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November 5, 2008

Book Notes - Mickey Hess ("Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

When Mickey Hess graduated and started taking college teaching positions, he was forced to take other jobs to augment his income. Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory chronicle these experiences that range from carnival ride attendant to stand-up comedian, and Hess approaches each job with an open mind and his unique sense of humor.

Curled Up with a Good Book wrote of the book:

"Mickey Hess will make you laugh. His book will ring very true for that segment of the population (statistically growing) that can't quite let go of school once college is over and can't quite settle into the career path that leads to middle age and death, without having just a few existential yucks beforehand. However, even if you went straight from university to marriage and the nine-to-five, you can still enjoy this book as a look at how the other half struggles."

In his own words, here is Mickey Hess's Book Notes essay for his book, Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory:

I wrote Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory when I was teaching part-time at all these different colleges and universities around Louisville, Kentucky. I went in with the idea that teaching college was some kind of prestigious job, but I discovered that’s not the case for the more than sixty percent of faculty hired on a part-time, semester-to-semester basis. One of my co-workers managed a Subway restaurant, another was a male stripper, and another ran a side business selling curtains. I was already working as a waiter to support my teaching job, so I decided to apply for a bunch of other weird, low-level jobs, and I always made sure to emphasize College Professor under the current employment section. I worked as an ice cream man, a haunted house character, Billy Graham crusader, inept house sitter, and ball-pit attendant at this weird arcade in the mall. The bosses always asked me about my other job teaching college, but nobody ever turned me down because of it.

I listen to music a lot when I write, and song lyrics run through my head constantly. I think the most about Pavement-era Stephen Malkmus and Ghostface Killah, because both of them weave together these beautifully-detailed stories and Surrealist nonsense. Why have those two never teamed up?

Here’s my soundtrack to Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory:

Operation Ivy “Junkies Runnin’ Dry”

I got into punk music pretty late, in my junior or senior year of high school. Before that I was mainly listening to rap and these Johnny Horton tapes I bought at the truck stop. That’s how it was growing up in Eubank, Kentucky. When I was writing Big Wheel, I was going to a lot of shows put on by Whitehouse Records in and around Louisville, and catching up on all the punk I’d been missing out on. All the kids at the shows were five or six years younger than me, so I’d always run into my students.

I thought about this Operation Ivy song a lot while I wrote Big Wheel. I was embarking on a career and I was fascinated by their comparison of working to a drug addiction in this song, especially when I caught myself getting out of bed to check my work email in the middle of the night. I listened to it so much that I can’t stand hearing it anymore.

Tha Alkaholiks “Last Call”

In Big Wheel, I drive to Cincinnati to see Tha Alkaholiks, and no one will go with me. I think it was the first out-of-town show I ever went to alone, and it totally changed the experience. I don’t exactly recommend it, but if you ever get the chance to see Tha Alkaholiks live, go, even if you have to drive two hours by yourself. “Last Call” is off their first album 21 and Over, which I hear they’re playing at the new style of shows where a band plays one entire album.

Digital Underground “Doowhutchyalike”

I also went to see Digital Underground play in a country bar in Louisville. There were cactuses painted on the stage. They had a disco ball shaped like a saddle.

“Doowhutchyalike” isn’t as famous as “The Humpty Dance,” off the same album, Sex Packets, but I heard it first and I’ve always preferred it. Not to take away from “The Humpty Dance,” but seeing Digital Underground play this song live realized a lifelong dream of mine. I finally got to see how one man who plays two different rappers pulls it off in concert. In my book Is Hip Hop Dead?, I devote a whole chapter to rappers who wear masks.

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg “Next Episode” (censored)

The February weekend I drove the ice cream truck, Louisville radio played this song incessantly, and I had absolutely no problem with that. I still prefer the radio-friendly, censored version. At the end of the original song the music stops for a few seconds before Nate Dogg sings, a capella, “Smoke weed every day.”

When the radio plays the song, they cut out “weed” and create this additional awkward pause that makes it sound like someone just pointed at Nate Dogg and he couldn’t think of what to say to end the song: “Smoke … every day.”

Del the Funky Homosapien “Catch a Bad One”

This song absolutely blows my mind. When I teach Hip Hop and American Culture at Rider, I use this song as an example of flow and rhyme style. Del has one of the smoothest flows on this song. It’s absolutely seamless. And I love that he threatens to shoot someone with a BB gun.

While I was writing Big Wheel, I saw Del play live. It was the end of his tour and the opening band was so sick they were all in the hospital. Even though he’d been riding around in the same van as them, and even though he had to stop between songs to go into dry heaves, Del played the show.

This song is built around an amazing cello loop. If anyone out there plays cello and raps, I would love nothing more in my life than to see you cover “Catch a Bad One” as a one-man -- or even better, one-woman -- band, rapping while you play the cello.

Ghostface Killah “Mighty Healthy”

“Eatin’ dead birds, chose the pharmacy over herbs.
Men marryin’ men, ill, they got the urge. Pulsar.
Scissor hand, wig vanished in the winter.”

The man is a genius. No question.

Pavement “Fillmore Jive”

“Jasper’s skinny arms”

Nirvana “Lithium”

When I was revising Big Wheel, I actually borrowed and reworked a little snippet from my old zine-fried novel El Cumpleanos de Paco, which I copied and gave away for free. My first year of college, I saw Nirvana play a concert in Dayton, Ohio. There was a blizzard during the concert and Kurt Cobain reminded us all to be careful on the way home.

Just a few months later, the day after Kurt Cobain died, I sneaked into a bar called the Toy Tiger and saw a guy twirling in circles while “Lithium” played on the jukebox over and over. And I can’t get this image out of my head.

Dead Milkmen “Sri Lanka Sex Hotel”

I took a guitar class with my tuition benefits when I taught college in Indiana. I got to take a free class for every two classes I taught, which sounded great, but the professor wanted us to learn to read music and everything, and after teaching all day, I never really had the patience for it. The Dead Milkmen’s “Sri Lanka Sex Hotel” was one of the first songs I learned to play on my own.

I spent all my time learning Dead Milkmen songs and never studied for my guitar class. I made a D, which meant I actually had to pay for the class anyway. Doesn’t that seem unfair?

Nice N Smooth “Hip Hop Junkies”

The word “also” is not a very chorus-friendly word. Only Nice N Smooth can pull off using “also” in their chorus (or hook, as they call it in hip hop): “Nice N Smooth is funky, also hip hop junkies.”

I’m going to lay down a challenge. The first person who emails me with the name of one other song that uses the word “also” in the hook, I will mail you a free copy of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory.

People don’t seem to remember Nice N Smooth, but Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed is an album I found myself returning to as I wrote Big Wheel. “Hip Hop Junkies” samples the theme song from The Partridge Family, and the first verse is sheer genius:

Greg Nice, my life’s like a fairy tail
Orca was a great big whale
I knew a fat girl who broke the scale
You won’t tell, I won’t tell

Elsewhere on this album, Greg Nice says he’s the “type of man that the girls want to read about.” I guess I hope I am too.

Mickey Hess and Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory links:

the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher
the author reads an excerpt from the book

Curled Up review
New Yorker's Book Bench blog review
Workplace review

THE2NDHAND pieces by the author
The Rider News profile of the author
What to Wear During an Orange Alert interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
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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