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January 20, 2011

Book Notes - Bryan Charles ("There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From")

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

Over the past several years, I have read several outstanding writers' memoirs, and Bryan Charles' There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From sits solidly among them. Charles' tale of his move from the midwest to New York is filled with his experiences in the big city, from finding a decent job to his harrowing experience in the World Trade Center on 9/11. This is a captivating book, one of the best memoirs I have read about becoming a writer today.

I can also recommend Bryan Charles' 33 1/3 book on Pavement's Wowee Zowee, one of my favorites in that series of books on seminal albums.

Michael Chabon wrote of the book:

""A sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments, and broke my heart almost without my quite noticing.""

In his own words, here is Bryan Charles's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From:

Music is memory. Sometimes I can't stand it. I'll hear a song from the old days and it'll make me feel so sad and weird that I want to die. Recently my girlfriend and I were in New Orleans for a wedding. We were in our hotel room one night watching TV. Top Gun came on. It zapped me back to Gull Lake Middle School, 1986/87. The opening frame with that synth drone gave me the chills. My throat swelled at the intro to "Take My Breath Away"—Maverick speeding to Charlie's pad post-volleyball. A name rushed out at me: Kara Chrisman. Early seventh grade. We "went together" for a week, saw a movie at the East-Towne 5 (Armed and Dangerous), held hands until our palms oozed, never kissed. Lying on a bed in New Orleans, watching Maverick and Charlie sip white wine as they listened to Otis Redding ("This music," says Maverick, experiencing a memory blast of his own), I thought: Where has the time gone? How did I get this old?

My first two books are steeped in music (the second one is about a real-life rock band, so this is a gimme). My novel Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way is a highly autobiographical account of a music-obsessed seventeen-year-old who sings and plays guitar in an unpromising punk group in 1992. Many punk and indie bands of the period are name-checked, along with several fictitious ones. I continued to mine '90s rock—and, to the irritation of some Pavement fans, my own personal history—in Wowee Zowee, a book about that album written for Continuum's 33 1/3 series. So it's sort of surprising to consider that my actual memoir, under discussion here, contains so few musical references.

This is partly due to the subject matter—my moving from Michigan to New York with half-baked notions of being a writer, only to fall into a series of time- and morale-sapping day jobs, the last of which led me to be in the World Trade Center, seventy floors up, on 9/11. But it's also because the period described in the book—late '98 through early '02—was a time when I was more cut off from music than any other time in my life. I was overwhelmed by the demands of trying to earn a living in the city and didn't have the time or the energy for the kind of all-consuming fandom I had previously enjoyed.

In my late teens and early twenties I could easily spend an hour in a record store, combing the vinyl bins in search of new thrills. By the time I moved to New York, literature was winning its long tug-of-war with music to be the driving force of my life, and I shifted my focus bookstores. I filled in enormous gaps in my reading and discovered a number of wonders by just standing there, staring at rows of spines. (Barry Hannah's Airships leaps to mind, the Vintage Contemporaries edition, which I found at Clovis Books in Williamsburg in the summer of 2000. It shortly became a favorite and led to the style I adopted in writing Grab.) Still, when I think back on that time now, there is always a song playing, dimly perhaps, coming from a clock radio or a passing car. And my interest in music was still more than casual—I went through certain phases and nursed certain obsessions, one of which has been a constant in my life for the better part of twenty years.

Here, then, in roughly chronological order (according to my experience with them, not necessarily their release dates), is a list of songs from the era depicted in There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From—not so long ago in the scheme of things, but one that at times has the flavor of distant history.

Liz Phair, "Whitechocolatespaceegg"

A number of people from Kalamazoo moved to New York in the mid-'90s. At the time that I moved here I only really knew three of them, one of whom happened to be my ex-girlfriend, who had left Michigan two years before. When I arrived there was an ill-defined, possibly ill-advised, relapse. We had genial talks where we agreed that it couldn't go on—and then it would go on. Not that it ever reached full-throttle. No, we were fooling ourselves into thinking we were casual-relationship-type people, which we both were not. Anyway, she was living uptown at the time, subletting a fancy brownstone apartment for way less than it was worth. She had a little boombox and a handful of CDs and she often played this album, which I hadn't heard until then. This song is a crusher. It has a woozy, hypnotic vibe that goes perfectly with Phair's sexy/chilly delivery. Phair has been more lyrically direct elsewhere, but in this tune I'll see you around feels like the most brutal thing she's ever sung.

