January 5, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In his debut short fiction collection Power Ballads Will Boast tells the stories of musicians and their worlds. His characters are at once both relatable and fascinating, and this volume of linked stories looms much larger than its 184 pages when finished.
PopMatters wrote of the book:
"Boast writes with an ease and intelligence that recalls Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. Like those writers, Boast makes it difficult to find fault with his work. This collection is meticulously crafted, perfectly realized, and expressed in language that rivals music in its ability to convey emotion with purity and boundless imagination."
Power Ballads is a collection of ten short stories about the lives of working musicians. I gave myself one rule when I was writing these stories: no rock stars. In my opinion, rock stars and rock & roll, generally, have gotten enough mythologizing in fiction. I was more interested in wedding musicians, washed up R&B singers, church choir directors, and obscure free jazz drummers. I've known and played with many of these heroic souls, and to me they're the real musicians. I was tempted in making this list to go for some serious music nerd arcana. But, okay, some rock stardom did creep in on the edges of this book. And, actually, now that I think about it, this tension—between the crass, the commercial, the arena-aspiring and the private, the austere, the self-recriminating—is at the center of several of these stories. Put another way, the soundtrack of our lives is not always as hip and selective as we'd like it to be.
"Roll Out the Barrel," Jaromír Vejvoda and various
Spend a significant amount of time where I grew up in Wisconsin, and you'll hear this song played (and sung along to lustily) at weddings, birthday parties, drunken nights at schnitzel houses, Brewers and Packers games, and generally anywhere first, second, and third-generation Germans, Czechs, and Poles congregate. The first story in my collection, "Sitting In," sees a young boy and his father frequenting a polka bar, the son wanting nothing more than to usurp the tubist in the house band so he can get up and play. This is, in very small part, autobiographical. When I was just starting out in school band, on tuba, my dad was patient enough to take me to a pizza joint that had polka night on Sundays. You'd better believe they played "Roll Out the Barrel" every week.
"To Be With You," Mr. Big and "The Bridge," Sonny Rollins
Fast-forward ten years and the narrator of "Sitting In" has ditched tuba for drum set and is making his way as a jobber in Chicago. In "Power Ballads," he joins a reformed hair metal band called Soldier and, dressed in his infantry uniform/costume, takes a tour of the decidedly populist music world of south side Chicago. I wanted to take semi-seriously the power ballad, the idea that a song could be absurdly, flamboyantly, shriekingly over-the-top and at the same time absolutely honest. Contrast this with the jazz ballad, which wants to be played with sophistication and restraint, iciness even, and you have two opposite poles for the expression of love, tenderness, suffering, and heartbreak.
"Moonshiner," Cat Power
In "Heart of Hearts: ✭✭✭½", a recent college graduate watches her friend Holly try to break out as a singer-songwriter in the Chicago music scene. In between the sections following the two friends, a music critic somewhat reservedly praises Holly's debut album, a fragile, austere brand of death and poverty-haunted country-folk. I think we've all seen these sorts of music reviews, the ones where the critic takes a too eager interest in the tormented past of the artist. At the same time, the artist may well be conscious of playing up a certain persona—their public and private lives get confused very quickly. I did not have Chan Marshall in mind writing this story, but her cover of "Moonshiner" is a decent approximation of what Holly's music might sound like.
"She Came Along to Me," Billy Bragg and Wilco
In "Sidemen," the wife of a long-touring, long-successful rock musician contemplates leaving him and/or cheating with a much younger man. Her husband claims a degree of Woody-Guthrie-like political credibility. August Rawling may indeed have some of the earnestness and forthrightness of Billy Bragg. He also possesses Jeff Tweedy's predilection for hiring and firing sidemen.
Anything by Linkin Park, Disturbed, Fall Out Boy, etc.
I was exposed—overexposed, you might say—to these bands and many like them while working at a music instrument store in Chicago. There was a very specific kind of musician I met in my job—he teased and spiked his hair, wore leather bracelets and eyeliner, and was almost begging to be signed to a major label deal. "Dead Weight" came out of some sad stories I observed during this time, stories that went like this: Four or five friends devote themselves entirely to their band. They move to the big city to try to "make it," play tons of shows, build a fan base one person at a time. They get noticed. An A&R scout loves them and wants to sign them. Just one thing: the two fat, ugly, or otherwise un-photogenic guys in the band—they gotta go. Of course, no one does the right thing at this point; they take the money and they kick their friends to the curb. I won't say anything about the bands mentioned above, other than that everyone who made this sort of devil's deal loved them.
"American Terrorist," Lupe Fiasco and "Basketball," Kurtis Blow
I wrote a story about hip-hop called "Mr. Fern, Freestyle." It's probably the least cool story about hip-hop in existence, as it centers around an embittered church choir director and three early teenage kids who call themselves The Apostles. I'd like to think The Apostles' first recorded efforts would in some way suggest the incredible lyrical, musical, and political sophistication and urgency of this Lupe Fiasco track. But more likely it's closer to the clomping, chunking beats and rhymes of genre progenitor Kurtis Blow, who "spat" this immortal line: "Basketball is my favorite sport / I like the way they dribble up and down the court."
"If I Were a Bell," Sarah Vaughn and Joe Williams
Sometimes I sing this song just to cheer myself up. This version, by two of the great jazz singers, is innocent and lusty all at once, not to mention funny, joyful, and hard-swinging. In "The Bridge," the narrator watches his girlfriend trying to care for her dying mother. In a particularly painful and embarrassing moment, they attempt to sing "If I Were a Bell." Needless to say, what they feel during the scene is almost the exact opposite of everything the song expresses.
"Desolation Sound," Charles Lloyd Quartet
In "Beginners," Tim, the narrator of several of these stories, is finally starting to make his way as a jazz drummer. This is the kind of band—highly technical, borderline mystical—he probably longs to play in one day. My girlfriend took me to see this group on my birthday and was kind and patient enough to sit through two whole sets. After she intimated that she might not be following the music as raptly as I was, I helpfully suggested that the music was perhaps "too cerebral" for her. She was not pleased about this.
"Last Tide," Sun Kil Moon
"Lost Coast" is the companion piece to "Heart of Hearts: ✭✭✭½". The reviewer who haunts the edges of that narrative gets his own story, in which he travels to San Francisco to ruin the career of an emerging indie-rock singer-songwriter. When I wrote this story, I somewhat had in mind the reviews of the first Girls album and everyone flipping out over the singer's bizarre, traumatic, drugged-up past. Tonally, however, "Lost Coast" shares much more with Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway. After being obsessed with Ghosts for a couple years, I finally went to San Francisco and saw the Great Highway, the scrubby dunes of Ocean Beach, and the spectral fog slipping in off the sea. With the city and all of its bustling life at your back, you come, in that place, to the end of our world and the edge of another.
"Blackjazz Deathtrance," Shining
Norwegian jazz band turns metal. This is the most unrelenting (and pretentious) aural assault I could think of, and it nicely encapsulates the impotent rage on display in "Coda," the last story in the collection, in which the narrator and another drunken idiot break into the narrator's ex-fiancé's apartment to steal back his engagement ring.
Will Boast and Power Ballads links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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