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February 26, 2019

Alex DiFrancesco's Playlist for Their Essay Collection "Psychopomps"


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.

Alex Difrancesco's Psychopomps is an incisive and important essay collection.

Mary Adkins wrote of the book:

"Alex addresses questions many of us aren’t brave enough to ask—about the lives we choose for ourselves and the lives we don’t. Empathy and humility shine through this immensely readable prose in a collection that seems to connect the dots of everything that matters: friendship, love, identity and, of course, ghosts."

In their own words, here is Alex DiFrancesco's Book Notes music playlist for their essay collection Psychopomps:

I’m a fan of ugly-crying, break-your-heart music. In fact, one of the essays in my new collection Psychopomps is about an attempt, post-divorce, to write a book on the cultural history of the break-up album. (It’s been suggested to me before that the entire book was my attempt at a break-up album, too.) Needless to say, while writing this collection about my gender transition, my marriage to another trans person, our divorce, my search for community, and my search for spiritualism as a queer person, music played an enormous role.

These are some of the songs I listened to along the way, in terms of research for certain essays, inspiration, and comfort.

1. “Unbelievable,” Marvin Pontiac

This is the first song on Marvin Pontiac:The Asylum Tapes, a thinly veiled John Lurie project that was once sold as the work of outsider artist Marvin Pontiac. The joke has run longer than the belief in in, but at the end of 2017, this track opened the latest instillation of Pontiac’s story. It’s a fairly simple layering of three lines of singing -- “It’s really unbelievable,” “It’s so,” and “The beauty and the horror of this life.” The achievement of this simple layering and phrasing is something profound, something I’d claim as a theme song, something that says in less than three minutes what it took me 150 pages to say in this essay collection.

2. “Suzanne,” Leonard Cohen

One of the epigraphs for the collection is crown-prince of sadness Leonard Cohen’s assertion that one should “Never lament casually.” This song has a specific place in the collection when a dear friend and I bonded over it’s sadness after her divorce. Leonard’s music has always brought me a huge amount of comfort and safety, and I can’t talk about this collection without adding him to it.

3. “Green Eyes,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

This is the final song on my very favorite break-up album, The Boatman’s Call. When I first moved back to New York City after leaving for two years, I would lay in a room in a terrible, bedbug infested apartment, listening to this song on repeat on headphones. I was transfixed by the line, “this useless old fucker and his twinkling cunt/ doesn’t care if he gets hurt” for its sadness and vulgarity -- it would only be years later when I came out as trans (and so often romantically sad) that it would come to mean more to me.

4. “Goodbye,” Steve Earle

I think this is the saddest song about lost love ever written. It’s got drinking, drugs, someone who’s gone, and romantic memories of Mexico, and if those aren’t enough to get you crying, you’ve got a far stronger heart than me.

5. “Rid of Me,” PJ Harvey

Sometimes listening to the angrier break-up songs kept me from writing things I would regret in the essay collection. PJ Harvey’s screaming “Don’t you wish you never, never met her?” satisfied the need to lash out more, and made me sit with my feelings longer before writing. My ex-wife should send her a thank you note, really.

6. “Clay Pigeons,” Blaze Foley

One of the saddest songs about change and moving along that you can find. Blaze Foley had a hard life, and it ended when he was shot protecting a pensioner friend from having his check stolen from him. After that, Townes van Zandt and buddies dug his body up for a pawn ticket that was still in the breast pocket of the only suit he owned. In this song, Foley talks about “going down to the Greyhound station/ gonna get a ticket to ride” and “ride until the sun comes up and down around me/ ‘bout two or three times.” It’s a song about longing for a home that doesn’t necessarily exist, looking for a new place, taking the poor man’s transportation to somewhere.

7. “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” Phosphorescent

This is a cover of a Willie Nelson song. Willie wrote the first country break-up album (Phases and Stages), and super-fans Phosphorescent covered this and many other songs of his on their album To Willie. There’s something about this cover that I adore over the original -- I love Matthew Houck’s mournful voice, and I love the line, “You’re supposed to know that I love you.” It’s got so much regret for one’s own behavior that one can’t quite face.

8. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” David Bowie

Simply put, this song gives me hope, so it’s something I listen to constantly. David Bowie, a skinny, gangly, oddly dressed man with terrible teeth, wrote an album about metaphorical space aliens to make those who were on the outside feel less alone. He ended his perfect sci-fi rock album with this song, promising all of us who were weird, or queer, or alienated, that we were absolutely not alone, and implored us to “give me your hands/ because you’re wonderful.” To this day, if I have a hard time believing in my power, I put this song on and let David Bowie remind me.

9. “Look at Miss Ohio,” Gillian Welch

Would any playlist for a book about moving from New York City to Ohio be complete without this song? Gillian Welch’s signature voice moves me every time, and when she sings, “I wanna do right/ but not right now,” I am right there with her.

10. “Hazel Eyes,” Barn Birds

I’m pretty sure you can only find this ethereal, gorgeous song on Jonathan Byrd’s Bandcamp, but it is one of my favorites. Byrd and Chris Kokesh’s harmonies, the abstract lyrics, and the subtle guitar and violin here put me in a dream-state full of longing and regret.

11. “Jersey Girl,” Hell Blues Choir

Yes, I know that this is a Tom Waits song (as if I wouldn’t know a Tom Waits song), and most of my attachment to it comes through the fact that the notoriously wild early Waits wrote it when he met his wife of 40 years, Kathleen Brennan. Brennan had a massive influence on his career and helped him move towards some of the best work of his life. Also, I know how much you have to love someone to drive from New York City to New Jersey to see them regularly. However, this version by the Hell Blues Choir holds a special place for me. It’s halting and slightly foreign, queerer and hesitant, qualities at odds with the original gritty version. It makes my heart open up, just a little.

12. “New Lover,” Josh Ritter

The poetically stacked lyrics of this song are so heavy and dense and barrelling that they’re worthy of early Dylan levels of love. It’s a song full of hidden resentment, well-wishing, and ultimate admission of the truth.

13. “Distant Sky,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

You only put two songs by the same artist on mix if you really, really love them, and so it is with me and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This song off of Cave’s most recent
album, Skeleton Tree, recorded after the death of his young son, never fails to catch me off guard when it comes on a mix. It’s notable in that, while Cave’s voice cracks, and the song’s pain is obvious, there’s sonic and eventually lyrical hope. I hope the collection I wrote leaves readers with the same. Excavating pain is not easy work, but in my book, as in this song, I hope it raises to a level of grace you can’t achieve without it. “We can set out for the Distant Sky.” And, after pain, we have to. It’s our only choice.

Alex DiFrancesco and Psychopomps links:

the author's website

Entropy's interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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