June 19, 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.
Sean Ennis impresses with his debut, Chase Us, a short story collection that expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.
Booklist wrote of the collection:
"Ennis' characters are vividly drawn, and he is fearless in exploring his characters' hidden moments of gritty truth and unease."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I spent years in bands with my best friends. I saw a great deal of the country with them, met countless artists and weirdoes, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Eventually I owned up to the fact that I couldn't sing, but did like to write. I stopped yelling and started typing more. But finding music to write to is still vital to me. These are a few of the songs that inspire me.
"Apollo Kids," Ghostface Killer, Supreme Clientele
Ghostface has an approach to the English language that all writers should be jealous of. He invents slang. He's crude. He's deeply insightful. And it all rhymes. To say I'm inspired by his writing would be like saying I'm inspired by Shakespeare or the King James Bible. This track is one of my favorites, and also a great reminder of the millions of dollars short story writers are destined to earn. One of the best lines is "Catch me in the corner/not speaking," bearing in mind that this is on a record where all he does is talk for twenty-one tracks.
"Chompers," The Monorchid, Let Them Eat…
This song begins with an odd proclamation, "Because the way things are today…," and then the lyrics launch into one strange image after another. The instruments often seem to be battling with each other, and Chris Thompson's vocals are evil and melodic on top of the chaos. He can't sing, but he's reigning the music in with nursery rhyme tunes, trying to create order among the guitars and feedback. This is a position I often hoped to put the narrator of the collection in. I've never heard another song like this.
"Brats," Liars, Wixiw
The vocals on this song are distorted to the point of gibberish, and the music is totally artificial—a YouTube video of the group playing the song "live" shows three dudes with long, dirty hair hovered over a dining room table covered with laptops, cords, and miniature keyboards—a lot like fiction writing. Still, by the end, the tribal beat builds, and the singer is howling like someone is going to die if they keep listening to this song. I hope there are a few moments in the collection where this sort of frenzy feels like an appropriate soundtrack.
"I Never Learnt to Share," James Blake, s/t
A weird song with only one line repeated over and over through and above a bunch of technologies: "My brother and my sister don't speak to me/But I don't blame them." It has a simple blues impulse about it—less is more—and the line that is repeated speaks volumes. About the difficulties within families. About guilt and shame and love. A strange reminder that the specific story can be irrelevant, if the emotion is conveyed correctly. What the hell did James Blake do to his brother and sister? Oh, he doesn't actually have any.
"American Pie," Don McLean, American Pie (Greatest Hits)
Enough obscurity. I think a lot of what inspired the stories in this collection is the sense that something is off in the world, something went wrong that we're all trying to make sense of. This is a long and sad song about that feeling, I think (it was this or "We Didn't Start the Fire"). I was never specifically a "lonely teenage broncin' buck," but I get it and so do you. The upside is that this is, strangely, one of my son's favorite songs. Even at seven, he gets the implicit disappointment and anxiety. Still, when we play this song, he sings his heart out and is happy. Me too.
"Smug," Polica, Shulamith
I listened to this band a lot while I was doing final edits for the collection. The copy-editor kicked my ass about how to use a comma, and this was great background music to bob my head to and better understand English grammar. I have very little emotional connection to the lyrics of this particular song (it seems like it is about a bad break up), but its beat drops interest me as a fiction writer and are pleasurable in their own right. I think a lot about what the fiction writer's equivalent of the beat drop is. Want to find it.
"Straight Life," Freddie Hubbard, Straight Life
I guess it is stereotypical on a list like this that some liberal, white dude like me insists that he likes jazz. In my defense, I saw Mr. Hubbard play at Zanzibar Blue in 2001 when I was just 21, and it was one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed. This song gets into a groove at the end that is unbelievable, but totally resonates with the ideas that the piece suggested at the beginning, like every good story. If I had it to do over again, I'd play jazz.
"These Arms of Mine," Otis Redding, The Ultimate Otis Redding
Many nights of stressing over the collection resulted in this beautiful song being played in the kitchen. This might be the most romantic song ever written. Great pieces like this also allow for people to shut up and slow dance, which solves a lot of problems. Writing is lonely work, and we writers require hugs every once in a while. I love you, Claire.
"Duk Koo Kim," Sun Kil Moon, Ghosts of the Great Highway
One of the things I like about Mark Kozelek's songs is that on the surface, they seem just to be avenues for getting hipster kids to appear sensitive, and then get laid. But he's a great storyteller, an amazing guitar player, and those stories he tells are often dark and complicated. This is a long song about boxers killed in the ring. I could care less about boxing specifically, but I like stories about sport. I tried to include some in the collection—soccer, skateboarding, archery.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc.
Like anyone who likes rock n roll music, I love these bands. Picking songs among them seems pointless. But I went to a party once where an intellectual fight broke out about who the best American rock band is. It's a harder question to answer than you might think. On that particular night, the jury was down to Credence Clearwater Revival and The Doors. The arguing attorneys decided the best way to solve it was to go shot for shot, and whoever was left standing would have arrived at the correct answer. That made sense, except that both had already had too much to drink (and so, this fight). Instead of compounding the problem, they were fed shots of soy sauce, Italian salad dressing, even plain old tap water in order to extend their battle safely. I forget who won, and one of them crashed their car that night anyway, but there is some sort of fiction writing metaphor at work here, right? Some say the correct answer is actually Guns ‘N Roses. But no, it's Spoon.
Sean Ennis and Chase Us links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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