April 10, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the 2016 Autumn House Press Fiction Contest, Andrew Bourelle's novel Heavy Metal is a propulsive and exciting debut.
William Lychak wrote of the book:
"A real gut-punch of a novel, Heavy Metal sings with energy and beauty and honest abandon about grief and hope and trying to find one’s balance in an unsteady world."
Heavy Metal follows a week in the life of a teenage boy growing up in the Midwest in the late 1980s. The title refers to the music Danny listens to as well as the weight—both literal and figurative—of a .44 Magnum pistol he steals from his father's gun cabinet. Danny's mother is dead, his father is an alcoholic, and his brother Craig is as damaged as he is. I wanted the tone to be like a metal song: dark, heavy, unflinching, full of rage and sadness—with a touch of tenderness to go with it.
I grew up in the same era as Danny, and I listened to hard rock music just as he does. In fact, I gave Danny a taste in music similar to mine when I was a teenager. It was fun to include references to songs and bands, and it gave me an excuse to find old songs on the Internet and listen to them again. I don't usually listen to music when I write, but I certainly had a soundtrack in mind as I was composing the novel. Here are some of the songs that make up my playlist (or, to use '80s terminology, my mix tape) for Heavy Metal.
"Fade to Black" by Metallica
Early in the novel, Danny and his older brother Craig are cruising around late at night in Craig's Nova, listening to Metallica's album Ride the Lightning. I don't think Danny mentions the song by name, but he wonders a few pages later if death is like the Metallica song where everything just goes black. The song is sad and slow, or at least starts out slow before getting heavy. It's probably my favorite Metallica song—the pain it expresses is heartwrenching.
"Hells Bells" by AC/DC
The first cassette I ever bought was AC/DC's Back in Black, a choice I remain proud of. In my opinion, it's the greatest rock and roll album of all time. My favorite is "Hells Bells," which is spooky and ominous. The line "You're only young, but you're gonna die" is a brutal lyric, especially sung in the raspy growl of Brian Johnson. Talk about hopelessness. The line could have been an epigraph for the novel. There is a scene in the book where a group of teenagers are down at the river late at night, drinking around a fire barrel, and this song comes on the radio. I had to include it. It's my favorite song off the first album I loved.
"Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone" by Cinderella
Early in the book, Danny develops a romantic relationship with a girl from school named Beth. The first time he goes to her house, they're both nervous and don't know what to say, so they take turns picking songs to play for each other. In the early drafts of the novel, I had a lot of song references here, as they go back and forth selecting songs. I thought the barrage of references were a little overwhelming, so, in the final manuscript, I focused on this song by Cinderella. Beth's taste veers a little more toward hair metal than Danny's, so it's appropriate that she picks a ballad. But it changes the mood between them. She selected it without thinking about Danny's dead mother, and once she plays it, the positive vibe they're sharing turns uncomfortable.
"Rock of Ages" by Def Leppard
The novel mentions Def Leppard a couple times, but never any specific songs. There's a scene where Danny and his friends are sitting around the lunch table debating the greatest albums of all time. Someone mentions Def Leppard's Hysteria and someone else cracks, "That's not even Def Leppard's best album." That's me as the author injecting my perspective on the subject. Hysteria was a huge album in the 1980s, catapulting Def Leppard to worldwide stardom, but, for my money, Pyromania is a better album. The band is younger, and the music is more raw, more energetic, more … metal. "Rock of Ages" is the best song, and it's about living for the moment, burning out, not fading away—which fits thematically in the novel. There is a scene where Danny is watching Headbangers Ball on MTV, and a Def Leppard song comes on. I don't mention a specific song, but, in my mind, it's this one.
"Out in the Cold" by Judas Priest
Judas Priest was my favorite band in the late 1980s. I had more of their cassettes than any other band, even AC/DC. This song is a little different than most Priest songs. It's a bit gentler, focusing on heartbreak, which might be common subject matter for most bands but not Judas Priest. It has a slow synthesizer intro that my brother and I used to whistle when we cruised around in his car, which had no radio. The song is from the perspective of a man with a broken heart, but Danny makes the observation that the song "works for a dead mom too." At one point in the novel, Danny remembers the night after his mother's funeral when he was having a breakdown. Craig calms him by singing this song to him, which is perfect because Danny spends much of his time in the book literally outside in the cold.
"Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" by Iron Maiden
In the very first scene in the book, Craig walks into the house wearing an Iron Maiden concert tee shirt. The description is from the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son record, where Eddie, the ghoulish creature on all Iron Maiden's albums and memorabilia, is floating above an icy sea. He's holding some kind of unborn offspring, still in a placental sack, still connected to him via umbilical cord. I chose the picture over all the available Iron Maiden imagery because it's suggestive of family lineage. What horrors has Danny inherited from his own family? This album and The Number of the Beast are my favorite Iron Maiden albums. I managed to work in references to both of them.
"Beth" by Kiss
This is going to sound cheesy, but here goes. For most of the character names in the novel, I didn't give much thought. I used whatever popped into my head. The one exception was Danny's romantic interest—Beth. I chose her name because of the slow piano ballad by Kiss. I thought, "What girl's name could be more metal than Beth?"
"I Love Sex (And Rock and Roll)" by Wendy O. Williams
I think most of the band and song references in Heavy Metal aren't too obscure, but Wendy O. Williams wasn't nearly as well known as the other artists on this list. She came from a punk-metal band called the Plasmatics and sang in a hoarse, nasal snarl. She had a mohawk, performed concerts with nothing on but underpants and electrical tape over her nipples, and was known for taking chainsaws and sledgehammers on stage to destroy TVs and cars. When she went solo, the music became a little less punk and a little more mainstream metal. It's all fun to listen to. Beth plays this song when she and Danny skip school and fool around.
"Set the World Afire" by Megadeth
Because the novel takes place in the 1980s, there are references to the cold war and the nuclear arms race. The threat of nuclear holocaust was on people's minds at the time. There's a scene where Danny and his friends are listening to a Megadeth song about nuclear war. I don't think I name the song, but this is the one I had in mind. Later in the day, Danny walks through a field as it's snowing fat gray flakes that make him think of nuclear ash.
"Modern Day Cowboy" by Tesla
Neither this song nor the band are mentioned in the novel. I wish I had mentioned one or the other. Tesla was the first concert I went to my freshman year of high school. I don't think all their songs hold up over time, but this one does. It's a song about adversaries facing off, the threat of violence, the use of guns to solve problems—all ideas Danny struggles with in the book. And the song was on the album Mechanical Resonance—a great title to use in a novel with a metal/machine motif. A couple weeks after I turned in the final manuscript, my wife and I went to see Def Leppard in concert, with Tesla opening. Watching Tesla perform "Modern Day Cowboy," I thought, "Dang it, why didn't I reference this in the book?" Well, at least I can include it on the playlist.
Andrew Bourelle and Heavy Metal links:
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
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