Books: Basement Songs, by Scott Malchus (2012)

Scott Malchus’ book talks with passion and care about the way music intertwines into our lives and into our hearts. It’s not a compendium of favorite songs, but of favorite memories.

And that’s the magic of Basement Songs, which has run as a regular column at since 2008. Malchus isn’t going for analysis, so much as synthesis: the combining of sounds and experience into a narrative — track after track, day after day, chapter after chapter.

So much of this takes place, too, during those formative years when music often works as a second running dialogue, giving every element here the thrum of real emotion — and, since we all had to claw our way out of adolescence at some point, a kind of sheepishly admitted commonality. Maybe you didn’t have the same jalopy that Scott did. Maybe your first attempt at intimacy wasn’t similarly thwarted. (Oh, heck, who are we kidding? Of course, it was.) Maybe you never wailed your way through a road trip with a buddy and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.'” But as Malchus connects comic books with Pink Floyd, basketball with Bruce Hornsby, mixtapes with marathons, you begin to realize that we’ve all, in some permutation, been there with him — youthful consumers of everything, all of it becoming a marker for a moment in time.

Plain spoken and often quietly revealing, Malchus’s book reminds us of the freedom and terror that those days held. At the same time that we begin to have a sensibility about music, a persona attached to which band you like, all of these life-altering cataclysms are taking place: First car, first lay, first night in the dorm, so on. There’s love and love lost, laughter and fears, and through it all, there’s a soundtrack. In this way, Malchus isn’t necessarily the subject of his own book, and neither — not really — are his chosen tracks. You are. We all are. These shared experiences, and the generous and open way Malchus talks about them, give Basement Songs a resonance beyond its featured artists.

Still, the book would have been poorer if it didn’t connect these things in some tangible way with the present.

Malchus, and this is what I truly loved, also shows how music continues to serve as both roadmap and counsel through his subsequent stints as a husband and as a parent. Robbie Robertson and Bruce Springsteen got him to the first, but the journey through the second was made infinitely more challenging — and at times, it seems, more rewarding — when his son was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. (All of the profits from the sale of Basement Songs will go the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.) At one point Malchus, while marveling over his son’s resilience in the face of such a difficult existence, tells Jake “You’re my hero,” and the 11-year-old responds with an eye-rolling frankness that comes so naturally to children: “I don’t have super powers.”

It often seems, though, that music does — that it can gird us, protect us, maybe even save us. Basement Songs is a stirring reminder.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso