"Life During Wartime is a novel of enormous breadth and humanity. Rogin writes with a cool grace, of a world that is as limitless as it is pitiless, and her characters, individual masterpieces, seduce readers with nihilistic allure."
While I write I often hear an imaginary soundtrack for the pages I'm working on. I'm also very interested in the interplay of mood and music in daily life and I often include in-scene music that characters interact with. Music also fuels the physical act of writing. I usually have a set list of background music for each writing project. It gets created in a haphazard way and it evolves over the course of the work.
Life During Wartime takes place in September 2008, at the worst of the financial crisis when Wall Street melts down. The plot is anchored in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are songs on this playlist that function as commentary and soundtrack for this moment in America. There are also songs for each character or for key moments—some of these I heard as I wrote, others came to me while I was editing or much later. Finally, there are the songs of my writing soundtrack that I played over and over, sometimes hearing the lyrics, sometimes not, but always writing to their rhythms.
21-year-old Nina Wicklow is an Iraq war veteran who goes missing outside Los Angeles in a mountain town called Sierra Madre and a cast of misfits comes together to search for her. This is Nina's song. For a long time it was the title of the novel, but the lyrics seem exceptionally flexible and fragile to me. The song offers a big tent of significance and yet when I try to land specific meanings, the whole thing slips away. I suppose that's why it's such amazing poetry—it's deeply experienced and completely ineffable. The song, like the character of Nina, is both a wish and warning.
There's very little in-scene music within the action of Life During Wartime. I think this is because the novel takes place before characters have found ways to heal so they can't connect to music (and its healing attributes) quite yet. "Hotel California" occurs in-scene for the character of Lise, but the song functions as a metaphor for ending up trapped in the damage of the worst impulses of American society, of living after trauma "where you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." The song is, in many ways, a commenting soundtrack for the entire novel.
Captain Lise Sheridan, an army nurse who worked in the combat hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad during the war, is the first character who realizes Nina is missing. "Hotel California" has complex meaning for Lise—it's the song she's almost sure was playing when she first meets and falls for Danny, and it's a song that haunts her, casting a shadow in the weird Southern California light. Lise's dad, a disillusioned Baby Boomer, identifies the song as the real end of the 1960s when everything went to shit. And the partial line of "the warm smell of colitas" recurs to Lise as a kind of bad mantra. Songwriter Don Henley has said "it's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream."
And then there's the penetrating lilt of those guitars! The live version from the Eagles' break-up tour works better for me for Life During Wartime. It's much darker sounding than the studio version and contains this deep relentlessness throughout as well as guitar solos that feel like personal demons doing battle.
A dance song for the apocalypse. The gunfire, furtive movement, passports, visas, assumed names, checkpoints, working at night, maybe never getting home. The song describes, quite literally, what life is like in a war zone. I remember in the first days after 9/11 in New York when we had to show ID if we went south of 14th Street, in order to prove that you lived or worked in the now-militarized zone. I lived on 12th Street and my folks lived on 23rd, and there were no food deliveries to stores downtown at all, so I was going back and forth across the zones and that checkpoint quite a bit, showing my driver's license each time I wanted to see my mom or buy food.
4. "Welcome to the Boomtown"
David & David, Boomtown
Also pulled into the search for Nina is her uncle Jim Wicklow. Jim is a Wall Street dude who survived the World Trade Center attack, but his brother, Ryan, Nina's father, did not. Jim has been hiding out in Cape Cod, but he senses something is coming that will pull him from exile and take him back to the world. This song is definitely playing on the soundtrack when Jim flies into Burbank Airport to help look for Nina. He doesn't hear the deeper meanings of the song though. This is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums. It's essentially a "Hotel California" for the 1980s. Same themes—particularly the cost of excess, the loss of innocence.
This song is about worlds adjacent to the world of Life During Wartime. It's about life in cities, about people who are the collateral damage of the money and power systems. This song is in the deep background when Jim finally gets back to New York. He doesn't hear—is never able to hear—this song, but it was essential that I heard this track as a counterpoint as I wrote those scenes of Jim at the ATM, amazed that he could still get money.
This song is in the trailer for the movie Jarhead based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's memoir of the first Gulf War. "Order, huh / Yo, we at war / We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves."
This song is used in Liza Johnson's film Return from 2011 starring Linda Cardellini as a soldier who returns from Iraq and struggles to find her place back home in everyday life. The movie was part of my research.
8. "Down to You"
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark
I listened to a ton of Joni Mitchell—Court & Spark, Blue, Ladies of the Canyon—while I wrote Life During Wartime. Her music just flooded through me and is on every page of the novel.
This is Lise's song. California is her escape plan, but there's a darkness she can't run from because it's inside her. Chrissie Hynde's lullaby mode always has a sharp knife at the ready. "Oh California, maybe you'll be the final resting place. I'll finally be free."
