April 5, 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.
Dave Bry's epistolary memoir Public Apology collects letters to those the author has wronged. Funny, thought provoking and heartfelt throughout, this book is unique and thoroughly enjoyable.
ShelfAwareness wrote of the book:
"Public Apology is a brilliant slice of memoir: funny, awkward and painful, but capable of making a person misty-eyed now and again."
I've been a total music head since my friend Blair Bryan's older brother Pat made me a cassette-tape copy of Rush's Randian-sci-fi-prog-metal-concept-album 2112 back in what must have been 1983. Music has informed my thinking and writing as much as any other single factor in my life and my memoir Public Apology, is full of the stuff. Making the book out of a series of open letters to people who I have wronged in some way, I kept a list of songs I referenced, and also ones that I listened to a lot while writing—songs that shared in themes of confession, regret, guilt and forgiveness. Here are fifteen of them.
Nirvana, "All Apologies"
An obvious place to start. The more time passes, the more I think this song, the final song on the last album the band recorded before Kurt Cobain killed himself, stands as their masterpiece. I tend to gravitate towards slower, sadder, gentler material—even from artists better known for louder, faster, harder rock. The wistful, dirge-like melody here, and the lyric coda of "All alone is all we are…" are as clear an expression as I know of the lonesome pain of guilt—of knowing we've done wrong, and in so doing have cut ourselves off from those that might love us.
Nina Simone, "Nobody's Fault But Mine"
There's a million different versions of this Blind Willie Johnson classic. Zeppelin's and the Dead's might be more well-known, but I think Nina Simone delivers it at its clear-eyed, god-fearing best.
Neil Young, "Fuckin' Up"
I love how this turns culpability into a question: Why do I keep doing this thing that I don't want to do? A shift of the blame. Who else should you ask but yourself?
Cat Power, "The Colors and the Kids"
I can't think of a more poignant moment, in any song that I've ever heard, than when Chan's voice cracks when she's singing about wanting to become someone different, someone better.
The Replacements, "Here Comes a Regular"
The second section of my book is called "High School (Or when being drunk becomes the excuse for everything, even though it is never a legitimate excuse for anything.)" I submitted the opening line of this song as my quote in the yearbook my senior year—"Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst/After a hard day of nothing much at all…"—but they wouldn't run it. So I chose something from the movie Caddyshack instead. It was important to me that everybody knew just how not-seriously I took everything in high school. I am quite embarrassed when I think back to that time in my life now. But I did have good taste in music.
R.E.M., "So. Central Rain"
"Rivers of suggestion are driving me away…" Who ever knows what the hell Michael Stipe is talking about? But he sure sounds like he means when he keens his mea culpa on the chorus.
Palace Music, "Cat's Blues"
The wonderful Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy) is a cryptic lyricist, too. "How many children are there like this," he asks. "And to how many will I serve?" I can only nod along with the poetry. But there's no question as to the sentiment behind the subsequent line. "If I could have a clue what justice is/It would be more than I deserve…" Guilty, he proclaims himself, with three exclamation points in his caterwaul. Beyond recourse.
R. Kelly, "When A Woman's Fed Up"
Now here's someone who is clearly struggling with all sorts of issues around right and wrong and sin and redemption. But it seem like whatever demons have him "standing here looking in the mirror/Saying ‘Damn' to myself…" go towards pushing his music past clownish schmaltz into crazy genius soul.
Roxy Music, "Jealous Guy"
Apologies to John Lennon (and, y'know, R.I.P. and all) but Bryan Ferry and co. made the best version of his great apology song.
Don Henley, "The Heart of the Matter"
I puke at the thought of Don Henley as much as the next guy. But damn if this isn't just about a perfectly written song. And so, in the spirit of forgiveness and all…
Tracy Chapman, "Baby Can I Hold You Tonight"
Same goes for the over-earnest trill in Tracy Chapman's voice. Nothing can spoil this melody—or make the words come more easily.
Elton John, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word"
Okay, we'll wrap up the easy-listening section of this playlist with the king of sad, sad situations: good ol' Elton.
Husker Du, "I Apologize"
I would argue that no band has ever had a closer, or more complex, relationship with apology than Husker Du—what with all the guilt and blame and recrimination handed back and forth between Grant Hart and Bob Mould. Like, "Sorry Somehow" is doesn't have an ounce of honest apology in it. "I Apologize" does, but it still has to ask for the same in return. "I said I'm sorry. Now it's your turn…"
Bruce Springsteen, "Racing in the Street"
A lot of the book I wrote takes place on the Jersey Shore, where I grew up. It's weird to like rock music and grow up on the Jersey Shore, because you can't really listen to Bruce Springsteen like a normal person. I'd think for most of the people who grew up there in the '70s and '80s, you either hate Bruce, or he's become some deep and essential part of you. I can't ever consider his music in comparison or contrast with that of any other artist. It's its own thing, different from anything else. It's not even like he's my absolute favorite, but he's a part of my heart. More like family than a chosen friend, I guess. That said, "Racing in the Street," a song-long apology for the way the choices we make can affect the lives of the people we love and who love us, a paean to the value of striving for betterment even when we know it's beyond our reach, is a truer representation of the project than anything else I can think of. "Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands," sings Bruce. But how he sings it you can tell he doesn't have great faith that its going to work. Sins don't wash off easy on the Jersey Shore.
Wham!, "Careless Whisper"
I never liked Wham! in the '80s. They were too slick and poppy. And I hated those giant shirts. And, if I'm to be totally honest, probably too obviously gay for my 14-year-old insecurity. Though I don't remember ever thinking that specifically. (And I did like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, so…?) Later, though, in the '90s, when I was in college, I came to appreciate the brilliance of this classic song about betrayal and regret and pleading in vain for forgiveness. This happened because I cheated on my girlfriend—the only time I have ever cheated on a girlfriend. (A fact which testifies less to the strength of my character than to my lack of girlfriends.) But, anyway, I cheated on my girlfriend, with her best friend at the school. It was a shitty thing to do and I felt shitty about it. I confessed immediately, and was kicked out of the room we were sharing in her dorm, and spent a week sleeping on my friend Carter's couch and moping around and not going to my classes. I was sitting in the dining hall one day during this stretch and my friend Will came in and joined me at the table. Everyone knew the story; there were no secrets in our incestuous little clique. "How are you doing, Dave," he asked.
"I'm never going to dance again," I said, smiling but sadly. "Guilty feet have got no rhythm."
He gave me a sympathetic grin and said something about time healing wounds.
I had been singing those words to myself right before he'd arrived. I'd been singing them a lot, in fact, since telling my girlfriend what I'd done. Since making her cry and kick me out of the room. Like I said, I'd never liked the song before. But I found myself really stuck on that line—it hit on a truth I'd never known before. But one I was coming to understand: The real pain of guilt. I'd hurt someone I did not want to hurt, and I was hurting in kind. So that Flamenco guitar, those Club-Med bongos, and that melody, carried by George Michael's breathy voice, and that soap-opera saxophone—like walking down a big, grand ballroom staircase in a Mediterranean mansion that you live in and that the person you love used to live but does not anymore—as cheesy as it as was, as it all is, all that finally made sense to me, revealed it's great, swollen, heartsick beauty. I love that song.
Dave Bry and Public Apology links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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