Please join Canadian Bookshelf host Julie Wilson (aka Book Madam) in conversation with her chum Robert J. Wiersema as they talk about coming of age and the soundtracks of their youths. Rob's mixtape heavily features Bruce Springsteen, the subject of his latest book Walk Like a Man (D & M Publishers); Julie realizes she has a lot of Enya on vinyl and a worn out cassette of Bronski Beat's The Age of Consent.
When: Tuesday, September 13, 7 p.m.
Where: Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay St., Toronto, ON
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And now, a few words from Rob:
I've come to realize over the past couple of books that writing is at least as much about what you cut out, and what is not written, as it is about what actually appears on the printed page. Suffice it to say, I learned this the hard way. I don't feel so bad about writing long and editing back, though, when I remember that Bruce Springsteen wrote and recorded more than seventy songs for the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. He left sixty plus on the cutting room floor; the remaining ten songs comprise what might just be a perfect album.
With my book Walk Like a Man, I didn't overwrite. (Well, no more than normal, I suppose. After all, what's twenty thousand words between friends?) Given the nature of the book—short essays on fourteen songs, plus a biography; liner notes for a mixtape, I've called it—it was easy to keep myself in check.
The tricky part came earlier. Trying to come up with a playlist that spoke to both the dictates of my memory and the requirements of the book I had in mind meant a lot of songs got left behind. The culling process was several stages long—the first set of "essential" songs would have required several mix tapes and multiple hundreds of thousands of words. So I listened to the songs again, and read the lyrics, and listened some more, and culled again. And again. And finally, I had twenty songs. Which was still about ten too many. So I fudged it a bit. Rather than a ten song mixtape, I have a fourteen song mixtape (and a book). Which left six tracks—and their unwritten chapters—behind. Here are those tracks, with videos, and a hint of what was left behind.
“Spirit in the Night”
Growing up in Agassiz, you were limited as to what you might do to occupy your time as a teenager. Friday and Saturday nights, if the weather was good, we'd head down to the river, as generations had done before us. “Spirit in the Night” captures that wild, head-out-the-window, fingers-in-the-cake intensity of being young and alive and free, all at once. It also captures the darkness that those nights sometimes developed into, in the same way that lives sometimes tend toward darkness and entropy.
(One of the first books I ever bought on my own was T. Coraghessan Boyle's Greasy Lake and Other Stories. I recognized a fellow Tramp when I saw one, and anyone who would name a short story after the spot where the partiers are headed in “Spirit in the Night” was worth at least a look. I bought that book at Book City on Bloor in the fall of 1986, on my first trip to Toronto, along with a collection of Kafka's short stories.)
“She's The One”
When I was fifteen, sixteen years old, my heart was an open wound. The combination of hormones and romantic idealism was brutal and exhilarating, draining and enlivening, all at once. Girls, though, didn’t seem to have quite the same level of interest in me that I had in them.
My buddy Greg and I spent a lot of long summer days on the beach, listening to what we called, dripping with sarcasm, “woman hating music”: songs that underscored the desire, the yearning we were feeling with a hard edge of loss and distance. We didn’t hate women, of course; we hated the self-imposed helplessness which we blamed on them. “She’s The One,” with lines like . . .
With her soft french cream
Standing in that doorway like a dream
I wish she'd just leave me alone
Because french cream won't soften them boots
And french kisses will not break that heart of stone
. . . was pitch-perfect.
The first time my heart was broken, I retreated up to Greg’s bedroom, laid down on his bed, and listened to . . . God, I can’t believe I’m going to admit this. Can I just state, first, that I was young, and second, it was the 80s? That doesn’t really justify it, but it does, I suppose, explain at least what I’m going to say next. Heartbroken, I laid down on Greg’s bed, put on his headphones, and listened to . . . Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” I know, I know. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Greg did it right. The first time his heart got broken, he went straight for “Point Blank.” He’s done it every time since. I picked up the tradition myself, after he and I spent a very long cross-Canada flight sharing a single set of earbuds, playing this song over and over.
“Because the Night”
To many people, Patti Smith OWNS this song. I’m not going to argue with them. I mean, they’re wrong, but there’s not point in arguing. "Because the Night: is an exultation, a defiant cry of wonder. And it’s also dark and yearning and desperate. It’s romantic, and it’s terrifying. It’s invulnerable, and it’s fragile. It’s not about sex; "Because the Night" IS sex. Go on, tell me I’m wrong.
It doesn’t get much darker than this, Springsteen-wise. “Radio Nowhere” a cry from the heart, a desperate plea for something, anything. This is what loneliness sounds like, the way desperation feels. With a saxophone solo. Truth be told, I was just as happy not to write this chapter.
When I originally conceived of Walk Like a Man, I was going to call it Human Touch. To my mind the song, with lines like . . .
So you've been broken and you've been hurt
Show me somebody who ain't
Yeah, I know I ain't nobody's bargain
But, hell, a little touch up
and a little paint . . .
. . . perfectly encapsulated the book, a chronicle of a life and a coming of age, a man emerging bloodied but unbowed. I still think it does. What I love about “Human Touch,” though, is its inclusiveness: we’ve all been broken, we’ve all been hurt. Everyone has stories, everyone has songs. You drop the needle and your heart breaks again, or it mends just a little bit. You’re reminded of the good times, and of the bad.
Walk Like a Man is my mix-tape. One of them, anyways.
What would be on yours?
Robert J. Wiersema is an independent bookseller, a reviewer who contributes regularly to several national newspapers, and the best-selling author of two novels: Before I Wake and Bedtime Story. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Rob appears at the Eden Mills Writer's Festival, Sunday, September 18. For more information about author appearances and the festival itself, visit their Website.
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