February 15, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The stories in Kevin Hardcastle's impressive debut collection Debris are gritty and visceral.
Booklist wrote of the collection:
"[Debris] has its own strong voice… smoothly connected by uncompromising settings and Hardcastle's authentic, plainspoken country-noir voice, the 11 stories collected here will appeal to fans of gritty, back-country crime fiction, even those who typically shun short stories."
As a writer who writes to music, always, making a playlist to go with my collection of stories seemed like a good idea. Turns out the hard part is not making it four hundred tracks long. I figured the best way might to pick a song or two for each of the eleven stories in the book. Some of them were chosen for how their narrative drive or lyrics fit a story, while some just bring up emotions related to the reasons I wrote a story, or what the driving force and energy was when I was writing.
Anyways. Here is what I came up with:
Old Man Marchuk – "Meanest Man In The World" – John Doe
This song has a literary quality to it, and tells the story of a killer out in the open country, eventually making his way to a house and observing it in the night, and then going in there to do his meanness. The way it describes an act of seemingly random violence leaves most of the main horrors of it to the imagination, and Doe parses out little details and peculiarities that this kind of man might observe during the act. It could be a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel, the way the villain is written, and suits Marchuk as he is the kind of man that is just plainly hooked up wrong. He sees the world a different way and he feels no remorse when he decides on trying to harm somebody for perceived wrongs, however slight.
I like the lack of sentimentality in the track, and the haunting images that Doe gets over with that low, simple voice of his. Just chronicling the nature of the man and what he's done. "He never thought of himself as cruel. He never thought of himself at all. Kindness was always outside his grasp…" That's Marchuk to a tee, as well as in could've been the even more dangerous and violent Campbell in my later story, Debris. It also brings to mind that line from the end of a Denis Johnson story in Jesus' Son called Dundun, about how if he ran a soldering iron around in your brains you might turn out to be that kind of a man. No reflections or explanations or remedies are given. The man is just mean.
The Rope – "Mom"– Lucero
I put Mom in here as it's the song that came to mind right off the bat in thinking about this story. In the story, a son has to go home to the country and help his alcoholic mother get to court for a DUI, and to try and see what he can do about her drinking. They love each other very much, and they've been through hell together, and now the mother is reeling from the end result of it all. The boy isn't judging her or pontificating on anything. He just doesn't want her to die. In the track, Ben Nichols has that rasp of his that some folks can't stand, but it's got that busted, hurt quality to it. It's also plain that a lot of this kind of Alt-Country/Americana music is about people in the underclass, and focused on a lot of the same things that I do in my writing. Lost and marginalized people who are basically good but can't catch a break, or can't seem to win no matter what they do. Mom has the son telling his mother that she is his home basically, and that he'll try to make her proud and while "the road might take it's own course, at it's end, Mama, we're still your boys." The guts of it are what links the song and the story. That lonely sort of feeling of distance and time passed by. And a sense of real, unconditional, almost clannish love that sometimes is the only thing of value in my stories than any of the characters really have.
"Every Time The Sun Comes Up" – Sharon Van Etten
The Sharon Van Etten song is from an album that I listened to a good deal when I was working through the last edits of the book, and while a lot of heavy things were going on in my life that were ingredients for most of the stories in there. I could've used a few of those tracks (like Your love is killing me) but that simple refrain in this song, "Every time the son comes up, I'm in trouble" couldn't fit the story any better. But there's also a more upbeat and hopeful melody in the song, paired with that matter-of-fact statement. Her voice also sometimes makes me want to cry my fucking eyes out. So there's that.
Montana Border – "Atlantic City" – Bruce Springsteen
This one came to me pretty easy as well, in that Atlantic City is essentially the same story as Montana Border at it's core, even though it was laid down thirty-five years earlier and set on the other side of North America. Nonetheless, it is a man telling his woes about trying to earn a living and what the dangerous lengths that he's willing to go to for it. In my story, we've got an MMA fighter who gets sewed up by a young nurse after a fight in Montana, and knocks her up right near the start of her relationship, and all that right before he's about to have a tussle with some Hells Angels who aren't happy with his whupping another fighter linked to their gang. The fighter is a hard man, and has grit, but there is a sense that he's in over his head, which is a sentiment I get from the fellow in Atlantic City. It starts with them blowing up the "Chicken Man," a real Philly crime boss, and the idea that this era of lawlessness and desperation is escalating. It also speaks to the futility of so many things, or the fragility, and perhaps this greater idea that the world can chew up lives and move on without blinking. "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." I hear that as an eerie rationalization your might make if you're about to go up against it, with everything at stake.
