In this installment of “Mix Tape,” author Anthony Moll recounts those books that inspired him during the writing of his memoir, Out of Step, the story of a blue-collar bisexual who joins the army during the Iraq wars the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” era.
My memoir Out of Step isn’t about music, not in a Chuck Klosterman or Hanif Abdurraqib sort of way, but throughout it, I write a lot about how big of a deal music and live shows have been to me. So it’s the sort of book that calls for a playlist. Or, I don’t know, maybe all books call for some sort of playlist, but the sort of playlist probably differs.
The order of the songs for this playlist roughly corresponds to each of the essays as they appear in the book, and they’re either thematically inspired by (or responding to) the essay. Sometimes the song and the essay are about the same thing; sometimes it was just a track I was listening to at that time in my life. As such, it’s a queer and sometimes disparate list I’ve put together—mostly punk, but laced with pop songs, spoken word, and selections from musicals. It’s the sort of playlist one might expect about a book about a Queer, punk, anti-war kid who joins the army and is forced to morally comes to terms with what that means during the first decade of America’s longest war.
Propagandhi – “I Was a Pre-Teen Mccarthyist”
This song is about growing up and growing away from the narratives we are given about our nation and our military, a process that is mapped out in this opening piece and expanded upon throughout the rest of the book. So it makes perfect sense to open the playlist with this track. It’s also from the first queer punk band I ever encountered, when a friend (one who seemed equally out of place in the army) lent me an album after I complained that I wish there was something out there for tattooed queer boys who also listened to punk.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – “Wicked Little Town”
Like all the songs from the soundtrack of this iconic queer film, “Wicked Little Town” is packed with mythological allusion, and it ends up being about much more than it appears on first blush. It corresponds to the second essay in the book, an ekphrastic piece about Reno, the kids I came up with, and our desire to get the hell out of there.
“Fast Car” has had the staying power to become a queer anthem – it’s about growing up, leaving home and starting from zero, and the way one’s parents and their baggage complicates those things. (It’s also, at its heart, a wonderful love song.) It’s a song that has stuck to me for a long time, one I can’t help but to consider when I think about my relationship with my mother when I left home (discussed here in the start of the book).
Eagle-Eye Cherry – “Save Tonight”
Near the turn of the millennium, Eagle-Eye Cherry had *the* pop song about leaving. For a couple of years, it was everywhere, and the memory of it blaring from the top 40 radio station the days before I left is something that will forever remind me of Reno (and home).
Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”
Though many listeners read this song’s lyrics as heterosexual, lead singer Pete Shelley wrote it about his love for a man with whom he lived for several years. It has become a punk classic about prohibited or ill-advised romance. When I got to basic training, smack in the middle of the period during which a policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was kicking service members out of the military for being LGBTQ, I experienced my first time with a guy—a brief and terrifying experience in the middle of the night in the corner of a barracks room.
The only band listed twice on the playlist, Propagandhi and their exploration of the intersection of queerness, masculinity, politics and performance earn their spot because their songs gave me language to articulate a lot of the complicated feelings I had about my time the military.
The Weakerthans – “Left and Leaving”
Okay, so a lot of these songs are about leaving in some way – that’s sort of the story of joining the army. It’s the story of coming-of-age. Leaving things behind is the story of a lot of memoirs. This song corresponds to “Great Basin,” an essay in that shares the track’s mood of melancholy and nostalgia.
The Smiths – “How Soon is Now?”
This one’s a mood piece, one of the most iconic tracks about feeling socially isolated.
Circle Jerks – “Live Fast, Die Young”
I briefly mention, right at the start of the book, some of my tattoos – among them, the lyrics to this punk standard tattooed across my biceps. I got them when I was young, headstrong and convinced (probably for reasonable explanations) that I wouldn’t make it long. They are the sort of tattoos that radically change their meaning the older I get.
Outkast – “B.O.B.”
The invasion of Iraq (this time around) started in March of 2003. It officially ended in December of 2011. As of 2018, there are still over 5,000 service members there.
“Bombs Over Baghdad” is, somehow, not about that war. Pitchfork’s 2000 song of the year was released years before the invasion. In part, it references the U.S. 1990 invasion of Iraq. In part, it’s just sort of something André 3000 heard on the radio. Still, the fast-paced track can feel prophetic at times, and it has been indelibly tied to the Bush family’s wars.
Jack Kerouac (read by Richard Lewis) – “America’s New Trinity of Love”
Okay. This one isn’t exactly fair. This is a spoken word piece from the contentious Beat figure Jack Kerouac. Kerouac represents a sort of wanderlust for many writers, but a lot of us can’t really get past his ugly misogyny.
Still, this piece is about masculinity, and tenderness, and love between men, so it’s perfectly suited to line up with “Wrong As Two Boys, pt. ii,” an essay about the military men with whom I flirted, dated and went to bed.
Yellowcard – “Miles Apart”
00s pop punk at it finest. Yellowcard reminds me of Dany and Bea, two of the women I discuss in “Sisters in the Presence of Strangers,” women who played a big part in my life in that decade. The song is about keeping close to friends over distances, something essential for service members, particularly Queer service members.
