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May 25, 2017

Book Notes - Brian Jabas Smith "Spent Saints"

Spent Saints

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.

Spent Saints is a remarkable debut collection by Brian Jabas Smith, filled with indelible, dark linked stories.

In his own words, here is Brian Jabas Smith's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Spent Saints:

Music connected me to worlds beyond my grasp, places that bloomed in daydreams, and later became real. If you listen hard enough, things happen. Music also nearly ruined my life a few times. But at a tender age it mostly changed me; taught me what to read, and how to think, and dream. Before books, and before sadnesses of living set in, there was the music.

This playlist loosely fits the short stories in this collection mainly because these were songs I listened to while writing them. Some fit the narratives and others the tone—from the punk rock to the wrenching soul ballads. In fact, each story has its own playlist in the book, some of which include 25 songs, so it was actually kind of difficult whittling those down for this. Still the songs aren't meant to enhance Spent Saints, but maybe to use as a kind of soundtrack, away from the book, like emotional bookmarks. Maybe that's bad. But that's how the songs work for me.

Some I listened to crazily, over and over and over, especially those that helped me to withdraw to that place where no one else exists, in that same melancholy corner I lived in as a kid. These are mostly older songs, which I use for contextual nostalgia that's usually not even my own, if that makes any sense. The songs often provide a weird longing where the writing lives.

Buzzcocks — "Why Can't I Touch It"
To me this is the most tender song from the punk-rock era, and not just because of the hypnotic bassline, but also because it's all yearning, sexual or otherwise. The main character, Rowdy, who awakens hungover on someone's front lawn in the story "Lost in the Supermarket" sees suburbia as a place where wounds heal not fester, and he regards it as a kind of pedestal of emotional and financial security. It's deception, of course, because suburbia, by its very design, is persuasive as hell if you've never enjoyed emotional or financial security. This song nailed me as a boy, defined the insecurities, and all the song's pretty major-key repetitiveness translated to a real, unending longing for me out in suburban Tucson where I grew up—a kind of doom against which art and music and books was no defense—where no one listened to The Buzzcocks. (If they found out you did, you'd get your head pounded for it.) Punk rock was truly subversive. It didn't fit there, and neither did Rowdy.

Gin Blossoms — "Lost Horizons"
Doug Hopkins, the Gin Blossoms founder, was one of my best friends when he committed suicide. His life (and death) had a huge impact on me, how I see things. Not a day goes by when I don't think about him. He was a hyper-literate, and funny-as-shit songwriter brilliant at creating singsong refrains and mountainous power-pop hooks from inexorable personal sadnesses and tragedies. This song, which, incidentally, Hopkins had pieced together from two of his older ones, rises on lovely lines like, "Turn summer trees to bones and ice/Turn insect songs against the night." Whole song is lyrical wonder, and it's difficult to believe such lines populate a '90s college-rage album that sold millions of copies. Think of this: "She had nothing left to say/So she said she loved me/And I stood there grateful for the lie/I'll drink enough of anything to make this world look new again." That's what we did, and we were "Drunk, drunk, drunk in the gardens and the graves." His lust for life matched a fascination with its cryptic flipside, the drinking enabled and crippled him. Hopkins influence on these stories is undeniable, and this song fits any in this collection, but is best suited to the suburbia of "Lost in the Supermarket," and the ending of "Eye for Sin" where an Arizona sunrise on citrus groves sparks a rare flash of hope that dovetails a malt-liquor buzz and a crystal-meth high. This song has haunted me since the day Hopkins pieced it together, back in Tempe, Arizona, all those years ago.

Tim Hardin — "Black Sheep Boy"
The hard-living Tim Hardin penned this in the early to mid-'60s, which placed him ahead of Dylan and the era's folkies in terms of detailing personal alienation. The theme's in the title, and Hardin shows us, lullaby-like, deep personal turmoil in deceptively simple singsong turns. It is mind-boggling simplicity filled with ache, and the lyrics helped me to connect to Spent Saints' main character Julian —a kid wholly disconnected from family, and anyone his age.

Big Star – "Thirteen"
Shows the innocence in young Julian, the bike-racing champ who bailed on high school and summer swimming pools and the promise of girls, and any semblance of normalcy, to suffer on the bike. In a weird out-of-time nostalgic way, this song sweetly offers up the innocence Julian missed out on.

The Clash — "Stay Free"
In "The Grand Prix" Julian triumphantly defies athletic odds and a crippling loop of parental abuse, literally and metaphorically. The biggest riffs are for the finale. To me, this is the greatest Clash song; a vulnerable Mick Jones loss-of-innocence yarn that doubles neatly as a regret-tinged and tender-aged backward gaze. White boy in suburban palais, indeed.

Graham Nash — "Wounded Bird"
My big sister wore the grooves off this when I was a little boy. There's inescapable sadness in Nash's unsullied voice here, which also somehow triggers nostalgia that couldn't be my own. The best music and fiction rattles like that. This one's for Southern California, especially canyons Benedict, Topanga and Laurel, to uphold the heartbreak and downed dreams in Spent Saints' title story.

Sparklehorse — "Someday I Will Treat You Good"
Julian's heroin-addict wife in the title story, which is set in 1999 or so, can only offer promises. Julian's interior voice has yet to throttle him—he's still a budding alchy at this point—so he fancies himself her savior. The song is a stomping yet brooding (and ironic) powerhouse that suits the story's obvious allegory: Like glints of old Hollywood celebrity, and the mechanics of the music industry in 1999, and a failing young marriage, the future is abject misery.

Dennis Wilson — "Love Remember Me"
After Pet Sounds, Dennis Wilson came into his own as a songwriter and producer, and he was also pals with Charlie Manson, pre-Tate murders, which went down around the corner from where most of the title story is set. Dennis's voice could convey real melancholy, which he spent most of his songwriting life trying to articulate. That audible struggle made him an incredible singer and songwriter because it was honest, real, unironic. We can hear that struggle in pretty much everything he recorded after Pet Sounds, as a Beach Boy and solo. When you sense that tension, as a reader or writer or listener, you know you're onto something. All my favorite writers had that. Dennis's struggle is powerful to me; led to the inspiration of this story. This song upholds my unyielding fascination with haunted L.A.—from the Manson girls to old Buk to The Weirdos to Rodney on the Roc. It's a drive along Mulholland at twilight, the scent of blossoms in the air. It's the ghosts of troubled drunks in the L.A. canyons—the John Barrymores, the Veronica Lakes, the Alice Coopers, the John Gilberts, and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

Beach Boys — "Never Learn Not to Love"
The Dennis Wilson co-write with Charlie Manson could be the most eerie pop song ever recorded, with lyrics upholding Manson's philosophies of submission: "Cease to exist …. Give up your world/C'mon and be with me." The Beach Boys drone-y soundscapes, harmonies and echoes, and barely audible hair-raising yelps rise to a sonic release that's as creepy as the Hollywood Hills are haunted. The title story is place-based allegory.

Curtis Mayfield — "Wild and Free"
My fave Curtis Mayfield song, buried deep on the 1970 Curtis album. It's a beautiful civil rights rally cry, but it's also a romantic and spiritual quest. So, in the title story, the tune represents the flipside to celebrity and stardom-chasing. It soundtracks a bunch of rock 'n' roll kids slipping nervously into a sleazy universe ruled by a shyster Hollywood dream merchant oblivious to Tinseltown's tragic, sad and broken past. More, the vocal-answering trumpet in the verses makes my stomach surge. I've listened insanely over and over to get that surge when I write.

Dan Stuart — "Gap Toothed Girl"
The story "Eye for Sin" features a woman who snorted larvae-rich meth and worms had eaten away half of her mouth and nasal passage. Her neglected teeth were forever visible. I knew of a person to whom this actually happened. This purposely droll inclusion was penned by former Green on Red frontman Dan Stuart, a helluva songsmith, and also a gifted writer.

Alice Cooper — "You Drive Me Nervous"
The story "Eye for Sin" centers on a hyper-tense meth score gone haywire and features a Nazi called Jesus and his pregnant tweaker girlfriend. It shows how crystal obliterates all beauty in the world. This song's noose-like wind-up of squalling guitars, Stones-y swagger and Cooper's Budweiser-drenched howls sonically defines the bone-ache anxiety of jonesing for speed, and explodes into a thrilling glam slam, which was punk rock way back in 1972.

Aimee Mann — "Phoenix"
This gentle string-stoked epistle to escape transcends the DUIs and barrio nights in Phoenix where the story "No Wheels" takes place. Where everybody feels ready to be traded in.

David Garza — "Lost"
A song that's muted and exuberant. There's a warm, brooding glow in the whispered vocals and hushed choruses, and it makes a sentimental yet slightly weather-beaten entry for the story "The Delivery Man."

Dope Lemon — "How Many Times"
A wonderfully repetitive and floating druggy jam for "The Delivery Man," where the story's only hope is the brown-uniformed UPS man. He's a kind of fucked-up totemic angel offering redemption where hell had already descended.

The Bee Gees — "Edge of the Universe"
This peculiarly beautiful song links early psych Bee Gees to their later R&B and disco world takeover. There's whimsy, loneliness and joy. I always somehow likened it to new sobriety, yet in an ironic way it works for Spent Saints' darkest passage, where Julian and Serena are strung out on porn and meth in "The Delivery Man."

The Ramones — "Ramona"
Serena, the female protagonist in several Spent Saints stories, lived and breathed The Ramones—her stripper stage name is Ramona. Julian fell in love with her dancing to early Ramones in the story "Grams."

T. Rex — "Jupiter Liar"
Shows there was real soul in Bolan's gold velvet trou, despite purposely juvenile and cockeyed wordplay—it really is a funny little love song inside its sauntering sexual groove. Heard this overlooked T. Rex gem with all the nude dancers in "Grams."

Esther Phillips — "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher"
Esther Phillips' rare mid-'70s R&B/dancefloor stab wasn't a hit for her, but it did hit huge for Detroiter Jackie Wilson years before. Imbued with a crazy-hypnotic bass groove and a glimmering sentiment rooted in southern gospel and soul … this version is pure euphoria. It always reminds me of the soul of Detroit, an invisible player in "Old Ladies in Church Hats."

The Osmonds — "Crazy Horses"
If ever there was an Osmonds statement song, it's this one. (Hell, it's one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs ever, partly because it is The Osmonds.) But in my mind, it's all about the frightening, meth-blooded crazies dealing in west Phoenix hoods, in the stories "Grams" and "Eye for Sin."

Mott the Hoople — "Angel of Eighth Avenue"
There's no escaping Mott The Hoople's cross of Dylan, The Band and glitter rock, and this is the first in a string of brilliant Ian Hunter ballads where imagery and melody define longing. We hear Hunter's beating heart beneath each line, each chord change, each tinkling piano run. Takes me to Serena, especially in "Grams," and that motherhood sadness and fading grace.

Barbara Lynn — "This is the Thanks I Get"
She's a left-handed African-American female guitarist and soul singer from Texas who wrote her own songs. And she released this in 1968. You don't think the odds were stacked against her? For starters, nobody should underestimate quite how difficult it was touring the Jim Crow south as a black musician. Had Lynn been white she would've ruled the world, and there isn't a white singer on earth who could touch her. This sweet soul side sports toughness beneath the sugar, a bra-burning fuck-you to her neglectful man. It reminds me of elderly ladies in Detroit, especially Gurvene, the character in "Old Ladies in Church Hats." These descendants of southern slavery lived through poverty and racism and riots and murder, and were tough and gentle and true. This song takes me right to Detroit, and was a solid accompaniment to the writing of the story.

Doris Duke — "I Don't Care Anymore"
The withering personal worldview in this stunner is absolutely unequalled by any soul or pop song. It's a bizarrely bouncy tune of utter hopelessness, where only two emotional dots are connected—bleakness and doom. It's about a woman arriving in a city like Detroit from "the deep south when the mills shut down." Her winding journey ultimately sees her emotionally cracked on a bumpy prostitute mattress thinking she's better off dead. Hard to believe it was ever green-lit for recording. The tone suits the mid-story desperation and withdrawals in "Old Ladies in Church Hats."

The Temptations "I Wish It Would Rain"
Spent Saints story "Ghosts and Fireflies" unwinds in Detroit, a city whose life-long inhabitants show tremendous will and strength. Wish for rain to hide the tears sounds like self-pity but in Detroit it's a sentiment rooted in something deeper, and only David Ruffin, probably my favorite singer ever, can handle it. (The song's lyricist committed suicide not long after writing this, and before he could see the tune become a huge hit in the '60s.)

Todd Snider — "All of My Life"
One of the weightiest love confessionals I've ever heard. There's zero irony, yet it never dips into the maudlin; just a voice, organ and acoustic, and heart-stinging lyric. It works as Julian ties off "Ghosts and Fireflies" with, finally, a gracious, life-affirming realization. The realization holds through the Lord Huron song below.

Lord Huron — "Ends of the Earth"
The heart-swelling sentiment here lifts, turns euphoric. It's as pure a love song as ever been written.

Ronnie Lane — "Roll on Babe"
No one in rock 'n' roll could capture bittersweetness better than this man, who happened to be the heart and soul in the mighty Faces. This is one of those melancholy songs that can make you cry and laugh at the same time. I like to dream it was written for my character Serena.

Velvet Crush — "Time Wraps Around You"
And few managed melancholy powerpop better than this hugely ignored band. Its guitars sway gently but it's hardly light-hearted, which is why it works for young Cassidy, the girl who survives crushing loss in "Sirens."

Karen Dalton — "Something on Your Mind"
This droning, violin-stoked gem is better than the Velvet Underground and it weirdly (and beautifully) channels a more-tattered Nina Simone and, somehow, forgotten Oklahoma writer Tillie Olsen, one of my all-time faves. The song is tough, working class, and sweetly pristine, sort of like Serena in "Sirens."

Billy Sedlmyar — "Tucson Kills"
This scarily lovely glimpse into youth and the rattling hedonistic side of Tucson, Arizona brims with ache and regret. Fits the story "Sirens" beautifully—there's an end-of-the-world futility so apparent in the Virgin of Guadalupe grottos and chain-link yards in Tucson hoods, in the searing Sonoran Desert. It's dusted with Tucson references to the point of mythology—from the fading 6th Avenue whores and scoring dope in barrios to "going crazy" in prison yards and a legendary hotel fire that killed nearly 30 people. The production is sweetly spare and the mournful Mexican horns kick up goosebumps handily.

Emmylou Harris — "May This Be Love"
Daniel Lanois producing country-rock goddess Emmylou covering Hendrix. It's a droning sonic wonder. A late-night window-down roll through southwestern desert highways, where life feels unending, no drugs or alcohol needed. It's also a bond of a mother whose inner wounds still rarely keep her daughters at arm's length, until the "Sirens" come.

Brian Jabas Smith and Spent Saints links:

the author's website
the book's website
excerpt from the book

Phoenix New Times profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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