March 14, 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.
Set in in gritty south Florida, Alex Segura's debut novel Silent City is tightly plotted noir fiction filled with true-to-life characters.
The Miami Herald wrote of the book:
"Segura's command of tight plotting and realistic characters keeps this energetic debut on track."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The relationship between music and Silent City is front and center, from the first page on. It kicks off with a Dylan quote from "Idiot Wind," which a dear friend of mine had described as her favorite song lyric ever, and which really encapsulated what the book is about – that sense of anger, rejection and desolation we all feel at one point or another toward a former lover or life itself: "I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me."
When I set out to write my debut novel, Silent City – a mystery that takes place in my hometown of Miami, featuring a washed up journalist Pete Fernandez as the stumbling "detective" – I had a very clear vision of who Pete was. His life was a mess – he was losing his grip on every aspect of it. His father had just died. His fiancée was gone. He was about to get fired from a job he hated. He was drinking himself to death. He had hit bottom.
A lot of what I was listening to while writing seeped into the story. Pete was a music fan. He'd played in bands in college. He blasted the Talking Heads at work to zone out. "Waitress in the Sky" was his ringtone. He waxed nostalgic about the punk shows he used to go to, before he grew up.
While I didn't listen to music while writing – I tend to keep the noise level down and distractions to a minimum – I did listen to a lot of music while thinking about the book, and the songs listed below helped me not only map out where the story was going, but also visualize the key moments of the book. It got to the point where I couldn't hear Against Me!'s "Miami" without thinking of it playing over a credit sequence for my imagined Silent City movie. On trains, laying in bed in the dark, cleaning the apartment – I played music nonstop and collected the songs that resonated with me and, in turn, became part of the fabric of the story.
A lot of the songs that inspired me in the writing of the book didn't make it into the pages, but Silent City has its fair share of musical references – which comes with its own challenges. Are you bragging about your record collection by mentioning that obscure b-side? Does the song serve the story or add to the scene? Early drafts of Silent City felt like the former and in revising, I strived for the latter. But I'm not the final judge. Either way, music is part of the story, from the Motown playing as Pete screws up a romantic moment, the Bob Seger blasting through a Key West dive bar or the Pixies' "U-Mass" blasting through his headphones as he spirals away from his terrible newspaper gig.
Both groups of songs – the ones name-checked in the novel and those I collected while pondering the book, share the same feelings: of loss and being lost, of failure, of missed opportunities or shattered love and painful regrets. The songs point you to the grays of life – which is very much what the book is about, tied together by a nice mystery bow.
"Here She Comes Now," The Velvet Underground
"Fear is a Man's Best Friend," Billy Bragg
"Gun," John Cale
"These Days," St. Vincent
"Street Hassle," Lou Reed
These songs all link together for of a few reasons – the most obvious being personnel. Reed and Cale were of course members of the Velvet Underground, Bragg is covering Cale and St. Vincent is covering original Velvets member Nico. Tonally, they hit the perfect mix of danger, sadness and longing. The quiet, droning build-up of "Here She Comes Now" – with the repeated refrain of "If she ever comes, now now" – sets the tone for Silent City perfectly, and the others in the mini-VU family of tunes augment the initial song's feeling of solitary longing and lust to it's natural conclusion in Lou's epic song-poem, "Street Hassle."
"Red Tide," Neko Case
"I want to go back and die at the drive-in," Case sings, as this initially somber song builds to its crescendo – and her longing for a simpler time as she realizes the darkness of today. The song brought to mind the feeling of driving down the street at three in the morning, windows down, slightly buzzed and wondering what went wrong.
"Bartender," Regina Spektor
Pete drinks a lot in Silent City. The book serves up a veritable tour of current or closed Miami watering holes. This song is one of the few that I find really brings to life that feeling of desperation – as the bar shuts down around you and all you have left is your last round, a bartender trying to close up and a jukebox that's out of money.
"I Want You," Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Unabashed desire, anger, hate and jealousy rolled into one creepy song – a scorned man at his vilest. But it's the hint of hope – the pathetic glimmer that only the singer sees as he repeats the title, with the razor-sharp instrumentation of Costello and the Attractions at their final, most dangerous peak as a band – that elevates this above most breakup songs. This is musical catharsis, and it reminded me of vodka-soaked epiphanies and late-night calls that should have never been made – things that happen to Pete all-too-often in the book.
"Don't Forget Me," Harry Nilsson
The lurching, sloppy piano coupled with Nilsson's shaky, whiskey-coated voice, asking for the listener to not forget him just screamed "defeat" and the resignation you can only feel when you've exhausted all hope and lost any desire to change that. One of the loneliest songs I've ever heard.
"Miami," Against Me!
Silent City is about the Miami people don't see – beyond the glitz, glamour, palm trees and umbrella drinks. It's about the dirty alleys, dangerous neighborhoods and cultural mash-up that make Miami such a wonderful and unique place. This song drags you into that version of Miami kicking and screaming.
Alex Segura and Silent City links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists