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October 16, 2015

Book Notes - Garth Risk Hallberg "City on Fire"

City on Fire

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Garth Risk Hallberg's ambitious debut novel City on Fire engaging epic of New York City in the 1970s.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Completely engrossing . . . This magnificent first novel is full to bursting with plot, character, and emotion, all set within an exquisitely grungy 1970s New York City . . . Graceful in execution, hugely entertaining, and most concerned with the longing for connection, a theme that reaches full realization during the blackout of 1977, this epic tale is both a compelling mystery and a literary tour de force."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Garth Risk Hallberg's Book Notes music playlist for his novel City on Fire:


The best writing, for me, is like disappointed music. Joining words into sentences may open up fields of analytical possibility, but I still find myself chasing the emotional high of a great melody. And as far as I can tell, music has insinuated its way into every piece of fiction I've ever worked on - especially City on Fire, a ginormous novel about New York in the mid-'70s.

In fact, it was probably some conjunction of Blue Note Records and Patti Smith and Lou Reed and early hip-hop that set me dreaming about this city in the first place. When I was 16 years old and living from CD to CD in eastern North Carolina, New York was where all the music seemed to come from. Years later, when the time came to write the book, I knew that's where it had to take place. And I knew it would have to explore a change in the urban temper, from the swing of my favorite jazz to the nerviness of "The Message": "Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge." At the center of that change would be the music that meant most to me - punk rock.

I don't listen to music while working, usually, but I figured I could count afternoon walks as a kind of work, too, so long as I listened to songs that would keep me in the imaginative space of the book. I took the same loose approach to musical inspiration that I did to historical fact in the writing; if Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" had something to tell me about my characters, I wasn't going to plug my ears because it was recorded after the book ends. My playlist gradually swelled to 120 songs. I thought about editing it: one song per chapter? (94 songs, or 102 if you count the interludes?) Or one song per character? But then I realized I was procrastinating, and made myself get back to work.

What follows is a sample of that larger "CoF Playlist," organized roughly to parallel a reading of City on Fire.


1. The Walkmen - "Thinking of a Dream I Had"

Though most of the novel takes place in 1977, the prologue introduces a 2003 frame...so here's a yearning New York song from that year to kick things off. The organ you hear - Walter Martin's Farfisa - is one I've been listening to since it was a mainstay of Jonathan Fire*Eater. In the book, I gave it to the fictional punk band Ex Post Facto. (Oh, and Hamilton Leithauser and Paul Maroon, who were respectively the lead singer and guitarist for the Walkmen, generously allowed their new single "My Reward" to be used in the trailer for City on Fire. You should buy it!)

2. The Stooges - "Down on the Street"

I know Iggy & Co. are from Detroit, but to me, this sound takes us back to the bombed-out Bicentennial Manhattan inhabited by the more dangerous characters in the book. Proto-punk doesn't come any rawer.

3. The Rolling Stones - "Dancin' With Mr. D."

Any time I needed to put myself in the emotional world of the novel, I knew I could also turn to Goats Head Soup. Not one of the Stones' tighter efforts, but their first and most persuasive New York album (of whose debauched nihilism Some Girls is but a distant echo).

3. Television - "Marquee Moon"

I wanted City on Fire to be, among many other things, a sustained investigation of the spirit of punk music, via the inner lives of people who felt "saved by rock & roll." One side of punk is that Stooge-y rawness. But Television captures this whole other thing that was on the loose "downtown" in the '70s: soaring, dissolute, crazily ambitious, unafraid of beauty. This should be required listening for anyone who thinks punk has no room for guitar solos. Or, for that matter, hi-hat cymbal.

5. Ella Fitzgerald - "Give it Back to the Indians"

The first thing to be said about this Rodgers & Hart number is that its opening depiction of Native Americans is offensive - even if Peter Minuit gets the worst of the bargain. Nonetheless, the verse lyric brilliantly distills a sense of urban crisis that extends back well before the 1970s. "Come, you busted city slickers / better take it on the chin." I couldn't resist using some of it as an epigraph for the second part of the novel.

6. David Bowie- "Five Years"

In their amazing oral history, Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tease out the subterranean connection between punk and glam rock. Charlie Weisbarger, one of the protagonists in City on Fire, just lives it. Junior high out on Long Island brings what his mother calls "The Year of David Bowie," wherein he listens to the Ziggy Stardust album incessantly. As noted in the book, its opening track, "Five Years," is one of several rock songs that would have seemed then to foretell an apocalypse in 1977.

7. The Ramones- “53rd & 3rd”

Of course, once Charlie gets into the City and discovers the Ramones, it's all over.

8. Lou Reed - "How Do You Think It Feels"

This is one of two Lou Reed numbers that I think of as theme songs for the character William Hamilton-Sweeney - painter, musician, and semi-lunatic. The other ("I'm So Free," from Transformer) is decidedly more upbeat. But Berlin, from which this one comes, is like the greatest piece of Method acting in the history of rock. Or maybe cinema verité. Lou's vocals have the terrifying authenticity of physiological fact; they induce a kind of instant depression. So, altogether: great album.