This is Jim's 9/11 song. He hears it on continuous repeat. He sings it to himself, but he never hears the last line that "this time will pass" because he's in a never-ending loop of the day his brother died. I always think of this as U2's 9/11 album even though it was released almost a year before in October 2000.
This is Jim having his heart attack. As he's going down, losing consciousness, this is his fantasy of himself as an old time financial hustler just riding the market and being a true New Yorker. The song was released in 2008 so it feels right on the moment.
Lise and Nina have been telling war stories to a screenwriter for research named Danny, who used to work in advertising in New York. Danny is kind of a douche so of course Lise is sleeping with him. I listened to a lot of music from The Gaslight Anthem while working on this project. Their songs have an operatic quality and the melodies are fuel for good writing. These two songs are relevant to Danny's story. He's trying to re-work real life hassles into elegant cinema. These songs are part of what Danny wants—the healing artifice of cinematic moments, conjured to correct real life.
Also part of the search posse is Nina's landlady, Jen. This is Jen's song. It describes the delirium of her drinking in the old days back in New York. Now, it's the song she thinks a neighbor is blasting down the street during her dark night of the soul. The song is also from 2008 so it is probably the song the neighbor is playing.
This is a song for Jen's husband, Marco, the tech guy. He observes trends and events and sees the inner workings before others do. He can see the programming code even if he can't quite articulate it as poetically as Aimee Mann. She sings/speaks for Marco in yet another song from 2008.
16. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife"
Alabama 3, La Peste
This song is another all-time fave for me. I write to it, work out to it, and sometimes just wallow in it. It also happens to describe Jim and Jen in their post-9/11 nightmare, drunk out of their minds, trying to fuck away the fear—whether or not they ever actually met each other (undetermined in Life During Wartime). Let's burn it down. Let's burn ourselves down.
Nik is a Vietnam veteran who leads the support group that both Nina and Lise belong to. He's both priest and devil in his guidance for living post-war. He offers both a nostalgia for and a dread of the 1960s.
I used the first few lines of this song in the epigraph of the novel and I think the lines speak for themselves. The song's urgent warning of imminent danger and chaos has started to feel a bit like it just applies to the past, to the late 1960s specifically. The song works well in this way when Nik and his war intersect with Nina, Lise and the other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, but it can also feel a little old fashioned. I've become quite attached to Patti Smith's 2007 cover version which has a more polished, churning-yearning, contemporary feel. Her punk-prophet vocals keep the song grounded in peril, but the re-make creates a half-promise of soaring free from the menace—and updates the song for Lise, Jim, Jen and Danny. All four main characters in Nina's search party are survivors just trying to stay alive and outrun a terrible thing that is always only just a shot away.
"For fans who love the Replacements, this book is your only opportunity to go back in time and be a fly on the van wall. Bill Sullivan’s clever sarcasm, humble anti-rock star attitude, and complete access allow him to tell the band’s behind-the-scenes story perfectly."
Growing up, my father decided to censor the music available to his second batch of children. The first three boys had been allowed to lean pretty much any album up against the stereo, and as a result, had gotten an eclectic collection gleaned from their friends and their friends’ older siblings. At the time, album rock radio stations also helped. But for the middle part of the family line up, meaning me, it was different. A religious man his whole life, my old man now decided it better if he would just pick out the vinyl himself. That way, he might steer me away from the secular, and if at all possible, music in general. Rock music in particular. This arrangement left me sneaking into my brothers’ rooms if I wanted to listen to Clapton, while allowing me to listen to Allan Sherman and the Turtles in public. Little did my father know that the combination of My Name is Allan alongside Flo and Eddie would lead me straight through the gateway to Shel Silverstein and Zappa.
When I was finally allowed my inaugural visit to the Wax Museum, I had to pretend I didn’t have a stack of my own titles folded into my brothers’ stacks—even they had rules as to what I could own. Bubblegum like Ohio Players or Frampton Comes Alive got axed, along with anything Heavy or Glamorous. Never one to stand down in the face of complete stupidity, I went straight for the guy dressed in drag and brought home Love It to Death, to the resignation of my father and disappointment from the taste makers in the big boys room. Alas, poor Alice—though purchased legit and in the open—was not allowed to reside in the stack leaning on the speaker. And as such, had to be enjoyed in secret.
"Do the Clam," Elvis Presley
I had picked up a copy of the Girls! Girls! Girls! soundtrack and liked to slip it into the deck every now and then when the others grew weary of picking the music. I always had a boom box—since high school I prided myself in always bring music to the party, in the form of one of the latest models of portable music player, and a carefully crafted mixtape. If you think that digital mix your boyfriend gave you was sweet, you should have gotten a mixtape in the day when each song had to be hand-picked to mix into the next one every time the needle was dropped and the two buttons depressed—it was a matter of timing, often having to be redone a couple times to get the right fade.
