April 10, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kent Russell's essay collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son is a stellar debut.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"A book of essays can be a constellation. Individual pieces shine like stars, but to see the whole project as a unified thing requires a mythology. You need faith to make out a shape around all those dots of light, to believe in the bear or the swan. The possibility of that kind of faith hovers profitably around the edges of Kent Russell's debut"
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
There is, to me, a very real danger attendant to this act. Curating a playlist, I mean. Writing on the Internet, too -- but that’s a story for another day.
Why would anyone but the densest or the most eagerly insecure do this? Don’t they understand that this is going to exist—humming on some server in a hot closet—forever? Don’t they know that, generations from now, this will stand as a monument to how bad (worse: boring) their taste was?
Why would I want posterity to know what kind of fuck-assed Babbittry I was piping through my earbuds on my way out the door???
Music is the archaeology of memory. Music is the one thing that (sometimes!) makes us feel immortal. Music can bring about a belief in a higher power insofar as music can revive memories from beyond the horizon, memories of Paradise dredged from the depths of your own soul.
I’m supposed to be some kind of writer, right? Some kind of artist. And if I communicate to you that I don’t get music—that I have never once sat down and listened to any of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Mozart, early Rakim—if you begin to doubt my discretion as it pertains to this, the purest art form—well, shit. You’re not gonna want to pick up my book, are you?
I’m supposed to be an essayist. The one thing I’ve got to have going for me—not plot, not character, not lyricism—is my mind. You have to find it interesting, entertaining, watching my mind at work. You have to want to listen to the sound it makes as it crawls across the page. Will you really want to listen to this mind if it itself admits that it cannot listen to slower, more plangent, more thoughtful music? That it can’t put on, say, Iron & Wine or whatever, because this mind—while recognizing that such music is beautiful and meritorious—this mind cannot listen to Iron & Wine for more than 45 seconds without going colossally to pieces?
Anyway. I wrote a book of interconnected reportage, essay, and memoir titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son. It’s more or less about this, this very male, very American refusal-cum-inability to show the cards clenched tight in the fist held close over my heart. Which is why the following songs are not my songs. The following songs are songs that correspond in some way to the chapters in the book.
"Ryan Went To Afghanistan" –- "So Much For The Afterglow" by Everclear
This is a bit of memoir about my best friend and de facto brother, Ryan. Now, I come from a family whose proud warfighting tradition stretches back to the Revolution. Some small, grimacing son of ours has been shot at in most minor and all major military conflicts this country has involved itself in. For much of my young life, I was prepped and preened for such a future. Officer Candidate School, most likely. My grandfathers’ war was WWII; my father's was Vietnam; mine was to be Iraq or Afghanistan.
But somewhere along the line, my old man soured on the idea of service. Something in his peacetime/fathering experience led him to believe that I should not fight and perhaps die for the people he once volunteered to defend. Instead, he persuaded Ryan—a latchkey kid and general bad apple—to serve in my place. While I got my bachelor's degree, Ryan fought in Afghanistan as a member of the 82nd Airborne.
This rift -- in my familial history, in my relationship with my Dad and my bro -- is something I'm still trying to suture shut. Sometimes I feel as though I've been dismissed from my right duty, owing to deficiencies I don't see or can't understand.
But before any of all that, me and Ryan would cruise Miami, our home, in his busted-down, early-80s diesel Benz. The thing looked, smelled, and sounded like a chugging boat. Ryan had a cassette adapter hooked to a skipping CD player, and he also had about three CDs. One of them, for some reason, was Everclear’s "So Much For The Afterglow."
In retrospect, the song seems prophetic:
"I remember we could talk about anything
I remember when we used to want to hang out…
We never ask ourselves the questions to the answers that nobody even wants to know"
"American Juggalo" -- "Simple and Blunt" by Insane Clown Posse
Juggalos are, technically, fans of the Rust Belt trash-rap duo Insane Clown Posse. They come from the poorer exurbs of the Midwest and South. They wear grease paint, tend toward the obese, and are classified as a criminal gang by the FBI for their violent, quasi-organized activities. Really what they are is what in less sensitive times we would've called peckerwood, or white trash.
But they're self-actualized white trash. "Juggalo" is the name they give themselves, communally. They're proud to be Juggalos, even though the vast, vast majority of Middle America despises them. And theirs is a real community--they call it the Juggalo Family. I got to go and experience this family firsthand the other year at their annual Gathering of the Juggalos. I came away as much impressed as repulsed.
The music, though -- the music is terrible. I spent so many hours of my life poring over the narrow if deep Juggalo discography, and this is one of the few ICP songs that I return to. For the self-awareness, if nothing else:
"Tell me this, motherfucker, truly,
how you livin'?
