October 20, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book. Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.
Paul Maliszewski's Prayer and Parable subtly explores detailed lives through everyday moments in this captivating short story collection.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"A collection of 28 odd, captivating stories, Maliszewski's skillful latest (after essay collection Fakers) highlights his ability for creating arresting tales out of ordinary situations."
In one of my stories, there's this minor character who collects guitars. He plays them sometimes at parties, but the only thing anybody can ever recognize is the opening riff of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." That detail, about this walk-on figure—to call him a character pushes the definition—is the only mention of music in the whole collection. I was surprised by this when I flipped through the book, trying to check, Do I have any music in here, even an overheard pop song or an album playing in the background? I found nothing. The thing is, though, I like music. I've played guitar since, I think, the fourth grade. I listen to music when I'm not trying to write. I tend to listen to the same stuff over and over. I can listen to the same album most of the day. I don't know why there's not more music in my book. Maybe I think of music as separate from writing. Or maybe I just have a hard time writing about it.
I started writing these stories in 1995. Three of them I wrote in the months before I finished the book in, in early 2011. In 1995, I was still listening to cassette tapes. I'm a really late adopter. In fact, I didn't start listening to CDs until, a few years later, when I moved into a new apartment and found a CD player in a closet and—I couldn't believe my luck—it worked just fine. I asked the people who moved out if they hadn't left it by mistake, and they said they had another one, it was mine to keep. Sometimes it got stuck while playing the beginnings of discs, but if I gave it a whack on the top, it started playing again, no problem. In 1995, I was listening to a lot of what got me through college: Talking Heads and R.E.M. and Tom Waits. For a while, for years in fact, I stopped following music. Even now, I don't so much follow it as trail hopelessly behind, picking up scraps. My wife and I scavenge for old albums we once listened to on tape but then forgot about, until we happen across them, joyously, again.
Anyway, here's my playlist.
"Delicate Cutters," by Throwing Muses
In college, a friend made me a tape of all their early stuff, pre-House Tornado. That's their best stuff, but doesn't everybody always say that, about everyone's early stuff? I like when their songs sound shattered, as if they started as whole objects which then got broken into pieces, and when someone went to put the songs back together, they didn't become seamless things. You can always still hear the parts. Everything hangs together, but just for that moment, and it's fragile, and all the while, Kirsten Hersh's voice sounds like she's feeling something terrible right then, while she's singing.
"E-Bow the Letter," by R.E.M.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is not my favorite album by them, not by a long stretch, but I love this song. I couldn't remember the name of it. All I could think of is that line, "Aluminum, tastes like fear." Sometime in the 90s, I think, I stopped remembering the names of songs and could only remember bits of lyrics, usually the bits that offer no clue as to what the song is called. I like the way this song drones and drags but pushes forward, slowly, purposefully, building.
"In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," by Ella Fitzgerald
I could have picked anything by Fitzgerald. This happens to be from the Twelve Nights in Hollywood box set, a series of live concerts from 1961. I got the set as a gift from my mother-in-law, for which I thank her again. The Cole Porter Songbook is one of my favorite albums ever, and listening to Fitzgerald sing never fails to make me happy. That voice. I am thankful for that voice.
"Sweet and Tender Hooligan," by The Smiths
When people are telling you about something that happened, they often will leave out the boring part or the stuff that goes without saying, that you'd have no trouble filling in yourself. Et cetera, they say, et cetera. I do that in a few places in my book. I didn't have this song in mind, but I love all the et ceteras, especially at the end, when instead of another chorus, Morrissey just sings, Et cetera! Et cetera! Over and over.
"Metro," by Berlin
The other day I heard this song on the radio. We have a free trial of satellite radio, and so of course I was listening to whatever channel targets my particular sweet spot of nostalgia and lost youth. I think it's what they call first wave alternative? In any case, it was great hearing this song again. I looked it up on the computer when I got home and made my wife and son listen to it. My son is three. I told him it was a song about trains, because he loves trains, which, granted, is somewhat misleading. They were both kind of like, Eh, it's okay, I guess. The keyboard sounds like one of those old battery-powered Casios. I love the image of a person—the "you" in the song—"swimming through apologies," the way the words are made physical.
