February 27, 2014
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.
Justin Hocking's memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is one of the most satisfying memoirs I have read in years, a book both moving and sagaciously written.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"With nearly pitch-perfect tone, Hocking impressively builds [Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld] around a series of tension-and-release vignettes that roll through the narrative like waves. . . . Hocking's journey will prove relevant and immediate in its exploration of maturation and experiencing both spiritual collapse and, eventually, renewal."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld chronicles my ongoing obsession with the life of Herman Melville and the novel Moby-Dick. The obsession reached its apex after I relocated to New York City, where I discovered a thriving surf culture at places like Rockaway Beach, in Queens. As the city and my job grew increasingly claustrophobic, I started spending every spare moment in the ocean. Soon, in the wake of a difficult break up and a traumatic robbery, I embarked on what I now recognize as a kind of dark but transformative "night sea journey."
1) The Grecian Urns, "Summer Salt"
The memoir opens on September 16, 2005, when Hurricane Ophelia unleashed the best swell of the summer on Rockaway Beach. I ditched work with my friends Dawn and Teagan; I remember thinking how bizarre and exhilarating it was to drive with a truck full of surfboards through the post-industrial blight of Bushwick and Queens. "Summer Salt" is an exuberant blend of indie surf rock, folk and gospel that perfectly captures that inner summersault feeling of abandoning your responsibilities and heading for the beach. There's a surprising echo of this exact sentiment in Moby-Dick: Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach?
2) The Smiths, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"
On that same trip to Rockaway, we sang along to Teagan's exhaustive collection of Smiths songs. What I love about listening to the The Smiths as an adult is that you can mock Morrissey's over-the-top lugubriousness, his trademark melodrama, while simultaneously indulging in it. Most literary writers work to avoid self pity at all costs, but Morrissey just lets it fly with lines like I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now. In truth, my longing for escape via the ocean had a lot to do with my growing unhappiness with my own job at the time (I worked in corporate publishing, in a bland Midtown high-rise).
3) Iggy Pop, "The Passenger"
This song played on repeat at the underground skate bowl down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. It's such a quintessential New York City song (although apparently Iggy Pop wrote it during a train ride in Europe). Looking back at the lyrics now, there's a real sense of triumph and freedom. But at the time, what spoke to me was the idea that life in New York requires constant passenger status—on the subway, in taxis, in the crush of the crowd. It's about surrendering yourself to the city, to the wild night-ride that results from taking big risks.
4) Radiohead, "Karma Police"
I wish I could say that it was easy for me to surrender to New York, to become a passenger. I grew up in Colorado and California, so I was used to piloting my own vehicle. I had control issues. The subway and the crowds caused me a lot of anxiety. My first few months in the city, I would really kind of lose it on the L train ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, beneath the East River. You're trapped in a metal box hundreds of feet below ground, below water, so deep that your ears often pop from the pressure. To quell my panic, I memorized a line from Moby-Dick: But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm. That helped, as did reading Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." But then, emerging up the stairs from the subway, I'd often find myself completely disoriented—no idea where I was or which direction I was heading. This despite the fact that, in my twenties, I'd spent weeks and months deep in the Colorado wilderness, never once getting lost. So the Radiohead refrain, I lost myself, though maybe a bit over the top, was apropos. But the phrase has new meaning for me now, years later, having read Rebecca Solnit's The Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she advocates for these necessary periods of uncertainty and disorientation.
5) Ugly Cassanova, "Things I Don't Remember" and "Cat Faces"
Ugly Cassanova's first and only album, Sharpen Your Teeth, will forever sound to me like the soundtrack to a failed relationship. The third time I heard "Things I Don't Remember," I was falling in love with the girl singing along next to me in a Honda Civic parked at the base of Mount Hood, in Oregon. Our relationship fell apart when I made the brilliant decision to move to New York, where the lyrics from "Cat Faces" haunted me: You blame me and I'll blame you, and we're both right.
6) Moby-Dick, Untitled Sea Shanty by Various Sailors
I'm forever in awe of the creative and personal risks that Melville took by writing and publishing Moby-Dick. I love the novel's multivalent, polyphonic quality—the way it blends fiction with stagecraft, poetry, long-winded whale taxonomy, history, and even songs. 19th Century novels just were not supposed to contain lyrics to bawdy sailor songs. But there they are, in the "Midnight, Forecastle" chapter, adding some levity and humor at the start of a perilous journey: So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail!/While the bold harpooner is striking the whale!
7) Beach Boys, "Sloop John B"
It's impossible to take up surfing without a Beach Boys song getting lodged in your head at some point. You're out there bobbing around in the ocean, thinking to yourself I can't believe I'm actually singing "Catch A Wave" right now, but you totally are, and what the hell, you might as well just go with it. Then there's "Sloop John B." I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that the line Why don't you let me go home? played in my head quite a lot during my New York years, when I was pining for a less complicated existence back on the west coast.
8) Johnny Cash, "Hurt"
Literary biographer Andrew Delbanco claims that Melville related to the city as most true New Yorkers do: with a combustible combination of love and hate. That was definitely true for me, but then things took a turn for the worse when I was carjacked at gunpoint in 2006. The robbery actually happened while I was on vacation back in Denver, of all places. But after flying back to Brooklyn, I found myself in a very dark place, emotionally. New York has a way of amplifying and reflecting your moods back at you. My ocean obsession intensified. I started surfing for hours on end, staying out in the water way past sunset, by myself. It's not safe to surf alone, much less at night. This self-destructive side of myself was taking over—my own inner-Ahab, dragging me further away from the safety of the shore, deeper into isolation. Johnny Cash was one of the only musicians I could stomach during that time; I must have listened to "Hurt" like a hundred times.
9) The National, "So Far Around the Bend."
There is no leaving New York/There is no leaving New York/There is no leaving New York/There is no leaving New York.
10) Grizzly Bear, "Deep Blue Sea"
In the midst of the post-robbery darkness, an arts organization in Portland offered me a job. I'd always hoped to end up in Oregon. But the prospect of moving across the country and completely reinventing my life was daunting. You spend so much time and money trying to get established in New York; it's so hard to walk away. Finally, with help from family and friends, I made the decision and the move. The first few weeks in Portland were turbulent, especially when I severely miscalculated the power of the Pacific Ocean in wintertime.
9) Laura Gibson, Father Mapple's hymn from "The Sermon" chapter of Moby-Dick
I slowly settled in to Portland, and was fortunate to connect with a crew of fellow Melville freaks. We somehow convinced Powell's Books to let us host a 24-hour marathon reading of Moby-Dick. As David Dowling writes in his book Chasing the White Whale, "If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order." Over a hundred readers brought the novel breathing to life; there was this palpable sense of communion and connection, like we were all shipmates, pulling oar together through the night. And some transcendent moments, like when the writer and filmmaker Arthur Bradford read "The Sermon" chapter, and the musician Laura Gibson joined him for a live, spontaneous performance of a hymn from that section:
In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints—
No more the whale did me confine.
10) Modest Mouse, "Float On"
It's the third song on the album "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," but it has more of a coda vibe to it. Lead singer Isaac Brock wrote it during the height of the Bush regime, when he was sick of the constant stream of bad news, and just wanted to create something positive. It feels more brooding than positive to me, but there is buoyancy to the lyrics and the music—this sense that, together, we can float above all the shit. I can't hear it without thinking of my friend Andy Kessler, who was a legendary east coast skateboarder, and who'd definitely survived his own night sea journey in his younger years. Quite a bit of the narrative in The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld revolves around the way he helped me through my own journey. The book, and this playlist, are dedicated to him.
Justin Hocking and The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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