April 4, 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.
Provocative, gritty, and highly imaginative, the stories in Shawn Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho form an impressive debut collection.
Vogue wrote of the book:
"[Godforsaken Idaho] lies somewhere between the classically chiseled narratives of Richard Ford's Rock Springs, the satiristic imagination of George Saunders, and the comic stylings of The Book of Mormon. Vestal's dark, often very funny, and deeply probing stories have one foot in God-fearing Mormon country and another in godforsaken characters-at-the-end-of-their-rope realism."
Chances are very good that Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" was the most influential song of my life. When it came out, in 1984, I was a senior in high school in the small southern Idaho town of Gooding, where I felt culturally imprisoned by tastes and attitudes – from my family's religion to the butt rock at the keggers – that I did not share, and that I did not want to share.
The song was massive in every way — a big, dumb, jumpsuited lump of cultural pottage, a crystallized soundtrack for 1980s small-town teen-age life, for dragging Main, partying, Coors Light and Bartles & James. The B-side was titled "Dick in the Dirt." The more people loved it, the more alien I felt, and the more alien I wanted to be. "I Can't Drive 55" made me want to drive 55.
This dynamic — my sense of being against, being oppositional — became a teenage lifeline, and then a lifelong lifeline. It's part of the spirit that moves me to write fiction, and it informs the stories in Godforsaken Idaho, stories about heretics and screw-ups and people who insist, sometimes to their detriment, on being their own prophets and rejecting what they're supposed to accept.
So thanks, Sammy.
The opening song on Reckoning, which came out the same year as "I Can't Drive 55." I drove 45 minutes to the nearest record store in a Twin Falls mall to buy it on cassette. What a baffling, murky, beautiful thing it was. The music was stuttery and driving, not bombastic and boring. The singer's voice was an instrument in its own right. It was hard to understand the words, even when you could understand the words. "They shifted the statues for harboring ghosts/Reddened their necks, collared their clothes/Then we ditched the books but the menace got out/She gathered the corners and called it her gown." What does that mean? I don't know. But I'll tell you what it doesn't mean: That the songwriter really likes to drive fast.
"Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton," The Mountain Goats
Does this song have the best ever chorus in the history of pop music? I say yes: "Hail Satan! Hail Satan, tonight! Hail, Hail!" When this song, and its story, reaches that glorious, strummy, sacrilegious pitch, I always feel lifted, transcendent.
"Calling Dr. Love," Kiss
When I was 10, this passed for daring and rebellious. I bought the album Rock and Roll Over, and hid it from my mother, tucked between my mattress and box spring like porn.
"Kids Don't Follow," The Replacements
This is just the fundamental expression of the basic rock and roll heresy — a child's rebellion. It's been interesting to listen to this song over decades, as I've grown from a kid who won't follow into an adult who won't be followed.
"Heaven," Talking Heads
A revelatory concoction of the sacred and the mundane. "Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens." I love the way David Byrne's keening voice expresses an odd register of feeling, a pitch of true emotion inside a detached style. I would be flattering myself to suggest it shares a spiritual kinship with the first story in my collection, "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death," though it's certainly true that very little, if not quite nothing, occurs in the afterlife of that story.
"Wu Banga 101," Ghostface Killah
Ghost raises hell: "Ooh, Rev ain't right/His church ain't right/Deacon is a pimp/Tell by his eyes."
"The Ghost of Tom Joad," Bruce Springsteen
The best art of any kind about the Joads. I love creative work that is made of other creative work, and I love artwork that takes static, traditional mythologies of religion and puts them to new creative use. I tried to do this with certain Mormon mythologies in Godforsaken Idaho. This song brilliantly retools The Grapes of Wrath, Springsteen's own mythos of the open road, and the Bible, creating a humane, new vision that alters and expands the material it draws on.
"I'm So Bored With The USA," The Clash
In rural southern Idaho, politics were conservative, with a healthy strain of John Bircherism. Patriotism and faith in American superiority were givens. Suffice it to say that this snarling, electrifying jolt of anti-Americanism — from a citizen of another country, viewing the behemoth of the U.S.A. through a perspective that was foreign to me — was a tonic.
"Last Great American Whale," Lou Reed
A surreal, furious fable about racism, violence, gun worship and environmental destruction. Favorite lyric: "My mother said she saw him in Chinatown/But you can't always trust your mother." Filial heresy!
"Summer Cannibals," Patti Smith
Smith's grunting, snarling chorus is heretical to the very notion of singing, and takes on — by inversion, by force of opposition — its own wondrous beauty. I'd love to see her perform this with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Smith growling and chanting this surreal tale of cannibals and damnation, while the choir echoes: "Eat! Eat eat!"
"Voice of Harold," R.E.M.
Back to the boys from Athens. I realize that this playlist is, by the standards of true hipster obscurism, middle-brow and mainstream. But I can't overstate the degree to which, for a small-town kid in the 1980s, this band arrived like a revelation — bracingly original. On "Voice of Harold," Michael Stipe sings the words off the cover of a gospel album, to the music of "7 Chinese Brothers," the song which followed "Harborcoat" on Reckoning. The gospel album was The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires, and though there is irony and irreverent humor in Stipe's approach, he belts sincerely: "This album can be the instrument to mend a broken heart."
Shawn Vestal and Godforsaken Idaho links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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