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March 14, 2018

Book Notes - Stephen Kuusisto "Have Dog, Will Travel"

Have Dog, Will Travel

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stephen Kuusisto's Have Dog, Will Travel is a moving and lyrical memoir.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[An] irresistible portrait of his first guide dog, Corky...Kuusisto's ever-lyrical writing pulses with lush imagery and unflagging curiosity. There’s no doubt: Kuusisto's love for Corky, and love itself, become a filter through which to perceive the world—and what a deeply compassionate, beautifully observed world it is."

In his own words, here is Stephen Kuusisto's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Have Dog, Will Travel:

Have Dog, Will Travel is about finding one’s way. Though its a memoir about my experience learning to navigate with a superb guide dog the book references music in several places.

As a schoolboy whose blindness was isolating, I’d retire to my room and listen to all kinds of things, both on the radio and LPs. When I was thirteen I discovered Duke Ellington. Even today I can’t adequately express how liberating that was. Ellington’s sinuous, unbowed, symphonic complexities washed over me.

“Diminuendo in Blue”

The best recording of this is from Ellington at Newport: 1956. The tenor sax of Paul Gonsales busts down the barn door and lets the horses run. The bass of Jimmy Woode and the hot shot drumming of Sam Woodyard make smoke—then Duke’s piano flies in.

The memoir has several threads. There’s a disabled kid who grows up with alcoholic parents. They tell him he shouldn’t be blind. It takes this boy-turned-man far too long to figure out that if he wanted a big life he’d better learn how to be himself. This is the customary stuff of many personal narratives but for me it meant daring to be physically different—overtly so—walking with a white cane and then getting a remarkable dog. When a guide dog trainer named Dave See (yes!) visited me to find whether I was a good candidate for a guide dog, he saw the hundred or so compact disks stacked neatly by my stereo. He asked me what kind of music I liked. I was self conscious. Should I tell him I liked grand opera? Jazz? The Clash? Suddenly I said: I like Eric Clapton, but not the Clapton from Cream, but the later Clapton from Derek and the Dominoes. Dave said, “Got to get better in a little while!”

“Key to the Highway”

Made famous by Big Bill Broonzy the Clapton version attacks this song with the electric blues. Could there be a better tune for a man who’s working with a fast moving and confident dog who knows how to navigate New York City traffic?

I got the key to the highway,
Billed out and bound to go.
I'm gonna leave here running;
Walking is most too slow.

After getting a remarkable guide dog named Corky—a big yellow Labrador—I went to the famous MacDowell Colony for the Arts in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Corky and I were the first guide dog team to have a residency at this wonderful retreat for artistes of all kinds. I ate dinner with several classical composers. Someone asked: “What’s your dog’s favorite music?” And of course, unable to resist a bad pun, I said: “Puccini, of course.”

"Un bel di, vedremo"

While I love Giacomo Puccini’s famous tenor arias, to me there’s no more poetic and heartbreaking song than this one from Act II of Madame Butterfly. While all the great sopranos have sung this, including Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballe, and Renata Tebaldi, my favorite performance is by Leontyne Price.

During my first solo trip to Manhattan with guide dog Corky I hit a jazz club. While I wish I could say I heard Thelonious Monk that night, I heard folks playing his tunes. There are some things that never let you down. For me Monk’s “Criss Cross” hits all the joy spots. Fast, precocious, a perfect melding of sax and sharp piano—piano that thinks—and yeah, a percussive upbeat that pushes the whole performance….no matter how cold the day, this track will warm you all over.

“Criss Cross”

From the album of the same name. Featuring Thelonious Monk on piano, Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore on bass, Frankie Dunlop on drums. This album is a must for any jazz lover’s collection.

A last thought:

Have Dog is a love poem to a dog who changed my life. She taught me I could go anywhere with joy and confidence. This is why the subtitle is “a poet’s journey”—I walked with Corky all over the United States and Europe. So I think its fitting to mention Gerry and the Pacemakers:

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Stephen Kuusisto and Have Dog, Will Travel links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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