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March 14, 2013

Book Notes - Ben Miller "River Bend Chronicle"

River Bend Chronicle

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.

Ben Miller's River Bend Chronicle is a magnificently told memoir in essays. Miller's prose is lyrical and often comic even when dealing with the harshest subjects, this book is dense with vivid imagery and haunting memories.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Miller's affecting chronicle reveals the often messy ways that families fall apart and the way that writing acts both as remembrance and redemption."

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 Ben Miller's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa:

Davenport - the epicenter of my childhood Urban Iowa - is located on a Mississippi River bend so wide the water flows from west to east. At no other juncture along its 2,530 mile route does the river do this. From either Iowa or Illinois the sight of all that contrary mud-stained water never counted as less than awesome to these eyes. The roller dam churned forth cloud-sized gobs of greenish-gray foam. The barges lumbered like ant chains across the channel maintained by the Army Corps. of Engineers. Large bridges barely seemed to reach from one levee to another. They hovered like cautionary tales set in steel.

Countless times our old car crossed the Government Bridge or the Centennial Bridge or the I-74 span. Discount stores stayed open later in Illinois. Over there lived Grandpa Money Bags. He often, reluctantly, dished out crumples of cash from his bathrobe after cursing out his troubled daughter and her oldest son.

From slim bridge decks I peered out at the white-capped current anxiously. How could waves not swallow us as they had swallowed much better people? Scared to look, but having to look, and if feeling especially daring, I stuck my head out the window, gusts flogging bangs. The song of it all was the hiss of a choir of snakes striking. "The Copperhead Blues." I imagined the car flipping over the rail. I worried about family we had left behind in a loud dirty home - sisters and brothers despising us for fleeing, and yet wanting to love us too, somehow.

I never plunged into the murk in a Ford but I hit bottom soon enough, and shattered. Then there were two boys. The fat kid I had been and a splinter bobbing in the disaster's wake, his radio and the records in warped sleeves.

FAT YEARS (eating music)

"In a Mist" - composed by Bix Beiderbecke - performed by Bix Beiderbecke

Wet thrift store shirt sticking to tits, glasses fogged, launching stick-ships in storm run-off coursing down the middle of a steep alley, laughing, dripping, baptized.

"Tonight Show" Theme - composed by Paul Anka - performed by the "Tonight Show" band led by Doc Severinsen

Cats milling. Blue gravy of screenglow pouring over the shanks of room shadows. Coffee table cola cans, spotted peel curling off a chalky uneaten banana. Brother on a blanket on the floor, or sisters. Sleeping arrangements varying night-to-night. Varying everything, really, except Harris Pizza sliced into strips not triangles, a couch's reliable sag and the sadness it hardly supported, a crumb-flecked mother aproned with newspapers, half-watching what I study - Doc's latest crazy jacket and Johnny's twitchy monologue mannerisms culminating in a duffer's lazy golf swing and bright brass section blasts that blow the dust off our visions, briefly.

"Black Water" - composed by Patrick Simmons - performed by the Doobie Brothers

Spring, 1975. Walk to Target through the air of melt and buy this single with a rare dollar. For the bayou sting of the violin I want it, and that line - "bread and mama gonna make everything all right." Not so far. But soon. It must. She will.

"Old Brown Shoe" - composed by George Harrison - performed by the Beatles

Staring at my distressed boats on the playground. They barely look better than they smell. Deciding to jam one hand in a pocket. Deciding to shuffle to the chain-link fence, away from "others." Looking down again at aged soulful Kmart tennies.

"Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" - composed by Elton John, Bernie Taupin - performed by Elton John and band

Upstairs with Bobby, the kid born with no nose or lips, only holes, and pale eyes on the edges of his head. Operations in St. Louis have built him sort of a face from bone carved off his shins. He loves Elton too. Zowie! As the album spins on the suitcase machine I play the vanity like a piano - it's the "girl's room," lip gloss, blow dryers. Bobby is singing into Elizabeth's hairbrush, cheek scars stretching.

