March 18, 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.
D. Foy's novel Made to Break is as challenging as it is rewarding, and his inventiveness in form and language coalesces into a dark and impressive debut.
LitReactor wrote of the book:
"Like the last four Two Dollar Radio titles I’ve read, Made to Break has the pacing of a breakneck drugstore thriller and doesn't cling to any single genre. It plays around the edges of gothic horror and locked room mystery. Foy has a poet's gift, blending the everyday with surrealist prose, but not so surreal that he loses the reader’s attention. Overall, Made to Break is an entertaining, at times artful piece of pulp trash (and I mean pulp trash in the most complimentary way) that will leave the reader spinning."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
At its heart, to use an expression from Jedediah Purdy, Made to Break is a union of thought and dirt, what I've always called "gutter opera." The people in this book are in many ways degenerate scumbags, every one of them having sunk deep into the muck only to remain there for longer than a human should feel cool admitting they have. And yet in the midst of their misery and despair, these people somehow find ways to sing, even if their song, like the blues, cries only of misery and despair. This, for me, is the basis of salvation, what Beckett, for instance, makes so clear in all his work, but especially in efforts like Waiting for Godot, in which two men, lost and knowing they're lost, unable to find meaning in life itself, find meaning in their endurance of it and, more, in their shared fate, which, being mutual, is imminent with hope, however thin.
A lifelong music fanatic and musician manqué besides, I'd conceived of Made to Break from the start as a score in prose—its working title was for a long time Mud Song. What I hadn't realized until now, however, invited to contribute to this estimable series, was just how thoroughly suffused with music the narrative is, and in how many ways. From start to finish, the tale features nearly 60 songs or references to musicians, bands, dances, and songs, all but one (the band AJ speaks of in the opening chapter, Ring Finger, is apocryphal) reflective of the music I'd been immersed in up to and during the time I wrote the book, across a pretty wide range, too, I'd say, from Bauhaus to Helen Reddy to Soundgarden to Bobby McFerrin to Nino Rota to Johnny Cash, James Brown, Duran Duran, Iggy Pop, Lil Hardin, The Pixies, Jelly Roll Morton, and, yes, nuts though it be, that old Vegas stalwart, Don Ho. Of course I hope the prose itself sings, but will gladly take the blame for its falling short on that count in the ears of some or all—the work is filled with actual music that never fails. Really, there's scarcely a passage in the book that, were it a film, isn't supported to one degree or other by a soundtrack.
As you listen to the playlist I've created, keep in mind as well that the action in Made to Break unfolds across the day and a half before New Year's Eve 1996. It's a time, in other words, that for many today is a relative Stone Age. AJ and Hickory and Dinky and Basil and Lucille don't have a cell phone among them, much less a smart phone, much less an iPod or crappy gizmo for mp3s. Although by then we'd on the whole dispensed with both vinyl and cassettes in favor of that fancy new technology called "compact disc," it wasn't seldom you'd see these guys popping in a tape—tape, after all, comprised most of their considerable collections, and CDs in their infancy were far from cheap—then press, not tap, an honest-to-goodness play or rewind or fast forward button.
And if the sounds in this book are raw, it's because fine back then is raw by ears today. Walkmans and boomboxes and middling hi-fis were chiefly the deal and analog was still the way of most things, though in hindsight, no doubt, we can count the days left to it almost on our fingers and toes.
1. Bauhaus: "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (1979)
This song, at its place in the narrative, does a lot of work on a number of fronts. It sets a mood, it prognosticates, it ridicules, it foils. Its absurd comedy—Bela Lugosi, to name just one facet of it, isn't a vampire but an actor who plays a famous vampire in a mode that's now considered melodramatically crimson, a cartoon, as it were—provides a silent shill for the absurd comedy, none of it light, that's in the narrative itself. But what's really, really, really cool is how the incomparable Barbara Browning, noting the song in the book, jumped up in all of her wisdom and mastery and with her ukulele and sweet voice made a cover of this piece that I now love almost as much as the original. You have to listen to it, and then you have to listen to the rest of the music she makes. (I'd also highly recommend that you read her books, too, which are at once love songs for the twenty-first century and condemnations of it.)
2. Helen Reddy: "I Am Woman" (1975)
Shortly after AJ and Dinky have been rescued by the old man Super, Dinky shouts, "I am man! Hear me roar!" This is a play on Helen Reddy's ginormous hit of 1975, when feminism—in its second wave—was taken seriously enough that a song like this could blow through the charts. "I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore . . ." go the lyrics. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the tune had for many become a joke. In this case, Dinky's making fun of both it and himself, with all the self-deprecating irony that earned him his name.
