Composer, songwriter, performer Mark Mallman has spent the last 20 years releasing albums, touring, and becoming a Minneapolis music legend. His expansive catalog of infinitely catchy and masterfully orchestrated songs has rocked the airwaves worldwide from MTV to NPR. He reached a new level of creativity and intimacy with his debut book The Happiness Playlist, a memoir written about the six months he spent listening exclusively to uplifting songs as an experiment to make his way through varying bouts of grief brought on by the death of his mother, the end of a relationship and winter in the frozen city of Minneapolis. His latest album, The End Is Not The End, was released in 2016. The Happiness Playlist is his first book.
It’s the spring thaw in South Minneapolis. The feet walk but the nose runs. Cedar Avenue is a river of glass. My walk to the neighborhood lake, Nokomis, exists in a dimension of melting. It will take seven songs to reach my destination. When on tour with the band, we measure distance in songs. Portland is five albums from Seattle. Milwaukee to Chicago is two albums and an EP. I can’t tell you how many songs away Las Vegas is, but I know someplace warm is light years from here.
My “Happiness Playlist,” the one I wrote a book about, plays on earbuds. I created it in 2014, long before any book. It’s on shuffle. I also shuffle when walking on ice. What happened was, I had this panic attack — a long one. Two months long. Fear engulfed me. I was afraid of the door. I was afraid of the sun. I hid in the corner like a boy. Songs reshaped themselves. They’d guided my career, and now my healing. The panic is gone today. The neighborhood looks like a dropped snow cone. Everybody slides along with invisible underwear around their ankles.
The first song of the day is “Rock and Roll” by The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed is singing about a 5-year-old named Jenny whose life was saved by rock and roll. Five years old is too young to die. A man in a blaze orange hunting jacket hacks the sidewalk with an ice pick. He must be 75, which is also too young to die.
My life was saved by rock and roll, too. Saved by an avant-garde Metal Machine. Pounding. Celestial. The kind that hides behind garbage cans. If it’s a commercial success, jazz-based, or smells like laundry detergent, it may not be the stuff. How to know? Put a microphone to your grandmother’s grave. What’s she singing down there? It’s Gene Vincent, you damned fool!
Gene Vincent died too soon. He was 36. Life is wonderful with musicians in the world.
I walk by Tom’s popcorn shop. He serves milkshakes, even when it’s zero degrees. The first time I went inside, I bought nothing. “You’ll be back.” Tom said. “They always come back.” When I finally did, I it made me wonder if Tom puts magic in the popcorn or if the popcorn puts magic in Tom. Only Lake Nokomis holds the truth in her nearby waters. Her nearby ice.
“Xanadu” by Olivia Newton John and Jeff Lynne of ELO plays next. Not only is Xanadu a 1980s science fiction roller skating musical, but it’s also a massive area of reflective ice on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. The average temperature there is negative 290 degrees Fahrenheit. Same as Minneapolis. Xanadu is also the dead city of Shangdu. Now abandoned, it is nothing but stone slabs.
The snow melt releases baggage from five months in white hell. By baggage, I mean garbage. A Vitner’s Pork Rinds bag. Some hairspray bottles. Mystery feathers. A ripped sleeve off a pink coat. I wonder where the arm went? Raccoons, most likely. The sign underneath the grocery store reads, “Friendliness Guaranteed.” In the Midwest we’ve built a reputation of kindness under a climate of oppressive brutality. We call it Minnesota Nice, medical science calls it Stockholm Syndrome.
The next song is Slim Galliard’s “Potato Chips.” A drummer told me a secret recipe for these. Take some Boogie Woogie and and fry it in lard. Add a twist of salt from a tenor saxophone. Sprinkle with nonsense syllables to taste. Don’t forget to tell ’em you’re from Cuba, even if you were born in Detroit.
At the filling station, a woman is pumping gas in her pajamas. Slim’s song gives me cravings. I go in, buy some chips, and eat them by the door. The Slushee machine pumps out pink and blue versions of the city. Outside, someone is delivering fruit. He smiles. Everyone is smiling. Even the fruit is smiling. If cars could smile, it would happen at gas stations. Birds line up on wires. How do birds know that another bird is smiling? If your lips were bones, could you smile?
Everybody at the stoplight is looking at their phone. Some things don’t change with the seasons. As I cross, I think about how lines in a crosswalk are like staff paper. Then something holy happens. The headphones play “Paisley Park” by Prince. My heart never thawed from the loss of him.
I’ve been to Paisley Park seven times. To party and study the greatest performer that ever lived. Here was living proof of God. Paisley is a place where cashmere doves mourn stuck elevators. On rare occasions, one builds its nest mid flight. In a gold leather jacket, the dove soars to the North Star. Here, his highness fingers a silken guitar solo. A sentient wah wah pedal cries what we knew all along but couldn’t say. That Paisley Park is inside. It’s in your heart.
I’m headed to another park, Lake Nokomis Park. It is all sorts of flooded. The baseball diamonds are baseball swamps. I see a snow-free, naked park bench. The creek is naked too, rushing between ice walls. It’s a weather burlesque. On the path, I see my first patch of grass this year. Tiny grass, welcome back. Bare trees like charts of nerves. Mars was once a water planet too.
Nearer the lake, the sidewalk is flooded. I take the street by the funeral home. One summer, Annie and I raced remote-controlled cars in the parking lot at night. Here’s the thing winter teaches about the people we love. Don’t brush off your friends when they get exploded and icy and smushy. For spring to come, ice must reveal the garbage and mud. Hang on. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Maybe your friends are becoming Summertime.
With a snow white beach in my periphery, The Happiness Playlist gifts me Mariah Carey. “Fantasy.” Not David Bowie or Ursula K. Le Guin could dream up such a magical creature as the songbird with a five-octave vocal range. A pleasure stirs in my spine. My shoulders relax. No operatic tales of ancient Babylon could match it. Some bodily chemical floods just underneath my skin. It’s like biting into a ripe orange. I am feeling happiness.
You can get a solid three or four days of beach weather in this town. Then the leaves change again, and a day later it snows for six hundred years. Ice is a trust fund for spoiled water. Spring withdraws it all and wastes it on partying. I haven’t seen a single squirrel all day. What are they planning?
Someone walks a pug in a pink sweater. It has the face of a stepped-on cinnamon roll. Do people who lie about their age lie about their dog’s age too? My destination is now steps away, the purifying ice of Lake Nokomis. One bold soldier sits out there ice fishing. There are also two park workers taking down the last pond hockey rink of the season.
I walk out. Slipping. Wobbling. Wiggling. The ice is against me, so I make it part of the adventure. Difficult is not failure until you quit. When I’m far enough out, I’ll take off my headphones and just listen. So, one final song. “I Love Music” by the O’Jays.
It’s perfect because I love music too. I love Disco, Funk, most Jazz, some Pop, and all Goth. Synthesizer symphonies. Seduction rituals of hedonist, sophisticated trap. I love to grip the hip of four-on-the-floor electronic drums. I love inventing Sambas. I love to slow dance. I love love. Beethoven was in love with a married woman, but died of post-hepatic cirrhosis of the liver at 56. Before the void swept him under, I like to imagine he thought, “I love music, just as long as it’s groovy.” But happiness will never die and neither will songs. Though we are just blinks in time, we can dance our days away despite the shortcomings of modern life.
As of this writing, NASA’s Voyager I is 13,475,444,030 miles away from earth. It speeds off at 38,026 mph. Onboard is a gold plated record in anticipation of other life. It holds sound recordings of crickets and volcanos and Morse Code and a kiss. Various spoken languages say “Welcome, creatures from beyond the outer world” and “Wishing you a peaceful future from the earthlings.” Lastly, the Golden Record contains music such as Peruvian panpipes and drum, percussion from Senegal, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s the playlist of our planet. An Earth playlist.
The sky is the color of birthstones and if my mittens weren’t dirty, they’d match the horizon. I take out my earbuds and the silent spring whispers around me. With the lake still frozen, I picture the fish beneath me, crowded together 33 feet below. Sound travels faster in water than air, even quicker through ice. Some fish dance to lure prospective mates. If I put an earbud to the ice, would they like it?
I believe happiness creates happiness. It grows when spread, instead of becoming thinner. If music is the voice the soul, then I choose songs that smile. Who doesn’t want a smiling soul? There’s a Beach Boys song called, “Add Some Music To Your Day.” I sing out into the air and my chest swells. The sun swells too. Joyfulness isn’t icy. Happiness abounds. It resounds. Enchantment is easy. All you’ve got to do is add some music to your day.