February 27, 2015
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.
I have long been a fan of Nick Jaina's music, and find his writing equally impressive. His memoir Get It While You Can is both poignant and profound in its vulnerable prose.
Justin Hocking wrote of the book:
"With a pitch-perfect ear for lyricism and rhythm, Nick Jaina interlaces personal narrative, music criticism, and intimate correspondences into one of those rare books that breaks new literary ground while also making you feel deeply. Jaina lays himself bare, sentence after sentence, yet never dominates the stage. He’s content to mastermind the show from the background, letting exquisite riffs about Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and Paul Simon stand in as emotional correlates for his own heartbreak and music industry tribulations. Get It While You Can is a brilliant and compassionate work by a serious new literary talent."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I wanted to write a book about miracles. The kinds of miracles that are either too big or too small to talk about. When something is too miraculous you think that it must be rigged, that surely it didn't just happen by chance, which leads you to appreciate it less. And if the miracle is too small, you just step right over it and walk on to the next thing.
Music is a miracle. The fact that these vibrations are sonorous and have a groove, and that we've figured out how to encode them into numbers so you can listen to them while you drive in your car or walk under the live oaks on St. Charles is something to wonder at.
I also wanted to write love letters, and I found that most of my love letters consisted of pointing out miracles and saying, "Isn't that cool?" After all these years, the best approach I have for wooing someone is just, "Hey, look at how cool that is. And you know what? You're cool, too."
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana
I think of this song as tearing through every speaker that played it in the early nineties, as though the song were a panther in a cat carrier. It was the first song I heard that was not something I could reasonably listen to with my parents. It sounded so dangerous, like the singer was not well, like the singing of the song was something that tore him apart.
I bought the record and listened to it many times. The booklet inside didn't list all the song lyrics. It just had one paragraph with bits of lyrics from different songs, which left me to guess what exactly he was singing.
Music means more to people in that fragile teenage period that it does to anyone else. Music is a lifeline, a way to feel like you're not the most awkward freak in the world. When Kurt Cobain sings, "I feel stupid and contagious," it is such a simple, vulnerable, dumb thing to hear some guy scream over electric guitars, and that simplicity and dumbness were so life-saving to me, at that time. Why would someone go to all the trouble to say that they feel stupid and contagious? Why would they go into an expensive Los Angeles recording studio, manufacture millions of CDs, and send them on trucks around the country to weird teenage boys so they could listen in their parents' living rooms and feel okay? Thank God he did.
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson was one of many bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta to receive the nickname "Blind," though at least in his case he most definitely couldn't see, because when he was a child his mother's jealous lover got in a fight with her and threw scalding lye into Willie's face. He never dramatically improved his fortunes throughout his life, though he did manage to record a few dozen songs onto laquered vinyl records, some of which outsold even the records of Bessie Smith at the time. But he also once got arrested on the streets of New Orleans for playing the seemingly incendiary song, "If I Had My Way They'd Tear This Building Down," in front of the Customs House. And near the end of his life he lived in a house in Beaumont, Texas that burned to the ground. Since he had nowhere else to go and no money, he slept in the charred ruins of his home, contracting malarial fever due to the terrible conditions of his habitation. He died from this shortly thereafter. It was only during the folk revival of the 1960's that his name and his music became more commonly known.
He wrote and recorded a song called "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" in Dallas, Texas in 1927. The title is taken from the first line of an old hymn, "Gethsemane," which refers to the garden where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion. The line from that hymn goes, "Dark was the night and cold was the ground, on which my Lord was laid." It is a hymn in the great Christian tradition of trying to instill in its listeners a sense of how much suffering Jesus endured at the end of his life so that we can appreciate his sacrifice for us. Johnson's song has no discernible lyrics, just a soft moaning voice accompanying a slide guitar.
This song was one of a couple dozen songs that were etched into the Golden Record that was placed on the Voyager I and II probes that set out through the solar system in the late seventies. They are now the two human-made objects that are farthest from the Earth, and they contain this song from a poor bluesman who had no idea that anything that he created would endure beyond his life.
