July 25, 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.
Colin Dickey follows the exceptional Cranioklepty with another fascinating book, Afterlives of the Saints. Dickey profiles famous saints and examines their effects on other lives and events long after their passing with compassion and insight.
Booklist called the book "an unusual and quite fascinating collection of tales."
One of the goals with this book was to rethink just what a "saint" was, and how saints have appeared in surprising ways throughout Western culture—the way that Madame Bovary, for example, was written out of a failed attempt to write what Flaubert considered his true masterpiece, The Temptation of St. Anthony, or how Saint Teresa of Avila's ecstatic visions have, through the years, been categorized alternately as nervous hysteria or masturbatory fantasies. Even for those of us who aren't religious, let alone Catholic, these saints have a weird and endearing impact on our landscape and how we approach the world, and that's really what I wanted to explore with this book. And so for this playlist, I put together a list of songs about saints that weren't necessarily religious or devotional, but nonetheless got to some aspect of the way the idea of a "saint" can work in culture.
Django Reinhardt: "St. James Infirmary" (1933)
One of those songs which is consistently haunting no matter who plays it, be it Cab Calloway or Ramblin' Jack Elliott ("Roll out your rubber tired carriage, roll out your old time hat, twelve men going to the graveyard, and eleven coming back."). Among my favorite versions, though, is this instrumental by Django Reinhardt, where his guitar playing is downplayed in favor of a mournful lead clarinet. The kind of thing you'd imagine as the soundtrack for that old Disney Silly Symphony, "The Skeleton Dance," something to accompany you through a long, strange night.
Louis Prima: "St. Louis Blues" (1957)
This is Louis Prima at his most frenetic, with Sam Butera's saxophone providing a menacing pulsation behind him—a song that displays the dynamism of Prima's singing like few others. I suppose it's about St. Louis, Missouri, though I'd prefer to believe it references the Basin Street brothels of New Orleans that sat next to St. Louis cemetery. Prima is often zanier, busier, more expansive, but never was he as urgent as this recording, which is why it remains my favorite of all of his works.
Bob Dylan: "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" (1967)
The image of St. Augustine wandering through a modern wasteland echoes one of Flaubert's unused drafts for his Temptation of St. Anthony, in which Anthony finds himself in a modern city, as well as the truncated end of Luis Bunuel's film Simon of the Desert, in which another saint finds himself amongst the wreckage of modern culture. "No martyr is among ye now / Whom you can call your own / So go on your way accordingly / But know you're not alone."
Townes Van Zandt: "St. John the Gambler" (1969)
For the early saints, the ones who craved martyrdom or punished their bodies through starvation and self-flagellation, to be saintly was to crave death, to deny the earthly body and yearn to be free of its shortcomings. And I can't think of any other contemporary artist who so closely followed that path, who set out to die and to write about it, who spent thirty years chronicling the wastelands just this side of death, than Townes Van Zandt.
Tom Waits: "I Wish I Was In New Orleans/When the Saints Go Marching In" (1979)
The number of renditions of "When the Saints Go Marchin In" are legion, but my favorite will always be from a bootleg Tom Waits concert from the late 70's (I bought it under the name of Cold Beer on a Hot Night), in which Waits begins with his own "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," before bringing the band into a rousing "Saints" and then slows it back down to do a few verses from "Since I Fell For You." At the end of that, he tells an odd and wonderful story about a girl named Suzy Monolongo. I have no idea where one finds a copy of it, but it's worth seeking out.
Tom Waits: "Hang On St. Christopher" (1987)
Terrible form, I suppose, to include two selections by one artist on the same playlist, but the opener to Frank's Wild Years is a great appropriation of the patron saint of travelers. Sadly, Saint Christopher, along with Saint Barbara and a host of others, was kicked out of the Church's official calendar of saints in 1969, when it was deemed he was probably not a real person. Sorry for all of you with those medals.
The Breeders: "Saints" (1993)
I'm continually amazed at what a stellar album The Breeders' Last Splash is, and while "Cannonball" is the single most folks remember, the penultimate "Saints" is just one of those great summer songs, and holds up just fine twenty years later.
Aphex Twin: "Mt. Saint Michel Mix + St. Michael's Mount" (2001)
I don't know, Aphex Twin. What is there to say? This is one of the twitchier, glitchier songs. Not for all tastes. Who knows what the title has to do with anything.
Beirut: "St. Apollonia" (2007)
I love Beirut for being named after a city in Lebanon while sounding like they're from Eastern Europe, for sounding like something out of the last century while being fully contemporary—in short, for sounding like there from somewhere else all the time. This song in particular, equally celebratory and dirge-like, like a hopeful funeral march….
The National:" Squalor Victoria" (2007)
Throughout the writing of this book, the line that kept coming to me over and over was from this song by The National: "I'm down among the saints," which seemed both an admission of defeat and success all at once. Which seemed as fitting an emotion as any for this project, and these oddball rejects that I chose to follow through history for several hundred pages. People not quite normal, not quite divine, but hovering somewhere in between, in squalor and in ecstasy.
(Close Runner-Up: "Wake Up Your Saints," from High Violet)
Colin Dickey and Afterlives of the Saints links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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