December 18, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John McManus's Fox Tooth Heart is a dark and poignant collection of short stories filled with brilliantly drawn outcasts.
Bookforum wrote of the book:
"John McManus writes visceral prose that explodes within the tight boundaries of the short story. These narratives possess a graceful internal logic and feature a wide range of gritty characters rebelling against an indifferent and often brutal world."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
These are some of the songs I was listening to while I wrote my new story collection, Fox Tooth Heart. The stories are mostly set in the rural South, and they're not exactly comedies, so the list is heavy on desolate country numbers. I've also chosen songs that tell good stories themselves, in ways I'd try to emulate if I could figure out how to write songs.
"Where You'll Find Me Now" by Neutral Milk Hotel
Close to twenty years ago, as I was driving along listening to college radio in Knoxville, I heard some guy with a sexy voice sing, "He said oh boy you are so pretty/ Enough to wrap tight in rice-paper string/ And when I finally kissed him the whole world began to ring." It was the first time I'd heard a boy sing about kissing a boy. A thousand listens later I realize "Oh boy" may be the idiomatic expression for "wow" and "I" may be a persona, but at nineteen I practically drove off the road, then hurried home and called the station to find out what I'd heard. "Where You'll Find Me Now," from the same album (On Avery Island), remains one of the most powerful expressions of yearning I know. I'm tempted to quote the whole thing—kids in their cars, cigarette smoking/ and all that they are reeks with the sweetest belief—but the words alone don't convey it; it's the longing in Jeff Mangum's voice.
"The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," Marianne Faithfull
In distant omniscient third, Marianne Faithful describes a bored housewife waiting through lonely days in sterile rooms in a "white suburban town." Then she zooms in to free indirect discourse: "She could clean the house for hours, or rearrange the flowers, or run naked through the shady streets." The chorus delivers an epiphany in a mournful wail, and precedes a lurch toward melodramatic tragedy, while the synthesizer relentlessly sounds the same lonely note. It breaks my heart every time.
"Drinkin' and Dreamin'" by Waylon Jennings
I love songs about alcoholics in despair. It was either this or "Corpus Christi Bay" by Robert Earl Keen or "From the Bottle to the Bottom" by Kris Kristofferson or "Misery and Gin" by Merle Haggard. "Drinkin' and Dreamin'" imagines a man in a suit and tie in anguish about his life: he'll "never see Texas, LA, or Old Mexico." It's only in his local bar that he can drink himself "a thousand miles out of [his] mind." From both the tenor of Waylon's voice and the hard but spaced-out strums of the guitar, you know the man's imagination is as close as he'll ever get to where he wants to go.
"Misguided Angel," Cowboy Junkies
I wrote my story "Cult Heroes" on a ranch in Wyoming in winter with the Cowboy Junkies on repeat. While snow fell and this slow wistful music played I sat working my way into the mind of a teenage mountain biker who's toying with some solipsistic ideas, like whether or not the beautiful landscapes he's biking across really exist outside his mind. He's destined for a life in solitude, and develops some narcissistic ideas about what aloneness does for his appearance. He'll be more desirable, he thinks, if he rides his bike off cliffs with little concern for whether he lives or dies. That's not quite what this song is about, but as I wrote, I imagined Hunter growing up to be like the misguided angel Margo Timmins sings of here.
"Reject the Burden" by Iris DeMent
Iris Dement adapted this and every song on her sublimely beautiful new album The Trackless Woods from poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. "Reject the Burden" gives me chills whenever I hear it. It hadn't been released yet when I was writing Fox Tooth Heart, but it's the kind of album I'd have put on repeat for weeks to help establish and maintain a mood. I'll do that for another story sooner or later.
"John Allyn Smith Sails" by Okkervil River
Will Sheff turns the folk song "The Sloop John B" into a dirge about John Berryman's suicide, so that "This is the worst trip I've ever been on" refers to life rather than a boat ride, and "Hoist up the John B sail" suggests the poet's last "trip" over the side of the Washington Avenue Bridge, through the air into the Mississippi River. Lines from Berryman's poems crop up throughout.
"Albuquerque" by Neil Young
It feels absurd to choose just one favorite Neil Young song from fifty-plus contenders. For me this one conveys a haunted, fatalistic despair—there's a capitulation to hopelessness and an acknowledgment of the beauty that can be found in dejection.