It speaks to finality and inevitability, but I also hear this reckless sort of daring in there. That could just be my take on it. Whatever the case, that line "I'm tired of coming out on this losing end, so honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favour for him…," that is half my goddamn stories right there. In fact, Atlantic City as a song suits the novel I'm working on even better. Montana Border was farmed from that novel, a book that was written first a few years back and is now being revised heavily, and, in that story, the characters are a little older and his fighting career is derailed and he's working shit jobs and as muscle for mid-level gangsters at night in rural Simcoe County, Ontario. It's pretty bang-on as far as the tone and what the narrator is saying to his wife/girlfriend in the song.
"Fear And Saturday Night" – Ryan Bingham
The Ryan Bingham track has a more cowboy sort of tone to it, and it suits the younger version of Daniel from this story, instead of the older one in the novel it came from. He's got this sort of world-weary feel, that he knows about the kind of mayhem he's opening himself up to, but he has that young man's confidence and fearlessness that fades so quick later in life if it doesn't get you killed along the way. There was a good line from a legendary UFC fighter, Chuck Liddell, who grew up scrapping on Huntington Beach in California, where he said something to the tune of: "I don't go looking for a fight. But if a guy starts one with me I make it real hard for him to get out of it." That, to me, is the kind of sentiment in the song and in the story. But, of course, there is a tenderness in that the main character in Montana Border isn't a bad man and he isn't fighting just to fight, he's fighting for a job and for the woman he's in love with and the baby on the way. If Atlantic City is the later-life version of that story, Fear And Saturday Night might be the early part before Daniel meets the nurse, Sarah, or maybe even before he's a professional cage fighter. Just a kid with no folks and a chip on his shoulder and a broken fucking heart.
To Have To Wait – "Brothers In Arms" – Dire Straights
I batted around a few ideas for this story. But this one is a personal choice and it suits the story in my brain even if it isn't entirely evident at the outset or was a song written with a different set of troubles and conflicts in mind. Nonetheless, my dad was a big fan of Dire Straights, and I remember him getting this record in the years that we lived in Birkenhead, England, and remember listening to it and absorbing that melancholy from the tune. And in my head it's always paired up with the farmfields and the fog and the strange, beat-up farm cottage that we someone ended up renting while we lived there. We had no money, but those fields and that land had such a weighty mystery and atmosphere to it, and when I put Brothers In Arms on it all comes back right away.
In the story, two brothers have to go get their father from the hospital after he's had Electro Convulsive Therapy. It's about the shifting dynamic between the three men and them getting used to the idea that, like in The Rope, they are grown now and he can't take care of them anymore. That they might have to take care of him. There's a scene where they beat the shit out of some locals at a gas station who insult the father and the people who are in the psychiatric hospital in that town. The father isn't happy that they did it. But they are unrepentant. It had to be done.
So, I guess it's that idea of a code and brotherhood and clannishness again. I know that this song is about actual war, and it is plainly speaking of it. But I chose it to stand in for the smaller wars fought in this family. And that elegiac, sorrowful singing by Knopfler and his guitar sound and all that goddamn reverb ruins me. It has since I was ten, and my dad got that record. And twenty-five years later all of that comes up so vividly on hearing that song.
Bandits – "Never Gonna Change" – Drive-By Truckers
Really I could've done this whole playlist with Drive-By Truckers songs. They are my favourite band going, and have been since I first heard them some years ago. I write to them quite a lot, and it was damn hard to narrow down to just a few tracks. There is a literary quality to the songs that most writers could stand to learn from in their own approach to storytelling. They're always talking about class and living poor in the southern US, and the way that poverty can pervert the intentions of normal folks, but how there are also many good people misrepresented or without a voice in places like Muscle Shoals or rural Tennessee. A lot of those good people have very hard lives and sometimes have to do bad things to survive. That kind of thing gets explored plenty in American fiction. In Canada, it is almost never written about with any sincerity or authenticity, and we are lagging far behind on making a space for all that good writing as a result.
In Bandits, there's a family of criminals living in the backwoods outside of a small town in Simcoe County, Ontario, and they've taken to robbing these liquor stores that used to be out in the country (in most of Canada, as of yet, there are still dedicated liquor or beer stores and that's the only place you can get your booze). Those stores in small, small towns were often just trailers planted somewhere. And the characters in the story make a family business out of busting into them and hauling all the booze away with their snowmobiles. It's not exactly A-level heist work, and it might seem a bit ridiculous, but it's not in the least. That area of Ontario gets pummeled with snow, and all of those towns and villages are around a large body of water in Georgian Bay, that generally freezes over in the winter. On a snowy night, if you had Ski-Doos and fled across that ice, nobody would ever find a trace of you.
The song has a bit of black humour in there, and a defiant, prideful nature to it that makes it an ideal Truckers song to go with Bandits and the family chronicled in the story. Of course, like many criminals and outlaws in the middle of nowhere, they aren't stupid at all. They're actually clever people with a resilience and loyalty to each other that the local cops or townsfolk can't quite match. They're also tending to their emotional wounds by sticking to this life that has made them who they are, but has cost them plenty. Never Gonna Change is the kind of anthem that the characters in this story might drink whiskey too and a mantra the young protagonist of the story, who sees the truth behind the braggadocio, might run through his head while going on those whiskey runs across the frozen ice and woods.
Honourable Mention: "Life Of Sin" – Sturgill Simpson
One We Could Stand To Lose – "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" – Nirvana
This track doesn't have a kinship with this story in the way that some of the others do, on a narrative and literal level. But I think that a song about a person misunderstood and maligned by people who have deemed them unwell, or unusual, is a good fit for a story about a man who has given most of his life over to running an infamous flophouse in the city and tending to the lost and marginalized folks that happen to stay there awhile or actually make it their home.
Nirvana is the single most important influence on anything I've ever done artistically, and on the way I go about writing. That might seem a little bit odd, but I think that's a band and a sound that people can't shake and it is because they did something extremely difficult and made it look simple. There is a reason the Nirvana stood out and that the scene they were from and even the other bands were perplexed by their success and impact. They weren't new or truly original, but they'd unashamedly cobbled together their sound from all of these myriad influences in hardcore, metal, pop, new-wave, whathaveyou, and applied it to the things they wanted the say and used all of those ingredient the way they wanted to use them. Without explanation or apology. And it had real heart. That's what made me connect to Cobain and the music, like so many other kids.
So yeah, Nirvana had to make the list. And I like Frances Farmer as a reaction to the horrors of marginalizing good people out of a lack of understanding or compassion, and actually, in many cases, destroying them over it. Told from her perspective as well. I also like the idea of Arthur, the rooming house clerk in One We Could Stand To Lose, immortalized when he goes down with his ship. Becoming something more than he was. Perhaps coming back for the reckoning. To lay everybody to waste and "leave a blanket of ash on the ground." Not what I suggested in the writing. But I very much like the idea through the lens of this track.
Spread Low on the Fields – "Decoration Day" – Drive-By Truckers
I couldn't get away from using another DBT song. I was gonna use "Pancho and Lefty," by Townes Van Zandt, but I thought it'd be cheating just to get that one in here. That song just seemed too epic in scope and the tone was different. And, while Decoration Day is about a long-standing feud between families that doesn't yet exist at the outset of Spread Low on the Fields, it is also about sons being drawn into a bloodfeud by the actions of their fathers.
In the last verses of Decoration Day, you got Jason Isbell talking about how he's "got a mind to go spit on his (father's) grave," and lists where all his dead brothers are laid out. But he ends on the notion of fighting until his "last dying day." I don't know if it's supposed to be sarcastic, but I take it as his still understanding that drive for retribution and family honour even if he hates the cost of it. This could've been a song used for Bandits as well, or for a later story, Shape of a Sitting Man. I liked it for this story to juxtapose against the fact that, in the story, the boy only gets dragged into a feud after his father is already dead, as opposed to living through it and getting away from it. In this story, he avoids getting caught up while his father was alive, but after his death, tries to instigate a feud between two families. Same emotional drive, with the reasons for violence turned on their head a little bit.
Honourable Mention: "Pancho And Lefty" – Townes Van Zandt
Hunted by Coyotes – "Eisler On The Go" – Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie
When I worked a shitty gas/power sales job in Albera, knocking doors all over the province, I managed to stop from going off the deep end by finding a spot to sit and listen to music, or by hiding out in a car or walking through fields and lots and the outskirts of a town while listening to my Discman (fucking Discman at the time). I remember discovering a good deal of music as I spent a lot of my hours at home huddled up drinking beer and trying to find new songs to take on my travels. In doing that I found the Billy Bragg & Wilco recordings of old Woody Guthrie songs, and the track Eisler on the Go.
Hunted By Coyotes is a fictionalized version of my year wandering around Alberta and trying to keep it together. What struck me most in actual life, with regards to other outsiders who'd come out there for work on rigs or the oilpatch or anything else, was that many of them lived in this strange sort of limbo where they'd ended up there to find very profitable work in a pretty goddamn unstable, and sometimes inhospitable environment, and they'd just get lost or go adrift in a real, serious way. This old Woody Guthrie song, and the version done by Billy Bragg, is about the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, his exile from Germany, and his later deportation from the United States for his support of communism and socialist leanings in his work. It's about a man without a country and without a home. I didn't even know any of that back then, and just heard it as a melancholy tune about people with nowhere to turn. It fits a lot of Guthrie songs about those ruined during the depression and left to wander in their own country. That refrain, "I don't know what I'll do. I don't know what I'll do," that's the kind of thing you say to yourself quietly at first, and when you start saying it out loud and over and over you know you are in trouble.
