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July 28, 2017

Book Notes - David Gessner "Ultimate Glory"

Ultimate Glory

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.

David Gessner's memoir Ultimate Glory is a compelling coming-of age story and fascinating exploration of competitive Ultimate Frisbee.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"[A] lively and honest coming-of-age story. . . . An exploration of the questing desires of the young heart, Ultimate Glory should be recommended reading for every college student. A 20-something, unsure whether to listen to the yearnings of the soul, might find answers in Gessner's chase of a flying plastic disc."

In his own words, here is David Gessner's Book Notes music playlist for his book Ultimate Glory:

Ultimate Glory is the true story of my obsession with winning the National Championship in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee and with the wild tribe of Ultimate players who made up my community during that quest. Those years were 1979 through 1996 and that is reflected in my playlist. So many songs seemed so important back then that putting together this list has been more about pruning than creating. This was also the time when I was first trying to become a writer, which meant I had two ridiculous obsessions I was throwing myself into, and writing for me was inseparable from listening to music, often loud music to get me going and out of my brain.

I looked at the Book Notes of other authors before I sat down to write this and I was impressed by the overall level of obsession. I thought I was alone in listening to one album over and over for the course of entire books, but not so. For me the undisputed king, the album I have listened to thousands of times over many thousands of hours writing and more than a dozen books (not all published), is the concert album, Stop Making Sense, by Talking Heads. (I was just scolded by a friend for calling them The Talking Heads in the book; is he right?) My musical taste apparently petrified around the time I stopped playing Ultimate and the only relatively contemporary artist who I've locked onto for obsessive listening is Beck, first with Sea Change and more recently Morning Phase. (Of listening repeatedly to those less-than-upbeat albums my wife has said: “I'm amazed you didn't kill yourself.”)

Anyway, I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to mull on this and to be reminded how intrinsically intertwined music has been for me with the making of books.


“Girlfriend is Better” Talking Heads

There is nowhere else to start. Instead of explaining why, I could just quote the whole song right here. For starters: “I…Who took the money? Who took the money away? I…It's always showtime here at the edge of the stage?” Though I started playing in college, it was after college and after the money and support was taken away, that I was really up there on the edge of the stage. The lyrics “stop making sense” might well have been the anthem of my twenties, both as an Ultimate player and a writer, as I tried to break out of my overheated head and into….what? Something primal maybe, something unthinking certainly. Moments were my gold. (“Takes over slowly/but doesn't last very long”) This song helped. So did mushrooms but that's another story.

Oh, and the girlfriend part. Whether she was better was debatable, but that she was a large part of those years is undeniable.

“Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti, Ayn Robbins and Carol Connors

Would I have even got the idea that I could be great in Ultimate without watching Rocky three years before I started playing? Possibly, since I had a strong streak of megalomania. But what I wanted from Ultimate—the work, the training, the persistence and finally the exhilaration and flight—was all laid out like a template back in that movie, even down to the gray baggy sweats and pre-gym muscles.

“I'm a Rocker” Bruce Springsteen

If picking “Born to Run” weren't like picking “Stairway to Heaven” then that might have been my choice. My freshman roommates and I would crank up Bruce on the stereo on Friday after a week of class and, as corny as it sounds, would use brooms and tennis rackets for guitars as we celebrated the beginning of the weekend. It wasn't until sophomore year that The River came out and if I didn't instinctively love it the way I did Darkness, or the way I later loved Nebraska, it did mark the occasion of the only two times I saw Bruce live, courtesy of my roommate Dan. This was two nights in a row, Providence and Boston. On the second night, he opened with “Point Blank,” to commemorate the shooting of John Lennon, which, if memory serves, happened earlier that day. Later in the concert the Garden was strangely quiet and I yelled at the top of my lungs “What are you Bruce?” I swear he launched into “I'm a Rocker” in response. Probably just a coincidence, but…

“Is This Love?” Bob Marley

Then came mushrooms. And reggae. It was my good fortune to have a red-headed Harvard physics genius who lived over a reggae club as my spirit guide during those early trips. There won't be many slow songs on this list since it isn't a slow song book, but Marley and Tosh will always bring back memories of rain beating on the roof of the van down in D.C. and of seeing the psychedelic tail of a disc as it flew through the air, carrying with it the possibility of a counter life.

