December 10, 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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Domingo Martinez's memoir My Heart Is a Drunken Compass is a thoughtful, dark, and often witty memoir.
The Dallas Morning News wrote of the book:
"Though his eager readers will no doubt be curious as to what sustains a man who has lived on box wine, Xanax and pizza, the greater curiosity is what Martinez, who has produced two memoirs that unspool the tropes of identity writing in a form that often resembles a fine travelogue, will, with his ferocious wit and fearless self-examination, mine for us next."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
One of the questions I was asked most when my first book was nominated as a finalist for the National Book Awards was, of course, "How the hell did you do it?" People were perplexed when they heard that I had written it without peer support, or mentors, or within any academia curriculum, as I worked very blue collar jobs as a magazine designer or printer through my 20s and 30s and had no background in publishing, zero credits as a writer.
At a loss for explanation, other than that I don't play nice with others (I tend to bite), I eventually settled for often repeating, "Mixed tapes," as a standard answer.
And I believe it: When I was a teenager, I made phenomenal mixed tapes, took exquisite care to sequence moods, emotion and literacy by pacing good lyrics next to snappy hooks next to delirium-inducing trance next to short spoken word, all in order to create – in effect – a short, 90 minute story of lust, love, and everything in between, split into 45 minute halves.
If you read Boy Kings of Texas, that first book of which I speak, it is clearly evident to anyone who may have received one of my teen tapes how my time spent cultivating those gloomy audio journeys directly informed my storytelling: I usually began them with a hell of a gut-wrenching moment, followed by a quick jaunty tune, followed by an introspective "wow" song, then another short "up" moment, and so on.
It's all there.
In fact, in my follow up book, My Heart Is a Drunken Compass, I devote an entire passage to an ill-conceived plan on a chance to follow up on a past inamorata who'd doted on some of those mixes so comprehensively, she'd unhealthily modeled her adulthood in accordance to the imprint of Manchester in the late '80s that I left behind for her, in the form of those tapes. Due to pacing issues, a few paragraphs didn't make the final revision of the book, but I was actually quite proud of them, so I'm sharing them here.
It starts after she found me on Myspace, to give you an internet "space/time" coordinate, and we started flirting over email and phone. Ahem:
To cinch the deal, we decide to make compilations for one another, in a sort of comparison of "hipster ennui," and so our CDs crossed paths in the postal service and she gets mine and I get hers and it was an interesting thing that happened afterward.
Pop historians will tell you of an unusual articulation of American culture that happened in the early 1950s, when country music unexpectedly became the most popular style of music in America.
There's certainly much in way of speculation or theory as to why, but a factual attribute in population that might lend itself to explaining the trend, in that, for the first time in the country's short history, the concentration of growth was more urban than agricultural, meaning that people had moved from the farms to the city, and their tastes and needs for entertainment had turned toward the nostalgic, sentimental.
As had been my case: because I was an urbanite now, and had had the constant exposure to the wearisomely hip, my needs had moved from grunge and 4AD and Rough Trade to a burgeoning movement in the '90s called "Alt-Country," which included Son Volt, Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo and The Old 97s — even standards like Dwight Yoakum and Steve Earle, bringing me back to my roots and giving me that long, lonesome Buck Owens sort of authenticity. It was the grit of nostalgia mixed with the awareness of the city, and it blew my mind and heart. And it was the Old 97s that would define that period for me, because they — like me — had grown up country, in Texas, and Rhett Miller, the principle songwriter of the group, had also developed quite the early longing for most things British, which was now informing their art, bubbling through their country music.
For the first time in my life, I heard the most perfect blend of the raw, rolling energy of flat horizons and floored gas pedals of country mixed with complex word play, more baroque than parochial, these clearly Texan songs of love obsessive for those shining, slim-hipped, green-eyed girls that were way out of your league, all told through the howl of freight trains and the roar of eighteen wheelers, passing you by. I'd never heard anything so particularly mine, as when I heard the Old 97s for the first time, and I decided right then to make every one of their songs a memory of a girl.
And it was Elise, (not her real name), who had remained firmly planted in the dried, barren stretches of South Texas, that remained desperate for that grey, mildewy drink of doleful isolation, the post-coal industrialism/L.S. Lowry sort of sound that Joy Division and The Smiths elicited in the tapes I left for her when I left Texas.
She'd been a sad, depressive sort of girl, if entirely without any real talent for expression except through other people's art, in the way I had been through the mixes.
That's why the brooding British music out of 1980s Manchester or the modern American variations resounded so deeply in her heart; I'd introduced her to her own frequency.
I'd already had it, then moved on; I was swinging back home.
That's the obvious signal in making a compilation for someone, as Nick Hornby explored in High Fidelity. There's always a "signal within the signal" when you introduce someone to any sort of media. It's just understood.
