August 16, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kevin Fenton's debut novel Merit Badges follows four small town Minnesotans from junior high through adulthood. Fenton perfectly captures their voices in alternating chapters as he shares their dreams and everyday experiences.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"An impressive vitality, droll wit, and affecting nostalgia lift Fenton's first novel about four high school pals growing up together during the 1970s in the fictional town of Minnisapa, Minn."
Much of Merit Badges is set in the 1970s and early '80s, in that cultural pocket after the Beatles and before MTV, in vinyl's last years as a dominant form, when "rock opera" didn't seem like quite so much of an oxymoron.
The characters —well, most of them—listen to records in their rooms. They listen to music in the thirsty way that adolescents listen to music: Every new record sharpens the self just a little bit.
What the characters realize only after the fact is that the way they listen to music is becoming extinct. In his thirties, one of them laments, "Records are antiques now, with their beautiful labels, and the way they moved at the pace of a river, and that little riot of sound when you put the needle down, and the abyss at the center that the threads dropped into. They, too, are a part of my lost world. Now, we digitize our sadness."
But Merit Badges brings back the music I listened to when I was writing it. I'm a bit of a plodder—the first sentences date from the early 90s—so that's a lot of music.
"Any World That I'm Welcome To" Steely Dan
It's impossible for me to think about high school without thinking about Katy Lied. Multiple sources confirm that my friends Pat Marcotte and Duke Hamernik sang the complete album during their cross-country practice. What did the characters see in this music? The boys aren't talking. But I'm thinking that, feeling put off by the decades' excesses, retreating into irony, they sensed something: Steely Dan's best music feels like the musical distillation of a certain kind of American movie. It's filled with elegance, nostalgia, effervescence, wisecrack, luminosity, and noir. For Barb, these feelings are more private, more vulnerable, to be kept within the confines of her room.
"Whipping Post" The Allman Brothers
Blues is typically grown-up music, but "Whipping Post" is pure teenage angst. I lose interest in the latter meanderings of the song, but this opening still grabs me, twenty years later. What an unforgettable froth of spiritual agitation and self pity and romanticized delinquency: "Now she's with one of my good time buddies out drinking in some crosstown bar."
"The Real Me" The Who
The Who are the Deist Gods of Merit Badges: they never appear but the signs of their presence are everywhere. The fact that the four voices of Merit Badges mimic the four voices of Quadrophenia is a happy accident of revision. But the song's first line "Can you see the real me?" could be the epitaph of Quint, Slow, Chimes, and Barb.
"Party Every Third Night" The Incinerator Boys
My experience of the 70s wasn't all concept albums, blues, and nuance. My friends would amuse themselves by creating fake top 40s filled with made up songs like this. But I didn't just mock those goofy seventies pop songs. I also kinda loved them. I'd sit in a friend's basement and we'd listen to Kasey Kassem's Top 40. Each week, after going through the latest offerings by the Starlight Vocal Band and KC and the Sunshine Band, he'd end with "This is Kasey Kassem, saying: remember to keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars." As life advice, you could do a lot worse.
"Rockaway Beach" The Ramones
The fictional town of Minnisapa is pretty insular—the polka radio was better than the rock radio. But then kids went into the world; New Wave hit, and people had to deal with these unfamiliar sounds. For Barb Carimona, this song—which is not explicitly mentioned—evokes both the freedom she found in New York clubs and the fun of summers at the Quarry. It's a punk beach song and that contradiction feels good to her.
"Strange Magic" ELO
ELO was the How I Met Your Mother of 70s music. I didn't turn it off but I didn't seek it out. Then, a few years ago, I spent a weekend with some friends at a country house built in the '70s—complete with shag rugs and a conversation pit. And there I heard this album (Face The Music) on vinyl on a good stereo. If you get a chance, do the same.
"Answering Machine" The Replacements
The characters drink a bit and a few of them drink a lot. "Answering Machine" is the great song of the horrible tag-end of a drunk. In their desiccation and ache, the guitars actually sound like alcoholism.
"Green Grow the Rushes" REM
Minnisapa is a fictional town set a real place—the northern Mississippi between Red Wing, Minnesota and LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Although it was written by a southern band, this song has always reminded me of the beautiful backwaters of that part of the Mississippi.
"That's How You Sing Amazing Grace" Low
Grief colors Merit Badges and this is my favorite grief song. While Low's minimalism doesn't always do it for me (I suspect that's my fault), the minimalism here feels like a human soul learning that a friend has died. It feels like an absence you know you won't ever be able to negotiate with.
"We Used To Wait" Arcade Fire
You experience a book a second time when you launch it. In February, I launched Merit Badges in my hometown and my high school friend Bill Schuth, who was battling cancer, was in such fine form that he was able to read the character of Slow. In April, I was returning to my alma mater, Beloit College, for a reading. I was happy to be back on campus, and amazed that I once spent four years reading books and talking about them. As I sat on a stone bench and gazed at what had been the Student Union, I thought of my friends in Winona in the 70s. At Beloit, I'd spend an hour or so a week typing my thoughts onto paper, putting that paper in an envelope, and sending it. Every day, at the Beloit College mailroom, I would look at the cloudy window in my mailbox for return letters. Nothing has ever quite replaced the letter although much has jostled it aside. That morning, at Beloit, in view of the old union, I received a correspondence: an email from Bill, which I read on my phone as students walked by. He would be going into hospice care; his time left numbered days; and, if he were lucky, he would slip into a coma and die quietly. And that heaviness anchored an otherwise wonderful campus visit. Yet, for all this background, it's hard to communicate the emotion I felt when I hear the lines "I used to write letters. I used to sign my name."
Kevin Fenton and Merit Badges links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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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)
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