A Playlist for Nobody Ever Gets Lost
Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8, “To The Victims of War and Fascism”
Henryk Górecki, String Quartet No. 1, “Already It Is Dusk”
Alfred Schnittke, Trio Sonata
J.S. Bach, Suites for Cello Solo (performed by Yo-Yo Ma at the first September 11 memorial ceremony, 2002)
John Adams, “On the Transmigration of Souls”
I began writing Nobody Ever Gets Lost in 2002, when my wife and I moved back to New York after living away from the city for five years. We’d visited Ground Zero the year before, the day after Thanksgiving, 2001, and gotten within a block or two of the still-smoking ruins; we watched welders taking apart one of the long metal shards that were the tallest pieces of the structure left after the collapse. The first story I wrote was “Nobody Ever Gets Lost,” which takes place in September of 2002; I was trying to capture the mood of the city at that moment, still shocked, still speechless. In a way all the “early” stories in this book—the ones I wrote in the first few years after September 11th, “The World in Flames,” “The Answer,” and “Amritsar,” as well as the title story—are trying to capture that sense of the aftermath of an unimaginable event.
In retrospect, it seems a little fatuous to compare the years after September 11th to the events that—indirectly or directly—inspired Shostakovich and Górecki. But theirs is the music of mourning that for me expresses a feeling of universal calamity, of living after the end of time. John Adams’ brief “On the Transmigration of Souls” picks up that feeling, and is, to this day, one of the few worthwhile pieces of music I can think of that appeared after September 11. I don’t listen to it often, but whenever I do it beings me back to the funereal atmosphere of New York in 2002.
Bill Evans, “Jade Visions,” Live At The Village Vanguard
Keith Jarrett, “Solar,” At The Deer Head Inn
Brad Mehldau, “Monk’s Dream,” The Art of the Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard
Lee Konitz, “Everything Happens To Me,” Another Shade of Blue
Keith Jarrett, “Blame It On My Youth/Meditation,” The Melody At Night, With You
Charles Lloyd, “Forest Flower: Sunrise,” “Forest Flower: Sunset,” Live At Monterey
Pharoah Sanders, “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” Karma
When I write, I’m almost always listening to a) string quartets, b) solo instruments, c) classical vocal music, d) jazz piano trios. “Jade Visions,” “Solar,” and “Monk’s Dream” come from piano trio albums I’ve listened to thousands of times. In all three cases you have musicians (piano, bass, drums) who are both utterly independent and utterly synchronized. That ideal of simultaneous improvisation was more or less invented on Bill Evans’ Vanguard recordings, in which Evans, Paul Motian, and Scott Lafaro play not a single predictable note. This idea translates to my practice of writing, though it’s difficult for me to articulate exactly how, other than to say, superficially, that I really respond to musicians who sound as if they’re inventing something new every single minute. The last three pieces here are all songs I discovered in 2003-04, during the years I was most focused on writing this book. Jarrett’s version of “Blame It On My Youth” is from an album he recorded as he was recovering from a years-long mysterious illness that threatened to end his career. It’s dedicated to his wife, and he recorded it in his home studio, with only her listening (or so the story goes). You can hear, in every pause, every new phrase, how hard it is for him to play. It’s impossible here for him to do the grandiose, spasmodic things he often does in his solo recordings; he barely even leaves the original melody or chords. But as he plays the song morphs into a very simple “meditation,” composed spontaneously, one of the most beautiful things he’s ever played. It speaks to regeneration and recovery, which is something I thought about a great deal while writing Nobody Gets Lost (and indeed think about in all my work).
“Forest Flower” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” are compositions recorded in jazz’s hippie phase—1966 to 1972, more or less. They both begin as pulsing, upbeat, grooves, and then slowly become more and more ecstatic, until they reach an unbearable—one could even say orgasmic—intensity (and volume). “The Creator,” in particular, builds up until it’s just a wall of sound—screaming, whooping, braying—and then gradually comes back down to rest. It’s an effect I’ve always wanted to achieve in a story. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.
