April 4, 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.
Gravesend is a dark, fascinating, and confidently written debut novel from William Boyle.
Tom Franklin wrote of the book:
"Gravesend is a taut exploration of the ways we hurt and save (or try to save) one another. With unforgettable characters, a fist for a plot and a deeply evocative setting, Boyle navigates alleys and streets with the best of them, Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Gravesend sort of started with Aesop Rock's Labor Days, an album that I listened to on repeat for the first few months I planned and worked on the book. Lou Reed is my favorite New York writer, and none of his albums are ever too far away from being in constant rotation for me - I revisited New York a lot during the making of the book, and Velvet Underground's Loaded, and I kept Reed's big book of collected lyrics, Pass Thru Fire, nearby for inspiration. I also looked to two all-time favorite bands, Sonic Youth and The Ramones, a lot - I wanted to capture some of what they captured about living in the city. Mostly, when I worked, I listened to Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's film scores, especially The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - it's usually (Aesop Rock aside) difficult for me to work to lyric-driven stuff and those albums run through me like blood.
The characters in the book listen to a lot of music, too. Conway, a washed-up stockboy at Rite-Aid who has never recovered from his brother Duncan's murder, loves Nirvana, The Replacements, The Ramones, and all the stuff he came up with in high school under Duncan's influence. Alessandra, a failed actress who has returned to Brooklyn from Los Angeles, loves X, David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Deer Tick, so much more. Eugene, the nephew of Duncan's killer, Ray Boy, is into hip-hop: Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Scarface. Songs are played on jukeboxes, stereos, iPods, in cars, and in bars. Songs surround these characters. Despite many of my teachers' best efforts, I'm always writing music into what I'm working on, and I try to be true to the characters. In an earlier draft of the book, for instance, I had Eugene listening to Madlib and that seemed off. And I had Conway listening to Minutemen instead of Nirvana in his car, which seemed too much like me just trying to fit Minutemen in and not getting Conway's taste exactly right.
I also have tons of songs that I think just capture the tone of the book. So, when constructing a playlist, I can't help but think in terms of it being a film soundtrack with certain songs playing over certain scenes for reasons ranging from atmospherics to providing emotional context.
I tried to mix all of these elements together here, picking sixteen songs that I think of as essential companions to Gravesend somehow. I've also included a link to a Spotify playlist I made for the book that includes all of these songs plus twenty-eight more.
"Daylight" by Aesop Rock
I think Labor Days is a pretty perfect record, and Aesop Rock sounds more like Brooklyn than anyone to me - raw and rambunctious, part verbal assault and part miracle of rhythm and movement. This is my favorite song of his, and Conway's story was developed around the notion of revisiting the same day over and over again. "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day / Put the pieces back together my way," Aesop Rock says in the chorus. I think that line speaks to Conway's rage, his fractured spirit, all the things that leave him lost on a dark road.
"Primitive" by The Cramps
The Cramps show up a couple of times in the book. Alessandra and Amy talk about Lux Interior, and Alessandra plays a Cramps song on her iPod while getting ready to go out. The song isn't named but I imagine it to be "Primitive," which also has other resonance with what happens between Conway and Ray Boy. Early in the book, Conway, chomping at the bit for Ray Boy, thinks (perhaps just to brush off how unprepared he is) that he "wants to be primitive" about going after his brother's killer. Conway is a character who, though we occasionally feel sympathy for him, becomes more and more primal over the course of the narrative. When Lux sings "What you expect, I'll never be," that drives home what I hope is the overall feel of Gravesend. Finally, I can't help but imagine this song playing over scenes of Conway driving up to Hawk's Nest in pursuit of Ray Boy, hands sweaty on the wheel, driven and defeated and damaged all at once.
"Never Really Ever Had It" by The Rock*A*Teens
My friend Jack Pendarvis introduced me to The Rock*A*Teens a few months before I started working on Gravesend. I couldn't believe I'd never heard them and pretty quickly counted them up there with The Replacements and X as one of the best bands ever. I had the killer mix that Jack had made me and I bought their five records immediately (and Chris Lopez's Tenement Halls release, too). I didn't often listen The Rock*A*Teens while I wrote but I was listening to them almost non-stop otherwise and the tone of the songs is definitely something that influenced the making of the book. This is one of my favorite R*A*T songs (from my favorite album of theirs, Cry) and the sound of it really, to me, gets at something about the "sound" of Conway and Alessandra, the way they're screaming on the inside. Lopez has the sort of lonesome howl that I hope comes across in the interiority of these characters.
"Hold On" by Lou Reed
New York isn't my favorite solo Lou Reed record but, goddamn, it really gets the city. It's dated in some ways that albums like The Blue Mask and Magic and Loss aren't but it's the New York I grew up in and the New York Conway, Alessandra, and Ray Boy grew up in: a city of hate crimes and filth and despair. "There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets" and "There's the smelly essence of New York down there" were early epigraphs for the book. Reed's also got the ability to lace his dark vision of New York with humor, which is something I hope I do in the book.
"Guess Who's Back" by Scarface, Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel
When we first meet Eugene, he's listening to this song on his headphones in the bodega where he's trying to shoplift. It's his favorite song from when he was a little kid, which means he was listening to it at seven, way too young no matter how good the song is. It introduces Eugene as someone lacking identity, trying to shape himself from what he's heard about his uncle's glory days and from the music that fuels his distaste for everything around him. On a bigger scale, I love the Beanie Sigel line "I hug the block like quarter water." He's talking Philly but it's just such a good growing-up-in-the-city image.
