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June 17, 2019

Chris Gabbard's Playlist for His Memoir "A Life Beyond Reason"

A Life Beyond Reason

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.

Chris Gabbard's memoir A Life Beyond Reason is a poignant and empathetic portrait of fatherhood and a child's life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"This is both a memoir of a child’s short life and a father’s journey from an academic who thought that love was a weakness to a thoughtful, questioning adult who values the capacity to give and receive love. Parents and caregivers will find plenty of inspiration in these moving, empathetic pages."


In his own words, here is Chris Gabbard's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir A Life Beyond Reason:



After my son August passed away in October of 2013 at the age of 14, I began writing a book about my life with him. It came out recently as A Life Beyond Reason: A Father’s Memoir. Right after he died was a time of mourning, as you can imagine. To divert my troubled thoughts, I started assembling playlists of new music, songs that had been published within the preceding month.

I had been out of touch with the music scene for decades. When I was younger, I had lived in London for about fifteen months, the Maggie Thatcher years. I’d seen performances by ska bands like The Specials, reggae bands such as UB40, and post-punk bands like Wire, Gang of Four, The Psychedelic Furs, and Echo & the Bunnymen. After my son’s death, I thought I’d try to reconnect, so I started regularly cruising aggregator sites like Clashmusic, Stereogum, Gorilla vs Bear, and Indie Music Filter. The songs I gathered I’d post as playlists under the title August’s List (augustslist.com), which I’d then link to various social media platforms. The songs on this digital memorial were ones I speculated my son might have enjoyed, had he gone on living, but I didn’t flatter myself too much about that. Occasionally, to create variety, an older song made its way in.

I would play these lists while spending long hours writing, month after month and then year after year. The story I was composing was overwhelmingly sad, and it was difficult to write, and sometimes I would be writing through tears, but music helped soften that sadness and lend it shape and purpose. Sometimes the songs themselves would make me weep, but at other times they’d pump me up.

The memoir was finished in mid-2018, but I continue to add music to August’s List, and it keeps growing. The site doesn’t have an eye-popping number of followers, but clicks and followers are not the point. Even if no one clicked on the site, I’d still maintain it. It keeps August’s memory alive, for me at least, and makes it seem he’s still a part of the world. Also, I’ve included a link on it to a local charity serving disabled kids, and a few donations trickle in, so it’s worth it.

The following are the songs that figured the most prominently in the writing of A Life Beyond Reason, although not all of them wound up being explicitly mentioned.


“Losing My Religion”—R.E.M.

This is the theme song of A Life Beyond Reason. It also had been my wife’s and my “Song,” our relationship song. R.E.M. released it a year before we were married in 1992. We definitely did not have it played at our wedding: no one at our nuptials would have understood why this was “Our Song.” Given this provenance, it had to be included in the memoir, and subtle references to it appear throughout. As its title suggests, the song is about letting go of dogmatic belief and instead embracing what the Romantic poet John Keats called “Negative Capability,” which he defined as being capable of living with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” “Losing My Religion” serves perfectly as the theme song because the memoir itself is about learning to live with ambiguity. Lyricist and lead singer Michael Stipe sings, “That’s me in the corner / That’s me in the spotlight.” But there’s no point in the listener asking, “Well, which is it, the spotlight? or the corner?” To demand an answer would be to miss the point. Even the opening line is unclear, but for a good reason. Does Stipe sing, “Oh, life is bigger”? Or does he sing, “O Life, it’s bigger”? At our twentieth wedding anniversary dinner, my wife and I debated this. Oh? or O? The interjection “Oh” meant that life was bigger than love, while the vocative “O” pointed toward love being bigger than life. Because of August and his medical needs, this had become the central question of our marriage: will life be bigger than love? Or will love be bigger than life? Which in the end would triumph?

“7”—Catfish and the Bottlemen

Because I was prowling for music while writing the memoir, songs invariably bled in. I included a reference to the Welsh band Catfish and the Bottlemen, specifically to their 2016 song “7.” This was not a reference to the dull studio version, but to the live, 4:24 minute one on Youtube. If every rock song were as good as this live version, the world would be a beautiful planet. Watching footage of the live performance, I get high. It captures the spirit of the band’s concerts, which are rowdy affairs characterized by human pyramids, fist-pumping exuberance, and fans like surfers riding atop the crowd. More importantly, as I was writing the memoir, “7” was useful for depicting the insouciance of a time in life when you just aren’t ready yet to take on adult responsibilities. The words lead singer Van McCann sings convey this sense of wanting to put things off: “And I’d beg you, but know I’m never home / And I’d love you, but I need another year alone.” That sentiment described my life before my wife and I had August. Prior to having him, I intended to defer fatherhood for as long as possible. I had great things to accomplish, many things to do before I allowed myself to be saddled with a kid on my knee. I would love my son when he arrived, but first I needed another year without him, maybe even two or three, to get things done. This song captured that spirit of wanting to postpone, to keep as many options open as possible, a typical adolescent stance.

“Pompeii”—Bastille

Lines from the 2013 song “Pompeii” by the London-based band Bastille became relevant during one phase of the narrative, the time when August was deathly ill. I’m by nature an optimist, but remaining in an upbeat state of mind was becoming increasingly difficult, considering August’s condition. The song’s lyrics reference Mount Vesuvius erupting in AD 79 and the nearby town of Pompeii on the brink of being submerged in ash and lava. Vocalist Dan Smith describes the dire prospect with the words, “Grey clouds roll over the hills / Bringing darkness from above.” One could hardly imagine a more dreadful realization, that everything is about to be obliterated. In that moment, Smith poses a question I frequently asked myself during my own cheerless period of watching August suffer: “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” And then he offers an answer: “But if you close your eyes / Does it almost feel like / Nothing changed at all? / And if you close your eyes / Does it almost feel like / You've been here before?” And these lines would cheer me up somewhat because they reminded me that nothing is forever and that I still had some control over my own state of mind. Thinking that things are permanent is an illusion; it’s better to try to be flexible and ready for change. Unfortunately, these excellent Bastille lyrics dropped out of the text during the editing process and now sit as scraps on the cutting-room floor.

“I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler”—YACHT

The opening words from this 2015 up-tempo dance number by the Portland, OR band YACHT captured succinctly the spirit of what happened toward the end of August’s life. I had once been hopeful and idealistic about the future, believing that we as a species were on the cusp of a great leap forward. I had embraced the transhumanist dream of human perfectibility. Science and technology would make the world wondrous, and we would be awash in modern marvels. Then an ultra-hi-tech medical device was implanted in August to help with his spasticity. It started going south as soon as it went in, and horrors ensued. Our lives became like an episode of the TV series Black Mirror. That chapter of the memoir illustrate how the “cutting edge” can quickly morph into the “bleeding edge.” As I was writing this section, I couldn’t help recalling the lines lead singer Claire Evans intones: “I thought the future would be cooler, / I thought the brave world would be newer.” This was an understatement, to say the least. Still, it became my mantra. The future was not only not as cool as I’d hoped it would be, it was a friggin’ dystopian nightmare! These lines too, like the ones from “Pompeii,” dropped out of the book during the editing. Such things happen when attempting to write a tightly woven story.

“Awakening”—Aurora

Mentioning songs in a prose piece can be tricky. As a writer, I didn’t want my reader to put the book down to go listen to music. What writer wants the reader to put the book down? So, I included song references judiciously. The ones that remain did so because they helped illustrate a point or evoke a mood. One line doing the latter came from a 2016 song “Awakening.” “Aurora” is singer-songwriter Aurora Aksnes from the town of Os on the southwestern coast of Norway. Young, waifish, and Nordically blond, she sings this sad ballad with one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard. “Awakening” is moving and brilliant, but the lyrics’ meaning is opaque. One line though stands out clearly, a mother’s elegiac call: “My little child, please come home.” The line captured my wife’s and my mood after August was born with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (H.I.E.), likely due to medical error. Because of H.I.E., our son would live with multiple and severe impairments during his fourteen years. “My little child, please come home” became a mental refrain as we struggled to get over the shock of what happened at August’s delivery.

“The Gold”—Manchester Orchestra

As with Aurora, I included a line from Manchester Orchestra’s song “The Gold” without attributing it to the source. But it’s a line about which no one would trouble themselves to invoke copyright. Manchester Orchestra is a band from Lawrenceville, Georgia, but they don’t have a southern sound or ethos. In fact, they draw their inspiration from the music scene in Manchester, England: hence, the name. It is one of my favorite bands. Lead singer and lyricist Andy Hull was a close friend of Scott Hutchinson, lead singer of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, who took his life in 2018. I listened to Frightened Rabbit a lot too while writing the book, but no song seemed particularly pertinent. By contrast, “The Gold” did. It comes from the 2017 album A Black Mile To The Surface and is peppered with coal-mining metaphors. The lyrics of the song consist a father-son colloquy. At one point Hull wails, perhaps in the voice of the father, but it could be in that of the son, “What the hell are we gonna do? / A black mile to the surface / I don’t wanna be here anymore / It all tastes like poison.” Perhaps that’s the point—ambiguity—the voice could be that of either one. These could have been my own ruminations when August was at his sickest. And the words, “What the hell we going to do?” particularly suited the part of the story describing how my wife and I had had to refinance the house twice to cover August’s medical bills. Bankruptcy loomed in our future.