Ever get the urge maybe do a little wig splittin'?
Ever been the last kid picked for a team?
Ever have motherfuckers come and shit on your dreams?
Do you have ideas and maybe somethin' to say?
Only ain't nobody ever got they ears pointed your way?
Ever been fucked with - like this and like that - and go
home with crazy thoughts about cuttin' they neck?
Might find an escape in this band the world hates,
'cause we been gettin' shit on, homie, we can relate."
"Mithradates of Fond-du-Lac" -- "Holy Diver" by Dio
One day, feeling emotionally vulnerable and not liking it, I wondered: Who out there best embodies the dictum, "That which does not kill me only makes me stronger"?
I found Tim Friede, a Wisconsin man who had dedicated his life to making himself immune to the bites of the deadliest snakes on the planet. Tim kept a schedule -- and many, many illegal serpents -- by which he regularly flooded his body with increasing doses of venom. The method was the same as that of a king who fears poison and so takes regular doses of arsenic with his wine.
Tim wanted to void nature’s power over him. He was an autodidact of the sort whose mind recoiled at the notion of a limitation deliberately accepted—something I sympathized with, being myself an unfinished, trial creature. He’d lost his job and his family in pursuit of this dream. Was it worth it, I wondered? Was it even true?
I went to find out. Over the course of three days, I had Tim subject himself to the bites of a rattlesnake, a black mamba, a cobra (twice) -- and whatever else he thought he could withstand. Tim believed he was immune. And me -- I wanted him to prove it.
As for the song? Well, while he was proving it, while he was plugging deadly serpents into his arms, Tim was blasting some shit-kicking metal. And what, I ask you, is more metal than harnessing the dark magic of the original foe? And who, I ask you, is more metal than Ronnie James Dio? R.I.P.
"Showing Up" -- "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)" by Warren Zevon
The tough guy in ice hockey -- the guy on each team who makes sure no liberties are taken, and who fights when they inevitably are -- is dying out. Figuratively and literally.
Figuratively: today’s hockey leagues—ever after broad appeal and the casual fan’s pocketbook—impose stiff penalties on the instigators of fights. They suspend players for on-ice offenses that used to be settled mano a mano. They are legislating violence out of the game.
Literally: In 2011, two National Hockey League enforcers committed suicide, and one overdosed while self-medicating with pain pills.
Who would ever want to do this job? Why is it part of hockey? More importantly, what does fighting for your supper do to you?
I tracked down John Brophy, the baddest of them all, as he was being put out to pasture in a Nova Scotia nursing home. Brophy had been the real-life basis for the Paul Newman classic Slap Shot. Opposing teams used to sign guys away from their day jobs just to have them go after Brophy on the weekends. Amateur boxing champions, barroom heroes—Brophy beat them so badly that some nights, the riot police had to be called into the arena. Some nights were worse: after one game in Connecticut, the apocrypha goes, a fan of the rival club climbed the rink’s fire escape, peered through a window that looked into the locker room, saw Brophy in the shower, aimed a Saturday night special at him, and fired. The bullet ricocheted around the room before spinning to rest at Brophy’s dripping feet. Some say he laughed.
I caught Brophy as he was lacing up for his final foe: oblivion. Every enforcer knows that that one punch is coming, the last one, the knockout blow which renders them obsolete -- and they fight on, anyway, half-welcoming it.
Or, as Warren Zevon puts it in his cloying, gets-me-every-time passion play: "What else could a farm boy from Canada do?"
"Say Good Morning to the Adversary" -- "Halloween (Part I)" by The Misfits
I was eight the last time I slept soundly, and for that I thank one man: Tom Savini.
Tom Savini is a sixty-seven-year-old special-effects artist, a sometime director, and an actor on the up-and-up. Distinct geeks revere him for his effects work in horror films from the 1970s and ’80s, stuff like Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. He was the pioneer of hyperrealistic blood and guts, what the film historians call "splatter." "The Sultan of Splatter," they christened him. "The Godfather of Gore." He was the first and best at making bodies reveal themselves onscreen.
He’s also the man who, upon his return from a tour in Vietnam, quite literally crafted (like, with his hands) zombies as they exist in our cultural consciousness today: the perfect monster for our post-industrial, post-rational consumer nation. He made up all the zombies in George Romero’s canonical trilogy of Night, Dawn, and Day of the Living Dead. He spawned the germ of our current zombiepocalypse.
When I caught my first glimpse of his work, eight-year-old me inched as near as possible to the screen, the better to gawk at the fonts of blood and stomachs pulled agape. I laughed; I was enlivened by it. How’d they manage to do this, I wondered, make it seem so real? I couldn’t look away from the man’s handiwork then—and I still can’t.