"The Road Goes on Forever" by Robert Earl Keen
There's a full story arc in here: infatuation, passion, a road trip, an ill-fated criminal scheme, a possible betrayal, execution. "The Road Goes on Forever" could be made into a film. I was listening to it over and over when I wrote "Blood Brothers." Some of the description of action has the tight compression of an exquisitely executed story.
"The Night's Too Long," Lucinda Williams
The second track on Lucinda Williams's self-titled album tells of a waitress who's moving out of Beaumont because "I'm tired of these small-town boys, they don't move fast enough/ I'm gonna find me one who wears a leather jacket and likes his living rough." This makes me feel like Lucinda Williams—whose voice is a national treasure—has been reading my text messages. Her cover of "Cold Cold Heart" is the saddest thing I've ever heard. As for her songwriting abilities, I can think of at least two instances where my favorite song by some other artist—e.g. Emmylou Harris's version of "Sweet Old World," whose lyrics list what a loved one who commits suicide has left behind—is by Lucinda Williams.
"I Get Nervous," The Lower Dens
There's nothing country about the Lower Dens, but this song comes closest of any I know to the mentality of Max, the climber from my story "Bugaboo" who's in the throes of an anxiety disorder. It's soothing, when you have anxiety, to hear someone sing with unsettling flatness about being nervous. I suppose it was in a homeopathic mode of auto-therapy that I once listened to "I Get Nervous" on repeat for ten hours straight. I can imagine Max doing the same as he drives across I-10 from Florida to California. (It pairs well with "No Feelings" by the Handsome Furs.) For that matter I can imagine him listening to "Sweet Old World" before to his suicide attempt, and picturing his girlfriend weeping about the bitter loss—which seems better to him than being trapped in his brain.
"In the Satellite Rides a Star" by the Old 97's
From the point of view of a sulky broken-hearted boy (or so it seems to me), this song is one my character Ike Bright in "Elephant Sanctuary" might write. Ike is the singer in a popular indie band, and the story begins the morning after he's killed his girlfriend in a drunk-driving accident. He flees to his con-man father's ranch, where he hides out and thinks about how his songs make people feel. He wishes he had a dangerous hardcore reputation, but instead he's a pouty boy who sings pretty songs about yearning. At times this disparity between desire and reality seems to bother him more than the girlfriend's death. I imagine him sounding a little like Rhett Miller in this song, and also like Conor Oberst, Mark Linkous, and Jeff Mangum.
"Papa Won't Leave You Henry" by Nick Cave
Some of the Satanists in my story "Betsy from Pike" would probably enjoy Nick Cave's Murder Ballads album. It's even possible they've gotten their hands on it; it came out the same year as the multiple murder in East Tennessee that the story is based on. "Papa Won't Leave You Henry," which comes from the earlier album Henry's Dream, exuberantly describes a scene of confusing lunacy. Nick Cave knows how to burrow into a depraved mind.
"Give Back the Key to My Heart," Uncle Tupelo
If I were writing an alternate-reality story set in a divergent timeline, a la Man in the High Castle, it would be set in a world where Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar worked it all out somehow and Uncle Tupelo never broke up. In "Give Back the Key to My Heart" the literal and metaphorical become equal in the manner of so many great classic country songs: "While you're giving back my things, give me back the key to my heart." Doug Sahm, who wrote this song, shows up halfway in and sings about cocaine.
"Filthy Water," Fruit Bats
One story in my collection that didn't make the final cut was set in a Florida swamp called the Tate's Hell Forest. If you'd never in your life traveled south of the Arctic Circle, you could listen to this song and know how it feels to wander around in that swamp. Echolocation was on repeat while I wrote and revised. In my mind its sound remains aligned with the mood of my collection. The same is true of "Little Fat Baby" by Sparklehorse, although the song doesn't match any one story that remains in the book.
"I Dream a Highway" by Gillian Welch
I was listening to this song a lot while I wrote "Gateway to the Ozarks," my story about a clone of Thomas Jefferson growing up near Branson, Missouri. His family life is chaos and he longs for serenity. I can't think of any better manifestation of serenity than this fifteen-minute trance of a song, whose chorus expresses an idea ("I dream a highway back to you") that feels like must have already been a common idiom in English long before Gilliam Welch conceived of it. In a few syllables Welch can establish such a complex mood that a few elegantly simple lines of poetry sung in her voice can suggest whole lifetimes to me.
John McManus and Fox Tooth Heart links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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