June 14, 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.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus's A Sense of Direction is an always smart and often funny memoir. The book's subtitle, "Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful," serves it well, this is a book about pilgrimages physical, intellectual, and emotional.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Thought provoking and engaging in the style of Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux, with ample sides of Thomas Merton and Augusten Burroughs."
A Sense of Direction is a book about pilgrimage, or actually it's not at all a book about pilgrimage but rather a book that uses pilgrimage as a structure for some conversations about restlessness and purpose and what it might mean to travel with an expectation of change. The book opens with a chapter about my casting about for a few years in the anti-gravity chamber of Berlin, and then moves into the story of a few very long walks I took - two medieval religious pilgrimages, one in Spain and one in Japan, that have become very popular with a secular crowd - and ends with a different sort of pilgrimage I took with my dad, to try to resolve some of the issues that had, though it took me some time to realize all of this, made me restless in the first place.
Music played kind of a weird role for me in the book, because when I was walking across Spain with my friend Tom I didn't listen to music at all for almost six weeks. Sometimes people would pass us with headphones on, and we had an unreflective prejudice against that - as if, somehow, listening to music as a distraction or relief from the boredom of walking were somehow cheating. But it was easy for us to feel that way because we were distracted and relieved by our steadily inane conversations. I carried that prejudice with me on my long Japan walk - a circuit of eighty-eight temples that ring a godforsake rural Japanese island - until I was about halfway around, just before temple thirty-eight, and one morning I was like, Fuck this, I'm going to listen to music today. So then for the second half of the walk I did, and I'm not going to lie: I'm really glad that I did. I'm not sure I would've survived without it.
1. Modeselektor, "2000007"
When I first moved to Berlin, my friend Emilie was dating this wonderful German guy called Kevin. He was, at least notionally, a DJ; when Emilie first met him, he went by Kevin9/11, which she insisted he change. Then he went by Kevolution, which she wasn't crazy about, either, but, as he was often too messed up to remember to play records at all, it didn't much matter. In any case, he and his DJ partner had a little 'studio' where they used to have parties, in an unrenovated bathroom-in-the-stairwell tenement in the Schönhauser Allee. They called it the "Bernsteinzimmer," or "Amber Room," after this alleged missing hoard of Nazi gold, and in my first year in Berlin we used to go hang out there all night and listen to music. I think the Bernsteinzimmer is where I first discovered Modeselektor, and soon after Kevin introduced them to me I went to see them perform at a (now defunct?) club called Tape, near the train station. We got there at eleven pm and Modeselektor went on at five. They played until about seven thirty in the morning, and then I think we went out for breakfast. My girlfriend and I went to see them at Bowery Ballroom a few weeks ago and we were home by midnight.
2. Hot Chip, "Over and Over"
This is another song that was ubiquitous in my first year in Berlin. At one point I was on assignment for a travel magazine in Lisbon, and the German photographer I was with - who, for most of our weekend, rated the various Topmodels (one word) he'd been out with over the years - put it on repeat in the car. He was like, "What I love about zis song is how it is all about sex." I was like, "Huh?" And he was like, "You know, it says, 'Ze smell of replication really is on you,' and when zey say, 'smell of replication,' zey mean the smell of pussy, ze smell of sex." I said, "Oh, hm, well, they're actually saying 'smell of repetition,' not 'replication.' "What is zis, 'repetition'?" "The English word for 'Wiederholung.'" "So ze song is not about fucking, but about... repeating?" "I guess so." He took the song off. I still dig the song.
3. LCD Soundsystem, "All My Friends"
This is one of two songs I actually quote in the book; the other is a David Byrne line. The line I quote is: "You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to be with your friends again." It's a song about ambition and regret and I listened to it a lot on my long, solitary walks around Berlin. I'm not sure I could write much more about it here without reproducing fifty or sixty pages of the book, but if the book had an anthem it would probably be this one.
4. Seeed, "Dancehall Caballeros"
So I left Berlin and spent five weeks walking across Spain and didn't listen to music at all until the very end, when we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. For the last week or so we'd been walking with a small group that had cohered somehow out of the ether, and when we got to the end we all got drunk in the plaza in front of the cathedral. We didn't know what else to do with ourselves; we felt both so sad and so exhilarated. At any rate, two of my favorite walking companions in our little group were two nineteen-year-old German girls, Alina and Nora. They'd just graduated from high school and were out on their own in the world for the first time, and they adopted us. When we were all drunk in front of the cathedral, they were appalled to learn that I'd never heard the band Seeed. They'd thought Seeed was an international phenomenon. I patiently explained that, though it was clearly a great travesty, German dancehall had yet to gain the broad audience it deserved. I had to admit Seeed was pretty great, though. This song taught me the German word for "nag" (not as in "termagant" but as in "hack"). And the word for "spurs." I love this song.