The van had no sound system, so my blaster leaned on the engine hood which on Bert was actually inside the van between the two front seats, and the tape boxes sat on the hot floor baking to perfection. One night in Boston, at a club called The Channel where Fleetwood Mac’s first sound man Dinky Dawson had installed the exact touring sound system that he had used for John Mayall and the blues busters and their opening act Fleetwood Mac, Dinky bragged that he had invented the front of house snake by duct taping all the cables together and, therefore, being the first person to mix from the audience’s perspective.
That night was a punk marathon for all ages, and since it was the height of the “straight edge” era of punk, the headliners Youth Brigade and the others appeared to hold true to the oath. We, however, sat alone in a fenced in “Beer Pen” sponsored by Miller Lite as the scanners leered through the bike racks at us grinning. On stage they were more bored by us than angry and when Paul disappeared into the audience during a version of "The Clam" I went out to investigate. As I started to go down on a knee to get involved Bob grabbed me and shoved the mike in my hand and bang I was the new singer.
During the headliners set the crowd erupted into a frenzy, swamping the stage with bodies. The security linked arms at the backline and walked the punters off the from edge, spilling them like lemmings from a cliff until they reached the downstage edge, and then flexed their biceps and taunted the crowd—who responded with a barrage of lugies that would scary Iggy. This caused the t-shirted ROID army to declare clobbering time, going through the crowd swinging arms and chairs, tossing them like rag dolls from side to side with punker girls hanging in their backs and around their necks scratching kicking biting while others turned bar stools into weapons and most ran for the exits. My date and I sat comfortably to the side watching until a body flew too close for comfort, urging us to hide behind the locked door of the dressing room until it all calmed down.
"If I Only Had a Brain," Wizard of Oz Soundtrack
Basically, as I remember it: Chris Mars knew the guitar part to this song, and when the band would leave the stage for extracurricular activities, Mars would wander over and pick one up and noodle around while waiting for the rest of the fellas to return to the stage. Tommy would pick up his brother’s guitar and Bob his little bros bass. The Louse (Paul) would scale the riser and struggle to situate himself on the drum throne while I forced the vocal mic into the space between the high hat and kick pedal hoping he would not break either one that night. Normally, Paul would count off "Hootenanny," the title track to the latest record. One night, Paul just followed Mars’ lead, and "If I Only Had A Brain" made it onto the set list. Eventually, since Mars and I were the only ones on stage and I had the mic, it became my number.
I asked Mars the origins of the song one night, and he said that the producing team in the converted RV parked in a warehouse where the band was recording the follow up to Sorry Ma and Stink seemed to not be paying attention, so the band switched instruments and made it up. The alleged response from the rolling studio was “sounded great, let’s do another one.”
"Kansas City Star," Roger Miller
Miller was always an underestimated cat. He was tight with Waylon, Willie and The Boys, but his novelty numbers that topped the charts were rightfully not taken seriously like the others. And like many funny men, he had his demons: "Dang Me," "Roller-skate," and "King of the Road" were staples of grade school and church camp sing alongs, but the darkness hidden inside the songs and the institutions that we sang them in.
In "Kansas City Star," the singer eschews the offers of an emerging market for the comfort of the one he is the center of, and despite the obvious respect shown by the wooing organization, he stays put with what he has. I’m the number one attraction every supermarket parking lot / I’m the king of Kansas City, no thanks Omaha, thanks a lot. People are always trying to get me to admit that my artists had a “dark side,” and hoping I could give them a correlating story to confirm their conclusions. But I never saw the darkness in any one I worked with, and mental scuffles are something we all have with ourselves. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
"Born Too Loose (Born To Lose)," Heartbreakers Live
Ya get it? Ya Limey Mother fuckers?
"Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)," Jeffersons Cock
This was recorded on a 4 track in Grampaboy Studios just before the demise of The Cock. We recorded this for a Frank Sinatra tribute record that was going to be out on a cool Hoboken, NJ record label. We sent it in but didn’t hear back. Grampaboy played guitar and produced and I did the vocals.
"Temptation Eyes"/ "Love Grows (where my Rosemary goes)"/ "Oh Babe, What Would you say?," The Grass Roots/Edison Lighthouse/Hurricane Smith
One day when I was thirteen I answered the phone in our family kitchen, and a gruff voice on the other end asked for my older brother. Well versed in the etiquette of the day I responded negatively and offered to take a message. It was one of those wall model phones with the long curly cord that reached anywhere in the kitchen with ease. The note pads were on the opposite counter to the phone, as you didn’t always get to choose where they could hang the phone. The voice asked me if my brother had gotten a job. “A job?” I asked. “Yes,” said the voice, “a job, he’s on the city’s list of students eligible for summer jobs.” I replied that he had in fact taken a job on the Bike Patrol, perhaps the most sought after summer job in the cities. The Bike Patrol would ride around the chain of lakes with orange sashes on, telling people to get on or off the new bike path—and when on it, to keep to the proper clockwise direction and under the 20 mph speed limit. They were the Boys of Summer.
“How old are you?”
“Great. Come down to the refectory at Lake Calhoun and you have a job. Any questions?”
“What’s a Refectory?”
That summer at the Calhoun Refectory I worked with a handful of out-of-work Top 40 DJ’s and veterans of the Vietnam War. It may have fatefully affected my whole life.
Joe Fletcher's The Hatch is a remarkable collection of poetry, prose, and flash fiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Fletcher conjures a dizzying array of fantastical and macabre imagery in his debut collection, which features lyric narratives and flash fictions that evoke the original versions of the Grimms' fairy tales, Pagan rituals, and horror films."
In his own words, here is Joe Fletcher's Book Notes music playlist for his collection The Hatch:
The poems in The Hatch share the same atmosphere as the music I was listening to during the time of their composition. I don’t know what to say about these songs that could add to the experience of listening to them. What follows is a fumbling attempt to conjure what they elicit in me.
Boards of Canada: “Roygbiv” (Geogaddi)
A tinted convoy winding along a chain of dunes in the predawn. A city cleansed of vandals brings the harvest to its windowed canyons on great conveyors caked with grease and soot. A cloud of pigeons swerves to avoid a twisting cylinder of static extending upward from a blinking antenna. A boy wakes up on a commercial flight in 1972 and finds his orange juice is still cold. But the half-eaten cookie he had left on his tray is gone.
Tommy Johnson: “Cool Drink of Water Blues”
The coppery, quavering tenor, rich and muddy, that leaps up into trembling falsetto, as if he were being surprised by ghosts he had to keep belching out, matched by the tremolo in both registers of the guitar creeping through the brackish cypress flats. Dry-mouthed and with nothing but a dented cup of gasoline as August wanes. Shadows stretching across the empty eastbound platform.
Meredith Monk & Katie Geissinger: “Lost Wind” (Volcano Songs)
Dying glaciers sucked through the synapses of prehistory. Basalt scraped into mute submission beneath the lance of sick starlight that is not lost, since it finds an echo or answer in the purple stalactite piercing a stag’s tongue. I found two baby owls trembling in the ivy by my dead aunt’s chimney. What reddens the blood? Her low staccato laughter at my fumbling toward speech was made of too many lips.
Austra: “Lose It” (Feel it Break)
Sheer animal panic skittering through the nebulous woodlands. Palpitating herds. The drum we found in the river exhorts a communal anguish sprawled under the aegis of no demon we know. Its hot acidic breath on our muddy breast. Past the salt mines, to the delta, lured by the inaugural fires made from splintered phone poles lit on abandoned barges. With that other we dragged through the dark by her thumbs, who compresses a testimony we distract you from by peeling sound from her spine.
Verdi: Rigoletto—Quartet, “Bella Figlia Dell’Amore” (Joan Sutherland, Hugette Tourangeau, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes)
An upturned bell brimming with whale blood in whose quadratic depths one glimpses the shadowy Mantuan spires quivering in the tavern clamor while the jester vomits port on the cobbles. Four assassins converge on a honeyed candleflame dressed in a rapist’s robes, cloaked as a man, coked up in the lust bowels. We listen through the chink in the wall, believing ourselves outside and above, but the joke is on us, heavy as a bloated ox beside the parched northern road to Verona, along which we send our daughters. Come with me now. It’s impossible. I’m afraid.
Wendy Rene: “After Laughter (Comes Tears)”
I rode a three-day drunk into Squid’s. Sorrow hid in the velvet curtains above the corner booth. The dead koi I lifted from the tepid tank with the care of a midwife. I held it till tomorrow, which lasted a year, made as I was from intersecting neutron cones spinning down from the low summer front. I slumped over a Negroni, a sunflower in a tomb. Some fat Pierrot meandering through the sun-blazed median, sweating against the rubber of his mask, shaking with each bass bubble welling up from the underworld. You in love, you happy, until this banshee bites the inside of your ear.
Tortoise: “Gigantes” (Beacons of Ancestorship)
It dropped from the skywomb in syncopated globules of sound that quivered in their separateness before fusing with a crack that tore rain from the air. It waves an unjointed phalange at the drones. It sucks through its snout the crabs that it dug from beneath the upturned hull of a trawler. Its many arms dump ecstatic gluts of rhythm spreading like sonic bacteria through the battered Levant. Let the empire be pulled across the obsidian face of the magnetic cliffs. It sleeps completely still on a bed of plundered corpse hair. Neon loons mate in the cane.