It's an exploration and a message that could be, if openly addressed or rejected, soundly denied as a hysterical hallucination on the part of the target. That's a part of the artform: how deeply can you bury the signal, and is the person receiving it smart enough to hear it?
So far, I thought Elise had passed none of the tests of my youth, which, back then, were terribly broad and unsophisticated, but nevertheless, I was impressed it had taken such obvious hold of her, so much that it had laid this foundation for the obsessions of her tastes now. It was almost like lymbic programming. But again, for me personally, when she contacted me, I thought it was the signal I had been awaiting.
So when I received her own mixed CD as adults, every song she had chosen had a theme of star-crossed love, something missed, a tang of history with a titch of the hopeful. Nina Simone, Chris Bell from Big Star, the Bay City Rollers, then Dusty Springfield after Elvis singing, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
I remember smoking pot for the first time in years and listening for the buried signal. After a while, I was hearing, "Come back to me, let's try this again. I really want to see you again. I've been waiting for you, wondering who you've become all this time. Also, let's kill my husband for the insurance money."
I'm kidding. About the waiting part.
On the other hand, my own mix sent to her said, "I'm all yours, darling. Let's get this party started. Not promising forever, just promising for now. Hey, Macarena."
Though I was still unsure about this husband she never referenced. But I figured, "Whatever. We'll deal with that when we have to."
My approach to My Heart Is a Drunken Compass was quite different. This book was more of a purge, and if you read the book, you'll understand why and how it unfolds in the wake of Boy Kings. While it stands on its own, it works very well as a companion piece for the readers who want to know what happen to the characters of the first book. But I found that music was still vitally important, and intentional throughout the storytelling. In fact, there were entire passages I had to rewrite because my publisher was concerned over copyright infringement because I kept dropping lyrics into the narrative, and I would eventually have to "write around" those passages.
In the opening act, or first part of the triptych, as it is, I chronicle a chapter in my younger brother's life where he falls apart entirely during his first year in college, and disappears under a miasma of drugs and drink. In the end, he punctuates this period by drinking so many gin martinis he collapses one night and crushes the back of his skull, vacillating between life and death as my family waits to hear whether he'd live or die. I intended to calling that part of the book after The Divine Comedy's "Gin Soaked Boy." A bit obvious, sure, but the nature of the lyrics lead entirely into the theme of that piece, where my older brother and I try to determine how much of an effect our own lifestyles fed into our younger brother, Derek, whether we'd been the "gin in the gin-soaked boy," with our war stories and tales of urban conquest and boozing unexpectedly activating a level of addiction in our youngest brother previously unnoticed. I spend a period of time lacerating my soul, trying to pin down the illusory "worship" in what I thought was my brother's "hero worship," as the lyrics in the song unfold on their own.
I remember listening obsessively to Waiting for a Superman by The Flaming Lips, before they blew up into that monstrosity of college radio, if there's still such a thing. When I wrote most of the passages about losing Derek, the opening to the song kept reverberating through my head, sometimes for hours, to the point where it became another song I can no longer listen to.
Feeding into the theme of addiction, Evan Dando and the Lemonheads would pop up quite often throughout the rest of the book. Songs like "Why Do You Do This To Yourself?" from Baby, I'm Bored, an album that I positively wore through when it first came out, much to my friends' bewilderment. I couldn't explain to them, back then, about the raw, open beauty in describing one's own implosion, accepting the fragility of being human, then creating art from that place. Evan Dando does that very thing, right up to the very end of my book, when I hear "Losing Your Mind" by the Lemonheads from Car Button Cloth again after a long absence and think, "Hunh." (The lyrics go, " … what a comfort to find out you're losing your mind / when you re-realize it's not the first time.) It even starts with a sound bite of someone pouring themselves a drink: classy. Dando and his erstwhile Lemonheads would influence this period in my life greatly, as I'd grown up with an odd fascination with New England, and his previous label, TAANG! Records, which mostly paralleled the Yankee punk scene in the '90s.
Dando stuck with me then, and through my 30s I kept watch on anything he'd put out, even found some home-made stuff in the early days of the internet. He'd covered Graham Parson's "Thousand Dollar Wedding," a tragic song that left an indelible imprint on me, especially when the book moves into the middle stages and I meet a slender, post-punk feminist gem from Dando's corner of America, the eponymous Stephanie, who would change my course, and not for the better.
