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July 27, 2018

Roy Scranton's Playlist for His Essay Collection "We're Doomed. Now What?"

We're Doomed. Now What?

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.

Roy Scranton's essay collection We're Doomed. Now What? is insightful and important.

Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:

"Scranton skillfully integrates literature and philosophy into his own thoughts, creating multilayered writings that beg to be read slowly and carefully by a reader willing to pay attention for a steady length of time. Eye-opening and honest, these essays are like receiving a terminal diagnosis from a specialist while still leaving a margin of hope on the sides."

In his own words, here is Roy Scranton's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection We're Doomed. Now What?:

The essays collected in We're Doomed. Now What? take readers from the Canadian Arctic to Baghdad, asking again and again how we make sense of death: our own death, the death of our civilization, the death of the world as we know it. Yet despite being about climate change and war, We're Doomed. Now What? is a deeply personal book, as it must be, since while death may be the ultimate universal, we each have to face it on the grounds of our own individual being. Some might respond by turning to Wagner, others light up to Otis Redding, still others dive into the charging grind of Metallica’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct or Cattle Decapitation’s The Anthropocene Extinction. To call my own list idiosyncratic risks self-flattery, but these songs hook so powerfully into my consciousness that it’s hard to see them exhibiting any other organization than just that, that they mean something to me, that they make me feel something like the feeling I have when I think hard about the global catastrophe we’re all living through, the nightmare we’ve doomed our children to, and the feeling I try to get back to in the midst of that fading light, something like a carefully courageous, affirmative joy in living the life we’ve been given, something like acceptance.

Tom Waits, “The Earth Died Screaming”
Tom Waits, “Dirt in the Ground”

Dry bones funked up in a skeletal third line coming at you out of the void, the syncopated opening march sets the rhythm, cushioned by Les Claypool’s lugubrious bass, over which Waits the Revelator growls out a Boschian hellscape: “Rudy's on the midway, and Jacob's in the hole / The monkey's on the ladder, the devil shovels coal / With crows as big as airplanes, the lion has three heads / And someone will eat the skin that he sheds.” Waits’s voice is a grim rumble, the beat dances at the edge of chaos, and the sound production makes it feel like you’re trapped in an echoey bedlam. The danse macabre opening the song is positively hooky compared to the raging refrain, a pained sound no healthy animal would make, Waits screaming full-throated into a mike that sounds jammed down his esophagus: “Well the earth died screaming / While I lay dreaming.”

Thus the opening of his 1992 album Bone Machine, which I came to by way of Waits’s goofy, haunting cover of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me,” and which gave birth to the only serious musical obsession I’ve ever experienced. For most of the 1990s, my religion would have been best characterized as “Waitsian.” That it should be this album, rather than Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones, and these two songs in particular, one an apocalyptic holler and the other a ballad to human mortality, that wedged into my brain and opened a new world suggests perhaps that my interest in doom might be more than circumstantial. Maybe it had to do with growing up in the last decade of the Cold War, or maybe I’m just a bit goth. But what sets the ominous vision in these songs apart from more lurid revelations of catastrophe is their personal scale and Beckettian sensibility. The singer of “The Earth Died Screaming” spends the end times dreaming of his lover, while the singer of “Dirt in the Ground” achingly asks, “I want to know, am I the sky or a bird.” And in both songs, escape--even into metaphysical fantasy--is wholly foreclosed: both feature of a version of the line, “hell is boiling over and heaven is full.”

Peter Brötzmann, “It Is Growing Dark”

German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, known for his wild screeching and rough timbre, does with his horn what Waits does with his throat, managing to drift and leap from elegy to existential howl with a zen intensity, exploring the extremes of feeling and sound while making space for quiet, melancholy reflection. This piece, reminiscent of Coltrane, sounds a tender, ragged reveille. Something, and not just the day, has ended, and something else about to begin.

William & Versey Smith, “When That Great Ship Went Down (The Titanic)”

While the sinking of the RMS Titanic became, in James Cameron’s kitsch myth, a testament to undying love, it had once been a story of technological hubris and class war, in which the forces of global justice in the form of an iceberg struck down that era’s version of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. A tragic event, in the classical sense, and in that way offering not only terror and pity, but a certain grim mirth in the spectacle of seeing a boat full of rich assholes getting their comeuppance. That mirth subsists in William & Versey Smith’s antic gospel blues version of this old, weird American chestnut, “When That Great Ship Went Down,” a folk song first written in 1915 or 1916 which has since become a traditional Boy and Girl Scout camp song. William Smith, who may have been a cab driver, and his wife, Versey, recorded it in Chicago in 1927, along with a patriotic song about bringing “the boys back home” from World War I, and two gospels, the only recordings this singular duo left to posterity. William sang and played guitar, Versey sang counterpoint and played tambourine and what sounds like a washboard, though perhaps it might be more accurate to say Versey yowled like a fury while beating the holy christ out of a tambourine. What’s perhaps most striking about this song, aside from Versey’s unearthly wails, is precisely its sense of grim mirth: there’s an undeniable joy when they sing “When that ship left England, making for the shore / The rich had declared that they would not ride with the poor,” and the insistent refrain, “Sad when that great ship went down,” sounds forth with a grinning irony that should chill even Elon Musk’s cybernetic heart. Our whole civilization is the Titanic now, struck by a metaphorical iceberg calved from Greenland’s melting icesheet, killed by its own blithe arrogance.

Stan Rogers, “The Northwest Passage”

From one disaster to another. This a cappella elegy for the glory days of white European conquest and exploration, celebrating Franklin’s doomed expedition to find an Arctic passage to east Asia, makes its appearance in my essay “Arctic Ghosts,” there sung by a boatload of tipsy Canadian tourists in viking helmets, sailing a cruise ship through the Northwest Passage, now opened by global warming and Arctic amplification. It’s a stirring song, no doubt, for all the implicit racism and imperialism, its heroic longing mixing powerfully with a belated mournfulness to tell, at last, the story of a wholly conquered world in which human striving will never again know the beauty and terror of testing itself on an unknown frontier.

Glenn Gould, “The Idea of the North”

In this hour-long 1967 “radio documentary,” composed for CBC, pianist Glenn Gould layered sound, music, and five distinct voices into a complex, contrapuntal symphony of the Canadian north, the people who live there, and the mythic dimensions the idea of the wild north occupies in the Canadian imagination, quite similar to what the idea of the American West once occupied in the US imagination. The politics of Gould’s project are superficially limited, of course, since all the speakers are white Canadian settlers struggling with how their ideas of the self and social life play out against a supposedly savage frontier, but the formal and ethical commitments structuring this work make it a model of innovate documentary aesthetics, not dissimilar to the films of Chris Marker, a kind of anti-Ken Burns. This piece by Gould was much on my mind writing not only “Arctic Ghosts,” but also “Anthropocene City” and “Back to Baghdad,” both in the formal challenges Gould virtuosically overcame and in the ethical challenges which we might today say he failed to meet. The piece’s last minutes, invoking William James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” and calling for a war on nature, sound a troubling, rueful note that should make listeners question the blithe optimism of those who insist we can solve global warming if only we find the political will.

Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop"

You might say this song (and accompanying video) from Miley Cyrus’s haute-trash album Bangerz was a deliberate, cynical provocation intended to shock pearl-clutching pundits into yet another fit about millennial morals, and permanently ruin Miley’s innocent, Disneyfied Hannah Montana image, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Drugs? Check. Loose sex? Check. White girl booty-shaking with hip-hop gangsters? Check. Dadaist postmodern imagery? Check. Lascivious twerking? Check. Nihilistic hedonism? Check. But if you watch the video in a mirror, squint your eyes, and say Hamilton three times, you might see that this song’s deeper truth isn’t Miley’s career or generational angst, but America. This song is America’s response to climate change, as much as the election of Ronald Reagan was America’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970s. This song is the national anthem for the Trump era, sung with a red Solo cup in your hand. From the opening line, “It’s our party we can do what we want,” to the mindless refrain “We can’t stop, we won’t stop,” Miley channels the collective American unconscious. Of course we could stop using oil and gas. We could accept limits to American power and greed. We could stop shopping online, streaming Netflix, flying everywhere, driving everywhere, eating beef and tuna, all of it, we could just stop. America is still powerful enough that if we really wanted to, we could change the world. The problem is, we can’t stop. We won’t stop. As Miley sings, “We run things, things don't run we,” or at least we like to think so.

The Pixies, “Caribou”

I often come to things late, out of step with my time, and although friends of mine were into The Pixies back in college, even high school, I didn’t really start listening to them until I was in the army, in 2003. When that happened, though--I remember buying Surfer Rosa and Come On, Pilgrim together on one CD in a CD shop in the town where I was stationed in Germany, not long before going to Iraq--the music struck deep. Among all their many mind-blowingly surreal and jagged anthems, “Caribou” stuck out as the one that shot straight to the heart of matters. If you ask me what I think it means to be human, I’ll probably say some shit about adaptation or symbolic reasoning, but the real answer is this song, the expansive opening guitar riffs, the siren-like descent into the lyrics, Black Francis howling “Caribooooooooou” and screeching “REPENT! REPENT!”

Ani DiFranco, “When I’m Gone”

In most of our fantasies about the end of the world, it all takes place pretty quickly. A super-plague hits or a nuclear war or those weird ice vortex things from The Day After Tomorrow, then boom, civilization collapses, and the survivors are scrambling around in ruins. Or it all happened years ago, and now it’s just a boy and his dog wandering through the desert fighting off zombies and reavers. But the difficult truth of the catastrophe we’re living through is that it’s happening day by day, month by month, year by year. The end of the world is now, we’re living it, and the fucked up fact is that it’s going to take a long goddamned time. There isn’t going to be any day of judgment, no final accounting, no apocalyptic event, just more school shootings, more hurricanes, more floods, more wars, more riots, more border disputes, more government failure, more authoritarian politicians taking power, more desperate citizens reaching for hope, more guns, more death, more racial hatred, more scapegoating, more hot days, more rain, more crumbling infrastructure, for decades into the future as far as the mind can imagine. It’s shitty news, from one point of view, but from another it’s pretty okay. Because however bad things get, they can still get worse. And in the end, the global apocalypse we all face as a world is no more urgent than is the individual death we all each face alone. So there’s no real cause for despair--indeed, what you choose to do now means more than it ever did. That’s where this song comes in, Ani DiFranco’s harrowing acoustic cover of a great Phil Ochs tune. Whatever good there is to be done in this doomed world, you better get to it.

Sleater-Kinney, “Fade”

This sludgy epic closer to what was, for my money, the best rock album of 2015 brings all the doom-struck, weary yet furious, scarred yet persistent meditations on death, failure, friendship, art, and the end that lifted No Cities to Love to such heights to a dense, powerful conclusion. Corin Tucker and the band were generous enough to let me use a lyric from this song as an epigraph to the final chapter of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, so it’s fitting to me that this is the final song here. Most days, it’s more aspirational--or inspirational--than descriptive, but isn’t that part of what art and music are for, to show us who we want to be, how we’d want to feel if we were better than we are? If this really is the end, this song asks us, then why aren’t we living more bravely, more brightly, more truly ourselves? If this is really the end, then can’t we at least fucking show up?

Roy Scranton and We're Doomed. Now What? links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Shelf Awareness review

Guernica interview with the author
Sierra profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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