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October 3, 2014

Book Notes - Thomas Page McBee "Man Alive"

Man Alive

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.

Bravely told with refreshing humility, Thomas Page McBee's Man Alive is one of the year's finest memoirs.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Full of bravery and clear, far-sighted compassion and devoid of sentiment, victimization, and cliché, McBee’s meditations bring him a hard-won sense of self—one that is bound to inspire any reader who has struggled with internal dissonance."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Thomas Page McBee's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man:


Maybe it's the poet in me or maybe it's the way memory works--fossilized, layered thick as time--but it's impossible for me to not think cinematically about my memoir, Man Alive. In this spirt, I soundtracked this book from day one: in the wilds of Oregon, deep in the belly of the South, while floating on my back in the Atlantic. I soundtracked the violence: the gun, the needles, the abusive father; as well as the surprising, endless kindness of the people that rotated through my life over the course of the couple of years the book chronicles.This selection, then, is more like a greatest hits off Man Alive's own dusty jukebox, each track a new dimension of a story that won't stop, can't stop until I do.


"What Makes a Good Man?" - The Heavy

The prologue opens with the question I wrestle with throughout the book: What makes a man? I stumbled on this song late in my edits, and played it on repeat, thrilled by its swampy guitars and whinnying refrain. What makes a good man? That's what I hoped to answer, after all. I found great comfort in the knowledge that I wasn't the first guy to ask the question.

"Lost in the World" - Kanye West and Bon Iver

A pinnacle of my life, and the book, was April 2011: when I was mugged at gunpoint, execution-style, on a quiet street not far from where I lived in Oakland. This incident shattered me open and created the crucible that forced me to figure out what kind of man I wanted to be. Throughout the mugging I felt a clusterfuck of emotions, but chief among them was an empathy for the man with the twitchy eyes, keeping me still. Bon Iver and Kanye West are strange bedmates, but the dark, autotune sadness that results from their union feels odd and tender as the intimate smell of a man's dirty clothes, too close to my face, and the desperate circumstances that led to our proximity.

"Running" - Gil Scot Heron & Jamie XX

I spent a lot of time thinking about trauma while writing Man Alive, and most especially the way our bodies are geared biologically toward healing: making peace with the vehicle I'm in while also realizing that I needed to change it. Running, specifically, seemed to me a kind of miracle--the body's gorgeous instinct to protect itself, the body's sure-footed reminder that we are all valuable, priceless. Gil Scott-Heron voices a metaphorical relationship to running here, the nature of the paradox is the nature of the beast. He would run forever, he would hide if he could but he can't. Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped, he says softly. To run is a release, and eventually you catch up with you. My whole world pivoted on that realization.

"California" - EMA

California, and especially the Bay Area, is a beautiful place. I spent years fog-choked, picking avocados out of backyard trees, riding my bike up Monte Vista, scouting parrots on Telegraph Hill. I also spent the months after the mugging frustrated by the glittery perspectives of many folks who, like me, had followed their milk and honey dreams from the East Coast and who turned away from the racism and gentrification that haunted every bespoked and mac-and-cheese-shopped neighborhood, including the one I almost died in. EMA's droney speak-singing spoke to me, her breathy, angry dirge about broken dreams felt to me exactly right. It still does.

"Peppermint (2010)" - Lovers

The echo between Lovers' enthusiastic remix and their lonely earlier version of this ballad about grief felt sticky to me, like the weird ghosts permeating my house growing up and how they manifested again in my new place, 3000 miles away. We're not afraid of dying, Carolyn Berk sings, we're afraid of wanting never to die. I always love a spooky cover, but this one feels like a jumpcut, and captures the same feeling I hoped to explore with the shuttles between the mugging and the early abuse I experienced at home. Time is relative--that's just physics. My mom taught me that.

"Balance" - Future Islands

This is the actual song I listened to over and over while writing Man Alive. I found the driving beat uplifting and the hoarse, almost animal tone of the song perfect for the journey I found myself on: You can go to the moon, but if you something to change you've got to change your life and take your time. It just takes time. This track feels like a cloud lifting, and is a perfect transition to the beginning of the rest of your life.

"Walking in Memphis" - Marc Cohn

When I flew to South Carolina on gut and a prayer, I heard a lot of old school, country-ish music on the stereo of my rental. This song was already an old favorite, and I remember my last day there, catching this and turning it way up. I was on some pick-up clogged highway, windows down, air weird and wet, and I sang every word and felt part of some witchy Southern lineage, if only for a minute.

"I'm Not Part of Me" - Cloud Nothings

The rest of the book is, almost entirely, about the very universal and cyclical experience of finding oneself in the rubble. I love the energy of this track--even when I exhausted myself, I felt wound up and ready--compelled, driven. It's over now--there's a way I was before, but I can't recall how I was those days anymore. I'm learning how to be here and nowhere else, how to focus on what I can do myself. My decision to transition was a landslide, and most days I'd wake up sweaty and calm, like a slow motion realization. This song feels like the score to that montage.

"Chicago" - Sufjan Stevens

Moving across the country and leaving a life behind--especially when the life in question also involves a physical body--is a tender and lonely act. I love Sufjan Stevens's veiled religiosity, his allusions to pilgrimage, his humility. I was in love with a place in my mind, in my mind; I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind. Then the chorus kicks in:You came to take us, all things go, all things go. This is a soft prayer about impermanence.

"Graceland" - Paul Simon

This song breaks my heart. We played it to my mom, way after the book was written, as she lay dying. But I also listened to this over and over when writing the later scenes of the book. It's so quiet and correct. It feels like, no matter who and where you are, when you hear it you're on the cusp of something brighter and bittersweet. She said, "Losing love is like a window in your heart--everybody sees you're blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow." This is a song about ghosts, and beginning again. That's the story of any life: a ghost story, and adventure story.

"Ambling Alp" - Yeasayer

I love the slinky, weirdo feel of this song and of course the lyrics. Before I transitioned, I listened to it over and over, and I think it's an excellent pairing for the last few scenes--poppy, bright, a little bit dissonant. Stick up for yourself son, he tells himself. It's about growing up by realizing that we're all, in the end, doing so on our own.

"The Man" - Aloe Blacc

This is one of the most triumphant songs I've ever heard. It's so earnest and infectious, so last-scene. I really hope that Man Alive ends with as much shine and glory as this track. I wanted the reader to walk away feeling ready, as I am, for anything.


Thomas Page McBee and Man Alive links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Publishers Weekly review

Bustle interview with the author
Midnight Breakfast interview with the author
The Rumpus essays by 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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