I could list two more of the Lemonheads tracks here, involve the pop nun herself, Juliana Hatfield, Dando's on-and-off girlfriend, whom Steph reminded me of, but I should instead invoke another phrase I was asked to change in the form of Alejandro Escovedo's song from 2008, "Sister Lost Soul." If ever there was a theme song for that relationship, it's downright frightening how appropriate this song would be, so much that I can' hear it without tearing up and getting an impossible knot in my throat anymore ("Nobody left unbroken / nobody left unscarred …"). Escovedo's particular talent, previously, was in blending these authentic rock guitar riffs with cellos or deep steel guitar invoke a maudlin, brittle-hearted atmosphere with the air of a veteran not interested in talking about the battles, just remembering the war. Still, this studio-produced album carried that same loneliness, and, by god, did that sensibility ever lend itself to writing through that part of the narrative.
Other times, Stephin Merrit's The Magnetic Fields would infest some of the book's most memorable passages, nonsensical arguments that would erupt between Steph (as she preferred to be called) and myself when we'd travel somewhere and I would play something off of 69 Love Songs, and Steph was convinced I was trying to tell her something through Merrit's wordplay. Anything from "Absolutely Cuckoo" to "All My Little Words," which I still think is possibly one of the most romantic songs ever written (he rhymes "North Carolina" with "China," which is brilliant.) Lyrics like "sure, I'm in love with you, but / you might decide I'm a nut / then when you see your error / then you can flee in terror" would set Steph on edge, and I could never tell whether it was because I was the nut, or her. In the end, it was both sides of the same song.
In the end, though, after we'd split up and I had attempted to introduce her to Lucinda Williams, Steph was in the hospital, recovering from a horrendous car wreck, and it was songs like Lucinda Williams' "Am I Too Blue?" that would spear me right in the heart as I was trying to find my way out of the mess I had created along with someone that I couldn't really care for in a healthy way, couldn't navigate past our individual issues to find someplace safe, someplace neutral for both of us, and that song would play repeatedly on my car stereo until I found I couldn't play songs any more, for nearly a year.
In the last part of the book, there's a point where I discover that I'm listening to music for the first time in about that year. (I would normally listen to podcasts or NPR, but no music: I simply could not sit through a song, from anxiety. To add to the pathos, I was in my car most of the day, delivering pizza.) That was the case until one afternoon, I realize that I'm listening to music, after all that time, playing Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' "Cannibals' Hymn," because I had been unconsciously chanting the lines, "… if you're going to dine with them cannibals / sooner or later, darling, you're going to get eaten …" That relationship had been like the sinking scene in "Titanic," where the collapse of the ship would drag down anyone nearby in a suction, and perhaps I'd been the iceberg.
The final part of the mentioned triptych — and the place from which I was finally able to write that narrative, some two years later — was certainly attributable to a song by Damien Jurado called "What Were The Chances?" off a small album called And Now That I'm In Your Shadow, from 2006. Jurado put out an album every few months, it felt like back then, but some how, right before the events chronicled in My Heart Is a Drunken Compass took place, this song caught me entirely off-guard with its gentle, horrifying depiction of loneliness and an inability to find redemption, with lyrics like "I was out in Coolidge / with my head on a counter / drinking down my chances / to ever return to anyone …."
That hole I had found myself in as I turned 40, with echoes of that electronic rhythm from that tiny, delicate song blaring in my head, I never would have made it out if I hadn't met someone who was going through her own tragedy, Sarah, whom I'd only known in passing friendship, and as we became closer, started a frightened sort of relationship, and listened to songs like this, clung to one another as we waited for the storms to pass. That song alone would create the atmosphere in the narrative as I began to unravel, and because Sarah was stronger than I was, stronger than anyone I had met, she was able to put up a firewall, let me unravel in the way I needed so I could start rebuilding, and this time, alone, or with someone who wasn't made out of explosives.
I keep telling everyone who reads this book that it actually has a happy ending: most everyone in it gets what they want, in the end. A few people don't. (I write about a friend of mine, my karate instructor named Brenda Brown, an incredible woman and fantastic character who's life also falls apart in a weird parallel through the book, and she ends up moving back home to Indiana. Before she left, we were in a car and she saw I had an old Bruce Springsteen album on my iPod. She flipped it to "Downbound Train," and played it really loud. The song became haunting at that moment, and I will never hear it differently again as I sat watching her eyes well up after she says, "This is me. This my song now." It was through that memory that I wrote about my friend, Brenda Brown.)
But I do come out of that story fairly happy, and so does Steph, and Sarah does as well. For a long time, after my first book was getting attention, we'd have dinner at her place and she'd always stop to play "Suspended From Class" by Camera Obscura, which is a bit precious, but it was delightfully playful after such a period of torment, for both of us, so it felt like we could be precious, finally, in each other's presence.
And I learned my lesson, have had most of the preciousness beaten out of me, like that veteran in the Alejandro Escovedo universe, who knows much better now than to try to assign a relationship to every song he loves, because God knows, there are some brutal fucking songs out there.
Domingo Martinez and My Heart Is a Drunken Compass links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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