October 23, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Every year I read a couple of good books that are neglected by the mainstream press (and often even other bloggers). Earlier this year, I read two of these seemingly orphaned books one after the other, Emma Straub's wonderful novella Fly-over State and D.R. Haney's Banned for Life.
Banned for Life was recommended personally by two authors I admire, so I dug into the book with high hopes. Haney carefully crafts a world of adolescent angst and punk rock in this powerful and affecting novel that hits all the right notes.
Author Greg O'Lear wrote of the book:
"Banned For Life is about punk rock? Sure, just like Moby-Dick is about whales. This is the thrilling story of Jason Maddox, 80s musician turned 90s screenwriter, who embarks on an Ahab-like quest of his own--although the blubbery object of his fascination is a vanished punk-poet. Like Melville, D.R. Haney has created a world so rich in detail, so authentic, so damned cool, you want to take up a harpoon--or, in this case, a guitar--and join the fray. Banned For Life is literary fiction at its best--funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, and every bit as inspiring as the punk music it extols."
Shortly after I finished high school, I drove across country with a woman in her late twenties. We weren't romantically involved at the start of the trip, but that changed by the time we got to Bisbee, Arizona, where I saw a band whose drummer was no older than sixteen. The band was passing through, like me, which made that kid a touring musician, and I remember thinking, as I watched him punish his kit, "Man, he sold his soul to rock & roll."
I think the seeds of Banned for Life were sewn at that moment. Like the kid in Bisbee, Banned's narrator, Jason Maddox, sold his soul to rock & roll. But the exchange didn't take, and years later, as a washed-up director of unseen movies, Jason seeks out Jim Cassady, the mysteriously vanished punk-rock idol of his teens. It was Cassady's music that changed his life, and by finding him, Jason hopes to change his life again. Cultural heroes have that capacity, yet for all their influence, they're usually strangers. To me there's something ghostly about it: the way we're galvanized by disembodied sounds and images—echoes and shadows that reach across physical distance and even beyond the grave—and Banned is very much about being haunted. It's also about history, and in that spirit, I tried to include historical anecdote in the notes on my playlist.
"Indian Summer" by the Doors
Jim Morrison has been characterized as the first punk. Rimbaud, whose poetry inspired Morrison's, has also been characterized as the first punk; and Eddie Brown, a punk poet, emulated Morrison to the point where he changed his name to Jim Cassady in tribute. (Beat catalyst Neal Cassady supplied his adopted last name.) I can't imagine Jim C. warming to the Doors of "Strange Days," but "Indian Summer" is right up his alley: a prototype of the delicate music he's been writing since he abandoned the spotlight.
"Little Sister"/"Forever" by the Sleepers
I'm sometimes asked if I had a model in mind for Jim's band, Rule of Thumb. I didn't, but San Francisco's the Sleepers (1977-1981) are similar to L.A.'s ROT (1975-1982) in that they shifted from punk, as narrowly defined, to an arty, dreamy, spooky sound uniquely their own. "Little Sister" reflects the early Sleepers, and "Forever" is a stellar example of their later phase. Though punk bands rarely toured at the time, those from L.A. typically played in San Francisco (and vice-versa), and hometown-hater Jim surely thought of defecting.
"Way of the World" by Flipper
Ricky Williams, the Sleepers' singer, was briefly in Flipper. He even named the band, following his habit of calling his various pets Flipper, unable to remember which one was named what—a confusion compounded by drugs. Jason in Banned has harsh words for Flipper, which mirror my own initial reaction; but then I heard "Way of the World," and the band's freewheeling sludge finally won me over.
"Homage" by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Jason hears his first credible report of Jim's whereabouts at a Trail of Dead show at L.A.'s Silverlake Lounge in December 1999. I was at that show, and I subsequently became friendly with Trail of Dead, who were notorious at the time for trashing their gear and wounding occasional bystanders. I went out of my way to see TOD in San Diego in November 2001, hours before, back in L.A., I was to leave for Belgrade, Serbia, where I could live cheaply and so afford to work exclusively on Banned. Since TOD appears in Banned, it seemed fitting to use their lyrics for one of the epigraphs that introduce the book's four sections, and the lyrics I chose come from the searing "Homage."