A lot of punk bands wrote about the immoral nature of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is one of my favorite songs about the subject. It digs into the human cost of war and its ripple effects. I’ll forever associate the track with two things: 1) John, the first person close to me to die Over There, and 2) a world-shaking line from CAConrad’s poem “say it with grEEN paint for the comfort and healing of their wounds”:
walls write on court
house sidewalks write on
every single mirror you
HOLES IN IRAQI
FAMILIES EVERY TIME
I PAY MY TAXES’
Dropkick Murphys – “Boys on the Dock”
Those of us closest to John asked to play this at his on-base funeral. The chaplain said no. So we drank and cried and poured beer on the earth all summer long, playing this Celtic punk dirge on any speaker we could find.
The Geeks – “What We Believe”
The Republic of Korea has a robust punk scene. When I was there in mid-00s, I made every show I could for bands like 13STEPS, Suck Stuff, Rux and The Geeks. I spent every free weekend in the Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul, usually spending at least one night at the single-room, all-ages Skunk Hell.
I was really into ‘straight edge’ at the time, the punk genre & subculture dedicated to living clean and keeping a level head. Wikipedia lists The Geeks as the first Korean straight edge band, and they remain one of my favorite in the genre.
Rilo Kiley – “More Adventurous”
Rilo Kiley was fronted by Jenny Lewis, who – when I was a child and she was a child actress staring in the 1989 film The Wizard – was my first celebrity crush. (Unrelated, but Dante Basco, who played Rufio in Hook, would become my first same-sex celebrity crush two years later.)
Someone in the scene there in Korea told me about Lewis’ band, and tuned me onto their fourth album, with which this track shares a title. I fell hard for their melancholic indie rock, and I’ve been into Rilo Kiley (and Lewis’ follow-up bands, Jenny and Johnny and Nice as Fuck) ever since.
Lupe Fiasco (ft. Jill Scott) – “Daydreamin’ ”
Unapologetically critical of the U.S. government, popular culture, and news media, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor is one of my favorite rap albums of all time. It features recitation from the Qur’an, spoken word, a narrative track about a zombie gangster, and a breakout single about being a skateboard kid.
This track is about falling asleep and dreaming of operating a giant robot.
Bad Religion – “Let Them Eat War”
I don’t know if I believe in favorite bands, but when people ask me to put a finger on a single favorite, Bad Religion is it. I was introduced to them in middle school, and still listen to them regularly in my thirties. I’ve even read the lead singer’s book about becoming an academic, and listened to his folk Americana solo album.
This track comes from the first original, full-length album the band recorded after the start of the wars in Iraq an Afghanistan, The Empire Strikes First. It’s about the business of war and the exploitation of the working class, and it’s a track that should be listed alongside Smedley D. Butler on any bibliography on the subject.
Minor Threat – “Out of Step”
I couldn’t not have this track on here, right? From the band who actually coined the term “straight edge,” this song is hard, fast and straight to the point. I don’t even “keep edge” any more – hell, punk is only a small part of what I listen to these days, but you can bet I still remember every track to every song on this album.
Laura Marling – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
This is the song to which I most frequently point when people ask what I think about Dylan winning the Nobel. This cover of it from Laura Marling is difficult to describe without using the words “beautiful” and “haunting.”
Mary Lambert – “Secrets”
“Secrets” is as representative of this memoir as it is all memoirs. This track about not caring whether or not the world can see all the ugly parts of oneself could fit on the playlist of many works of creative nonfiction. I’ve attached it to the chapter that I’d be least comfortable for my bosses to read.
The Postal Service – “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”
Everyone I know loves this song, and among those who are really into The Postal Service, almost everyone I know lists it as one of their top songs. Like “How Soon is Now,” it’s a classic track about feeling lonely, this one after a breakup.
For me though, the song will always remind me of the year I left the army and began working in D.C., both for its invocation of the district, and because they may have been the band I listened to most that year.
Le Tigre – “Deceptacon”
Kathleen Hanna’s post Bikini Kill project has this aggressively catchy track about depoliticizing the music of political musicians (and about the lack of value in a lot of popular music). Like the best songs from Le Tigre, a rad feminist band with rad feminist songs, it’s a fun song to dance too, while at the same time making you care about more than just dancing to it.
Linda Thompson – “Paddy’s Lamentation”
This old Irish folk song can be a complicated song to enjoy, and that’s one of the reasons I love it. On one hand, it’s clearly a lament about leaving home for something you think you believe in, only to be treated like fodder in a war that’s not yours. It’s relatable to the veterans of many wars, but I particularly those who fought in the American conflicts from Vietnam onward. It’s about how immigrants and the poor are often the ones who have filled the enlisted ranks that take the brunt of the violence, and how they have little say in the matter. It’s a classic anti-war anthem.
Yet the lyrics invocation of Lincoln complicate matters, as it places us square in what may have been the most just war in American history (in so much as just war can exist). What does it mean to appreciate an anti-war anthem when that war aims to end enslavement? For close readers, the song makes us sit with difficult questions—when is war righteous, who should be asked to fight, and at what cost?
Andrea Gibson – “The Nutritionist”
Another spoken-word piece, this poem is about suicide, particularly among LGBTQ+ youth. It is included on the playlist in memory of Michelle Langhorst.
Rise Against – “Swing Life Away”
I don’t listen to a lot of Rise Against, but this folksy acoustic track they did back in 2004 is one of my favorite songs. It reminds me of where I’ve been, and where I am, and of staying simple and happy whether I’m flush or bust. It has nothing to do with military service, except for being broke, but like just about every war story, it’s a love song.
To listen to the Spotify playlist that accompanies this article, to here: