March 13, 2013
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.
Evan Rosko's novel Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets is a powerful and eloquently told young adult debut.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Self-deprecating humor abounds in this debut novel that pulls no punches about the experience of depression and anxiety for its teen protagonist."
Compiling a playlist for my debut, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, involved skills that I honed back in my early teenage years, when cassettes were the wonderful controlling feature of my music mixology experience. I came of age when CDs began to take over, but I still had plenty of experience of the smell of cassettes and the chunky, clunk sound of the PLAY and STOP buttons.
Picking songs was relatively easy as I, like many writers, listen to music while writing. Still, I didn't keep a record of the exact songs that dominated my earballs back in the summer of 2010 as I wrote the story of a kid who talks to an imaginary pigeon and recites Walt Whitman poems to deal with depression and an abusive house. Just the same, there are songs my main character, James, uses to get energized and other songs that perfectly capture the thick depressions he succumbs to at various points in the novel. What songs best represent a boy that's up one moment and down the next? And who obsesses over the most minor issues (like how a girl he likes doesn't like Walt Whitman) or serious ones (how his sister was being physically and emotionally battered for years before she finally got thrown out on the lawn one night)?
There's some gloomy songs here and some hyper ones, too. Some that are weird, but no weirder than a kid that gets advice from an imaginary pigeon he calls Dr. Bird. That wasn't the hard part. The hard part was keeping the playlist short.
Playlists are unstructured, flat, infinitely scrolling lists of songs. There's no challenge to a playlist. When I was twelve and used a cassette player to record songs off my radio or from other tapes or even CDs, making a mixtape was work. Tapes had 2 sides and limited space.
How does one use up as much of 45 minutes as possible to avoid the need to fast-forward? It involves math (you try adding up minutes and seconds correctly!) and music pacing skills (what song best ends a side but maybe not an entire mix?) and ethical dilemmas (is it right to only put the first four minutes of this eight minute feedback-solo-dominated Smashing Pumpkins song?).
Even the amount of room for writing songs on the glossy paper insert was difficult, especially for a guy with the handwriting of an elderly doctor who's also half-chicken.
Still, I have to admit a playlist makes it easier to think about the song selection instead of song lengths and how to break the sides up. So here are a bunch of songs in an order that flows with the novel quite well.
"Tron" by Foals
Blaring out an intrusive alarm-sound, then comes a beep, then another, then the bass, then the drums. "Tron" has the perfect energy to match the very opening of Dr. Bird. The lyrical and musical repetition, along with the staggering, layered beat, provide the perfect representation of the electricity I find myself trying to breathe out or digest when hit with an anxiety attack. While my main character and I do not share a biography, we do share that feeling specifically.
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel
I set out trying to write a book that made me laugh even if my main character was depressed. Sometimes a little upbeat music helps set the tone or battle against overwhelming feelings when writing the truth of misery. Doesn't hurt that Neutral Milk Hotel's opus also explores sibling bonds (albeit with images of twin absorption and jar fetuses whereas I've got, like, a talking pigeon).
"This is How You Spell, ‘Hahaha, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics" by Los Campesinos!
A song with the right kind of jump up and down energy for someone who doesn't jump up and down much. It's also got a fine variety of voices and textures (listen to the drums, the strings, the raspy female vocals with the smoother male voices). It's almost ready to burst.
"Sad, Sad Song" by M. Ward
The lyrics "The hardest thing in the world to do / is to find someone who believes in you" also line up perfectly with something my main character needs to accept, even if the context of the song seems more in line with romantic love.
"I Wonder" by Blind Melon
A criminally underrated band cut short thanks to the lead singer's drug overdose -- thanks A LOT heroin! "I Wonder" has that great element of teenage fragility, illustrated by the soft guitar and vocals of the opening minute leading into the rousing main section, before the closing line that seems so very sad: "I only wanted to be sixteen / and free."
"It's All in Your Mind" by Beck
Perhaps this is taking things a bit too literally, but Beck's break-up song (from his super-sad break-up album Sea Change) underscores a particularly sinister aspect of depression: the sense that even if you know you have no reason to be depressed, you can't help but feel it. In some ways, this feeling does more damage simply because it causes one to hate oneself for being depressed.
"Uncontrollable Urge" by DEVO
I'd been listening to DEVO's rereleased masterpiece back when I was writing and, seriously, how often does a band open their first album with a song that's so iconically THEM? (Led Zeppelin maybe? And, okay, a ton of bands.) Also, there are a couple of scenes where James gets a bit manic. This is the song that best represents his energy. Plus, DEVO.
"Optimistic" by Radiohead
I'd be lame if I failed to include a track by my all-time favorite band and the placement of "Optimistic" here works perfectly. The lyrics "You try the best you can / the best you can is good enough" were in my mind constantly when it came time to revise Dr. Bird. It was a message regarding James's desire to help his sister, but also a message regarding my efforts to make the book perfect!
"Fitz and Dizzyspells" by Andrew Bird
In some ways Andrew Bird is Whitmanesque: tumbling lines, shifting tempos, celebrations of life, and perfect control over his kind of Americana. In addition, this song has a shimmering quality of tenuous happiness which matches the message to "soldier on / soldier on" well. Note: Dr. Bird is not Andrew Bird.
"Little Bird" by Eric Bachmann
Be thankful I didn't do a totally bird themed list, else you would have had to see me write about "Free Bird."
"It's Not Up to You" by Björk
From my favorite Björk album, this track feels like walking towards an apology. There's blame to be had but what can be done to move forward? That's the thing. Life pushes us forward whether we're ready or not. "It's not up to you. / Oh, it never really was." Of course.
"Sorrow" by The National
"Don't leave my hyper heart alone" sums it up. Oh, the infectious, seeping nature of gloom and how sweet it can become! How easy it can be to bask in the cold shine of sadness!
"The Darkest Side" by The Middle East
A grey, love song lullaby: "It's the darkest side of my heart that dies / when you come to me." We hope other people can make us feel better. James has the opposite problem: he wants to make the dark side of his sister's heart die. But who says he can? What gives him that responsibility? That right?
"Dark Night of the Soul" by Sparklehorse & Danger Mouse (featuring David Lynch)
A sludgy bit of musical molasses that relies on the shifty, high-pitched voice of Lynch singing: "Dark dream / all alone / shadows moving / shadows all gone by." Mark Linkous (who was Sparklehorse) committed suicide in March of 2010. It was two weeks before my son was born; I saw the news and sent it to my sister, whom I'd long ago dragged to a $10 Sparklehorse show in Philadelphia, getting her hooked. She and I both had no connection to Linkous aside from his music, but something about the timing and our own history with mental illness (and our attendance of multiple suicide funerals) made this news sting.
"Clenched Fist" by Sepultura
A seemingly oddball selection for an otherwise moody, squashed-energy playlist, Sepultura is one of a few bands that I associate with pure musical anger (Pantera being another, but more raw than I wanted for this list). At one point in Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, James's anger overwhelms his self-control and sense of respect for others. He pisses off the school principal, pisses off his best friend, pisses off his parents, and pisses off himself. "Clenched Fist" includes a repetitive guitar sound that harkens back to a similar sound in playlist opener "Tron"; plus, it offers these fitting truisms: "Life is chaos. / You gotta deal with it."
"Dignity and Shame" by Crooked Fingers
This playlist ends with a push towards brightness because nothing stinks like a mix tape that swallows itself. (As a kid, if I started a tape sad, it had to get happy, not go from sad to sad.) A great, very Dr. Bird and Walt Whitman argument about overcoming the scars of bad choices. (Or, perhaps more crucially, arguing against bad choices to begin with.)
"Honest" by Band of Skulls
One of James's main obstacles in the novel is to allow himself to share parts of his life and mind with others, not just his imaginary pigeon. He also has to assume less about others. Basically, summed up here: "Found a way to understand the things I'm learning / found a way to understand the time you're burning."
"You! Me! Dancing!" by Los Campesinos!
We close with an upbeat song that helps tie the playlist up neatly. A song of exuberance, celebration, joy. It's the kind of feeling people need sometimes, even if it's temporary, even if it's always followed by a dip back down into dark realities. But on a playlist you can end on the up-beat and hope you stay there forever. And maybe, after listening to it a thousand times, you just might.
Evan Roskos and Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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