April 11, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Max Winter's debut novel Exes is cleverly put together, compulsively readable, and poignant.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Fans of David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System will find this novel-in-fragments to be equally irreverent and peppered with a similarly absurd cast of characters. . . . It begs readers to ask what seemingly futile details mean in the context of life and suicide."
Like the heartsick teen turned record store asshole I must still be, I've spent the fifteen years it took to write Exes also making mental versions of this mixtape. But because it's already hard enough for someone like me to make these kinds of choices, when it came time to make them for real, I had to lay down some ground rules, like no diegetic music—of which my book contains a fair amount, much of it frankly and intentionally awful, not to mention jarring and gross when actually listened to in the order it appears on the page.
But sadly another rule turned out to be no Providence music, as most of what fits with my book is just about Internet-proof, and, for me, Providence music has always been all or nothing. So that means no "Temptation," by (yes, that) Sam Lipsyte's every-bit-as-hard-to-believe-then-but-for-different-reasons Dungbeetle. (He went by Sam Shit, and wore a cape.) But no "Get Up and Go" by Thee Hydrogen Terrors, or Shanghai Tang covering "Cracked Actor," either. Not even Six Finger Satellite's "Man Behind the Glasses," which was absolutely not recorded at the state prison as the 7" claims, but was also never recorded properly, a choice which may have, in part, led to the guitar player's sudden departure, depending on who you believe. Fucking Providence, man. You could write a book about it…
And so in the end, it was pretty simple: the songs had to sound like the chapters themselves. I know, duh. But missing the point at first and making things harder than they need to be and taking the long way around and getting super fucking lost along the way has, for me, always been what it's all about.
1. "Side By Each"
"Fear is a Man's Best Friend," John Cale
While waiting, fearfully, to hear back on the sale of my book, I pretty much only listened to this song—about fear, of course, but also about waiting. Then I figured it out on guitar, much to the chagrin of my wife and my son. But these days "Fear is a Man's Best Friend" mostly makes me think of Clay Blackall, simultaneously damaged and sustained by his fear, like that duck at Roger Williams Park that had an arrow through it. Removing it would have killed him, but he wound up living longer than anyone expected. They never caught the archer.
"Heaven", Talking Heads
For the most part I find lyrics to be unimportant—barely even hear them—a fact which only someone who hasn't played in rock bands would find surprising. Even coming from a writer. No, all that matters to me is that the lyrics don't detract from the music, for one reason or another: racism/sexism/homophobia, general idiocy, "party" as verb. Lyrics are like sausage casing, or whatever essential element it is you mostly only hope not to notice too much: contraception, garlic, acting. (That said, I do like our local Saugy franks, where the unmistakable snap is half the point.)
There is a party
Everyone is there
Everyone will leave
At exactly the same time
may very well be the best lines ever written about the hopeful self-delusion of the socially-anxious drinker. In this chapter, the Judge Reinhold-impersonating Vince Vincent is so afraid he'll miss something that nothing itself becomes a reasonable—even desirable—alternative. Like Nietzsche says, "Man would rather will nothingness, than not will at all." In the moment, our self-destructive habits have a way of making perfect sense; we're all afraid of something.
(Also, every Rhode Islander knows that Talking Heads are a New York band, not a Providence band, so, no, they don't count.)
"The 15th", Wire
These interchapters are where Clay searches for his late brother, Eli, and finds him where he least expects, which only makes it harder for him to stop looking all the places he shouldn't, like we do with lost keys. "The 15th" is a perfect, impossible song—at once stately and nervous—about searching for something that turns out not to be there by a band that could only search; could only ever exist in a state of becoming, a state of change. When they first reunited for shows, in the mid-‘80s, they hired a Wire cover band to play their old songs, and they just played the new ones—a gesture that could just as easily be called perverse as its opposite. But the worst part of a search is when it gets called off. The only non-hateful word I won't let my students use is closure.
4. "Twinrock Caretakers Log"
"The Endless Sea," Iggy Pop
It took me way too long to give New Values a shot. But only because The Stooges are my favorite band, and because Lust for Life is my favorite record whenever Fun House isn't. (Not for nothing, my wife gives me endless shit for calling whatever I'm listening to/reading/watching at the moment "my favorite", but isn't that how it works? Every great taco is the best taco when you really want a taco and you're finally eating one.) But goddamned if this isn't my favorite Iggy song right now—one that evokes Twinrock Caretaker Rob Nolan's mixed feelings about the sea, increasingly hard for him to separate from his current line of work. But we've all done things we're not proud of when we're tight for the rent. And there's a reason we say "afforded me a view."