“Passover”—Joy Division

What attracted me as a young man to the Manchester-based, post-punk band Joy Division was its minimalist sound—the slow tempo, placement of the bass guitar in the acoustic foreground, and stripped-down melodic structures featuring non-traditional and unexpected chord progressions. All of this generated a hypnotic, hallucinogenic, dreamy quality that was a relief from the bombastic histrionics of the punk band The Sex Pistols. By serendipity, I saw Ian Curtis and his band perform their last concert at the University of Birmingham in Spring of 1980. Curtis committed suicide shortly after, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. For years I pondered, “Why would a young man on the verge of celebrity kill himself?” Curtis was the band’s lyricist, and, in the decades following, I puzzled over the lyrics on the last album, Closer. After many years, I concluded that “Passover” was the most explicit of Curtis’s suicide notes. Three lines in it speak to the notion of believing one is protected when in fact one is not: “Safety is sat by the fire, / Sanctuary from these feverish smiles, / Left with a mark on the door.” The lyrics reference both the Jewish holiday and Exodus, when the Jews, captive in Egypt, marked their doors with lamb’s blood so that the avenging angel would spare their first-born sons. “Left with a mark on the door,” croons Curtis about his own circumstances, implying that the mark on the door provided him with hollow comfort. That line seemed particularly relatable regarding my wife’s and my situation early on in the memoir when we were expecting our first-born son. Our middle-class privilege lulled us into assuming that we were living with “a mark on the door,” supposedly protected by medicine’s best and brightest when we got to the hospital for August’s birth. We soon found out differently, that we couldn’t count on even the best and the brightest to look out for us.

“Life’s A Happy Song” – The Muppets

“Life’s A Happy Song” was part of the 2011 film The Muppets, which itself was a revival of the Muppet franchise. Sung by Jason Segal, it isn’t my favorite in the movie (“Man or Muppet” is), but August loved “Life’s A Happy Song,” and his taste in the matter is what counted. I liked it too because the lyrics describe the relationship he and I had. We were together a lot, and I needed him as much as he needed me. And one thing I appreciated about August was the fact that he greatly loved music. When he enjoyed something, he would throw his head back and roar with delight. Sometimes he would laugh so hard he could barely breathe. Over the years he had a number of favorites: he particularly relished Dan Zane’s “All Around the Kitchen,” Raffi’s “Bananaphone,” and Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash.” These songs aroused him, making him kick his feet and squeal. To settle him down for sleep at night, I would put on Returning by Ajamu Mutima. (This is back in the days of CDs.) Mutima is a master of the kora, a twenty-one-string West African harp-lute. Returning isn’t necessarily a lullaby, but August loved the familiarity of it. Its first sounds would bring a smile to his face and make him relax.

“Burn It Down”—Linkin Park

After the debacle with the implanted medical device—the complications it brought about leading to August’s death—I was furious with the hospital and with the entire medical establishment, just raging with anger. My wife and I had fallen prey to smooth-talking doctors who stood to gain and an institution and an industry that had a vested interest in convincing patients’ parents to let complicated digital hardware be placed inside their children. Only later did I find out that the F.D.A., which should have been regulating the medical device industry, had been asleep at the wheel. Every step of the way with this implant had been a disaster. But it wasn’t just August’s ending, but also his beginning, that was an issue: medical error was implicated in both his birth and death. Credible sources estimate that tens of thousands of Americans, if not hundreds of thousands, die every year from medical mistakes. Medical error is reportedly the third leading cause of death in the United States. And yet, the house of medicine remains indifferent. After August’s death, I began listening to Linkin Park, a band from Agoura Hills CA. They had a harder sound than I normally liked, but suddenly that pitch of thrashing intensity made sense. Their sound and message were angry, and these now appealed to me. Soon their songs populated my iTunes playlist for listening when I went running. In one, the late Chester Bennington belts out the lyrics to “Burn It Down,” singing, “We can't wait / To burn it to the ground.” Hearing this imparted a lift to my stride.

“Love and Hate”—Michael Kiwanuka

London-based indie- and folk-rock singer Michael Kiwanuka has an affecting voice that cuts to my core. People might know him from his song “Cold Little Heart,” which serves as the theme for the HBO series Big Little Lies. His 2016 song “Love and Hate” was my introduction to his work. I chanced across it as a YouTube video of an eight-minute studio session. I discovered it at a time when I was wrestling internally, and the very title “Love and Hate,” which intimated a teetering between two extremes, struck me as a pressing question that needed answering. I was hovering, trying to figure out which way to fall: should I love? Or should I hate? My anger was still strong, but I was mulling over whether I could let go of it. Lines like, “Calling for my demons now to let me go” made sense as a message contributing to healing. And yet, this was counterbalanced in the song by another line, “You can’t steal the things that God has given me,” as well as by the chorus, which consisted of the repetition of the line “You can’t take me down.” The singer’s tone oscillates between acquiescence and defiance. Would it be possible to let go but not forget? Could I maintain a sense of righteous anger and a commitment to justice while at the same time forgiving the perpetrators of injustice? And then, in the eight-minute studio YouTube version at least (not so much in the “official” one), I heard something else even more striking: Kiwanuka’s mournful wail at the close, communicating deep emotional pain in a way I’d never heard before. That pain was my pain, and he gave voice to it, and this made “Love and Hate” the perfect song upon which to wrap up the memoir.


Chris Gabbard and A Life Beyond Reason links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

The Chronicle of Higher Education essay by the author
Florida Times-Union profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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