March 23, 2015
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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
William Boyle's short fiction collection Death Don't Have No Mercy offers impressive character-driven literary crime stories.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Songs fill Death Don't Have No Mercy. I need to know what characters are listening to. It's really important to me. Is it an old scratched-up CD? A godforsaken cassette kept in a shoebox in the backseat of the car? A record tugged out of a battered sleeve where someone has scrawled their name in blue ink across the front? Who's playing what on the last lonely jukebox in the neighborhood?
This collection, if it plays right, plays like a mixtape full of brawlers and bawlers. These stories are dark comedies about broken men making bad decisions, and the song choices reflect that. This playlist could be a hundred songs long, but I've held myself to thirteen—some appear in the stories, some influenced me, some just match the tone of what I'm trying to do.
Rev. Gary Davis, "Death Don't Have No Mercy"
"Death Don't Have No Mercy" is an early story, written in 2007. I pretty often take a title of a song I love and play off of it. I was listening to this obsessively back then. I knew I wanted to write about bad luck and trouble and the meanness of the world. The lyrics hit so hard. No matter what you think, there's death waiting at the end of everything. Shut up and put your ear to the floor. Here comes big bad death. It doesn't care what you know or don't know. It'll cut you down blindly.
Johnny Cash, "Flesh and Blood"
There's a lot of Johnny Cash in this book. I was deep into loving his American records when I was writing the earliest of these stories. I go back to the Unearthed boxset often. I love the weariness of this late version of "Flesh and Blood." Like the best of Cash, it's haunted and haunting. You can hear a whole life. You can hear fear and love, all of it. It stings down to the bone because it's so goddamn true.
Junior Kimbrough, "You're Gonna Find Your Mistake"
Somewhere in the middle of writing these eight stories, I moved to Oxford, Mississippi. I came here as much because of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, as I did Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. I was after that rolling sound. I was after that raw brutal sound. "You're Gonna Find Your Mistake" could be the title of this collection, too.
Hank Williams, "Lost Highway"
I'll tell you the truth: the first version I ever heard of "Lost Highway" was Townes Van Zandt doing it on The Highway Kind—a CD I got out and renewed endlessly from the library in Austin when I lived there. I was in my early twenties before I heard Hank singing it. I mean, songs don't get much better than this. It's all about being a fucking terrible person, alone and lost in the world, and yet it's delivered with lightness in the lonesomest voice of all time.
Simon Joyner, "One for the Catholic Girls"
I go back to this song so much. It's here because I lifted a line from it for the title "Zero at the Bone": "I was jamming my hands in my pockets / I swear I was zero at the bone / If I felt my courage making a comeback / I was drunk, I didn't let on." There's a poignancy and loneliness here that approximates my Catholic school kid wanderings. I was living in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx when I wrote "Zero at the Bone," doing a lot of grown-up city rambling, headphones on, probably listening to Simon Joyner. It's about a washed-up boxer turned patsy. I wrote deep under the sway of a strange nostalgia for a city that didn't really exist anymore. The Bronx of the story is mythical and stylized. It's a black-and-white story with a black-and-white heart.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, "Teach Your Children"
Worst song to die singing.
R.L. Burnside, "Bad Luck City—Friend of Mine"
I've been to Bad Luck City. I like it. The best stories come from there. R.L. singing something as simple as "I love you, baby" has the force of a train launching off the tracks. This is the kind of song that makes you want to live just long enough to leave. My characters dream of leaving, but they're stuck. Shit luck levels the dumbest dreamers. You can keep Good Luck City.
Tom Waits, "In the Neighborhood"
One time, I was in Limerick, Ireland and "In the Neighborhood" came on the radio. I'd been a big Tom Waits fan for a few years at that point, but I'd never heard the song that way. I was lonely, freshly broken-hearted, and I was drunk. I had a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey from the Duty Free. The song ended, and I wanted to rewind it. I couldn't. I was drunk, and it was the radio. Something terrible came on next. I wanted "In the Neighborhood" back so bad. This was 1999. I didn't have any music with me. I had to live with the ghost of wanting the song. That feeling has informed who I am, the feeling of yearning for a radio moment you can't duplicate, like being homesick for a place you've never lived. The story "In the Neighborhood" started with this song and grew from it like weeds cracking a sidewalk.
Paul Westerberg, "Everything Goes Wrong"
Make songs in your basement. Sing about fucking up. Do it because you can't not do it.
Tyler Keith, "Crooked Road"
Take one part Jim Thompson, throw in a little Jerry Lee Lewis and some Dead Moon, that's Tyler Keith. I hope this is what's playing when we all go down in flames. This song is from Alias Kid Twist, his newest record, which I listened to nonstop as I revised and shaped the book. ("Crooked Road" starts around 3:25 in the video below but watch the whole thing. Tyler Keith rules.)
Jim Mize, "Empty Rooms"
I hope I can write a story half as good as this song one day. Another record that came out last year that I listened to over the summer as I punched these stories bloody and then cleaned them up. Haven't stopped listening to it since. Could've and probably should've also included "I Won't Come Back Again."
Magnolia Electric Co., "I Can Not Have Seen the Light"
I'm crying now. This song kills me. Jason Molina knew about death not having any mercy. You can hear that ache in his voice. He was always running from it. It caught him. I hate that. He died alone in a hospital from booze, a cell phone with his grandmother's number as the only contact in his pocket. "Every now and then, it happens again / I can't remember what comes first: Is it the hurt or knowing that it hurts?" That's one of those lines where Molina perfectly captures a question I have about being alive and being sad and not knowing what to do. I always thought of it as an answer song to Hank's "I Saw the Light," about being unable to open yourself up to the light or being fooled by the light. It's like that Joe Bolton poem, "Lines for Hank Williams": "There ain't no light, Minnie. There ain't no light." And there ain't.
Lou Reed, "The Bells"
The Bells is one of those underappreciated Lou Reed records that slipped by me for a long time. I finally dug into it a couple of years ago, as I was working on "Here Come the Bells" (and simultaneously reading Mike Tyson's Undisputed Truth), and this song came to be a soundtrack for what I was doing. I love its descent into New York City strangeness. Smell that strangeness. Feel it. That's the cold swirl of the cold city. You wanted out but this goddamn place is sucking you in. Let a nightmare be your best prayer.
William Boyle and Death Don't Have No Mercy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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