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January 9, 2009

Book Notes - Michael Shilling ("Rock Bottom")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Rock Bottom is the rare rock novel that creatively blends black humor and realism. Michael Schilling's background as a touring rock musician keeps the book realistic, and his tales of the Blood Orphans on the road brim with vitality and unforgettable characters.

In his own words, here is Michael Shilling's Book Notes essay for his novel, Rock Bottom:

Rock Bottom concerns the last day of a band called Blood Orphans, tooling around Amsterdam with their manager before they play their final show, and trying to figure out how the hell everything went so utterly wrong. I was in a band called The Long Winters that toured a lot (and still does), and, like the guys in Blood Orphans, I know a thing or two about realizing that your dearly-held and utterly unrealistic rock-and-roll dream is over, and that you better figure out what you learned from it lest it haunt the rest of your days. The main difference is that Blood Orphans' story is entertaining (I hope), and full of way more escapades (I'm sure). These are some songs and albums that informed the book's creation.

"Kickstart My Heart," Motley Crue: When I was in college, Motley Crue put out Dr. Feelgood. It didn't sound like other Crue records, because it was really good. It kicked ass, actually, and everyone I knew, who, like me, were in a perpetual genuflect to the holy trinity of The Cure, New Order, and Depeche Mode, had to grudgingly agree. The best song was "Kickstart My Heart," which proved that a little production and a lot less alcohol could turn a bunch of posers into a fine combination of Kiss, Sweet, and Van Halen. Nowadays I never try to defend Motley Crue, because I never try to defend the Spin Doctors, or Bailey's Irish Cream, or Arby's Beef N' Cheddar. Certain tastes are indefensible, and that's just fine.

"Setting Sun," The Chemical Brothers: There's a deleted scene in Rock Bottom in which Darlo, to test out Adam, takes him to a strip club. Adam gets hoodwinked into a private show, and then falls asleep, aka Gets a Napdance. Anyone who's had a napdance (you know who you are) can attest to their cost, and the upset of the stripper who gave you said napdance when you claim that you never meant to fall asleep, and that you don't have the $500 she's waiting for. Anyway, the stripper in the book refers to a napdance as a "setting sun," because, well, I love that song, and heard it once or twice in strip clubs, and it kind of makes sense that she would call it that. Doesn't it? You can probably see why this scene got cut early on, but it was awfully fun to write.

"Moonchild," King Crimson: You meet girls on the road. If you're in a band like Blood Orphans, they're bona fide groupies who make Pamela Des Barres proud. But in the band I was in, we met English majors, thespians, and a-social misfits with Insane Clown Posse tattoos on their elbows, young ladies who actually had read The Corrections and Beloved and/or had strong opinions on whether or not a third political party was viable in this country. Also a lot of them made their own clothes and probably have a presence on Etsy. "Moonchild," a tasty nugget of flaky white magic prog rock, encapsulates the wobbly-yet-tender moves of these music-obsessed waifs.

"Highway To Hell," AC/DC: My favorite song about touring, because Bon Scott's "Who me?" delivery has no room for self-reflection. He's just psyched. Of course, touring is at times extremely lonely and dislocating, but spokesmen for this side of the experience such as The Stones ("Moonlight Mile"), Rush ("Limelight") and Motley Crue ("Home Sweet Home") are, respectively, unconvincing, precious, and just plain stupid. You wouldn't want to listen to any of them in a van. Who needs a reminder that the life they're chosen to lead is full of alienation and misery?

"Children of the Grave," Black Sabbath: I recently came across a YouTube video of Sabbath from 1974, playing this song in front of a squillion people somewhere in southern California. The band is bopping around like a bunch of muppets, the sunlight is mellow and full, and everyone is in the right place at the right time. It's just an utterly amazing scene of rock-and-roll glory in which every sacrifice was worth it, and shows quite clearly why musicians spend half their lives in shitty vans on ugly interstates with people they probably don't like very much, running down this very dream.

Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Ros: This was the album The Long Winters listened to while driving on an abandoned stretch of Interstate 80 in South Dakota during a snowstorm. The Interstate was closed, but reality often got the back of the hand in our van, so we snuck on to soon find ourselves gliding on black ice. In the dark. At low visibility. I'd never heard of black ice: the joke was on me. This Sigur Ros album happened to be on the stereo, which turned the experience into something wondrous and frightening, as opposed to just frightening. Thanks to John Roderick, aka Mr. Vinegar, for getting us out alive. John, you may be as ornery as a pack of hornets, but you are one hell of a motor vehicle operator.

"Oh, Comely," Neutral Milk Hotel: No matter how jaded, miserable, and otherwise dead inside touring makes people (even the rich and famous ones), putting on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea almost instantaneously disintegrates all that affectation and sorrow like water poured on cotton candy. In Rock Bottom, Adam, soft soul that he is, suggest that they listen to In the Aeroplane as a break from the AC/DC and Zeppelin, to which Darlo says, "Neutral Milk Hotel? What the f*ck's a Neutral Milk Hotel?" Anyway, this record helped me – and numerous other van dwellers over the past ten years, I'm sure – get through the rougher stretches of road life.

"The Long Run," The Eagles: In another deleted scene from the book, Blood Orphans try to learn "The Long Run" at sound check, because Darlo and Joey, for a couple of minutes, finally agree with Adam that the band needs to "shake things up, dude, and not be so predictable. I mean how hard could it be to learn an Eagles song?" Hard, it turns out. Don Henley and Co. may not be The Beach Boys, but they can sing pretty damn good, which Shane finds out real quick, throwing a temper tantrum when he can't hit any of the notes, high or low. Darlo nixes the whole idea, because "I don't agree with what that faggot Henley says anyway; I don't worry a lot or hurry a lot." And yes, I do love the Eagles.

"One," U2: The Long Winters spent much time arguing over the merits of U2, and Bono in particular. "One" was a real source of contention. Some of us – myself included – thought it was the best song McCartney never wrote, and others of us wished it would get banned from the airwaves for being – and I am paraphrasing here – the most morally bankrupt song in a morally bankrupt career. I listened to it a lot when writing Rock Bottom.

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Richard and Linda Thompson: The scene in Rock Bottom where Darlo finds his dad and his underworld buddies in the process of gang-raping a young girl, and then proceeds to help her escape through violent means, was the single most important scene in the book for me, and the hardest to write. I wanted the scene to be harrowing but I didn't want to put a gloss on the prose because that seemed like a subtle way of glorifying the event. In imagining the chamber-folk of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight playing in the background, on some old turntable in the corner, I was able (I hope) to rattle my imagination into writing a scene that didn't inadvertently celebrate the scene's darkness as I might have if, say, Massive Attack or other "sexy" music was playing. In fact, the end result was even creepier, and truer to what I imagined the scene to be, than I thought possible.

Michael Shilling and Rock Bottom links:

the author's blog
the book's teaser website
the book's page at the publisher
Facebook group for the book
Goodreads page for the book

Book Launch Cafe review
Emerging Writers Network review
Hipster Book Club review
Lit Mob review

Hachette Book Group radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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