In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Aaron Angello’s book The Fact of Memory is as imaginative as it is insightful.
Elissa Gabbert wrote of the book:
“Mysteriously, from the language of a single Shakespeare sonnet emerges a whole book, a kind of fractal memoir or self-mythology (or perhaps all memoir is mythology), a book about ‘the past (memory) and the present (existence),’ a book about ‘everything really,’ the things we keep to tell ourselves the stories of our lives. ‘It builds from within itself.’ Aaron Angello’s The Fact of Memory reminds me the world is full of other-dimensional meaning, infinite meaning, waiting to bloom.”
Music has always been important to me, but when it comes to music, I’ve never been cool. I wish I could say the first album I bought with my own money was Lou Reed or David Bowie on vinyl, but in fact it was Wham!’s (can’t leave out the “!”) Make It Big on cassette. Unformed me couldn’t get enough of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or “Freedom.” I wore that tape out, which is, objectively, not cool.
I like to think that over the years my musical tastes have evolved, have become deeper and more developed, and they have. The truth, though, is that the musical foundation upon which my entire life is built is made of bubble-gum and Cheez-Whiz. Today, it’s nearly impossible for me to memorize a short poem by Frank O’Hara or Elizabeth Bishop because my head is overstuffed with endless pop and country lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s. I can sing along with any dumb song that comes on the radio, though.
When I sat down to begin compiling a playlist to accompany The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications, I thought I should find music that reflects, somehow, the themes in the book, the feelings it evokes, maybe a few tracks that helped put me in a creative headspace when I sat down to write. After all, the book is a collection of short, interrelated, autobiographical, lyric essays. Perhaps I could explore the abstract connections between the essays and some really deep cuts. The truth is, though, I think I just wanted to look cool, which, as we’ve already established, I am not. Instead, when I looked back through the book, I realized I mention a lot of specific songs within the individual pieces that make up the book. The connections between them and the pieces isn’t abstract or poetic; they are very concrete. These songs are, in a sense, how I think the world. So, I chose to discuss some of those.
“Love Me Tender” Elvis Presley
My father, who passed aways a few years ago, was a rock-and-roll guitar player who was in bands from the time he was sixteen until he couldn’t play anymore, in his early seventies, because of Parkinsons. He adored Elvis, loved the music of the fifties and sixties, and played it his entire life. When “Love Me Tender” came out, in 1956, my father would have been eleven years old (the same age, incidentally, as I was when I bought the Wham! cassette). I can only imagine how mind-blowing Elvis must have been to a middle school kid in 1950s Florida. Anyway, I do love this song, and it always makes me think of my dad. It also makes me think of Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart.
“Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” George Strait
You know, I freakin’ love George Strait, especially the songs from the eighties. I rarely seek him out and put him on, but when any of his songs make their way onto a playlist I’m listening to, I always turn it up and sing along. Yes, I know all the lyrics. They are incredibly silly, almost bordering on satire (“Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox / and I’m afraid they got mixed up with mine), but they are just absolutely right. And Strait approaches them with such an air of sincerity that I find myself buying into the sentiment and the work they do in world-building. These songs do what Tom Waits’ songs do, but in a less obvious way.
“Jesse’s Girl” Rick Springfield
This song was released in 1981, when I was in elementary school, and I always associate it with a kind of sexual awakening and an early sexual confusion. First of all, I remember distinctly being attracted to Rick Springfield, but also being attracted to whoever Jesse’s girl was (I think, in my mind, she was one of the two women on Three’s Company). I remember being confused by the fact of attraction. What was the point? I also remember how quickly and easily I distanced myself from the experience of same-sex attraction. Even at seven or eight years old, I had already learned that it was “unnatural” and wrong. Those are some powerful forces we’re born into; Foucault would have a field day. Also, by the way, this song still slaps. Recommended for karaoke.
“Thank God I’m a Country Boy” John Denver
John Denver was among the most popular artists of the 1970s, much to the dismay of critics of the time. After “Take Me Home Country Roads” reached number two on the Billboard charts in 1971, Denver recorded “Rocky Mountain High” in 1973. This song, incidentally, was in large part the reason my parents moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1975. In 1974-5, Denver had a string of number-one hits, including “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Critics denounced him as bland (he was) and cliché (he was), but he was also so very necessary. The Vietnam War was just winding down. The country was recovering from Watergate, from the assassinations of JFK and MLK and Malcolm and Bobby Kennedy, Americans were dealing with an energy crisis and massive inflation. And then there was John Denver – constantly gentle and optimistic, getting high with his friends around a campfire, with his singular laugh, cooing his catchphrase (“Far out!”), playing an acoustic guitar, and singing songs about how much he loved his wife. It must have been such a balm – for everyone in the US and around the world – except, of course, for the journalists at Rolling Stone. I remember distinctly, at three years old, putting a John Denver 8-track into the player, jumping on my bed, singing along to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” over and over, and feeling so good! I’d like to do that now.
“Yakety Yak” The Coasters
Has a dumber song ever been recorded? Has a dumber song ever been released? Do we like dumb songs? It’s a rhetorical question. Yes, we love them. When Stand by Me, the fantastic 1986 film, directed by Rob Reiner (can he do anything wrong?) came out, I bought the soundtrack. It was filled with those silly, poppy songs from the fifties, including this one. This tape, along with a couple Madonna tapes, provided the soundtrack to my middle school. At least until I discovered the Beastie Boys and REM.
“Cross Road Blues” Robert Johnson
If you google this song, you will be bombarded with results in which people ask, “Did Robert Johnson really sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads?” I love that. It’s a silly story, but it’s no sillier than any other myth. Johnson was so good, it’s not difficult to see why this story took off. I’m sure he helped it along a bit, too, telling stories at gigs as he toured around the southeast. The stories about Johnson that fascinate me, though, are the much more pedestrian ones. After his few recordings made their way north, everyone wanted to get him up there, to make him a star, to make a fortune off him. In 1938, when Johnson was twenty-seven, producer John Hammond wanted to bring him up to New York to play Carnegie Hall, but he couldn’t be found. In 1941, musicologist and folk historian Alan Lomax went down to Mississippi to record him. Also, no luck. Turns out Johnson died in ’38, and we still don’t know why.
“Grace” Jeff Buckley
Another brilliant artist who died too young, Jeff Buckley was a kind of god to me. He perfectly embodied the genuineness that we all prized so highly in the nineties. He was honest, broken, imperfect, and astronomically talented. In the book, I write about learning, after his death, that he lived on the same block as I did in New York. To this day, something about that shakes me to my core.
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” Jim Croce
Man, I loved this song so much when I was four or five years old, this and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” Songs about big dudes who will beat you up if you mess with them are somehow crucial to the developing mind of the young American male, for better of worse (I definitely think worse). Also, this song is kinda racist. Another one bites the dust.
“Johnny B. Goode” Chuck Berry
If you play guitar, you have a special relationship to Chuck Berry. It’s just a fact. Most young guitarists learn, as their first foray into rock-and-roll guitar, the iconic opening riff to this song. I was not different. And my dad, as I mentioned earlier, was a guitarist who played this style – and was really good at it. I think, in some way, I conflate Berry’s music and my father’s memory. I can’t hear Berry’s guitar without thinking bout my father playing it. They’re inseparable in my mind.
“Make You Feel My Love” Bob Dylan
Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind is, in my opinion, among his very best. It’s right up there with Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. It was a kind of comeback for him; he hadn’t released any music since 1990, and much of what he had been producing in the eighties was not well received. This album, though, exploded. And I love it. This was the album that got me into Dylan. (I was in my early-mid twenties when I found him. See what I mean? So uncool.) And this song, which has (much more) famously been covered by both Garth Brooks and Adele, was one of the most beautiful love songs I’d ever heard. Dylan’s voice had settled into a mature rasp. He’d lost a lot of the poetic pretension that characterized much of his earlier writing. It’s just great. The whole album is great. Right after this album came out, I moved from New York to Los Angeles. It was a major transition in my life, and as music can do, this album helped me make sense of all of the chaos I was experiencing and was about to experience.
Aaron Angello is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the Rocky Mountains who lives and feels remarkably out of place in the charming, but very Eastern, town of Frederick, Maryland. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, and he currently teaches writing and theater at Hood College. Visit his website at www.aaronangello.net.