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August 25, 2014

Book Notes - Brian Kevin "The Footloose American"

The Footloose American

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.

Brian Kevin's book The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America treads the iconic American writer's footsteps, creating a fascinating portrait of Thompson as well as the area.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Literally and literarily following in the footsteps of the young Thompson...Kevin is, like his model, an observant and witty writer...This is fine, historically well-researched travel writing in the tradition of Bruce Chatwin as well as in that of the youthful and restrained Thompson."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Brian Kevin's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America:

Travelogues are pretty much what they are, right? Very occasionally they're a little more than what they are, and that's always a nice surprise. I'm fond of them, and not just because of the armchair travel aspect — the oh-hey-I'd-like-go-there or the wow-I'm-learning-shit-about-Botswana-I-didn't-realize-I-wanted-to-know component — although I like that too. What makes me pick up and read a half-dozen travelogues a year are those moments of insight that happen when an author finds herself radically situated, forced to reconsider her relationships with things that have little to do with travel (things like, I don't know, literature or loved ones or food or fatherland) because she's suddenly untethered and drifting.

The conceit of The Footloose American is pretty simple: I set out to follow a route across South America that a young and unknown wanna-be journalist named Hunter S. Thompson traveled in 1962 and 1963. Along the way, I have the opportunity to explore how those travels shaped Thompson and how the ghosts of the Cold War continue to shape South America. But the book also has a lot to say about travel-as-such, about the reasons we do it (those of us who enjoy the privilege of leisure travel) and about our expectations of what we're supposed to come away with. As such, this playlist is as much a road trip mixtape as any kind of soundtrack, a half-hour of songs that (for me anyway) evoke that feeling of transcendent unmooring, the one you get when you're all alone in some high-up place, looking out over the lights of a strange city — a kind of perfect triangulation of euphoric, wistful, and absurd.

"Demolición" by Los Saicos
That intro — that rolling beat on the toms with the surf guitar that comes layering in — that's the sound of heroic expectation, the sound you hear in your head at start of a long road trip, when all you can see in front of you is fun and adventure. If it wasn't in Spanish, "Demolición" would make a swell soundtrack for a cruise ship commercial (sure, the lyrics incongruous — it's a song about blowing up a train station — but that didn't stop Royal Caribbean from appropriating Iggy Pop's drug anthem "Lust for Life").

On a couple of visits to Peru, I had the pleasure of hanging out with folks from the very cool magazine Etiqueta Negra. While talking about Hunter Thompson over ceviche one day in 2012, a couple of the editors urged me to look into the 1960s Limeño garage band Los Saicos. They were enjoying a renaissance in Peru at the time, but still weren't getting the credit they deserved outside of the country for having more or less invented punk rock. I didn't follow up on it, but later that year, The Guardian and Noisey and others gave these guys their due. "Demolición" is kind of their trademark anthem, a song that sprung out of the same civil unrest that Thompson was covering in South America in the early 1960s.

"The Jensens" by Phil Cook
I wonder what travel must be like for people who only do it with a partner or in a group. For me, one of the most seductive things about leaving home is the opportunity to court loneliness, and this guitar-driven electric instrumental perfectly captures that sense of pleasant melancholy you get when you're all alone and looking at a foreign sunset. It's a pining feeling, and it's almost palpable in Thompson's letters from South America. I include this song also because Phil Cook and I both have roots in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he was briefly a coworker of mine in the late 1990s (Cook, as it happens, is not Eau Claire's most heralded maker of melancholy music — see below). It was as a college student in Eau Claire that I first turned on to Thompson, and there's a key passage in the book that describes some ontological wisdom I picked up in a bar there, so the town seemed to deserve some representation on this list. (Hat tip: I first heard this track on an excellent Aquarium Drunkard/Cold Splinters mix tape that is itself a great travel soundtrack.)

"Wild Country" by Wake Owl
This is a phrase that Thompson often used — "wild country" — and the book spends some time unpacking the idealized notions of "wildness" that, for better or for worse, he and so many contemporary travelers set out into the developing world hoping to find. The wistful train keeps on rolling here; the chorus of Wake Owl's indie-pop ditty has kind of a played-over-a-bittersweet-montage quality, but schmaltz be damned, I like it anyway. Thompson spent a lot of time before his trip rhapsodizing about the "wild country" of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso — the unplumbed jungle, where a man could live free and test his mettle and all that. But then he more or less had to skip it on his way to report on an election in Rio de Janeiro. I've sometimes pictured him gazing out the window of the train as he passed through the "wild country" he had longed to explore. This is the kind of tune I imagine playing in the background, and the lyrics sort of nod at the idea that you can never predict your own itinerary: ""Oh, we go where we don't know the way."