“Rudie Can't Fail” The Clash

In the early 80s the two great Boston ultimate teams, the teams I watched after my team was eliminated from tournaments, were The Rude Boys and The Hostages. I ended up playing in more than a few of those battles, but it was the ones I watched that might have affected me even more. “Rudie Can't Fail” was the Rude Boy anthem, but the first year, 1981, they did fail, spectacularly, to the underdog Hostages. The next year, however, they proved the anthem true, winning both the National and first World Championships.

“No More Heroes” The Stranglers

In the end I chose The Hostages, the grubby underdogs, which meant living in Boston with fifteen new friends and also meant a whole new world of music that included the Jam, the Minutemen, the Sex Pistols, Camper Van Beethoven, the Violent Femmes, and dozens of more new bands or bands new to me. I picked this song to represent that time because it is fun—“No more Shakespearos”—but I also picked it ironically. As I flailed away at life and career, heroes were everything to me, both those of the literary and Frisbee-playing sort, with the end goal, seemingly impossible, of achieving the heroic myself.

“I am Superman” REM

Before the crash came the rise. “The one thing they don't tell you about hubris is how good it feels.” The first fall with the Hostages was, in memory at least, a golden age and I was full of myself. I thought of choosing “You're so Vain” for this spot, but that's not it exactly. I'm not saying I'm not vain, just that it is something else, something more particular, that I'm trying to get at here. Some feeling of being, however briefly, indomitable, unbeatable. Of course we all know what comes after that…


“Whatever's For Us” Joan Armatrading

Memory is untrustworthy but I will let this song and singer stand in for the relationship that would span most of my twenties. There were some unpleasant moments in that relationship, that I have chronicled in the book, but there were delightful moments too.

“My Way” Sid Vicious

I'll take Sid's version over Frank's.

It's starting to occur to me that this is one weird album I'm putting together. Armatrading followed by Vicious. Well those were weird times. As I say in the book, I wanted to be a renaissance man, a writer, an intellectual, but very clearly I also wanted to be something else. That something else kept winning out.

Two by the Clash:
“Death or Glory” and “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)"

Both driving, sing-along songs that I sang along to many times. “Death or Glory” later became the team name of the dominant Boston team that won many championships. “Train in Vain” with its “didn't stand by me” chorus is one of the greatest angry at soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend songs of all time.

“Brandy” Looking Glass

I write in the book: “I don't know why 'Brandy' affected, and still affects, me so, I only know that it had become the closest thing I had to a personal theme song. I sang it sarcastically for years but now it seemed suffused with real emotion. That night I told people it was the song I wanted played at my funeral (and please note, friends who are reading this, I still do).”

This was the song that I sang with the women's team the wild night I first stole the microphone, the song I sang on my birthday a week after my operation for cancer. And it was the song that I paid almost 800 bucks out of pocket for so I could include the lyrics in the book.

Sadly, my relationship with the song has changed. Never underestimate the power of pop culture to cheapen those things we hold dear, even when those things are fruits of pop culture. “Brandy” was usurped by the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, which came out a month before my book did. I'm not sure I want it played at my funeral anymore.

“Rocky Mountain High” John Denver

Speaking of pop culture, I can't neglect this one. The move west at thirty was a move toward health, a move to a new place and a new self. “I was born in the summer of my 27th year,” John warbled. For me it was my 30th. The arc of the book's narrative did not allow me to spend as much time as I would have liked on my Colorado teammates. Maybe there will be a sequel…..

“Every Day I Write the Book” Elvis Costello

It's all there in the title. Steve Mooney, one of the greatest Ultimate players of all time, takes some hits early in the book. But he emerges as the book's hero, I think, because of his consistency, persistence and effort. “For us there is only the trying,” wrote T.S. Eliot. I may not have ever achieved those things in Ultimate but as I left the sport behind I tried to, every day, as a writer.

“Glory Days” Bruce Springsteen

No need to explain. We were great, we really were. Come have a beer with us and we will tell you all about it.

***Bonus track: “Old Man” Neil Young****

Because I just had to get Neil in there. And because I'm old now.

David Gessner and Ultimate Glory links:

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

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Here and Now interview with the author
Men's Journal interview with the author
Wisconsin Public Radio interview with the author
WUNC interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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