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October 2, 2017

Book Notes - James Grady and Keir Graff "Montana Noir"

Montana Noir

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

Montana Noir is yet another impressive anthology in the Akashic Books series.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Terrific...Montana Noir is one of the high points in Akashic's long-running and justly celebrated Noir series...Editors Grady and Graff's selections...are all sharply attuned to their settings and to the ways those varying landscapes reflect the darkness within the people who walk the streets or drive the country roads."

In his own words, here is Keir Graff and James Grady's Book Notes music playlist for their anthology Montana Noir:

Playlist for Montana Noir with Liner Notes

Keir: My tastes have always run to noir, even when I was a better songwriter than prose writer. I loved the story songs of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, and when I became a father, I used to serenade my little sons with folk songs about hangings, shipwrecks, and other kinds of misery and misfortune. (The tunes were always pretty!) Creating a playlist for Montana Noir was a challenge, though—of my vast collection, which songs best matched up with the stories? Because Jim and I have different catalogs of music playing in our heads, we thought it would be fun to offer an A-side and a B-side for each story.

Jim: I was a boy when rock ‘n' roll exploded into our global culture. That wondrous music's fusion of beat, melody, and story won my soul, but it wasn't until one night walking into my sophomore Montana college dorm room and hearing "Hey, Joe," by either Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Rivers, that I realized the music I loved and the kind of fiction I was yearning to write could walk and rock the same noir street. The biggest problem Keir and I had was culling the thousand-plus perfect songs for Montana Noir down to one song apiece per story. But what a wonderful opportunity to share and enjoy the forces in all our lives.

Spotify playlists: Grady / Graff
You Tube playlists: Grady / Graff


Jim: "Atlantic City," by Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen is the great American author of my generation—those of us who were in junior high or high school when JFK was shot, and then about to enter or just entering "the real world" when Nixon fled the law in a government helicopter. "Atlantic City" isn't just about trouble in a New Jersey, it's about the chaos, catastrophes, and choices we all confront. Some time in our lives, we all have a "meet me tonight" moment. That is the heart and soul of noir.

Keir: "Gun Show," by Bobby Bare, Jr.
This haunting tune, seemingly about a stickup gone wrong, is the perfect scene-setter for our tales of bad luck and desperation. "I was calling out your name / To help when the bullets came" is rendered even more poignant by the deceased narrator's recognition that " . . . my girls are gonna wonder why / Why did my daddy have to die / And does he hear us when we cry?" Bobby Bare, Jr. is an underappreciated national treasure.

"Red, White, and Butte," by David Abrams

Jim: "I Feel So Good," by Richard Thompson
London-born, globe-conquering RT transcends justified labels like "wonderful songwriter" or "best guitar player ever," a funny, brilliant, insightful genius whose song here completely gets the self-image of David's Butte-born narrator: "I feel so good I'm gonna break somebody's heart tonight / I feel so good I'm gonna take someone apart tonight." Admit it: most of us have surged with those feelings one time or another in our lives (some of us more), and David's remarkably real and thus believable "hero" in Butte has the ethos of that song banging inside his skull.

Keir: "Search and Destroy," by the Stooges
"I'm a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm," opens this song, capturing for me the bad mission of Abrams' National Guardsman who returns from Iraq bent on becoming "Widow Comforter" to wife of the soldier he killed. Later, the "world's forgotten boy" yelps "somebody gotta save my soul"—something our antihero is vainly hoping the widow will do. Iggy Pop's inspiration was another ill-conceived American conflict, Vietnam.

"Constellations," by Caroline Patterson

Jim: "American Pie," by Don Maclean
Caroline's wonderful coming-of-age story drops her teenage heroine into Montana's real-life "modern" coming-of-age Constitutional Convention in 1972—the same exact time that Don McLean's mystifying ode about America's Vietnam era's own coming-of-age dominated the radio and was widely discussed by the real life Con Con staffers Caroline portrays. Both the song and her subtle, strong storytelling take us back to when fundamental questions of how we should live filled our daily lives with unavoidable, powerful, lasting effects. A more perfect fit of song-to-story is hard to imagine, driving any Chevy to the levy.

