Down to impress? Here's a toilet-reader ramble to aid you in choosing a handful of books and records that you need, even if your sole purpose is to appear cool. For the college digit bookshelf, we eschewed the usual hipster dust-collectors (Henry Miller, Palahniuk, Moody, Hornby or anything that Dave Eggers yaps on about, and so on). For music, there's no Coltrane or Velvet Underground. No Stones, Beatles or that sleazy hipster-creepy Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg either. Too obvious. No, we're talking old-school wistfulness and thunder, but not too obscuro so as not to be confused with those creepy-geek collectors whose moms still wash their ketchup-stained shirts. These are obtainable anti-hipster building-block reference points for the good contemporary stuff, from Patrick deWitt to Lauren Groff, from Animal Collective to Dilla.
Hell, if you're too lazy to read the books and listen to the records ... just parrot the stuff here. Surround yourself with junk and you might even get laid.
Best served in dog-eared paperbacks
On the Road? Too played-out. But Kerouac's novella, Tristessa, is something else entirely. An aching yarn based around his relationship with a beautiful junkie prostitute in Mexico, capturing a fleeting, doomed existence inside finely wrought Mexican imagery.
It's oddly cloying at times, and you wonder if St. Jack was simply coughing up some dharma improv, but beauty here's undeniable. And, this novella works two ways: If you're a dude into impressing chicks, note Tristessa's unwavering sensitivity. If you're a chick, you can impress dudes 'cause you're reading a man's man with true cojones.
Jesus' Son (1992)
Kind of obvious, since Billy Crudup starred in the film version, which was, surprisingly, a precise recital of a stunning, ADD-friendly read. It takes a black belt in addiction and its associated interpersonal hokum to write about junkie ritual and emotionless disconnection; that the narrator's inability to keep his life's facts straight shows how these stories are rooted in authentic experience. How many maddening times have we read snake-oil yarns about broken addicts written from a point of view of heightened awareness? Oh, Please. Jesus' Son belongs in your space because it'll hang with you and haunt you more than a shelf crammed with Burroughs.
All My Pretty Ones (1962)
Sexton's hunt for personal deliverance was in her writing, which is (and was) too often dismissed as manna for droopy misanthropes or, worse, chick poetry. In truth, Sexton was an armed soldier of the form who blew down doors for the plucky poets to follow, as well as writers of any gender. These guilt-freeing confessionals and bitter little prayers — often aimed at her greedy, boozy father — show, with equal aplomb, frank beauty and the flipside: depression's desolation. Sexton was moved by small wonders, and sometimes distilled them through a life filled with family ghosts, suicide attempts, motherhood, suburbia, sexual polemics, doctors and, yes, poetry workshops. She's the one who said, "Need is not quite belief" and who later won the poetry Pulitzer in '67. Even had a rock band at one point. Her childhood was pockmarked with sexual abuse, and her radar apparatus for poetics wasn't long for '60s hausfrau dreaming. And then she killed herself in 1974.
Shoot the Piano Player (1956)
Often lumped in and then overshadowed by another 1940s and '50s "hardboiled crime noir" guy, Jim Thompson (with whom Goodis shares a certain murky depravity), and often somewhat erroneously compared to Cain and Hammett, Goodis did a few things really well (a Hollywood stint saw him pen the Bogart-Bacall winner, Dark Passage, among others) and at least one thing perfectly: this novel. The French called Goodis "The Poet of the Losers," and Shoot the Piano Player (once titled Down There) drags you into the bleak docks and gutters of alcoholic Philly in a beat-like noirish lingo that's borderline masculine ironic (now), but filled with unsettled emotion and barroom mood, tightly wound storytelling and absolute losers who exemplify every kind of misery you can think of. Neat! Note that Bukowski nicked more than just ideas from Goodis: This guy loved his life low, loved obese women, and knew exactly how to drink to oblivion — decades before Buk. To impress others: note that François Truffaut based his critical blow-job film of the same name on this beat little '50s novel.
Bastard out of Carolina (1996)
Absolute naked examination, a balance of pure human ugliness and outright beauty through the eyes of a girl. I've recommended this, or given a copy to, nearly everyone I've ever trusted.
A gut-churning holocaust memoir. Essential, even if you had a cool enough high school teacher who forced you to read it.
The Things They Carried (1990)
Many of O'Brien's interrelated Vietnam soldier tales, first published in Esquire. Dizzy, scary fiction.
Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974)
Lingering, brittle Depression-era stories begun by a 19-year-old in 1932, and then abandoned. Rediscovered and published in its unfinished form in the '70s. A curved ramble of off-key and note-perfect sentences.
Sex and Sunsets (1997)
There are jaw-dropping insights on nearly every page, and Sandlin has never penned a lousy sentence. Also, possibly the saddest humor you'll read anywhere. Like Tom Robbins, only 10 times better.
To impress, find the following on vinyl. Some are probably hard to find, so a CD will do in that case. But remember: A physical copy of a record shows effort, that the music means enough to you; it's a way you define yourself. Look, anybody can cobble together playlists of found shit from even the worst free Internet torrent sites. Get a hard copy.
Night Beat (1963)
From the traditional slavery song, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," to the all-out scampy sexual oomph of "Shake Rattle and Roll," Night Beat, by the dude who invented soul, is a true album, a thing of restrained romantic beauty and hushed devotional power. Get it on.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
The most obvious choice here but, hey, no assemblage of records can work without it. Dylan's best and 15th album glues it all together: narrative ("Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"), criticism and protest ("Idiot Wind") lost love ("If You See Her Say Hello") etc.
Say this to impress: There has never been an album in history whose lyrical themes, images and subjects matched perfectly a year, a voice and the sparsely arranged music that accompanied it. A record so good, it'll make you smarter.
Blue Pine Trees (1974)
Years before "indie" was an adjective, this band, saddled with the absolute worst name of all time, had signed to Capitol records and recorded some of the most beautifully shaped, country-tinged pop you'll likely hear. It's the type of plaintive sing-a-song that'll get you tossing out risky adjectives like some online zine critic. Note: You'll have your Pink Floyd covered too, 'cause David Gilmour produced.
Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978)
History has "taught" us that the Clash's London Calling was one of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums of all time. That might even be true. But all that really means now is that everyone you know probably has most of LC on their iPod playlist, and skips through songs until "Train in Vain." In truth, Give 'Em Enough Rope, inside and outside the promise of punk rock, was, upon release, wrongly panned for its alleged American bombast and other such atrocities. So wrong! Between all the shouting, pop hooks, rake-to-gravel vocals, monster riffs and groovy antisocial 'tude, this is a punk best-of. Besides, it contains the Clash's greatest three minutes: Mick Jones' pretty loss-of-innocence elegy "Stay Free."
Yes We Can (1970)
Allen Toussaint wrote and produced this unheralded 1970 R&B-soul chestnut, which, in all of its chirpy wit and funk, happens to contain some of the best ruckus heard from New Orleans. Between the proto-slacker anthems ("Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley") and simple truths ("When the Bill's Paid."), this was the comeback album for Dorsey that flopped. Incredible.
Hardin penned and strummed in stinging immediacy about the unattainable, of love and failure, from a misbegotten POV, and uniformed in such grace and troubled singsong that it's hard to believe the ditties here were written in the mid '60s, when, more often than not, he was strung out on heroin, with his guitar in hock. In truth, he was better than '60s Dylan in lots of ways, but less prolific, mostly because Hardin was too busy trying to live (or die).
Rickie Lee Jones
Legions of female singer-songwriters had destinations because of Rickie Lee Jones, the beat narrator and literate, jazzy popsmith who, for years, could do know wrong. She's the complete original. Her second album features "Skeletons," one of the most beautiful songs ever written, pure heartbreak in a feather-breath voice and tingling piano melody, and a rich narrative about a new father who mistakenly gets shot and killed by a cop. College chicks will love you for this.
Ah Um (1959)
A toe-tapper. Mingus is catchy!
High Life (1974)
Tattered Scottish rock 'n' roll-soul shouter Frankie Miller heads to New Orleans to write and record with Allen Toussaint.
Brian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Straight Outta Compton (1988)
The outrage and nihilistic flow is more punk rock than Black Flag, even!