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February 27, 2013

Book Notes - Jim Gavin "Middle Men"

Middle Men

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jim Gavin's debut story collection Middle Men is filled with characters drawn with exceptional clarity, honesty and most of all, compassion.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Gavin’s young protagonists may not exactly be a credit to their generation, but they make for the kind of fiction that catches you off guard and brutalizes you with humor. . . . [He] speaks with authority, and his colloquial, detail-driven dialogue oscillates nicely between Flaubert and The Simpsons. Sad and overtly hysterical, the stories dodge self-pity and indie quirk for pensive American tales of turn-of-the-20th century manchildren gesturing vaguely toward a future of eroded opportunity."

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 Jim Gavin's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Middle Men:

"Mandy" – Barry Manilow

It's 1982. I'm slouched in the passenger seat of my mom's Pinto. She's just picked me up from school and we're running errands. She's smoking and playing the easy listening station. I know nothing about the world but somehow I know that Barry Manilow is shit. I will spend most of my life trying to escape that easy listening hell, but there's no escape. I still know all the words to "Mandy" and "Copacabana" and all the rest. Even worse is that now, whenever I hear a Barry Manilow song, I feel happy. You win again, nostalgia.

"Viet Nam" - Minutemen

I'm going to tell you about the most punk rock thing I ever witnessed. It was 1993. I was seventeen and working at a gas station. I spent my days either hanging around the analog pumps, or sitting in the old garage, which had been converted into a mini-mart. Customers still walked in through the big garage door. Regulars would pull up and I'd hand them their cigarettes. One regular was a husky red head guy in his late twenties. I think his name was Mike. He drove a beat-up El Camino and he had a Black Flag tattoo on his forearm. He and his friends terrified me. They belonged to a certain class of SoCal dude, those berserker working class suburban kids who, a decade earlier, had tasted the glory of the LA punk scene. It was like they had gone to war together, and even though the war was long over, they were still fighting it. None of them had returned to civilian life. Mike was a dirtbag, but he lived by a code. There was something monastic in his embrace of poverty, his self-imposed exile from the comforts of domestic life, his morbid devotion to pussy and mayhem. He never strayed, never sold out, never went soft, even though it guaranteed him a lifetime of misery and pain. At this point, I had started listening to those old South Bay bands – Black Flag, Descendents, Minutemen. Like all budding connoisseurs, I was haunted by the feeling that I had been born too late. I had missed out on the real thing. But then I'd see the guys who had actually been there, guys like red head Mike, and I'd realize that it was probably for the best. I'm a total lightweight and there was no way I could ever hang with those maniacs.

One night Mike pulled up in his El Camino. There was a guy passed out in the back cab. Another guy stared at me from the passenger seat. He had bleary eyes and his head swayed back and forth. He was moaning slightly, like he was about to be sick. Mike left the car running and came in through the garage door. He gave me a nod and walked back to the beer cooler. That's when I noticed the trail of blood. Mike's left hand was wrapped in paper towels. He must've used an entire roll, but I could see tons of blood soaking through and running down his arm. He put a twelver of Natty Lite on the counter and we had the following conversation.

"What happened?" I said.

"I shot my hand."

"Jesus. Are you OK?"

"We're going to the hospital."

"Why are you driving?"

"Those guys are too wasted."

Mike handed me a crumpled ten and I gave him change. With beer in one hand and a gun shot wound in the other, he climbed back into his El Camino and drove himself to the hospital. Punk Rock!!!!!!!

"California Bummer" – further

From 1995 to 1998, I was a DJ at KXLU 88.9 FM, a college radio station that broadcasts across Los Angeles. I was a lousy DJ, but I loved having access to so much music. I got a whole education listening to legendary KXLU shows like "Blues Hotel" and "The Bomb Shelter." When I started, my show was on air from 2am to 6am, prime time for ghouls. Every week I'd get a call from a guy who worked the graveyard shift at a warehouse. He sounded like Buffalo Bob and he always requested the Fall. Somewhere in the industrial wastes of Los Angeles, a dude with a pallet jack was bopping his head to "Totally Wired," and it made me happy to know that I was contributing to his well being. I started off playing a lot of hardcore stuff, but eventually I lost my virginity and mellowed out. Over time I became a sucker for all manner of psyche pop weirdness. Historically, I don't know if there's anything particularly vital or lasting about 90s indie rock, but that's when I was young and more or less alive. I have fond memories of those days, going to shows at Jabberjaw, listening to records with friends, and that little world forms the backdrop for "Bermuda," the second story in the collection. One of my favorite bands from that era was further. Founding members Brent and Darren Rademaker have gone on to do great things in Beachwood Sparks, Frausdots, and the Tyde, but I still always return to further. They sound like California. Hazy riffs, coastal inflections, summer twilight. "Bermuda" is a simple story of young love, short, messy, and doomed, and "California Bummer" sums it up nicely.

"Come on Let's Go" – Broadcast

It's been two years since Trish Keenan died and I still feel the void. The first time I heard Broadcast, I thought, "This is it. This is what I've been waiting for." This has only happened a handful of times in my life. It was less like hearing something new, and more like I was hearing something that I heard long ago but had somehow forgotten. A touch of light, a Gnostic recognition. Broadcast always gets compared to Stereolab, but I always thought they were way more interesting, and Trish's songwriting actually hits me on an emotional level. She was a psychedelic genius. In 2000, at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, Broadcast put on one of the best live shows I've ever seen. They somehow retained the beauty and delicacy of their records, while being entirely freaked out. Trish floated above the crowd like an oracle, mesmerizing us with her silver spinning celestial grace.

"Ginger" – Lilys

Few songs truly deserve to be called an "anthem," but this is one of them. It comes off "A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns," one of my favorite album titles. I think it would be a good alternative title for the book. The characters in these stories never get what they want, but they usually find something more important than the actual thing they were chasing.

"Fairytale of New York" – The Pogues

"Look down into a refuse basket. A book thrown away. How to Make Profitable Judgments In a Time of Continuing Economic Stress. Instead of, I guess, Bewildered Decisions In Times of Mercantile Terror." This is from J.P. Donleavy's 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York. I used the last part of it as the title for one of the stories in the collection. It's one of my favorite books and though it has nothing specifically to do with their song, the Pogues borrowed the title for their Christmas classic. The book and song do share a vision of life that will always hold a special appeal for degenerates everywhere. Bless.

"Old Man" – Neil Young


Every song ever written by Dan Treacy of Television Personalities

In 1980, Television Personalities released the single "I know where Syd Barrett lives," which imagines the secluded life of the legendary singer, whose life had been damaged beyond repair by drugs and mental illness.

He was very famous, once upon a time
And no one knows even if he's alive
But I know where he lives,
And I'll visit him, in a little hut
In Cambridge

These wistful and prophetic lines were written by Dan Treacy, twenty years old and already an ace songwriter. Born of Irish parents and raised in a West London council flat, he bought his first guitar at seventeen and without much fuss started banging out records. He had a wobbly voice and couldn't play a lick, but these deficiencies were the source of his genius. If he had been a better musician, he would've been a lesser artist. He wrote perfect little hooks, full of humor and heartbreak. He was also an archivist, his records a running encyclopedia of mod lore. In "Part Time Punks" (1978), the TVPs second single, and still their biggest hit, he gently mocks the suburban kids and art school wannabes who were descending on London, trying desperately to look like they were from the gutter, from the kind of neighborhood that Treacy actually grew up in.

And they never use toothpaste

But they got two fifty to go and see The Clash.

Treacy wanted to climb up, not down. His songs document the grime of his London upbringing, but more than anything they express a longing to escape and fulfill his dreams of pop grandeur. And yet these gilded visions are always laced with irony and shadow. Treacy always seemed to know that the search was futile, that his dreams would never come to pass. But dreams make life bearable, and songs are dreams. This tension is perfectly expressed in the lovely and beguiling "A Picture of Dorian Gray":

When I buy my mansion I'll invite the world to stay
So everyone can see a picture of Dorian Gray
We'll sit by the river drinking lemon tea
And there's a thousand midget Russians in midget submarines

You can come and stay
You can bring your friends
You can come and stay for a day
And see a Picture of Dorian Gray

Take you to my mansion, see my gallery
Lots of pretty pictures, all of them of me
We'll sit by the river drinking lemon tea
Eat tiny cucumber sandwiches made by Emily

Television Personalities acquired a certain fame, but they never quite became the pop stars they hoped to be. The title of their second album, "They Could Have Been Bigger Than the Beatles," suggests, in typical deadpan fashion, that they knew this all along. Failure was the basis of their art.

