July 5, 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.
J. R. Angelella's young adult novel Zombie is an impressive debut that has earned the author comparisons with Chuck Palahniuk.
Unabashedly Bookish wrote of the book:
"Let's get one thing straight right off the (aluminum) bat: J.R. Angelella's debut novel Zombie is not zombie fiction; it's a weird and wonderfully entertaining coming-of-age tale about a kid who is finds solace from his deeply troubled existence in his love of zombie movies. It's simultaneously a bildungsroman à la Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, an homage to zombies in pop culture, and a twisted mystery all wrapped up into one utterly original – and darkly delightful – novel."
J.R. Angelella’s Soundtrack to Zombie;
Or How to Hear the Necroinfectious Pandemic without Ever Really Listening
My novel Zombie is cursed.
This was my greatest unspoken fear during the final few years of work on the book—either it was cursed or someone had put a hex on me. Everything around me seemed to be disintegrating, coming apart at an alarming rate—deaths, depression, disasters—that is except for my novel. I had the quite conflicted relationship with Zombie. Its visceral content and excessive of downward spirals made it a dreaded project to keep revisiting, but it became my dark obsession, eventually seeking solace in it, escaping the real world and throwing every dangerous thought I had into it. Zombie, essentially, cursed or not, became my lifeline.
You'll be hard pressed to find seemingly obvious choices here. For example, you won't see Michael Jackson's "Thriller." This song and music video have deep roots in Zombie, however neither were much of an creative influence, so much as a literary device. (Although, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that "Thriller" has what I believe to be one of the sickest baseline hooks ever.) The other obvious song missing is The Cranberries "Zombie." My editor, allegedly, blasted this song in his office after finalizing the purchase of my novel, which is a beautiful moment I think of when I hear it now, instead of its cultural significance as a political anthem about the continued struggles of Northern Ireland.
The songs that follow guided me through the sometimes hysterical writing of Zombie when everything around me screamed that famous inscription at the entrance to Dante's Hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Track One: The Brian Jonestown Massacre – "All Around You – Intro"
There is no better way to begin a hero's journey than with this track. It's psychedelic and trippy in only the best possible ways. A flaming journey at the behest of a carnivorous voice. The cyclical nature of this cloud-like mindromp is evident in the lyrics: "it's the beginning / and the end / it the beginning of everything." We are told not to worry about the fabulous journey we are about to take inside our heads—thrill seekers who are not afraid of anything. In a way, I used this song as an excuse not to worry. The lyrics go on to tell us we will be richly rewarded for following. It's this appealing sense of temporary calm and peace and joy that hope can sometimes bring with anticipation of change. For the narrator of Zombie, Jeremy, this kind of naive hope runs deep. "All Around You" is celebratory, anticipatory and, above all else, hallucinatory. When I hear it, I only think of blissful things, like Windsor knots and chopography..
Track Two: Radiohead – Idioteque
No soundtrack is complete without some track by Radiohead. Mostly cryptic, "Idioteque" is the closest Radiohead comes to portraying a true apocalyptic vision of the world. The elctro-industrial beat running against Yorke's beautiful melody makes "Idioteque" the perfect song for the impending apocalypse. This track acted as a trigger for me--pitching me down into Jeremy’s abyss. The first verse begins: "Who's in the bunker / who’s in the bunker / women and children first / women and children first." This isn’t a zombie track per se, but it definitely deals with a lot of the same fears that Jeremy struggles with, like "I've seen too much / I haven't seen enough / You haven't seen too much / I'll laugh until my head comes off." Yes! Exactly! Wait, what? The contradiction is at once confusing and a confirmation. Again, like "All Around You," the balanced idea of knowledge and existence in the real world is called into question, ending on the violent image of a decapitation. A happy track, clearly.
Track Three: Sufjan Stevens – "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!"
Sufjan Stevens' use of zombies as a metaphor in this song to depict the (once great) ghost towns of Illinois. The opening lines haunt me to this day: "We are awakened with the axe / Night of the Living Dead at last / They have begun to shake the dirt / Wiping their shoulders from the earth." I can hear the axe. I can see them knocking the dirt from their shoulders, as they climb up out of their graves. The idea of Stevens singing about ghost towns too made for an interesting use of the zombie—the idea of the dead being reanimated and brought back to life. This is Baltimore, literally--a once dead since brought raging back to life, as its seen incredible growth since my youth.
