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August 21, 2013

Book Notes - Rob Roberge "The Cost of Living"

The Cost of Living

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.

Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living is a powerful yet intimate novel about the cycle of addiction, its darkness and redemption, and one of the most gripping books about the rock and roll lifestyle I have ever read.

TriQuarterly wrote of the book:

"Both gritty and lyrical, The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge is a drug-fueled emotional rollercoaster ride that mainlines the voices of Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, and Jim Carroll, leaving you spent and shaky, looking for your next fix."

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 Rob Roberge's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Cost of Living:

The Cost of Living covers over 30 years in the life of the protagonist Bud Barrett who, after the age of 18 is a professional musician--an on and off (because of his substance abuse problems) songwriter and guitar in the fictional indie rock band The Popular Mechanics. Choosing a soundtrack for this book is somewhat difficult--more difficult than any other book I've done--since some friends of mine and I actually did a soundtrack of original music for the novel (available for free download at But it's also easy in a way, as well, since music plays such a central role in the book.

Chapter One: You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

The easy choice--and a fitting one--for this chapter could easily be the song used for its title, Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." The narrator is in a hotel room across from his father's hospital and it's the night before his father will ask Bud to kill him and put him out of his misery from the pain of his advanced and terminal cancer. Bud is also, as the novel opens, reading old newspaper articles about his mother's suicide twenty-eight years earlier. A suicide he blames, at least in part, on his dying father. But, while the Thunders' song would fit, it's already there as it were because of the chapter title. Plus, Bud is an insomniac with sever bipolar and OCD that doesn't allow him to relax enough to often sleep, and we see him struggling with this in the opening. He's exhausted, yet up all night. So, I'm going with Alex Chilton's cover of John Lennon's "I'm So Tired." Not just because of the subject matter, but because Chilton covers the song, with slight variation in the repeats, 3 or 4 times in a row heightening the subject matter into a repetitious, shaky frustration that grows with each repetition. Form matching content.

Chapter Two: Money and the Getting of Money

There are a lot that could go here. Both the great California pop band Plasticsoul and the amazing Ike Reilly get mentioned as music they are listening to in the chapter. But this is a chapter, since the novel is told in a non-linear fashion out of chronological order, about the narrator's last bottom before rehab. It's filled with his regret and self loathing. Plus, in their early years, his band was a cowpunk band (before the term alt-country existed), so I'm going with one of the great cowpunk songs by one of the genre's greatest bands: "Clean the Dirt" by Tex and the Horseheads, which contains one of the great self-loathing lines to a lover ever written: "If you really loved me, you'd just go away."

Chapter Three: The Indifference of Heaven

There's a lot more going on to it, of course, but this is largely a chapter about fathers and sons...and it's a key one because without it, Bud's father would seem pretty much like a monster throughout the book. This is the one that--even though he makes some mistakes of a high order--humanizes him. While he has his demons, ultimately he wants what most fathers want--a better life for his kid than the life he himself has. So I'm going with "Outfit" as performed by The Drive By Truckers and written by Jason Isbell. The song is written in the form of advice from a father to a son (a sort of gender inverted, trailer park musical version of Jamaica Kinkaid's "Girl") offering life lessons to the young man on how not to end up like his father. It also contains the line "...have fun and stay clear of the needle...". Advice that applies, as this is the first chapter where Bud begins his life-long struggle with opiates. Plus, it's just a killer song.

Chapter Four: Broken

This is the first time we see Bud trying to find peace and protection in the arms of what the book jacket calls a series of "pervy Florence Nightingales." The first pervy Florence Nightingale on stage here is Simone--a bartender Bud falls for while the band is on tour in Winston Salem. This one may be the easiest one to pick as far as a song that applies to Bud, at least at this point in his life. From Liz Phair's "6'1":

"I bet, you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save..."

Chapter Five: Interstate

This is the chapter with the first overdose in the book so Neil Young's harrowing version of "Tonight's the Night" fits well. Often on the Tonight's the Night tour, Young (haunted by the deaths of two close fiends from heroin OD's) would do several versions of the same song every night...bringing forward the frightening haunting quality of the event. In its repetition, it grows in resonance, creating a ghostly quality that infects everything that follows.

Chapter Six: Amends

While the father figures heavily in this chapter, it's also the chapter where Bud meets and marries the true love of his life, Olivia. So a fitting song would be the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris version the George Jones' classic "That's All it Took." Any song with the line "I fell for you completely/sinker, line and hook" understands the glow of early love. And any song with the line "And when today/I heard them say/your name/that's all it took" understands how the loss of that love haunts us.

Chapter Seven: Finished Business

"Roadrunner" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. The chapter is about the reunion of a band that formed when they were all in their late teens and then lasted about a decade before firing the narrator. Now, they've reformed in their early forties to all kinds of predictable trouble. But what's left is the joy of making music together--hence this, the first song they (and a million other semi-competent garage bands) learned to play together. Proof that all you need is two chords and some passion and energy to make great rock and roll. The greatest two chord song ever written (honorable mention to Beat Happening's "Indian Summer").

Chapter Eight: The Four Queens

"Sin City" by the Flying Burrito Brothers. While the city referred to in the title is actually late 60's Los Angeles, Las Vegas often enough gets this moniker to work for this list. Also, it fits somehow because "Sin City" relies on the tight and imperfect yet perfect harmonies of Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons--best, at the time, friends, totally in synch with each other. This is one of several chapters with Bud and his best friend/partner-in-crime Johnny Mo...and theirs is a prose equivalent of vocal harmonies. Tight--a lot like each other, but different enough to be more interesting together than taken one at a time. Plus, there's plenty of sin in this chapter. Though that hardly distinguishes it from other chapters.

Chapter Nine: Diverters

The Gear Daddies' "I Drank So Much Tonight, I Just feel Stupid." It's a chapter where Bud and a friend are buying morphine from a medical professional who diverts terminal patients' pain meds. Things get desperate and very dangerous. Though it's opiates rather than alcohol that makes the characters behave so desperately and stupidly in this chapter, the sentiment applies: "God only knows why I do these things/lord won't you tell me why it always ends the same?"

Chapter Ten: St. Jude's

Like most last chapters, this is where things come to a close and several story lines reach their climax. The one that resonates throughout the chapter, though, is the marriage that both partners wish could have worked out but didn't, which leaves me with Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate." While any number of songs could speak to and with this chapter, the one with the line "I still believe she was my twin/but I lost the ring" speaks loudest.

Rob Roberge and The Cost of Living links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
soundtrack for the book

Caught in the Carousel review
Three Guys One Book review
TriQuarterly review

Artbound profile of the author
Booked interview with the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Other People interview with the author
Three Guys One Book interview with the author

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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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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