Writers' Playlist: Autumn

1.  "Running on Empty," Jackson Browne

November, 1978. My big sister got "Running on Empty" for her fifteenth birthday. When the title song came through the speakers on our mother's console stereo, I understood yearning for the first time in my eleven years. Beyond the tufts of milkweed dotting the field, beyond the geese v-ing their way south, beyond the crusty remnants of my Halloween candy, there was the road and I wanted to be on it.

[Myfanwy Collins]

2.  "America," Razorlight

After dropping out of high school, bereft of direction, I cashed my savings and bought a one-way plane ticket to Europe. I wanted to see if I could hack it on the mean streets of Bruges and Cote d'Azur and Sheffield, hostel hopping, surviving on day-old baguettes and second-rate wine, scrimping for train fare. (I couldn't, and would be on a flight home nineteen days later.) "America," appropriately, was the #1 single in London at the time, playing in every store and pub, and on every radio and television, dredging up all those homesick feelings. It had me longing for the land where there's always "panic" and "trouble," and also better bands than Razorlight.

[Ravi Mangla]

"Pale Green Things," The Mountain Goats

I don't know if I relate or whatever with the major undercurrent or the lyrics as a whole in this song, but the tune, the music, the sound of it, the simplicity, the way his voice is projected, how I walk up and down my hallway in crisscrossing diagonal lines repeating the words, "she told me how you died at last, at last" – these are the reasons that this song is always coming out of my speakers. It goes great with a crisp cold air blowing your hair around as you move through the streets on your way to an ugly sweater party where you will find yourself repeating in your head the line, "and that morning at the race track was one thing I remembered."

[Matthew Savoca]

4.  "...And Then it's Gone," Betsy Roo

This is the title song of an album my sister wrote and recorded when she was 22. I've just moved from Nashville, where my sister Betsy lives, to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which the spell check isn't fond of, and I'm missing her a lot right now. Also, Thai food. But having her CD with me helps. I can sing along while I attempt to jog and write. It's slow and depressing and pretty and it makes me think of people I used to know and relationships that didn't work out, which aren't necessarily things I should be thinking about right now but oh well.

[Mary Miller]

5.  "Wake Up," Arcade Fire (and really, the entire Funeral album)

This album was released in the fall of 2004, while I was living and teaching English in rural Japan. I was desperate to keep in touch with the world back at home, and I had plenty of free time to listen to music while I drove through mountains and tea fields and valleys of rice paddies to get to the schools where I taught. Arcade Fire was all I heard that year, cutting through an ocean of rice and wheat stalks — swaying golden in the fall, barren and white in the winter, watery in the spring, then lush and green again in the summer.

[J.W. Wang]

6.  "When I Paint My Masterpiece," The Band

This is better than the Dylan version, not just because it has a mandolin. The gentle crescendo before the vocals come in makes you feel like you're in for something epic, albeit gently epic—and you are. It's an elegant end-of-summer song, taking stock of summery experiences: travel (while wondering if you're getting anywhere), homesickness, and the vague promise that you'll make something beautiful as soon as you have your shit together, whenever that may be. I can't accurately say that this song reminds me of fall; it's more like fall reminds me of this song.

[Amanda Nazario]

7.  "Leaving New York," R.E.M.

In the summer of 2004, I vacationed with my adoptive parents at a "dude ranch" in Bandara, Texas. Exactly why they picked such an exotic locale, miles from our native Connecticut, remains a mystery. But during that time of trail rides and sweltering temperatures, quick-draw competitions and chicken-fried steaks, I fell in love with another "tender-foot." He was a guy from Houston who, like me, had just graduated high school and was embarrassed to be there. Our time together was short, intense, and unrealistic. I was on my way to NYU, he was on his way to the marines.

That autumn I heard Leaving New York for the first time at a house party. It reminded me of our relationship – of all doomed relationships – especially the line: It's easier to leave than be left behind.

Even now, when I hear that song, I'm a college freshman, naive but learning, during my first fall semester.

[Tai Dong Huai]

8.  "Ashes of American Flags," Wilco

I first heard this song the year I turned twenty-two, a year I mostly spent driving around with a couple of friends, drinking and smoking too much on the country roads that stretched out between our small town bars. It reminds me now of the border between that summer and the fall that followed, when the year's promises had faded away into boredom and disappointment, when it became obvious that all our big plans were never going to happen. "All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new," indeed. Even the song's final lines — "I would like to salute / the ashes of American flags / and all the falling leaves / filling up shopping bags"— juxtapose a combination of conviction and everyday life that escaped me back then, when I had neither. I am trying to be better. "I want a good life / with a nose for things / a fresh wind and bright skies."  I am still trying.

[Matt Bell]

9.  "Scarborough Fair," Simon and Garfunkle

Although the lyrics are not about autumn, or about college, the Simon and Garfunkle song "Scarborough Fair" makes me think of returning to college in the fall. But why? The song was on the charts when I was a kid, well before I went to college. Perhaps because it's in the soundtrack of the movie "The Graduate," which I first saw on TV, a late-night oldie, when I was at a neighbor's house, babysitting. Does the song play while Katherine Ross is back at college? Did I think: That's what it's like to be in college? All I know is, hearing "Scarborough Fair" fills me with such nostalgia for returning to college in the fall that it stings. I loved college. And here it is, fall again, and, here I am, long past college — I'll never again return to college — and, once more, I listen to "Scarborough Fair" and I can hardly bear it.

[Ellen Parker]

10.  "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat," The Silver Jews

Most of poet and songwriter David Berman's records have been released in autumn, thus the association. The Silver Jews' latest, Look Out Mountain, Look Out Sea, released this summer, might be the only exception to this rule as far as I know. But the record still maintains the autumnal tone of the past albums, a worthy follow up to its predecessors — and hell, I just love this song.

[Thomas Cooper]

11.  "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down," Hank Williams Jr.

Nobody wants to get drunk and get loud. Everybody just wants to go back home.  

October 19, 2008.

But I need to find a friend just to run around.

Humans have seasons like plant life. Autumn is where we die.

And the hangovers hurt more than they used to. And corn bread and iced tea took the place of pills and 90 proof.

Crisp fallen leaves from dried trees. I've come to expect such beauty, from unsophisticated forms of advanced organisms, while we sit, and breathe, and force time to perform strange acts upon strange scenarios where men are not hunters as in days past, but scavengers of undeserved prey. Let us pray. Decay. Outlive our usefulness. Become a burden like raking leaves. Like bagging them. Like setting them on fire.

I myself have seen my wilder days. And I have seen my name at the top of the page.

I am forced to look at 30. This is what I see.

I think I know what my father meant when he sang about a lost highway.

[Barry Graham]

Photo detail on main page courtesy of Mocodragon.

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