Henryk Górecki: Kleines Requiem Fur Eine Polka—“4. Adagio, Cantable” (Rudolf Werthen: I Fiamminghi)
Where is that woman going with her wheelbarrow loaded with moss? If you press an architrave in Katowice you can hear an angel scream in agony from behind an exoplanet. The scarred boy shares the day’s only meal with you, retrograde vagrant. Gray rain coats the tarmac. Under the cemetery a web of enzymes pulsing. Look: already the restharrows are dimming on the northern slopes of the Carpathians. What evil condensed to shatter the bus’s windshield? Why did the driver and all the passengers walk in a wordless processional away from the airport?
I wrote this book over a period of two years, when I was living in Berkeley and then Oakland, CA. Around that time my friend Wiley bought an old school bus from a river rafting company in Sonora, ripped the seats out, and turned it into a tiny, roving music venue. A group of our friends began playing shows regularly on the bus and over time, a collective formed. They called themselves Splendor All Around and they toured together all over the west, from Los Angeles to Orcas Island, playing shows in backyards and living rooms and bars, but for the most part, playing shows on the bus, which had surprisingly good acoustics and could fit about twenty people comfortably, though it often fit much more than that, uncomfortably.
In April of 2015 I tagged along with a tour for several days, in my own car. I drove through the night with my friend Zack to meet up with the bus, which had left days ago, and was already in Joshua Tree. We listened to a late-night radio host as he rambled about “the alien conspiracy” and we drank multiple Five-Hour Energys to stay awake.
“Juiced it,” we would say, whenever we finished a Five-Hour Energy. I can’t remember why we started saying that. It was funny to us. It was 4 am and we were wide-awake and flying across the state.
When we got to the desert the sun was already rising. The bus was parked outside Pappy and Harriet’s bar, where the musicians on the bus had played the night before. We slept in the parking lot at Pappy and Harriet’s for a couple hours that morning, and then, along with the bus, we headed to the National Park, where we planned to camp and celebrate our friend Derek’s birthday, though Derek didn’t want to be the center of attention and kept insisting that it was, in fact, everyone’s birthday that day. Derek is wonderful guy, a real-life cowboy farmer from the Shenandoah Valley who once taught me how to clip a goat’s toenail. You’ll hear a song of his on the playlist below.
Anyway, there’s much more to this story that will probably be told at a different time. There’s a story about me realizing I was in love again and a story about wandering around the desert on acid that is, really, more like a million stories, but for the purposes of this Largehearted Boy intro, the relevant part of this story is that we all ended up hanging around the fire pit that night to celebrate Derek (everyone), drinking whiskey and beer, all the musicians passing around their instruments and playing each other’s songs. This is definitely the best way to listen to music, I remember thinking: drunk and maybe still on acid a little bit and out under the stars in the desert with friends.
If you read the book after reading this intro, you will likely notice the appearance of the fictional Splendor All Arounders. Their role in the story is a minor one, but when I was asked to construct a playlist that related to the book, that night in Joshua Tree came to mind. These songs remind me of the time when this book was first coming to life, and so, for this playlist, I’ve drawn exclusively from recordings made by members of the collective. Their work inspired me then and continues to inspire me now. OK, enough talking, time for the good stuff.
James Wallace (now known as Skywayman) is a musician based out of Nashville, Tennessee. This song of his is the only song from the playlist that actually appears in the book. To me, its themes of resilience and reinvention resonate with the primary questions the novel explores. What do you do when something keeps coming at you and you can’t stop it? Berg, the main character of the story, struggles with chronic pain and addiction. He moves to a remote town in Northern California in order to recover, but his pain and suffering continue to dog him. “If you chase me I’ll run,” James sings in this song, “I’ll run into the darkness or the fire I won’t run forever.” There’s so much wisdom and steely self-knowledge in that line. It’s brave to admit that you will run from something, that you’re not invincible or fearless, and it’s powerful, at the same time, to say you won’t run forever, that you know you have the strength to survive, if you are pushed far enough. I think of those lines at the end of Alejandro Zambra’s story “National Institute” where the speaker is facing down his tyrannical teacher, but does not feel afraid. “Because I spoke softly, but I was strong,” Zambra writes. “Because I speak softly, but I’m strong. Because I never shout, but I’m strong.
I’ve been listening to Dylan Flynn’s music since I was a teenager (and he was a teenager), when my girlfriend gave me a mix with two of his songs that he likely recorded in the basement of his mother’s house. Dylan’s a blacksmith and a sawyer now and lives out in West Marin, where he performs with his band, Salt Suns. Like the speaker in this song, most things Berg wants in the book take a long time. He begins apprenticing with a boatbuilder named Alejandro, captivated by his work and the world he has created. Berg wants to be like Alejandro, but pretty quickly realizes that this will take a long time—and perhaps never happen. What does it take to make peace with that? To recognize that everything may take long, and there’s no way around it?