"Too Dead For Me" by Atari Teenage Riot
The video for this track often played on the local music channel when I was living in Belgrade, and I would leave the TV running in the hope of catching it. The TV was upstairs in my two-story flat, and whenever I heard "Too Dead," I would drop whatever I was doing and rush up the metal spiral staircase to watch. The lifelessness incurred by corporate culture is a Banned theme, and that's likewise the subject of "Too Dead," but it's the buzzsaw power chords, machine-gun beats and call-and-response shrieks that gripped and grip me.
"The Racer" by Die Princess Die
I was practically a member of Die Princess Die during my latter years of work on Banned. I lugged equipment; I contributed vocals; I drank with the guys before and after shows. My friend Alison Meeder, a music writer now sadly dead, once likened DPD's sound to "a swarm of razor-blade butterflies to the face"—an apt analogy, as a glance at "The Racer" video on YouTube may prove.
"Tango" by Distortion Felix
Like Die Princess Die, Distortion Felix deserved a wider following. I once asked a musician friend why they lacked it. "Maybe they're lazy," I speculated (they weren't), and my friend said, "A band? Lazy? No!" I'm a sucker for sad songs bathed in fuzz (hence my affection for shoegaze), and "Tango" is one of my favorites.
"Beheaded" by Bedhead
Nobody did downtempo better than softcore pioneers Bedhead, and this song for me recalls Jason as he's driving aimlessly at night after one of his many breakups with Irina, the Serbian heartbreaker with whom he's helplessly in love.
"The Rat" by the Walkmen
I would marry this song if I could. I would buy it jewelry and fly it to luxurious retreats. It captures perfectly Jason's relationship with Irina, and I badly wanted to give a copy of Banned to the Walkmen. In May 2009, when they played in L.A., I raced cross town to the venue, and though I missed the show, I just managed to slip the book to Matt Barrick, whose drumming on "The Rat" is pure gold. And Hamilton Leithauser's singing? Dude! Everything about this track strikes me as brilliant, including the keyboard, and I'm ordinarily put off by keyboards.
"I'm Not a Fool" by Cockney Rejects
As a teenager in small-town North Carolina, Jason was mentored by Bernard "Peewee" Mash, a brainy New Yorker sent to live with his sister after accidentally-on-purpose burning down part of his school. "I'm Not a Fool" was on one of the mix types he made for Jason in the course of converting him to punk. Cockney Rejects, the band that gave Oi! its name, was infamous for its soccer-hooligan fan base, and that would doubtlessly have endeared them to Peewee, who was drawn to anything with the power to disturb or shock.
"It's a Fight" by Iron Cross
Reagan-era punks were routinely battered by redneck types, one of whom is stabbed with a ballpoint pen when he and his friends ambush Jason and Peewee in Banned. Such measures were necessary where punks were outnumbered, but they aren't outnumbered in "It's a Fight," which threatens aggressors with group retaliation. Sab Grey, who penned the song, knew whereof he wrote. To this day, he once told me, he can't bear to hear Devo's "Whip It," since it was playing in the truck full of goons who gave him the business as he walked alone on a D.C. street.
"Money" by Embrace
Both Jason and Peewee have high praise for Ian Mackaye, as do I. There are few living public figures I admire so much; the guy is a beacon of integrity in every way. Embrace was a blink of an eye between Minor Threat and Fugazi, but this anti-materialism anthem is quintessential Ian.
"Caterpillar" by Unwound
After fleeing North Carolina for New York, Jason and Peewee play in a number of bands that disintegrate acrimoniously, only to reconcile and start again. Jason is more of a straight-ahead rock & roll guy, while Peewee is interested in noise à la No Wave, and years pass before they're able to successfully collaborate. Superego—their final band, which ends when Peewee dies in a car crash while touring in the South—is the result, and Jason points to "Caterpillar," which for me has shades of Nirvana, in describing their sound.
"JC" by Sonic Youth
With its lush wall of feedback and incantation-like spoken lyrics, this song is a eulogy for Black Flag roadie Joe Cole, who was fatally shot during a holdup in December 1991. "You're walking through my heart once more/don't forget to close the door," Kim Gordon twice says in "JC," but Peewee has forever settled in Jason's heart, and mine, with the door closed and bolted behind him.
D.R. Haney and Banned for Life links:
also at Largehearted Boy: