FEBRUARY 25, 2017
“MY YOUNGER BROTHER had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds,” Joe Bonomo writes in the title essay of Field Recordings from the Inside. Though Bonomo uses his brother’s fear for his own amusement, in some way he empathizes with the younger boy’s extreme reaction. “Playing a record at the wrong speed was transgressive, hostile, chaotic in the ways that I’d imagined ‘bad trips’ on LSD must have felt like, the inner horrors of disunities, of centers not holding, the stuff of nightmares.” Intuiting as a preteen in the ’70s a strategy that countless DJs and producers would discover and use in the decades that followed, he continues:
I didn’t articulate to myself at the time that I didn’t like, but that I also loved, that I could manipulate the turntable in such a way, let loose into stable suburbia a frightening new language that spoke of instability and disorientation. Rotating the RPM knob, sending my brother careening from the room, I turned music inside out, learning, without intending, the dark inside of a pop song. Another lesson at so many revolutions per minute.
Collected, in large part, from his column in the literary magazine The Normal School, Bonomo’s essays examine these odd lessons; the infinite ways music can change our relationship to the people around us and how the people around us can, in turn, change our relationship to music. The Luc Sante epigraph, “Every human being is an archaeological site,” is the glue that holds the book’s variety together, as Bonomo excavates decades of his life through the music and musicians that have influenced and altered it. Especially early in the collection, he writes about music as transcendence, as ecstasy, a sort of private spiritual experience that taught him how to be in the world while not being bound to the world.
That I don’t particularly care for most of the music Bonomo writes about and still relate to the sensations he describes points to the universality of what he’s getting at: that “taste” is more defined by where we’ve been and with whom, than by some refined intellectual pursuit. The imprinting of taste usually happens without us noticing and, while the blanket of mainstream pop music creates some cultural commonalities, every person’s musical exposure differs at least slightly — and what constitutes that difference is often wildly unpredictable.
In “Sonic Boy,” the essay that deals most directly with this imprinting, Bonomo writes:
Often I feel bad for those without older siblings, not because they were spared the teasing and scolding, but because the initiation into aesthetic pleasure and critical thinking can originate in accepting or rejecting the influences of an older brother or sister, or three. Such influence is a kind of weather through which you walk, daily, until, years later, you recognize what stuck to you, what you can’t rub off, what you carry with you eternally. My brothers’ musical tastes and my own, their soundtrack and mine, was a crucial threshold for me growing up. The anxiety of influence, writ domestic, circulating from bedroom to family room and back again.
Much of the book is comprised of braided essays where several songs, narratives, and biographies are woven together in unlikely ways. While the work is accessible, these connections can be slightly elusive. I doubt if most readers will walk away from a piece like “Bafflement, Clarity, and Malice” — where he connects an Elvis Costello song, a Sam & Dave song, and a Patsy Cline song through the personal turmoils of each artist — and be able to say what, exactly, it was all about. It’s a ride, but not an easily digestible one. This seems to be when Bonomo thrives — as he hands the reader piles of relatable moments while also creating knots and detours to complicate what might otherwise be a simple story about a song.
Even if Bonomo hadn’t previously published a book of conversations with music critic Greil Marcus, the influence of Marcus’s work would be difficult to avoid mentioning. Like Marcus, Bonomo mixes high and low culture, asking us to think about music in a larger context, even as we consider ostensibly banal pop as worthy of examination. We get the words of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian next to rhinestone-era Elvis; James Baldwin a few pages after Boston; Plutarch alongside the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In one essay, Bonomo looks for connections between the death of Sylvia Plath and the first Beatles album, and in others he convinces us that stadium rock and philosophy go hand-in-hand.
Also like Marcus, Bonomo’s frantic, jam-packed, finely tuned prose creates a feeling as much it conveys information. Take this paragraph-long sentence from early in the book:
The 45 twelve-pack from Korvettes spun in rotation on the family stereo and the Sweet’s “Little Willy” became as real as my real friends, until the day my older brother sat on the record on the living room couch, cracking the single for good, and then I learned the sadness of broken records — F. Scott Fitzgerald compared his nervous breakdown to a cracked dinner plate; I’ll call adolescent sadness a cracked 45, irreparable, for-good gone, and the analog era of snapped tape and busted 8-tracks and torn album covers crept forward, and all of the kitchen Scotch tape in all of Wheaton could not splice together the Dart Drug cassettes lost to mean feet or indifference or random tosses down the basement steps.
In many of these essays — but especially the three “Origin Stories” that split up the book — this is the world he evokes: a sepia-toned dream of long suburban summers and rec rooms and songs whose mysteries carry more meaning than their lyrics ever could.
For the most part, the collection’s 18 essays do what the best music writing is supposed to do — they make the reader care, regardless of whether they enjoy, or are familiar with, the material being written about; I was mostly willing to follow Bonomo anywhere he wanted to go. But there was one place where Bonomo didn’t make me care; where I couldn’t imagine anyone who was not a fan caring. “How to Be Powerful and Triumphant and Lonely All at the Same Time: The Many Changes of Greg Cartwright” is a 28-page profile on Memphis trash-rocker turned singer-songwriter Greg Cartwright. Though I’d never heard Cartwright, I did have some context — a cursory knowledge of Memphis music, of the labels that had released his music, of his influences. Then, too, I generally like stories of insular local scenes, songwriters who keep going even when large-scale recognition never comes their way, the trials of indie bands and labels and record stores. But even for me this essay was a slog.
I can’t help imagining how much more concise the collection would be without this show-stopping block of Greg Cartwright minutiae — his various backing bands, the members of each incarnation, every label, a host of unknown Memphis artists. Notably out of place among these largely quick-fire lyric essays, this piece would fall short even in a collection of profiles.
And yet. While not a far leap from the Cartwright essay in terms of approach, “Hunting Larry Hunting Hank” is one of the book’s finest moments. The most recently written, the piece is about a mission Bonomo took to track down the late Southern novelist Larry Brown’s lost Hank Williams screenplay. It, too, works the profile end of the spectrum more than the lyric — drawing on a variety of interviews, secondary sources, and travels — but here Bonomo’s narrative doesn’t get lost in the details.
The story is a sort of Sisyphean writer’s tale, like Grady Tripp’s sophomore novel with no end in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, or the inverse of the challenge Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman faces working with Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief in Adaptation. Brown, hired by Billy Bob Thornton to write a biopic of Hank Williams, becomes too invested in the project, and ends up with a far-too-epic and unproducible script.
At the end of the essay — after finding and reading the screenplay, piecing together its history, and spending time with Brown’s family and friends — Bonomo writes:
Spirits abounded on this trip. When I sat at Larry Brown’s writing desk, I imagined him ghosting the same chair, fresh out of his boots maybe, a beer open, a cigarette lit, a manuscript hot in front of him. I imagined the CDs he’d take with him when he needed a break, wanted to go ride into the gloam in the truck that I’d sat in, on the roads I’d been on with his son. Brown had been chasing Hank Williams, hoping that Hank might stop long enough somewhere between the reality and the myth so that Brown could get a good, long look, maybe to get inside the man who sang such brutally simple songs about brutally complex things like love, loss, and heartache.
At his best, Bonomo finds the places between myth and reality and plants his feet. After a childhood in suburbia, these liminal zones are familiar to him. The inner world that he once cultivated in secret he’s honed to an art as an endlessly curious and obsessive adult — always listening and looking for secrets within the songs, cataloging and compiling his synesthetic inventories of the world for later use.