Today we add a new pastime to the list of America’s favorites–apple pie, baseball, singing flight attendants and, now, Josh Wilker’s brilliant memoir, Cardboard Gods.
The 1970s was a decade marked by Vietnam, Watergate, counterculture, sexual liberation, and stadium rock. For Josh Wilker, it was a time spent navigating a challenging childhood in which only his prized baseball card collection could give him unfailing faith that a winning season would one day present itself. Josh tells his unconventional story through the cards he collected, whose full-color images—of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Tom Seaver, Wade Boggs, and many lesser-known players—open each chapter and become the means for expressing all the fears, hopes, bewilderment, passions, and dreams of childhood.
For today’s publication celebration, we’re giving away two copies of this baby. To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment here or on our Facebook page. And to further the celebration, Josh has compiled an awesome soundtrack with liner notes. See at bottom for the full playlist.
Here’s what people are saying about the book:
“Proust has his madeleine. Nick Hornby has his vinyl records. And when Josh Wilker wants to summon the past, he has the scent of bubblegum. . . . If Wilker had a baseball card, its back might read: Josh is one of 2010’s most promising literary players.”—Sports Illustrated
“A baseball-loving loner deciphers his complicated childhood through his old box of trading cards. . . . Wilker’s book is as nostalgically intoxicating as the gum that sweetened his card-collecting youth. Grade: A.” —Entertainment Weekly
Get more about Josh’s life and childhood baseball cards at www.cardboardgods.net. Since his first posting in 2006, his site has been featured in the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times and on ESPN.com. He is a winner of the Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction and has an MFA from Vermont College. He lives with his wife in Chicago.
Cardboard Gods: The Soundtrack
Side 1 (22:00)
1. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison (7:00) I began my life in the midst of the blissful, hopeful, visionary feeling epitomized in this song from an album in the shared collection of my mom and her boyfriend, Tom.
2. Triad – The Byrds (3:31) The free-love embracing narrator in this song advocates for an open three-person relationship (“Why can’t we go on as three?”); when I was very young, living in a house with my brother, father, mother, and Tom, I took for granted that relationships of this kind were normal.
3. Across the Great Divide – The Band (2:53) Around when I got my hands on baseball cards for the first time, the three-parent experiment ended and my mom and Tom set off with us for a new “back to the land” life in country, this song (made, according to the photos on the album, in a place that looked like our new surroundings by guys who looked like they could have been friends of Mom and Tom) communicating the hope and trepidation and giddiness and ache of lighting out for a new life in an unknown world.
4. Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead (4:42) The home Mom and Tom found for us in the country was in the middle of a beautiful green valley, but the house itself, a foreclosure casualty, had been obscenely vandalized, adding an ominous note to the center of our new green world; this song, from another key back-to-the-land album (Workingman’s Dead) in Mom and Tom’s collection, provided a similar mix of beauty and foreboding, and a warning that the only way through was to stick together.
5. Shifting Sands – The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (3:54) This song was from an odd, relatively obscure acid rock album that my brother and I used to pull from Mom and Tom’s collection and play a lot, as if trying to hold on to that gradually receding moment when everything seemed to be cut loose from all manner of gravity.
Side 2 (22:57)
1. Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon (3:16) Through Mom and Tom’s record collection, The Beatles loomed as large in my childhood as the figures in my baseball cards, and the Beatles’ breakup, which occurred around the same barely conscious stage of my life as when things got complicated in my family (see “Triad,” above), loomed over the crucial Beatles’ region in my interior life. This song, the quintessential relic of the breakup, if not of complicated 1970s familial and cultural relationships in general, seethed with anger, pain, and a desire for clear honesty, all things that I guess I powerfully, albeit subconsciously, identified with as a 1970s child.
2. It’s All Right to Cry – Rosie Grier (2:24) From the juggernaut 1970s multimedia child-targeting phenomenon Free To Be You and Me, this song, crooned by a hulking former NFL defensive lineman, linked arms with other songs in the project (especially the shudder-producing “William’s Doll”) to channel hippie ideology into the encouragement of little boys like me to act in ways that, as it turned out, were sure to turn them into grade-A cringing bullybait.
3. Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty (6:01) I heard this song for the first time on the radio in our VW Camper on the way back from our once-a-year trip to see the Red Sox at Fenway, and the soaring sugary saxophone hooked me instantly, the aural equivalent of the gum in packs of baseball cards. It was the first time I ever fell instantly in love with a top 40 radio hit.
4. Every 1’s a Winner – Hot Chocolate (4:02) And as with baseball cards, my fervent embrace of pop songs was clinched with consumer action, with getting and having, and this hit song was the first I made my own by purchasing the 45. The simple message in the title may have appealed to me, too—when playing in the yard with my big brother, I always liked the two of us pretending to be on the same imaginary team, winning, while he preferred one-on-one competitions pitting me against him in lopsided contests in which every 1 was not a winner.
5. Lonesome Loser – Little River Band (3:57) I can see my brother and me in the room we shared, off in our own separate worlds more and more as the years went on, but still brought together at times by baseball cards and by listening together to the top 40 countdown. For some reason this song, a more personally relevant reply to Hot Chocolate’s message, is the first that comes to mind when I think of the old, beige, cinder-block-sized radio in our room, one of the things that connected me to my brother.
6. I Was Made for Dancin’ – Leif Garrett (3:18) My brother and I argued for the right to buy and thus be the house’s sole owner of this disco hit single by the late 1970s teen heartthrob who would go on, years later, to resurface in the public eye as a brittle, ravaged heroin addict on Celebrity Rehab.
Side 3 (20:05)
1. Let There Be Rock – AC/DC (6:06) When I was 11, I went with my brother—the catalyst of the excursion—and our profoundly reluctant father to a 1979 Ted Nugent concert at Madison Square Garden, where I learned in terrifying fashion, via Nurembergian chants and lurid banners brandished by blank-eyed screaming longhairs, that Disco Sucked. We never saw Ted Nugent but, disoriented and frightened, were led by our disgusted dad out of the arena immediately after the first band had finished, thinking that we had just seen Ted Nugent and not the lesser known (and completely unknown to us) warm-up act, AC/DC. Within a few months, perhaps attempting to deaden the pain and shame of the whole fiasco (like a trauma victim drawn to reenacting the trauma), I became an avid lover of AC/DC.
2. Teenage Lobotomy – The Ramones (2:01) My love of AC/DC and of hard, loud music in general coincided with the onset of puberty; The Ramones gradually joined and then eclipsed AC/DC as a favorite band, the perfect disaffected avalanching-guitar balm for a weird, lonely, alienated masturbator.
3. Put Down Your Cigarette Rag – Allen Ginsberg (2:54) My mom, attempting to share with me one of the inspirational figures in her adventurous life, took me to see Allen Ginsberg play this and other songs with his three-man jug band when I was the perfect age to be deeply disturbed by a wild-eyed balding beatnik yowling that the way to quit cigarettes (and to topple CIA-supported dictatorships, and to Enjoy the Moment, and to have ecstatic Blakean visions, etc., etc.) was to fellate a nice young cock; I skipped the second half of the show, leaving my mom behind, and listened to a Red Sox game on the radio in the car as if my life depended on it.
4. You’ll Never Be a Man – Elvis Costello (2:56) In my teen years, I stopped collecting baseball cards, which had been my primary, albeit completely impractical, road map to being a man in the world. I would never be a professional baseball player, and the apparently unbridgeable chasm between me and my new object of desire, girls, along with my general feelings of awkwardness and ineptitude, made me think that this song (by the artist who had created the album, Get Happy, that my brother was caught trying to shoplift) was being sung directly, witheringly, to me.
5. Pressure Drop – The Clash (3:27) At the boarding school I eventually got expelled from, I learned from one girl that another girl thought I was cute because she believed I resembled Joe Strummer. I didn’t look like him, I don’t think, nor did I do anything to act on the information, but it did feel nice to learn that, contrary to my general feelings on the matter, I—or at least a version of me blurred to resemble Joe Strummer—was not completely invisible at that school.
6. Bunny Wailer – Dreamland (2:41) I followed my brother in all his musical investigations, just as I’d followed him into collecting baseball cards, so when he started shifting from punk and new wave to reggae, I was right there with him, in part because I was no longer literally right there with him, the two of us now living apart; this reggae song, which I listened to repeatedly the summer after I got expelled from school for smoking pot, crystallized my desire to escape into some way of being eternally high, a dreamland I guess I wanted to also include my brother.
Side 4 (20:03)
1. Here – Pavement (3:56) After college, I moved in with my brother in NYC. It sometimes felt like everything had already happened, and other times it felt like nothing had happened yet, and still other times, or simultaneously, there was a feeling, sweet as Novocain, that we had all the time in the world. This lurching gentle slacker elegy from those days got all that.
2. Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ – Velvet Underground (7:23) I used to like to play this song on the jukebox around last call, 4 a.m., at the bar where my brother and I spent our twenties, and as it played a weight always seemed to temporarily lift off my shoulders.
3. Pancho and Lefty – Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (4:47) During those years, I took a trip out west and got in a mountain-biking accident, falling off a cliff. Earlier in the day, this song had been on the stereo in the car I was riding in, and as I went into shock just after my fall, the whole world going white at the edges, the song echoed in my head like it might be carrying me from one world to the next. I didn’t want to go.
4. That Summer Feeling – Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (3:57) I could never shake the memories of growing up with cardboard gods. This song off of Jonathan Sings communicates better than any the wide-open feeling of childhood and how it follows you forever through the years.
Hidden Bonus Track: Tessie – Dropkick Murphys (4:13) This was the theme song of the Red Sox when they finally won it all, fulfilling my deepest childhood wish, which was not just that they would win but that my brother and I would meet up in Boston for the parade when they did. The song plays at the end of a video I own that celebrates the 2004 World Champs, backing footage of the victory parade my brother and I went to together. Every time I watch it I get tears in my eyes.