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January 7, 2011

Book Notes - Sean Manning ("The Things That Need Doing")

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

Sean Manning's powerful memoir The Things That Need Doing is a moving account of the year he spent by his mother's side at the Cleveland Clinic. The book also recounts his family's history, and offers a personal, in-depth look at the American health care system.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"The intimate details about his mother's physical struggles and the emotional stresses and strains he and his family suffered occasionally make the book read like a private journal. Paraphrasing a line from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier , Manning admits that he wrote the story "more to get it out my head than for posterity" and as a way "to acknowledge how messy this shit gets." Nonetheless, the author's candor and genuine emotion shine through."

In his own words, here is Sean Manning's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Things That Need Doing:

There was the heart attack, the double bypass, the complications from the double bypass, the tracheostomy and ensuing struggle to wean off the ventilator, the discovery of lung cancer and subsequent radiation treatments, the stomach paralysis which necessitated tube feeding, the constant bed rest and resultant muscle atrophy, the innumerable pneumonias and infections…For more than a year my mom was an inpatient at the Cleveland Clinic. Every day except for a couple, when heavy snow made the roads impassable, I'd drive the forty-five minutes each way from our house in Akron to spend the day (and more than a few nights) with her. I didn't mind the commute. Living in New York the previous five years, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed driving—the privacy and control you don't get on a crowded and stalled subway car, the ability to travel sixty miles in the same time it'd take to go five by train. The best part was the music. No matter how loud you turn up your iPod or the quality of your noise-reducing headphones, you can never fully obscure the underground cacophony of screeching brakes, piercing horns, garbled conductor announcements, doo-wop singers, mariachi bands, movie theme-serenading violinists, crying babies, candy bar-hawkers, fundamentalist preaching, and multilingual kibitzing. You just can't appreciate music on the train the same as when you're within the cocoon of a car. And while I've never been sworn to CDs the way my parents' generation is to vinyl, as an apartment-dweller am nothing but grateful for the spatial advantages of digital music, there is something magical in those few seconds of anticipation between inserting a disc and hearing the initial strains of the opening track, something a mouse click's immediate play simply can't match. I had a hard time keeping myself together all those months, but would've been way more of a wreck without mom's silver Altima's six-disc changer. It steeled my nerve and bolstered my courage, reciprocated my anger and despair, enabled me to unwind and plain forget for a little while. Here are some of the songs I relied on most:

Nine Inch Nails, "Everyday Is Exactly the Same"

Whenever I was driving home from the Clinic after an especially difficult day—mom throwing up constantly, the doctors and case manager urging a move to long-term care—I'd put on Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth. It's such a great "fuck you" album. I know, what NIN album isn't? This one, though, is maybe the most unrelenting in its rage, with only the last couple tracks all mopey and atmospheric à la "Something I Can Never Have" and "Hurt." The rest are stomping rave-ups. And "Everyday Is Exactly the Same"…Well, for me, that's precisely how it felt. Plus, Trent Reznor is from Cleveland; spending more time there than I ever had as a kid, I felt like I got his music, its underpinning Rust Belt malaise and disaffection, in a new and deeper way.

Devo, "Going Under"

I can't say the same for Devo. Even though they're from Akron, I've never understood what the hell those goofballs are going for. The only time I like their music is when it's used in a film—"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in Casino, "Gut Feeling" in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Then there's the TV show Miami Vice. My girlfriend, because we loved the Colin Farrell-Jamie Foxx movie version and she's awesome, bought me the complete first season on DVD for my twenty-seventh birthday—just three days after mom's heart attack. In one episode there's this signature Michael Mann montage of Crockett and Tubbs getting dressed for a night's work set to "Going Under". I was instantly obsessed, couldn't stop extolling the song to my girlfriend, so she put it on her next mix CD. I'd always play it when approaching downtown Cleveland on I-77; I'd pretend the Cuyahoga River was Biscayne Bay and the Terminal Tower was the Freedom Tower and I was en route to nab some cocaine kingpin instead of to help change mom's diapers. In a way, I was undercover—putting on a brave face, acting like I could handle it all when inside I was completely coming apart.

