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August 1, 2016

Book Notes - Ben Greenman "Emotional Rescue"

Emotional Rescue

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ben Greenman's evocative new essay collection Emotional Rescue connects songs to episodes in his life.

Questlove wrote of the book:

"Reading Emotional Rescue is like peeking into a stranger's playlist when he's not around, and then talking to him about it when he is around. Music is the kind of thing that should be felt, discussed, and digested, and Ben Greenman does that here—all the while making the case that pop music (all kinds of it, from hip-hop to country, from power-pop to blues) teaches us everything we know about human relationships. I have always known how much he cares about pop music, and now I know why."

In his own words, here is Ben Greenman's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection Emotional Rescue:

In the past I have created playlists to help present works of fiction. In the present I am creating one for nonfiction of the past. Untangling that requires a little explanation. The book in question, Emotional Rescue, collects short essays on human relationships and pop music that were written more than a decade ago. I created the pieces mostly weekly and posted them on a mp3 blog called Moistworks. Years later, I came upon the material. It seemed like it might be a book. Editors agreed. When I revisited the work, I both liked the narrator's voice and I did not like it. It seems strange to say "the narrator's voice" when you're talking about your own autobiographical essays, but time has a weird way of opening up distance, of othering the self. The young man in these essays holds fast to his concerns. He is wise in some respects, callow in others. He wonders obsessively about his friendships with women, and while he can seem foolish or self-indulgent, he can also seem perceptive or prescient. When we turned this set of essays into a book, one of the trickiest challenges was respecting the material in its original form. Polishing it too much—injecting too much wisdom gained through time—seemed like a betrayal of the material and the man who wrote it. As an older person, I have somehow published my youngest book, and as a result I have picked songs about youth and how to leave it.

Fats Domino, "When I Was Young" (1959)
Much of this book is about love and sex: trying to find the latter, trying to understand the former. From the vantage of the present—I'm married now, old, with kids in their teens—it's sort of hard to remember the set of problems that once surrounded these questions. In this song, Fats Domino laments getting older: "Nobody wants you when your youth is gone." That's not true for writers. It's the young version of you, the confused and conflicted one, that people don't want. When you get older and gain confidence in your form and yourself, people start to want what you're peddling.

The Velvet Underground, "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore" (1967)
One of the great lost Velvet Underground songs, this was recorded when the band played the Gymnasium in New York in April 1967 and bootlegged over the years, eventually coming out on the deluxe edition of White Light/White Heat. It's an exercise in some ways, a song whose only lyrics, apart from the title, are Lou Reed's boast that he has five nickels in his pocket but can get more. As a result, people have been frustrated by it. They have dismissed it as unfinished. But to me, it's perfectly finished, mostly because its truth is the exact opposite of its title. It's purely a young man's song: repetitive, headlong, filled with an energy that can't possibly appeal to everyone.

Ike and Tina, "Young and Dumb" (1970)
Like the Fats Domino song above, this some is about one of the key obsessions of youth: getting into bed with someone else. Here, Ike and Tina take the popular phrase, "Young, Dumb, and Full of Come" and build a song around it. Song? Ike supplies some tautly funky guitar. Tina testifies about needing a man (or even a Superman). Once she gets him in her bedroom, she says, he'll never want to leave.

Elvis Costello, "So Young" (1987)
Elvis Costello made the most of being young. Some of his best records came surging out of him in his first few years as a recording artist, and for the rest of his career he had to reckon with their power—whether he could recapture it, whether he wanted to, whether the very process of wondering if he wanted to introduced a kind of circumspection that made later works too self-conscious. This song sums up the problem through the prism of a young relationship: "There's no time for compromises, we got that good old thing." Though it was recorded in 1979, it wasn't released until the Our of Our Idiot compilation in 1987. It's also not a Costello original, but a cover of a song by the Australian band Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons.

Jerry Lee Lewis, "Young Blood" (1995)
There's never been a rock star who made more of his youth than Jerry Lee Lewis: wild, reckless, driven forward by pure unregulated energy. This song was recorded when he was almost sixty, and it's a flawless illustration of the flawed process of trying to engage with youthful energy when you are yourself no longer young. It's not clear whether the young blood of the song belongs to Jerry Lee or to the girl he sees standing on the corner. What is clear is that young blood disarranges the mind.

Ben Greenman and Emotional Rescue links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Newsday review

Huffington Post profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Slippage
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for What He's Poised to Do
Los Angeles Times essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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