Introduction to Nonfiction
In Prague, the stores and malls are wall-to-wall 80s music. INXS echoes in the background as I look for a spiral bound notebook in a bookstore. The music banned under Communism is now the sound of choice on stereos across the city. For a split second, I get caught in jams, fluorescent colors, and too much hairspray. Back on the street, restored to my black-wrap dress and flats, another music surrounds me.
“Czech, Umbrellas, Light Rain” - Various Artists (4:17)
In a strange city, ambient sounds turn into music. Feet clicking on the ground create percussion. In the band Tilly and the Wall, tap dancer Jamie Williams is percussionist. My percussionists, bassists, and singers are passersby. Czech language forms the words.
“Bottle Music” - Street Performers, Prague (3:12)
Planned music by street performers is less interesting than the mix of sounds made by the city. “Once you begin to see and to hear,” M.C. Richards says, “the life in language ignites, and almost anything can strike you as poetry.”
In this issue of Drunken Boat, Lia Purpura’s essay, “Silence Is My Playlist,” teaches the art of listening. “How the creakings of floorboards, tires on asphalt, leaves-in-wind accompany.”
This stillness underlies Jedediah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy. He unfolds the topic of freedom in historical, political, and personal terms. In “A Tolerable Anarchy: The Mixtape,” he introduces Samuel Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglass to The Magnetic Fields, Cat Power, and Jane’s Addiction.
“The mixtape is the shadow of the book,” Purdy says in his liner notes to “A Tolerable Anarcy: The Mixtape.” “It says what the book did not find a way to say, is what the book did not find a way to be.” His mixtape reflects “the sensations of freedom” that he approaches in the book. “Where these songs add valuably to the book, I think it is because they express that sensation more directly and vitally than (my) words on the page.” Both the book and the songs address the idea of freedom with complexity. No single perspective prevails.
The word “mixtape” evokes an atmosphere of cassettes passed hand to hand between friends. In “Cover Story: Odd, Obscure, and Outrageous Album Art,” media group Wax Poetics looks back further than the mixtape to cardboard album covers.
Featured in this issue, “Cover Story,” is a crate of albums on the lawn of a garage sale. Early album covers range from the metallic spacesuit-clad band Unicornio to the abstract psychadelic design of “Master Wilburn Burchette’s Mind Storm.” Wax Poetics’ collection calls up the tactile experience of flipping through records: thunk-thunk-thunk.
“Shelter” - Ray LaMontagne (4:35)
LaMontagne’s song played through tinny computer speakers in my hotel room in Prague 14, a residential neighborhood not far from the Palace. The rattling broken elevator, mis-matched flower upholstery and stark yellow walls were the backdrop for Ray’s voice. His sound softened the surroundings.
The singing voice of Abbie Barrett has a similar ability to transform a room. A hush follows her songs. Her story of how she got from short-story-scribbler to singer-songwriter appears in this issue with “Of Toilet Rats and Songwriting.”
Colleen Curran’s first novel, Whores on the Hill, has prose that fills readers with the urge to sing along. She explores the musical impulse that drove this first novel and how her next novel led her in a loop in “On Repeat.”
Patrick Rosal’s “Improvisations: Everything I Know About Pianos” charts the story of a family through the black and white keys. His lyric essay has the rhythm of a piano concerto in the hands of a nimble-fingered pianist.
“Moscow is in the Telephone” - Rachel’s (3:58)
A few years back, Jess Row’s story, “The Secrets of Bats,” zipped through the digital wires into my email in-box. The story bounced between friends saying, “Read this now.” His forthcoming collection Nobody Ever Gets Lost will travel bookshelves in a similar fashion. The playlist he compiled contains songs that reflect the terrain he crossed (in imagination and in life) while writing as well as what matters most to him as a writer. “I respond to musicians who sound as if they’re inventing something new every single minute,” he says.
In his early days as a poet in Detroit, Philip Levine said his jazz musician friends were the first people he encountered living the lives of artists. They showed him that a poet’s life was possible. In this issue, composer Eleanor Aversa talks about what she learned about the life of a musician from a family of jugglers in Moscow.
“No Shame Blues” - Inner Orchestra (6:26)
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler talks about the musical concept of the rub. “When you’re listening to a song,” he says, “a certain kind of expectation develops—harmonically, or in its key or in its rhythm or in its color—and when that expectation is set up, the moment that gives you chill bumps is when the music cuts against the grain.”
Photographing Michael Jackson, Ron Galella was looking for the moment when Jackson let up his guard, the second before the tinted windows of his limousine sealed shut. Galella’s photo essay, available in print form from Powerhouse Books, spans the decades of the musician's career. A short piece by Brooke Shields accompanies the photos, sketching Jackson as a gangly teenager stunned by sudden success.
In “The Bass,” Jake Marmer forms syncopation from sounds in a coffee shop. “Pipes sing, register slams, change dangles. Co-worker mixes another cappuccino—shoowhooshawashoo.”
“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” - Ennio Morricone (2:38)
The wild-west sound of Morricone cues the entrance of Keith Meatto’s ponytailed guitar teacher, Mike, in a cloud of patchouli. In “The Guitar with the Dragon Tattoo,” Meatto attends guitar-school-for-one in Mike’s basement apartment. Mike’s unorthodox teaching methods use guitar as a platform for other lessons.
“Yeah” - Jake Shimabukuro (3:04)
The playlists collected in this issue are invitations from Douglas Kearney, Rick Moody, Elinor Lipman, Andrew Zornoza, Chloe Hooper, Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Carol Guess, and Swati Avasthi. Each author invites readers into a recent work of fiction, poetry or non-fiction. Through music the writers introduce these books.
“Messenger” - Naomi Shihab Nye (1:38)
In the front row of a Bikini Kill concert, the air crackles with ear-popping feedback and audience shouting. The band feeds these dissonant sounds and makes them a part of the music in an excerpt of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Movement. Full of rage that blooms into hope, Sara Marcus’ book shows the necessity of the Riot Grrrl Movement to girls today. Marcus, like Nye in her poem, whispers to those girls: “Nothing is impossible.”
“where_have_all_my_files_gone” - Rachel’s (2:48)
In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen says, “At the very least it would need to start with the story of the stars…how I came to listen to the stars, and why their message was important to me.”
While corresponding about her essay, Lia Purpura mentioned Bobby McFerrin’s “I’m My Own Walkman,” an a cappella song about finding music within. The music of poet and playright Lenelle Moïse follows the impulse of McFerrin’s song. She is an orchestra of one, stretching and melding her voice into new shapes. In this issue, we include samples from her new album, “The Expatriate Amplification Soundtrack.” Claire Knight translates music into color in “The Art of Jazz,” a show currently on exhibit at Sharappe Wine Bar in New York City.
Towards the end of my visit to Prague, my computer crashed. The screen turned to white noise. All my familiar music from home was locked inside. I was left with the sounds on the street, the 80s music, and the pinkish sunrise.
Access to music means getting quiet enough to listen. In that stillness, you can find familiar sounds in a new city. A chorus of umbrellas open and for a second you are on a street near your home.