April 11, 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.
Elizabeth Scarboro's My Foreign Cities is less about loss and more the affirmation of life and love. Scarborough keenly recounts her ten year marriage with her husband, who died of cystic fibrosis, with intelligence and honesty in this always interesting and moving memoir.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This is a book that demands your whole heart: My Foreign Cities is an extraordinary memoir of a young couple's journey together in the face of devastating loss. With humor, grace, and excruciating tenderness, Scarboro dives deep into beauty and pain, joy and grief, and reminds us what a fragile, miraculous, and ferocious thing life is. An unforgettable story told with the force and conviction of love itself."
Music doesn't come into My Foreign Cities often, but if the book were accurate it would be playing through every car ride, every fight, every breakfast. The book chronicles my late teens and twenties, when, in spite of my teenage declaration that I'd never settle down and get married, I found myself in love and unable to fall out. Stephen was marked by his dark sense of humor, a clear-eyed view, and a serious illness, cystic fibrosis (which we didn't think much of when we met at sixteen). He was also marked by his love of music. I loved music too, but Stephen took his devotion a step further. He was shameless in his proselytizing, and his tastes were infectious.
This play list is a small part of the musical backbone of those years, taking me through the relationship, and Stephen's death, up to the edge of the life I'm living now. Some of these songs conjure the feeling of a place and a time, and others bring back particular moments so vividly that I have to pull the car over if they come on the radio.
"Peaceful, Easy Feeling" the Eagles
Yes, the Eagles! What high school kid was listening to them in the late ‘80s? But Stephen didn't care - he'd drive around town with the windows down, unashamed to be playing music that no one else considered cool. In fact he had this way of liking particular bands so adamantly it made you secretly wonder if your own judgment was off. He had an older brother, and he'd adopted his brother's music – the Eagles, the Doors, Jethro Tull. I remember listening to this song on a tape he'd made me, driving to my restaurant job early on a Sunday morning, bleary-eyed after having been out all night. I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to admit to herself what she's getting into so she can go ahead and get into it. For a person like me, music is not just place of escape but one of reckoning, a quick unintended look in the mirror. All through my shift at the diner, I couldn't get this line out of my head: I get this feeling I may know you, like a lover and a friend. This voice keeps whispering in my other ear, tells me I may never see you again. This was as close as I got back then, to acknowledging that I was falling in love with someone who wouldn't always be around, that I wanted him badly enough I was going to ignore the heartbreak ahead.
"Death Defying" by the Hoodoo Gurus
I hear this song and I'm back in Colorado summer, riding around in Stephen's jeep, the doors and top taken off because of the heat. The radio's blasting and I'm in the passenger seat, resting my bare foot where the door should be, looking for the swimming pool we're going to sneak into, or the cliff we're going to jump from into the river. We're sort of going out, sort of friends, planning to leave for college unattached. This song, thrumming through the speakers, is youth, freedom, anticipation, jubilation.
"Good Advices" REM
During college, around the time we failed at being unattached, Stephen became devoted to two people – me and Michael Stipe. There wasn't an REM bootleg or a b-side he didn't find, even given his pre-internet limitations. At one point, much later, his brother wrote REM a drunken letter, asking them to play at our wedding. I remember listening to this song, and the rest of Fables of the Reconstruction in my dorm room in Chicago, after Stephen had come for a visit, simultaneously missing him and being surprised to feel how deep I was in.
"Dancing in the Moonlight" Smashing Pumpkins
I moved out to San Francisco and in with Stephen in the early ‘90's, and most of the music of that time and place agreed with both of us – Jane's Addiction, Camper Van Beethoven, the Cowboy Junkies. But the Smashing Pumpkins were a subject of contention. Stephen thought they were great, and took it personally that I thought Billy Corgan's voice was whiny, and the guitar discordant. But this song was an exception. It was a cover, and acoustic, and somehow it worked for me. We always listened to music as we fell asleep, and the year this song came out I probably drifted off to it a hundred times.
"Where It's At" Beck
The energy, the frenetic freedom of this song, the strange optimism – it was the perfect thing to have blasting in the car as we hurtled down Highway Five toward Los Angeles, on a road trip with friends. We could have been any other car full of road-trippers in our twenties, except the reason we were catapulting down the freeway had nothing to do with youth. Stephen's health had become precarious, and he was headed for a double-lung transplant. The operation was on the cutting-edge of medicine then – five years out, half of the people with it breathed freely, and half were dead. We knew this could be the end, and it could be a new beginning, and we wouldn't know until we got there, and we were alive, alive, alive, soaking every minute up.
"6'1" Liz Phair
I was alone in my sister's apartment in New York, eleven a.m. and still in my T-shirt and boxers. It was month after the transplant, and Stephen had made it. We'd been far too intertwined, him needing help and me being worried, and now we were three thousand miles apart, me here alone for a wedding. I turned on the stereo and Liz Phair, her feistiness, her fight, her insistence that the game was rigged, flooded through the kitchen. I sang along to Exile in Guyville as I made coffee and browsed the Village Voice. The world had gone on and I'd missed it. Liz Phair was telling me, wake up.
"Marilyn" Dan Bern
This song is etched in brain, only because Dan Bern sang it in the right place at the right time. The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, the Friday night before Stephen died, only I didn't know it was that night then. He'd been in the hospital two weeks with a mysterious infection. I'd gotten the concert ticket a month earlier, and that night, I wavered about whether to go. Given what was going on in my life, it was hard to believe that the show was fun, but it was. Dan Bern's pants were too big and they kept falling down, and my friend Eve went up to the stage and lent him her belt. At home in bed I drifted off with lyrics about Marilyn Monroe's imaginary marriage to Henry Miller floating through my head. The next morning I learned that just then, while I'd been drifting, oblivious, Stephen's health had careened.
"Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" Nirvana
When Stephen was alive, his tastes had always been darker than mine. A few songs off Nevermind were enough for me, a single viewing of Pulp Fiction, a quick glance at Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan comic series. Jimmy had always been too heartbreaking, but now I could read him without feeling a thing. It was the same way that after years of being a vegetarian and never trying the turkey Stephen cooked for Thanksgiving, I suddenly said screw it and started eating meat. I was twenty-nine, just starting to see the holes in life, and blasting "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" as I drove across the Bay Bridge at midnight. Kurt Cobain's voice was affirming, soothing, even triumphant, for the way it let everything in.
"Lovely Day" Bill Withers
My twenty-three-year-old brother moved out to California to live with me – to take care of me really, though I kept thinking he was too young to be doing that. I forgot to tell him the tape deck in my ancient car was broken, so when he put in his Bill Withers tape it got stuck. We listened to Bill Withers or nothing every time we drove anywhere. There was something about the song "Lovely Day"; it came on over and over, and I still looked forward to it every time. The minor key, the slow, understated melody, the intertwined sorrow and happiness, it made me trust Bill Withers about lovely days, think he was right, even though life felt miserable, from a certain angle today might be one.
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" Lauryn Hill
My youngest sister made me a mix tape for the anniversary of Stephen's death – one side labeled "It's Been a Hell of a Long Year, Big Sis" and the other, "Ya Done Good." The mix included G Love and Special Sauce, The Jackson Five, The Pixies, and Thelonius Monk. And this Lauryn Hill song, which I didn't pay much attention to, until a few months later, when I found myself falling in love with someone new. It was crazy to fall in love while grieving – humbling, thrilling, and embarrassing most of all. I might as well have been seventeen all over again. I remember humming along to this song, thinking that I couldn't believe I felt these lyrics, but I had to admit I did.
"Buckets of Rain" Bob Dylan
My second husband and Stephen never met, but if that were somehow possible, they'd each finally have someone to complain to about some of my musical tastes. They both share (or shared) a hatred for my default radio station, an alt-rock station, which according to both of them is painfully boring. They both also mutter (or muttered) when I put on Blood on the Tracks. But my dad played guitar through my childhood, and there's nothing that makes me feel more at home than the sound of an acoustic guitar strumming somewhere in the house. And while neither of my husbands can/could appreciate it, "Buckets of Rain" is the song that defines how I feel about both of them in a way, about still being here on this earth after one person's gone, and loving another.
Elizabeth Scarboro and My Foreign Cities links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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