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July 31, 2012

Book Notes - Padgett Powell "You & Me"

You & Me

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.

Dylan Hicks called You & Me "something like 'Waiting for Godot' for Allman Brothers fans," an apt comparison. Padgett Powell's new novel is innovative and poetic, and his mastery of dialogue is on full view throughout this impressive work.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The novel's penetrating, playful words manage to 'pick impossibly heavy sh*t up' and deliver what one of the characters calls 'the perfect nonsense a real dream makes.'"

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 Padgett Powell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, You & Me:

To my knowledge, which is frangible, there is but one reference to music in the book in question. Readers can prove me wrong if I am wrong. I am ignorant of what is in the book. I wrote it over a period of many years, and its concerns are largely my own concerns. Thus I have forgotten what I wrote, and when I see what I have written it is like seeing yourself and being surprised: I look like that? I sound like that? We all know that photos of us and, worse, recordings of us do not represent Who We Really Are. In the early days I had the wit when writing fiction to actually make things up; only now at age sixty do I degrade into self-portrait, the downfall of the ingenue writer.

Well, enough cute soothsaying. Here is our relevant passage from the book:

What is a concrete abutment?

Something that butts out made of concrete.

Yes. And this the Mexicans sharpened the knives on. But architecturally, what is an abutment, technically?

I do not know. And you know that I do not know. You are indicting me early in the morning.

I am indicting us.

Fair enough. We know nothing.

We are innocent of knowledge.

We are innocent period.


We are guilty of being innocent? Do I smell the big Iron?

No, it is not the Iron. Of being innocent is what men like us are most guilty of. It is our central guilt. There is no excuse for it. Here: Do you have any idea what is meant by one currency weakening against another, or one nation seeking to duplicate its own government in another country by invading it?

I am saying, Can you read a newspaper and understand what you are reading?


Because you are innocent. Here's another form of the questions: if you were to sally forth onto variegated terrain and had the option of putting on your Sunday pants, your sunder pants, or your underpants--some song lyrics I think I misheard-- which pants would you select?

My underpants.

We are men who find the silliness of that idea attractive. We are innocent. We are guilty.

Of being innocent.


This song said . . . what?

I swear it said "Put on your Sunday pants and . . ." But it sounded like sunder pants or underpants finally.

It was not sunder pants, that's too archaic and good.

It was not underpants because that does not take itself seriously enough for a million-dollar-making industry-backed recording. Ronnie Van Zant is not going to sing "underpants" dead or alive.

The reference is to "Down South Jukin'" by Skynyrd. It locates one end of the spectrum of locale offered for the book as Jacksonville Florida. It locates the author as having been one of the first to hear this band become this band; I heard them play from 1965-1968 as The 1%. I have never heard anything as exciting as they were. When the producer Phil Walden or Al Walden, whichever one was younger and did not have Capricorn and the Allman Brothers, said of The 1% after auditioning them in a warehouse in Jacksonville "I thought I was going to have a heart attack" and "I forgot about the other 185 bands," he is right. Exactly.

Here are the lines:

Well Billy Joe told me
Said everything's lookin fine
He got the place all secure
Got the ice box full of wine
He said hurry on over and don't be late
He got three lovely ladies that just won't wait
Do some down south jukin and
Lookin for peace of mind

Now put your Sunday pants on
Let's get out on the road
We been workin all week and I'm thinking
It's time to let go
We got three fine mamas settin all alone
Gone sip our wine, lord, get it on
And do some down south jukin
Lookin for peace of mind

Van Zant was a good enough singer, but where he was spectacular was vernacular. (If you said to Allen Collins "spectacular vernacular" he would have repeated the phrase for two weeks making fun of it; I am convinced he came up with Lynyrd Skynyrd.) Van Zant had the perfect unaffected good-old-boy affect. He says actually that Billy Joe's got the place all secyooor. Getting a place secure within an area that is fundamentally not secure, which is what westside Jacksonville was then the best example of this side of Somalia, is a necessary and futile prerequisite to partying in such a place, and the touch is perfect; it is what is convincing about this song. Van Zant's long syllable suggests the irony of securing the insecure; it is funny. (The same joke is in his "I said excuuuse me" in "Gimme Three Steps.") He also says, in this pitch-perfect proving that he is from where he speaks, that the three lovely ladies jist won't wait, let's git out on the road, I'm thankin it's time to leggo, and the three fine mamas are almost three fat mamas settin all alone.

Almost certainly they are not fat mamas. Van Zant is less likely to propose seeing fat mamas than putting on underpants to go see them. I do not listen to rock lyrics, because I can't make them out, usually, and because I don't care to make them out, and because the misheard is so often so much better than the heard. Excuse me while I kiss this guy, you and me and Leslie, life in the Vaseline. How marvelous to have put on your sunder pants and conquered.

If there is no other musical reference in the book, I want to propose a general running background theme, the Allman Brothers' "One Way Out." In the weirdly and profoundly satisfying movie to be made of this book, this tune can play like elevator music throughout. Since I was eighteen or so I have wanted to write a play, as I early envisioned it, or a story, as I might be capable of actually executing it today, called "One Way Out" in which a with-it hippie is picked up hitchhiking by a local boy in Warner Robbins Georgia. The local boy lives with mother and is caring for her lap dog while she is away. He wants girls and believes that the hippie knows how to get them. He serves the Princeton hippie whiskey full to the brim in a metal tumbler. The hippie somehow gets some local girls to the house, partly to show the local boy that girls can be had in this day and age, and the girls' men surround the house. "One Way Out" ensues. The with-it worldly hippie collapses, the local mama's boy prevails. Why don't I just write it? Until I do, "One Way Out" will play like Muzak in You & Me.

I also want Al Green to be goofing around, barely heard. If we need a track, then let's use "Take Me to the River," but really I want him just riffing along as he does in his church. The guys in the book are riffing in this way too, you might say, but they'd never sing. If I had me a rock band, I'd get Al Green to be the singer. Al Green would have them be fat mamas, I hear.

Padgett Powell and You & Me links:

Bookforum review
Bookreporter review
Buffalo News review
Daily Beast review
Kirkus Reviews review
Memphis Flyer review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Oxford American review
Publishers Weekly review
Village Voice review

Interview Magazine interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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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