March 6, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
David McConnell's American Honor Killings is an exemplary work of narrative nonfiction, a deeply personal and horrifying look at the men who commit hate crimes.
Interview Magazine wrote of the book:
"Whether the killers were spurred on by personal slights to their idea of manliness or a fanatical ideology, there is a sense of shattered psychologies that haunts both these pages and the larger American landscape. The eyes of many men in American Honor Killings are hard to look into, but this excellent book makes a case for doing so—even if what’s there is not so easy to define."
Truthfully, I can't stand the music that best characterizes my new book, American Honor Killings. The book is about murders that have taken place over the past couple of decades in various hidey-holes of the American underclass, and while different kinds of music loom large in the lives of the people involved, none of it is the kind I love, nor is it even, I believe, very good.
To say the worlds I describe have a Dionysian aesthetic and mine is Apollonian isn't half of it. That makes me sound like a snob, or only a snob. I'll own up to some snobbery, but even I can recognize a transporting heavy metal song or an absorbing two-step, and I enjoy the ruminative unfurling of excellent rap. I may often find the Beatles too twee for my taste, but I admit "Helter Skelter" is a wonderfully intense, satanic tune.
If I'm starting to sound a touch professorial or twee myself, I'll come to a quick autobiographical explanation in just a moment. For now, I mention "Helter Skelter" (aspiring rock musician Charles Manson's theme song, of course) for a reason.
Music can go with anything, including murder, unfortunately. During an interview one of the killers I write about told me he'd committed murder to the sound of “heavy metal music.” With an accomplice he'd hijacked the victim's own car and killed him on the road. He wasn't any more specific about the music, so I tried to imagining what a commercial radio station in Oklahoma City, where the murder took place, would be playing in the middle of the night almost ten years ago. Maybe Metallica or AC/DC, but probably something a lot less interesting.
In another case, the victim used to go out two-stepping every Saturday night at a road house in Sylacauga, Alabama, not far from Birmingham. The man was gay but on the small town down low, often looking out for discreet sex. At that very road house he met the taciturn ex-con who eventually killed him. The killer doesn't remember when exactly they met, but it might have been one Saturday with Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Passionate Kisses" playing over the stomp and shuffle of cowboy boots. (I like Lucinda Williams' original version better, but they wouldn't have been playing that one.)
Another murder took place in Baltimore. Kids barely out of High School killed a fellow gang member thinking—wrongly it turned out—that he was into another guy, something beneath the homicidal dignity of their gang, the 92 Family Swans. Any car I hear with custom sub-woofers playing something like "Hit Em Up" by Tupac, I now think of the Swans.
These crimes against gay men often involved a racist and anti-Semitic subculture. All hate seems to go together. A California killer, a religious extremist, sent drawings from prison emblazoned with Nine Inch Nails lyrics (nine inch nails are the ones they traditionally used on Jesus, of course). Even more upsetting he'd been a fan of “white power” metal bands like RaHoWa, short for Racial Holy War. I learned there was a thriving underground of white supremacist goth metal bands.
OK. I mustered all the seriousness I could to write about what I thought was an incredibly important story. But I hated the music. As a kid I swore off almost all forms of popular music and delved into the historical western tradition. I guess there was a bit of snobbery involved at first, but I also felt hyper-sensitive when it came to music, and I preferred music's emotional power to be bound by tradition and rules and theory—constraints of the mind over the heart. In fact, just listening to music was almost too much for me, so I always tried to pick out whatever I loved on our piano at home, in a sense trying to control the overwhelming power of music.
I still play piano every day. And I still try to learn the music that affects me most. I suppose by now I'm what you'd call an accomplished amateur. Below is a list of some pieces I listened to and played during the three years I worked on the book. At first glance the list is the antithesis of the book and much more about the writer personally. But if you listen carefully, you might pick up remote connections—a different and better America in Barber, the healing comedy of Lipatti's brilliant Alborado del Gracioso, the sweetness of the famous Brahms waltzes, the elevated gravity of the Chaconne and the (crucially) controlled tragedy of the great Brahms Quartet/Sonata/Quintet in F minor. A lot of the music, especially the Ravel, is extremely difficult and my playing never came near mastery. Often, I could only get through with stops and starts, but I loved having the music under my fingers. Sometimes I'd get a letter from prison describing the most awful events with the most awful immediacy I'd ever experienced. At once, I stood up as vacantly as a robot and walked to the piano. I'd try to construct this music out of what seemed like nothingness itself. Looking back, my not-at-all-snobby intensity reminds me of someone building a house of cards during a wake. At least it was building.
1. Samuel Barber, Four Excursions #3 (Allegretto) Opus 20, Angela Brownridge
2. CPE Bach, Sonata in A minor, Wurttemberg Sonata #1 Wq 49, Glenn Gould
3. Maurice Ravel, Sonatine, Louis Lortie
4. JS Bach, Chaconne arranged for the left hand alone by Johannes Brahms, Leon Fleisher
5. Johannes Brahms, 16 Waltzes Opus 39, Dinu Lipatti
6. Frederic Chopin, Mazurka in C# minor Opus 6 #2, Charles Rosen
7. Jean Sibelius, Sonatine in F#minor Opus 67, Glenn Gould
8. Isaac Albeniz, Iberia #5 Almeria, Alicia de Larrocha
9. Claude Debussy, Preludes 1 #5 Les Collines d'Anacapri, Walter Gieseking
10. Maurice Ravel, Miroirs #5 Alborado del Gracioso, Dinu Lipatti
11. Johannes Brahms, Sonata for two pianos (Originally Quartet for Strings and later Piano Quintet in F minor) Opus 34bis, Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein
David McConnell and American Honor Killings links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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