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October 13, 2017

Book Notes - R. Dean Johnson "Californium"


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.

R. Dean Johnson's Californium is a compelling punk rock fueled coming-of-age novel.

The Live Oak Review wrote of the book:

"Californium comes alive through its obsession with detail—not simply in how precisely Johnson evokes the era and locale, but in how details are vitally important to every single character."

In his own words, here is R. Dean Johnson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Californium:

You might think the music list for a novel set in 1982 and with punk rock in the subtitle would have to be exclusively punk bands. That wouldn't be very punk rock though, would it? I did listen to a lot of music while writing and revising this novel. It helped me drown out the rest of the world and focus on the work. So, some of the songs in this list were a part of the writing process and some just fit particular characters, or moments, or the overall feel I was after. Then, there are the songs I left out such as "What I like About You" by The Romantics and "London Dungeon" by The Misfits—the former because, well, it's the era but not a favorite of mine; the latter because while it might be van Doren's favorite song (you won't find that in the book, but I know), he's just a character so I get to make the final decisions. And I left out some of my personal favorites too. I'd love to have had a Pixies or Killers song here but I couldn't find just the right ones. And I'm currently obsessed with "High" by Sir Sly, but it's got nothing at all to do with the book; it's just a really cool, hilarious song. Oh, and none of the songs by Filibuster or DikNixon made the list either because as awesome as both those bands are, they only exist in Californium.

"Depreston" – Courtney Barnett
The first time I heard "Avant Gardener" on the radio, I had to know who sang it, how she made those great lyrics fit with that distinct sound, and what else she'd done. Everything I've heard so far from Courtney Barnett is great, and "Depreston," a song didn't hear until after finishing Californium, fits the mood I'm going for early on when Reece and his family are hoping time and a change of scenery will help them escape recent tragedy.

"Sick Boy" – Social Distortion
A seminal Orange County punk band. Or are they rockabilly? Or punkabilly? Whatever, they're great and "Sick Boy" is Social D at their best. That, and this song reminds me of the character Treat, partly who he is and partly who he wants people to think he is.

"All Night" – Trashcan Sinatras
Early in the novel, the protagonist, Reece, is at a high school dance where he sees the object of his desires across the floor. We've all been there, and the Trashies remind us how we can get caught up in the music, if only for a short while, and escape our troubles out on the dance floor. This song, like nearly every Trashies song, is so well crafted and so layered that, as I intended with the novel, there's a lot happening on the surface and even more underneath.

"Clampdown" – The Clash
Check your lists of all-time great punk bands, then cross-reference them with your lists of all-time great rock bands, and The Clash are going to be near the top of both. Maybe "Clampdown" is too radio friendly to be hard core, but the lyrics and attitude are pure punk: "Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall / How can you refuse it? / Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / D'you know that you can use it?"

"California Uber Alles" – Dead Kennedys
As a teenager, what drew me to a lot of music was the lyrics. It happened early on with U2's anthems and Morrissey's irony and wit. The Dead Kennedys? Sometimes I dig the lyrics. Sometimes I just love the sound. This is punk. In the book, DikNixon rip-off the DK band logo though none the songs. Jello Biafra and company aren't fooling around. These aren't pop songs and the boys in Californium aren't quite ready for this.

"Evil" – Interpol
If Interpol were a person, he'd be that guy who never dresses flashy but never dresses like anybody else either, the guy you recognize from a hundred yards away. He'd be van Doren, the lead singer of Filibuster in the novel. Like "Depreston," this song features lyrics smashed into good music. Neither wants to compromise for the other, and yet it all works. Sometimes writing feels that way. You have to know the rules so you can break them.

"Dear Prudence" – Siouxsie and the Banshees
So much of this novel is about appropriating things and Siouxsie does this with, of all sacred things, a classic Beatles song. It's not so much a cover as it is a reinvention. To me, it's the character Edie when she shows up the night DikNixon's first gig having reinvented herself, stunning Reece. "The sun is up / the sky is blue / it's beautiful / and so are you."

"Gigantic" – The Wombats
"Gigantic" is clever, and desperate, and charming, and silly, and serious, and you don't know quite what it's going to do next but at its core it's honest. It's very Keith, Reece's best friend in the book. And it's all brought to you in the post-punk, electronic-influenced, pop The Wombats do so well.

"Solitary Man" – Neil Diamond
If you've read the book, this totally makes sense. If you haven't read it, or if you haven't listened to this song in a while, just imagine these lyrics—"I'll be what I am / a solitary man"—with a distorted guitar and Neil Diamond is totally punk rock.

"Too Much Stereo" – The Urge
Way back when the novel was just a story I was writing for workshop at Kansas State University, a friend of mine took me to see this band and I was hooked. Songs like "It's Getting Hectic" and "Brainless" show off their punk and ska roots best, though I can't help but love the way this song speaks to the novel with lines like, "You saved me the effort of being for real / as long as you'll stand there and listen to reason / my colors won't show / no one will ever know."

"Sweetness Follows" – REM
I could, I often did, put on the entire Automatic for the People LP and write anything, even scenes about punk bands in bowling alleys. Every song on that album matters, every line, and they build upon each other. This song doesn't stand above the rest, though it feels most like Reece's plight: "It's these little things / they can pull you under / live your life filled with joy and thunder." The honesty of the first line gets turned on its head, hopeful in the face of despair. This is what Reece is struggling to do. Aren't we all?

"The Boys Are Back" – Dropkick Murphys
No spoiler here, but this is the note I wanted the novel to end on. I think it does. And even if you never read the novel, listen to this song. It'll make your day better even if you're already having a good one.

R. Dean Johnson and Californium links:

the author's website

The Live Oak Review review

Focus on Fiction interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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