March 17, 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.
In his nuanced and moving short story collection Painted Cities Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski brings a south Chicago neighborhood to life.
The Chicago Reader wrote of the book:
"The 70s and 80s of Galaviz-Budziszewski's childhood spring up like a diorama, and eventually Painted Cities begins to feel ... like a journey through a living, breathing (and dying) universe."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The stories in Painted Cities weren't even supposed to be published. Not as a group anyway. I'd been working on them for years, publishing them one by one. And I was satisfied with that. The fun for me was the journey, the actual writing process, 4:30 in the morning, absolute quiet, enough that I could hear the train running three blocks away. I'd get into a zone where imagination and memory started producing words and it all felt somehow outside of me, unpredictable, addicting. Every once in awhile I'd get stuck staring at a blank page or unfinished line and I found that a few minutes of a "slow jam" an "oldie", one of the songs my mother and father had in their collection of 45 rpm records, could put me right back where I wanted to be. So I'd pop in one of the cassette tapes I'd stolen from home when I moved out and then there would be Pilsen, the neighborhood I grew up in, the neighborhood of this collection, pouring from the speakers. Somehow, in listening to these songs, the work was already done, the words already composed, all I had to do was let go and write them down.
These stories are hard for me to read. They are far more personal than I ever anticipated—this is the danger in letting go. They tell of a neighborhood that doesn't quite exist anymore. Though it is still there physically, the Pilsen I knew was mysterious and frightening, loud and intense, and then sometimes the sun would shine. A friend of mine showed a few of these stories to McSweeney's. McSweeney's then asked me to assemble a collection. As I read through the stories and started to put them in some kind of order, I started to wonder if my version of Pilsen ever really existed at all or if somehow, in the process of conjuring up memories, I'd created a neighborhood of pure fiction. The fact is in many of these stories it's hard for me to know exactly where truth ends and fantasy begins. One thing for sure, the Pilsen I know, the Pilsen of my memories, bleeds this music. Without these songs my Pilsen would never exist.
If Pilsen had an anthem this would be it. The song also serves as a good intro into Pilsen, ethnic, smooth, cool. "Daydreams" as a story is for the most part true but it is nevertheless fantastic and bizarre. My uncle once told me that Jorge Santana, a founding member of the Bay Area group Malo, grew up on Eighteenth Street, in Pilsen. I am sure he heard that from someone in the neighborhood. Everyone in Pilsen tried to make this song somehow theirs.
This collection really gets going with "1817 S. May". This address and description is the home base from which all the rest of these pieces should be viewed. I lived in this building until I was six. We then moved to a different part of Pilsen, or Heart of Chicago, further west. I like that Europa starts off so mellow. In spite of all the heartbreak in Painted Cities, I like to think that there is still a cool sense that things are staying together, family, friends. The end of Europa takes off and becomes such an affirmation. For me, that is the end of "1817 S. May". We are still here. We are still together.
"Sitting in the Park"—Billy Stewart
This is a "slow jam". As a kid, listening to slow jams, I thought they were true. I thought the individual singing was the person who had lived the events in the songs. I can't get away from that thought somehow, perhaps because my work is so personal. Or maybe it's because the statement is true—whoever wrote these songs had to have experienced heartbreak at some point, or else the songs wouldn't ring true. The stories "Freedom" and "Childhood" are about heartbreak, about characters that got old before their neighborhood did.
"Have You Seen Her"—The Chi-Lites
Another "Slow-Jam". The opening monologue of this song is so damn sad you have to hear the rest of the song. The epilogue is just as knee-buckling. "You know, it's funny…I thought I had her in palm of my hand." I remember looking at my hand as a child and trying to figure out what this phrase meant. As I got older, the palm of my hand seemed to get deeper and deeper, enough that I could've held all of Pilsen. The four stories of "Snake Dance" are my favorites in this collection. These three stories hold in them the magic that gives the Chi-Lites phrase meaning: "You know, it's funny…I thought I had her in palm of my hand." Pilsen is just as elusive.
"Eighteen With a Bullet"— Pete Wingfield
Not a slow jam but an "oldie". So many people sauntered around Pilsen. So many people still do. Took me a long time to realize the lyrics to "Eighteen With a Bullet" were about a man's desire for woman conveyed through music industry slang—not about teenagers shooting each other. Still can't help but seeing this as a teenage street song, a song that seems appropriate for "Maximilian."
"Just Say Goodbye"—Malo
An epic song that flows like a Saturday night on the lower west side of Chicago—the sunset glowing off the Cook County Criminal Court Building, the cruises down Twenty-second Street, the parties, the fist fights, the gunfire, the chases down side streets—then the sun would rise and there would be that slow jam smoothness right back again. "God's Country" as a story is epic for me in the sense that for these characters it was more of long term journey. My stories tend to be short lived affairs—they start and end at points not too distant from each other. But "God's Country" didn't feel right until I pulled the lens way back, years after the events of the story, and had the narrator try to make sense of them.
"Agony and Ectasy"—Smokey Robinson
"Love on a 2-way Street"—The Moments
As with most of my shorter pieces "Blue Magic" was composed as three separate snapshots. Sometimes they just feel right ending where they do, and it is not until much later that I realize a few pieces have some of the same ideas working. "Blue Magic" is about different kinds of love. "Agony and Ecstasy" was one of my mother's favorite songs. The idea that love was something that had a cost was very real for me, very central to the stores in "Blue Magic". Again, in the song "Side Show", I used to think these people actually existed. "The man's who's been crying for a million years…collecting broken hearts for souvenirs." So absurd, yet somehow true. Amazing stuff for me as child trying to figure out the world as it unfolded in front of me.
"I'll Be Waiting"—Santana
Sacrifice was an odd story for me. Much of it comes from personal experience, like most of my stories. However it took a turn late in the life of the story that made me go back and revise the entire piece. It's about love—and the tragedy of not realizing what love is even while you're in it. Santana's "I'll Be Waiting" is a true love song.
"Samba Pa Ti"—Santana
Supernatural was a story that started with an image and just kind of exploded into a piece about faith. Seems when you're desperate you have so little time to question things. "Samba Pa Ti" to me always seemed a song about faith, belief. Maybe it's the church organ that comes in mid-song. The revival air it takes on at the end. One of the greatest Santana songs ever and another Pilsen anthem.
"Didn't I Blow Your Mind (This Time)"—Delfonics
For the longest time I thought this song was about a man's pleading to stay with his girl. Turns out he is actually leaving her. The emotion is the same either way. "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?" Fitting end to my book about Pilsen, to my book about growing up. Didn't I blow your mind this time? I don't know who to ask.
Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski and Painted Cities links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
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weekly music release lists