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May 14, 2018

Todd Robert Petersen's Playlist for His Novel "It Needs to Look Like We Tried"

It Needs to Look Like We Tried

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

Todd Robert Petersen's novel-in-stories It Needs to Look Like We Tried is a deliciously entertaining portrait of people on the edge.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Petersen's stories sing with wise-cracking (a drug dealer on his business arrangements: 'It's an LLC, man. Corporations are people'), irresistible characters who make the best of a world filled with corruption and deception."

In his own words, here is Todd Robert Petersen's Book Notes music playlist for his novel It Needs to Look Like We Tried:

One of the things I'm trying to do with It Needs to Look Like We Tried is get across the feeling that life is a mosaic of experiences of cultural moments. We can't tell a new story without dismantling something else first to get our materials. Some of the songs in this playlist are actually present in the novel, like secondary characters or locations. Some of the songs come from a deeper place in the language and the architecture of it all. The shape of the book is a lot like those mixtapes we used to make: lots of songs from all over the place, all lined up and ordered for a single purpose and effect.

Bill Frisell, "Lookout for Hope" - For years I've been listening to Frisell when I write. As the father of three kids spread from six to fifteen, I need to fast rope into my writing time. There’s not much time to snuggle in and nest and wait for the Muses. Frisell is my portal in to this space and the catalyst for my work. I played the records History, Mystery, Disfarmer, Gone, Just Like a Train, and Ghost Town almost perpetually during the writing of this book. It’s easy for me to occupy the sonic spaces he creates. "Lookout for Hope" is the best example of what I love most about his work, and the message of the title is completely on point for me as a person trying to live through 2018.

Van Halen, "Panama" - I actually hate this song so much, along with the whole 1984 record, even though I am a huge fan of Van Halen's first three albums. I have had ongoing quarrels about it. I've tried to reconsider, but it doesn't work. That said, this song, especially the spoken word break in the middle, should give you a good sense of the one of my central characters, Doyle Mattson, who is an individual with terrible taste in music. He's a person who keeps listening to the same stuff over and over, trying to hang onto something palpable from his youth. While it never comes up in the book, but I have always imagined that Doyle is a terrible air guitar player, and inexplicably this song is one that he would air-shred to, no matter what else was going on.

U2, "Bullet the Blue Sky" - At a critical moment from early in the book, when there should have been silence, this song U2's The Joshua Tree record comes blasting through a car stereo. I wanted it to function the way Martin Scorsese uses rock and roll classics to create an ironic texture for specific moments, especially violent ones. Perhaps I'm overly attuned to details like these, but I think of songs as a way solidify a theme. The drums, rumbling bass, and the wall of distorted guitars from the opening bars, along with the slide guitar seem to function for me as a recipe for a certain kind of intensity that middle class kids who grew up in the 80s might allow themselves express in public. I also love the repeated line "outside it's America," which is so obvious and naive that it catches me off guard. I once drove a van full of college students through Joshua Tree National Park while listening to this album, and it clarified a few things I have never understood before or since.

Lyle Lovett, "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" - This song doesn't appear directly in the book, but shreds of Lovett's lyrics and his vision appear throughout. He's been a major influence on my writing and my approach to humor. His songs have always struck me like Edward Hopper paintings of Texas. I used to play this song when I was in a band in graduate school. I had a 8-bar guitar solo in the middle of it, and I'd always mess it up because I would fall into the story of this song and start exploring it with my imagination when I was supposed to be playing something in E major. Lovett's use of traditional American song forms - folk, blues, jazz, gospel, and of course, country, allow him to spin some deep dark existential truth into surprising packages. His economical use of words and surprising turns of phrase always leave me feeling larcenous, and he's got skinny legs, like I always wanted.

Holly Yarbrough, "Sometimes People Are Good" (by Fred Rogers) - When my daughter was little, I'd sit down with her to watch Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. My wife and I would sing the songs to her, and I realized (as a cynical child I had dismissed him as simple) that Fred Rogers is very likely one of the most emotionally articulate human beings of all time, a bodhisattva in a cardigan. Even though I like to write about comic, violent, and grotesque situations, I've always got this inner Mr. Rogers inside of me thinking of everyone as neighbors. There is a complication to this song that I love. It's not "everybody is good" which would be cheap. It's "sometimes people are good," with everything that kind of language assumes. This jazzy post-modern jukeboxesque cover of this song gives it all just the right bounce. And you have to remember, Mr. Rogers was all about the jazz.

The Rolling Stones, "Mother's Little Helper" - This song is referenced in a short scene from the middle of the book in a chapter called "Cape Cod Fear," which is a kind of remix of Cape Fear (equal parts 1962 and 1991 with some of The Simpsons Episode 83 thrown in for good measure). In this scene, a millennial guy is listening to a boomer complain about his dire situation. He says it's a "drag getting old." The Millennial tries to redirect the uncomfortable conversation toward talking about how his dad used to be a big fan of the Rolling Stones, but the Boomer has no idea what he's talking about. It's good for a gag, but this song represents a a bigger cultural moment from the 60s that seems to have held its power. This song has a lot of cultural weight for me (a Gen X fella) and I hope it can hover in the space of the story as a more general comment about the generational chasms that mark contemporary life. Plus, I love the strange 12-string slide guitar part that makes the whole thing seem more worldly and wise than a simple rowdy pub song.

"If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake," Ethel Merman - My mother used to say this all the time. During a period in my teens it seemed like she spoke in strange phrases and expressions that came from popular culture in the '50s and '60s. When I got in trouble as a kid, she'd say, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Eventually I saw Cool Hand Luke when I was in college, and I literally freaked out in the theater. My mother had lifted her parenting catch-phrase from the warden of a prison? I tend to steal a lot of dialogue from things my mother has said, which means I’m probably stealing from somebody else. When I gave the line "If I knew you was coming, I'dve baked a cake" to a surly woman making a snide comment to some people she didn't like very much, I realized I should track down the line, and that research led me to this old Ethel Merman song, which makes me even more glad to have it in the book.

"Burning Down the House," The Talking Heads - This song comes on the radio at one of the key moments of the book, and the narrator of that passage knows, when he hears those first opening chords, that he has to get his car off the road because he knows he's going to break down emotionally. It doesn't even occur to him to turn off the song, because it comes to him like a heavenly visitation. I was trying to recreate one of those moments when a song appears out of nowhere and becomes part of the emotional soundtrack for your life. I don't know why I believe so strongly in this, but this kind of thing has happened time and time again in my life. It's like I'm living in an ongoing John Hughes movie. Whenever this song or "Once in a Life Time" starts playing, I break into ten thousand tiny pieces.

"Everybody Needs a Little Trouble," Mr. Big
 - Mr. Big has a 2011 record called What If... with a winged pig on the cover. I had this weird gestalt reaction and kept misreading their name as Mr. Pig, which gave me a joke that shows up near the end of the book about a potbellied pig that belongs to one of the characters. Historically, I've never been a huge fan of arena metal (I'm more of a Living Colour and Fishbone guy), but Mr. Big is right up the alley of this pig-owning small time Oklahoma criminal named Robert Earl Cripps. The song "Everybody Needs a Little Trouble" is a perfect anthem for Robert Earl, and putting it here allows me to make a small public confession: I've been listening to a lot of Paul Gilbert and Steve Vai lately so I have something to talk about with my delightful heavy metal guitar-playing barber. Shhh, please don't tell.

"Do You Believe in Love," Huey Lewis and the News - Okay, here's real confession. I used to like Huey Lewis and the News, and I saw them in concert in Portland in the '80s. People made fun of me for going to that show, even though I bought the tickets from the dude who was also my high school's primary marijuana dealer. While I was writing the final chapter of It Needs to Look Like We Tried, I was sitting in a Taco Bell eating lunch, when "Do You Believe in Love" come on, and I instantly realized that the titular line was the exact mixture of cheesy earnestness I needed for the teenage girl who delivers the line. I didn't know what the line was going to mean or why it needed to be there. But it changed everything and put me in touch with a past version of myself who believed in stupid, beautiful, bold proclamations and simple emotions painted in primary colors.

"I am the Walrus," The Beatles - The middle-aged dude in this book is really me (I hate admitting that), and when he reaches a critical moment, he retreats into the comfort of Beatles nonsense. This song appears directly in the last chapter. When I was working on the passage of dialogue in which the song appears, I had no idea what the character would say. He was not thinking about the predicament he'd put himself into. Instead, I had the distinct impression that he was singing the nonsense of "I Am the Walrus" secretly to himself to keep from going mad, and the only words that could possibly come out of his mouth were "goo goo g'joob." Musically, this song is fascinating, and it's as complex as anything the Beatles have done. But the surface of it seems like utter nonsense.

"We Tried," Empire Strikes Brass - This great funk instrumental is what I imagine playing over the closing credits of this book. I don’t imagine it for a movie version of the book, but I wish there was a way to trigger this song to play when a reader turns the final page and gets to the acknowledgements. I love the bounce of the groove and the implacable cheeriness of the horns. The bass line and the trumpet solo are exactly the feeling I want pulsing through my own middle aged body when I plop into a chair at the end of a day and try to show some gratitude to this planet for not taking me yet.

Todd Robert Petersen and It Needs to Look Like We Tried links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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