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March 20, 2019

Chelsey Johnson's Playlist for Her Novel "Stray City"

Stray City

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.

Chelsey Johnson's novel Stray City is a propulsive and engaging debut.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Diverse and colorful . . . a vibrant portrait of a woman coming into her own, in a city also coming into its own, brimming with music, art and beauty . . . a thoughtful and joyous literary experience that celebrates its characters and liberally rewards its readers."

In her own words, here is Chelsey Johnson's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Stray City:

Music runs through every thread of Stray City, past, present, and future. Dropping the needle on a record, following a sound down a hall, gathering at a show, drumming in a basement, singing karaoke, repairing a smashed guitar, the girls rock camp—music directly shapes these characters’ lives and the events of the novel. Many of these songs are diegetic to the story, others align with the feeling or the time, and of course bands from that late-twentieth-century era of Portland figure heavily.

“Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth

This song is like a translation of human interiority itself into sound. Forget the lyrics, the instrumentation is what I feel in my bones: dissonance as a way of being, alleged ugliness made beautiful, friction that generates heat. Halfway through, a quiet, heart-thudding tension builds until the song breaks into a frantic run, a feeling that could be panic or euphoria or both, like that first queer kiss. When she first hears it, Andrea is seventeen and she’s making out with a girl for the first time, and along with the lust and thrill and fear of that moment, the warm body entwined with hers, the sound is reverberating through the wooden floor she’s lying on and into her entire body. Andrea isn’t me, but for both of us, music and music cultures are inextricable from our burgeoning selves and identities and communities. I gave her this song at this catalytic moment of her youth, the breaking point between the self she has been trained to be and the self she will actually become.

“Josh Has A Crush on a Femme From Reed” by New Bad Things

A 1995 Candy-Ass Records catalog describes the New Bad Things as a band that had more members than songs. Raucous, shambolic, exuberant, this song captures the feeling of that era of Portland when people lived cheaply and piled into bands as if they were porch couches. And it’s about a man lusting for a lesbian. Relevant!

“Fuk Shit Up” by Blatz

Has any teenage band ever so gleefully assaulted the norms of sonic and feminine decency as Blatz (and their followers Raooul and Tourettes)? What finer siren to lure novice queer Andrea down a dormitory hallway and into the room of her future girlfriend, best friend, and betrayer?

“Fagetarian and Dyke” by Team Dresch

In the Venn diagram of queer / punk / Portland / nineties, Team Dresch fills the glowing hot center. No recording can capture how riveting and electrifying this band is live, or what they’ve meant to a generation (or two or three) of queers coming of age. Choosing just one song is impossible so here’s the opening salvo of their first album, full of yearning and fuck-yous and testing out love.

“Cold Cold Water” by Mirah

Both desperate and delicate, radiant with pain, this must be the best song ever written about nonmonogamy gone wrong. At the opening of Stray City, Andrea’s still staggering through the emotional fallout of a busted-open relationship, and this miniature epic unfurls how that feels.

“Damaged Goods” by Gang of Four

When you feel like damaged goods, unlovable and wrong, you’re susceptible to taking what you can get even when you know better. Your kiss so sweet, your sweat so sour: what a prickly, analytical takedown of lust this Gang of Four classic is, yet it’s ridiculously danceable. The mind says no, the body says yes.

“My Secret Sex Friend” by Free Kitten

A short, propulsive blast that captures the frenetic, heart-thudding feeling of transgression.

“Let’s Go Away” by the Wipers

An iconic, old-school Portland band gets at the restlessness that drives Ryan—“being stuck in one place too long/ makes me itchy to move”—as well as his longing to haul the girl he’s obsessed with away from her insular world that has no room for him. This song would play on the tape deck as they’re driving to the Oregon coast for a surreptitious getaway.

“Love $$$” by Helium

That foggy wooziness to Mary Timony’s guitar and her airy, insistent voice capture a feeling of dissociation, of being in a relationship with someone that’s severing you from your sense of self. Look at yourself/ you’re like someone you knew.

“Different Drum” by the Stone Poneys

Linda Ronstadt’s biting step-off song plays cheery and upbeat even as it delivers a fatal blow to a guy’s illusions about his chances with the narrator. In Stray City, it plays a key role in a karaoke scene at a lesbian bar. (Note: this song is deceptively hard to sing at karaoke. Even if you practice.)

“Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)” by the Buzzcocks

Part II of the novel shifts to lovelorn Ryan on the lam. He happens to be wearing an old Buzzcocks T-shirt for the entirety of this hail-Mary attempt to change the game with Andrea. But of course Buzzcocks singer Pete Shelley was as gay as she is. Poor Ryan—he can’t escape it.

“I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out” by Elliott Smith

Portland’s patron saint of plaintive dissatisfaction sums up the wall Ryan hits. Sometimes, the only thing you can figure out is that you actually never will figure it out.

“Unsatisfied” by the Replacements

Chiming guitars and Paul Westerberg’s ragged-edged voice make for a gorgeous primal howl of unhappiness. The song, barely articulate to start with, breaks down entirely at the end, finally so exhausted by trying to communicate that it just gives up on language altogether.

“The Fairest of the Seasons” by Nico

An artful heartbreaker that walks along the precipice of a fateful choice and tries to untangle every strand of possibility and consequence: “Do I stay or do I go/ and do I have to do just one/ and can I choose again if I should lose the reason?”

“When the Open Road is Closing In” by the Magnetic Fields

This song is for Ryan, and if you’ve ever driven all night, this song is also for you. This happens to be the first Magnetic Fields song I ever heard, and by the end of the brilliant first two lines I was all in.

“Sunday” by the Spinanes

This record came out of Portland twenty-five years ago and it still sounds so fresh and buoyant. I think Ryan’s drumming would have sounded similar to Scott Plouf’s—taut, straightforward, energetic. Extra affinity to singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates, one of the other four artists on the Signal Fire wilderness residency where I figured out the ending of Stray City; I was writing in my notebook and getting obsessed with animal tracks behind my tent while she was drawing waveforms of tree sounds and listening to rocks.

“I Never Want to See You Again” by Quasi

A jaunty, bitter, pithy eight-line song about fundamental incompatibility from the iconic Portland duo of Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes, who can write a wry fuck-you like no one else. We purchase pleasure and pay for it with hurt / And we rarely get our money’s worth.

“Right Track Now” by Dump

Spotify fail here: neither Roky Erickson’s original nor Dump’s lovely 1998 cover can be streamed here. But trust me that it is so very worth it to track down this tender epistolary gem from James McNew (more famous for his membership in Yo La Tengo.) Recorded on a four-track, it feels intimate and wistful. The musical equivalent to a rueful, hopeful letter Ryan never sends.

“No One’s Little Girl” by the Raincoats

On to Part III! Here we turn to the future—or at least the future of the past, the ancient time of 2009—and nearly-ten-year-old Lucia. The first time I heard this song I fell in love with it: the lilting violin and marveling bass line, the song’s girlishness and refusal of girlishness at the same time, an uncharacteristically lush sound for the scrappy punk heroines. “I never shall be on your family tree, even if you ask me to.” It’s fitting for a kid who’s starting to figure out who she is and how complex the meaning of family can be.

“Inimigo” by Mercenárias

A blistering 1982 Brazilian post-punk song for Beatriz by the all-woman trio Mercenárias. Several Brazilian musicians came to work at the girls rock camp in the years I volunteered there, brought by longstanding connections and exchanges with the Portland queer punk community. Some came for a week, others returned summer after summer, and they took what they’d learned and started a rock camp in São Paulo. I think Beatriz would have listened to Mercenárias while she was growing up in São Paulo; she would have seen in this local band a liberating template for another kind of life. Which would lead her to Portland, and to this fortuitous collision with Lucia and Andrea.

“Little Yellow Lemon” by Blübird

Straight out of girls’ rock camp, then-tiny Una Rose made this song by long-lost ‘90s Portland songwriter Cheralee Dillon utterly her own. There’s a lush, swoony version of Blubird performing this live at the Crystal Ballroom when the band members are like, eleven years old, and it’s nape-tinglingly perfect. This recorded official version is cleaner and more upbeat but you get the idea.

“Swan Island” by Marisa Anderson

Closing out with a gentle number from Portland guitar hero and mentor Marisa Anderson. I think this song could belong to any of this novel’s main characters. It’s a song about losing and finding, leaving the door open, and not quite knowing what to say. Swan Island is an industrial park in Portland, a fabulist name for a grim place, and you can sit on the grassy bluffs above it and look out over the warehouses and train tracks and the Willamette River beyond. That grit and beauty side by side are the reality of what makes the city tick. And Anderson’s kindness in this song embraces that kind of human complexity as well.

Chelsey Johnson and Stray City links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Lambda Literary interview with the author
Los Angeles Times interview with the author
Out essay by the author
Tin House interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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