"Guilt" by Smoke
I lucked into discovering Smoke around 2001. A music writer I really like, William Bowers, included Another Reason to Fast and Heaven on a Popsicle Stick on a Best of the ‘90s list. I tracked the CDs down, as well as Benjamin Smoke's Opal Foxx Quartet release. I was way removed from the Atlanta scene of the ‘90s but something about it just struck a chord with me - it felt as unique and important as New York in the ‘70s. Like his pal Vic Chesnutt, Benjamin Smoke sings pain in a way I've never heard. Songs like "When It Rains," "Friends," and "Chad" just take it out of me. So does this one. When Benjamin sings, "The guilt's so thick in here, I can cut the air," man, I just start to weep. Or when he sings: "The way I see it, God wouldn't fuck you unless you fucked him first." Brutal, beautiful shit. Duncan - Conway's gay older brother, who died as the victim of a hate crime - is a character I love and think about often, even though he's not in the present action of the book. I think of this as his song, as representative of his tragic story.
"End of the Line" by Roxy Music
This song is playing at Seven Bar when Alessandra goes back to visit Amy late in the book. But it's bigger than that - Gravesend is one of the last stops on the D train and there's just generally lots of end-of-the-line imagery throughout the book. I think there's something about being from a last-stop neighborhood in New York City. You're way more isolated and that definitely contributes to the small town feeling that comes through. There's lots of rain/storm imagery in this song (which, obliquely, makes me think of the great, influential chase scene in James Gray's We Own the Night), which is true of many of the tracks on my larger Spotify playlist. Storms and crises go hand-in-hand. "End of the Line" is also, I'd say, about defeat in the same way that Gravesend is.
"It All Dies Anyway" by The Gits
The Gits are another band I came to through a circuitous route. I'd never heard them until I heard Richmond Fontaine's "The Gits" a few years ago, a song that tells the tragic story of Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata. I went on a Gits kick after that, and I'll often start my writing day off with "Another Shot of Whiskey." But "It All Dies Anyway" is another song that sounds like a screaming from the book's black heart. Zapata, like Chris Lopez, has one of those voices that just burns down to your bones with this honest, heartbroken quality. I don't think Alessandra's ever heard The Gits but she'd love them. So would Amy Falconetti. If Gravesend was a film, I'd want "It All Dies Anyway" to be the tagline on the poster.
"A B-Boy's Alpha" by Cannibal Ox
"My first fight was me against five boroughs . . ." Enough said.
"Not Dark Yet" by Bob Dylan
Daniel Lanois is responsible for several of my all-time favorite records - Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball, Willie Nelson's Teatro, and Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind - and I want Gravesend to sound like his records. It's a noir sound, that echoey, deep-in-a-cathedral loneliness - man, it busts me up. And Dylan's voice on these two records! I picked "Not Dark Yet" because that phrase actually shows up in the book (coincidentally) but it really gets at the atmosphere of doom I was going for. Dylan sings: "I was born here and I'll die here against my will / I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still / Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/ I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from / Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer / It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Hell, that's pretty much exactly what the book is about. C.P. Cavafy's great poem "The City" is one of the epigraphs and it gets at that same sentiment, that same feeling of brokenness and disillusion.
"The Dark Don't Hide It" by Magnolia Electric Co.
I might get choked up talking about Jason Molina. His death last year hit me hard. Since I discovered Molina's music in 2001, I've lived with his songs more than anyone else's. So, naturally, I looked to his records as guides when I sat down to write Gravesend. (I actually thought about calling the book The Dark Don't Hide It before settling so comfortably into the notion that it was actually all about the neighborhood.) Many of Molina's main concerns - darkness and light, the moon and stars, lies and truth, static and silence, leaving and staying, the human heart, history, blood, sickness, change, ghosts, doubt, death, and heaven - make their way into this song, but it's that admiration of the dark for being just what it is, for not trying to be something else, that I love so much. What's that line from The Princess Bride? Something like: "Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something." Molina knew that better than anyone.
"You Know You're Right" [demo] by Nirvana
Conway keeps an old Nirvana mix CD in his car and drives home drunk, blasting it. This is the song he's listening to. Originally, I thought it might be "I Hate Myself and Want to Die," but then, in my mind's eye, I saw Conway belting this one out and it felt right. Nirvana means so much to him - they were Duncan's favorite band and they represented everything that made Conway want to be a musician (though, of course, he failed at that too before falling away into nothingness).
"Youth is Wasted on the Young" by Tyler Keith & the Preacher's Kids
This song is so goddamn desperate. It's all about wasted potential and regret. I don't think the narrator has committed the sorts of crimes that Ray Boy and Eugene have but I hear their stories in Tyler Keith's bleeding-edges wail.
"Ride into the Sun" [demo] by Velvet Underground
Loaded was one of my first favorite albums. Of course, I had the The Fully Loaded Edition on CD, so the demos and alternate mixes were as important to me as the album tracks. This is Alessandra's song, as she rides the subway back from visiting Stephanie in the hospital. "It's hard to live in the city . . ."
"Shot Away" by Dead Moon
I'd like every book I ever write to be like a Dead Moon album. This song has an end-of-things quality. I won't say too much about the novel's last act, but I imagine this soundtracking one character's demise.
"Stormy Weather" by Reigning Sound
The book closes on Alessandra running away from the El, and I like to picture it as a ‘70s-style freeze-frame, like the end of The Outfit or something, and this is the song that would kick in just then and play over the final credits. It really gets at the spirit and tone of the book. It's dark - "Seems like it's raining all the time" - but also relaxed in a drunken way. I hope Gravesend'smore like a punk song than a sad bastard ballad, and I hope that the end, fucked up as it is, feels kind of triumphant the way this song does.
William Boyle and Gravesend links:
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