5. (… …)
"Always Crashing in the Same Car," David Bowie
Okay, a little on the nose, given the serial car crashes described in this chapter, but duh. Bowie knows that a song about driving 94mph in a parking garage must be slow. Because if it all hadn't seemed much too slow then you wouldn't have felt the need to drive so fast. This is just how it feels: you see everything, even what you couldn't possibly see, then you crash.
This song is as soft and warm as flesh, as gauzy as memory. You can hear what Kim Deal misses.
It recently occurred to me that this is the only song on the whole playlist recorded in the ‘90s, the decade during which most of Exes takes place. But I'm okay with it, because that's the whole point, no? Plus, if anyone's going to represent then, then it might as well be Kim Deal, whose voice is so clear, so honest, so completely unmannered that sometimes it hurts. I know that cracking voices are, like, a thing now, but Deal's voice cracks for real, the way voices sometimes will, and for all the same reasons. The song doesn't so much start as they start playing it, and it ends in much the same way—like it's somehow always there, just waiting to be sung, so for two and-a-half minutes they do. Every story is a ghost story.
7. (… …)
"Avalanche," Leonard Cohen
The aural equivalent of a painting where the eyes follow you. Even the guitar—more typically an afterthought for the actual poet Cohen—is, here, a menacing presence. Hell, "Avalanche" even earns its overwrought strings, the falsest, most pretentious kind of overdubs, generally, after gospel and/or children's choirs. And his singing! You all but look away from that hump. "What rags?" You think, hurt.
8. "Louder Than Good"
When I was on tour with Songs: Ohia, after an odd, sparsely-attended show at Bennington—there was a Hawkwind jam, and the whole thing nearly got shut down by campus police when Oneida promised a free radar detector to whoever got naked—we spent the night in an 18th Century farmhouse belonging to who the hell knows. Right before we turned in, our host mentioned something about the place being haunted, which might have been a joke but is exactly the kind of thing you shouldn't joke about with Jason Molina ever, but especially not before bed. Next morning, we found Jason in the van, where he'd been since four, cranking Master of Puppets on repeat. "I saw the ghost," he told us. Then we went and got pancakes at the best place for pancakes. Jason Molina could see ghosts and not sleep and eat pancakes like you read about.
9. (… …)
"Waves of Fear," Lou Reed
The first time I dropped out of college, I compulsively listened to The Blue Mask—a then-old ten-years old—and only three or four times to Nevermind, released that same fall. I don't hate guitar solos the way so many people of my generation like to say they do, but this Robert Quine guitar solo is the greatest guitar solo ever recorded precisely because it does the exact opposite of almost every other guitar solo while still being, identifiably, a guitar solo. Hell, I even love the corny stop-time part. But that bit's pure Lou. He never gave a single shit what anyone thought; just followed his first impulse wherever it led him. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it really didn't—but that when it did, it did so perfectly, was all that mattered to him.
10. "Class History"
"I'm Straight," Modern Lovers
Drugs are but a pretext for this song's larger objections. Because what Jonathan Richman is really asking is, "Why him, and not me?" He's hurt and angry, but mostly confused. Like Jacob Deinhardt. Like every teenaged boy, on some level, at some point or another, whether or not we'll admit it now.
We like to talk about how some things gain importance over time—and when they do, well, hey, that's just great, isn't it—or how some other things will surely lose their importance—and that's really too bad, or very much for the best, depending—but if we're being honest the most important things were just as important then as they still are now.
Point being, when determining how we now feel about something potentially embarrassing from our pasts, we oughtn't disregard how we felt at the time. Or as Tobias Wolff puts it in his great short story "Smorgasbord", which not for nothing concerns memories of high school, we should take care not to look back on our youthful feelings with "wintry smiles." Because this kind of cynical revisionism is the exact opposite of nostalgia and, as such, every bit as poisonous. We think of hindsight strictly as clarity at some risk. "There was nothing foolish about what we felt," Wolff's narrator reminds us. Yes. We were no fools back then.
11. (… …)
"The Calvary Cross," Richard Thompson
I have no idea what this song is about—at least not from a lyrical standpoint. Is it about Christ? Sadomasochism? Is there even a difference? Hell, half the time I can't even keep track of who the "you" is. But musically, I get it. I think. What I do know is there was a time when, every weekend, I would leave the bar, and walk to the practice space, and play this song over and over—with the most half-assed imaginable approximation of that lovely B-Bender-ish part that opens it—and sometimes the next morning I'd remember having played it.
"Starless," King Crimson
It probably goes without saying that in order to put this playlist together I first had to make peace with the unforgivable self-aggrandizement of declaring any of these songs reflective of my book.
So, yeah, "Starless…" Well, why not? While revising this chapter for the next to last time I must've listened to it thirty times in a row. It helped with the fight scene, and with what followed. It's the kind of song where if you happen to get distracted by something else, at some point you look up and say, "Wait, is this still the same fucking song?" But happily, you ask. Because holy shit!
(Also, for those collecting Notable-For-Their-Absence Exes Playlist Perversion Points, every Red fan—who may or may not also be a King Crimson fan, as Red is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the "Non-Fan-Favorite"—knows that there's also an amazing song on this record titled "Providence.")
13. (… …)
"Providence," Sonic Youth
People today don't know or else don't remember just how hard it could be to get a hold of someone in the late ‘80s. If nothing else, this song continues to preserve that information for the future. This is pretty much exactly what it was like:
"I'm downstairs from your window… If you're up… Pub. phone booth. If you're up…"
At first it's about needing someplace to crash or maybe grabbing breakfast. Then about accidentally throwing something important out. It sounds like Chinatown, in 1988, but it also sounds like 10:30 at night in Providence, Rhode Island:
"Did you find your shit? …We were wondering if you looked in that trashcan? …Call later, bye."
"The Kiss," Judee Sill
Judee Sill was either the best or worst case scenario for your substitute math teacher or babysitter. As is typical of Sill, there's a lot of noise here, lyrically—Millennial Christianity, UFO's, wait, what?—but the musical, emotional signals are as loud and clear as can be. The first time I heard this song, I cried and I cried. I hadn't even known I was sad. Maybe I wasn't.
15. (… …)
"I'll Keep it With Mine," (Instrumental – Take 9, 1966), Bob Dylan
For the same reason that people have a hard time with a writer who doesn't really give a shit about lyrics, some are also surprised by that same writer, a lifelong Bob Dylan fan, having no opinion whatsoever about the recent Nobel win—and a writer who's listened to Dylan sing as much as he's listened to anyone not in his immediate family talk, no less. But my lack of opinion has almost nothing to do with how little I care about prizes—unless someone I know and/or who really needs the money is up for one, of course, in which case I'm rooting harder than anyone. Nor does it concern the whole tedious question of "are song lyrics poetry?" No, I mostly don't care because I happen to think Dylan's a better singer than he is a lyricist.
It's all in his phrasing—weird, ever-shifting, alive to the unfolding musical moment in surprising, inimitable ways. We can disagree about Dylan's ever-sketchier pitch and timbre, but the real point is that he makes even the opaquest shit—everything from "confusion boats" to "jewels and binoculars [that] hang from the head of the mule" and "trainloads of fools bogged down in a magnetic field"—seem as specific as hell. Only he can sing lines like these convincingly. His lyrics are like deep-sea creatures that, when brought to the surface, fall apart; his delivery is the pressure that shapes and sustains them. So we see what he sees, feel what he feels. Because we can hear him seeing it, hear him feeling it.
And even here, when he's not there, you can't not hear him.
16. "The Quaker Guns"
"Final Solution" Pere Ubu
This song has always been about solving problems of your own creation—and not about the Holocaust. It also happens to be the most exciting song ever recorded, an excitement which, amazingly, has as much to do with the bass as it does with the more plainly flashy guitars and keyboards and drums and vocals and even the backing vocals, all of which are perfect. But there have never been any words for what Peter Laughner's doing here—that triumphant but also heart-broken melody eventually rising up from the still-shocking din. It was first and last shot in the studio and, in two years, he'd be dead. How is that even possible? Exes could just as easily be set in Cleveland.
17. (… …)
"Time," Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Richard Hell is at the top of the list of famous people—above even Hank Greenberg and Lauren Bacall—that I wish I'd known were Jewish. He used to come into Venus Records when I worked there, sometimes with his daughter, who pretty clearly thought of him only as Dad. He lived a few blocks away, in the same apartment from the cover of Destiny Street. He still lives there, I think.
Not for nothing, my book starts with an epigraph by Richard Hell—not from a song lyric, even though he wrote some great ones, but from an op-ed, written after they'd just shuttered CBGB, where he and so many like him—though who's like him?—got their start. (It's an expensive clothes store now; Iggy models for them.) So it feels fitting to close with Hell's best song.
But more pertinently this also happens to the best song ever written about time, especially as it relates to those who feel, for whatever reason, the desperate need to account for its passage:
Only time can write a song that's really really real
The best a man can say is how its play on him does feel
And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals
Anyway, Exes is about time, about how every time is many times all at once, and about how there is no such thing as a single point in it. Time is the city we all live in, and we can all see our old house from here.
Thanks for listening.
Max Winter and Exes links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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