Track Four: Foster the People – "Pumped Up Kicks"
Zombie is deceptive—it's not the book that you think it will be. It's a zombie book without any actual undead zombies. My main character Jeremy is surrounded by disturbed adults and their disturbing behavior. This is how Foster the People's mega-hit "Pumped Up Kicks" became such an influence. A cultural phenomenon happened with this song—it crossed over into the mainstream. Everyone was singing that damned catchy refrain. You know the one. The problem, as I saw it, was that no one seemed to be listening to the words they were singing—they just liked the happy-go-lucky melody, catchy whistle section and repetitive refrain that sounded safe, sanitized and harmless. The band had done a tricky thing, actually. They hid the vocals of each verse in enough distortion that makes it difficult to accurately understand what is being sung, only to lift the distortion at the chorus, making it possible for everyone to sing along. What is the chorus? "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run, outrun my gun / All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / you better run, better run, faster than my bullet." Yes, the song is about a psycho teenager contemplating the massacre of his classmates and yet here it is a massive crossover hit. Foster the People had done the very thing in their song that I was working into my novel—masquerading dark and disturbed material with lighter, more palatable fare—a book called Zombie without any actual zombies. From a songwriting perspective, this counterpoint approach is brilliant and obviously paid off well. This trickery is no gimmick and certainly no accident, but a well-planned and executed perspective. They are storytellers giving us access to the thoughts of a psycho teenager—filled with sing-a-longs, whistling, and happy-go-lucky pop melodies all working to hide the violent undertow ripping below the surface. Another happy track.
Track Five: The Magnetic Fields – "Zombie Boy"
The first time I met my editor he took me to the Hi Fi Bar in the East Village that people claim has one of the best jukeboxes in the city. This was my first time meeting him in person, so while this "best jukebox in the city" fact would have otherwise consumed my attention, on this night I was trying my best not to embarrass myself by saying anything moronic or spilling my drink on myself. Mark was bringing the first round of Zombie edits with him as well, so this was more than just a meet-and-greet, but also a real deal editorial meeting where we were going to discuss areas of the novel that needed work. He finally arrived and was accompanied by two Soho Press staffers. We sat down and ordered drinks and before conversation had a chance to awkwardly move past pleasantries, Mark shot back up, clapped his hands together, and said, "They have a terrific jukebox here. Any requests?" He wasn't really asking. Mark continued: "We need to hear some zombie music." He disappeared to the other side of the bar for a few songs, before returning victorious. "Do you like the Magnetic Fields?" he asked, sliding back into the booth. I hadn't. "They have a song called Zombie Boy. It should play soon." But I couldn't hear it over the crush of noise at the bar. At the end of the night, we toasted the book together by taking shots of whiskey and went our separate ways, all editorial notes in tow. When I got home, I cued up "Zombie Boy" on my computer and really listened to The Magnetic Fields for the first time.
Track Six: Drive-By Truckers – "The Righteous Path"
If there is one thing I am fairly vocal about in my life, it's that I firmly believe that the Drive-By Truckers are the greatest rock band . . . ever. I'm sorry if you disagree, but you're wrong if you do. They are the greatest rock band. End of story. And like any great rock band, their music transcends thrashing guitars, screaming lyrics and thundering drums. In terms of Zombie, I was six months into a rewrite with my editor when the bottom fell out from under me again. Within the span of a week, my grandmother passed away, one of my wife's family members passed away, my cat was diagnosed with cancer, not to mention some other personal shit that was going on and don't want to get into. Enter DBT. This track reminded me to hold on just a little bit longer. It was scary how much it felt like Patterson Hood was singing about me. Hell, I felt so strongly about this song that I wrote it into chapter 64 when Jeremy is hiding out in the bathroom, when he overhears the asshole gym teacher Coach O'Bannon at the urinal, humming a song. Finally, he sings: "tryin' to stay focused on the righteous path." I hate Coach O'Bannon, but this softened him for me and made him seem more human. I'm sure most people won't get that upon reading the scene, but it's a big scene for him and for me. My hope was that the Truckers could save O'Bannon's life too.
