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October 4, 2011

Book Notes - John Sellers ("The Old Man and the Swamp")

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

John Sellers' memoir The Old Man and the Swamp lives up to its subtitle, "A True Story About My Weird Dad, a Bunch of Snakes, and One Ridiculous Road Trip." One of the most moving and humorous books of the year shares the author's attempt to rekindle his relationship with his father. Sellers finds the humor in his decidedly offbeat childhood, and draws a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of his eccentric dad as the city boy and his nature loving father go off to study snakes in the great outdoors.

Relevant wrote of the book:

"This is a phenomenal book, through and through. It travels difficult territory—from the swampy marshes to the troubled past between a father and son—with humor, grace and honesty. And while he certainly doesn’t sweep his father’s less-noble actions under the rug, he doesn’t write Mark Jr. off as some deadbeat dad. Instead, what emerges is an honest and nuanced portrait of a man who, though infuriating and weird, is still John's dad. Though he probably would have preferred not having to chase snakes through a swamp to figure this out, it sure is an interesting way for readers to come to a greater appreciation of a parent. "

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is John Sellers' Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Old Man and the Swamp: A True Story About My Weird Dad, a Bunch of Snakes, and One Ridiculous Road Trip:

I didn't think I'd be able to listen to music at all while working on The Old Man and the Swamp, mainly because I'd overplayed very nearly every song in my collection while researching and writing Perfect From Now On. And when I wasn't consuming music over that period of time, I was talking about it with colleagues and total strangers, or taking stabs at listing what my favorite albums might have been at various points in my life, or concocting arcane formulas in an attempt to quantify exactly how obsessed I was with Guided By Voices, or scouring the recently unearthed Pac-Man and Donkey Kong notebooks I'd filled in my early teenage years with embarrassing proclamations and charts.***

But just as every road trip requires a soundtrack, so must every book about a road trip, right? Here are the four songs that popped into my brain most frequently while I was writing The Old Man and the Swamp—and somehow Guided By Voices wasn't one of them.

John Denver, "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

The Old Man and the Swamp is essentially the story about my dad's lifelong relationship with nature, and this signature John Denver track could be its theme song. After my mom separated from my dad in the mid-1970s, in part because he was the kind of guy whose sense of humor compelled him to do things like giving her a book with the title When I Say No, I Feel Guilty as a Christmas present two years in a row, he rented a farmhouse in the Michigan boonies and fully embraced his offbeat side. ("The boonies" can be roughly defined as a remote location some thirty miles outside of Grand Rapids, far from the cherry Slurpees and Topps baseball cards that were readily available for my consumption at the 7-Eleven within bicycling distance of our former home in the city.) My dad's decision to relocate to the middle of nowhere miles from his wife and two sons had much to do with his desire to flee civilization entirely because, as he put it on the 2007 drive into the swamps of southern Michigan that sets the book in motion, he had "tried people, I wished them well, but I'd had enough." And like many other hirsute nature-lovers of the day, he had embraced the back-to-the-land environmentalist movement, a phenomenon that had made it feasible for a bespectacled, cornpone singer with a bowl-cut to take over pop culture for brief time. When my mom reunited with my dad in 1977 and, even more questionably, consented to move into his farmhouse out to the sticks, I was dismayed to find that I was part of the package deal. But those three years didn't turn out to be half bad, even with the saccharine warblings of John Denver in heavy rotation on my dad's record player. To this day, though, I still don't know what "mountain mama" means.

Moody Blues, "Nice to Be Here"

I haven't heard this song off the 1971 album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which my dad played often during the tail end of our stint at the farm, in more than thirty years, and I can't seem to remember anything specific about it other than the part that goes: "I can see them, they can't see me, much to my delight." I'd always figured that the Moody Blues frontman must have been some kind of chuckling pervert, like the horndogs spying on showering girls through a peephole in Porky's. But reading the lyrics online just now has revealed that the singer is actually talking about the joys of being outdoors and marveling at the wildlife all around him. Snooze.

John Lennon, "Watching the Wheels"

My older brother, Mark, is convinced that John Lennon wrote this song about my dad without ever having met him—and the lyrics do seem to apply to his decision to remove himself from Grand Rapids. People really did shake their heads and look at him as if he'd lost his mind, and, quite often, he'd tell them that there was no hurry and that he was just sitting out there doing time (while dressed, I should add, in well-worn and scandalously tight bell-bottom jeans that had been festooned with patches that said things like "Don't Tread on Me"). My dad's mantra could very well be "I just had to let it go…" Even more coincidentally, Lennon and my dad were born two months apart in 1940 and they'd both decided to withdraw from the rat race at roughly the same point in the 1970s. Of course, Lennon was a multi-millionaire addressing his years of stepping away from stardom to focus on raising a family, whereas my dad was a nearly penniless introvert who had deserted his wife and kids for mostly immature reasons. But still: eerie.

Men at Work, "Be Good Johnny"

After we left the farm in 1979 and moved closer to Grand Rapids, my parents set out on a slow, inevitable march toward divorce. My dad was back in school to get a degree that would allow him to turn his fascination with snakes into a insanely low-paying career, and his light schedule and hermit-y leanings meant he was often at home. His constant, quirky presence and ability to laugh at himself led to frequent hilarity, like the time I beat him 105-12 in Intellivision Baseball or the time he referred to Donkey Kong as Konkey Donk. Early on, he and I had bonded solely over sports and board games, but music became a shared interest when cable television came into our shockingly messy household in 1981. MTV in particular helped brought our family closer together even as it was falling apart because the network 1) helped fill our living room with music other than Bob Dylan, which my dad was listening to exclusively by then, and 2) it offered up endless opportunities for laughing at the painful earnestness and horrible production values that were a staple of so many early videos. The one for this lesser Men at Work single stands out more than every other, and not just because my name is in the title or because it features Colin Hay dancing like a goony bird in yellow balloon pants. Many years later, my dad, still an offbeat shut-in but rich with internet access, has taken to sending me a link to this video every so often with comments like "Remember this Kirk Gibson homer??? Gooo-ahhh!!!!," his version of a RickRoll.

[*** Two years after Perfect From Now On came out, I found a bundle of amazing handwritten notes in a shoebox hidden deep in the reaches of my mom's guest-room closet. Each page is headed by a calendar date, under which is a reckoning of my top 40 (or, in some cases, top 50 or 54 or 100) all-time favorite songs as of that particular day. The first is from February 11, 1986—I was 15 and a half—and begins as follows:

1. "Everything She Wants," Wham!
2. "The Reflex," Duran Duran
3. "Voices," Russ Ballard
4. "Careless Whisper," Wham!
5. "On the Loose," Saga

Not only did these long-lost note pages—which run roughly bi-weekly through August 1, 1986 (three weeks before I got my driver's license and five before I began tenth grade at a massive new high school) and then skip ahead to a year-end chart—remind me how fantastic and underrated the song "Voices" is, they gave me delicious, verifiable insight into the kind of teenager I was. And I was the kind of teenager who, for nearly half a year, held on to "Everything She Wants" by Wham! like a Rottweiler obstinately refusing to relinquish a mangled chew toy. But something in the Power Station's "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" must have spoken to me, ousting George Michael and Andrew Ridgley from the top spot in that August list; in a final chart composed in December, "Everything She Wants" could be found languishing at number 40. The world's most awesome person in 1986? I think the answer is fairly obvious.]

John Sellers and The Old Man and the Swamp links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus Reviews review
Mother Jones review
Readmichigan review
Relevant review interview with the author's father
Grand Rapids Press profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life

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)
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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