May 11, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Casey Gray's debut novel Discount is an impressive satire of consumerism and corporate America.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Fans of Jonathan Franzen and T. C. Boyle, Sam Lipsyte and Jonathan Tropper will flock to Gray's hearty satire of rampant consumerism and corporate arrogance."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I write to find creative ecstasy: the moments when I am completely in control and out of control at the same time. They are rare and beautiful stretches that can span minutes or hours. For me, most of the time, writing is work, hours of preening and parsing. There is nothing magic about it. I don't have a genius IQ, and perfect sentences don't pour out from my fingers. The only preternatural writing talent I have is my capacity for solitude, for sitting alone in a room. But in those moments when it gets good to me, when my imagination finds that perfect harmonic reverberation with the text, I am outside of myself watching it happen. I am all heart and guts. I need music that takes me to that place. I need music that reminds me that I don't have to be perfect as long as I am true. I appreciate music more for what it lacks––guile, artifice, and contrivance––than what it possesses. I'll take authenticity over virtuosity every time. This list represents the book well, I hope––both in its content and its tone.
Discount, is set in a big-box megastore in Southern New Mexico. The novel follows customers and employees as their lives converge and affect each other in profound and surprising ways. It deals with the intersections of labor and consumption and poverty and violence.
"Sixteen Tons," Merle Travis
This is a good place to start, I think. Is there a better song about work and debt and futility? "You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." I worked at a big box store before the financial crisis, when they were throwing credit at everyone. Credit card debt was a necessary supplement to our incomes. Almost everyone I knew there was struggling to meet minimum payments, and they'd be so broke after meeting them that they would have to put those last few bottles of formula or whatever on the card at the end of the month. This song seems to make a heartbreaking joke out of that situation, and, hell, what else can you do? I love this song.
"Sweet Momma Rollin' Stone," Scott Dunbar
Dunbar performs this song with total creative agility. His is in control and out of control. He uses repetition to create tension, and then releases it like a DJ. And it seems to tap into every emotion he has at the same time: joy and anguish, lecherousness and tenderness. I think it jibes with Discount's opening scene well.
"Send Me the Pillow You Dream On," Charlie Feathers
The first chapter of Discount is titled "Wanting/Not Having." The fact that Ernesto and Claudia share a spot on the bed (occupying it at different times) creates an agonizing distance and a profound intimacy. In this song, Charlie Feathers asks the object of his affection to send him her pillow. He is resigned to the fact that he can't have her, but he needs something.
"Hard Times," Jessie Mae Hemphill
God, I love Jessie Mae Hemphill. And I love sad songs that are percussive. The song is about desperation, and, rather than pout and bleat, she resists the despondency---she beats it back with her guitar. I listened to her album, She Wolf, almost exclusively while writing Discount. I tried listening to other things. I listened to Appalachian Spring for a while, but I kept coming back to her. It just worked. It kept my fingers marching over the keys.
"Working For The Man," Roy Orbison
There are two points of view in this song. "The Man" orders his workers to, "Forget about your women and that water can." He wants total attention and total effort. The other character, the worker, understands that no amount of backbreaking labor is gong to get him ahead. How does he wind up, at the end of the song, getting ahead, finally becoming "The Man?" He gets with the boss man's daughter. There's some truth here, I think. You can work until all your blisters pop, but the best way to get ahead is probably charm.
"Say Boss Man," Bo Diddley
"Got nineteen kids at home gotta eat/ eighteen of ‘em need shoes on their feet?" Being a parent is daunting. I only have two kids, but sometimes it feels like it might as well be nineteen. The need always seems greater than the resources. I was getting my son ready for school last week, and almost none of his clothes fit. It seemed like he outgrew them overnight. I wasn't sure how I was going to put gas in the car, and then there's this shit to deal with. For the employees of the Superstore, the stress is intense. A job as a checker may not seem like a of of pressure to some, but, when there are mouths to feed at home, the stakes are always high.
"Be Thankful for What You Got," William DeVaughn
In the novel, Ernesto is trying to decide between a life as a smalltime criminal and a life punching the clock for the Superstore. This has to be his theme song. The song's message is explicit: "Be thankful for what you've got." What I love about this song is that it doesn't ignore the allure of the great big Cadillac with gangster whitewalls and TV antennas in the back. When DeVaughn sings, "Diamond in the back/sunroof top/Diggin' the scene with a gangsta lean," it's a siren song. This dream, or some version of it, has pulled many young lives onto the rocks.
"Turbulence (Remix)" Deltron 3030
....A song about the modern world, the disparities and injustices that plague it, the lies and half-truths that obfuscate it, and the conformities and norms that shape it. Deltron 3030 says what I struggled to say in 313 pages in three minutes and thirty-three seconds.
"Ruff Ryders' Anthem," DMX
This is Superstore CEO Ken Provost's theme song, even though I doubt he would have ever willingly listened to it. "Stop/drop/shut ‘em down open up shop," could be the Superstore's mission statement. It's about naked, unapologetic ambition, taking shit over by any means necessary. I hadn't listened to this song since like '98. When I heard it again, I forgot all about Celebrity Rehab and that shitty movie he did with Steven Segal. I'm not mad at you, DMX. This is still a good song.
"Let Me In," T-Model Ford
At a certain point in the novel, there is a man on the other side of a door. He is full of vitriol and ill intent. In this song, T-Model Ford is the terrifying man at the door: high, angry, and out of control. He is not pleading; he is demanding. Jesus Crist, Stella, do not open that door.
"Bloody Hammer," Roky Erickson & the Aliens
The Evil One is one of my favorite albums. The demons in these songs are not metaphors; they are actual otherworldly forces. Erickson's battle with mental illness has been well documented, and, listening to the album, one gets the sense that his brain is a terrifying place. I won't simplify the character of Bicho with a diagnosis; I'll only say that he is off in a way that everyone sees but nobody can quite explain. On the bonus CD, Erickson claims that the song is about an urban legend, but it also seems to deal with pervasive thoughts of paranoia and violence.
"Don't Just Do Something," Spiritualized
I can hear this song playing while Keith sits in the waiting room. The line, "I'm good for nothing/nothing is good enough for me," seems at the heart of his angst. The celestial tone of the song suggests epiphany, but the lyrics only pull the listener deeper into meaninglessness. If there is a realization to be found here, it is a terrible one.
"Huapengo Torero," Lola Beltran
Lola Beltran sings with so much gusto that I imagine her passing out at the end of every song. This corrido is about a young boy who idolizes a bullfighter. One night the bullfighter finds him crying and wipes his tears away with his cape. The boy is so moved (possibly humiliated) that he decides to sneak into the corral at night and fight a bull himself. I think of young Conejito whenever I hear this song: naïve, and full of romantic and perverted ideas about manhood.
Casey Gray and Discount links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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