Jets to Brazil, "Morning New Disease"

I love Jawbreaker and am happy they finally got some of the mainstream recognition that eluded them when they were around (though I remain perplexed as to why it carried the bizarre assertion that they were forefathers of modern emo). Front man Blake Schwarzenbach was a big deal in my crowd, and we were all eager to hear what he'd do next. Jets to Brazil's Orange Rhyming Dictionary was the first record I bought in New York. At first it didn't seem that great, but as the weeks passed I found myself thinking about it a lot, especially this tune and "I Typed for Miles." Schwarzenbach had moved to New York not long before I had, and I related hardcore when he sang I am dreaming of a life, and it's not the life that's mine, in a stolen car I rocket west out past that Jersey line, and the robots in their riot gear glimmer in my rearview mirror. Their next two records went from okay to terrible, but once in a while I still play this one.

Sloan, "Autobiography"

Finding work in New York was fucking hard. I'm not sure what I expected—my only work experience was as a substitute teacher in Michigan, and my publishing resume was almost nonexistent. Yet somehow—against the odds and contrary to my expectations—I landed an interview for a financial writing job at a Wall Street mutual fund company. After the interview, which I thought had gone poorly, I walked to the Borders in the World Trade Center—where in due time I would spend more hours than I could have imagined—and bought Sloan's One Chord to Another. It was in a bargain bin and cost like five bucks. Sloan are hit-or-miss lyrically. There's some goofy stuff in this one about foaming and lather, but I latched on to the early lines: I'm writing "young and gifted" in my autobiography, I figured who would know better than me? And like Chris Murphy, who sings this number, I had strong doubts: I'm certainly the former, but I'm not so much the latter, no one's gonna read it, so I'm sure it doesn't matter.

Cher, "Believe"

My first encounter with an Auto-Tuned voice. I remember thinking, Man, are they really blasting Cher right now? Does she have a new song? what the fuck? I was in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, and it was nighttime. I spent a lot of time in both Virgin Megastores and was sad when they closed. There's a huge gleaming Citibank where the Union Square one used to be. It has benches for lounging and a quasi-nightclub vibe. I went in there recently to cash a check. I sat for a moment afterward, looking around, pondering the strangeness of the passing of time.

Built to Spill, "You Were Right"

I bought Keep It Like a Secret the night I heard "Believe." It cost $18.99, which maybe explains why the Virgin Megastore eventually went under. Built to Spill is one of those bands that I was passionately into for a few years and then stopped listening to and never cared about again. I tend to favor their earlier records, but KILAS was in heavy rotation throughout the spring of '99. "You Were Right" is a rare moment of lyrical brilliance for them, stringing together words from classic-rock tunes that had long ago entered the realm of cliche and casting them in a new, surprising light.

Pavement, "Harness Your Hopes"

Okay, I could do this whole project using nothing but Pavement songs, since they're my favorite band, and at the time I was listening to them pretty much nonstop. Wowee Zowee, in particular, was crucial to my NYC acclimation. The big news in early '99, though, was Terror Twilight, slated to come out in June. "Harness Your Hopes" was a b-side to the U.K. "Carrot Rope" single, which I bought and took with me to Puerto Rico, where I went on a business trip for the financial writing job that—to my great shock and relief—I ended up getting. This was before albums were leaked on the Internet, so aside from listening repeatedly to a few brief snippets online, all I could do was read stuff on message boards written by people who had the promo CD. I was in Puerto Rico on the release date and walked around San Juan looking for a place to buy it. The one CD store I found only sold Latin pop. I went back to the hotel and called the home office. I got a hold of this temp named Joe and asked him to buy Terror Twilight and leave it on my desk. I'll reimburse you, I said, just please go get it today. It seemed important to know that it was there waiting for me.

