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June 19, 2018

Peter Coviello's Playlist for His Memoir "Long Players"

Long Players

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

Peter Coviello's Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs is a bold and poignant memoir innovatively held together by its music.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A heartfelt and hyperliterate take on love as a mixtape…. [Coviello] is a true believer in the power of love and in the magic of certain pop songs to encapsulate, transform, infect, and heal.… Coviello's style imitates his heroes Henry James and George Eliot, and reading his book feels a bit like finding a cache of letters from one close friend to another, with the writer casually unraveling on the page…. While some other High Fidelity-inspired memoirs undoubtedly 'do' the music better, few outpace the grim vivacity of Coviello's writing or match the depth of feeling he summons from the soundtrack of his own neuroses. A diary of devastation too good not to share."

In his own words, here is Peter Coviello's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Long Players:

It’s unsetting to consider how long I’ve been making mixes, not only for roomates and partners and heartsick friends, but for children. Since they were little, and in part as a way to help us figure out how to devise together a way of being a family, I’ve made mixes for my two stepdaughters – who then became, much to my sorrow, my ex-stepdaughters.

What this means, I’ve come to realize, is that how I make mixes has been shaped, indefinably but certainly, by the somewhat weird practice of giving songs to young people. Like all exchanges with kids, it’s delicate: you do well not to be preachy or prescriptive, and never to insist on the coolness of this or that, even as you labor to make available to them some things you think just might, at some unsuspected juncture in the future, be of lasting value to them. And, in the middle of all that, you also want to tell them you love them.

It seems to me now that the book I wrote about loving those girls, and losing our little improvised family, and then figuring out how to make a new world together, might fairly be described as basically a mashing-up of the heartbreak mixes I made for myself, in those first bad years, and the many playlists I made (and continue to make) for the girls. In that spirit…

Starfish and Coffee – Prince

There are the losses you get over, and the losses you never dig out of. Prince, for me and probably for you, is one of the latter, and to hear that undernote of sorrow even in this, a song so kaleidoscopically joyful and griefless, is startling. I hear it, and I think, Still not over it. This, I suppose, is what doing without Prince is going to be like.

Also, that there are some griefs that, since they aren’t likely to dissipate, you need to try to set a place for, there at the table of your life: that’s one of the strange, sad little discoveries at the heart of the book I wrote, Long Players. Another is that songs – and falling in love with them, and falling in love with the friends and the lovers who fall in love with them with you – can help you in this. A lot.

We’ve Got Your Back – Los Campesinos!

I hope you’ll believe me when I say I spend a lot of time thinking Los Campesinos! is the world’s greatest rock band. It’s not just the hyperkinesis, the sense of a band of something like seven making themselves sound like a travelling punk rock carnival. Really it’s just the fine alchemy that’s forever turning these songs about lovelorn misery into, oh, songs about misery taking form as joy: the spazzy joyousness of making songs, and shouting them out with your friends. This track comes with not one but two serviceable mottos for your whole life: “I’m sweating off the cheat notes on my thighs” and “SO FUCKING ON / AND SO FUCKING FORTH.”

Hex (Live in Austin) – Neko Case

Somewhere in my middle twenties, back when the insurgent country scene around Bloodshot Records was coming into its first full flowering, I saw Neko Case at some Chicago summer street festival, and thought, Holy shit. Years later (and this comes up in the book) I watched in head-clutching ecstasy as she and Kelly Hogan and the Sadies performed “Magic Man” as a Halloween-show encore… dressed as Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart. In a life of going to shows, this was and is a high-water mark.

“Star Witness” may be her most haunting song, “Magpie to the Morning” her most virtuosic, and “Man” may rock more than all of these. Still, I’ll take this live performance of “Hex,” if only because nothing I know better captures the shivery magic of those two voices, Neko’s and Kelly’s, carving out lines around each other.

Super Rich Kids – Frank Ocean, with Earl Sweatshirt

In the midst of a fully astounding era of black pop genius, there isn’t much point in picking an origin-point or centerpiece. D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Kendrick, SZA, Chance… and this is just the narrowest of slices. Still, I think of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is the signature masterpiece of the post-crash moment. Standing on a ledge, singing The market’s down like 60 stories… over that woozy “Bennie and the Jets” riff: it’s fucking indelible.

I sent it to my oldest stepdaughter, then probably around 18, and she wrote back, “Dude, I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Earl Sweatshirt.”

