September 25, 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.
Smartly written and moving, Justin St. Germain's memoir Son of a Gun compassionately examines the lives of his family, especially his murdered mother, and how her death affected them.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"If St. Germain had stopped at examining his mother’s psycho-social risk factors and how her murder affected him, this would still be a fine, moving memoir. But it's his further probing—into the culture of guns, violence, and manhood that informed their lives in his hometown, Tombstone, Ariz.—that transforms the book, elevating the stakes from personal pain to larger, important questions of what ails our society."
I've read Book Notes for years, and I always secretly hoped I'd get to do one. Music doesn't figure very prominently in my book, but I relied on it during the writing process, listening to the same songs over and over until they became a sort of soundtrack. I need to know a song really well in order to listen to it while writing without the rhythms and lyrics affecting the prose, so there were a few dozen songs I wore out in the five years it took to draft, revise, and edit the book. Here are some of them.
Nirvana – "Son of a Gun"
In my early teenage years in Tombstone, AZ, my friends and I would lock ourselves in a dark room and get high and listen to "Something in the Way" on repeat, and the only thing I ever learned to play on any musical instrument is the guitar intro to "Come As You Are." As I got older, I listened to Nirvana less, and when I did it was mostly their b-sides and covers, like this song, which is a cover of the Vaselines. One day early in the writing process, when I was waiting for a title to strike me, I had my iTunes on shuffle and this song came on. Right away, I thought: that's it.
Bonnie Prince Billy – "I See a Darkness" and Abner Jay – "I'm So Depressed"
Writing the first draft was sort of a manic-depressive process, during which I spent much of the time convinced I'd made a huge mistake in beginning (and, worse, selling) a book I wasn't capable of finishing. The book centers on the worst experience of my life, my mother's murder and the aftermath, and re-entering and reliving that experience wasn't therapeutic at all; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. It didn't help that I was listening to the most depressing songs I knew, these two included.
Radiohead – "Reckoner" and Deltron – "Mastermind"
The other side of that manic process was the occasional euphoric sense that I was writing exactly what I should be, the best work I'd ever done. It didn't come often, just frequently enough to keep me going. It would set in late at night, after my girlfriend had gone to bed, as I sat at my desk staring out the window at the fog drifting along Cortland Avenue in San Francisco, having just written or revised a few thousand words, propelled in part by songs as fierce as these, and feeling the kind of relief that only that kind of work has ever given me.
Charlie Rich, "Feel Like Going Home" and Sunset Rubdown "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)"
These two make strange bedfellows, but I listened to both excessively during the summer of 2009, which I spent in Tucson, doing interviews and research that would later comprise the second half of the book. I spent most of my time talking to strangers about my dead mother, or sitting in the un-air-conditioned adobe guesthouse I'd rented, dripping sweat onto my keyboard. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm six-five and sort of stern-looking and tend to speak elliptically, which makes me a bad interviewer, and I couldn't see how any of the material I was gathering would ever fit together into a narrative. My girlfriend was back in San Francisco, and all I wanted to do was go home, but instead I listened to Charlie Rich on repeat.
One night I walked down the street to see Sunset Rubdown play a show at Plush. It was the night before Dragonslayer came out, and about halfway through their set, they played "You Go On Ahead." Most of Spencer Krug's music has had to grow on me, but about halfway through the song I thought, this is the best fucking thing I've ever heard. I bought the CD and left it in my car's stereo for months. I still can't hear it without thinking of that summer.
Built to Spill – "You Were Right" and Modest Mouse – "Edit the Sad Parts"
I might be the only writer I know who actually met the deadline for my book, which turned out to be a dumb idea, because the draft I sent my editor still needed some serious work. I say that now; at the time, I was popping bubbly and taking vacations and getting tattoos, because I thought I was done. During the six subsequent months I spent cutting a third of the book, I listened to a lot of pissed-off songs about disappointment, these two included.
The Duchess & the Duke, "Scorpio," and the Helio Sequence, "Lately"
After I'd finished the major revisions, I moved from San Francisco to Albuquerque, which brought about a series of tumultuous life events in the particular way only moving to New Mexico can. One of these was that my three-year relationship abruptly ended. I also learned to appreciate bourbon and moved into a three-story condo with floor-to-ceiling windows across the street from a busy restaurant, in which I usually left the blinds open while walking around in my underwear, drinking the aforementioned bourbon, listening to breakup songs like these.
The Mountain Goats – "This Year" and Alexander – "Truth"
The book was finished, at least from my perspective, for about a year before the release, a year I spent counting the days until it came out with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. I worried a lot about how it'd be received by the people portrayed in it, none of whom I gave it to until about a month before it came out. I was in a literal state of mind in terms of the music I listened to: I kept telling myself I just needed to make it through the year, which is where the Mountain Goats song comes in, and that the only justification I needed for writing it was that it was the truth, hence the Alexander song (which was also featured on Breaking Bad right after I moved to ABQ).
Beanie Sigel featuring Jay-Z – "Glock Nines" (Ratatat Remix)
Guns and gun violence are a central theme of the book, but I tried not to weigh in much on the debate about gun control or gun ownership, because I didn't want to overshadow the particular story I was trying to tell of my mother's life. But I still get asked the gun question all the time. As usual, I'm going to avoid answering it here, because this song is no answer — Beanie Sigel's verse is mostly vacuous gun bravado, and Jay-Z hardly mentions guns at all — but it is probably my favorite song about guns.
Okkervil River – "Westfall"
I spent a lot of time before and during the writing of this book thinking about murder and how our popular culture portrays it. In grad school I wrote a seminar paper arguing that In Cold Blood flattens and marginalizes the victims of the murders, the Clutter family, in favor of sympathizing with the murderers. Afterward, I saw the same tendency in almost all popular stories about murder: they glorify the murderers and neglect the victims. (The Executioner's Song is even worse; in more than a thousand pages, the victims hardly appear.) From the very beginning, I thought of my book as a response to that tradition, so it's ironic that, during the writing process, I spent so much time listening to murder ballads, examples of exactly what I was arguing against. But I did, and none more than this one. I still can't hear the lyric "evil don't look like anything" without thinking of my stepfather, my mother's killer, and thinking how true it is.
Justin St. Germain and Son of a Gun links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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