In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dmitry Samarov’s novel Old Style is an illustrated tour of Chicago bars, a book that highlights his estimable storytelling skills with prose and art.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:
“Dmitry Samarov, equally comfortable describing something in words or pictures, returns with Old Style, a deep dive into the world of bars in and around Chicago in the 21st century.”
This book is set in two Chicago bars and takes place between 9/11 and our present plague. It’s my first attempt at fiction since middle-school, though I didn’t have to make anything up. I changed some names and bent the timeline a bit, but otherwise, everything I write about happened more or less as I describe. I’d call it a roman à clef, but I sure as hell won’t be supplying any keys. And anyway, most concerned parties will have no difficulty recognizing themselves. I took care to cut most of the parts that were just sour grapes or score-settling. I used my life and the lives of those I’ve known because that is the only way I know how to work. I have no imagination, as far as I can tell.
The story is told first-person, present tense whenever possible, though it covers about twenty years and takes place in two different locations. The idea is to convey the twilit non-time a true bar imposes on its regulars. The Blue Light has a jukebox, whereas at the Albatross, the bartender supplies the music. This playlist is an attempt to evoke the atmosphere of these two places.
1. “Shape of the One Thing”—Horseback
Setting the vibe is among the most important things a bartender does. One of my favorite parts of the gig I had prior to the lockdown March 15th, 2020, was choosing a playlist for my Sunday night shifts. Horseback was a mainstay for years. The spacey, ruminative cowboy feel always helped encourage the low-key atmosphere I wanted. Drinkers often came up to ask what this was when I put it on. I couldn’t tell them much. I don’t recall who turned me on to this music, nor do I know much about the guy who makes it. Sometimes it’s best to leave things unknown.
2. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—Hank Williams
The Blue Light’s jukebox is dominated by both kinds of music: country AND western. Every time a patron feeds singles and fives in, I say a silent prayer that they’ll select one of the few old classics, rather than the hundreds of awful modern options. Also, I was rarely more lonesome than the time I spent in this bar.
3. “Cowboy”—Kid Rock
I hate Kid Rock and everything he stands for, but I can’t think of the Blue Light without this song as the soundtrack. It was the theme song for at least half a dozen regulars. The fact they loved this anthem to proud, ignorant shittiness says all that needs to be said about them. It’s also a real ear-worm, so I’m sorry in advance for infecting you with it. Everything else on this playlist is better and will help you forget it.
4. “Albatross”—Fleetwood Mac
When I decided to call the second bar in the book the Albatross, I searched for a bunch of cultural references to that bird and came upon this lovely early Fleetwood Mac instrumental. It might be too breezy to represent my bar or anyone who frequents it, but I couldn’t leave it off this playlist. Think of it as a weekend vacation from the everyday represented in most of the other tunes here.
5. “Drink Lotsa Whiskey”—Split Lip Rayfield
Whiskey’s the default drink at both my bars and Split Lip Rayfield is a band whose songs send me back to the late ’90s when I would sometimes drink too much myself. I think of my friends back then. Most are now either sober or alcoholics. I feel fortunate to somehow be neither.
6. “Waitress Song”—Freakwater
I think of this song when I think of the Golden Nugget, the 24-hr breakfast joint down the street from the Blue Light. The ladies who work there earn their money dealing with drunks and crazies whose circadian rhythms are all out of whack. This could be their anthem. For many others as well.
7. “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere”—Dwight Yoakam
This is another song I prayed for at the Blue Light. It got played a lot. But not nearly as often as Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, or Toby Keith. I don’t hate you all enough to include any of them. Kid Rock is more than enough. Yoakam is probably a role model for the nicer regulars at that horrible dump.
8. “Yours For Today”—AZITA
I’ve loved this song ever since I first heard it seventeen or eighteen years ago. There’s so much hope and longing in it. I felt that a few times in my life and read it on the faces and in the gestures of countless couples on the other side of the bar.
9. “6’1”—Liz Phair
The album cover photo of the record this song is from was made in a photo booth of a bar that was one of the inspirations for the Albatross. It could also serve as a piss-off anthem for several characters in the book.
10. “Innocent When You Dream”—Tom Waits
This the favorite song of Lon, the owner of the Albatross. Tom Waits is his idol. He performs it on ukulele on open mike nights almost every week.
11. “Snowglobe”—Tim Kinsella
This song encapsulates the sort of upbeat, dreamy state of mind many drinkers in bars aim for, but usually overshoot. It’s an innocent prayer for better times. Some chase it their whole lives.
12. “Bullet Proof Nothing”—Simply Saucer
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the state of self-pitying wallow you can find in any bar, anywhere. It’s usually a guy who feels wronged and wants to revel in the bad feeling and wants to share with anyone in his orbit. It celebrates being mistreated, whether or not you’ve earned it.
13. “Executive Life”—Jeff Parker
Another favorite from my Sunday night shifts. I’d play it to calm the self-pity guy down. Maybe make him think about something other than himself.
14. “Hymn for Alcoholics”—Arkady Severny
What’s a bar playlist without a Russian drinking song? My birth country doesn’t have the market cornered on inebriation, but we have to be in the conversation in any serious rankings for the top spot. I didn’t know about Severny (1939-1980) until very recently, but now can’t get enough. People act very badly in a lot of his songs, but there’s a kind of desperate, sad joy about them that I recognize from decades of being in rooms with professional drinkers.
15. “Adam Roberts”—Cave
This is one of the bands that I’ll put on in the bar (or at home) when I can’t make up my mind what to choose. The driving rhythms in most of their songs, whether coming out of Can or R&B, get me moving, out of whatever rut I’ve gotten myself stuck in. I’ve seen it work on others that way too.
16. “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?—Paula Cole
If Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” is the male patrons’ anthem at the Blue Light, then this is the women’s. The sad irony that they’re looking for their cowboy in a late-night big city dive, can’t escape the more self-aware of them. But it doesn’t take more than a few rounds for the average ugly asshole to convince many that he is the one to ride them into the sunset.
17. “Paper Bag”—Circuit Des Yeux
I don’t know exactly what Haley Fohr is singing about but it feels like it could be the philosophical inner monologue of a solitary drinker.
18. “Oleander”—P.W. Long
Justifications and regret are a key part of many a drinking song. This one is basically a secular prayer for absolution and understanding. A good one for sobering up towards the end of the night.
19. “New Song”—Bill MacKay
I’m biased because he’s a friend, but I believe Bill MacKay’s music could make even somebody deep in a dark hole feel like there might be a way out. Perhaps even the guy in P.W. Long’s “Oleander”. I put on his records when I want to be lifted up.
20. “Yr Wives”—Health&Beauty
Not unlike “Paper Bag”, I don’t know precisely what Brian Sulpizio is talking about, but it has a drive and direction, while remaining sort of ruminative. There’s some nostalgia to it as well and nostalgia is ever-present in most bars I’ve known. The longing for another, often imagined, time is where the bottom of a bottle leads to.
21. “The Beer”—Kimya Dawson
This song stops me cold every time I hear it. Dawson has distilled every youthful pipe dream into a litany of repeated heartbreaking failure. It evokes the yawning gap between what we are and what we wish we were. She tacks on a happy ending, but it’s more like putting a happy face on a bad situation, knowing all the while that it isn’t likely to ever get better. A real bummer on paper, but it makes me feel good the way a sad song is supposed to.
Dmitry Samarov paints and writes in Chicago. He is the author and illustrator of five books. He sends out a newsletter every Monday. An absurd amount of his work is collected at his website, which is sixteen years old now. Buy his art and books and read some of his journalism.