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February 8, 2011

Book Notes - Justin Taylor ("The Gospel of Anarchy")

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

Last year I was introduced to Justin Taylor's writing through his short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, one of my favorite short fiction collections of 2010. At the time, I wrote about how well he "captures the lives of his young characters vividly as they struggle in that precipice between childhood and adult life."

Justin Taylor's debut novel The Gospel of Anarchy covers similar ground, but impresses on its own terms. This story of an anarchist religious cult living together is provocative, mesmerizing, and immersive into the punk culture of 1999 Gainesville.

Booklist wrote of the novel:

"Writing from various perspectives in a wholly captivating style, Taylor traces the delicate lines between freedom, spirituality, politics, and happiness, depicting a lifestyle both hopeful and flawed. "

In his own words, here is Justin Taylor's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Gospel of Anarchy:

Hidden Tracks: The Secret Soundtrack to The Gospel of Anarchy

Many songs, records and bands appear in my novel, The Gospel of Anarchy. One character, Owl, at one point suggests to his girlfriend, Selah, that music is their religion, and it's not entirely clear that he's speaking metaphorically. Another character, Thomas, works at a local music venue and is an earnest and incisive listener, inclined toward grandiose pronouncements about his musical loves and hates. I may as well admit that this is a hereditary trait, one which Thomas gets from his author. I could write at length about each musical reference in Gospel: Poison Idea, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, "Ain't No Bread in the Breadbox", Dead Moon, Kid A, Bob Dylan, and more. Instead, though, I thought I'd take this opportunity to try something different. Two important motifs in the novel are the secret message and the scrambled transmission. It is in this spirit that I offer the following notes on songs, groups and artists which contributed significantly and materially to my novel's conception, development and execution, but are not named anywhere in the text. Together they constitute the secret soundtrack to The Gospel of Anarchy.

"Lonesome Valley" by Magnolia Electric Co.

Jason Molina's lyrics present sets of strong, elemental images and then combine and recombine those elements to form boldly simple yet deeply evocative songs. There's hardly a Molina project that I wouldn't recommend but Fading Trails, the record on which "Lonesome Valley" appears, is a good place for a newcomer to start. I kept "Lonesome Valley" firmly in mind while I worked on Gospel's pivotal dream sequence, which is set in a shifting/morphing desert landscape. I was especially taken with this fragment of lyric: "out here the ghost wears the feathered crown..." I couldn't make use of that exact image, so I attempted instead to write something equivalently stark, vivid, and strange. I will say, though, that the moon is one of Molina's touchstone images, central to his matchless sense of landscape and mood. The moon which shines in the dream-scene is absolutely Jason Molina's moon.

"Don't Let it Bring You Down" and "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young

"Don't let it bring you down / it's only castles burning. / Find someone who's turning / and you will come around." A perfect anarchist anthem, more or less. Thomas is the character most likely to ferret out a relatively deep cut like this one, though it's possible that Owl and Selah, the hippies who live in a VW bus parked in his yard, would know about it, too. I would have liked for Thomas to play this song for his friends, but I didn't want him to get sidetracked trying to defend the music of his parents' generation, which he'd likely refuse to do on general principle, irrespective of his enjoyment of the song.

"After the Gold Rush" is a little harder to explain. An oldie but a goodie, and one of those songs I suspect people often listen to without truly hearing. It's packed with apocalyptic imagery, and the transitions are dizzying: knights and fanfare in verse one; the burnout junkie in the basement in verse two; the vision of salvation—if that's what it is—via space travel in the final verse. I love how the diction is at odds with the subject-matter: "Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor comin' / sayin' something about a queen."

In an early draft of the dream-scene mentioned above, there was a white baby grand piano in the middle of the desert playing "After the Gold Rush" while it sank slowly into the sand—a kind of double-nod to Young and to Stephen King. Near the start of King's fantasy-epic, The Dark Tower, someone bangs out "Hey Jude" on a bar-house piano, thereby informing the reader that even though this book is set in a different dimension (or whatever) there's some kind of material connection with our own world, and therefore it's possible that whatever happens There will have ramifications Here.

