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March 30, 2017

Book Notes - Jonathan Reiss "Getting Off"

Getting Off

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.

Jon Reiss's Getting Off is a dark and delicious whirlwind of a novel.

Paula Bomer wrote of the book:

"Getting Off is raunchy, sad, weird, smart, and riotously fun to read. Gross sex, drug shakes, LA, scary cults—what more can you ask for? Reiss has written a refreshingly dark book, with pretty much zero redemption for his characters but plenty of attention and love."


In his own words, here is Jonathan Reiss's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Getting Off:


I learned to write a novel as just a collection of scenes. It follows that each scene would have its own soundtrack. In fact, my sister is a casting agent and she and I have already "cast" this book a few times over. Although, we have yet to find the lead.

This book is about a kid putting himself out there in a revealing, vulnerable, and often deluded way for anyone that's willing to watch. He's looking for his dreams in all the wrong places but no matter how demoralized he gets or how arduous the pursuit becomes, he persists. In Getting Off, an aspiring actor makes his living and feeds his addiction by stripping naked on his webcam. He learns that if you put yourself out there online there's always someone willing to receive you.


Over the past few years I've gone on obsessive YouTube searches for acoustic covers. There are some performers who've developed substantial followings by playing covers in front of their own webcams: just them and their acoustic guitars. I find them mesmerizing and brave. Here's a song for each scene in the book and a corresponding acoustic cover.


Hey Kathleen, Are You Hungry by Defiance, Ohio (Performed by JD)


Defiance, Ohio have mastered the introspective punk anthem. Getting Off begins with a young man waking up to a world in which he doesn't quite fit. So each day he undergoes a pretty involved ritual in order to "present" as someone who does. This is especially difficult because his shower doesn't work, and today it's especially important that things work out because it's his mother's birthday. Here, Simon (the main character) is forced to take stock of his situation, much like this song which sort of yells at you to do the same. "Are you angry?" it asks. "Are you searching?" The song is difficult to cover well. JD gets it just right, capturing the raw frustration, anger, and passion of this song with his imperfect, unbridled performance.


Stop! by Erasure (Performed by Danny McEvoy)


Suited up (naked) and fueled up (high on heroin), Simon puts on his webcam show, hoping to earn enough cash to buy his mother a birthday present. He dances in his birthday suit to an unnamed ‘80s electro song. In my mind, "Stop" was always that song. Here, Danny McEvoy manages to turn this electropop classic into an almost full-on rockabilly jam.


Baby Britain by Elliot Smith (Performed by ghettobythesea)


Even Elliot Smith's happy songs are laden with melancholy. On the surface, Baby Britain is upbeat, but the misery is hidden under a crepe-thin layer of piano music. In the second chapter of Getting Off, Simon tries to convince his parents that their baby is alright. His dysfunction is barely obscured and he is made aware of this in the most uncomfortable possible way (at a urinal). The performer of this cover, who goes by ghettobythesea on YouTube, plays this piano-driven song beautifully, finger-picking out the melody and stripping away that layer of cheer entirely. Instead she brings out the gorgeous melancholy of the song, singing soulfully about a person who "fights problems with bigger problems."


The Crowd by Operation Ivy (Performed by Jen Florentino)



After failing miserably to pass himself off to his parents as functional, Simon rushes home to turn it all off but his route home is obstructed by a protest. Here, a person gets lost in the mass and in the intentions of a crowd. This Op Ivy classic captures that feeling perfectly, and Jen Florentine's almost gospel voice turns this punk anthem into a folky spiritual.


Because You're Young by Cock Sparrer (Performed by Cunt Sparrer: Jennie, Sara Rowdy, and Evan Sinclair)


This song, by the greatest street-punk band of all time, captures the feeling of invincibility that one has in their twenties. This song is the soundtrack to a scene where Simon tries to pay his heroin tab by stealing from Barnes and Noble. It's long been my dream to buy this book—which has a scene of someone stealing from Barnes and Noble—from Barnes and Noble. Check out Cunt Sparrer's channel if you like Cock Sparrer. They cover all the great Cock Sparrer songs (and Billy Bragg) better than anyone else on YouTube. Here, the driving back beat of the song comes courtesy of their friend Evan playing two books and a shoebox.


