Largehearted Boy asked me to do one of that site’s cool “Book Notes” playlists for St. Marks Is Dead. You can read the whole thing there, or here, now with video of kids singing “Welcome to NY”:
Because I wrote this book on my laptop at too-loud coffee shops and too-quiet libraries, for three-plus years I used iTunes as a white-noise machine. Music I liked and knew well enough to tune out was ideal, so I shunned the new (with a few exceptions, like Wussy) and stuck to standards like Guided By Voices, Drive-By Truckers, Ass Ponys, Old 97s, The Rolling Stones, plus a playlist of songs that mention St. Marks Place by name. On a couple of book-tour stops, friends have covered some of these songs, and it has been a particularly delirium-inducing experience to hear—at the same time that this book I had in my head is suddenly out in the world—the songs I had on repeat in my headphones performed out loud, too.
“Avenue A,” The Dictators (+ cover by the St. Marks Zeros)
Handsome Dick Manitoba is quoted a lot in my book, and this song about the crème brûlée-phase of the neighborhood to me is the quintessential St. Marks Place-of-2015 song. I like the idea that it’s all over when you see a Range Rover.
“Detachable Penis,” King Missile (+ cover by Neal Medlyn, aka Champagne Jerry)
This silly song was on pretty much every indie mix tape exchanged in the early-1990s East Village. I miss the 24-hour diner Kiev, which is where I used to go for eggs in the middle of the night. It’s also where John S. Hall wrote this song.
“40 Shades Of Blue (For Kevin Wherever You Are),” Black 47
When I was in high school I obsessively listened to Vin Scelsa’s “Idiot’s Delight” radio show, and that’s where I first heard this song. I think getting into Black 47 and The Pogues when you’re 15 sets you up to fall half-in-love with all difficult Irish men for the rest of your life. There are worse fates.
“Downtown,” John Waite (+ cover by Kathleen Hanna and Adam Horovitz)
I didn’t realize quite how sad this song was until I heard Kathleen sing it. She captured something so profound about feeling lonely in a city. It made me realize how I probably wouldn’t be nearly so happy in New York if it weren’t for my friends.
“Kids (Don’t Know),” The Orange Mothers (+ 2015 version by Ethan Azarian)
This is the book’s theme song. I went to see this band a lot when I was in my early twenties in Austin, Texas, and a lot of the book is about that feeling of being newly in love with a place that makes you feel free. And it’s about the thought “This place is dead now and kids today are idiots” that the book tries to show is an eternal lament.
“Alex Chilton” The Replacements (+ cover by The Late Joys)
When I realized that my favorite band name-checked St. Marks Place—Alex Chilton checks his stash by the trash on St. Marks Place—it was like that feeling you get when you find out the person you have a crush on has a crush on you back.
To me the Ramones are the most romantic band ever. I had to stop reading Ramones biographies and memoirs, because I didn’t want to know how thuggish they’d been in real life. I found this song on the great 100-song playlist by Luc Sante, who is in my book. “I knew my building might fall down at any moment,” Luc told me of his time on St. Marks Place. “But so what? I was twenty-three.”
“Forever Young,” Alphaville
When you’re thinking about cycles of history, it’s good to listen to hyper-dramatic mid-1980s songs like this or The Bangles “Eternal Flame.” What’s key is the singer should be hot and project total confidence in his or her concept of “forever.” This allows us to reflect on how even the sexiest people get old, the cities we love vanish, and it’s part of our “responsibility as a human,” as Louis CK just eloquently put it on “Fresh Air,” to die and “get out of the way.”
“My Year,” Champagne Jerry / “This Year,” The Mountain Goats
Speaking of meditations on time, I love songs about how this year sucks but we’re going to get through it, or how last year sucked but next year (probably) won’t. These are my two favorite this/last-year songs. The only problem is that this Mountain Goats song was once my ringtone and so now whenever I hear it I reach for my phone.
“Welcome to New York,” Taylor Swift
Have you heard children sing this song? When you do, you realize it’s a profound meditation on the gift of finding somewhere that lets you be yourself, or lets you pretend to be who you wish you were. New York is still that place for lots of people.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Ada Calhoun and St. Marks Is Dead links:
the author’s website
excerpt from the book
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Metro interview with the author
New York Times essay by the author
Village Voice profile of the author
WGN Radio interview with the author