"The Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep" by Pete Seeger

Okay, so "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is mentioned in the book, in fact it's quoted almost in full in a late chapter, when a band plays it at a show, but Seeger himself is not named and neither is the album I took the quotes from: American Ballads Vol. 1-5, a lively and crisp collection of 141 traditionals with a running time of just over six hours. "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep" is on there, too. It's a liberation-minded gospel song that mixes Old and New Testament imagery, shifting without much effort or concern between elements of the Exodus story and admonitions to Mary to buck up. The opening line, "If I could I surely would / stand on the rock where Moses stood" reminded me immediately of an Against Me! lyric from the song "Walking is Still Honest." Tom Gabel sings "Can anybody tell me / why God won't speak to me? Why Jesus never called on me / to part the fucking seas?" I'll talk more about AM! in a minute, but suffice for now to say that "Oh, Mary..." is a song I love very much, and that I use here to stand in for a whole body of traditional American bluegrass, country, gospel and spiritual music that means so incredibly much to me. A few of my favorites: The New Lost City Ramblers, Washington Phillips, Jean Ritchie, Ralph Stanley, E.C. and Orna Ball, Hobart Smith, Elizabeth Cotten, and Jerry Garcia. Also, the folks in the next entry.

"The Battle of Armageddon" by Hank Williams; "Matthew Twenty-Four" by Harry and Jeanie West; "Matthew Twenty-Four" by George Jones

In a passage that didn't survive to the final draft, Thomas speaks derisively of his erstwhile friend Parker's fondness for what he calls "Matthew 24 shit." Matthew 24 is one of the darker parts of the synoptic gospels—and really of the whole New Testament outside of Revelation. Jesus has a private talk with his disciples on the Mount of Olives wherein he prophecies the destruction of the temple, suggests signs of the end times to look out for, and issues the (in)famous warning in Matthew 24:34 that "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."

"The Battle of Armageddon" is a bizarre number, not least because Williams pronounces "armageddon" as "am-you-got-ten." In the song he recommends Revelation 16 and Matthew 24 in particular, going so far as to cite the verse numbers for the passage in the latter. He cuts his selection off right before 24:34, which I thought was strange until I figured out that he'd been boxed in by the rhyme scheme. The lyric is "If you open up your Bible, turn to Matthew you will see / Start with chapter 24 and read from one to thirty-three." "Four," of course, doesn't rhyme with "see," and so there you go.

Next we've got two versions of the same song, called simply "Matthew Twenty-Four." The first is by the great George Jones, and it's a real toe-tapper. You can find it on She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings, 1962-1964. The other is a much lower-key take by a husband and wife couple who play acoustic and sing in a somber, plain-jane style that reminds me of the aforementioned E.C. & Orna Ball. The Wests' album Favorite Gospel Songs is a treasure-trove. If you get it, look out for "He's Set Your Fields on Fire," "Oh, Hide You in the Blood" and "Preach the Gospel." Though Thomas's zinger was left on the cutting room floor, an air of Apocalypse pervades the world of The Gospel of Anarchy: in the culture at large on account of the impending millennium; in the House of Fishgut on account of Parker, whose return is awaited and prayed for, though they know not the hour which he comes.

Against Me! and The Can Kickers

I lived in Gainesville, Florida, where Gospel is set, when Against Me! was first getting going. I've written about AM! a few times before, and I don't want to become one of those "them was the glory days" guys, but I do want to say that it was completely obvious to anyone paying attention around 2000-2001 that Tom Gabel had it in him to go all the way. He could be playing unplugged and un-mic'd and still make the earth shake. There can't be more than two or three other records I've ever loved as intensely as I loved the Crime as Forgiven By EP. Whatever else has changed for me since those days in terms of politics/lifestyle/etc., the feelings that that record engendered and/or validated are as powerful now to recollect as they were then to experience. But I'm not an early-days purist. I love their whole catalog at least up through Searching for a Former Clarity. After that it gets a little spotty, at least relative to my taste, though I did like "Americans Abroad" on New Wave and the title track of White Crosses. Some days I think that As the Eternal Cowboy is their most coherent and complete statement as a band.

