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April 11, 2012

Book Notes - Matthew Gavin Frank "Pot Farm"

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.

Matthew Gavin's Pot Farm cleverly weaves his own story of escape with that of a California medical marijuana farm populated by a cast of colorful characters. Though this is his memoir, these portraits of his coworkers (including his wife) bring added zest to a compelling story already brimming with life.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"This engaging memoir chronicles the unusual route the author and his wife took to mental rehabilitation after Frank's mother's grueling, months-long battle with cancer: they took up residence on a medical-marijuana farm in Northern California. . . . A highly entertaining tale."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Matthew Gavin Frank's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Pot Farm:

"Where the Wild Roses Grow" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue

The album begins ominously, gut-wrenched and depressed, but electrically so. Before we fled my parents' Illinois house (where we were helping to nurse my mother through a bout with cancer) for the pot farm, my wife and I would try many things in order regain a sense of marital sanctuary. Often we would go for midnight walks to the neighborhood park—the site of my first tornado slide, little league baseball games, after-school fights, the place where I lost my third tooth, falling from the tire swing, the place where I tried, and succeeded at, eating a woodchip—and sit on the swingset, sometimes silent, sometimes raging with the urge to flee. One night, swinging, the chains complaining, we lapsed into a duet of this song. I sang Cave's parts. My wife, Minogue's. This song became a salve of sorts, never eradicating our depression, but sweetening it. In an ideal doomed world, this song would replace Grease's "Summer Nights," in countless American karaoke bars.

"A Gringo Like Me" music by Ennio Morricone, lyrics by Carol Danell, vocals by Peter Tavis

This song embodies the drive from Illinois to the Mendocino County, California medical marijuana farm. I remember stopping along I-80 to sleep in a small town outside Lincoln, Nebraska, one day after a tornado destroyed much of the region. I remember the giant yellow Super 8 Motel sign that lay crushed in the middle of Main Street. This song embodies all of the goofy exhilaration and threat of this drive from Midwest to West, uncertain about our relationship and its direction. Plus, the song includes the line "There's only one kind of man that you can trust, and that's a dead man..." which is just so delicious in that guilty pleasure / caramelly / butterscotchy sort of way.

"Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey

In the Residents' Camp—a shantytown tent village that housed the crew of Weckman medical marijuana farm—folks would bust out their acoustic guitars and djembe drums and rock out to some middle-of-the-road classic rock. No Zeppelin or Rolling Stones. Mostly stuff like Journey, REO Speedwagon, or—God help us—Foreigner. Our first night there, setting up our Coleman Cimarron tent, my wife and I couldn't help but feel that maybe we'd made some awful decision. Then, we heard the tinkling chorus of four acoustic guitars making their way through an overwrought rendition of this song, one of the singing voices missing the cue as the song finished, left stranded without music: Hold on to that feeee-lay-eee-aayng! I probably rolled my eyes and mocked a dry heave—my usual response to Journey—though, secretly, I choked down my uncool reflex to hoist my right fist into the air.

"Willow Weep for Me," by Tin Hat Trio, featuring Willie Nelson

This is a lulling, hypnotic song—a frazzled, over-fried version of the jazz standard, suggesting real menace just beneath the surface placidity. This is a field song for picking marijuana for eight straight hours. Working with marijuana plants, as is the case with most farm work, I've found, is a rash-inducing affair. It's a pulsing, venomous sort of itch, as intense as the smell, a bite from a lawless mosquito. Maybe this was my karmic comeuppance for shucking a mainstream legality. This song invokes that kind of itch; invokes the danger of a raid by independent anti-marijuana militias who often shoot crewmembers and burn the crop; invokes the delirium of a repetitive action with clippers and fingernail scissors. It's weedy, but tumbleweedy. It's less of a road song than a roadkill song.

"Pebbles and Stones," by Eszter Balint

For much of the same reasons listed above for "Willow Weep for Me," but this song ups the menace, blows-up some of the placidity, and eventually becomes out-and-out unnerving. This is the field song for when a helicopter (which can carry heavily armed federal government officials, or well-funded poachers, also heavily armed) actually appears in the sky as I'm trimming a strain of Trainwreck destined for AIDS and cancer patients.

"Eve of Destruction," by Barry McGuire: imagined version sung either by Janis Joplin or Odetta, preferably Odetta

Once a season on Weckman Farm, the Residents' Camp launches an informal talent show. Various instruments are trucked in from the home of one of Lady Wanda's (reefer heiress and owner of Weckman Farm) friends, an ethnomusicologist living on the outskirts of Mendocino. Should any of the Pickers be so inclined, they could borrow and play for a night such exotic instruments as the Japanese koto or the Zimbabwean shona mbira. Sculptors have the opportunity to talk about their work, singers to belt out their octaves, dancers to don their slippers, poets to bellow their verse. Lady Wanda set up a small stage at the base of the crops, adorning it with speakers and multiple microphones, though the amplification was hardly necessary. We were, I suppose, miles from nowhere. She supplied us with a few stage lights and a few thin squares of colored plastic to slip over them, should we have chosen to bathe the crops in red or blue or green. She even brought in a crew to set everything up so we didn't have to miss a day in the fields. Lady Wanda herself sang this song that night. She wore a midnight blue evening gown and pink feather boa. I remember her voice as Joplin-y or Odetta-ish. I backed her up on the drums, really nervous throughout. I remember Lady Wanda prowling the stage like a televangelist.

"Remelexo," by Hermeto Pascoal (Live version)

Charlie the Mechanic—Weckman Farm's tractor driver and maintenance man, Vietnam vet, recovering alcoholic, ex-Alaskan oil man—took the stage after Lady Wanda, played, solo, a stunning jazz trumpet. As he played, a helicopter swept over the crops, its searchlight waving over the plants, the California Department of Justice officials out of earshot of the show. Only on Weckman Farm could imminent doom have such a gorgeous score. Charlie ignored this, kept playing, the notes spilling over one another like Hermeto Pascoal's voice during the crazy vocable section toward "Remelexo's" tail-end, a twenty-car pile-up in D-minor, a cauldron bubbling with spells. The searchlight traced from the crops to the crew to the tent village, lawful fear in the bright mask of something holy. We held our collective breaths and allowed Charlie to resuscitate. All we could do was face it, stare its light back into hiding with the only weapon we had: a Vietnam vet with brass in his mouth.

"Lawrence of Euphoria," by Skip Spence, as performed by The Ophelias

Because this song embodies all of the swagger and stupid cursed adrenaline of the weakling who finally decided to tell the bully to "Fuck off," even through he knows he's about to get his ass kicked. The song is boorish and sexy, and, after that helicopter decided not to land, the crew decided to celebrate in boorishly sexy ways.

"Dr. Judy Show, radio episode 562," followed by "Menard's Commercial"

Hector, one of Weckman Farm's Treetop Snipers, told me during supper that he listened to this radio advice show from his perch. As medical marijuana farms are prone to violent raids, many farm owners have hired ex-military folk as snipers, as a security measure. On Weckman, such snipers were stationed up in the redwoods in this little makeshift tree-fort, accessed by rope ladder. Hector's station was large enough only for a barstool, a tattered movie poster of Russ Meyer's Supervixens, a BLT sandwich, and Hector's boombox. His finger on the trigger, trained to shoot trespassers on sight, he obsessively listened to that advice show that duels between medicine and morality. Episode 562 features Dr. Judy calling a philandering husband a "cock-a-doodie," (an Annie Wilkes quote, I think), and suggesting to the caller that she use such a familial trauma as a "teachable moment," for her daughter. Then, the show cuts to commercial, one for Menard's, the Midwestern home improvement store chain that plays incessantly on Illinois radio, reminding us that there's obligation out there, some awful sense of return and home lurking beneath the maddening jingle, reaching all the way out to California: Save big money, save big moneyyy, when you shop Menaaaaard's...

"Incident on 57th Street," by Bruce Springsteen

This song tells us how "Freebird" got it wrong. At the season's end, we pull out of Weckman Farm in our Kia Spectra. Driving at dusk, the satellites come out over the desert. The sky through the windshield is a painful blue, the moon like some lewd headlamp parting the knots of creosote. We don't say much, but we feel it like this song feels it: some gritty, romantic, grounded, realist version of the blaze of glory.

Matthew Gavin Frank and Pot Farm links:

excerpt from the book (the author reads the first chapter at Poets and Writers)

The 420 Times review
Dame review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
New York Journal of Books review

Inside Higher Ed interview with the author
Kirkus Reviews interview with the author
Movers and Shakers interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown contributions by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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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