September 3, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The year's most horrifying novel won't be found in the horror section, unless Grace Krilanovich's debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, is mistakenly shelved there. This postmodern gem is both intense and surreal, and one of the most spectacular debut novels I have read in a long time.
Rarely do I agree wholeheartedly with book reviews, but Tobias Carroll could have been reading my thoughts when he wrote at Vol. 1 Brooklyn:
"Krilanovich is borrowing elements here from pulp horror, but it’s key that an unseen killer is far more sinister than either the gang of vampires or an ominous street that resurfaces throughout the book. Her novel shares a disorienting quality with the final section of Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain, in which time, character, and action collapse in on themselves. That actions are horrific isn’t the only thing at work here — there’s also the way in which actions begin to blur and lose cohesion, which is in its own way even more horrific. And in the end, the most resonant pit-of-your-stomach dread doesn’t come from a roadside killer or fangs poised above a neck. Instead, it’s a much simpler scene, something rooted in mundane indifference that brings this novel to its unexpectedly domestic and achingly painful conclusion."
My slutty teenage hobo vampire junkies have a soft spot for the puerile, the ridiculous, the soothingly medicinal sludge of heavy metal and the trebly frayed ends of punk rock. They like sounds that are messy and unhinged, unpopular, out of step, abrasive and overwhelming – rock 'n roll that's violent in its truth, disorderly in its agenda, artful in its perversion.
Throughout the novel there's the sense that something important has been lost. Efforts to recover buried knowledge lead to digging in the dirt, pouring over half-decipherable texts and obscure objects, looking for some clues. There's frequent reference to excavation, secret codes, speculation about the past. An obsession with ruins. They don't really know what they're looking for, just a vague sense that it was important and that continuing life in its absence is hard. They know something really important got away.
The underground rock thing kept cropping up during the writing of this novel. It seems like a given when writing about teens in the Pacific Northwest of the early '90s. But there's something more at stake here: the kids are compulsively drawn to the spectacle on stage, as if that could communicate some essential truth. I didn't want to get specific by using real bands in the book, instead the idea was to sprinkle the narrative with made-up bands, near misses, dead ringers, etc. – to create a heightened reality of what life could have been like at that place and that time, in the middle of what was once a constellation of regional scenes dappling the country. A slice of life on the fringes of heavy metal, punk and indie rock, cast through the lens of a silent movie on acid.
I wanted the music to play into the idea of "excess." That is one of the great things about the form of the novel, that possibility of (invitation to?) excess. Here you have this vast space you can run amok in, with so many places to hide. And it was especially in the excessive, sometimes violent stage antics of GG Allin, Lux Interior, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, Darby Crash and others that there was a kernel of . . . possibility -- of what exactly? transcendence? art? Much of it had to do with the public spectacle of them hurting themselves.
Even on the fringes there were limits. With so much of The Orange Eats Creeps rooted in the politics of the female body, the hijinks of shock rockers (male) is telling because even here, at the very edge of decency, there was a glass ceiling. They say nothing's shocking any more, but I promise you if a woman did any of the things late-period GG did on stage people would freak out. They would try to stop her. Any of that cutting shit, you can't do. A woman making herself bleed on stage, punching herself in the face with the mike? Forget it.
I spent a great deal of time trying to untangle that thread – not to undermine the value of chops, by any means. Many of the real-life bands I took as an inspiration for the novel were innovative and genre busting, and could care less about labels or scenes. It was mostly about letting it take over their lives, and the weird, uncanny shapes they dreamed up and put down on wax, or unleashed at shows.
The good-natured antagonism from band and audience alike was indicative of people taking a stand. True heckling is such a lost art. Young bands don't know what to do when some old geezer hisses at them from the audience; they don't know how to be smart and witty about it. Back then it seemed like people took unfamiliar sounds at face value and wouldn't hesitate to tell you if you blew. At least bands knew they were ruffling feathers. Now audiences are often deadpan, unless it's their favorite band. I wanted to create a world where the stakes were really high, where things were full of meaning, good and bad. You could grab hold of it. I think of a band like Black Flag and how they actively sought to make you mad by playing too loud, too fast, too slow, too weird, how they didn't care if you hated their new songs and only wanted to hear the old songs. They aimed to antagonize, which is way less charming if you suck musically. Fortunately for us listeners, they had chops and were truly on their own trip. They worked really hard and strove for excellence no matter what. The sheer effort they put out is mind-boggling; it didn't even make sense.
The writing of this book wouldn't have been possible without the antics, abandon and illegal proclivities of bands I hold near and dear spurring me along in my artistic endeavors, safe in the knowledge that somebody out there was pushing the limits, truly alive in their mind, even though they may have been out of step with the rest of world.
For the purpose of assembling an Orange Eats Creeps Playlist, I've chosen a selection of tunes reminiscent of the place (Pacific Northwest) and time (1990's) in which the novel is set. Luckily this coincides with the last time I identified with or even cared about any new bands, making me not unlike the aging hippies of the early '80s who were still rocking Sopwith Camel and Vanilla Fudge – on wax, natch. (Actually, I just described my dad. I was raised up right, on a steady diet of creepy acid rock.)
