July 30, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jordan Harper's collection Love and Other Wounds is filled with dark and intelligent stories, truly modern literary noir.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"What sets Harper apart is his ability to deliver genuine literary epiphanies...Harper delivers tension, action, black humor, sex, and violence-but, above all, characters we quickly know, understand, and still remember even after their brains have painted the walls."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I used to be a music journalist, back in a different, drunker life. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when I sat down to write this and I realized how much of my fiction is heavily, and sometimes explicitly, rooted in music. But going through the stories that make up Love and Other Wounds, it was easy to tie songs to each story. What follows is a sampler of songs that influenced the book. It was hard not to keep going.
"Gardenia" by Kyuss
"John ran through the high desert, away from his grave." That's the first line of "Agua Dulce," the first story in Love and Other Wounds. The story involves skinhead killers, wildfires in the desert, gunfights and stampeding cattle. The only possible soundtrack for the story is Kyuss, the great California high desert stoner rock band. It's all fuzzy guitars and gritty growling vocals and pounding drums. It's the music the high desert would make itself if it had access to Marshall Stacks.
"Prove It All Night" by Bruce Springsteen
I'm a sucker for armed robbery love stories. For Bonnie and Clyde. For Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise. For the whole concept of ride or die lovers. My story "Prove it All Night" was written for Trouble in the Heartland, an anthology of short stories based on Bruce Springsteen songs. The song isn't explicitly about armed robbery, but it sure sounds like two lovers planning an all-night armed robbery spree. Or sex. But why not both? That's the route I decided to go with.
If you're going to listen to the song, find the black and white footage of Bruce and the E Street Band playing it in Passaic in 1978. There might be a better band in the world than the E Street Band, but not that night.
(Honorable mention to "Free Money" by Patti Smith, a song more clearly about love and armed robbery, and one I want to use as a title for a future project).
"If You Want to Get To Heaven" by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils
I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, Queen City of the Ozarks, and home of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. They had a couple of hits in the 70s (their biggest, "Jackie Blue," is the inspiration for both a character and a bar in Love and Other Wounds). Most of the world has forgotten their brand of Southern rock. But walk into any lowdown drinker's bar in the Ozarks hills and there's a good chance you'll still find "If You Want to Get to Heaven," on the jukebox. "If you want to get to heaven/you've got to raise a little hell" is a good enough criminal's slogan as any, which is why I name-drop it in "I Wish They Never Named Him Mad Dog."
"Shakey Dog" by Ghostface Killah
Ghostface Killah is one of the best crime-fiction writers in America today, and "Shakey Dog" is his masterpiece. It's a compact tale of a drug-spot robbery gone wrong, but it's the language and imagery that makes the story shine. Ghost does action scenes with a directness that James Ellroy would envy. My short story "Playing Dead," inspired by a true story of a crack-house bathtub massacre, takes place in the same New York City drug circles as "Shakey Dog."
(Honorable mention to Despot's "House Made of Bricks," dizzying drug-game wordplay from one of the best rappers out there.)
"Down in a Willow Garden" by the Kossoy Sisters
There are two threads of crime story-telling that are deeply their way through American culture. The first is the bandit tale, the stories of outlaws who live outside the law, the ones we secretly (or not so secretly) envy for their freedom and strength. You see this in everything from tales of Billy the Kid to The Godfather to Scarface and "Trap Queen." The second thread is the murder ballad, songs of tragic violent death. The dead are often young women. We see this thread in folk music, in Silence of the Lambs and Twin Peaks, in our cable-news obsession with murdered dead (white) girls. And you'll never hear a murder ballad more beautiful than ones sung by The Kossoy Sisters, a pair of identical twins who sang in eerie soprano close harmony, lending an almost supernatural tone to their covers of traditional American death songs. As if the ghosts were singing.
My stories tend more towards bandit tales than murder ballads, but when I delve into the topic, as I do in "Beautiful Trash," I listen to a lot of music like the Kossoy Sisters.
(Honorable mention to "Deep Red Bells" by Neko Case, a gorgeous modern murder ballad told from the point of view of women murdered by a The Green River Killer.)
"I Don't Care About You" by Fear
Sometimes I try my best to use crime fiction to explore something dark inside us and all that good stuff. But sometimes, like with my bank-robbery-gone-wrong story "Plan C," I want my crime fiction like I like my punk rock: Nasty, brutish and short. Fear songs are equal parts sugar and gasoline, catchy hooks and misanthropic sludge. Good stuff.
"Doom-Mantia" by Electric Wizard
When I write, I like to listen to music as loud as common decency allows. I've got a four-thousand-song playlist on Spotify (link on request) made up of post rock and drones and electronic music. But when I really want to get work done, I turn to Electric Wizard. It's the only writing music I use that has lyrics, but the lyrics are so fuzzed out and laid into the avalanche of guitar noise that it never gets in the way of my thinking. Electric Wizard is a band out of England who likes Black Sabbath and drugs and cheap horror movies. They put all three things in a blender then tried to make their guitars sound like the blender. They are awesome. "Doom-Mantia" is heavy like a spoonful of black hole. It's the perfect soundtrack for the prison-yard nastiness of "Heart Check."
"Hurt" by Johnny Cash
Oh great, here come the waterworks.
The final story in the collection, "Johnny Cash is Dead," is also the oldest. I wrote it after the death of my grandfather Kenneth Crosswhite, and not too long after the Man in Black died himself. Johnny Cash and my grandpa were always tied up in my head, even before they died. Grandpa was an old Ozark badass, a prison guard and knifemaker. He taught me how to play poker and fed me brains and eggs and taught me to like Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. The last time he saw me, on his deathbed, he told me a dirty joke. When he died, I wanted to freeze him in my mind, and "Johnny Cash is Dead" is the result. Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," which he turned brilliantly into a meditation about lost time and death, guts me every time. It's so beautiful.
Jordan Harper and Love and Other Wounds links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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