April 27, 2012
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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Jon McGregor's This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You is a brilliant collection of thirty short stories that always challenge the reader, yet offer great returns.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"Like the factory chimneys polluting fragile flowers on the cover, these tales juxtapose beauty and ugliness. They are unsettling, haunting and brilliant."
In his own words, here is Jon McGregor's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You:
Lincolnshire is a flat, wide and disorientating landscape on the eastern edge of England. Formed mainly from drained fenland, the low fields and isolated houses are hatched around by drainage ditches and narrow roads and telegraph wires strung from poles which lean from one side to the other. It's an exposed place, cut off from the rest of the country by distance and faltering transport links, and its only beauty is of the austere type favoured by architects and cyclists and short story writers.
The stories in This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You are set in the villages and towns of this landscape. Mostly, I didn't have any music in mind when I was writing them - they were soundtracked by breezes, and distant shouts, and the approaching grind of unspecified machinery - but looking over them now I've been able to marry them up with songs which have burrowed their way into me over the years, and thus into this book. I've listed them here in parallel with the stories in the book: 30 stories, 30 songs.
"Nothing Matters When We're Dancing," Magnetic Fields
Well, it doesn't, does it?
"To Love Is To Bury," Cowboy Junkies
When I was 15, I had a VHS tape of a Canadian film called Roadkill (Bruce McDonald, 1989) which I just about wore out from watching it over and over again. In hindsight it might not even be that great a film, but it introduced me to the Cowboy Junkies and for that I will always be grateful. The sound of this whole record is, to me, the sound of telegraph wires whistling in the bitter easterly wind over fenland fields.
"Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," Bob Dylan
Much of what I know about sentences being about sounds before they're about meaning, I've learnt from Bob Dylan. And everything I know about Bob Dylan, I've learnt from my father. This story (She was looking for this coat) is about fathers, and so is this song.
"Blister In The Sun," Violent Femmes
When you're turning 12, 13, and you don't really know anything about the world or yourself or what to do with these big clumsy hands you find hanging off the end of your arms, there's really no better song to load up on your Personal Cassette Player and go shouting out across the fields, is there?
"Love Spreads," Stone Roses
This version, from the 1995 Warchild charity album, Help, is a glimpse of how great the Stone Roses' second album could have been if they'd just cracked on with it: ragged and raw, desperate, bursting with life. It's a reminder that although craft and polish and dedication are essential to any great art, it's also often important to smell the deadline and just crack on.
"13 Angels Standing Guard 'Round The Side Of Your Bed," Silver Mt Zion
The music of Silver Mt Zion, and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, is just about the only music I can listen to when I'm writing. And even then it doesn't much help. But it's the music I hear whenever I look at abandoned airfields and think about what our grandfathers did in the war.
(Not available on Spotify: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Vy_0wuZZn0)
I'll be honest, this isn't my kind of listening anymore. But it's pretty much the exact soundtrack to being driven down dark country roads by seventeen year old friends who've only just passed their driving tests and don't particularly slow down for corners, when you have the music turned up loud and it makes things seem sort of hectic, or, like, picturesque.
"When The Levee Breaks," Memphis Minnie
Floods, and the rumour of flooding, is a theme running through most of the stories in this book. And the title for this story comes from this song, so.
"Fire," Arthur Brown
I refer you to the Magnetic Fields' point about dancing; and I defy anyone to listen to this without dancing even a little bit.
"Travelling Light," Tindersticks
The Tindersticks, who recorded these early singles in the same Nottingham terraces I've been doing my writing in these last few years, were the reason I started, at 19, to wear suits and pursue an aesthetic of well-dressed austerity. It wasn't an aesthetic I ever managed to pull off.
"People Ain't No Good," Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
There are very few albums which manage to hold together as a self-contained piece of work; Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call (1997) is one of them. This is delicately paced and melancholy, and gets better each time I listen to it. The opening lyric - "I don't believe in an interventionist God" - pretty much sets the tone for the whole record's nuance and careful ambiguity.
"Sheffield Sex City," Pulp
Excuse the segue. But I'm incapable of talking about music and writing and playlists without mentioning this: Jarvis Cocker was instrumental in my first wanting to write at all, and in realising it was possible to write about subjects other than dinner parties in North London, and this song does a great job of encapsulating his lyrical preoccupations and achievements.