During one of my sleepless nights the other summer, with nothing else to do but futz around online, I discovered that Tom Savini has an academy. An atelier, more like. Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program, in Monessen, Pennsylvania. It’s the only one of its kind in the world. I signed up for the summer session and flew to Pittsburgh. The idea, I suppose, was to learn how to reverse engineer the things that haunted me.
Song-wise: They say that Danzig used to wear weighted leather gloves so that when he high-fived fans in the front row, he broke wrists. You know who could flawlessly render that kind of carnage? Tom Savini.
"Artisanal Ball" -- "Appalachian Spring: Suite 7" by Aaron Copland
The Amish aren’t Luddites. They’ll use technology so long as it isn’t "worldly," so long as it doesn’t connect to the outside or pull one’s mind away from the task at hand. For instance, solid-state gas engines are okay, as are battery-operated calculators. If a machine can be retrofitted to run off oil or hydraulics, it’s allowed. Rollerblades are fine, and wood scooters, but not bicycles, because they, like cars, take you too far too fast too easily. Newspapers, trampolines, and gas grills: all kosher. Central heating systems are not.
Therein lies the problem the Amish have with a lot of modernity: it’s fragmentary. And insidious. You allow central heat, and next thing you know, everyone in the family leaves the fireside after dinner to go off to their own warm rooms. This is why the Amish live apart from us. So that they might remain whole.
Perhaps then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as the rest of the country turns away from baseball, the Amish play it with great zeal. Especially their young men, when they are on their pilgrimage into the wider world known as Rumspringa. When young Amish men are deciding whether or not they want to finalize their commitment to their religion, they play ball.
I went out to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see them play, perhaps hop on the diamond with them. I discovered that they happen to be really good for completely untutored players. Some in the past even turned semi-pro.
How could this be? As a former ballplayer myself, I knew that to be good, you had to be either so self-assured as to be nigh catatonic, or you had to choose to pay attention in the most literal way. That is, you had to realize that your attention is a valuable, finite resource, and how you choose to spend it the one skill—not speed, not power—that separates the wheat from the chaff.
I got to play a little ball with the Amish. I figured out why they’re so good.
"Island Man" -- "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" by The Kinks
One day, after waking up apocalyptically hungover in my bathtub and wondering just what the fuck is it I’m doing here -- I decided I should venture to a desert island off the edge of northeastern Australia. It was at least the first step, I figured. If a boat is foundering, you dry-dock it for repairs. If you suspect your heart has a hole in it—take yourself out of the world.
So I paid a couple thousand dollars to be the first customer of disgraced multi-millionaire Dave Glasheen’s Desert Island Experience. For two weeks, I got to experience just what it was like to sleep on a small rock amid the Great Barrier Reef with a dingo named Qasi keeping guard for crocodiles. I also got to know Dave well -- perhaps too well -- while we spent our days collecting coconuts, fishing, and repairing the structures of what he hoped would one day become a renowned corporate retreat.
Dave, like Thoreau before him, was a great believer in that most American of notions, the one which proclaims that, to be happy, we need to be someplace other than where we are. A place more substantial, where we’ll finally be free to turn into ourselves, use our innate powers to create. Create not a new Eden, mind you, but a new and better Adam.
I did not find what I was looking for. Nor, I suspect, will Dave. I don’t suppose there’s a place where you can go and find it; a place where, once you've separated from the herd, once you've gone your own way to completion, you'll find it. This song -- which I first heard during a goddamn Acura commercial -- pretty much sums up the basura Boomer belief that such a place doesn't just exist -- it probably exists INSIDE OF YOU, if you could just break away, sit still, grab the metal detector, and unearth it.
"Let's Get This Tub of Shit Up To Speed," + all the interstitial segments -- "Fortunate Son" by CCR
At first, I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was simply trying to answer questions I had about myself, episodically, in between shifts at my day job. I guess, in hindsight, I was hoping to create something that was more me than I currently was. Something that was the actual me. At the time, all I was was someone who got paid a living wage, got drunk, and felt like a failure of a son.
Ultimately, each of the subjects explored in this book brought me back to my father, whose own life contained multitudes: stints as a naval officer, lawyer, bar-fighting drunk, criminal prankster, self-loathing self-destructor, and stay-at-home dad, among other things. Parts of all of the aforementioned men are somewhere inside him. Are somewhere inside me.
In writing this book, I finally understood that -- despite his best, laissez-faire intentions -- it was my Dad, as prime an example of the waning White Man as you might find, who made me the person I am. For better and for worse. He is my god of right failure; I am his apology for taking up space. This is what the book’s about, in the end.
Kent Russell and I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son links:
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
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