April 8, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Randi Davenport's memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes unflinchingly shares her family's experience with mental illness. Boldly told, the book skillfully portrays the effects mental illness on family members while also highlighting the inadequacies of our own mental health system, and for these reasons The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes is one of the year's most important books.
Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:
"Davenport delivers a beautifully written, much-needed memoir that sheds light on the ways mental illness can reverse the orbit of a family and ultimately, how the efforts of one mother helped rebuild a life and family she thought she had lost."
When I married my husband, he was a working rock and roll musician. His band showed every sign of becoming a success and a good part of our courtship consisted of long nights in clubs across upstate New York. He'd sing and play and the club would fill with smoke and the crowds would scream when he stepped up to the mike and sang the first staccato verse of a song he wrote about bombs and war. I'd sit at the bar and write stories and dream about our future. Early in the morning, when the gear was packed and loaded, I rode home next to him in the back of the van, our cold hands twined like roots even then.
We had two children together and they grew up surrounded by music, in love with music, with music in their souls. Things did not turn out as my husband and I had planned and our marriage ended, but not before my husband had adopted the thousand-yard stare of someone who is no longer in the company of his family, no longer connected to this planet. Then, when he was fifteen, my son—who had always struggled with developmental challenges—fell into an unremitting psychosis. It defied diagnosis and it defied treatment and it brought me into the broken and byzantine world that is the mental health care system in America today. Eventually, I found appropriate care for him, but only after a long and desperate fight to save his life.
I thought I might write about our family's experiences for our local independent newspaper but the piece I had in mind quickly became a much longer piece and I found I could not leave it until the entire story had been told. This is how I came to write my memoir, The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes. Not surprisingly, the book is full of music.
My son is much better now but he still thinks he can time travel, like a character in an HG Wells novel. I don't mean the same thing when I say that I can time travel too. It's the music that sends me back. Here are some of the bands that appear in the book, both because they were important in the moment and because they helped me to remember:
The Beatles - "I Saw Her Standing There"
Like every up and coming band, my ex-husband's band covered songs by well-established musicians. They had a particularly great version of the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law," but I also remember their cover of "I Saw Her Standing There." My ex-husband and I met when I was seventeen and he was twenty-one but we did not get together until I was nearly twenty-five. When he wooed me, he told me about the long years he had spent yearning for me (never mind the other girlfriends) and hoping that I would someday be his. Then he took the stage and bellied up to the mike and crooned, "Well, she was just seventeen/if you know what I mean/and the way she looked/ was way beyond compare…" I watched him from the bar and every time he sang that song, every time he looked out over the bobbing heads and found me, every time he winked at me, I felt the same thing. Our future had been written long before I knew we had one.
Rage Against the Machine
It's hard to pick one single track from RATM; my son played Rage morning, noon, and night: "Bullet In The Head," "Zapata's Blood," "Know Your Enemy," "Bombtrack," "Killing In The Name," "Freedom," others I can't name but would recognize at the first note. He loved to sing and he wanted to play guitar but his tremors made playing an instrument impossible. So I set up a microphone on a stand in his room and then plugged the mike into an amp. Even from downstairs, I could hear him wailing along with the band. He jumped up and down as if a mosh pit had materialized between his bed and his dresser. He wrote lyrics to his own songs in a notebook that he kept by his bed. The lyrics were fashioned in the style of RATM, strongly worded manifestos that featured bombs and assassinations and prayers for peace and justice. He wrote these songs right up until the day we lost him. After he went in to the hospital, I looked in his notebook. The lyrics were still there, but they had become inscrutable and bizarre, written in symbols and slashes and squiggles that bore no relationship to any language I had ever known. As his illness progressed, he no longer knew me or knew himself but stalked the halls of the acute care crisis stabilization unit, telling anyone who would listen that he was Zack de la Rocha and man, they should hear his band.
Korn - "Freak on a Leash"
When he wasn't listening to RATM, my son listened to Korn and when he listened to Korn, he listened to "Freak on a Leash." I'd hear the words grinding from behind his closed bedroom door: "Can't I take away all this pain /(You wanna see the light)/ I try to every night, all in vain...in vain." Just after he tried to kill himself by strangling himself with a microphone cord, I took this song away from him. I also took away music by Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit and Sepultura. I didn't blame the bands for inciting something in my son, for who could know if the music merely raised things that otherwise would have gone unspoken or planted thoughts that had never been there before. But I knew I would never be able to live with myself if my son turned out to be successful in his plans and I had done nothing to stop him. So I sorted through his CDs and anything that I decided was too dark went into a drawer in my bedroom. My son cried and raged but I thought that I had done something concrete, something that would stop the onslaught of the illness. As it turns out, little did I know.
U2 - "A Sort of Homecoming"
In the early morning, on our way to the hospital for one of the four spinal surgeries my son underwent after he broke his neck, we had The Unforgettable Fire in the CD player in the car. And this is the song I remember the most from those mornings. He was usually the first case of the day so we had to go over to the hospital very early. I'd pull out of the driveway just as light began to dim the darkness and lean forward and press play and I know I played this song just to feel its rising inflections, the forward pitch of the drums, the utter certainty of forward movement. The words of this song brought me hope and comfort: "And you hunger for the time/ Time to heal, desire, time/And your earth moves beneath/Your own dream landscape." Later, when my son lay emaciated and medicated in a hospital bed and I spent each day undone by grief and mystery, I played this song to remind myself that there might still be a way out. Questions could have answers. I could find a way to save him.
