February 24, 2014
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.
Dave Housley's short story collection Commercial Fiction is filled with humor, pathos, and popular culture, with each story drawing inspiration from a specific television commercial.
Matt Bell wrote of the book:
"With Commercial Fiction, Dave Housley once again stakes his claim as the poet laureate of pop culture. No one else could take the cynical manipulations of commercials and extract from them so much humor and empathy and heart."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
As you'll quickly notice when you read the titles of these stories, this is a book of short fiction based on television commercials. In assembling this playlist, I'm trying to do what I tried to do when I wrote the stories, which is not so much to make fun of the source material (which would be too easy, and not even very much fun) but to use these mostly ridiculous commercials as jumping off points, to take them at face value and try to see what might happen if these people were actual people, with actual complicated, messy lives concerned with more than fast food and cars and beer and erectile dysfunction (spoiler alert: a good deal of the book was written during football season).
"Hurt" by Johnny Cash
This one is based on that Super Bowl commercial from 2013, where the man is training the horse, and then the horse seems to be conscripted by Budweiser and goes off to join the Clydesdales, and then the man goes to see the horse at a parade and they have this absurd reunion and everybody at your Super Bowl party cries a little and says the word "heartwarming." I thought it was the saddest thing I'd ever seen. This is a grown man whose only real relationship seems to be with this horse, which is then torn away from him by this giant corporation. And then he's just kind of moping around, sitting in his house and drinking Budweiser and thinking about the horse. And this horse, which is actually the corporate property of the Anheuser Busch company, is so important to this man, whose life has been shown to be completely barren in it's absence, that he goes to see it in a parade in a nearby city. This is just complete middle-age desolation. Change the guy's livelihood and it's a Raymond Carver story. I chose "Hurt" because I thought it was just about the saddest song I could think of, and if I wasn't so lazy, I would make an edited version of that commercial where this song was playing over the action, and with the reunion cut out and the real ending of this story added in, which is the man drinks himself to death on watery corporate beer and hates all the remaining days of his life because he traded the only thing he ever loved for a lifetime supply of Budweiser.
"Love Train," by the O'Jays
You don't realize how many commercials traffic in magical realism until you start writing stories based on them. There were a few whose premises, when you actually think about them, are so crazy trippy that they kind of defied narrative. For those commercials (this one and another for Subway, one for Canada Dry), I just took the base situation and extended it, or tried to write the story of how an actual person might react in the situation presented onscreen. Here is the plot of this Coors Light commercial: a man pulls the sun out of the sky and throws it into a wall, out of which a train appears, bringing along with it the sounds of "Love Train" by the O'Jays, and as the train charges past, people celebrate by dancing and drinking beer. That's really what happens in the commercial. For something that bonkers, I just need to sit back and use what I'm given, and that is "Love Train" by the O' Jays, which also happens to be a great song.
"I'm Amazed," by My Morning Jacket
This story is about hipsters eating onion cheeseburgers and playing horseshoes while listening to the Dave Mathews Band and John Mayer. Those first three things -- hipsters, cheeseburgers, and horseshoes -- were actually in the McDonalds commercial on which the story is based. I added in the DMB and John Mayer. In the story, a younger sister is allowed, for the first time, to hang out with her older sister and her beautiful hipster friends. "She is Harry Potter and I'm a muggle," the younger sister says, amazed at her luck. Of course, she finds out that these attractive hipsters are engaged in less than attractive, hipstery activities, but she still finishes the story in burst of greasy, secondhand glory. It was temping to choose something from Dave Mathews, and "Ants Marching" is in my stupid, idiot head as I type this, but I will save Largehearted Boy readers the pain and play it straight with "I'm Amazed" by My Morning Jacket.
"Shining Eyes," by James McMurtry
A year or so ago, Taco Bell tried to launch a new menu, "Cantina Bell," with "Celebrity Chef" Lorena Garcia. I think they were trying to compete with Chipotle, and I don't think it worked out very well. In the commercials, she brags about how she kept on pushing and pushing Taco Bell to change and make new, different, fresher food. This story imagines that scenario from the point of view of a food scientist who is on the other end of the deal, the one Lorena Garcia is pushing to "lose the burrito" or "do better." He is lonely, working too much, and under conditions both casually and brutally assigned by this distant celebrity who really doesn't understand what she's asking for at all. "Shining Eyes" is about that kind of one-sided, distant relationship. It's just the loneliest song -- "pigeons on the sidewalk won't stay out of my way, night clerk at the hotel won't give me the time of day, I can understand, he's a busy man." It also has a kind of self-flagellating feel that I think matches what's happening in the story, as the scientist imagines varying scenarios between him and Chef Lorena Garcia, all the while watching it grow darker outside as more insistent emails ding into his computer.
