September 13, 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.
Former Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels' debut novel Whispering Bodies is a clever, funny, and very modern take on detective fiction.
Patrick deWitt wrote of the book:
"A perverse, inventive, and unremittingly funny debut novel that ingeniously marries John Kennedy Toole to Raymond Chandler."
In Whispering Bodies, a reclusive and damaged man named Roy Belkin is forced by circumstances to leave his apartment to solve a mystery. This situation is played for laughs, most of what follows is extremely silly—but there is a bit of gravitas there also. When I wrote Whispering Bodies I wanted to separate the book from my musical life altogether. I am most well-known (in the public sense) as the singer for the late eighties punk band Operation Ivy and although I didn't write self-consciously, there was a subliminal desire to shake off the old hat. The story is almost anti-rock & roll: Roy Belkin hates loud noise of any kind, there are no popular culture references and absolutely nothing cool ever happens. Mainly, the book is meant to be funny.
That being said, it is impossible to separate out the influence of music. When I think about songs that are important to me the connections to passages in the book are immediate. In the descriptions below I make some assumptions about the meaning of lyrics but I am just talking about how I interpret them; I know these things are subjective.
Sector Zero, "Hiding in My Car"
Sector Zero was a one-off project featuring the now deceased garage-punk maestro, Jay Reatard (Jimmy Lee Lindsey), who played drums on this track. The song is a whiskey soaked howl that evokes visions of bottles in brown paper bags and grimy overpasses. In Whispering Bodies, Roy Belkin is a phobic man who performs obsessive rituals to build power for everyday chores. Once he hits the streets he finds out that all his fears of the outside world were completely well-founded. The fringy "Hiding in My Car" captures the paranoia of Roy's journey.
Pink Noise, Eight Hours
Eight hours of pink noise is an 8 hour long Youtube video. Pink noise is a bland rushing sound designed to help people with tinnitus or insomnia. It is a neutral sonic haze resembling TV static or a chorus of electric fans. If I had known about "pink noise, eight hours" when I wrote Whispering Bodies I would have had Belkin listening to it in the first chapter.
Crazy Band, "California Crybabies"
Crazy Band is an LA band that makes angular punk/indie music with unrestrained humor and accidental sounds left in the mix. The brooding intro in "California Crybabies" is a dark but funny take on the ominous. This song makes me wish I had three ears. Whispering Bodies is a mystery centered around a gruesome murder scene, but every character and every situation is meant to be farcical and the jokes are the real point. When I write, I aspire to the kind of vivid, nearly lunatic creativity that Crazy Band embodies.
Jerry's Kids, "Raise the Curtain"
Jerry's Kids played hardcore music in the early 1980's. Raise the Curtain is one of their slower songs but it is still white-hot and bristling with raw emotion. For me, this type of music was, and still is, a logical response to a world torn apart by war and horrific wealth disparity. Roy Belkin is an agonized observer of the human race whose perspective is like that of some of the early hardcore bands because he strongly distrusts civilization in its current form. Raise the Curtain is about inner darkness, a major theme of the book.
The Beach Boys, "Child is Father of the Man"
The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was a tortured prodigy whose problems probably stemmed from his relationship with his tyrannical father. Roy Belkin is a weirdo whose father is an unreachable savant. Wilson and Belkin are not quite a match but they exist on the same psychic landscape. "Child is Father of the Man" is a musical picture of that terrain—beautifully rendered but wet with loneliness.
The Saints, "Know Your Product"
On a cab ride through the city, Roy Belkin spots a billboard. He is appalled by it because the billboard's message is inane, vulgar and insulting. He hates all advertising. The Saints' "Know Your Product" is a vitriolic anti-advertising song, pure rock & roll that advocates for truth as much as it complains about truth's absence. Belkin would hate this song but agree with the principle. His anxiety over the stupidity of human commerce is a defining character trait.
Vangelis, Blade Runner
This soundtrack functions as more than just a score, it is the soul of the film it supports. The heavy eighties synthesizers might sound dated to some, but the composition has frightening depths that speak to the terror of human life in any era. Whispering Bodies is a comic novel but there is an intentional film-noir aspect to the story. Vangelis himself seemingly has similar values to Roy Belkin - he is a limelight avoider, considers the music business "nonsense" and has never had children.
Rites of Spring, Drink Deep
"Drink Deep" is a an early post-hardcore song about moments when deep, sublimated feelings are exposed to the light of waking consciousness. In Whispering Bodies, Roy Belkin has such a moment where he comes to understand that his father loved him in spite of the man's madness and detachment. The song lyrics say, "time to surrender, sweet surrender of all things in time, all things one place, one place."The passage in the book says "Flashes went off behind his eyes and everything solid broke into waves of warm black water."
Blondie, Dreaming is Free
Roy Belkin's infatuation with his devout neighbor is what propels the plot in Whispering Bodies. Without this longing, he would never go to the lengths he goes to in order to clear her name after she is accused of murder. The feeling is mostly conveyed through absurd encounters but it is the real inciting problem of the story. Dreaming is Free is the best song about romantic longing that I've ever heard — an absolute heartbreaker. Some people would listen to "Dreaming is Free" and wish they were in love, others would thank God that they weren't. Belkin is secretly the first type.
Cornel Cambell, The Gorgon
Cornel Cambell was a Reggae artist who began performing in Jamaica in the ska era of the late 1960s and later found his unique church-hymn-meets-dub style in the '70's. Lyrically, "The Gorgon" is a dancehall challenge to competing performers, but underneath the swagger there is a heart of mysticism, a song about the inner life's triumph over a world ruled by force and blind appetite. In Whispering Bodies, Belkin has a meeting with a priest where he experiences relief from his own neurosis — a brief stilling of thought. Like "The Gorgon," this passage in the story is not exactly religious but it has contemplative undertones — a moment when silence overcomes noise. If a song were to emerge from that kind of reprieve, it might be this one.
Jesse Michaels and Whispering Bodies links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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