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August 26, 2016

Book Notes - Ben Tanzer "Be Cool"

Be Cool

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 Tanzer's memoir-in-essays Be Cool is a wise, moving, and often funny memoir-in-essays.

Joshua Mohr wrote of the book:

"Ben Tanzer has that ever elusive elixir, that ability to be both funny and poignant simultaneously. These essays have that requisite gallows humor about being a parent, but there's tenderness oozing from the page, too, a kind of trickling empathy."

In his own words, here is Ben Tanzer's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Be Cool:

I want to open this piece with a shout-out for the song "Wanna Be Cool" by Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, which I have decided is the unofficial theme song for Be Cool.

Donnie Trumpet is part of this wondrous emergence of young rappers in Chicago, including, but not limited to Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, who are producing all kinds of kick-ass work.

They are the products of this time and this place, the Chicago of now, a city of violence and beauty, that is trying to make sense of both.

They are also the products of a scene that is vibrant and collaborative, creative, desperate to be heard, and in so many ways similar to what happened here with storefront theater in the later part of the last century and the small press scene at the start of this one - a scene I have been lucky to be have been around for, and am a product of myself.

I am also the product though of the decades that proceeded this one, the '80s (and '70s I'm sure), the early '90s, the linguistically questionable aughts, and I have drawn on my experiences during these decades as a means for structuring Be Cool, which was conceived as a series of personal essays, but may have become a sort of memoir as well.

Given this, It seems to me, that I should also structure my Book Notes playlist in this fashion as well, and so with "Wanna Be Cool" on repeat somewhere off in the background, I will now proceed to do just that.


"People Who Died"/The Jim Carroll Band

This song may be less important than the person who sang it, but without The Basketball Diaries, and by extension Jim Carroll - and is there truly any distinguishing between them anyway - I might not be writing, or at least trying to write like I am, and in terms of people who died, the way Jim Carroll's life ended, as a recluse and a shut-in, and nothing like the vibrant writer or performer I hold dear, is too sad for me to linger on for very long at all.

"Comfortably Numb"/Pink Floyd

It seems cliche on so many levels to include this song at all, not the least of which is the fact that I spent several months in traction during my freshman year in high school, and late at night when the hospital grew quiet, people stopped visiting me, and I could not sleep, I would listen to The Wall again and again, which I know is sad and tragic, just not sad and tragic in the ways that actually have any import on the universe.

"The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss"/X

I include this song not because I loved it, or X, back then, but because when I saw the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization while living in Los Angeles in the summer of 1981 I thought, this does nothing for me, I will never be this, punk and angry, and this music will never speak to me, but I was wrong - and not just about this - it just took several decades to realize it.

"U Got The Look"/Prince and Sheena Easton

It feels like no list, much less any party should be allowed to proceed hence forth without some reference to Prince, and I really did, and do, love this song. But while it is so easy to focus on Prince these days, including this song also provides me with the chance to recognize my great love for Sheena Easton, and the fact that on the terrifically drunken night I first kissed my now wife Debbie, we took a break from our bar-hopping to go back to our college dorm and watch the wedding between Sheena Easton's character on Miami Vice and that of Don Johnson's.


"Estimated Prophet"/Grateful Dead

There was this moment while living in San Francisco in the early 90's when I was getting ready to move to New York City, and I had this moment of panic and thought that I couldn't possibly be making the right choice, that I couldn't believe I was ready to leave the Dead, the burritos and the Raves behind, and one afternoon while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, "Estimated Prophet" came on and I decided that if the Dead played the song at the Mardi Gras show I was going to the following week, I would not, could not move. It would be a sign. But they didn't, and I did, and that was that.

"Killing In The Name"/Rage Against The Machine

I somehow never heard Rage Against The Machine as they played around San Francisco while I was there, but on my last night in New York City before moving to Chicago, and as I labored to get my final casework notes done for job, my friend Avi slipped me this disc as he and Debbie went to sleep, and as I worked until daybreak I had my mind blown. It's possible I hadn't been fully in touch with how much rage I felt then, that I hadn't processed the assault I suffered one day at work earlier that spring, or even Guiliani's ascent to Mayor of New York City, but I listened to Rage Against The Machine and I thought this is how I feel now, right now, and this is what I need, and listening to them helped me find some peace.

