October 20, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jay Varner's memoir Nothing Left to Burn tells the story of his family with arresting honesty, from his serial arsonist grandfather to his volunteer fire department chief father to his own career as a journalist reporting on accidents and fires himself. As Varner grippingly uncovers his family's secrets, his own past (and present) become clearer in one of the year's finest memoirs.
USA Today wrote of the book:
"Unadorned but vivid, Varner's coming-of-age story unravels family secrets about firefighting and arson. It's painful and poignant."
For the longest time, I believed all radios must have looked like the one that sat in the corner of our dining room.
That old Audiovox was about the size of a vintage hardtop suitcase. Its sides were decorated with the kind of cheap wood paneling that perfectly matched the ugly wall trim inside our double-wide trailer. At least a dozen knobs and buttons—ranging from tiny to large—stretched across the front of the stainless steel console. They reminded me of something from a science fiction movie—if my mother twisted the tuner fast enough, she might hit the right frequency to raise the dead. A plastic case rested on top of the unit, protecting the broken turntable as if it were part of an exhibit honoring that time long ago when things in our lives existed as they should.
One of the tenants at the run-down hotel my father's parents owned had left the stereo behind. My paternal grandparents enjoyed re-gifting abandoned junk such as lampshades and stained couches. When my father hooked up the box speakers, he also illegally connected a television cable to the back of the radio, claiming that that the hook-up would give us a better reception. When my dad died from cancer, the sound of his voice faded from memory, and my mother and I tuned in radio stations from as far away as Altoona, Scranton, Johnstown, and sometimes even Pittsburgh. That radio felt like our last bastion to a far away world.
Each word in this book is surely wrapped up or connected to a dozen different songs. Music was always on when I was a kid. And continues today—anytime I write, read, drive, there is music. And even on my website, I've started a podcast (VarnerCast!) that features music I love. So here's a collection of the songs I listened to while writing Nothing Left to Burn and music that speaks to the situations in the book.
"Light My Fire" – The Doors
Let's get the most obvious out of the way right now. Every Saturday night, my parents listened to a syndicated oldies show. After my father died, this continued, and each time Morrison belted that chorus, my mother smiled and said, "This remind you of anyone?"
"The Meanest Man in the World" – John Doe
And her question would be in reference to my grandfather Lucky, who seemed like the meanest man in the world to me then. He showed up every Saturday morning and lit these magnificent fires near our house. And never had a kind word to say.
"Rock of My Soul" – Rodney Crowell
I've loved Crowell for years, but The Houston Kid really knocked it out of the park. And this is one of my favorite songs on the album—to me, it's almost like someone set Russell Banks' Affliction to music, the damage passed down through generations. At the end of the song, the narrator says, "And there's every indication that the past is through." But of course, the past never ends.
"The Fireman" – George Strait
Okay, the narrator makes his rounds all over town putting out old flames. As a kid, I didn't understand the romantic undertones to this. All I heard was a good beat and a guy who ran out the door to fight fires, just like my dad.
"Dead Man's Curve" – Jan and Dean
My father loved beach music. And this was one song we talked about it, because after the song ended, I imagined that my father dashed toward his pick-up truck and then drove toward the accident.
"Mother In Law" – Ernie K Doe
My mother always listened to this song and just smiled. She didn't need to say anymore. Of course the over-the-top lyrics added to the humor, but there was a truth in there for us as well.
"If We Make It Through December" – Merle Haggard
In December of 1989, my father left Central Pennsylvania and headed to Philadelphia to receive a bone marrow transplant. We didn't have him that Christmas, but my mother and I kept believing that if we could just make it through December, we'd be fine.
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" – Darlene Love
I love Christmas music—get over it. And this is the best Christmas song ever recorded, one of the songs I want played at my funeral years from now. No matter how much Darlene wants her baby back, no matter how much she pleads against that wall of sound, he never returns. And that Christmas of 1989, my father couldn't come home. In another nine months he was dead. So that next year, and all those after, he wasn't there either. By the way, I'd like to make my official plea to the folks at The Late Show with David Letterman—one of my dreams is to witness Darlene Love sing this live on the annual Christmas show, always one of the year's highlights for me. I'm reachable via e-mail.
"Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree" – Tony Orlando
My dad unapologetically loved music loaded with sugar and pop. Of course I now do as well. But when he returned home from the hospital after that transplant, someone said they should tie a yellow ribbon around the tree. And in the car, when we passed through town, yellow ribbons were tired around trees, signs, cars. It was such a great show of support from a community that admired and loved him.
"The Drugs Don't Work" – The Verve
Richard Ashcroft wrote this song about his own father dying of cancer. There's little else to say about it. The thing is a punch to the throat.
"Mama's Opry" – Iris Dement
While we've got the tissues out, let's move onto this one. To me, this just sums up the love of music, the dreams of music, and connections to religion. I always think of my grandmother, who listened to gospel music. There's something beautiful and innocent about this song.
"Laid A Highway" – Tift Merritt
Another slice of small town life, devastated by something a new highway bypass. It happened near my hometown, and the hopes that the road would attract new business have yet to be realized. I certainly wish it eventually means more than a faster route around a once All-American City.
"Killian's Red" – Nada Surf
Late summer, 2003. My friend Gabe said, "You should listen to the Nada Surf album." That's right, the guys who sang "Popular." Apparently, they were actually…good? I bought Let Go and it became my soundtrack driving out to cover fires and accident scenes when I was a reporter. The aching loneliness, the earnestness, the great guitar hooks—this perfectly summed up that year post-college.
"Somewhere Else" – Kathleen Edwards
Quite simply, she's one of the best songwriters working today. Each song is loaded with heartache, truth, and wit. "This town that I once called home/I just can't hold on to." To me, this song is about missed opportunities—and that undying love and admiration I'll always have for Central Pennsylvania, whether I return there to live again or not. Home is always home.
"Burn Down This Town" – Rosanne Cash
Certainly how it felt when I was covering police, fire, and writing obituaries. I became addicted to the rush, the darkness, and the sadness. There's a swagger, an aimlessness, and a great groove here.
"What Is the Puzzle" – Bonnie Prince Billy
I can thank my buddy Patrick for turning me onto BPB (as I type this, Patrick's watching him perform in Chicago). This song, to me at least, is sung by a dying father to his son. It's beautiful.
"I Got A Name" – Jim Croce
My dad loved Croce. What a voice. This is my favorite song, and what a song. "I've got a name/And I carry it with me like my daddy did/But I'm living the dream/That he kept hid." This song is about finding yourself—at least it is to me. To keeping your individuality, your decency, and your hope alive.
"Burn It Down" – Los Lobos
Here's one relatively recent song, one I heard for the first time the same week my book was released. There's urgency to the song, a dirty bass line that propels this forward. And I can't help but think of my own experience when I hear "I couldn't say a word/It's just mystery I heard." My family's past something I was always discouraged speaking about, dealing with, or trying to understand. And that's the main reason why I wrote this book—burn down that past and see what kind of man rises from the ashes.
"Alive" – Pearl Jam
Picking one of their most played songs sure won't score me points with the diehards. Does saying I saw them a dozen times and still squeal like a girl when they announce a tour help? Vedder said that originally the song was about the burden of a young man whose mother tells him that his father is actually his stepfather (the middle part about incest is pure storytelling). Over the years the meaning has changed for Vedder—in large part to the crowd. And it's changed for me too. When I hear this in concert now and scream along to that chorus, I'm thinking of my mother, of myself, of those friends and family members who've been there for me through tough times. No matter what's happened, we're still alive.
"Black Sheep" – John Anderson
Let's end with a catchy little country novelty tune from the 80s (there's a big demand for those). Here, Anderson sings about a man shunned by his family. Back then, my mother and I used to say that was us, because some others looked at us as different—though I don't think we really cared so long as we had each other. Now, as my mother and grandparents turn their shoulders on me because they are intensely unhappy with this book, I'm once again the black sheep of the family.
Jay Varner and Nothing Left to Burn links:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution review
Bermudiaonion's Weblog review
The Black Sheep Dances review
Book Dads review
The Book Lady's Blog review
Caroline Bookbinder review
In This Light review
PANK Blog review
Time Out Chicago review
USA Today review
Algonquin Books Blog interview with the author
Art & Literature interview with the author
The Book Lady's Blog essay by the author
Culture Shocks interview with the author
Entertainment Weekly interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
Radio Times interview with the author
Southern Pines Pilot 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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists