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May 5, 2010

Book Notes - Aaron Michael Morales ("Drowning Tucson")

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

Drowning Tucson is the debut novel from Aaron Michael Morales, and the book is already drawing comparisons to television's The Wire for its gritty portrayal of urban life, but a better comparison would be the noir literary works of James Ellroy. This novel-in-stories graphicly portrays Tucson's troubled underclass, and Morales's depiction of his characters is always honest and engaging.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"As heartbreaking as it is frightening. These are brutal and frequently riveting stories of the mean streets rendered in highly emotional, cinematic language."


In his own words, here is Aaron Michael Morales's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Drowning Tucson:


My recently published first novel, Drowning Tucson, explores the gritty underbelly of an impoverished urban neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, in the same spirit as novels such as Last Exit to Brooklyn or Trainspotting. It captures the lives of people trapped by their circumstances, in a harsh and brutal urban landscape surrounded and infiltrated by the unforgiving desert. I set the novel in Tucson because I was born and (mostly) raised there. What struck me as both frightening and fascinating about growing up in this city situated in the middle of the desert were three things: 1) it is a city with a long history of violence and brutality, dating back to its founding; 2) the desert is forever encroaching on the city, threatening to overtake it at any given moment; 3) there is a strange, and sometimes ominous, mythological magic (for lack of a better phrase) that lingers in the air—one part Old West, one part Native American, and one part Mexican American. There are forces here that are not to be trifled with. Read Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead if you'd like a better idea of what I mean.

Because the novel is set in the late 1980s, I think it is informed by a specific tone and tenor of music dating back to that time. Certainly hip hop took a very serious turn in the late '80s and early '90s, with acts such as N.W.A. and Ice-T offending (terrifying?) people enough that Congress took up measures to squash the movement. We all know how well that succeeded. Still, since the bulk of Drowning Tucson took roughly five years to write, from 2000 – 2005 (with sometimes drastic revisions occurring up until the beginning of 2010), it is also very much a product of the mood of modern music. Some of these songs are appropriate for the characters or times of the book. Some of these songs are appropriate for the emotions I experienced while writing and revising the work. Some of these songs are in Spanish—but no matter there, since the mood of the songs transcend language barriers. And finally, some of the songs are near-perfect accompaniments to very specific chapters of the book, in which case, they have been marked as such.


"Si Señor" – Control Machete

Tragically, this song was whored out for a Levis commercial. The one with the Latino guy walking down the street doing all that crazy shit with his legs. Remember that one? Nevertheless, it's a great song. Catchy. Gangsta. But thoughtful. These guys are actually pretty badass. Took the Cypress Hill mantle and ran with it. No one's come close since. At least not for Spanish rappers. Blanquito Man is the next best thing, but not quite up to snuff. This would be a great song to open the book if it were a movie, or if we could have embedded one of those speaker thingies they used to stick in "singing" Hallmark cards.


"Purple Rain" – Prince

This is a song that rocked the pop music scene when it first was released in the early '80s. Of course, everyone has heard it. It has become a classic in Prince's repertoire, but I would argue that it had a far greater impact on people than even he expected. I, for one, remember seeing the movie for the first time and being shocked at the audacity of this unknown brown man to thrust street life onto the screen so blatantly (even if it was cheesy at times). Still, the album was the soundtrack of endless breakdancing sessions outside many of Tucson's south side (and central) liquor stores. The title track was a drunken, neighborhood sing-a-long, not too unlike Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" is in bars around the country today.


"Pink Maggit" – Deftones

As I understand it, the Deftones have made something like five versions (maybe more) of this song that are floating around. Various incarnations of "Maggits." What I think is incredible about this particular version of the song is how it starts out so slowly, showcasing Chino Moreno's voice—his high-end range, his seductively gnarly whisper—and then unleashes his trademark roar that contains a powder keg of emotion. I'm not sure if it's rage or angst. I'm not sure if it's fear or it's passion. All I know is that it is palpable. It winds its way down the ear canal like molten metal. And "Pink Maggit" is a teen angst anthem on par with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." For that reason, it is suitable for many of this book's characters, with a little added dash of irony for the first chapter as well.


"Deportation/Iguazu" – Gustavo Santaolalla

A heartbreaking song. Plain and simple. The things this man can do with a charango (a sort of guitar) are phenomenal. He takes Flamenco-style playing, and all of its emotional complexities, to another plane altogether. It's hard to believe it's only one man playing one instrument. Listen to this at any point in the novel (but certainly as the book draws to a close), and I think you'll get the appropriate sense of gravity. The song's gravity. And the book's.


"Luv Machine" – Blonde Redhead

Ever watched guys enter a strip club? One of two things happens: Either they slink in, ashamed, peeking out beneath the bills of their baseball caps, or they enter with a sense of unabashed pride. Like, "Yeah, I'm gonna get me some stripper tail tonight." And I think that the latter might have something quirky like this song going through his mind on the way in. Walking that strut. Nodding his head. Checking the hair. Adjusting his package. Maybe even a dip of chew. Ready to take on the world. Like some of the characters might feel in the "Loveboat" chapter, which is titled after the strip club appearing in this part of the book. It's a strange sight to see, this ship full of strippers plopped down in the middle of the desert. The real name of the club has changed over the years, and I don't remember whether or not it was ever called the Loveboat. I suppose if you read this chapter, did a couple shots, and listened to this song, it would all come together in some strange, cosmic fashion. Or maybe you'd just vomit and pass out.


"Man Eater" – Hall & Oates

Yes, there is a prostitute in Drowning Tucson. And she loves this song. She just doesn't know it. It's her theme song. She hums it while washing off last night's mascara. She doesn't have a heart of gold. Her name is Rainbow.


"Jesus Walking on the Water" – Violent Femmes

A classic gospel-ish number by the band who single-handedly nailed what it means to be a desperate, sex-starved teen in their most famous song, "Add It Up." But this song, well, it's actually a good gospel song. Get your hands on it, then read the chapter "Revival." Then repent and sin no more…


"Dance on Vaseline" – David Byrne

…or, give the finger to the "preacher man" of this—ultra funky—David Byrne song. There's a lot to love about this song, but I think my favorite thing is the image of the title. The absurdity of dancing on Vaseline. It mirrors the futility of many of my characters' lives and the helplessness they feel in trying to break free from cycles of poverty, violence, misogyny, etc. How hopeless life sometimes feels. You might as well apply some Vaseline to the dance floor and try to not make an ass of yourself or get hurt. You'll probably end up doing both.


"Graffiti" – Digable Planets

A wonderfully chill song. It's like Dove chocolate. Probably the type of thing one might listen to after partaking in illicit substances that have been legalized for medicinal purposes in a couple of states. What I love about Digable Planets is that they are the perfect bridge between Soul Music and Hip Hop. I dare you to listen to this song and move no part of your body. It cannot be done. Plus, the imagery of the song, the way they paint the urban landscape with a careful lyrical brush, it's lovely.


"Les Feuilles Mort" – Edith Piaf

There's a sense of loss in this song that is barely contained in Ms. Piaf's old school warble. She sounds like she's weeping throughout the entire song. It's a good fit for some of the book's saddest moments.


"Breed the Killer" – Downset

Sadly, this band called it quits last fall. But they were a force to be reckoned with in the L.A. rap-metal scene for over a decade. Highly political, their lyrics and sound were the next logical extension of rap music. It's because of bands like Downset that there was a flurry of rap and metal band pairings in the early to mid Nineties. Downset begat Rage Against the Machine, which begat System of a Down. This song is one of their best.


"How I Could Just Kill a Man" – Cypress Hill

Listen to their version of the song. Then listen to Rage Against the Machine's cover of it. Both are dead on. Cypress Hill's version slinks up on you and slits your throat while you're at the ATM. Rage's version punches you dead in the face as it approaches you and your girlfriend on the sidewalk. Either one will do.


"Rose Parade" - Elliott Smith

I like this song for several reasons. The most relevant to this book is the fact that Tucson has a Rodeo Day Parade much like the Rose Parade. The Rodeo Day Parade is featured in the book. Some tragic things happen along its path. Not necessarily while the parade is going on. Classic Elliott Smith self-loathing. Some of the novel's characters feel similarly about themselves. None stab themselves in the chest.


"Beautiful Boys" - CocoRosie

There are several beautiful boys in this book. This song is a wonderful tribute to them.


"And Still It Sits in Front of You" - Mice Parade

A sexy-sad song. Not sure what else to say about it except that it's probably one of my favorite songs in recent years. It won't get out of my head.


"Swim Until You Can't See Land" - Frightened Rabbit

I'm so pleased that this song came along when it did. It's the perfect exit song to this list of songs related to a drowning city.


Aaron Michael Morales and Drowning Tucson links:

the author's website

Examiner review
Publishers Weekly review

Coffee House Press interview with the author
Indiana State University Newsroom profile of the author
La Bloga interview with the author
Terre Haute Living article by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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