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May 11, 2005

Book Notes: George Pelecanos ("Drama City")

I was first introduced to the writing of George Pelecanos through an essay on his website that detailed his music listening habits while on a recent book tour. A friend had e-mailed me the link, mentioning that the author and myself had similar musical tastes, and that I might enjoy his novels. I picked up Right as Rain the next day, and was impressed by the author's craft in telling this modern crime tale.

The "Book Notes" entry written by George Pelecanos:

The title of my latest novel, Drama City, describes the wide range of characters existing in the gap between the extreme masks of comedy and tragedy. The music in this one was hard to pin down. Now that I think about it, it was pretty much all over the map.

When Lorenzo Brown’s best friend, Nigel, still the neighborhood drug dealer, visits his mother, she is listening to “The Makings of You,” from the Claudine soundtrack, composed by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips. The album contains some of Mayfield’s best compositions, brought alive by Gladys’s earthy, utterly soulful vocals (personally, I would jump over one hundred Diana Rosses to touch the hand of one Gladys Knight). Earlier in the novel, when ex-con Lorenzo Brown first meets Rayne, a woman he is interested in, she is listening to Mayfield’s version of the same song, which appeared prior to Claudine on his album Curtis. Lorenzo’s memories of Nigel’s mother, who listened to the same music, gives him an entry point to their conversation, and immediately brings Lorenzo and the woman closer together. If you want a Gladys Knight for your collection, I recommend Soul Survivors, a best-of on Rhino, containing three of the best tracks off Claudine, as well as the big ones off Imagination. Nigel’s mom is also into early Chaka Khan, as is this writer. Now that I’m on the subject, Ask Rufus (with Rufus) is the one to own.

Rachel Lopez, Lorenzo Brown’s parole officer, listens to Freddie Fender’s “The Wild Side of Life” as she takes a bath and prepares herself for an evening of cruising the area’s hotel bars. Rachel’s late father was Mexican and in her childhood he played Tex-Mex/Tejano music in the house. This particular song reflects Rachel’s state of abandon, her other side, “Rachel at night.” In this live version, sung mainly in Spanish, Fender works the crowd into a near frenzy, and you are there. I mean, you can taste the tequila, beer back, and smell the smoke in the bar. I found this on a mix tape given to me years ago by an employee of the bookstore Politics and Prose. It is well worth seeking out, and will make you appreciate Mr. Fender, whose singles unfairly place him in the camp of soft. Don’t blame him for that haircut, either. Trust me, we all made hair mistakes in those days, and at the time it didn’t look all that bad.

Mark Christianson, Lorenzo’s partner at the Humane Society, listens to a kind of rock that the narrator describes as “punk before punk.” In one scene, to Lorenzo’s horror, Mark is rocking “Personality Crisis” in the company van. It is a nod to one of my early album purchases, The New York Dolls debut on Mercury. I bought the album because of the radical cover photo of the band. I had no idea what I was getting into until I dropped the needle onto the wax.

Lorenzo listens to WPGC, one of D.C.’s popular hip-hop stations (the other being WKYS) in the mornings when he prepares for work. The deejay, Donnie Simpson, tends to play old school positive, which speaks to Lorenzo’s state of mind (“Lorenzo couldn’t get behind that death romance thing anymore.”) One of those songs is EWF’s “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” When this song first came out it was both anthemic and ubiquitous in Washington. Some people can’t get past the New Age excesses of later Earth Wind and Fire offerings, but those missteps don’t negate their early records, which contained some of the most beautiful funk and soul music ever recorded. “Keep Your Head to the Sky” is a good example of EWF at their best. It’s the kind of song that could send Lorenzo Brown, and anyone else for that matter, out into the world with purpose.

Pull up to any stop light on a summer night in D.C., and most likely will hear go-go (perhaps the penultimate single from the past few years, “Overnight Scenario,” by Rare Essence), rather than hip-hop, coming from the open windows of the open cars. This is the sound of our city, and it is the music I imagine the young characters in my book are listening to. It is also as DIY as anything on the Dischord label (and indeed, years ago, you could see Fugazi paired up with say, Trouble Funk, at free outdoor concerts around town). For older types (like me), the names that still ring out are Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Rare Essence, Junk Yard, and others. My sons listen to Backyard Band (headed by Anwan Glover, AKA Big G, AKA Genghis, who played Slim Charles on The Wire), who have been around for years and continue to produce vital tracks. If you’re interested in the form, check out the website I deliberately play down the connection of go-go to violence in my books, as it has been overstated in other media (it’s the few bad apples, people, not the music that is doing the dirt). Many uninformed people in this city want to shut go-go down, when in fact this homegrown music movement is one of the only things that many kids in this city can call their own. But then I recently heard Bill O’Reilly putting down Curtis Mayfield for glorifying drugs in Superfly, when in fact Superfly is the most vehement anti-drug statement ever committed to vinyl. Which just goes to show you, ignorance knows no bounds.

Finally, while writing Drama City, I listened to my latest obsession, Lalo Schifrin (specifically, the soundtracks to Bullitt and Dirty Harry), and, as usual, electric period Miles: On the Corner when I was going for twisted tension, the Jack Johnson album when I wanted that John McLaughlin/Miles Davis pulse, the feel of prowling the city streets at night. While not in my office, I listened to Drive-By Truckers and Slobberbone, two bands that had nothing at all to do with the themes of the novel, but nevertheless afforded me the kind of southern rock release that I needed at the end of the day.

see also:

52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)