Keir: "Save Me," by Aimee Mann
"You look like a perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet," sings Mann—an almost perfect echo of Patterson's heroine's quest. Traumatized by sexual abuse, Elizabeth wants to stop her emotional bleeding by losing her virginity on her own terms. The bittersweet tone of the song matches tone of the hard-won partial victory in "Constellations."

"Ace in the Hole," by Eric Heidle

Jim: "Lawyers Guns and Money," by Warren Zevon
Eric's compelling story sounds like a lost track of that Warren Zevon album that haunts you, and thus in subject, sensibilities, soul, and savagery, the great transcendental noir singer-songwriter Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" fits Eric's "Ace In The Hole" like a street-fight-scuffed glove. Father issues, betrayal, women, lives on the line as shit hits the fan—what more could readers and listeners ask for?

Keir: "Bad Luck," by Social Distortion
We've got a character named Chance in a story called "Ace in the Hole" . . . the first song that came to mind was "Bad Luck." But while Chance does indeed have the cards stacked against him, he ensures he's not going to be the only loser in a rigged game. Imagine this one pounding out the dashboard speaker of an old International pickup that has seen better days.

"Fireweed," by Janet Skeslien Charles

Jim: "Country Girl," by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Again, this song and story matchup is eerily perfect. Janet delivered a short story of lasting literary joy and worth, the story of . . . a country girl confronting the changes in her life, in her rural Montana roots, and people she's known since she could toddle through her father's wheat fields. These are changes she can't ignore because suddenly, there's a murder under her tiny, "innocent" portion of Montana's Big Sky.

Keir: "Time (The Revelator)," by Gillian Welch
This song may not be about murder in a small town, but it works anyway, with lyrics about someone who is not what they're supposed to be: "But who could know, if I'm a traitor?" Time seems to pass more slowly in small towns, echoing Welch's real theme, and most of all, the elegaic tone and stately pace of this tune capture Charles' beautiful story about a waitress biding her time before she can leave.

"Dark Monument," by Sidner Larson

Jim: "Reason To Believe," by Bruce Springsteen
Sid's haunting tale of a middle-aged man struggling to cope with the legacies of his own life, justice he couldn't bring to an awful crime, his own proud Indian heritage shot through with subtle and harsh racism, and above all, the love of the great woman he let slip away reads and feels like a thousand classic heart-tugging songs, but finding just the right one to match this story was one of my more difficult challenges here. And then I realized Sid's story is powered by all our desire to believe that something more and something good can come from all the struggles and sorrows of our lives. Once I groked Sid's core of "reason to believe," well, for the best noir song of that . . . you gotta go to The Boss.

Keir: "Crown of Love," by Arcade Fire
At the end of Larson's story, a man walks away from the woman he loves—the only way he can save her from a powerful predator. This song about two lovers, one yearning and the other apologizing ("If you still want me, please forgive me"), captures that poignant feeling as well as any I can find.

"All the Damn Stars in the Sky," by Yvonne Seng

Jim: "Suzanne," by Leonard Cohen
Yvonne's wondrous story swirls with crowded and frantic complexity, a dozen important American issues essentially all captured by a day in the life, but all that is presented in simple, clean, honest revelations of one young woman's come-home struggles. The all the way down in your bones feelings Yvonne's heroine gives the readers requires an enigmatic, poetic songwriter to match this story's power. Not only is Leonard Cohen up to that task, his song here focuses us on a woman, who, like Yvonne's heroine, is not to be let go from your life, no matter what. Besides, Yvonne has her heroine listening to Leonard. This connect just has to be.

Keir: "Let Me Be It," by The Flaming Lips
There's only one band equal to the psychedelic, phantasmagoric magnificence of Seng's story that incorporates everything from a circus worker, right-wing militia, undocumented workers, a mysterious multinational corporation, FOX News, Montana's lone congressman, and . . . UFOs? But at its heart it's a love story with a scarred, bald heroine reunited with her long-lost forbidden love. Or as Wayne Coyne sings, "Let Me Be It." (I almost went with a song that better captures the chaos: "Everything's Explodin'"!)