Chris Rock, "No Sex (In the Champagne Room)"

My girlfriend made the best mixes. She would fly in from New York every other weekend and always bring a new one. The mix with "Going Under" also had "Drowned" by Sponge and Brenda Russell's "Piano in the Dark." Another had "I'm Your Baby Tonight" by Whitney Houston, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" by the Smiths, and Nelly Furtado's "Maneater." Or there was the one with "I Can Dream About You" by Dan Hartman, "Easy/Lucky/Free" by Bright Eyes, and Chris Rock's "No Sex (In the Champagne Room)." If a homeless person has a funny sign, he hasn't been homeless that long/A real homeless person is too hungry to be funny. No matter how low I felt I could always put on that song and laugh.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Turn Into"

My girlfriend would also buy me CDs, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones. I loved their first album, Fever to Tell, though mainly cause it reminded me of L.A. punk patriarch X—badass frontwoman with a big voice and Eastern European roots, virtuoso guitarist with a classical music background and last name beginning with "Z." On Show Your Bones, however, the Brooklyn trio totally came into its own. With a hand from auteur producer (and TV on the Radio member) Dave Sitek, the record is slicker and more nuanced than their debut—acoustic guitars all over the place—yet still thunders something fierce. For a month or so it's all I listened to in the car. Just awesome driving music, particularly the final track "Turn Into."

Paul McCartney, "Ram On"

In addition to all the burned and bought CDs, there were the ten or so I'd check out every couple weeks from the Akron main library. Their audio collection was a bonanza; anything you could think of, they had it. TV on the Radio's first album, the Nuggets box set, M.I.A.'s Kala not even a week after it was released, nearly all the Lennon and McCartney solo stuff. I was boning up on John and Paul because in the midst of mom's illness I was also editing my second anthology, Rock and Roll Cage Match: Music's Greatest Rivalries, Decided, and one of the essays, by former L.A. Weekly editor and Slake literary magazine co-founder Joe Donnelly, pitted them against one another. Of the pair's individual output, Lennon's Plastic Ono Band is the consensus capstone, but I was most moved by McCartney's Ram. Thirty seconds into "Too Many People" tears were rolling down my face. By "Ram On" I was outright sobbing. That damn ukulele. It's the saddest song I've ever heard.

Beck, "Nausea"

No musician had a bigger impact on my friends and I growing up than Beck. The impromptu, parents-just-left-and-won't-be-back-till-eleven get-togethers in ninth grade where we blared Mellow Gold. The Natural Light-infused, cops-called ragers in twelfth where we kept Odelay on repeat. That tour's stop in Akron when I spent half the concert at the first aid station after busting up my eyebrow moshing to opener Atari Teenage Riot. I listened to Beck so incessantly that my mom grew to like him—that there was an actual guitar involved, unlike the hip hop I usually favored, I'm sure helped—and when he came to town again, in support of Mutations, she bought tickets for her and a friend. (Not wanting to embarrass me, she made sure they weren't anywhere near where my friends and I were sitting. Embarrass me?! Mom, the guys still talk about how cool it was you went to that show!) It was fitting, then, to have a new Beck album during the time she was hospitalized. In fact, it almost seemed like he'd written it for us: the title track "The Information" (so much of it—diagnoses, drugs, dosages—we had to process every day), "1000BPM" (her heart rate would get awfully close when she was weaning off the vent), and, of course, "Nausea" (which, on account of her malfunctioning stomach, she experienced around the clock).

Radiohead, "Reckoner"

The great In Rainbows experiment, in which Radiohead released their seventh album digitally via their Web site and allowed buyers to set the price, officially commenced on October 10, a week or so before mom was transferred from the Clinic to a long-term care facility. From then until early December, when the cancer won out and she was moved to a hospice, that record was practically all I listened to. It's one big dirge. Even the uptempo songs are elegiac—it's not hard to imagine "15 Step" in one of those New Orleans funeral processions, and might as well have been me instead of Thom Yorke wailing "Oh no no no no no…I've seen it coming, I've seen it coming" to end "Bodysnatchers." I even listened to it on the morning mom passed away, after the funeral home had collected her body from the hospice and I was driving home. It's weird when I think about it now, that I turned on the car stereo and played a CD. My mom had just died, and there I was listening to Radiohead, to "Reckoner." But it helped. I remember it helping.

Sean Manning and The Things That Need Doing links:

Akron Beacon Journal review
Boston Globe review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Corduroy Books review
Kirkus Reviews review
The Millions review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

Online "Best Books 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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