There's a fictional band in the book called the Dust Biters, and they play a small but significant role in the latter chapters. Their arrangement—a singer who plays acoustic-electric guitar, backed up by a drummer with a home-made kit—is based on AM!'s brief incarnation as a two-piece, when Tom played with a drummer named Kevin Mahon (who, by the way, resurfaced last year in a new band called Forgetters). But everything else about the Dust Biters, from their repertoire (acoustic punk renditions of folk songs) to the cadence of their name, is in homage to the Can Kickers, a great band that never got remotely famous and maybe never wanted to. They're a shitload of fun and I recommend their whole catalog. In fact, I wrote the Can Kickers a big fat love letter on the occasion of their last studio album, We're Dying but We Ain't Dead, which I'm astonished to realize came out five years ago. (The site I wrote it for, Econoculture,no longer exists, but the piece is archived at the Kickers' website.) Sampling their music is easy—there are a ton of YouTube clips, and free sample tracks at the band's website—but acquiring whole records takes some effort. One album, an official bootleg called Live at Lavazone, is available through, but you have to be a subscriber. Otherwise, learn to embrace the retro charms of direct mail-order: full lengths go for ten bucks, postage-paid.

"(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit" by The Palace Brothers

I am sure that if someone once got so drunk that he decided to sing this song unaccompanied at an open mic night, he would have the good sense never to even so much as allude to it after the fact. I am equally certain, however, that if such a person could somehow be prevailed upon to shelve said good sense and un-redact the anecdote, he would relish sharing the detail that he had been inspired on the spur of the moment to introduce the song to the audience as "an updated version of ancient Gnostic hymn." And that, after hearing the song, everyone believed him.

David Berman and The Silver Jews

I started with a fragment and I'll end with one. David Berman's phrase "A figure in the distance even to my own eye," appears in the poem "They Don't Acknowledge the Letter C", in his collection, Actual Air, and also in his song, "How to Rent a Room" on the Silver Jews album, The Natural Bridge. The phrase has meant a great deal to me—more than I can say, really, and perhaps more than I ought to be comfortable with. At this point, I've probably spent more time thinking about it than David Berman ever did, but people don't choose their obsessions anymore than than they choose their parents, and half the reason writers write is so we can get these things out of our heads and make them somebody else's problem. Suffice to say that for me Berman presents an ongoing problem—in the best, Harold Bloom-ian sense of the word "problem"—that I am always eager to engage with, and in no major hurry to solve. The first time I quoted "A figure in the distance even to my own eye" in print I used it as the title of a 2009 essay on Actual Air for the Believer, occasioned by the collection's tenth anniversary. But by that time I'd already been living daily with the phrase for years—it was the file-name of the word document in which I wrote and revised the first several drafts of what became The Gospel of Anarchy.

The idea of glimpsing yourself from afar, of simultaneously recognizing yourself as yourself and as a stranger moving away from you, seems to me to touch on something fundamental about what it means to exist—how we all live all of the time. Berman's elegantly facile formulation of the paradox seems in the tradition of Kafka's remark that "the Messiah will come when he is no longer necessary." The ten words (Berman's, I mean, though Kafka's are nice, too) offered me particular and crucial insight into my character, David, but in truth every character in the book is in some sense struggling with this impossible, inevitable state of being. You will find versions of and variations on Berman's proposition scattered throughout the novel. That said, if you are wondering whether my character, David, is named for David Berman, you can stop now. He is not. David is also my middle name. Feel free to wonder about that.

Justin Taylor and The Gospel of Anarchy links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events

davidbackerdigitalin-itself review
Interview review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review
Oxford American review
Phoebe North review
small drunken cog in a giant destructive empire review
Too Many Books in the Kitchen review

The Believer contributions by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his short fiction collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever
The Rumpus interview with the author
Word Riot 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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