This is a very old track from Derek (who performs as Oil Derek), but one that I always come back to. I doubt Derek remembers this, but one day, at my old house in Berkeley, I came downstairs and found Derek hanging out with a couple of my roommates. He asked me what I’d been doing up there and I told him I was working on my novel. “God damn,” he said. “I can’t wait to read that book.” At a time when I was just starting out, when I had no idea if I’d ever finish, it meant a lot to hear that. The early days of this project were fragile and unpredictable. At one point I scrapped the entire first half of the book and rewrote it from the beginning. I’m grateful to those who stood by me in those days and supported my work, with gestures large and small. A book is, in many ways, treated as the product of an individual’s mind, and to a certain extent it is, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you do nothing all on your own. So thank you, Derek.
Pancho is the Draymond Green of Splendor All Around. He galvanizes the group with his with energy, edge, and confidence. He’s the team’s beating heart but he also pushes things too far, on occasion, and falls afoul of the refs. One of the things I love about Pancho, though, is that he’s always onto himself, as you can see in this song. I see it as an interrogation of what it means to love him and what it means for him to be loved and god damn, it’s moving.
Rebecca Marcyes is a poet, singer, and reluctant Californian. Her songs are always honest and very smart and this one is no different. “Stay here tonight you big baby,” she sings. “Do just what’s frightening you.” I love that line—the way it calls out her lover’s fragility but also calls them in. Writing about Berg’s lover, Nell, was one of the most challenging parts of writing the book. When you’re writing about a relationship it’s tremendously easy to start saying generic shit—or, even worse, to become self-conscious of the fact that you are saying generic shit and start writing excruciatingly specific stuff that is boring and has no feeling. Somehow how Rebecca always gets it right, that balance of crisp, real detail, mixed with genuine emotional insight.
Dave Deporis was a friend and bus musician who performed at some of Splendor’s earliest shows and played a major part in Splendor’s most recent tour in 2017. Three days after the conclusion of that tour, he died suddenly and unexpectedly during a botched robbery. His death was extraordinarily tragic and shook the whole community. I’ve always loved this song of his, which speaks, I think, to the strangeness of waking up and finding out that you’re an adult, even though it’s not what you thought it would feel like. When Tayari Jones read the book she told me she thought it was “a coming of age story for a new generation.” Berg isn’t eighteen and coming into adulthood, he’s squarely in adulthood. He has held down jobs and had relationships but he has never had to answer certain core questions about how he makes sense of the world. And, as Tayari smartly noted, I think that’s been a common experience for many in my generation, who have been ruthlessly trained to achieve—and who are very skilled at achieving—but who have not been taught how to reckon with challenges that do not respond to straightforward effort. Why am I doing what I am doing? How does one deal with issues that cannot be triumphed over? How does one make sense of that? These are some of the questions the book grapples with and something we all grappled with, too, I should say, in the wake of Dave’s death. A number of people are working to produce and release Dave’s unpublished material in a way that honors his work and spirit. You can learn more and donate to the cause at davedeporis.com.
Jo Scott-Coe's MASS analyzes the 1966 University of Texas sniper case through the lens of the shooter's relationships with his father and priest.
A. W. Richard Swipe wrote of the book:
"Is there any connection between religion and mass murder? Scott-Coe analyzes the example of the then-most deadly televised American rampage—the Whitman case in 1966. She extrapolates the essential elements that help us understand current tragic events with the insight of an investigative reporter and the skill of a novelist."
In her own words, here is Jo Scott-Coe's Book Notes music playlist for her debut book MASS:
MASS took me six years to complete. At first, I thought the story was going to be a chapter in another book. I thought that it would be a straightforward narrative about how a public massacre privately impacted a religious figure. What I discovered was more fraught and much more layered. I had a lot of learning to do. The world already knew that a suicidal Charles Whitman took his guns atop the UT Austin tower on August 1, 1966, killing 15 and wounding 31. We already knew how hours before that, he fatally stabbed his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathy, in their beds with a brand new knife.
But I learned that one week before the killings, Rev. Joseph Leduc, the whiskey priest who had been Whitman’s scoutmaster and who presided at his Texas wedding, had just accepted a military chaplaincy assignment in Alaska. Following a tip describing Leduc as the most significant confidante in Whitman’s twenty-five years of life, the FBI located the priest and interviewed him two weeks after the shootings.
My quest to understand this man, who had died at a relatively young age in 1981, required a broad scope of research across Leduc’s pathway—from Connecticut to Canada, from Florida to Maryland and back to Florida, to Texas and Alaska and back to Texas again, then back to Florida. Each fragment revealed what had been too easily lost in the shuffle. There was much to find in plain sight, among systems of men who easily exploited the rules—in the military, in the church, and in white southern society—to protect their own interests. I put myself smack in the middle of it all, as a stray Catholic writer and as a woman who did not belong.
My playlist follows.