Charles Ives, String Quartet No. 1, “For the Salvation Army”
J.S. Bach, “Sheep May Safely Graze” (Eugene Ormandy recording)
Lauryn Hill, “To Zion,” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Missing Foundation, Ignore the White Culture (entire album)
Sonny Rollins, “East Broadway Run Down,” East Broadway Run Down
Some of the stories in Nobody Ever Gets Lost cite specific pieces of music, and one, “Sheep May Safely Graze,” is structured around two pieces, Charles Ives’ string quartet and the Bach composition, which originally was written as a setting for a poem, but is now performed as an instrumental piece. (I do quote part of the poem at the end of the story). Lauryn Hill, Missing Foundation, and Sonny Rollins are all crucial references in “Lives of the Saints.” In both cases, the stories explain what these compositions mean, and anything I add here would be a little superfluous.
I should, however, say something about Missing Foundation, who have now vanished into the very tenuous historical record of underground radical music. MF was a musical collective with punk and industrial overtones—similar in some ways to Crass, The Ex, and pre-disco Chumbawamba—who played a minor but significant role in New York City politics during the gentrification wars of the late 1980s. The MF logo, a cocktail glass turned upside down with three lines slashed by a fourth line underneath, was in those years a common sight graffitied or stenciled across lower Manhattan, particularly the East Village, where the influx of money—condos, boutiques, fancy bars, the Gap—was just beginning. During the Tompkins Square riots in 1988, it was reported that members of the Missing Foundation collective threatened to kill the family members of any police who drove out the homeless people camped out in the park. Tayari Alpha, the mad young conceptual artist in “Lives of the Saints,” is much too young to have witnessed any of this firsthand (I myself only read about it in the punk bible of the times, MaximumRocknRoll, and later did some research online). But it’s the spirit of Missing Foundation that he wants to bring back to New York.
Panjabi MC, “Mundian To Bach Ke” (Jay-Z remix)
Lil’ Kim, “The Jumpoff”
Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Come On Feel The Illinoise!
Imaad Wasif, “Whisper,” Imaad Wasif
Daniel Littleton, “Better Days,” “Pines,”
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Ryan Adams, “Winding Wheel,” Le Bataclan, Paris (bootleg recording)
Most of the time I spent writing Nobody Ever Gets Lost was spent living in New York—I moved away, to Princeton, New Jersey, in 2006—but I had a curious kind of New York life, which involved a lot of driving. (Partly out of necessity, partly out of preference). I often turned on Hot 97 when I got bored of listening to NPR or whatever music I happened to have in the car, and that’s where I first heard “Mundian To Bach Ke” and “The Jumpoff.” “Mundian To Bach Ke” is a Punjabi folk song, a kind of precursor of bhangra, put to a hip-hop beat, with Jay-Z rapping over it, and when it came on I just about drove onto the sidewalk. My wife’s mother is from Delhi, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to Indian music, and this collision of two worlds is so brilliant, so off-the-cuff, and such a summation of what cosmopolitanism means, for better or worse, in practical terms. That feeling of worlds colliding is exactly the spirit of “The Call of Blood.”
The five last songs here are favorites of mine from the last decade; I would particularly draw attention to the two by my old friend and hero Daniel Littleton, who plays in the band Ida and also performs children’s music with the incomparable Elizabeth Mitchell. “Pines” begins with the lyric, “Living as we do / there are no circumstances / in which we could remain unscathed,” which more or less sums up my entire reason for writing fiction in the first place. Taken as a pair, “Better Days” is about giving up, letting go, wishing you were dead, effectively (“All this because there were no better days…”) and “Pines” is its mirror image: “We’ll have better days, the likes of which you and I have never seen.” I’m not saying that it’s wise to cycle between these two positions, but that’s what this book does, perhaps, to some degree.