The Glow – Sylvan Esso
Lucifer – Jay-Z
Teenaged Wasteland – Wussy

And now, a three-song interlude of one of my most cherished subgenres: songs about songs that save you. Each of these tracks kills me, though they’re nothing alike. There’s the sweetness of the recollected adolescent scene in “The Glow”; there’s the homegrown miracle of pop rescue in “Teenage Wasteland,” where a Midwestern kid sings out to Pete Townsend, your misery sounds so much like ours; and then there’s “Lucifer,” where the nearest Jay-Z can come to a steadied clarity, as the imperatives of sorrow and anger and forgiveness clash and contend with one another, is pumping “Brown Sugar” by D’Angelo.

Weekend in Western Illinois – The Mountain Goats
Decatur – Sufjan Stevens

Next up: the Illinois sequence.

In the fall of 1996 I saw a young man named John Darnielle sing some songs while sitting on a counter at a record store in San Francisco. About a year later this record came out. Yeah we love these dogs, he sang, that loll in the rain here in Galesburg / as the new season rocks them in its terrible arms. By then I knew I wanted to write. And this – this refusal of any opposition between fluent articulacy and emotional immediacy – taught me a lot of what to want from that writing.

And then, years and years later, this Sufjian song found me. I don’t know that I ever had the temerity to include it on any of the million mixes I made for my stepdaughters; there are some things you do better not to give to your kids, however much you imagine they’d love them. I do know that, in the first years of our separation from one another, I prompted myself to great quantities of tears by placing myself inside the sweet and wonderful arc of this song, which begins Our stepmom we did everything to hate her only to wind toward something a good deal more tender and, on all sides, forgiving.

Lush Life – Ella Fitzgerald, with Oscar Peterson

For some time after the swift, startling dissolution of my marriage, I mooned around a variety of cities in a state of bewildered wretchedness – what Thomas Pynchon somewhere calls a “fog of postmarital misjudgment” – which I then tried, by one dumb method or another, to intoxicate myself out of. This, along with “Whose Sorry Now?” made for excellent theme music.

Hell and High Water – Rainer Maria

But why pretend? Those interregnum years, however overfilled with stupefied misery, were not without their own weird exhilarations. Rainer Maria sounds to me now like the '90s turning, just slightly, into the '00s. When I listened to it in those rougher post-divorce times, and when my mind snared on a phrase like devising a better mouth to kiss you, it sounded like something else: like, let’s say, a brief on behalf survival, and some of its pleasures.

Hear You – Waxahatchee
No Scrubs – TLC
Silver Springs (Live) – Fleetwood Mac

There’s no knowing the future, but one near-sure bet about the young people you love is that they will, at some point, find themselves partnered with somebody shitty and ill-advised. This may be another way of saying: they will be young. It’s good to seed them with tracks like these, field-guides to the world of assholes.

Also, there are arguments to be made that the brokenhearted should, maybe, for a while, avoid the works of Stevie Nicks. All of them are wrong.

Interlude (That’s Love) – Chance the Rapper (from Acid Rap)
Loving Cup – The Rolling Stones

Still, there’s no need to be cynical.

And what could be less so than Chance, closing out this gospel number from the midst of Acid Rap – a record not available on Spotify – by crooning again and again, I love you!

And the Stones! It’s weird, how swiftly that opening piano interlude rearranges my viscera. It, too, is like church music, though all it really sanctifies is the moment I first started to fall in plummeting hopeless love with, oh, rock and roll. Swagger and humiliation, exaltation and abjection, the man on the mountain and the bad guitar: this was, for the teenaged me, a little promised foretaste of what falling in love for real, with people, was actually going to be like. Mick and Keith were not wrong.

Sister Cities – Hop Along

It’s no surprise, given how '90s-tuned I am, that I’d fall again and again for new bands who sound like they were raised on a steady diet of Superchunk and Belly and Helium. (This is perhaps literally true: they grew up listening to their parents records from 1995.) Frances Quinlan’s voice, cracked and soaring, keeps sounding to me like that of a young person throwing herself at the exhilarating, fucked up world, and refusing to be broken by it.

If the playlists you make for young people are also wishes – prayers, of a funny sort, for their hearts’ futures – you could do worse than wish for them exactly this.

Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks – The National

Can even the middle-aged be heartbroken? Here, for the record, is one of the best testaments in the affirmative that I know

Sing a Song – Earth, Wind, & Fire

Whenever you can, go out dancing. Maurice White 4EVAH.

Peter Coviello and Long Players links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

KMUW interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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