Honourable Mention: "Wolf Like Me" – TV on the Radio
Shape of a Sitting Man – "Know Your Enemy" – Rage Against The Machine, "Brooklyn Zoo" – Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Wild For Da Night" – Rampage with Busta Rhymes, "1, 2, 3" – Lost Boyz
This is another one where I've decided to go for tracks that suit the energy and the origin of the story rather than any kind of thematic or literary kinship. The story is the shortest in the book, beginning with a retaliatory attack at a party in a gravel pit in the boonies, by a young man who's brother was severely injured in a fight some years before. I could've thrown in some more countrified vendetta songs, but these are tracks that run through my head whenever I think of violence growing up and some of the troubles I got into.
Rage Against The Machine is just the soundtrack to mayhem. Pure and simple. And, even though that music has a political and societal weight that needs to be recognized, it's the aggression and anger in the songs that get to you on a visceral level. And the energy of RATM is the key to the track's inclusion here. That feeling that you might just explode at any time.
I also listened to a lot of hip-hop growing up, back when hip-hop was terrifying to most people and when you'd never hear it on Top 40 radio or in your mom's car on the way to soccer practice. I was talking to somebody recently about why frustrated, poor rural kids listen to so much hip-hop, why you'll almost always find metal and hip-hop coming out of redneck stereos. Well, you are broke and fucking furious. Where's all the real, raw, aggressive energy in music? Especially in the 90s? That is what you listen to while you down beers with your buddies and try to steel up for going out to a bush party or the shitty local bars where you may have to scrap. Or when you are about to bash a man upside the head with a log from a sandpit fire. Right?
Debris – "God's Gonna Cut You Down" – Johnny Cash (Traditional)
As I said at the top, Meanest Man In The World could've easily gone here, but I figured Johnny Cash doing a version of a traditional here would suit the story just fine. It's a story about an old woman and her husband who start finding the bodies of young women on their property, and the protagonist, Emily, thinks she knows the killer and that the likelihood of them catching him is not good. So she loads up her rifle. There's a lot that's been said about this story just because it's an old woman willing to take the law into her own hands and hunt a man. But she has been around a long time, knew the father of the killer, and knows what the law and what other people don't know about what he's made of. And she won't just let him drop the bodies of young women around her county.
The story has an aura of things that should be settled by people and others by the law and others by God. Lives that are taken one way or another. Emily isn't necessarily religious, at least not for her age and where she is from, but she is trying to make sense of why God might take a life and why men do and whether it is right to intervene. The sort of biblical inevitability of a reckoning here, between Emily and the Campbell boy, a murderer of women, pairs up with Cash's rendition pretty well. Sooner or later, he is gonna get his. Whoever the agent of that reckoning.
"Roads" – Portishead
This track just has a creepiness and an atmosphere to it that I usually pair with bleak, English countryside or nightroads, but I liked it here as well. The haunting vocals and the guitar effects and the lyrics somehow manage to fit this story and the vibe I felt while I was writing. There's a timelessness to those fields and those woods and those houses built in them, the thickness of the atmosphere, and a sense of dread and unease that Roads captures.
Most of the Houses Had Lost Their Lights – "This Is A Rebel Song" – Sinead O'Connor
The last track is an old song by Sinead O'Connor that, on first listen, I took as if an Irish woman is trying to reason with an Englishman that she is in love with. There has been plenty written about this tune, in that it's almost certainly a metaphor for the troubles in Northern Ireland and the violence resulting from it. But I still also like to listen to it as a more straightforward love song between an Irish woman and English man, and have it figure in for a love between two people that also has the potential to destroy them both, or at least wound them very deeply.
This last story in the collection is about a hard man and his wife, Kayla, and how she has to scrape together some kind of future for them once he gets out of the hospital, where he has been committed after a long battle with mental illness, and some episodes of violence. There is hope, but no true sign that things will get any better, and still she tries to keep it all together. In the story, it is plain that their love is a special kind, and is very rare, but it is also that thing that keeps putting her in harm's way. Not directly from him, but in that she keeps carrying the burden with him, at the risk of it sinking them both. To compare This Is A Rebel Song at face value wouldn't be quite fair to Kayla's wounded husband, in that he does love his wife, and is trying to be better for her despite being very sick. Still, I feel like the emotional drive of the song comes from a similar place. It's a heartbreaker.
Honourable Mention: "Cover Me Up" – Jason Isbell
Kevin Hardcastle and Debris links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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