in Hobart, Barrelhouse, Green Mountains Review, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Aubrey.