"The Road You Take," by James Grady

Jim: "We Travel as Equals," by Joseph Arthur
Picking your own soundtrack for your work is almost impossible, even when others hear the choice clean and clear. What I realized about my four strippers and their enforcer/pimp cruising Montana's highways from town to town is that, ultimately, the heart of noir and of all of our fates is Joseph Arthur's simple and clear defiant epiphany: "We travel as equals or not at all." Plus his powerful tumbling musical poetry grabs you from its first word and deserves to be heard by everyone.

Keir: "Goin' Nowhere," by Chris Isaak
For Jim's story about a manager/pimp piloting a van full of strippers across Montana's Hi-Line under the endless sky, Isaak's nasty groove captures the cynicism and empty promises of a hustler: "Like the clothes like the tan like the way you shake it / You're the kind of a girl I can tell you make it." (There's even a line referencing the big sky that is so prominent in Jim's descriptions.) And, naturally, he offers a relief from hardship: "So take a ride with me now baby / Hop inside and maybe baby / We can find a way to make it all OK." But the only way to make it all OK, as Jim shows us, is to get out of the van.

"The Dive," by Jamie Ford

Jim: "The Boxer," by Simon & Garfunkel
"The Dive" is a wholly original and wildly fun story that at its heart is poignant and proud amidst the blood and betrayals and beat-downs. Matching the world of Mixed Martial Arts for women to any great song of any genre is especially hard because co-ed MMA is a relatively new cultural force. So to give Jamie's terrific story the justice it deserves—and it's a noir story punched through with issues of justice—I felt compelled to go with a classic. Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer"—probably recorded before Jamie was walking—can't be beat as a saga of everyone as a fighter, going down and, yeah, getting back up again.

Keir: "Now You're Defeated," by American Music Club
To whom is this song addressed? Like many of Mark Eitzel's lyrics, it has just the right amount of ambiguity. As Ford's story opens, Carla "Train Wreck" Lewis, a mixed-martial-artist who refused to take a dive and then got beaten down anyway, is definitely brooding over having had her ass handed to her. Lyrics "They sing now you're defeated baby" and "At the strong open crowd, want the great fight" evoke the public loss, and "Now you're defeated baby / You're worth more to me than gold" suggests the fixed fight. But what this song DOESN'T have is Lewis's near-fatal rope-a-dope that puts her back in the winning column.

"Bad Blood," by Carrie La Seur

Jim: "Lawyers in Love," by Jackson Browne
Carrie's story is classic collision of conscience, circumstances, convictions, and choices, all set within the legal profession that's laced through every aspect of our American lives and here driven by a woman with a heart yearning for love —a woman lawyer yearning for love and confronting those four C's. Jackson makes that all sound so simple and so does Carrie, but each of their tales portrays the issues before the court of our lives where justice—sometimes we hope, sometimes we fear—is blind.

Keir: "Beds Are Burning," by Midnight Oil
I can't say the vibe of this song matches La Seur's cool evocation of Billings, Montana's largest city, but I also don't know a song that better matches the issue at the heart of her story: who owns the land? Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil may be singing about Aborigines in Australia, half the world away from the Tongue River, but his unequivocal cry "It belongs to them" falls on deaf ears of Vera Ingalls, who considers the generations of her own family and decides that "No piece of paper could make it any less theirs."

"Oasis," by Walter Kirn

Jim: "The Ghosts Of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)," by Tom Waits
One no-nonsense poet of America's streets deserves another, so for Walter Kirn's better than journalism account of the after-hours souls who drive through our towns to bring us what we can order and expect to eat, the great, gravel-voiced Tom Waits was an obvious choice. Add on the topping that both their odes concern pizza and hard women, well, call that a Deluxe Special. Walter's story takes you there: you can smell the journey-cooled tomato sauce, taste the cardboard crust, feel the late-night diner's hard cushion give a little to your weight as you slide into the booth but give little back as you listen to your sort-of friend's tale of woe. And if Tom Waits is on the jukebox . . . wow, what a wondrous slice of noir.

Keir: "Dirty Girl," by the Eels
This dark but relatively innocent song about a guy who misses his dirty-talking girlfriend takes on new meaning when set against Kirn's pitch-black account of voyeurism, obsession, and . . . pizza. In the short story, narrator Brian Schick relates the unhappy love affair of fellow pizza-delivery driver Crush, who finds himself making car payments for a video-sex worker until she "deactivates" him. It doesn't end well. "We had our time but it didn't last too long," sings Mark Oliver Everett, "And that time is good and gone."