"Graceland" by Paul Simon
Following a songwriter throughout their life can be a painful process. It's not like following a sports team where if you don't have a good team this year you can always comfort yourself with the thought that next year's team could be better: the young players could mature, the owner could make a great trade, someone could break through with a career year. When you're following a songwriter you know that there generally aren't bad years. There are the early years where the songwriter still has it, and there are the later years where he very clearly doesn't. Sometimes there are albums early on that are just okay, but don't indicate that his talent has fallen into the ocean, sometimes he can bounce back from early duds. But if it's later in his career, you just know it when you hear the album that signals that the man has lost all his creative spark. And that album is usually the one that wins him his first Grammy.
For Paul Simon, the painful album came in 2000 with You're The One! The exclamation point was a bad sign that this would be the first album where his quirky sense of casual conversation and high arching imagery didn't quite mesh into something that generated those indescribable pop moments. I was in Toronto the day the album came out, which happened to be the same day that Radiohead's Kid A came out. I went to the record store and bought both albums. I played Paul Simon's first, in the car. Sometimes you can tell just by looking at the lyric booklet that the album is not going to be something you're going to listen to again and again. I didn't make it through one whole spin of the album. Never did. For Paul Simon it was the sign that the good days were over.
The personality of the singer is so important to music. I want to know what they were going through when they wrote the songs, how hard it was to make the album. It affects how I hear the music. Because ultimately the music that you hear on an album is an illusion. For the most part, it was not played exactly how you envision it when you listen to it. Most albums are not performed by all the musicians at the same time, in the order that you hear them. Usually it's recorded piece by piece, starting with perhaps the drums and then the bass in a second pass, and all the other instruments in subsequent takes. It's more like a painting. It's a few minutes in time, frozen and perfected, stretched and cut, until it sounds like a band playing together in a room. And the person singing the song isn't singing because he was moved to those emotions at that moment. He wrote them out ahead of time, practiced them, did multiple takes, and the take that you're listening to on the album is really probably just one of several takes, and maybe at the moment that he was singing those lines he wasn't even thinking about the things that he was singing about. It's an illusion. It's made to sound like a spontaneous burst of music, but it's anything but that. And that's okay. It's an illusion we all get caught up in. It doesn't even matter in the end.
This song plays a very subtle trick. The first verse is clearly about driving along the Mississippi River to Elvis' Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. The second verse gives more details about who is going on this trip, and the choruses reiterate that the Graceland he is going to is the literal place. Then, in the third verse, after singing about the hole in the heart of people who loved and lost, the third chorus comes around and each time Simon says "Graceland," he omits the part about Memphis, Tennessee. He's not talking about the literal place anymore, he's talking about a different journey, and that's what this song and this album did so well: it created a mythical place on top of a mythical place. It was an album of South African music named after the decadent home of rock and roll's first white appropriator of black music. And it sounded like he was talking about Utopia. It's nice to dream a while about the place where everything will be okay again.
"In The New Year" by The Walkmen
I have trouble getting into music while it's still relevant. It takes me a long time to get to the correct emotional place to accept a piece of music on its own terms. Often that'll be years down the road, when the band is no longer playing that old stuff anymore. Somehow I got the new Walkmen album You & Me the month it came out. I was in Ohio, driving my friend across the country in a rented Penske truck, and we stopped at a Target and bought this album. I fell in love with this song in the first verse. That rarely happens with me. Within a week I was at Bumbershoot in Seattle with my girlfriend Sara, who loved the album and this song too, and The Walkmen were playing. We had to rush to catch their set, and the crowd was enormous. I pushed through ahead of her to get close to the band, and when I turned back I had lost her in the crowd. She was way back there wearing a bright orange dress in that beautiful late-afternoon Seattle sun, and the band starting playing "In The New Year." I jumped up to wave at her and she jumped to wave at me. She pushed through the crowd and made her way to me just in time for the chorus, when it sounds like Hamilton is tearing his head off to sing those high notes. "I never hear the bad news, and I neverrrrrrrrrrr will."
Nick Jaina and Get It While You Can links:
Coast Weekend interview with the author
Eleven PDX interview with the author
Georgia Straight profile of the author
The Inessa Blog interview with the author
Oregon Public Broadcasting interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)