October 21, 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.
Jack Livings' impressive debut story collection The Dog brings to life post-Mao China.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Together, his tales open a prismatic window on China, showing us how part of the country is rushing to embrace the 21st century, even as its history continues to exert a magnetic hold over people’s thinking and expectations . . . With The Dog, Mr. Livings has made an incisive—and highly impressive—debut."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
A few of the stories in The Dog are set in Beijing in the mid-90s. That's when I was there as a college student, and although music was everywhere, I don't know if I want to subject you to it. On the trains, blown out speakers mounted over the doors played patriotic pop songs at volumes high enough to drown out a rocket launch. I'd picked up a souvenir butane lighter with Mao's image glued to the side that chirped "The East Is Red" when I flipped open the top. Every morning the elementary school next door to my dorm played Disney tunes through loudspeakers for the kids' calisthenics routines. There were old folks in the park singing Chinese opera at all hours of the day. Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana were on repeat at all the clubs. The thing is, these are all important atmospheric details that might help a reader slip into a fictional Beijing, but to get myself back there, I have to use a different soundtrack.
Certain songs have the ability to draw me heart and soul back to a specific place and time; it's like a dream, full immersion. I'm guessing this is true for most people. "Beat It": my 10th birthday party, Thriller on a silver boom box by the pool. Parts of The Messiah take me to a New York apartment where I am 3 and my dad, an operatic tenor, is running through the "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted" section behind the closed bedroom door. To access deep sense memories of China, I sometimes had to jolt my heart, and the songs I relied on weren't Chinese pop, but the music my roommate and I had brought from home.
Twenty years later, cueing up these songs could be a dangerous procedure because I can't concentrate on my work if I'm listening to music, but what I can do is listen to one song after another while absently looking at the page of words I'm supposed to be working on, letting my memory drift back on the current, while getting absolutely no writing done. It took real force of will to listen to just one or two, take off the headphones, and get to work.
So, this is less a playlist for the book itself than a soundtrack for its bumpy, distracted creation.
Foolish – Superchunk
One afternoon ten years ago I passed Mac McCaughan in the hallway of my apartment building. I was thirty years old. I was married, and I had a baby daughter. I was what is known as a grownass man. But I was too star struck to say anything, which, in retrospect, was good because I wouldn't have done much better than "You rock," and a too-toothy, stalkerish smile coupled with severe hand wringing. When I got to Beijing in 1994 and my roommate, who had been a DJ at WXYC in Chapel Hill, pulled out a tape with some raw studio takes from Foolish, I liberated it from him with thanks and proceeded to wear it out on my Walkman. Yes, my dinosaur-powered Walkman.
"Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox" – GBV
I should mention that in the fall 1994 I had just turned 20 and was in the vortex of a drawn-out breakup, and a few of these songs were in heavy rotation because I was moping around feeling sorry for myself. This one, a beautiful aural buildup to lyrical devastation, on par with the cascading repetition of "You are forgiven!" at the end of The Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away," never failed to make me feel rotten, which is really what I wanted. I listened to this one anytime I felt I might be pulling out of the nosedive. "It's the things you say, it's the things you do, go right through me."
"You and Me" + "Might" – The Archers of Loaf
These two are a prickly pair on Icky Mettle, another album I wore out, along with just about everything the Archers ever recorded. "You and Me" is a sad, sad song, but wait! There's recovery on the horizon: Might! So what if it's passive aggressive recovery?
"Elixir Is Zog" + "Emma Get Wild" – Sebadoh
About midway through the semester, a package arrived from the U.S. My friend Chris, who could have run a record store out of his dorm room, had sent over a couple of mix tapes. He'd included these two songs back to back, as they are on Bubble and Scrape. I have no idea what they're about and I don't care because they're amazing. They're sonic wonders. Things were starting to look up.
"Gladiator" – The Jesus Lizard
The bands I was into could get heavy, but this was something else. This was heavy the way Sonny Rollins gets heavy. It was loud, even when played at a whisper, dynamic, melodic, and psychologically dangerous. I loved this band from the moment I first heard "Gladiator," lying on my narrow bed in Dormitory #3 at Capital Normal University School of Foreign Languages, listening to a live recording from the Jesus Lizard Show, which was on one of my roommate's mix tapes. As soon as I got back to the U.S., I bought the album, which includes David Yow engaging in some colorful banter with the audience.
"Gold Soundz" – Pavement
I'd listen to "Gold Soundz" over and over while I was practicing writing characters for Teacher Rao's class, stopping the tape, spinning it back, click click, doing it so many times I could land on the blank tape ahead of the opening chord by feel. Hearing that elegiac tone, Malkmus' voice close and clear, the band's resistance to rush, the soothing guitars, and I'm back there at my desk. It's a gentle delivery system for some heavy science: You can never quarantine the past.
"New York, New York" – The Last Poets
This was on one of the glorious mix tapes my roommate brought with him. It's angry, it's honest. It's off the 1970 album The Last Poets, and all I can say is, give it a listen and then, if you don't know who The Last Poets are, read a little about them. Oddly enough, this is one that takes me directly to Beijing, probably because after I left China, I didn't hear it again for about 15 years.
"Promises" – Fugazi
Where would we be without 13 Songs? I'd made sure to take plenty of Fugazi with me, but "Promises" puts me on a train creeping through the Chinese countryside, looking over walls into people's house compounds.
I did actually manage to speak when I met Ian MacKaye after a show once. Of course, all I could say was, "You guys rock." Ian, being Ian, was gracious about it, as I'm sure he was to every kid who said that to him. And their number was legion.
"Deep Seat" – Swervedriver
You talk to people who went to Swervedriver concerts in the 90s and they all at some point wind up making this sound to describe the experience—a fuzzy, drawn out whooshing pulse. Some people throw in hand motions, an oscillating push, as if they're trying to hold back a wall of air. I've never seen Swervedriver live, but for years—please trust me here, I'm not exaggerating—probably from 1993 until about 2005, there were only a handful of days I didn't listen to this song, usually at Chinese train loudspeaker volume. I listened to this song in the Stone Forest in Yunnan province, and at the monastery in Xiahe, and on a hill outside Dali. London, Boston, Inishbofin, Zurich, Iowa City, San Francisco, Winnsboro. It's been everywhere with me. I'm about to listen to it again.
Jack Livings and The Dog links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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