June 10, 2021
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 Alex DiFrancesco’s new collection Transmutation will break you apart then put you back together in ways you will be thankful for. A magnificent collection.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Alex DiFrancesco’s eclectic, absorbing first collection, Transmutation, captures moments of in-betweenness (often fraught, sometimes magical) that may be especially familiar to transgender people who are not legible, temporarily or purposefully, to others or themselves... Within these direct, straightforward stories are corridors of solitude and reflection... Unlike with the cool remove of, say, Rachel Cusk’s fiction, DiFrancesco clearly is not afraid to err on the side of sentimentality... At the affective core of 'Transmutation' is the question of how we can offer shelter for one another’s pain, real and imagined."
In many ways, there are dueling instincts in my new short story collection, Transmutation. There is healing, and there is revenge. Both of these instincts fall under the umbrella of reclaiming the queer monstrous. There are stories of trans vampires who show mercy; mysterious will-o’-the-wisps that appear after the disappearance of a Black housekeeper in the Jim Crow South; internet demons that get stolen from their neo-Nazi creators; and a rock star who intuited a tragedy but did nothing to stop it, wrote an album instead, and spends his life repenting. Multi-tonal storytelling, in collections, is quite important to me -- collections, like albums, should hit different emotional notes, while every piece hangs together in some way. So in this collection, you will find mercy, rage, penatance, and some sly winks of the eye.
The playlist you find here is not what I listened to while writing (I can’t listen to songs with words when I write, they are too distracting for me), but songs that seemed to capture the emotions behind these stories, and some songs that inspired the stories. There are revenge songs and songs about monsters, songs about love and survival.
These Boots Are Made for Walking - Nancy Sinatra
This song has so much swagger and cool that it seemed the perfect way to start this list. Revenge, here, is casual, comes in cowboy boots (they must be cowboy boots, right? That’s not canon!), and walks all over the one who caused harm.
Crow Jane - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
In this piece from Cave’s story-song days, he inhabits the voice of a woman who is gang-raped and takes her revenge on the rapists with murder. Cave’s cleverness shines in this song, in addition to his skill with narrative -- are those measurements Crow Jane’s body or her guns? I’m gonna go with guns.
Shitlist - L7
I first heard this song, a gloriously howled wail of revenge, on the soundtrack for the film Natural Born Killers. I would not want to make this sort of list, but I could listen to it being sung about all day long.
One Way or Another - Blondie
This song is so creepy -- following someone to their house and waiting for the lights to go out, following them to the grocery store -- and so rock and roll satisfying. Debbie Harry may not be the most horrifying figure in rock, but if I were the person this song were about, I’d be frightened.
Wolves - Phosphorescent
An early Phosphorescent track off the album Pride, the ukelele chords and mournful voice of Matthew Houck make me wonder if the wolves that live in this song don’t live in all of us. Houck’s gotten happier in recent times, marrying and settling down with a family, building a studio in the South -- but I miss the mournful days of early Phosphorescent, which this song and the album it’s on exemplify.
My Beloved Monster - Eels
E from Eels has always been one of my favorite sadboys of rock, because he blends pop with sadness seamlessly (and without all the bad politics of Morrissey!). This song from one of his early albums has been featured in Shrek, and has a truly sweet sensibility. The monster here doesn’t menace, she protects. She’s a guardian against the mean world. And she’s got a raincoat with four sleeves.
Release the Bats - The Birthday Party
I cannot get enough of young Nick Cave screaming “Horror! Vampire! Sex! Bite! Bite!” in various configurations in this song. There’s a vampire story in this collection. The vampires are trans, and I hope they’re half as sexy as this song.
Let’s Get Hurt - Guitar Wolf
Japan’s best answer to The Ramones, jett rock band Guitar Wolf also stars in one of my favorite films of all time, Wild Zero, a comedy-zombie-horror flick notable for its ‘90s embracing of transness. This song is about bad romance, another favorite topic of mine.
You Let My Tyres Down - Tropical Fuck Storm
A friend introduced me to this Australian rock band recently, and while the revenge in this song is mild (letting the air out of the tires of a lover’s car), it’s still satisfying, no?
Rub Til It Bleeds - PJ Harvey
You’d have to ask Polly Jean Harvey to be certain, but I think this song is about an unexpectedly rough hand job. Not something I’d recommend, but, well, it works for the purpose of the song.
Holland 1945 - Neutral Milk Hotel
One of the stories in this collection, “The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre,” is loosely based around the albums and subsequent disappearance of Neutral Milk Hotel’s core member, Jeff Mangum. I was obsessed with the story in the early 2000s, before Mangum reappeared to do several shows filled with the band’s old work. This song is Mangum’s love song to Anne Frank -- “the only girl I ever loved/was born with roses in her eyes/but then they buried her alive/one year in 1945/with just her sister at her side/and only weeks before the guns/all came and rained on everyone.”
Zombie - Cranberries
This anti-war song about the violence in Northern Ireland reminds me of the numbness and the reliving of painful memories caused by PTSD -- something I can relate to. The “monster” in question, the “zombie” -- is this someone scarred by war, who has become numb, a monster, someone caught in an endless battle in their own head? Sure feels like it to me. There is a questioning of the category of monster here that appeals greatly to me as someone who’s spent the last few years questioning that category to write my own book on it.
Johnny 99 - Bruce Springsteen
Straight up misguided revenge happens in this song from one of Springsteen’s mid-career albums, Nebraska. A man loses his job at an auto plant and goes on a killing spree. He’s not a hero, or even an anti-hero, and he admits this when he asks the judge to execute him for “the thoughts inside his head.” Incidentally, this is my favorite Springsteen album, stripped-down and lo-fi. Springsteen allegedly recorded it multiple times before resorting to his four-track versions that he’d carried around on a tape in his back pocket.
It’s Business as Usual - Barry Adamson
Barry Adamson’s a post-punk legend, and this song creeps me out like few others do. Over increasingly disturbing music, there is a conversation between a woman who is in love with the persona Adamson has created for himself in the song, and the persona. It’s the stuff of nightmares, to be honest.
The Partisan - Leonard Cohen
The last story in this collection is based entirely on this song, which is in turn based on an old French WWII song. Cohen once said in an interview that as a child he’d found a book of such songs and became convinced that music had won the war. The song (and my story) follow several partisans making their way through the countryside -- but Cohen’s final lines “the wind the wind is blowing/through the graves the wind is blowing/freedom soon will come/then we’ll come from the shadows” always sounded ominous to me, though it was clearly written about the clandestine forces of good. So, in my version, I had each of these partisans carrying a monster.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of All City (Seven Stories Press 2019). They have also published fiction in The Carolina Quarterly, The New Ohio Review, and Monkeybicycle. They are a winner of Sundress Academy for the Arts' 2017 OutSpoken contest for LGBTQ+ writing. DiFrancesco's non-fiction has appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Longreads, Brevity, and was a finalist in Cosmonauts Avenue's inaugural non-fiction prize. Their storytelling has been featured at the Fringe Festival, Life of the Law, the Queens Book Festival, and The Heart podcast. DiFrancesco is also a skilled bread baker and pastry cook, a passionate activist and advocate, and has a small, wonderful cat named Sylvia Rivera-Katz.