"Famous Blue Raincoat," Marissa Nadler
This story (New York) originally consisted entirely of lyric fragments from songs about New York. Then I discovered that the cost of copyright clearances would exceed the royalty cheque for the whole damn book, so I rewrote it. But the first line - "Is cold." - came from this song, so I'm dropping it in here. The Marissa Nadler version because her voice never stops yanking at the hairs on the back of my neck.
(Incidentally, the New York songs the original story was cut from are gathered here: http://open.spotify.com/user/jonmcgregor/playlist/0VTOSsnvQax1QjJQkSba0A)
"Let The Sunshine In," Julie Driscoll
Another one of my don't-stop-the-dancing tunes. Plus one for wiping down tables and looking wistfully out of cafe windows.
"Girls," Death In Vegas
I've got no particular love for Death in Vegas, nor for the risible film this song was on the soundtrack of; but I have such strong memories of walking through rain-soaked Japanese cities with this building and building in my headphones that it comes to mind whenever I think of Japan. And so.
"Elephant Gun," Beirut
What's not to like?
"Come On Up To The House," Tom Waits
One of the many Waits songs that sounds as though it must have been handed down through countless generations (and indeed the key line here - "the world is not my home, I'm just passing through" - is an old gospel trope), yet is unmistakeably old Tom himself. A marching song for when home is a day's march away.
"50 Ft Queenie," PJ Harvey
One of England's most consistently inventive singer-songwriters over the last twenty years - her recent Let England Shake was a triumph - it's still hard to beat the raw animal power of the early 4-track demos.
"Country Mile," Camera Obscura
By way of contrast, I do have a very soft spot for softly spoken Scottish indie-pop (see also: Ballboy, Belle & Sebastian, the Pastels, et al). Here's a particularly rainy-sweet example.
I'm aware, by now, that much of this playlist is made up of the music I was listening to when I was 17 and that this might suggest that in some way I haven't fully 'moved on'. But science has recently indicated that certain key frontal cortex receptors are in fact primed to receive certain pieces of music at the age of 17 and never let them go. So there. Everything's ending here.
"Home," Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Mainly, I'm afraid, because that YouTube video of some guy and his young daughter singing this as a duet gets me right there every time. I mean, every time.
"I Know My Love," James Yorkston & The Athletes
What Yorkston does with an acoustic guitar in this track is exactly what those German nerds at L.S.G. are doing with their loops and sequencers, and the result is similarly entrancing.
"Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," Gavin Bryars
Because sometimes repeating the same phrase over and over again is just the best way of getting the job done.
"Octopussy," Wedding Present
Another album which works brilliantly as a coherent whole, Seamonsters is in my usually-ignored opinion just about the finest guitars/drums/voice record of the last twenty years. In fact I came pretty close to writing this entire playlist about it.
"This Land Is Your Land," Billy Bragg
I love Billy Bragg. About half of his output is borderline unlistenable, but the other half has soundtracked my life and fired my politics. This version of the Guthrie classic - rewritten as a vision of a British ecotopia - is gloriously corny and all the more uplifting for it.
Fists should be your new favourite band. They just toured the US east coast, and in years to come you'll all be claiming you were there. It was legendary. They're a Nottingham band. This is a Nottingham story.
"We Have All The Time In The World," Louis Armstrong
On a sunny afternoon twelve years ago, this song was playing in the church as I walked down the aisle with my new wife. It feels truer than ever.
"My Favourite Things," Julie Andrews
Don't ask. Don't even ask.
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," Leadbelly
Sometimes you get into a conversation and realise, partway through, that the person you're talking to is, despite their innocuous talk, thoroughly dangerous. This song reminds me of those conversations. Listen out for when Leadbelly says, "Yeah? Shiver for me now."
"All The Good Times," Mr Fox
A gleeful end-times singalong. It's difficult to explain how such a piece of lyrical bleakness can feel so thrillingly rousing to listen to; just go ahead and try it out for yourself.
Jon McGregor and This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You links:
Daily Express review
Daily Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
New York Times review
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