3. Soundgarden: "The Day I Tried to Live" (1994)
The album "Superunknown," by Soundgarden, is the aural nerve center of Made to Break. So much of the action is set to and affected by it, running song-by-song as it does through the narrative, from beginning to end. "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is playing when AJ and Dinky are ordered to brave the mounting storm for a couple bags of ice, and (on the heels of "Limo Wreck") "The Day I Tried to Live" is playing when they return, having suffered an accident trying to avoid a landslide. By the time the song's over, its refrain—"one more time around"—has turned from encouragement to dread to mockery and back, spinning on, like the buddies where they stand, again and again and again . . .
4. Jelly Roll Morton: "Creepy Feeling" (1938)
Jelly Roll Morton is a legend en par with Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and Betsy Smith. While he may not have single handedly invented jazz, he himself liked to claim as much and was in truth one of its earliest hierophants. But almost as good as his music was his life, a masterpiece of dandyism, philandering, tomfoolery, grift, pettifogging, gambling, braggadocio, and superstitious mumbo jumbo. Listen to his stuff, and—if you're interested, and have a minute to spare—google him while you're at it.
5. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: "Stagger Lee" (1995)
Nick Cave has always been among the gods in my musical pantheon, but when I saw him and the Seeds perform last year at NYC's The Beacon, he blew me away on a hundred different fronts, and in the process did the same to the artists around him. His rendition of "Stagger Lee," as it happens, was the climax of the show. No amount of hyperbole can equal the experience, really. Listening to that song, watching Cave rock it, amounted to wandering dumbstruck for a time through the gnarliest, nastiest, darkest, and most gorgeous of the gardens in this world's cultural utopia. For me, because of that show, Cave now stands alone on the peak of Olympus, and my decision to use "Stagger Lee" in Made to Break was nothing if not ratified and sealed.
"Stagger Lee," by the way, is an American folk song over a hundred years old, about the killing of a man in St. Louis in the winter of 1895, by "Stag" Lee Shelton. Published first in 1911 and recorded in 1923, it's been covered by many ever since. Cave's version is without doubt my fave.
6. The Rolling Stones: "Angie" (1973)
This song, from The Stones album Goats Head Soup, contributes to AJ's panegyric about what he and his buddies call "The Comedown," that haze of sadness and remorse that follows a devastating binge. It's no surprise that Keith Richards wrote most of this song while he was doing the same, suffering through withdrawal as he tried yet again to kill the dragon in a rehab in Switzerland. Everything about this song is beautiful and tragic in the most Aristotlean way—rending, melancholic, terrible, inexorable, redemptive, cathartic, wise—and suffuses the interior of AJ's lament with just these airs, or so anyway I hope. But the song is also about doomed love, and the fragility that dooms it, another of the concerns at the heart of Made to Break.
7. Bobby Darin: "Mack the Knife" (1958)
Kurt Weil and Bertold Brecht wrote this murder ballad as part of their moritat, The Threepenny Opera, in 1928, and yet it didn't have any success in the States until Louis Armstrong released his version in 1956. Among the many others by the likes of him, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Marianne Faithful, and even Nick Cave, the one I like best, however, and which always plays in my mind—Sinatra himself touted it as "definitive"—is by Bobby Darin. The lyrics say it all: "Now the sidewalk, oooh Sunday morning—uh huh/ Lies a body just oozing life / Someone's sneaking round a corner / could that someone be Mack the Knife?"
8. Kiss: "Rock and Roll All Nite" (1975)
I don't care what anyone says—shoot me in the head—but I love this song so much I had to give the same love to Basil, who carries a guitar pick got from Kiss's lead singer Paul Stanley when he flicked it from the stage during a performance at San Francisco's now-defunct Cow Palace of "Rock and Roll All Nite." The song's refrain—"I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day"—pretty much nails the lifestyle that the people in Made to Break, well into their thirties, still can't seem to quit.
9. Lil Hardin: "It's Murder" (1936)
Not too many of us remember her today, but Lillian "Lil" Hardin was big in her time, a piano player, singer, and band leader in her own right, and, to boot, the better half of Louis Armstrong. She started out "demonstrating" sheet music at a Chicago music store, where, coincidentally, I guess (I don't believe much in coincidence), she met the man of the day himself, Jelly Roll Morton. "The place," she said about the experience, "was rocking and the people were jumping up, and I was jumping higher than anybody. I imitated him after that. I only weighed 85 pounds, and from then on you could hear all 85 of them." Old Satchmo, as Armstrong is also known, owes a good deal to Lil Hardin. She encouraged him to leave the band he was second trumpet in, and then again, later, to go out on his own, at which point she managed and promoted him. Her song, "It's Murder!" is an early jazz diamond, and, it seemed to me, yet another perfectly suited to action and themes of Made to Break. "Now if I tell him that he's not mine, he turns into Frankenstein, makes shivers run up and down my spine, that's murder!"
10. Nino Rota: "La bella malinconica" (from the soundtrack for La Dolca Vita) (1960)
The song AJ refers to in Made to Break isn't "La bella malinconica," but what the few people I've found who refer to it call "The Clown Song." Fellini's big on clowns, and so am I, not aesthetically but philosophically, and particularly those cases where the wisdom of the clown (or as often the fool) is seldom recognized till after it's too late. The soundtrack for La Dolce Vita, however, doesn't include "The Clown Song," just the tune that, from all I can tell, it's a variation of. Whatever the case, I love every song in the film, but that "The Clown Song" is actually performed on camera, by a clown with his retinue of balloons in a nightclub called The Cha Cha Cha, before an audience that includes Paparazzo (eponym for today's paparazzi), Marcello (played by Marcello Mastrioni), and Marcello's father, from whom Marcello has long been grudgingly estranged, is especially meaningful to me. Our knowing that this scene heralds another, in which Marcello's friend Steiner kills his children before committing suicide, renders it that much more plaintive.
11. Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack): "Sweet Transvestite" (1975)
"Sweet Transvestite" isn't in the book proper, but it's there in spirit, for sure. Tim Curry's performance as Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show made him, on one hand, an instant cult celebrity, and, on the other, a touchstone for the Goth movement of the 1980s. One of the scenes in Made to Break features three Goths, each of whom AJ describes as a "Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show-Type goobus" dressed top to bottom in black and "glopped up with lipstick and mascara." When AJ gets thrashed by Lucille a few minutes after he's noticed the goobs at a nearby table, they ridicule him with the sort of nerdy, brainiac humor that Frank himself would hand out trophies for.
12: Tom Waits ""Swordfishtrombones" (1983)
Futility, yet another of the themes that runs through Made to Break, is the wounded heart that drives "Swordfishtrombone," as well. The lyrics from the following stanza say loads about the people in the book, but especially about Dinky:
He packed up all his expectations
He lit out for California
With a flyswatter banjo on his knee
With a lucky tiger in his angel hair
And benzedrine for getting there
They found him in a eucalyptus tree
Lieutenant got him a canary bird
And skanked her head with every word
And Chesterfielded moonbeams in a song
And he got 20 years for loving her
From some Oklahoma governor
Said everything this Doughboy does is wrong
13. The Pixies: "Stormy Weather" (1990)
Appearing where it does in the book's narrative, "Stormy Weather" can't be seen as anything but cynically ironic, a thumbed nose, as it were, to the storm that's trapped the gang in Made to Break and brought them to the verge of collapse. Eric Obenauf, my publisher, noted in an interview that this book is riddled with gallows humor, and he was right. If this ditty isn't that, I don't know what is.
14: "Auld Lang Syne" (c. 1798)
Most of us know this ballad as a puzzling thing of yore that old farts sing on New Year's Eve. This is true, but before it had attained its popularity in the late 1920s, when Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians played the song on the radio just after midnight on New Year's Day (the band's version is still the first song of the new year played at Times Square) it was a poem by the eighteenth-century Scotsman Robert Burns about the nostalgia incited at the memory of friends who are no longer with us—auld lang syne meaning "old long since" or, roughly, "times gone by." The song's beginnings are remote. Burns himself took most of his poem, as he wrote in a letter, from an old man. Another version, though, by James Watson, was printed in 1711, inspired by the loss of his love, "Jo." But regardless of its sources and significance, there's obviously something about the piece that keeps it alive. We still sing it, despite the fog that across the years has held its meaning secret. For me, it's the weepy, beautiful sadness of its melody mixed with, sung just once a year, its explicit suggestion of endings and beginnings, the falling apart that precedes the rebuilding in its wake, and the making of sense needed for that building. Along with that of the tunes from "Superunknown," this is the spirit that drives AJ's story as much as any other. At bottom, it's what the Made to Break is all about.
D. Foy and Made to Break links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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