5. Hercules and Love Affair, "Blind"
When I got back to Berlin after the Camino, this was the song that I kept hearing in the bars and the clubs. In the wake of my experiences of the broad, simple purpose of walking forward along the Camino, it wasn't easy to come back to the free-for-all that was life in Berlin, and I have a distinct memory of sipping a Club Maté (like a German Red Bull green tea) at six am at Bar25, a now-defunct venue right on the river, and it was so hot already, and a friend visiting from the States had just left to cheat on her boyfriend with a German undergraduate friend of mine, and this song played twice in a row and I remember sitting down at a picnic table and thinking, I don't think I can do this anymore.
6. Beach House, "Norway"
So I left Berlin and came to New York and spent a few months drawing up this plan to write a book about contemporary pilgrimage - about what it meant that, in an age and culture characterized by a surfeit of choice, so many young, secular moderns were taking up these formerly religious pilgrimages. I went back to Berlin to pack up my stuff and get rid of my apartment. This was late November and early December of 2009. It ended up being one of the best months I ever spent in Berlin, and I think that had to be because I knew I'd finally found a way to leave. By the time I actually did have to leave, of course, I was devastated to go; there was still so much for me there! So much I hadn't done! So many people I was going to miss! The Beach House album had recently come out and a new friend had given it to me and I must've listened to it three hundred times in my final week there. Even now, this song - which I could not possibly tell you one lyric of besides the word "Norway" - inspires in me such a sense of sweet doom.
7. Bruce Springsteen, "Thunder Road"
A few months later I got to Japan, to do their version of the Camino, which I'd actually heard about from some Japanese pilgrims while in Spain. For the first five days of the walk - which is about twelve hundred kilometers in the constant rain and hail - I was with my grandfather, but then I was very, very much alone. At first, as I said, I thought it was cheating to listen to music, that music diminished my sense of solitude and misery and would thus somehow soften what was supposed to be a strict, austere experience. So for a few weeks of my solitary walking, I sang to myself instead of listening to music. I found out that, though there are hundreds of songs I can easily sing along to, there aren't so many I can do off the top of my head without accompaniment. I know a lot of Weezer songs, as it turns out, but the song I liked singing best - perhaps because it's about being on the road with a sense of guarded hope, "riding out tonight to case the Promised Land," but maybe just because I'm from New Jersey and this song might as well be printed in tiny type at the bottom of my birth certificate - was "Thunder Road." Also, in one of those columns he used to write for The Believer, Nick Hornby says something like, "Thunder Road" is the only good song ever written about redemption that actually uses the word "redemption" in it.
8. Aesop Rock, "None Shall Pass"
This is one of my favorite songs to walk to, so the day I finally allowed myself to listen to music it was the very first thing I put on. It's got a good pace: it's quick, but its speed has enough room in it for a bit of loiter. Plus it has the line "Okay woke to a grocery list / goes like this: / duty and death." In a way, my book is about going on errands, but on very serious errands. I originally really liked the title "Errands in the Wilderness" but then it turned out that had been used for a classic collection of essays about the Puritans.
9. Yura Yura Teikoku, "Sweet Surrender"
Japanese pilgrims are supposed to do this whole schtick at each temple - you wash your hands and then you light incense and then you're supposed to repeat the Heart Sutra - but I mostly couldn't be bothered with a ritual that I had no real connection to. But at one point someone explained to me that the sutra that the pilgrims were reciting was just a transliteration, via Chinese, of the original Sanskrit, and that they didn't know what they were saying. Needless to say, I haven't the faintest idea what Yura Yura Teikoku is singing about in this bit of repetitive psychedelia, but it had a mantric effect on me, and by the time I was actually listening to music I felt at least marginally better about my betrayal of my own principles if I was listening to Japanese bands.
10. Hubert Kah, "Rosemarie"
After I finished in Japan, I spent a few months recovering in San Francisco (where I'd lived before I started in on this whole mess), and then I was in New York for a bit, and then I went back to Berlin to spend a few months in relative isolation working all of this up into the book it became. This was my third or fourth longish stint in Berlin, and this time I only saw dawn once or twice; there was no more five-am Modeselektor for me. A German friend gave me a crash tutorial in the early Düsseldorf New Wave scene, and I found the songs that - during an otherwise industrious but bleak time - lightened my mood were those of Hubert Kah. These days I still push this song on anybody who'll listen.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus and A Sense of Direction links:
Boston Globe review
Christian Science Monitor review
Full Stop review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
New Yorker review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
Wall Street Journal review
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