June 13, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dave Fromm's novel The Duration is an admirable debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Fromm's fiction debut blends a zany adventure with a low-key exploration of nostalgia. Pete Johansson...returns to the western Massachusetts town of Gable, where he grew up, at the request of his childhood druggie pal, Philip 'Chickie' Benecik. Fromm depicts a sad tenderness between men with common histories, afraid to grow, and trapped into thinking their best moments are in the past."
My novel is called The Duration (Tyrus Books). It's a story about childhood buddies who reunite in their haunted Western Massachusetts hometown to confront the mysteries of their youth and the challenges of growing out of it. It's sort of a bromance, which made me uncomfortable at first but I have now come to embrace, metaphorically speaking. There's a rhino involved.
I listened to a lot of music while writing The Duration, often as a means to put off writing The Duration. Sometimes I misheard lyrics and thought "now there's a good line" and then put that line into The Duration, and the only thing that saved me from plagiarism is that I'd misheard the lyric in the first place. Other times when I was writing I'd use music to help me figure out how to express whatever it was I was trying to express, like I'd ask myself how would a character who believes he is emotionally similar to mid-90s Flavor Flav express himself in this situation? And music would help answer that.
Without further ado:
"The Effect," by Bob Schneider
Bob Schneider is a pretty prolific Austin-based singer-songwriter. Coincidentally, I first heard his music around 2002, when the writer Steve Almond included him on a playlist on the music & writing website Pinky's Paperhaus, which was hosted by Carolyn Kellogg, who now edits the LA Times Review of Books. Probably sounds like I'm dropping names like a mofo, but it's all true. Weird, huh? But here's to returning the favor.
No joke, I could probably compose this whole playlist out of Bob Schneider tunes that were meaningful to the writing of The Duration in some way, but my wife says I shouldn't. So I'll just go with "The Effect." When they make the movie of The Duration, they're going to play "The Effect" in the trailer. It's a short, bouncy little song about a guy who breathes fire and lives in the sea. It's got a line that I used as the epigraph for The Duration – "Can't be too picky in the deep" -- and another line that goes "I'm building a rocket ship. It's made of memories so it's made to make the trip, and I can go most anywhere but when I get to where I'm going well I'm never really there." I thought about using that line as the epigraph but it seemed like a little much.
I actually sent a copy of my book to Bob Schneider when it came out, which seems creepier now than it did at the time. No word on whether he got it.
"Holland, 1945," by Neutral Milk Hotel
I don't know a lot about Neutral Milk Hotel, but from what I gather Jeff Mangum put everything he had into that Aeroplane album and hasn't recovered yet. This particular song comes across that way. There's a sort of craziness about it, a balls-to-the-wall quality that carries the lyrics past the maudlin. My narrator, Pete, gets sucked into a series of events that he's determined to resist, and over the course of them a whole bunch of feelings grow within him: anger, resentment, sadness, self-doubt, and ultimately a sort of spiritual resistance that he has to blow up to have a chance of carrying on. "Holland, 1945," with its headlong rhythm and weird mythology and the sense that it is throwing everything it has at the injustices of the world, feels like it could be my narrator's theme song.
"Don't Carry It All," by The Decemberists
I like harmonicas. They're earnest. And this is an earnest song about the debts friends owe to each other. My book is populated by kids who've grown up together and are bonded by their shared childhood, and a lot of the tension comes around how those bonds do when stressed by the requirements of adulthood. One of the characters has to choose how far he will go to help a friend who is as close as a sibling. I don't know why I think this song speaks to that decision, but I do. I listened to it a lot during the writing.
"Destination Ursa Major," by Superdrag
Continuing in the theme of earnestness. I was a big Superdrag fan in the mid-1990s. They were something of an antidote to all the irony-pop on loop back in those days. These guys cared. They're like the musical equivalent of Russell Westbrook. They're, like, fuck it, let's go for broke. Which you can only do once in a while, right? It's exhausting. So the rest of the time you're sort of walking around like a coiled spring, snarling, waiting, trying not to die inside. My narrator, Pete, is a young lawyer and he thinks he's growing into a responsible member of society, but luckily he still has a little Westbrook in him.
The Duration is set in Western Massachusetts, where I grew up. I always figured everybody knew all about Western Mass, but then I went to college and realized that in fact not many people do. It's a pretty weird, wonderful neck of the woods. The area I'm from – the Berkshires – is a rolling woodland dotted with hill-towns, repurposed Gilded Age mansions and shuttered mills. The neighboring Pioneer Valley is full of colleges and amusement parks and farms. The ghosts of yesteryear roll deep through Western Mass -- lately they've been fueling an opioid epidemic – and/but the folks who call it home carry it with them wherever they go.
This guy – Doc Westchesterson – is the rapper laureate of Western Massachusetts. What I love about this song, beside the dope rhymes, is that they appear to have filmed the video for it in, like, late March, when the whole region has a winter hangover and is at its least attractive.
"Sweet Baby James," by James Taylor
One of our local bylaws demands that every playlist coming out of Western Massachusetts must contain a song by James Taylor. If Doc Westchesterson is our rapper laureate, JT is our patron saint. He plays every summer at Tanglewood, pulling in 17,000 people, sometimes for three nights in a row. The summer folks picnic on the lawn and the high school kids get high in the parking lots, but everything stops when JT plays Sweet Baby James, our lullaby, and we all sing every word.
1812 Overture, by Tchaikovsky
Closing out the Berkshires set, the 1812 is what the BSO plays at Tanglewood at the close of the season. They roll a cannon down from Eastover and point it towards Stockbridge Bowl. There are fireworks at the end. When I was a kid, working in the lots with my pals, we didn't care too much about classical music – we were too busy trying to score with the summer girls – but when they played the 1812 all of us locals gathered in the shadows at the back of the lawn. I remember one time, a big crowd, high schoolers and college kids home for the summer, the music built and we were just about vibrating with the energy of youth and summer and time. The French start their retreat and the Russians come pouring out of Borodino and up onstage the chorus stands and shit just cracked. This is back when Seiji Ozawa was conducting and it was possible to believe that when he was waving his baton he was waving it at us, way out there in the back, giving us our orders, throwing the gates open. When the cannons fired, someone, I think it might have been my buddy Hans – he was a college kid, the older brother of a girl I was briefly in love with – shouted at the top of his lungs, "Take that, you fuckers!" I don't even know who he meant. Might've meant everyone.
"Give It Up," by Public Enemy
This one doesn't relate to the book itself as much as the process. The Duration is a "debut novel," which means it's a novel written during prolonged periods of certainty that nothing was going to come of it. Maybe that's all novels, but the first one is a bear. At the points when I was sitting at my dining room table, staring at the keyboard, maybe thinking about being a lawyer again, maybe wondering what the fuck am I doing with my life?, a little Public Enemy went a long way.
"Littlest Birds," by The Be Good Tanyas
But then you have to keep writing. And it probably can't be just a string of profanities. That's where The Be Good Tanyas came in. They bring you back to level, so you can carry on.
"Dean's Dream," by The Dead Milkmen
This is about as obscure as I can get, but I genuinely love this little song. The Dead Milkmen were recommended to me in 1991 by my JYA roommate, a beast of a kid named Nurz (he's a urologist now) who regaled us with stories about doing seriously dumb things with his hometown buddies. I had similar, slightly tamer stories, and as I get older I keep returning to them, sometimes with horror but mostly wistfully. A few of them made it into the book. This song, "Dean's Dream," starts off like it's going to be a juvenile guitar romp, sort of like the better-known song on the album – "Bitchin' Camaro" – but then it shifts into an ode to a blonde-haired girl. I don't know. I identified with both the yearning and the façade. All that stupid stuff that boys do, obviously there's so much stuff beneath it. The book's all about that stuff.
"Colorshow," by The Avett Brothers
As with Bob Schneider, this list could be all Avett songs, but we'll limit it to "Colorshow." It's an angrier song than "Dean's Dream" by a long shot, with both a fatalism and a bravado that show up in The Duration. The chorus – "And I'm done, forever. It's you and me forever." – that's the sort of big, undaunted, Michael Bay-like sentimentality I was going for.
I guess everyone has their thing, the thing that just destroys them emotionally. For me, it's the ending of the Terrence Malick film The New World, when they play Wagner's Vorspiel over Rebecca/Pocahontas's death. There's something about it that takes me right back to my Berkshire childhood – the hedge mazes, the slate sky, the crumbling mansion, the feeling of being an innocent in a vast world of love and woe and unknowns. Both the piece and my reaction to it – the way for me it's almost a time machine – are central to The Duration. My dad has a piece of music he plays when he wants to ‘find' his mother. The characters in The Duration use different methods to hold onto their ideas of one another. Similarly, the landscape of The Duration (and its real-life counterpart) holds onto its past, not to mention its citizens, in both physical and spiritual ways. This piece does that for me. I used it a lot when writing. I use it all the time.
"This Means War," by Shovels & Rope
Bob Schneider, Avetts and Shovels & Rope. Those three. That's all I really need. This married duo is a South Carolinian folk rock act. I just love them.
"This Means War" is a lot more downbeat than many of their songs (check out "Gasoline") and doesn't showcase Cary Ann Hearst's ridiculous vocals, but I'm a sucker for dirges, especially bitter ones. It also begins and ends with a super-sweet recording of a 3yo Hearst talking with her grandfather. So love, loss, the voices of the dead, violins. That's basically my book, except for the violins.
Dave Fromm and The Duration links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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