"Desperadoes Under the Eaves," by Warren Zevon
I think the first inkling of this project was the holiday Lexus commercial where some douchebag gives some other douchebag a Lexus with a giant red bow on it for Christmas. At this point, I like to at least hope that the phrase "What kind of douchebag would give somebody a Lexus for Christmas?" has rung out in every household in the United States. In this story, a woman is hungover in bed on Christmas morning, listening to her finance-man husband preparing breakfast for their children. He doesn't know that she knows they are actually bankrupt. She doesn't know he's bought her a Lexus for Christmas. "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" is one of my favorite Warren Zevon songs. I think the spirit -- doomed and self-knowing, with lines like "and if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will, I predict this hotel will be standing, until I pay my bill" -- suits the mental state of the wife as she wakes up and takes stock of the situation, and her reaction after her husband throws open the door on the Lexus and that big red bow.
"Lord I'm Discouraged," by the Hold Steady
This song probably could apply to any story in the book: as has been pointed out, although these stories were all based on commercials that promise otherwise, satisfaction generally eludes these characters. "Lord, I'm Discouraged" tells the story of a man's unrequited and unfortunate love for a junkie friend. The last line -- "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don't die" -- kind of says it all. In the story "Cialis," a woman of a certain age sits next to her husband in those famous matching bathtubs (so famous, in fact, that I discovered they are actually the logo for Cialis). He has taken a pill and while they wait for an erection that may or may not arrive, the woman muses about a lifetime spent with an overconfident man whose own body is now beginning to betray him. She grows increasingly agitated and curious about the state of their marriage, the impending erection, and the fact that they are sitting in tubs next to one another in a very public space. Although the stakes are certainly different, she's not going to find satisfaction any sooner than Finn's doomed narrator.
"Crazy," by Ray Lamontagne
In this story, a lonely man is being haunted by Deion Sanders and Peyton Manning, who are faeries that live in his refrigerator, making jokes about his tapenade and encouraging him to buy DirecTV. So: he's pretty sure he's going crazy, which is the reason for that song. I think it's interesting which songs make good covers, and "Crazy" launched a whole bunch of them. The Cee-lo/Danger Mouse version of this song is great, but I love Ray Lamontagne's slowed down version because it has such a creepy edge to it -- it feels to me like what it might be like to realize that you think Deion Sanders and Peyton Manning are faeries that live in your refrigerator, which is to say, that you are indeed going crazy.
"I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You," by Tom Waits
When I wrote this story, I was leading an online workshop for Barrelhouse. It was POV week (very exciting week!) and they were doing an exercise that asks them to write the same scene using three different points of view: first person, second person, third person. There was a Miller Lite commercial on at the same time, which kind of walked through a night at the bar with these three bros, The Hound, Mr. Easy, and the Fixer. In the commercial, one of them talks to some woman, and her big muscley boyfriend gets angry, and eventually they all make up over terrible lite beer. For my story, I did the first/second/third point of view exercise along with the rest of the class, and switched the "story" of the commercial to one where The Hound and Mr. Easy are having a kind of affair. The Tom Waits song doesn't necessarily suit the production of the original commercial, but it definitely matches up with what's happening in my version of it, with one person in love and one person just fooling around, and a third one who wishes they'd just figure it all out, either way, so they can relax and have fun and drink Miller Lite.
"The Whole of the Moon," by the Waterboys
Wrangler has a whole series of commercials where Brett Favre is playing touch football with a bunch of normal guys. This story is told from the perspective of one of those guys. They're in a small town. He's having trouble in his marriage. He's feeling like he's living kind of a small life. And then he starts playing touch football with this world famous quarterback. To the protagonist, Brett Favre is so important that he changes the scope of everything. He's this sun that casts a better light over the man's entire life. As the song says, "I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon." The song is rumored to be about C.S. Lewis, but in this version, sadly, it is about Brett Favre.
Dave Housley and Commercial Fiction links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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