"Dream On" - composed by Steven Tyler - performed by Aerosmith

Awaken in a wet bed, roll over, switch on the transistor radio, KSTT. I'm part of things then. I'm One with an eerie slow intro - the harp-ish notes stretching like ladder rungs. Steven Tyler unfurls the scream I ball up daily, toss aside. Rise your grime, slime-bag, and shine. I enter the bathroom after everyone else is "out" and gone. I clear lungs into the drain, impressed by all the yellow I have in me. Scrape teeth with the communal brush. Tug on scaly socks, then the battered boats, and float on. Dream on, until the day is new! Dream until your dream comes true!

"Dream Weaver - composed by Gary Wright - performed by Gary Wright

On the slog to school I'm not hearing my mother complain about her thyroid condition and my father's arrogance…I'm hearing laser beam notes at the start of this Top 40 hit, hearing silver lyrics forking in outer space, spreading past Mars, forming a web where high-heeled boys get stuck after getting their London kicks.

"Carry On Wayward Son" - composed by Kerry Livgren - performed by Kansas

Sudlow Junior High lunch room. Again I've beaten the rest of the losers to our table because I don't push my flab through the line anymore. I bring an apple only. The words of this, my latest eating theme, runs over and over in my aching head. There will be peace when you are done. That is, finish what I am starting.

"Time Loves a Hero" - composed by Paul Barrere, Kenny Gradney, Bill Payne - performed by Little Feat

Co-op Tapes and Records on Locust Street, my new home away from home now that I've decided to pretty much ingest only music. $1.99 cut-outs in crates along one wall. Yoko solo albums, dirges of yodels, zen of one toilet flushing. Dangling promo materials for ELP, YES… Carpet underfoot like slush. Ruby bongs in the glass case. Odor of incense and the review I carry, torn out of a Rolling Stone issue from the library free box. I need motorcycle band boogie - serious road trip funk.

"Piece of My Heart - composed by Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns - performed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin

Root system must expand. I'm not just interested in dying. I'm never interested in only one thing at a time. I pinch, and extend, my torso awning of excess skin. That Texas of a voice blankets a mattress with fury, her daring her hurter to hurt her more, proving she can take it, being broken, if that's what love means, what's left.

THIN YEARS (war zone music)

"Messin' with the Hook" - composed by John Lee Hooker - performed by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat

The old record player unpacking a song as spare as ribs reflected in the bathroom mirror. One electric string or two, a single voice croaking, cracked, heel keeping time. The mic next to Hooker's shoe picks up the stomping good. The cut is mostly percussive stomps slowing, speeding up. He walks deep into my haze on the floor.

"Machine Gun" - composed by Jimi Hendrix - performed by Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsys

Notes spiraling like razor-edged flames, spraying across the brown yards of boy flotsam. Holy is this blizzard. Out of death comes a life. I've never had one drink, never one puff or kiss…I'll never be a teenager, but what I can't be makes me what I am - makes me sway and salivate. Unsorted extremes of record sleeves scattered beside the wobbling turntable: MC5, Last Poets, Coltrane, Bessie Smith. But this live album owns the dull needle. Burning motel of sounds I check into. Drum shooting at guitar, guitar shooting drum. Blown off heads of chords rolling.

"Ballad of Jean Desprez" - composed by Country Joe McDonald, based on a poem by Robert Service - performed by Country Joe McDonald

"A drop of water, one drop," begs the prisoner pinned to the church door by Prussian bayonets. The image set in bedroom dark above my prone bones. And the little barefoot boy bringing the drink of water, and the soldiers, they grab the innocent child, and shove a rifle into his arms, order him to shoot his neighbor. Acoustic guitar splashes out of the Casio tape machine. Outside the screen, muttering leaves of the maple rooted to the edge of the terrace. The reek of long ago accidents not dispersing. It's a solid block of a stink with slits in it to admit wind and music. "Fire!" the Major orders, and the boy, in his terror, disassociates, wanders into memories of summer woods and fall's golden aura, then is yelled at more, warned anew, seen as merely a barefoot boy, shivering, crying, a nobody, nothing, and I suspend breathing as he, Jean Desprez, shoots the Major dead.