"Frogmore," by Chickasaw Mudd Puppies
Back in the day, the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies were two guys, one who played guitar and one who sang and played harmonica and sometimes shouted into a megaphone. In concert, the singer sat in a rocking chair and stomped his feet on what looked like a sawn-off section of someone's porch. The porch was miked, I think, so the stomping was like the drums. There wasn't anything extra to the Mudd Puppies. Nothing was wasted and everything was used to its fullest. In college, I got to interview them with my friend Rodney. Rodney was the manager of our radio station. After the interview, they asked if we had any stuff for them to sign, because they were happy to sign stuff, but we had brought nothing. I felt pretty stupid. I still feel pretty stupid, when I think about it. The only other person I know who has ever even heard of these guys is my friend Steve. We both own the entire Chickasaw Mudd Puppies discography: White Dirt (1990) and 8 Track Stomp (1991). Actually, now that I think about it, my friend Jason knows about them too, but Jason grew up in Georgia, near where they were from, so he had a head start on all of us. Some of the stories in my book I wrote thinking, Okay, how few things can I bring onto the stage and make this work? How few props and how few characters do I need and yet still have a story?
"Lausanne, March 20, 1973," by Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett used to give these improvised solo concerts. I read somewhere that at one of the performances he sat at the piano, staring at the keys. He sat there for a long time, an uncomfortably long period of time, the audience all waiting, hushed, until someone yelled out a key to play in. Jarrett said thank you and he was off. It can sound like he's wandering around in search of something solid, but then he gets it and returns to it, and keeps building it and working it. I can't say what 'it' is, exactly but I'll try. It is the central figure, the edifice; you've never come across it or, for that matter, anything like it before, but when you do, you think, Well, that there's pretty great. I would be foolish to compare my writing to these concerts or to Jarrett or his improvisational method, so I'll just say that I'm happiest when I start with a plan—a vague sketch of a plan is best—and then leave it quickly behind, when I realize I don't need it, or what I had was wrong anyway, or weak, and I can just make it up as I go.
"Television," by Robyn Hitchcock
I tried in a few of my stories to capture the way people are when they're watching TV together, a kind of posture and a way of relating to each other and to the television. There's some staring at the screen, of course, but there's also this back and forth talk, idle chatter about what's on, commentary, humorous asides, and sometimes that chatter can take off unexpectedly or even deepen and become its own thing, much more interesting than the program that inspired it, even while both people are still also watching. Hitchcock captures this in his song much more succinctly and beautifully.
"Slipping (Into Something)," by The Feelies
When I play guitar with my friend Jim, we play this song. We have a few Feelies songs we attempt. Like all Feelies songs, the chords are deceptively easy, but the rhythms are incredibly intricate and complex and, really, just impossible to duplicate, so we have to console ourselves with our rough approximations, the best we can manage with the simple hands we have, and then we play for as long as we have strength.
"See No Evil," by Television
There's a certain sound I gravitate to, and Television had it, and so, for that matter, do the Feelies. In the ancestral tree of rock, whatever branches sprout off from the Velvet Underground, that's the stuff that always gets me. It's usually like two guitars, playing a mostly clean sound—no big effects, no pedals—just churning and ringing out through the song. "What Goes On" is the great-granddaddy of that glorious sound.
"Since I Came," by The Mendoza Line
A sad, haunting song off a sad but great album called 30 Year Low, which, unfortunately, seems likely to be the band's last. Their writing is personal, affecting, genuinely witty (listen to the title song, a work of off-handed genius) and, when it needs to be, cutting and angry (hear "Aspect of an Old Maid"). This is nothing less than the third greatest divorce record we have, after Blood on the Tracks and Shoot out the Lights, in that order.
"When the Spell Is Broken," by Richard Thompson
I've seen Thompson live, I would venture to guess, eight or nine times, maybe more, I don't know. Once, in Durham, North Carolina, I heard him play this song and started crying part-way through, and you know, it's a sad song, yes, but it wasn't the lyrics that got to me, it was that guitar. The live version on his retrospective Watching the Dark box set is wonderful but it only approaches what I heard that night.
Paul Maliszewski and Prayer and Parable links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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