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
My son loved Nevermind and he taught my daughter to love Nevermind. For a brief period of time, it seemed like the song had come to live in our house like a venerable elderly uncle, a house guest who traveled from room to room, teaching the young ones what it was like in the past, when music still was music. I can still hear my son singing, "I'm worse at what I do best/ And for this gift I feel blessed." My son played the song over and over again and when he stopped, I heard it coming from my daughter's room. She wrote the lyrics of the song in a long endless circle on her jeans from her hems to her knees. After he went into the hospital, she found it painful to go and visit her brother. But she got a black Telecaster knock-off for Christmas and she plugged in and scoured the internet for Nirvana tabs and painstakingly played this song until she had the proverbial blisters on her fingers. Then she switched to bass, the instrument played by her father, the musician who had long before disappeared from her life.
The Ramones - "California Sun"
This might be my daughter's favorite Ramones tune. She also loves "53rd and 3rd" because she likes the fact that Dee Dee sings the whole song, but when she first heard this song, she'd never been to New York City, and certainly didn't know what Dee Dee was singing about when he sang about 53rd Street and Third Avenue. When she started to teach herself to play bass, "California Sun" was one of the songs she worked out first. I confess I gave her The Ramones right around the time I noticed that she was wearing a classic CBGB & OMFUG t-shirt that she'd picked up at Hot Topic. I mentioned that I'd, um, been to CGBG's when I lived in Manhattan in the late seventies and early eighties, and also to the old Ritz on 11th street, and to Danceteria and the Mudd Club, and to smaller clubs whose names I no longer remembered. I told her about the east Village and St. Marks Place in the old days, which I passed through like the sort of semi-tourist I was; even though I went to clubs at night, I had a day job with a big advertising agency and was not living like Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe in the Chelsea Hotel. But I was there and I dressed in nothing but black and I saw shows like the Pretenders at the Ritz when they were here on their first US tour. When I told her this, she looked at me as if I had before her very eyes morphed into someone strange and not entirely trustworthy. I was her Mom, after all; Moms are not girls who go to clubs. Then she started to learn to play Ramones songs.
Hole - "Violet"
She graduated to Hole, of course, starting with Live Through This. I might still hear the Ramones from time to time, but by the time my son had been hospitalized for nearly a year, the boys had been upstaged by a woman's buzz-saw of a voice and fuzzy garage-band wall of sound guitar: "Go on, take everything, take everything I want you to/Go on, take everything take everything take everything/I want you to." When I heard it, I thought, Oh, right. Courtney. This thought was verified when my daughter asked me for a pair of high heeled Mary Janes and some white nurse's stockings, which she planned to shred in an artful way. She said that going to visit her brother was too sad so I took her horseback riding instead and let her dye her hair blue and played Patti Smith for her and Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry. I sent her out in search of girl bands and she came back with the Runaways and the Go Gos and the Bangles at first, but she had cut her teeth on Hole and these bands were much too tame for her. She quickly found a wide range of indie bands—The Pixies and the Beaters and Mt St Helen's Vietnam Band and Lissy Trullie. Her search for music that was particular to her helped to separate her from the terrible moments of her childhood, when everything seemed to belong to her brother—my time, my focus, my energy—or to her father, who loomed large through his absence alone. I credit the music with pulling her along. It's not an accident that she got interested in an album called Live Through This or loved a song where someone screamed, "Go on, take everything" when her brother had become a skeleton who knew no one, not even himself. These days, she goes to shows at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and listens to everything from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Bikini Kill to the Black Lips. She plays bass in a local band (Las Vegas Superheros) where she is the only girl; when we're together in the car, she pops in the album In and Out of Control by The Raveonettes. She says their first three discs will be too techno for me. This music belongs to her so I let her believe this.
U2 - "Bullet the Blue Sky"
One day, when my son was stalking the hallways of the hospital, one of the nurses got the idea that he might be less agitated if he could listen to some music. The nurse found a radio in a cabinet and steered my son into his room and fiddled with the buttons until he found 96 Rock. The first song that came on was "Bullet the Blue Sky." My son, who had for months said nothing that made any sense at all, who had screamed about the death camps in the unit and the giant insects on the roof, stood still and listened. And then he began to sing. He sang along with Bono and he kept singing, perfectly, every word exactly right, until the song was over. When that last word—"America"--had rung out and gone dead in the hollow, final way that it does, he turned and walked away and told the resident that she was a profiler for the FBI. Then he tried to kick the doc and the staff had to use restraints. But the nurse told me about the song and the way my son had seemed to come out of his psychosis just long enough to sing along. Nearly a year later, when he was finally well enough to go out with me to get a hamburger, I put The Joshua Tree in the car stereo and punched buttons until I found the same song. My son, who had been staring listlessly out the window, sat up and turned to me and said, "That's U2, right?" And I nodded and eased the car forward and listened to the very sweet sounds of his voice as he began to sing.
Randi Davenport and The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes links:
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)
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