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March 24, 2010

Book Notes - Steven Church ("The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst")

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

Steven Church's memoir The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst captures his Kansas youth against the backdrop of Reagan's America. Infused with pop culture and Church's own dark humor, the book dispels the notion of idyllic Kansas life while also chronicling the Reagan era and the filming of the apocalyptic television drama The Day After through the eyes of a child.

The Wichita Eagle wrote of the book:

"Church details his childhood with pieces of history and culture — Quantrill's Raiders to the Incredible Hulk — aptly dropped in. Though he doesn't come across as a "troubled child," it's obvious that the label would have been applied to him at the time, coming from a home broken by divorce, perhaps a little too preoccupied with war and violence. But he artfully captures how kids can latch onto an idea and blow it all out of proportion in their minds, and how that idea can shape, though not necessarily scar, someone, and even make that person better down the line."

In his own words, here is Steven Church's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst:

The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst is a book about the personal, historical, and cultural legacy of apocalypse as seen through the lens of the TV melodrama, The Day After, a movie set and filmed in my hometown, Lawrence, Kansas. I reference the music scene in Lawrence—particularly the underground punk rock scene—as an example of the complicated character of this place, as another reminder (along with William Burroughs's residence there) that our town wasn't the simple picture of innocence some expected. I also relate memories of a bass guitar prodigy friend who had been an extra in the film and later played with Maynard Ferguson's touring jazz band; but perhaps more significantly, in the Notes section, I thank Metallica for their first two albums and describe my editing and revision process as a caffeine and adrenaline fueled mosh-pit, and while that may have been a bit of an exaggeration, it wasn't much of one—at least in terms of the musical soundtrack to much of the process. My daughter was in daycare 4 days a week, 4 hours a day, and with drop-off and pick-up I had about 12 hours a week of time alone, at home, with no distractions to work on revisions of the book. I only had so much time and I used music to get me fired up for the work. I'm not sure I could have written the book without it. So when Largehearted Boy asked me to do some Book Notes, I was happy to try and capture some of this experience.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls," Metallica from Ride the Lightning

After I dropped my daughter with Xue, I had to get home fast, get in front of the screen and get, "some work done." I needed to work on this manuscript, a long-suffered manuscript built up over ten years or more; and sometimes it helped to think of myself as a mad scientist tinkering with his half-man, supervising the rending, the hacking, the sawing, overseeing the amputations of vestigal stumps—quaint useless paragraph appendages--and I knew I would have to rebuild the book like Goldman re-jiggered his wounded Astronaut, making it bigger, stronger, faster. I'd add the latest technology, my most recent purchases from the well. And as I gathered myself for the work ahead, I'd often hear the bells tolling, the end approaching, and I knew I'd have to send my creation off into the forest to fight the robotic Bigfoot.

"Seek and Destroy," Metallica from Kill 'Em All

Most days I sat there at my desk, wearing polystyrene gardening clogs, basketball shorts, a faded Celtics shirt and an ever-expanding gut, and I told myself I was a lot like the immortal Kurgan in Highlander with his big sword and his ragged neck wound stitched together with safety pins.

He stalked into the Church, punked out—all leather and zippers—strolls down the aisles, smacking the pews and people bent in prayer, punching his fists into the air and quoting that line from Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages":

It's better to burn out than to fade away.

And it's important to remember this because I only had so much time before I had to pick her up from daycare and I liked to imagine that I was the Kurgan coming after paragraphs, seeking and destroying, burning for revision, because some of those paragraphs and sentences were like that kid in the mosh pit, the angry one in his suspenders and Doc Martens with his elbows flying high, the belligerent punk who thinks he's going to live forever in this book, and I was the Kurgan with my safety-pinned neck, my sword swinging, and when I could smell him, close enough to see the path, I raised the blade and lopped his head off--clean and swift, so fast it took a while for the blood to come, for it to really hurt, and then I just stepped over his corpse, on my way to a better place, or a better chapter, before I realized that my butt was starting to sweat in my chair and I needed to take a break, slip on my clogs, get outside, slow down, and water the Giant Bird of Paradise.

"Callin' Out," Lyrics Born

And when I came back for more, I sometimes needed to live in a different kind of sound, because my desk would begin to feel like the sort of psychic space that confines, bottles me up, a static space; and sometimes I just had to move, had to get up from the desk and dance in the kitchen, callin' out for a pep-talk, a pick-me-up, and a rhythmic reminder that they couldn't wiggle me into box all day, that deadlines were not my enemy, that the neighbor, Jesse probably couldn't see the date looming on the calendar, couldn't see me shaking my ass at it, smacking it to the beat, couldn't see my baby daughter standing in the doorway, diaper sagging between her legs, staring because I dance cartoon silly to this song.