"Never Said"/Liz Phair

To say I had no idea who Liz Phair was when I got to Chicago or had ever even heard of Exile in Guyville is an understatement, but from the moment we arrived, it was stunning just how often she or this disc was referenced. That people sometimes choose to dismiss her, or the album, as some kind of relic now of some lost civilization, is to forget what it meant to people then, or how it felt the first time so many of us listened to it, which I finally did, or even hear her live back then, which I also did, and realize that she ultimately might only be the voice of a particular time and place, but how many singers can even hope to say that?

"Sabotage"/Beastie Boys

There was this night in a North Side Chicago club when this song was still new and I had never heard it and the place exploded and it felt so good to be out there in the sweaty crowd dancing to it and I didn't know who it was, and later when I did I was forced to reconsider my dismissal of the Beasties back when Licensed to Ill came out, which led me to Paul's Boutique, and then back to the Ramones, and X, all of whom I once dismissed, but now spoke to me, the energy and the vigor, and it wasn't just that I was different now, but that I was reminded that we have to remain curious and dynamic, and that we have to keep searching for the things that inspire us.


"Jesus Walks"/Kanye West

Have you ever heard anything like this? Before Donnie Trumpet and Chance, there was Kanye, the now and forever king, and maybe like Liz Phair, or maybe not like her at all, it's so easy to dismiss him for his ego and his endless needy posturing. And yet, try to remember listening to this song for the first time, and the sheer euphoria you felt? Or maybe that's just me, but for all of my New York love and DNA, so much of what I am now is because of how good Chicago has been to me, and Kanye is Chicago and despite it all, Kanye is Jesus too.

"Downbound Train"/Bruce Springsteen

This could easily be part of the 1980s in the same way "People Who Died" could be now. This is music by people I love as reconsideration. Which is not to compare it to X, or Liz Phair or the Beasties, once dismissed and now discovered. This song, like People Who Died is to know something, or someone, you already love, and always loved, differently, because time, or age, and so it is, that this song speaks to my recent dance with suicidal ideation and sadness and the realization that it isn't something new, just something that has given me words to describe something I could not until now.


It seems almost retro and old dad to go Bruce and U2 back to back, especially when I'm talking about the new Millennium and what that all means, but to shy away from this song, or this moment, is to ignore going to see U2 with a pregnant Debbie, stopping at the bookstore on the way to look at baby names and then having U2 open with this song, never a favorite, but one that excited us to no end because there was so much promise and energy in the night. That we had no idea that 9/11 was just months away, is so weird and sad now. It's also something that's hard to know how it affects one's writing, just that there was an endless affect on the world we live and work in now.

"Simple Song"/Avail

The idea is not to be repetitive here, to talk about coming late to punk, to celebrate the fast, jarring beats the songs hit, and how they speak to me at my advanced age, even as I am so not punk, worried about health insurance and 401(k)s as I am, but then filled with rage and confusion too, and to see a band such as Avail live, to feel their energy permeating the room, the joy they feel as they sing, to recognize that they have never quite become the Ramones or X, but surely feel like them when they play, is not just inspiring, but transformative, if only for the length of any given song.

And one final Be Cool note.

I am struck even as I write this how cool I don't sound or feel, that I would much prefer to write about a song like "Reagan" by Killer Mike. How doing so may be more aspirational than anything, but still makes me want to understand how we make art that kicks ass and is political as well, that tells stories that we want to tell, and yet speaks to something larger, has an impact, and just may transforms lives? This is something to aim for, and want, and essays are a way to do this, if I can just figure out how to do so with meaning and insight. That person is not the person captured in the pages of Be Cool. That person wants to be cool, and is only now becoming more Zen about it. Or so he, I, hopes anyway.

Ben Tanzer and Be Cool links:

the author's website

Dock Street Press interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for 99 Problems
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Lucky Man
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Most Likely You Go
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The New York Stories

also at Largehearted Boy:

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