Sugar Ray, "Every Morning"

This song was everywhere. I wanted to hate it, just like I wanted to hate "Fly," Sugar Ray's big hit '97 hit, which I also couldn't hate. I was coming from a '90s punk and indie perspective where it was shameful to admit to mainstream tastes. I owned albums by Stone Temple Pilots and Bush that I occasionally hid when certain people visited me in Kalamazoo. That insecurity—and the cred-fixation that spawned it—doesn't exist anymore. Now everyone's perfectly comfortable talking about how much they love "California Gurls" etc. in addition to super-obscure chillwave groups who make records in their bedroom. Back in '99 I was still freaked. I bought 14:59 with mild misgivings from one of those bootleg-CD guys who used to be everywhere in NY, but who no doubt saw the writing on the wall and moved on to knockoff Luis Vuitton handbags. To my surprise it was actually a pretty good record—maybe not one for the ages, but there were at least a few first-rate non-single tracks. I won't say the walls immediately came crashing down, but I was beginning to sense that the phrase "guilty pleasure" was sort of silly.

The Afghan Whigs, "Crazy"

The Afghan Whigs don't get enough love. They definitely have a cult, and there's a 33 1/3 book about them and all, yet they still seem underrated. Their records are stunningly textured and wildly dramatic. On the other hand, they are a pretty macho group, and I get why some people are put off by Greg Dulli's dark (some would say misogynistic) tales of seduction and betrayal. But there are times when his voice is exactly the one you need in your Discman headphones—say for instance after your girlfriend of one year dumps you over the phone without explanation, and you are all but certain the explanation involves another man. "Crazy" is not one of Dulli's venomous rebukes or calculated takedowns. Rather it plays out like a mournful late-night conversation between two old friends—maybe or maybe not ex-lovers—with an ascending slide guitar that'll pierce your heart.

Eminem, "If I Had"

I bought The Marshall Mathers LP from a bootleg-CD guy in a little cement "park" across the street from the World Trade Center. I started working there in April of 2000, at Morgan Stanley in the south tower. Eminem was then being demonized in virtually all media (does anyone even remember that now? was he the last pop star to be seriously presented as a threat to the national moral fabric?), and I picked up the album out of a vague curiosity to see what the fuss was about. I put it in my Discman on the subway that evening. By the time I reached Union Square my mind was blown. This is not the time to go into my approximately two-year Eminem obsession. For now let me just say that it was fucking heavy—not as heavy as my late-teenage Nirvana obsession, but close. Eminem has never made a masterpiece—like most modern rap records, his suffer from too much filler and too many dumb skits—but his best material is untouchable. "If I Had" is on The Slim Shady LP. It's the kind of song only a person truly familiar with the most terrifying self-doubt and insecurity could have written—as opposed to a fake-underdog-I'm-actually-a-badass-type thing. And it contains a line that perfectly encapsulates fringe-Michiganian despair: I'm tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store.

Stephen Malkmus, "Vague Space"

This song lasted exactly as long as it took me to walk from the Cortland Street subway platform to the 2 WTC elevator banks. At first I thought he was singing I'd love to turn you on in the chorus. I thought, Wow, that's awfully forthright for Malkmus. Then I realized it's actually A love to tear you off. What more can I say about the guy? This one is a gem.

Aaliyah, "More Than a Woman"

I'm like Drake a little bit. I had a big thing for her (it's safe to say that's the only way in which Drake and I are alike). I bought this CD at J&R Music World on my lunch hour. "More Than a Woman" haunted me from the start. I had a surround-sound setup in my room and would lie in bed at night listening to it over and over. Timbaland's production is amazing. The vocal overdubs on those more more mores—it was like I was on acid, almost. I was upset when she died. Partly it was a plane-crash thing. All my life I've been afraid of flying. I pictured her in that little plane, straining and failing to ascend. I remember a picture in the paper of a charred seat, said to be hers. Did I invent that memory? Maybe. But there were definitely photos of her funeral, the white-horse-drawn carriage with her casket going down the street. And the men in her life! R. Kelly and Damon Dash. What creeps! Anyway, soon after those horses—a week? two? I can't remember just now—I walked into work feeling guilt-ridden and exhausted for reasons I won't mention here, and a few minutes later we all heard a loud noise, and a man started screaming, and I got up from my desk to see what was going on.

Bryan Charles and There's a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From links:

the author's website
the book's website
excerpt from the book (at HTMLGIANT)

Bookforum review
Kalamazoo Gazette review
Library Journal review
Michael Chabon's review
[tk] reviews review
East Bay Express profile of the author
Fluxblog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

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)
musician/author interviews
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

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