I don’t really hate literature

Hey, Matty,

My disdain for great writers like Mark Twain and Harper Lee is over-exaggerated, and I aim to prove it.

I promised I’d follow up on your original piece that referenced the controversy in Duluth over the district’s decision to eliminate To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum. I awoke to that news with disappointment, and I knew it would generate controversy.

Several friends expressed similar disappointment on social media, but I’d re-examined my own position by afternoon and expressed my renewed openness to the decision. In short, I’d considered the possibility that nostalgia for what these books meant to me personally drove my reaction as much as my concern for overzealous scrubbing of historical context from our literary tradition. They are great books, but I argued that other books were good too. It wasn’t the end of the world.

My argument didn’t go over very well. It also didn’t go over very well with my retired English teacher mom, who just sent me a bunch of clippings from the Duluth newspaper on the subject. Who sends newspaper clippings anymore? That’s almost a statement by itself.

It also didn’t go over very well with my very much not-retired English teacher brother-in-law, and we got into a discussion about what makes a classic a classic.

I’m not interested in advancing my futile argument further, but I am interested in clearing the record on my own personal attitude toward these books. So great was my concern for the fate of Mockingbird when I heard the news, in fact, that I started writing a song about it right away. The song became Atticus, which I recorded and just posted on my Bandcamp site.

This song is a bit of a nostalgic indulgence, with random and mostly meaningless recollections from the weirdness of our junior high school days. I love randomness and meaninglessness.

I believe I read Mockingbird in Mrs. Alfonsi’s class. Snapping her gum and swishing about in her black skirts and no-nonsense hair, Mrs. Alfonsi used Mockingbird to help us discuss issues of racism and gender stereotypes. We developed an understanding of cultural context, of the complexity of class, of justice and courage.

The book meant a lot to me. I read it to Yuo’s belly when she was pregnant with Quentin. If either of our kids had been born a girl, there is zero doubt that we would have named her Harper. I encouraged Quentin to read the book last year, and I think he read it just because he knew how moved I’d be. I think he liked it anyway.

I wrote this song over a couple of weeks and just recorded it. It’s a little silly. It plays on a joke I made to Yuo about that same time about a person we know who really admires Elon Musk.

“He wants to have Elon Musk’s baby,” I said.

It occurred to me that this was a ridiculous but succinct way to express a man’s unromantic admiration for another man. It also occurred to me that I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if somebody made that same joke about me and my admiration of Atticus Finch.

I have less nostalgia for Huck Finn, but I could probably spend a couple of pages on how Mr. Braafladt’s moustache suggested he wanted to have Mark Twain’s baby.


For your reading pleasure, again I give you my handwritten lyrics. These are actually pretty decent, relatively speaking.

The Mediocre Gatsby banned in Duluth



Dear John Francis,

Needless to say, I was scandalized when, in your zeal to talk about the issue burning in Duluth, you failed to realize that I was talking business when I posited that I had already composed and chosen my song for this, the first contribution to the Duluth Experiment, and perhaps did not even register that I was talking about something other than the actual book by our fellow Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald. (*see text exchange below.) Okay, scandalized is too strong a word. I was more like “whoa bro.” But anywho, let me talk about the song a bit.

This cut presents a fictional account of some fake bands that I was in before Faux Jean—before Whippoorwill and XYZ, even. I did the first improv of this song on September 7, 2017, as a voice memo on my iPhone, and then started putzing around with it in Garageband a week later. I have been on a wild DADGAD trip for a while now. I proudly name check all of these Twin Cities artists in this song:

  1. Fixed Gears are for Jerks and Lesbians
  2. The Replacements
  3. Hüsker Dü
  4. Prince
  5. The Blue Up?
  6. Steel Shank
  7. Velma
  8. Chromaphase
  9. The Spectors
  10. Trip Shakespeare
  11. The Hang Ups
  12. Rex Daisy
  13. The Wonsers
  14. Chatty Cathy Cathcart and the Catheter Catharsis
  15. The Mediocre Gatsby

These are the lyrics:

  1. My first band, 
    We weren’t bad
    We were not trying to reinvent the wheel
    We just wanted to make music
    That was fun to dance to
    At parties in basements, in garages
    That was fun to dance to
    And we called ourselves the Mediocre Gatsby
    And we had our own theme song
    And it went just like this:
  2. The Mediocre Gatsby is coming to your town
    That’s right!
    The Mediocre Gatsby is living in your home town!
  3. That’s how our theme song went!
  4. And my next band, we were called
    Chatty Cathy Cathcart and the Catheter Catharsis
    We were pretty good
    We played around
    We played some parties
    And in the the Clown Lounge
    And people danced and they cheered
    In the Clown Lounge it felt weird
    (in a good way)
  5. But Chatty Cathy Cathcart and the Catheter Catharsis
    Had to die, just like all bands must die
    Like Fixed Gears are for Jerks and Lesbians
    The ‘Mats and Hüsker Dü and Prince too
    And The Blue Up? And Steel Shank
    And Velma and Chromaphase
    And The Spectors (and Trip Shakespeare)
    And The Hang Ups (and Rex Daisy)
    And The Wonsers
    It is time, to repeat the theme song, of my first band:
  6. The Mediocre Gatsby is coming to your town
    That’s right!
    The Mediocre Gatsby is living in your home town!
  7. Mediocre Gatsby!


So I got this far in tracking the song, and then I accidentally deleted the main file while hastily clearing out space on my hard drive to back up a freelance job that I have since completed. I’d made a few rough mixes of the tune over the next few fortnights, just to check levels, etc. And so the version that I uploaded to Bandcamp was one of these rough mixes, titled:

Mediocre Gatsby 11 9 test low master.wav

I exported it on November 9, testing it at a low output, to the end of putting it into Adobe Audition and screwing with the levels and EQ, but I did not get that far. This is just a direct export out of Garageband… I think. In future, I will be more careful.

The mediocrity that I am singing about has to do with ambition. It seems to me a lot of folks do not realize that ambition has negative connotations. In my case, it involved a burning desire to express my creativity on a public stage without having fully formed ideas to express. The first time I remember doing this was when I moved to Germany after college and busked on the streets there. I was fully in my Fabio Phase. One day, I went out to play guitar for an hour on the street and ended up playing “Sympathy for the Devil” for the entire hour, since nobody stopped to listen and it seemed like I could get away with it. At around the 55 minute mark, a plainclothes police officer shooed me away without a ticket— I was 25 Deutschmarks richer. (This was 1991.)

When I got home that evening to the communal Student Apartment where I lived, my Irish neighbor Dara approached and sang at me: “Matty, you cannot play “Sympathy for the Devil” for an entire hour like that! Therése and I were working in an office above where you played in the street today—with the windows opened— and we just about lost our minds listening to your “woo-hoos!” We know ya got other songs.”  I had exposed them to raw mediocrity, and it pained them.

matty and dara
Fabio Phase Matty and Dara from County Carlow.

A second mediocrity came about when my first Minneapolis group, Whippoorwill, disbanded. I immediately formed a new group, Steel Shank, and somehow managed to land a gig at the Uptown Bar before we had any songs to speak of. We had riffs and jams and snippets up the wazoo, but no real songs. Luckily, we had a nervous, youthful energy which helped us pull off this gig without offending anyone with our mediocrity.

Eventually, we got better. Matt Wilson of Trip Shakespeare took us under his wing and produced our first and only EP, Let The Bidding War Begin, which was then released on Washington DC label, BrittleStars, which was run by Will Eastman, former Whippoorwill member and current owner of the U Street Music Hall in DC.  That process made us better than mediocre.

old u shank outtake
Post Fabio Phase Matty at Old U in Duluth for a Steel Shank photo shoot, shot by Carmen Schindler. Blurry PAV in foreground.

As for the kerfluffle around Twain and Lee, I think it is fine to let some new voices in.



P.S. If you would like to listen to (and even consider purchasing this song), click >>> Mediocre.









* text exchange referred to in first paragraph.

  • This is a screenshot of the exchange where I informed John Francis that I had a song related to the Duluth Experiment already recorded (albeit a rough mix, but alas) and ready to go.