It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding by Bob Dylan (Performed by Rachel Miele)


Sick and desperately in debt, Simon enters a shady, if not downright dangerous, situation. He breaks his own rule and meets one of his webcam clients at their apartment. The result is a bleak, chaotic fun house of drugged up twinks and rent boys. If you've never accidentally left a Dylan record on while sick with the flu—don't. Here, Dylan's chants haunt the already creepy space. In this video Rachel Miele manages to belt Dylan's quick-fire dystopian slam poem of a song with soul while keeping true to the terrifying vibe that lives within this song.


I'll be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground and Nico (Cover by Kimber Annie)


Thanks to his terrible experience in the sex funhouse, Simon meets his new best friend. For a moment there's a glimmer of hope in Simon's life. This is a song and a chapter about basking in the light of a special someone. It's about finding someone with whom you can be your true self. In Getting Off, that person is named Fat. In this video Kimber Annie breathes new energy into this song, giving it a little speed and heft, making it feel almost like a Violent Femmes song. Kimber Annie is one of the most impressive musicians on YouTube and she looks like a character that you wish you had written.


Children Play With Matches by Mischief Brew (Performed by Mae Danger)


Sometimes watching a person use the internet for the first time, seeing the look in their eyes as they realize the possibilities, can be like watching a kid handling his first pack of matches. This song was written by the great and dearly departed singer of Mischief Brew, Erik Petersen. Mae Danger plays this cautionary tale with childlike glee on the ukulele.


Children of God by AJJ (Performed by Adam Volpin)


Sean Bonnette of AJJ is, in my eyes, the great literary voice of today's musical landscape which is why I asked him to blurb Getting Off (and why he's got two songs on this list.) Every song he writes has the resonance and universality of a truly well-written short story. There's more vivid imagery in a single AJJ song than in all the popular music you can shake a stick at. Take the opening of this song, "In came the being born police to take the newly un-decaeased. I was the softened gaze upon a child of god. And the sky was full of teeth. Anticipating that sweet relief. I was the little engine that could I was a courtroom bomb sniffing dog." In this song Bonnette sings about a number of very specific, different living entities that exist in some post-apocalyptic world where the children all have USB ports in their arms that bleed sometimes. Despite all the humanity, they're all children of god. Whether or not you believe in a higher power, it's comforting to believe that we're connected, as if we are all some type of family. In this scene, Simon meets another lost child off Craigslist who does not give a fuck about any of that. Here, Adam Volpin wails on this sucker with a really cool accent. He really brings a new element to this cover with his off-kilter voice, all while keeping everything that makes this amazing song work and all while looking like the younger brother from Freaks and Geeks.


Funnel Of Love by Wanda Jackson (Performed by morkwa)


This is a song and a chapter about the inevitable. Here two strangers from different generations attempt to find some common ground before hurtling into an intimate and fumbling exchange. Wanda Jackson's song captures the foreboding that both these characters feel.  Morkwa's cover heightens the ominousness: she remains locked in an icy stare down at the camera for the entire performance. Check out this chapter at Joyland while you listen: http://www.joylandmagazine.com/regions/new-york/cookie-dough


Dean's Dream by The Dead Milkmen (Performed by Mike Scandle)


Ever driven through a neighborhood that feels exactly like the one you grew up in, even though it's clearly not? It's nice at first. Comforting. Then you quickly find yourself racing out of there feeling like you're about to get stuck forever. After crossing yet another boundary that he promised he'd never cross, Simon finds himself driving through such a neighborhood, feeling like every teacher he's ever had, every girl he's ever liked, and every bully he's ever known has a front row seat to his failure. Mike Scandle's frenzied Dead Milkmen cover will make you feel like you're racing your way out of your own suburban hell, trapped in a never-ending cul-de-sac.


Actor of Work by St. Vincent (Performed by Ema Chiswell)


St Vincent's music feels like a contradiction that somehow finds harmony. She has this ultra-classical voice that rides this weird, crunchy electronic wave. In this video, Ema Chiswell does some really creative guitar work and slathers it with deep, bluesy vocals. In this chapter, an actor attempts to act and it goes horribly wrong.


White Face Black Eyes by AJJ (Cover by Leftover Cake)


In this song, Sean Bonnette sings "love what you can until it dies." Simon tries to save a dying friendship in this scene, but he can't quite manage. Instead he lets it tear him apart, and his slow unraveling begins. Leftover Cake's classical voice reinvents this already sad song. Fortunately, there's a cute dog in the frame to focus on in case you get weepy.


Sappy by Nirvana (Performed by Oyefish)


Ever put on music that you have intended to be your own personal self-destruction soundtrack? Was it Nirvana? Addicts call it "going on a run." This song is the soundtrack to a run you won't soon forget. Oyefish belts this song out, channelling Cobain's signature growl.


The Hunger by The Distillers (Performed by moderndaywarrior3)


Bloodied and broken, Simon runs into an old friend who is even worse off than he is, even though he doesn't look it. Sometimes a person needs a glimpse into where they might end up to really look at where they're at. Moderdaywarrior3 has one of the strongest voices I've heard on YouTube. She smooths out the rough edges of this song, turning it into a lullaby.


Dying With Decent Music by The Paper Chase (Performed by Stephanie Fyfe


Imagine you could turn off every sensation of pain that you might undergo for a span of three or four years. Now imagine this even meant psychic and emotional pain. Now, imagine your time is up, and the monkey's-paw-irony of this hypothetical is that you now have to experience that entire four years' worth of pain all at once over the course of an evening. This is the soundtrack to that evening.The sound isn't great, but Stephanie Fyfe manages to embody the agony and insanity this song evokes. John Congleton makes the most haunting music there is right now. Covering this song and making it sound austere is no small feat.

Asleep by The Smith (Performed by Jo Wilde)


All terrible things must come to an end. Sleep, in this scene, is death's twin brother. Jo Wilde makes this song even more delicate and dreamy than it already is.


Boat Dreams from the Hill by Jawbreaker (Performed by Patrick Miller)


One day you wake up and everything seems possible. They say you're always a few bad choices away from living out your worst nightmare. The inverse is also true. One good choice can turn things around. This is a song about dreaming because it feels good to dream, even if your dream is impossible.


Generator by Bad Religion (Performed by Emily Davis)


Emily Davis is my personal Justin Bieber. From watching her on YouTube, I've become a super fan. She's got amazing Bad Religion covers as well as some songs by Against Me! Her voice is stunning. It reaches right through your computer screen and grabs you. The end of this book is a race, both in the narrative and as far as pacing is concerned. The chapters get shorter and more packed.


Pink + White by Frank Ocean (Performed by Mallory Cain)


The world starts to present itself to the main character in new ways as the ending approaches. For people who work hard to shut the world out, a moment of natural beauty can be all-encompassing and heartbreaking. For Simon, the birds are singing into Peavey amps with distortion pedals and the sky is like an Oculus strapped to his face. Frank Ocean is like a gift to the millennial generation. He's the best thing we got. Mallory Cain's performance here is so mesmerizingly beautiful, I feel like I'm going throw up every time I hear it.


Heroinsomnia by Closet Fiends


Sam Sadowski aka Closet Fiends was living on the street in San Francisco when her mother reached out to Fat Mike of NOFX and Sturgeon of Choking Victim and played them videos like this one. They were so moved by Sam's music that they searched for her so they could put out her music. This song is on Sam's debut EP on Fat. This is the only song that's not a cover on this list, but this video captures the raw vulnerability that only the best of these YouTube videos has. This song is like a modernized Woody Guthrie song. Only instead of the factory floor, or unemployment, or the dust storms, Sam sings about heroin detox. This struggle has become just as universal now as those things were to people back then. This song is neutral. It's open ended. Things just might work out for Sam, and for Simon, and for Fat, and maybe even you, too.


Jonathan Reiss and Getting Off links:

the author's website


also at Largehearted Boy:

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