Sanctus (from Missa Luba, recorded 1958)
This liturgical hymn comes from the Latin (Tridentine) mass rite, performed and recorded on an album by Les Troubadours de Roi Baudouin, a choir of children and adults in the Congolese town of Kaminga. This variation of the hymn captures the influence of vernacular and local tradition seven years before the conclusion of Vatican II, when the Latin liturgy would be translated into local languages across the world. This specific track also haunts the cruel white colonial order of the prep school depicted in Lindsay Anderson’s film, If… (1968), a film that ends with a gun massacre staged from the top of a campus building.
The Right Profile, The Clash
This paen to Montgomery Clift starts with the question, “Hey, where’d I see this guy?”—a puzzlement that echoed my problem seeking Whitman’s priest, and worked as a kind of thread throughout conversations with others who had known/thought they’d known Rev. Leduc and all my doubling-back through archives and articles. Until I located Leduc’s picture, my fantasy understudy was Clift’s handsome and noble Father Logan in Hitchcock’s suspense film, I Confess, an image that turned out to be completely incongruous with Leduc’s actual face and character. What is the “right” profile for a priest? For anyone? Clift struggled with sexual identity, with drinking and with pills—all details that made him a troubled, elusive figure despite his often-serene image onscreen. There was the famous car accident that disfigured him so horribly. I later learned that he died in 1966, one week before the UT Austin shooting. Some refer to Clift’s death as a slow suicide, itself an echo of Leduc’s decade-long deterioration.
In Bloom, Nirvana
This tune—its insistent, slow grinding of a musical jaw juxtaposed with Cobain’s horn-rimmed, clean cut pale face in the video—for me works as an anthem to our ominously ordinary love affair with guns, the palimpsest of blood over a blurry self-image, an American death trap. Like the character in Cobain’s lyrics, we “don’t know what it means.” It’s easy enough to protest the lone gunman and his military grade small arms turned against us. But we ask less often about the war machines and remote controlled bombing devices we all already own, about the horrors performed in our name.
Sinnerman, Nina Simone
I discovered so much running around and scurrying and squirreling in MASS: Away from family problems. Away from accountability and obligations. Inside institutions and away from them. Away from properties and debts and jobs, from promises to wives. Whitman’s crimes are the most awful opposite of scurrying, an in-your-face violent performance on a mass stage. “Run to the rock,” as the song says—or run to the tower. There’s no hiding from the man who’s hiding from himself. Nina’s voice knows the sinnerman needs water for conversion, for a true connection with the Lord. Whitman chose fire and fury instead. And Rev. Leduc, the priest who loved to fish: the sea didn’t save him, either.
Stabat Mater Dolorosa (various)
This Catholic hymn to honor the suffering of Mary, and by extension, the suffering of all women, has its origins in the 13th century. The simple melody is a forlorn, Gregorian-like chant. It has been arranged and recorded by many artists, but I remember it most vividly as an a capella melody sung over and over during Lent by untrained voices, most of them kids, during the Stations of the Cross after school or after a short evening mass. In the little pamphlets we used, the verse at each stage of Christ’s pathway to crucifixion was to be sung “to the tune of Stabat Mater.” My writer’s ear has come to hear this direction as, “brutality and torture, set to the tune of women forced to watch.” This is a song for women (and children) who are witnesses, whose testimony is discounted, who are left with the mess that damages them.
The Harry Lime Theme from The Third Man, Anton Karas
American writer goes looking for man-crush college friend in the rubble of Vienna after WWII. American discovers friend is dead, then that friend isn’t dead, rather quite alive and callously criminal. Everyone ends up in the sewers, all secrets finally exposed, and a gun goes off. At the very end, the lady love-interest walks out of the frame, leaving the all the men in their bombed out graveyard. Graham Greene, whose whiskey priest is the center of his novel The Power and the Glory, authored the screenplay. Greene reportedly had a happier ending in mind, but later decided that the director, Carol Reed, got it right.
Sweetheart Like You, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s song asks a question I faced again and again as I wrote. It wasn’t interrogation, just dismay. The central women in this story, and in too many stories like these, deserved better men—better partners, fathers, priests, ministers. Better workplaces and better contracts. Better law enforcement and better medical care. They deserved more than men who simply would not murder them. They deserved men who saw and heard them, took them seriously, and believed what they said.
Take Me to Church, Hozier
Hozier turns the title refrain inside out, with the lyrics calling us to a different kind of ritual, between intimate partners who have too long been shamed by institutions and brutalized by men who act in their name: “Every Sunday’s more bleak/A fresh poison each week./’We were born sick’/You heard them say it.” The song is a powerful indictment of wounds—both emotional and physical—inflicted in the name of religious rules, especially about marriage and sexuality.
Kiss Off, The Violent Femmes
Here we start with a frantic plea for counseling or connection: “I need someone a person to talk to/someone who’d care to love/could it be you.” It turns sour fast. The UT massacre took place in 1966, the same year Jacqueline Susann’s chemically infused novel, Valley of the Dolls, was published. Investigators discovered Charles Whitman to be a serious self-medicator, not through alcohol (Leduc’s apparently preferred substance) as much as pills, whether prescribed through doctors or not. Given the ethos of the time, however, none of this is especially shocking. In this song, Gordon Gano’s voice builds to a litany of ten angry doses—the ninth pill for “the lost God,” and the last one, climactically, “for everything everything everything everything.” With the “kiss off into the air,” we know that the pharmaceutical solution will not hold, that all these little bullets only lead to the brink of a punishing, dangerous rant.
Hurt, Johnny Cash
The last track for MASS goes to the Man in Black, aka Johnny Cash, with his cover of the NIN song. There were a lot of “men in black” I consulted for this project—aging priests and former priests, friends and family members who had endured decades of unimaginable grief. Here is the voice of the onetime outlaw-addict, the man who knows that ash awaits us all, his song pulling us back from an edge he has seen so clearly. “What have I become/my sweetest friend?” is not a question Whitman wanted to answer. Brutality against his wife and mother, against total strangers—horrific acts demanding that ultimate harm would come to himself—all took the place of transformation and redemption. Cash’s voice calls out to us across generations of graves remembered and forgotten, suggesting a different lesson: “If I could start again/a million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way.” Here is another elusive rite we might reach towards, a better “if,” far away from empires that demand blood as a daily offering.
The poems in Leah Umansky's collection The Barbarous Century wield vulnerability as a weapon as they speak to dystopias and hope both global and personal.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa wrote of the book:
"Leah Umansky is a poet of rare gifts. The Barbarous Century carries the reader into poetic realms that are both brutal and joyous, both light and dark. In luminous lines, these poems succeed in simultaneously unsettling and soothing us. A book for our times."
The Barbarous Century is a journey through the stories that inform us and the stories we tell ourselves. Confessional without being confessional, and with compelling wordplay and lyricism. This is a book about the many challenges we all face in being human: how to be good in a world gone wrong. It uses varied dystopias embedded in myth, story, technology and popular culture to highlight the struggle of being a woman in the 21st century. With longing, resentment, humor and desire, these poems highlight the want for an easier and gentler way to navigate this world we call ours.
The following songs are songs of love, of despair and of solace.
Diamond Heart – Lady Gaga
I’m so in love with the new Lady Gaga album, Joanne. Gaga also has a cameo in a poem in The Barbarous Century because this album sort of got me obsessed. I love this song because it’s about the heart, and well, so much of this collection is, too.
John Wayne – Lady Gaga
This is a great song on Joanne. It’s sort of part heartbreak, part fantasy and part pop-culture. I love that. John is John Wayne, but as Gaga says, “Every John is just the same…” I feel that, and I think it’s evident in the book, too.
Jar of Hearts – christina perri
This is a song my sister got me obsessed with. I really love the piano in it, and sometimes I just listen to it on repeat. The crests and lows of it are really sort of soothing. Of course, what I’m drawn to in it, is the heart.
Everything Zen – Bush
Sixteen Stone will always be one of my favorite albums from my teenage years. I always feel like this song has a sort of dystopian quality to it. It’s so full of angst and rage and darkness.
The Rat – The Walkmen
This is probably my favorite Walkmen song. I love the anger in it. Something just resonates, probably the rage I feel in these barbarous days, or the frustration I feel under this presidency. The Barbarous Century is equal parts longing, politics and pop culture. In each way, there is a push and pull of emotions.
I love Weller and listen to his live album, Days of Speed, all the time. The whole notion of having trust in yourself is beautiful. Weller always speaks from the heart, and I love that.
Sign of the Times – Harry Styles
This is one of favorite songs of 2017. I’ve listened to this song many times on repeat, singing along as I write. It’s hypnotic and heartbreaking. I don’t know a single One Direction song, but I’m obsessed with this album. The piano sort of takes your breath away. Sometimes we all feel like “we have to get away..” Again, a song of hope and lifting one’s spirit up and away, despite sadness, despite struggle and despite despair.
We don't talk enough
We should open up
Before it's all too much
Will we ever learn?
We've been here before
It's just what we know
Stop your crying, baby
It's a sign of the times
Stand By Me – Oasis (from the live album The Dreams We Have as Children)
I’m always listening to Oasis. This, again, is a song about hope and asking for love, for friendship and for help.
Sad Song – Oasis
Sad Song is such an underappreciated Oasis song but one of my favorites. I listen to a lot of sad songs, but Noel’s voice, here in the live version is so earnest and heartfelt. I always find it sort of comforting.
There is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
Again, a song about hope and holding on…. Very much like the last poem in the book “Survival.”