May 11, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Matthew Neill Null's collection Allegheny Front is vibrant and haunting.
The Rumpus wrote of the book:
"Null is a young writer, only one novel and one story collection out in the world so far, but based on those two books, his West Virginia world seems as inexhaustible as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and he seems poised to join Salter in the pantheon of writers who excel at both short- and long-form fiction."
I have a strained relationship with music. Coming of age just as CDs appeared, I had hundreds and listened constantly. I could pick up any stringed instrument and play it – guitar, banjo, bass, even a little mandolin or fiddle or steel guitar. I'd never be a great musician, but there was the skinniest chance I could be a great writer; I realize I quit playing about the time I began to pursue writing seriously. Music is a force in West Virginia, or thought to be, anyhow. The landscape is all and indifferent to human life – music is a rare way to fill the implacable silence. It quickly fades. The mountains and the valleys have a way of absorbing sound and giving back nothing in return. There, human gestures do not last long.
"Episode" doesn't quite say what happened in my mid-twenties, but I don't know what else to call it. Suddenly, almost overnight, music was overwhelming; the sound could nauseate me; movie theaters were impossible, there in the dark with the blasting light and sound. Maybe a mild synesthesia? The drums hurt. The voices scraped at me. I didn't mention it to anyone. I've lost a bit of my hearing, perhaps due to many jobs around heavy machinery, but that wasn't what made me ill. I can't explain. Even now, a loud bar is hard for me. I can't go to concerts. When my computer crashed, I lost thousands of songs: a relief.
For a few years I didn't listen, finding my comfort in the silence of books, but I've weaned myself back onto music on my walk to work. I might download a single song, usually a quiet one, and listen dozens of times in a row, if not hundreds. The repetition is soothing.
These are the ones I listen to. Maybe they saturated my brain in some way. Do these have anything to do with my book of stories? I notice they all summon up feelings of estrangement from a familiar landscape, from daily life, from friends and loves – this is the story of people in West Virginia, the landscape of my life and my imagination. The rapidly urbanizing world is strange to me, unwelcoming, and this will only sharpen as I age. Whereas I once found life's greatest comfort in music, the feelings I most associate with it are estrangement, disquiet, and the undertow of a past. Which are also characteristics of that gloomy little genre, the American short story.
Skip Spence, "Little Hands"
That snaky little guitar line that gives way to vapor and drums. You feel it must have been recorded very late at night—or, more likely, very early in the morning. His head was full of ghosts, he had a schizophrenic break and attacked his bandmate with a fire-axe, he was sent to The Tombs then Bellevue where he wrote this album, he recorded it in Nashville upon release, he drifted from public view, he soaked up Thorazine and alcohol for thirty years, he ended up homeless and a ward of the state, he died in Santa Cruz at 53. This song and "All Come to Meet Her" are worth such a life of duress. They are psalms. Few people leave so much behind; incidentally, this is also the plot of Isaac Babel's "Guy de Maupassant."
Mark Lanegan, "Wedding Dress"
Sex and death, sex and death, etc., and the bass-line's narcotic pulse. "We got buried in a fever/and now you left me…" This song is a welcome inversion of Johnny and June Carter Cash's chirpy, loathsome, and fundamentally-dishonest "Jackson."
The end could be soon
We better rent a room
So you can love me.
I saw Lanegan play a theater. He was smoking outside before the set, knuckles covered in stars. This wasn't long before the 2008 election, and some guy said to Lanegan, "Hey Mark, who you voting for?" (What a question to ask a musician.) He replied, "Can't vote, I'm a felon."
Charlie Rich, "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs"
This is best listened to late at night as you drive an old car through a faded town, preferably in Mississippi, West Virginia, or the Blackfeet Reservation of Montana. When Charlie Rich sings, "And no one grabs the brass ring every time/She don't mind," with that little piano turnaround and the quiet snare behind it, I feel the void open beneath me, which is comforting in that I realize the void is real, not my paranoid delusion. This is the country music I listened to with my grandfather, a union pipefitter who never said very much, who died of the asbestosis his job gave him. (I can still feel that truck bounce through the ruts of the field, the cows watching us, the mean bull waiting to see if you would absentmindedly step out and give it a chance.) Libertarians should be tied to chairs and forced to listen to songs like this.
Sun Kil Moon, "Convenient Parking"
"Convenient parking is way back there." This is the singing of a bad dream, in the moment when you try to wake and cannot untwist yourself from it. An up-tempo twin to Charles Olson's "The Librarian," describing a landscape of violence that exists within and without time, Gloucester's "region of coal houses, bins. In one a gang/was beating someone to death, in a corner of the labyrinth/of fences. I could see their arms and shoulders whacking//down. But not the victim…" Places of industrial slag and lost trades, the quadrant where bodies are buried late at night. The access road is no longer lit. The mines have been sealed. The ocean seethes under the pier. Yeats wrote of "the mackerel-crowded seas," which are not so crowded anymore, except for plastic bits and gyres of trash.
Fairport Convention, "The Deserter"
A story, this one. "As I was walking along Radcliffe Highway/A recruiting party came beating my way/They enlisted me and treated me/Till I did not move/And to the Queen's barracks/They forced me to go." The circular motion of this song is terrifying, with the violin droning and Sandy Denny pushing it on, as the deserter is arrested again and again. Finally, Prince Albert pardons him at the moment of execution – only to send him once again back to the army: "Set him free from his irons and let him go free/For he'll make a good soldier for his Queen and Country." Our hero is damned to his one true life; our fate is always our greatest fear and vice versa; we'll be broken on that wheel no matter what. I don't understand why I listen to this.
Kurt Vile, "Pretty Pimpin"
The years disappear this way. Despite a lazy, yawning surface, the song shivers on the edge of panic. Every verse is the same.
Bob Dylan, "Oh Sister"
Not much good comes out of divorce, but the dissolution of Bob Dylan's marriage to Sara Lownds gave us Desire. I think of "Oh Sister" as a triptych with "Sara" and "Isis," all dealing with tortured relationships, but "Oh Sister" is the most naked and direct in its need – the type of plea most likely not to be satisfied. (I've made a few of these myself.) "Time is an ocean/But it ends at the shore/You may not see me tomorrow." We are not meant to speak so directly. We are meant to be sly and dissembling. I can't decide if the speaker realizes that his plea will go unanswered, or if his realization of this is exactly the point of the song. The question bothers me.
Alejandro Escovedo, "Sex Beat"
Used to love The Gun Club. But the original's tempo makes my heart beat a bit too fast. This version – with melancholy strings, perfect drums and bass, and see-saw slide – turns it into a prayer. God bless Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Like Flannery O'Connor, like Joy Williams, only America could have produced him. Yes, he sang "in the key of Jeffrey" but somehow made it work. I used to listen to Miami and Fire of Love with a friend – I haven't seen her in thirteen years, and never will again. She's been in and out of jail, the state got her kids, and she bounces around with whatever dude can supply her at the moment. I have received exactly one desperate late-night voicemail – when I tried it, it came back to a dead Trac phone. She was a decent person. She was no innocent. Some of us bumble through life, but others are drawn inexorably down the path. Short of locking her in a rubber room, no one could have saved her. Does this prove or disprove the notion of free will? I come down on the side of the former.
I have an eight-month-old son, and he tries to sing along to this verse and this verse alone:
Stupid like I told you
Stupid like you saw
Stupid as the simple thought
Of ever thinking at all
And all their mind, all their soul
All their bodies, all we know
All the things that should have made us whole
All the colorless security
Was all someone could go
And move, move
How was he born knowing so much?
Blanche, "Jack on Fire"
More Gun Club. This is very "Under the Volcano," but with autoharp.
Dusty Springfield, "Don't Forget About Me"
God, I don't even want to write about it. "Today I cannot borrow/A minute of your tomorrow/Don't let it cause you sorrow." Those horns. These back-up singers. That searching bass-line. If I were to listen to this and look at William Eggleston's Untitled (Glass in Airplane) at the same time, I would spontaneously combust. Both remind me of the saddest Memphis plane ride ever, leaving an old love for good, feeling I'd let my greatest chance for happiness slip away. I won't even try. But writing this makes me want to do it.
The Mississippi shined below like a pretty kris blade. I kind of wanted the plane to fall from the sky. I had no prospects, no money, only a shaky belief that I could write something of worth. I'd lost the only other one who believed I could do it. The flight attendant seemed to know and quietly brought me a double. Who are these saintly people? Bless him wherever he is.
Matthew Neill Null and Allegheny Front links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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