Track Seven: The National – "Conversation 16"
I listened to the entire catalog of The National, the most sullenest rock band in America, while writing Zombie. However it was my friend MeLaina who tipped me off to “Conversation 16” being about zombies-ish. Right off the bat, the opening lines hit home like a sledgehammer: "I think the kids are in trouble / Do not know what all the troubles are for / Give them ice for their fevers / You’re the only thing I ever want anymore." I mean, hello! They're singing about Jeremy Barker. The big zombie line, however, comes in later: "I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'Cause I’m evil." Clearly, referencing zombies—well, at least the brain eating kind of zombie. And if you listen closely, the way front man Matt Berninger blurs the edges of the second line of the chorus, making it sound like he's saying "zombie." It's subtle, but it's definitely there.
Track Eight: The Flaming Lips – "Do You Realize??"
I listened to this song endlessly when I was working on the scenes between Jeremy and his teenage love interest Aimee White. The song is so incredibly sad, but it really reminded me of that melancholy feeling of lust we often experience in high school. This song just summarizes their relationship for me, not necessarily on a narrative level, but on an emotional level. The Flaming Lips will break your heart: "Do you realize - that you have the most beautiful face / Do you realize - we're floating in space / Do you realize - that happiness makes you cry / Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know / You realize that life goes fast / It's hard to make the good things last / You realize the sun doesn't go down / It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round." Have fun picking up your pieces.
Track Nine: Meat Puppets – "Lake of Fire"
When it comes to music I don't just use it as a trigger to set a mood during my writing process. I also like to think about my characters and what they would listen to in the privacy of their car or home, even if it never makes it into the book. Clearly, Coach O’Bannon is a Drive-By Truckers fan, as I established earlier. As for the Meat Puppets, I knew that "Lake of Fire" was too rich of a track not to use. There is something about this recording that is so raw, like an exposed nerve ending. There could only be a certain type of person who would embrace this jittery rock number—the folks at Tiller Drive. Read Zombie and you'll know what I mean. This is the kind of music they would listen to in the hours leading up to Tiller Drive..
Track Ten: Jad Fair – "The Zombies of Mora-Tau"
Check out the cover art to Zombie. See that little monster man? Jad Fair, of the band Half-Japanese, did that. That’s his artwork. You should go to his website and check out his other paper-cuttings too. They are quite lovely and intricate. In fact, once the cover for Zombie had been approved, I contacted Jad and purchased the original artwork. One of these days I’ll frame it, but for now it’s tucked safely away in my hoarder drawer. Listen to this track and tell me it doesn’t scare the living Hell out of you. My favorite part is the very end where he says “and they can run fast / I didn’t even think they could run / but they . . .” and his sentence is cut off before he has a chance to finish. I always think that the zombies got him before he coukd finish. Creepy and perfect.
Track Eleven: Jonathan Coulton – "Re: Your Brains"
This song I came upon thanks to the searchable prowess of Spotify. It's a novelty song specifically about zombies—very tongue and cheek about an office worker who has locked himself away from the zombies who are trying to reason with him to come out. It's pretty funny in a zombie-kind of way, but what makes it transcend its novelty status is the overall professional songwriting and unapologetic zombie violence. "Heya Tom, it's Bob, from the office down the hall / Good to see you buddy, how've you been? / Things have been O.K. for me except that I'm a zombie now / I really wish you'd let us in / I think I speak for all of us when I say I understand / Why you folks might hesitate to submit to our demand / But here's an FYI: you're all gonna die screaming." See? It's funny. Right? Jeremy would think it's amazing.
Track Twelve: Ramones – "Beat on the Brat"
I love the Ramones. Anything by the Ramones. Everything by the Ramones. But what seemed to be the best fit considering my novel was "Beat on the Brat." Jeremy runs around Baltimore daydreaming about fighting off the zombie apocalypse with a baseball bat—his weapon of choice. Whenever I heard this song, I couldn't help but picture a film version of Zombie where the movie opens on Jeremy standing in the middle of a suburban street holding a metal baseball bat by his side. It's a beautiful sunny day. No one else is around. No cars. Nothing. Then, at the end of the street, comes a throng of undead, sprinting out from a wooded area. Hundreds of them. They consume the suburban street and have their sights set on Jeremy, leaping over parked cars, tiny hedges, fire hydrant, each other. (Did I mention that everything is in slow motion?) Everything is in slow motion. And as the zombies reach Jeremy, he grips his bat tight, braces for impact, closes his eyes, exhales and begins swinging at every zombie head within in striking distance. This is Jeremy's zombie daydream soundtrack. Beat on the zombie!