"Mother" - composed by John Lennon - performed by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band

Night after anthem night I listen to him proclaim he's no Beatle anymore. He's himself! He's a voice peeled to the armpits and scrotum. It's ugly but beautifully true. The bell tolls. Mother had me. I never had her. Father left me. I never left him. Goodbye! Goodbye! Come back! Don't go. Come home! It's all about home.

"Moonshadow" - composed by Cat Stevens - performed by Cat Stevens

When the anger bubble bursts there's the quiet of this hymn - blue bringing blue out of black and black bringing black out of blue. Prayer prowling in a pulp grotto. Melody configuring my sensation of being shipped through weeks like a box not sealed, stuff spilling out…phosphorescence of spent emotion behind the postman, eyes calmly rolling on a sidewalk, mouth a tired rubber band draped over a curb.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" - composed by Leon Russell and Don Preston - performed by Leon Russell and the Shelter People

Disheveled questions moaned and doodled with, the riddles separation poses - refugee equations. Ecology rhymes with mythology rhymes with astrology. He thrust his burly Oklahoma drawl into each lyric like an answer. I let my hair grow long and dry like Leon's. I had no funky Uncle Sam hat to top it with, but sought one at rummage sales and Salvation Army. I had to settle finally for a pork-pie.

"How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)" - composed by Joe Young, Sam M. Lewis, Walter Donaldson - performed by Eddie Cantor

Scored a VAUDVILLE CLASSICS tape in a sale bin at Target. Durante and Victor Borge and this war song of the most uncommon variety - happy. Beyond Flanders field surviving soldiers frolic in straw hats, bow-ties, spats. One I imagine is me. One is Mr. Hickey, the widower next door. One limps and he is my father, David.

"Free Man in Paris" - composed by Joni Mitchell - performed by Joni Mitchell

In her I heard the ire of my sisters reborn as direction, heard a mother's keen reformed or resolved - ebullient demise of conflicted voices and the paralysis. "Alive," she sang to my head on a pillow of notebooks. "Alive and unfettered."

"Hong Kong Blues" - composed by Hoagy Carmichael - performed by Hoagy Carmichael

The tape also featured the more famous "Rocking Chair" and "Star Dust" but this tune I locked into for the quirky lyrics re: money problems, Bhudda's gong, legal difficulties: "twenty years privilege" revoked. Crude Chino-intro chimes instantly distinguish it from other mellow Dixie-flavored songs. Cheeky, other-worldly, off-color, and telling the tale of a marooned dude - I related to that. "I need someone to send me a fifty-dollah bill and then…" His need for dough always fresh because it was never met. Every listening, in fact, that desire became more alive to me for not being met. I didn't hear the song as old and closed, but fluid. The buoyant rhythms I connected to 10cc, Brass Construction. Fevered analogies abounded.

"Across the Universe" - composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney - performed by Bill Frisell

The rather gaunt end-of-aisle Let It Be display languished in Target for years past the album's release date. Hundreds of copies listed at unsold angles under racks thrusting the cover in triplicate at consumers. I guessed the manager knew what I did - no group could replace the Beatles, and that returning excess stock would be akin to pulling the plug on the music section. The price fell, one orange sticker covered by another. I got my copy to treasure for $2.99. One track had the lilt and simplicity of a nursery rhyme - like many cuts on the disc - but was sadder and, well, more cosmic. Frisell's instrumental version concentrates the tenderness, and the dissonance, which commingled gently in the original. Tones wrap this listener like a quilt warming a body with the smell of gone. I stitch three noir panels, in particular. Headlights on a bridge over the Mississippi. Sister and I in Granny's still bedroom, cleaving to her every hushed utterance about Kentucky mud road days. Stars tracing the shape of a night-filled recliner, glittering armrests pointing North.

Ben Miller and River Bend Chronicle links:

the author's website
the book's website

ForeWord Reviews review
Minneapolis Star-Tribune review
Neworld Review review

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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