Now that I've outed myself as a snob and a taste-geezer, it's only proper that I lay out the list, with a link to a Two Dollar Radio blog post that has a few of the vids.
Melvins, "With Teeth"
Oddly short for its share of ear-punishing metallic density. A two and a half minute blast of sonic perfection. I would describe this as a fine spray of guitar, hammered down by Dale Crover's Drums from Hell™. The vocals are indecipherable. I take comfort in the abrasive weirdness and "almost too much" of this band, and am thankful that – after more than 25 years – they're going strong and better than ever, having annexed the bass player and drummer from Big Business. That's right: two drummers.
Screaming Trees, "In the Forest"
People may not realize it, but the 'Trees go way back, to 1985. This is a far cry from "Nearly Lost You," which is okay; I like bands that go through different incarnations (Roxy Music, Cheap Trick, Redd Kross). Lanegan hadn't even gotten his signature growl down yet. Here he sounds like a garage rock Fraggle. And I like it!
A rare radio-friendly Earth song, with vocals. "The World, it spins on a crooked axis/ left it twitching by the road," apparently is the entirety of the lyrics. Their album "Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version" (comprised of three lengthy drone tracks) is also excellent, and puts my cat in a trance when I play it at home.
Dead Moon, "D.O.A"
From the wilds of Clackamas . . . Fred and Toody are in it for life. The through line of this band's scrappy, principled output carries with it the gravity of all those years passing by, and the idea that being a punk iconoclast can also be a process reclaiming what it means to be "slow and steady," modest, true and self-sufficient. They show that you can hunker down on the periphery and do your own thing, decade after decade -- a kind of rural Survivalist compound of the mind.
Poison Idea, "Punish Me"
This is just an all-around, awesome music video, period. Definitely one of the biggest bands to come out of Portland, and I mean in sheer poundage, with their inexhaustible appetites for food, booze and drugs fueling a happy-go-lucky brand of nihilism that was uniquely their own. And a bass solo is always appreciated.
Wipers, The Herd (album)
Some later Wipers stuff. And although the uniform 4/4 mono-fuzz of this album reminds me of the movie Repo Man (driving around L.A. late at night it seems to fit), the Wipers/Greg Sage are Portland all the way. Not even Kurt could lure them out of their little PDX shell to join Nirvana on tour. Something about not wanting to "sell out." Seemed like the go-to excuse of the era.
Black Flag, "Black Coffee"
The shadow of Black Flag looms large over the Northwest scene. It's crazy to think back to a time when, going to a show, there was a chance you could get really badly hurt, arrested, or – at best – mercilessly harassed by cops and punkers alike. Those days are gone; I never knew 'em, even though I've seen my fair share of band members barfing on stage, getting naked (Dino!) and verbally abusing the audience. Greg Ginn's a stealth nerd, which is something to aspire to. Who would ever expect all those fucked up lyrics, all those outlandish guitar sounds, to come from an impassive, polo shirt-wearing Deadhead?
Tex and the Horseheads, "Oh Mother"
Frontwoman Texacala Jones is an enigma, her past shrouded in mystery, while on stage she was a ball of clanking jewelry, whiskey-stained lace and quizzical banter. I was lucky enough to catch the Horseheads' last few shows before they called it quits – some 25 years after their brief heyday. They wouldn't play this song (one of their best) for some reason. Is it because it feels really shitty? "Oh mother, can you hear your children crying/Crying for the love that walked away/Oh mother, why do I feel like dying?/Say something to take away the pain…" All this, mind you, sung in a most original, husky cowgirl yawlp. Tex whoops and dips through her squalling cow-punk surroundings. One of the most beloved bands to come out of the L.A. punk scene, and one to which Guns 'n Roses owe a great deal.
Saint Vitus, "Look Behind You"
The only band I can think of fronted by a male witch. His name is Wino, and he is a legend. "Foggy morning drifting 'round you/Blackened haze/Can't see past your trembling hand/Pounding footsteps right behind you/Every day" . . . You are being followed. Well, the male witch asks, What are you gonna do? One of the band's other signature tracks, "Born Too Late," aside from its obvious defense of slow metal, long hair and out of date threads, is about the bigger picture of missing out on a chance to be favored by history. Here we are, crippled by a longing for a past that seems like a great fit, if not a refuge; nostalgia, a dark dreamy cave padded with the feeling that we should know better. But why resist? When has it ever been any other way for misfits among misfits?
Hüsker Dü, "Eight Miles High"
The song is a bridge. Through the act of reclaiming a hippie signpost – the Byrds' early folk rock drug anthem -- and applying primal scream therapy à la Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon, Hüsker Dü fashions a transcendent double crossing of inward-turning hippies and the drugs that were making empathy increasingly difficult, as they simultaneously challenged the close-minded punkers who held a palpable distain for all things David Crosby. This choice of cover song has none of the camp or irony of, say, X covering "Wild Thing," or Devo's version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It is an act of standing in the enemy camp, in solidarity, as you take their art and bend it into a new statement of personal, specific, unique lived experience. A catharsis that demands, over and over: Do you remember?
Grace Krilanovich and The Orange Eats Creeps links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
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