9. Culture - "Two Sevens Clash"

Another end-of-the-world song. I stumbled across this one early in the writing, in a newspaper article, and again in a mid-70s fanzine when I was fact-checking the fictional 'zine that's reproduced in the middle of the novel. The interpenetration of punk and reggae fascinates William, as it fascinated Joe Strummer - and, evidently, the editor of Sniffin' Glue, issue 11.

10. Dead Boys - "Sonic Reducer"

In imagining New York City the year before I was born, I was less concerned with accuracy than with credibility of atmosphere; City on Fire isn't a historical novel per se. Nonetheless, scruples compelled me to jettison a scene of Charlie listening to this scorcher, which was released slightly after the events of the novel. It seemed so perfectly to capture his mood...

11. Stiff Little Fingers - "Suspect Device"

Washington DC was the closest punk scene to where I grew up in the '80s and '90s, and it had a number of local heroes. By the early Aughts, Ted Leo was one of them. After I moved to New York, I would still try to go see Ted and the Pharmacists when they came to town; my old neighbor James Canty (of Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up) had recently joined the band. My favorite thing was when they would end an encore set with a cover of "Suspect Device." On the evidence of the novel, the song must have gotten into my head. "They take away our freedom / in the name of liberty..."

12. Billie Holiday - "I Cover the Watefront"

This has got to be one of the great pop lyrics: "Away from the city / that hurts and mocks / I'm standing alone / by the desolate docks / in the still and the chill of the night." The character of Richard, the melancholic reporter chasing his last great story, more or less emerged from this song and from the writings of my fellow North Carolinian Joseph Mitchell.

13. David Byrne - "What a Day That Was"

I can remember listening to this at age 6, when "Stop Making Sense" was all the rage. And then when I first moved to New York and was riding my bike home at the end of the day, I used to see this guy in a large, white helmet riding his bike down the other side of Broadway, and I'd think, "Shit! That's David Byrne." "I'm dreaming of a city," he sings here. "It was my own invention." I can identify. And coming to New York to write and riding down Broadway alongside David Byrne was like stepping into that dream.

14. Freddie King - "I'm Going Down"

Left on the cutting room floor as I revised the novel was a transcript from the radio program of one "Dr." Zig Zigler, a frenemy of Richard and a sort of Greek chorus. This is the theme song for his call-in show. It's also begging to be heavily sampled in a remix of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, but that's another story.

15. Patti Smith - "Land: Horses, La Mer (de)"

At the center of City on Fire lies the great love of Charlie Weisbarger's life, Samantha Cicciaro: bringer of punk, maker of the 'zine, keeper of the flame. Sam and Charlie exist for me under the powerful sign of Patti Smith. (I may myself exist under that sign.) And so this song is a touchstone...and gave Sam's 'zine its title.

16. Nina Simone - "In the Dark"

Lenny Bruce had an expansive and counter-intuitive routine about Jewishness as a category (Ray Charles: Jewish. Eddie Cantor: goyish). I'd love to hear a similar routine about punk. For my money, Nina Simone is punk rock avant la lettre, and this performance is one of my favorites. Listen to how far behind the beat she stays...how she makes the song come to her. It provided another epigraph, this one for the blackout that is the the novel's climax.

17. U2 - "Surrender"

As I warned above, there are some sounds from outside the immediate ambit of 1977 that I kept in mind when writing. One was Prince's Dirty Mind, which evokes another facet of New York's musical ether (disco) - and which has, in "Sister," at least one killer punk song. (Note to self: remember to read that Will Hermes book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire...) Another is the U2 of War. The expansiveness of the Edge's guitar signals one direction the culture might have taken, coming out of the meltdown of '77. I hear "Surrender" playing behind the Charlie sections of the blackout, somehow.

18. The Arcade Fire - "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"

Another rank anachronism, but the best song I know of that's explicitly about a blackout. Both lyrically and musically, it evokes some of the hope and anguish and anarchy and possibility I was seeing in the great blackout of '77.

19. Stevie Wonder - "Evil"

You'd think scenes of looting and rioting would suggest more guitars, more "loud fast rules," but somehow the absence of light turns everything inside out. One day I pulled an mp3 of Stevie's Music of My Mind off my scratchy vinyl copy, and when I listened to this song, I thought: that's it. That's the sound of the darkest moment, right there.

20. The Velvet Underground - "Beginning to See the Light"

Of course, the lights can't stay out forever, the sun has to rise. We move forward to the end the playlist, but back in time, to find Lou Reed sounding, well, almost hopeful...and none the less honest for it.


Garth Risk Hallberg and City on Fire links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Kirkus review
New York Times review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review

The Bookseller interview with the author
CBS News profile of the author
Chicago Tribune interview with the author
Dallas Morning News profile of the author
National Post profile of the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
Vogue profile of the author
Vulture profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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