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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
11. "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down," Hank Williams
Nobody wants to get drunk and get loud. Everybody just wants to go back
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.
Photo detail on main page courtesy
w i g · l e a F