Throughout the eighties, the TVPs cranked out a bunch of brilliant records, each different in style and intent, but Treacy's stamp is unmistakable. One moment he's arch and referential, the next he's almost impossibly blunt and earnest, ripping out his own heart. Treacy was always on the cusp of something bigger than his cult hero status. Kurt Cobain was a big TVP fan and, in 1992, he asked them to open for him in London. But this turned out to be a fleeting glimpse, not the beginning of something big. Unable to deal with the business side of music, he seemed to know that he would eventually sabotage any chance he had for major success. By this time his drug habit was beginning to catch up with him and his life was beginning to crack. In 1993, TVPs released "I Was a Mod Before You Was a Mod," a record as dark as anything that Elliot Smith ever wrote. The last song on the able, "Everything She Touches Turns to Gold," has the depth of a novel and it contains one of my favorite lines:

Catholic School, the pain the guilt,
My story is no different to tell
Every young man's hell,
Just waiting for the bell.

The song mostly concerns the narrator's – and I can only assume Dan Treacy's – relationship with his sister, who raised him. It's a masterpiece.

After this, falling deeper into addiction and poverty, Treacy drifted out of music, and by the late nineties, he had disappeared entirely. Like Syd Barrett, he had been famous, once upon a time, and now no one knew even if he was alive.

In 2004, DJ Iain Baker got a letter from a convict aboard a prison boat in Dorset:

It's a long story, not a long sentence, i'm out of here on the 23rd or 30th of June. I'm on a prison boat, it's like a cruise that goes nowhere!...Sitting here recently.. like i've sat many a time over the past few years, i've realised how much I miss the music, not the business- I don't even own a guitar or amp (haven't for years!) But i've written my best and most meaningful music in the last couple of years. I want to do a new TVP's LP, thing is: i've had no contact with anyone from the past. I'd love to get Jowe back on board (whoops, no pun intended!) I feel like i'm 17 again and not having a clue how the music biz works except i'm not, i'm ** [*edit* i'm sparing your blushes here Dan!! - Iain] on the 19th of June and i'm spending it in here of all places! I am completely skint at the moment, but for the last 6 months i've been free of health/drug problems... could any publicist invent a story like mine? you couldn't make it up. Tell Andy he can put every thing i've told you on his website and if he wants he can set up AN OFFICIAL WEBSITE FOR TVP'S with the truth coming from me. I'll even list the songs i've got waiting to record, and if he wants to put my current address on the site, he can - some birthday cards might be nice! However I do this, I want it done BIGGER this time: Christ, Pete Doherty does 3 weeks in Wandsworth and he's the new Johnny Cash! Guess I must be the new James Brown/Albert [sic] Lee/Brian Wilson put together!

Love, Jailbird Dan

Classic Dan! Here he is, in wretched circumstances, but cracking jokes and dreaming big. This is a happy ending, of sorts: since then he's put out a couple records and in some circles he's getting the recognition he deserves as one of the best songwriters of his generation. Oh but life…in 2011, he had emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. It was almost fatal and from what little I can gather, he is greatly diminished but slowly improving. It's uncertain whether he will be able to make more music, but considering what the man has already survived, I wouldn't put it past him.

I wrote Middle Men between 2007-2011, and during that I time I was listening to Television Personalities non-stop. I can only hope that something of Dan Treacy's incredible spirit found its way into these stories.

Jim Gavin and Middle Men links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Miami Herald review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Omaha World-Herald review
Time Out New York review
Toronto Star review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Diner's Journal interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Omaha World-Herald 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

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" 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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