"You've Got Another Thing Coming," Judas Priest from Greatest Hits

Soon enough I began to realize that perhaps my Kurgan-esque mosh-pit approach to writing and revising was bleeding over a bit into my teaching—and perhaps not in ways that were particularly healthy—because I'd created a "pre-workshop" playlist (a smaller subset of my "Metallicious" playlist) that included mostly old Metallica ("Into the Fire," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "Seek and Destroy"), "Looks that Kill" by Motley Crue, "Run for the Hills" by Iron Maiden, "Holy Diver" by Dio, and the gut-rumbling, bowel-rattling full-body experience of Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Coming," (a song that, when I played it on my computer, makes picture frames, pencils in a cup, everything on the desk vibrate and hum) a song that I liked to pretend was the soundtrack to my walk, my strut, my approach to leading a workshop; even if the truth was that most days, it wasn't a strut at all but a bluesy beer-tinged stomp across a dusky parking lot; and some days, in the midst of revising this book, my stomp lead right into a brawling, messy workshop, as I paced around the floor, hands all over my face and head, nervously tugging at my ears, kicking the legs of the table on my back-and-forth, and the students were watching me, wondering if I was OK, if I was even paying attention or if I was thinking about the next morning, 5:00 a.m. and how I'd be sitting at my computer, staring through the faux-wood slats of our window blinds, cranking up the engine, ready to write and how my daughter would toddle out from her room when she heard the coffee grinder, climb up in my lap and leave me little choice but to stop working.

"Keep Me," The Black Keys from Rubber Factory

And this Black Keys tune was the song that my daughter and I danced to the most in the kitchen, the one that I seemed to play over and over again, never growing tired of Dan Auerbach's voice. This is the one song for which my daughter would stand before me, arms up, and demand to dance. She'd hold one arm out in the pose of a waltz as the two of us dipped and swung and moved around the tiny kitchen, and the song would begin to feel like a lullaby of sorts, a promise I made each time to keep her soul away from harm.

"Roamin' Around," The Supersuckers from Must Have Been Live

And sometimes in the midst of all that angst and energy, all that aggressive revision, what I understood was that, at times, writing essays and nonfiction needed to be more like a dance or a walk around the block, roaming around with no point, no purpose, a journey that finds its terminus where it ends; and I have to recognize sometimes my best ideas came early in the morning, out walking the dog, looking in windows and trying to imagine all the details of the lives inside, trying to see through the slats what they're watching on TV at 6:00 a.m., or just figure out how the flying monkeys would appear on the page again.

"Going Home," Dan Auerbach

And at some point I knew I'd have to go home, gather myself and call Dad. That's when I told him I was coming home for Father's Day, his birthday, 2007, and most of all to visit the site of the apocalypse, Greensburg, Kansas, where an F5 tornado on May 4, destroyed 95% of the town, including my Grandparents' old home and my Aunt's house while she huddled in the basement. In the pictures, my father's hometown is reduced to piles of brick and rubble dumped across a grid of empty streets that don't look like mine. I told Dad I was coming home, that I needed to see it, and he promised to take me all the way back.

Bonus Tracks:

"Die Young," Kill Creek from St. Valentines Garage . . . a Lawrence band that's just loud, fast, and full of that jangly electric jilted love and angst of young life in the gothic Midwest.

"100,000 Fireflies," Superchunk from Incidental Music . . . because we don't have fireflies in California and I miss them, and just because I think more people should probably listen to Superchunk (even if this song is actually a cover).

"Frankenstein," Bonerama from Live at the Old Point . . . because, well, Jesus . . . it's a brass horn cover of the Edgar Winter classic that is just NASTY funky, that kind of funky that makes your nose wrinkle and your lips curl back and you go, "Uhhhhh," like somebody punched you; and also because I listened to it (along with a lot of Galactica and a Zydeco cover of "Pass the Dutchie" by Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin') in a house in Mexico where I stayed when I was teaching and working on final revisions of the book--the horns bap-bap'ing and wa-wa'ing out of my pathetic laptop speakers and echoing off the tile floors and stucco walls, reminding me somehow of the home I missed, our tiny kitchen and dancing with my daughter.

Steven Church and The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst links:

the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Wichita Eagle review

KTKA profile of the author
Lawrence Journal-World profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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