Track Thirteen: The Jim Carroll Band – "People Who Died"
I worked on this novel through some seriously dark days—the last of which came during a stretch where I was living in the apartment of an in-law who had recently passed, helping to make final arrangements, when I received a call from my father in Baltimore that my grandmother had gotten very sick, very fast and only had days to live. If I wanted to say goodbye, it had to be now, so I sequestered myself to the deceased in-law's bedroom, his things still set about like he'd be back at any moment, and sat in his favorite reading chair, the imprint of his tiny frame still pressed into the cushions. What do you say to someone who is about to die? I had no idea how to begin, so I discussed the weather, something she always loved to talk about. There was no response. I told her that I had just been promoted at my day job. Nothing. I talked about my novel, Zombie, and how I was almost finished with the final revision. This is when she spoke: "Oh, Ross," she said. "I'm so proud of you." She didn't sound like Mommom. She sounded sick, a gravelly voice, probably from having been intubated for days. I told her I loved her may twenty times in a row. She cut me off. "Everything's okay. I'm not afraid anymore." We said our final goodbyes. When my dad came back on, he said that he couldn't believe it--she had been unresponsive for days until that call when she woke up. She passed away a few hours later.
I lost a lot of people during the writing of this book--some literally, some figuratively. I lost more than I can accurately put into words. Much the same way survivors of a zombie apocalypse do. And so every time this song came on while I was writing, it put it all into perspective for me. This song captures the mystery and pointlessness of death and dying. There is little grieving or sadness in this song. Instead, we experience the grit of death and brevity of life presented in such a way that it makes you want to run out into the streets and embrace anarchy because life is too short to play it safe.
Track Fourteen: Phantom Planet – "Raise the Dead"
Phantom Planet knows how to cook a damn rock song. There is no better or more appropriate final track to this faux-zombie-concept-album, or the associated writing process, than this song. Lyrically, zombies rise from the dead in this song, but instead of being demonic creatures returning to torment the world, these zombies are hopeful creatures, seeking redemption—fighting to escape the darkness, the evil, the awful things inside: "The dark is plaguing our hearts / Pumping through us and collecting in our deepest parts." These zombies seek redemption. The band mimics this frenetic energy with a fierce and fiery sound. It reminded me of a musical exorcist, ridding me of my demons through some good old fashion, Hallelujah rock-and-roll.
My cousin, Dominic Angelella, and I grew up together in a family where music, film and writing were a collective obsession. I looked to his dad, Michael Angelella—a talented working screenwriter and published author—for instruction and advice on writing from an early age, just as Dom looked to my father, Rick Angelella—Baltimore’s premier location sound and production mixer—for education on music history and introducing him to endless obscure bands. As we got older, we went our separate ways—Dom farther into music via songwriting and guitar, me farther into writing via fiction. We made a promise to one another: to always share our work with one another; and never letting the other give up on their creative dream.
At my Zombie book launch, Dom made a surprise appearance, walking through the door moments before my reading, having taken a bus from Philadelphia to New York. He gave me a hug and whispered in my ear, "You didn’t think I was going to break our promise?"
Dom has been an avid reader of my work for years just as I've been a fanboy of his own musical endeavors, most notably the now defunct Nouveau Riche led by Dice Raw and Nikki Jean, and a current side-project of his Elevator Fight fronted by Zoe Kravitz. But his new band Drgn King is what’s been killing me of late. While I was working on Zombie, a number of Drgn King demos came flooding in and I found myself writing to them endlessly, like a madman.
One of the tracks that I love is called "Paragraph Nights."
J. R. Angelella and Zombie links:
Dear Teen Me guest post by the author
Fiction Writers Review guest post by the author
My Bookish Ways interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
The Quivering Pen guest essay by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists