June 12, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
William J. Cobb's The Bird Saviors is a haunting character-driven post-apocalyptic novel that fascinatingly defies genre categorization.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Glimpses of climate change, economic unrest, religious fanaticism, and immigrant hardship contribute to the near-futuristic setting, giving Cobb’s fiction an eerie familiarity. In a voice reminiscent of Charles Frazier’s, The Bird Saviors tells a fascinating story of success in spite of chaos, opportunity in spite of despair, and love in spite of hate."
One of the coolest things about film-making must be getting to design the soundtrack. My favorite pair of filmmakers are Joel and Ethan Coen, who have a great list of movie soundtracks, particularly The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, and O Brother, Where Are Thou? Like much of my fiction, my new novel The Bird Saviors began with songs stuck in my head—too many really to list, but for economy sake, I'll choose ten. Okay, eleven.
1. The first and foremost is Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train" as sung Johnny Cash on American Recordings (1994): Through the early drafts of the novel I wanted to use the following lyrics as an epigraph:
There's a golden moon
That shines up through the mist
And I know that your name
Can be on that list
There's no eye for an eye
There's no truth for a truth
I saw Judas Iscariot
Carrying John Wilkes Booth.
That mixture of sin and redemption/forgiveness, the haunting of the past in the present, the lyrical eye on the landscape and natural world, it's the beating heart of the novel. One of the principal locations is a downtrodden motel called The Buffalo Head Inn, near some railroad tracks, populated by homeless people. The story takes place in Pueblo, Colorado, a town with a huge rail yard right in the middle of town.
2. Tom Waits's "Step Right Up": Looming over the story is an odd biblical patriarch named Lord God (aka John Wesley Cole), who mistakenly tries to marry off his daughter to a scheming polygamist pawnshop owner, all of which originated in part through another terrific Tom Waits's song, "Step Right Up." That song is the impetus for one of the main swindlers of the novel, Hiram Page (the name lifted from an actual historical figure whose name was one of the signees testifying that he had actually seen Joseph Smith's gold plates from which The Book of Mormon was transcribed). The song is all about hustling with false promises, which is how Hiram Page weaves his web.
3. Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues": Hiram Page tricks and deceives pretty much everyone in the novel, but particularly one young yahoo by the name of Jack Brown, who was inspired by the great Johnny Cash song "Cocaine Blues": The third verse of the song goes,
Laid in the hot joint takin' the pill
In walked a sheriff from Jericho Hill
He said Willy Lee your name is not Jack Brown
You're the dirty hack that shot your woman down.
In The Bird Saviors Jack Brown demands an engagement ring back from his ex-fiancée and when she refuses, he fights her for it. When the law becomes involved, Jack Brown produces his own alias, William Smith. Jack is a character right out of Johnny Cash territory—young, dumb, and full of . . . trouble, let's say, plus a foolhardy recklessness. That said, I really don't mean him (or think of him) as a bad person. He's one of my favorites.
4 and 5. Neil Young's "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Cowgirl in the Sand": I wrote the novel while living in Custer County, Colorado, my home of homes, where my house is about eight miles from the small town of Westcliffe. Driving back and forth to town, I often listened to Neil Young, and over and over again I heard the plaintive, touching masterpiece "A Man Needs a Maid." It's all about wanting and heartbreak, double-voiced in that the speaker is saying he just wants a maid, but what he really wants is a woman to love and one that will love him: "I was thinking that maybe I'd get a maid/Find a place nearby for her to stay/Just someone to keep my house clean/Fix my meals and go away." But later in the song he pleads, "When will I see you again?" That song sets the perfect tone for the novel's love story between Ruby Cole and Ward Costello, a field ornithologist whose wife and daughter died in an epidemic two years before. He truly does not want to fall in love, but ultimately can't help himself. Ruby herself is that sandy cowgirl, that "ruby in the dust," who is on the cusp of adulthood, trying to find the right way to live: "Old enough now to change your name/When so many love you/Is it the same?"
6 and 7. Bob Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" and "I Threw It All Away": Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" is the greatest Western ballad ever, and the only other (contemporary) ballad that comes close is the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon." But "Lily" catches the historic spirit of the novel, a mixture of the 19th century outlaw past being repeated in the 21st century, with swindles and cattle rustling and a general disregard for law-and-order that makes for gutsy fun. Dylan's haunting tune "I Threw It All Away" sums up the remorse that surrounds Ruby's father, John Wesley Cole, who was named after the gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, famous for shooting a man dead because he was snoring in the next hotel room, and whose name was the title of one of Bob Dylan's early albums.
8. Donna Fargo's "Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.": This quirky, deliciously hokey Country/Western pop tune from the Seventies would probably have been mostly forgotten by me, were it not for an episode of Big Love, the HBO series about Utah polygamists, on which the character of Rhonda Volmer (the terrific young actress Daveigh Chase, perhaps most famous for playing Samarra in The Ring) sings "Happiest Girl." She did a haunting, borderline-desperate version of the song, really milking the irony and complex emotion of the smiling-through-the-tears lyrics, such as this riff:
There once was a time
When I could not imagine
How I could feel this way
The former lead singer and front man of the band Talking Heads, David Byrne, composed the music for that episode, and I credit his genius for rescuing "Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A." for me. Plus if I ever get lucky enough that someone wants to film The Bird Saviors, I'm telling the director that I want Daveigh Chase to play Ruby Cole.
9. Lorrie Morgan's "He Drinks Tequila, She's Talking Dirty in Spanish": I heard this song years ago and laughed out loud. It sums up the trashy-love chemistry of two of the secondary love stories, the one between Fufu and Israel James (descendant of the famous outlaw Jesse James) and the one between Rebecca Cisneros and George Armstrong Crowfoot. Plenty of novels waft rhapsodic about New Yorkers listening to Cole Porter and falling in love along the boulevards and avenues. Me, I've got a soft spot for the trashy love story played out on a dirt road, with mountains in the distance.
10. Eddie Vedder's rendition of Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary": I know this song from a compilation CD on which various artists performed versions of Lucinda Williams' songs to raise money to help pay medical bills. Eddie Vedder growls his way through the song full of backroad tragedy and heartbreak. I was never any big fan of Pearl Jam, but this is an out-and-out masterpiece, punctuated by the haunting refrain, "That which you fear the most/Will meet you halfway."
11. Utah Phillips's "Look for Me in Butte": Early in the composition of The Bird Saviors I was driving with my wife and baby girl through northern New Mexico, heading for Santa Fe, listening to one of the cool radio stations out there, and they played Utah Phillips's "Look for Me in Butte." It's a song about idealizing a place in your mind, of wanting to get away, of wanting to create a place where things will be different—less uptight, more alive. A place where something wild is about to happen. That's what I'd like people to imagine when they read The Bird Saviors.
William J. Cobb and The Bird Saviors links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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