May 29, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
David Giffels' memoir All the Way Home is much more than the story of renovating a turn of the century Akron house. Subtitled "Building a Family in a Falling-Down House," the book follows the author as he faces challenges like parenting and marriage while shouldering most of the renovation of the venerable building himself. This is no This Old House reenactment, but a moving story about growing up.
In his own words, here is David Giffels' Book Notes essay for his memoir, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House:
Presently, I cannot write without music in the background. (Presently, specifically, incessantly: the Hold Steady, “You Can Make Him Like You.”) This has not always been my condition. For a very long time, I required silence; sunlight; red-covered, college-lined spiral notebooks; black click-pens; and music to have inspired me, but to be turned off once the writing began. (e.g. 1994: infinite Saturday mornings the prime mover of which was Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand and the result of which was a tragically deformed novel, thrice rewritten and thereafter abandoned to dust.)
But for a reason I can explain no more than I can explain sunlight and the red covers of college notebooks, when I sat down to begin writing All the Way Home, background music became vital and inextricable to the process. The truly weird thing is that the music that inspires me to begin writing is almost completely exclusive from the music that works in the actual writing process. And the ways those two distinct sets of music are listened to are equally different.
I probably never would have begun writing this book as a conscious, formal creative exercise if I had not discovered the Columbia Legacy Edition of Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-e completely by chance on the shelf at the Akron-Summit County Public Library and brought it home for a listen. I knew nothing of Jeff Buckley other than the song “Last Goodbye” and the romantic tragedy of his drowning in a tributary of the Mississippi River -- 30 years old -- before the depth of his artistry was plumbed (a la Henry James’ Roderick Hudson, who is a pretty awesome literary ancestor). I listened to that record like I was watching a scratch-and-sniff movie in Surround Sound -- with every sense, and always, completely, from beginning to end. I renewed it over and over until the librarians sequestered it for themselves. That live recording of a young man consciously trying to find his voice (through a mill of Dylan and Simone and Zeppelin and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and an uncanny personal instinct) -- that just made me want to write like the sun was shining.
But there’s no way I could listen to that while I was writing. And I can’t explain why that’s true any more that I can explain why it was the Constantines that suddenly did become the soundtrack of two months’ worth of early draft -- but only the Shine a Light album (Tournament of Hearts was like kryptonite) and only the songs “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright),” “Young Lions,” “Tank Commander,” and “Sub-Domestic.”
Through that process, I found that playing one song on perpetual repeat turned it into a sort of smoke, something that created a vague but necessary atmosphere (and may also have contained a mild intoxicant) and that allowed me to try to do whatever Jeff Buckley was trying to do, which is what got me started in the first place but then had to be left behind. (This is not to suggest I succeeded in anything other that trying. But that’s something.)
Additionally, for closely related reasons, a lot of music made its way into the actual story.
So, here: an abbreviated list of music from each of those categories.
1. Music that made me want to write.
Jeff Buckley: Live at Sin-e (Legacy Edition). As an addendum to the above, this is the only Jeff Buckley collection I really care about. It’s strange to love an artist about whose studio work you’re ambivalent.
Wilco: Summerteeth. There is a sketchy cinema in lyrics like “the ashtray says you were up all night” that always makes me want to match it with one of my own. If I am fuzzily hungover on a Sunday morning with coffee in me and I hear this record, I will soon be at the keyboard.
New Pornographers: Mass Romantic. Their harmonies rise and bloom like clematis on a light pole, and your voice just wants to rise up to meet them. (I think I just accidentally wrote porn.)
2. Music listened to in the act of writing.
Constantines: Shine a Light. As explained above. Totally vital.
Sigur Ros: Takk… Parts of the story take place in deep winter. Sigur Ros sounds like deep winter the way Ry Cooder sounds like August in Texas and the way early R.E.M. sounds like autumn in the near South.
Bishop Allen, “Click Click Click Click.” In 2006, Bishop Allen released an EP each month, as kind of a songwriting exercise for what became last year’s album The Broken String, which I suppose could be called a classic of bedroom pop. This song is like cane sugar and caffeine for me.
Goodmorning Valentine: “City Lights.” This is a local Akron band whose singer sounds like Van Morrison shaking a Camel Light out of the pack for Ryan Adams, who has drank too much beer on account of a semibroken heart. There were whole weeks when I listened to nothing but this song, which is just wistful enough and uplifting enough to feel like an encouraging squeeze of the shoulder. (Other Akron bands were significant, as well, especially on nights when I saw them play and came home with phrases and ideas scratched on cocktail napkins -- Houseguest and the Black Keys, most notably.)
Bottom of the Hudson: “Beehive.” On July 29, 2007, this band’s van crashed and the bass player, Trevor Butler, was killed. Pitchfork carried a story, which included a link to this song. I’d never heard the band before, and this song is the only thing I’ve ever heard of theirs, but for one reason or another, it immediately connected, and I completed the manuscript with this on infinite repeat.
Imperial Teen: any. You just can’t help doing something good when this band is playing.
3. Songs actually in the book, briefly excerpted.
“I was looking for exactly the thing I hear in Paul Westerberg’s voice when he sings "Unsatisfied." Do you know that song? From the fourth Replacements album, it’s one of those times when Westerberg was completely artless, which is when he was his best: a raw soul absolutely certain how badly he wanted something he absolutely could not define, except with the sound of his voice.”
Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”
“Evan danced for his first time there in the living room, clinging to the Gilligan’s Island coffee table and popping his diapered hips this way and that above uncertain knees, shrieking with glee.
The song was coming at random from MTV. Rage Against the Machine’s Bulls on Parade.
‘Rally ‘round tha family! With a pocket full of shells …’
He was dancing for the very first time to a song that appeared possibly to have patricide as its major theme. This was unfortunate.”
Oranj Symphonette, “Moon River”
“One night I played a disc of Henry Mancini covers that we’d been listening to all summer and fall, music played by a band called Oranj Symphonette, whose uncanny membership included Tom Waits’ horn player, P.J. Harvey’s guitarist and Dave Brubeck’s son. That seemed to brighten the mood, but when "Moon River" came on, Gina started to cry, and then I started to cry. This helped some, but not in the way I had expected.”
“ … sometimes you have to change your music despite the paint on your fingers. I could date the heavy-rotation periods of various discs by the color of the fingerprints along their edges. Guided By Voices is baby’s room blue and Suzanne Vega is front-porch gray. Liz Phair fell into a glob of paint stripper and was never heard from again.”
David Giffels and All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
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