"I Shall Be Free" by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan's first eponymous record hit shelves a few weeks before Thompson hit the road for South America, and The Freewheelin' came out immediately upon his return. Thompson would heap praise on Dylan in the years to come, and I like the synchronicity of the two of them cutting their professional teeth at the same time, one in the studio and one on the road. Dylan and Thompson both approached a form that was understood to be earnest and sober — folk music and journalism, respectively — and injected it with a dose of absurdist and sometimes cutting humor. I make the case in the book that a lot of Thompson's eventual gonzo approach evolved while he dealt with the ludicrous hassles and paradoxes of Cold War Latin America. Dylan, meanwhile, flummoxed music critics with goofy, caustic, deeply referential tunes like "I Shall Be Free," which sounded like nothing Pete Seeger or the Kingston Trio would ever have recorded.

I've heard it said that "I Shall be Free" is kind of a throwaway track on The Freewheelin' — which, lest you forget, contains some heavy shit: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" — but I've always been a fan of Dylan's "silly" songs. Tunes like "I Shall Be Free," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," and the second version of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" are Dylan's answer to gonzo. Seemingly batty on the surface, they actually contain coded commentary every bit as sharp as an in-your-face memo like "Masters of War." I also like how Kennedy pops up in here, since he's the invisible protagonist of much of Thompson's South America reportage, and the song's got the harmonica-driven hobo railroad rhythm of a classic road tune.

"Towers" by Bon Iver
I didn't take a lot of music with me during the six months I spent following the Thompson Trail through South America. I didn't take a lot of anything. But Bon Iver's second record had come out the summer before, and it was on my phone. This is actually one of the few tracks on the record that's not named for a spot on the map (real or imagined), which I think speaks to Bon Iver's secret identity as a classic travel record. Getting back to the melancholy thing, I don't know if there's a more perfect album to listen to while riding an overnight bus and feeling drowsy and a bit homesick.

By the way, I'm not the only occasionally moony traveler in this book — South America got Thompson down in a lot of ways, and like a lot of great travel lit, his best writing from the continent is rich in pathos. So is "Towers." Justin Vernon has said that the whole record is about "trying to explain what places are and what places aren't," which of course could also be said about good travel writing.

"Sueño Sicodelico" by Los Holy's
Like Los Saicos, Los Holy's come out of Lima's froth of 1960s surfadelic garage rock. Anyone who thinks of twentieth-century Latin American music as an all-traditional medley of salsa, vallenato, pan flute, and the like would do well to pick up the collection I pinched this one from, Los Nuggetz: 60s Garage and Psych in Latin America. Around the time that Thompson was traveling the continent, Peru was doing the California sound better than California, and so many Rolling Stones rip-offs were coming out of Uruguay that music historians in neighboring Argentina still talk about the "Uruguayan Invasion." Even though Thompson was a comparatively straight-laced guy in 1962–63, "Sueño Sicodelico" gets at the counterculture vibe he would be associated with going forward after returning home and wading into the "pyschedelic dream" of the Bay Area counterculture. It's got the tambourine drive of a great road song too.

"When the Open Road is Closing In" by the Magnetic Fields
I hate to give anything away, but Thompson eventually burns out hard on South America, and his retreat from the continent is ignominious. I know that feeling — as does anyone, I imagine, who's spent a long stretch on the road — of suddenly Wanting Out, of deciding one more mile is a mile too many, and that it's time to drop everything and beat a path to the closest thing resembling a home. Stephin Merritt gives this phenomenon a name right out of a classic country song: when the open road starts closing in. The tune is off of the Magnetic Fields' 1994 The Charm of the Highway Strip, which, for all its synthesizers, is a country record at heart and arguably the best travel album ever recorded. Time, measured in dotted yellow lines, has passed you by — that opening line nails the dissolving boundary between the temporal and the spatial that characterizes long-term travel, and there's a dotted yellow line that links Merritt's sense of humor and wordplay with Dylan's catalogue of "silly" songs. And yeah, there's more pathos.

"Wheels" by The Flying Burrito Brothers
Come on wheels, make this boy a man, implores Gram Parsons in 1969. One of the most prominent themes (I hope) in The Footloose American is this sort of inquiry into the allegedly transformative nature of travel, this idea that you can leave home and come back somebody else. The world of travel writing, for better or for worse, is the world of the Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age-story, and the Flying Burrito Brothers give us a nice closing-credits track for a book that asks whether and how a year of foreign reportage turned Hunter Thompson the boy into Hunter Thompson the man. Like several tunes on this list, "Wheels" prominently features the steel guitar, the official instrument of lonesome peregrination, and it's hard not to hear this great little song as a call to take to the road — or at least a reminder that taking to the road is always an option. As Parsons reminds us, We've all got wheels to take ourselves away. Where we go, of course, is up to us.

Brian Kevin and The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America links:

the author's website
the book's website

Kirkus review

Atlantic essay by the author
Media Mikes interview with the author
Missoula Independent interview with the author
Reddit interview with the author
Vagabonding interview with the author
World Hum 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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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