"Motherlode," by Thomas McGuane

Jim: "Fallin' and Flyin'," by Jeff Bridges
The great actor, singer, artist, and activist Jeff Bridges signing, "I was going where I shouldn't go . . . " is the perfect matchup for his friend and fellow Montana legend Tom McGuane's story of how the wrong curiosity kills more than the damn barn cat. Both song and story are wow sagas to be experienced, not just read or heard. This is a timeless matchup to be savored again and again for visions of Montana's noir Big Sky.

Keir: "Cool Water," by The Sons of the Pioneers
Because it's in the story. Picture McGuane's memory-blasted rancher Weldon trying to retain what's left of his dignity by balancing a peanut on his nose while a scratchy 45 spins this tune on "a small plastic record player."

"Trailer Trash," by Gwen Florio

Jim: "Dancing in the Dark," by Bruce Springsteen
And the song goes: " . . . sick of sitting around here trying to write this book"—the struggle for the hero at the heart of Gwen's funny and scathing portrait of academia versus trailer-court life. Gwen's story is full of posers and arrogance masquerading as of-course brilliant cultural stars (with a side of the never really finish and deliver and risk common in Ivy Towered delusions). Gwen gets more sexual whoompf out of a character's sideways glance than many authors do with pages of "poetic" prose. And out of all the fun and flashes of truth she creates comes a laugh-out-loud last line that delivers noir justice where everyone pays to play.

Keir: "Johnson's Plumbing Supply," by The Model Rockets
I don't know a single song about envy, murder, and a creative writing program, but this old favorite by the Model Rockets captures something in the tone of Florio's story. Sung from the point of view of a small-town plumbing-supply clerk watching his former bandmate rocket to fame, it's got envy, humor, sadness, and resignation—the feelings we've all experienced as we watch an acquaintance rise above us. Fortunately, most of us don't kill that person to get even.

"Custer's Last Stand," by Debra Magpie Earling

Jim: "Up Where We Belong," by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy wrote this song that others made into a hit, but she still does it best and the way that only she can. Debra's story of love, racism, and life on and near a Montana Indian reservation is also told the way that only she can. This match of song to story echoes justice, just as Debra's characters caught in noir shadows that pre-date their lives and play out with their every breath show us the power of hope and love in spite—or perhaps, even because of noir.

Keir: "Things That Scare Me," by Neko Case
I tried and tried to find a song to match Earling's story of a drifter, a coffee-shop clerk, a bad cop, and powerful medicine on the Flathead Indian Reservation—but each song that matched one aspect of the story seemed wrong for all the others. (At one point I was even leaning toward NWA's "Fuck tha Police.") Finally, I realized I was overthinking it: Case's spooky tune captures the feeling of the story if not the particulars.

"Red Skies of Montana," by Keir Graff

Jim: "Burning Down the House," by Talking Heads
David Byrne's blow you away song where fire is much more than a limited experience becomes a furious, ironic soundtrack to Keir's wonderful and—in a tragic noir fashion—incredibly prophetic story of the beautiful, tree-covered mountains of Keir's native Montana in this year when Montana Noir first hits the stands. This story captures the fires of reality that threaten us all with rapid, clean prose about heroism, dreamers, back-alley crime, and the consequences of human greed on our fragile planet. While this may be the most timely and important story in our anthology, with eyes-wide-open honesty, we wish it were just another work of great fiction.

Keir: "Burnin' It Down," by Steve Earle
Like songs about murder and creative writing programs, songs about arson are in short supply. And while Earle's protagonist's desire to burn down the Walmart comes more from his frustration at how things have changed and left him behind, this plays in harmony with my not-so-bright protagonists, who accept money to burn down a ski resort an out-of-state corporation failed to develop—on prime land that is rightfully part of their community's shared heritage.


Keir: "I Believe," by Chris Isaak
Please welcome Chris Isaak back to the stage to play us out. Wait for the chorus . . . .

Keir Graff and James Grady and Montana Noir links:

the book's website
James Grady'swebsite
Keir Graff's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

Don't Need a Diagram interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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