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August 30, 2011

Book Notes - George Pelecanos ("The Cut")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Stephen King has called George Pelecanos "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer." I have to agree that he sits on that perch along with James Ellroy, Laura Lippman, and Elmore Leonard by my own account.

The Cut is the first novel in a new series by Pelecanos. The compelling protagonist, Spero Lucas, is an Iraq War veteran working as an unlicensed private eye in Washington. Pelecanos draws his characters with a knowing hand, rarely in white or black, but depicting many shades of gray.

I am looking forward to seeing where George Pelecanos takes Spero Lucas.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Pelecanos clearly knows that he is in the business of entertainment, and he goes about it in a thoroughly professional way. But entertainment needn’t be an end in itself. A book that entertains can also enrich, instruct and even enlighten. George Pelecanos's books do all of that, which is plenty good enough for me."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is George Pelecanos's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Cut:

My new novel, The Cut, tells the story of Spero Lucas, a Marine Corps veteran of the Battle of Fallujah who returns to D.C. and picks up work as an unlicensed investigator for a prominent criminal defense attorney. Lucas also takes side-jobs, recovering lost or stolen property for a 40% cut. It is on one of those jobs, retrieving the lost product of a jailed marijuana dealer, where he finds the kind of conflict he thought he'd left behind in Iraq.

Spero Lucas is a capable, physical young man with appetites who aims to work outside the traditional white-collar environment and fully experience the youthful years he lost in the war.

She rolled off the mattress and stood. He watched her cross the room, slowly, deliberately, so he could take her in. She was proud of her body and rightly so. He listened to her in the bathroom, washing herself, and then the sound of water drumming in the sink. Thinking, this is what I dreamed of when I was overseas: a nice big comfortable bed in a place of my own, money in my pocket, good looking women to laugh with, sometimes just to fuck, sometimes to make love to. God, what more do you need?

The music Lucas listens to, and the music that I listened to while writing The Cut, is what I imagined a guy of his background (scrappy, high school wrestler), generation, and combat experience would be into. It would be guitar-based and it would be smart and rock hard. Meaning, no Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, or any of their kind. Lucas likes live music, so the bands have to sound as good in a club as they do on record. Through a fellow Marine who turned him on to it, he's also into reggae and dub, and likes to spark up some weed while he's listening to it at night.

Here's the list:

King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, Augustus Pablo

The mother of all dub records, top to bottom a great party album, with Pablo blowing the melodica over a strong rhythm section and studio effects. If you like this, check out Black Uhuru's amazing Dub Factor.

More Gregory, Gregory Isaacs

Isaacs, my favorite reggae singer, recently passed after a tough life. There's a reason his style was called Lover's Rock; the rhythms are easy and deep, the vocals incomparably sensual. The Cool Ruler cut some good singles (the club hit "Night Nurse" comes to mind), but few great long players. This is the one, produced by Sly and Robbie. Alternate: Soon Forward.

Spero's Greatest Ska/Reggae Hits

"Marcus Garvey," Burning Spear
"Leaving to Zion," Black Uhuru
"Dub Revolution," See-I
"Fisherman," The Congos

"Time Tough," Toots and the Maytals
"Guns of Navarone," The Skatalites
"Ghost Town," The Specials
"Miami Beach," Garland Jeffries

LKJ in Dub
"Blackheart Man," Bunny Wailer
I Just Can't Stop It, The Beat

"The Guns of Brixton," The Clash

It is said, with some truth, that white boys can't play reggae, but these white boys came pretty close. The Clash made several forays into Jamaican rock, with "The Guns of Brixton" at the top of my list for its bold opening salvo ("When they kick at your front door/How you gonna come?/With your hands on your head/Or on the trigger of your gun") and Big Youth-style bottom. That's my pick from London Calling. I have a feeling that Spero Lucas would go with "Death or Glory."

"Loving Cup," The Rolling Stones

"I'm the man that brings you roses/When you ain't got none." Spero's late father, Van Lucas, used to play Exile on Main Street in his Chevy Silverado work truck when Spero was a boy. Spero now dreams it and "hears" it when he lays flowers on his father's grave. There are so many good tracks to choose from off this record, but "Loving Cup" has The Stones firing on all cylinders as a band, with a special nod to Nicky Hopkins' piano, Bill Wyman's bass, and Mick's impassioned vocals. No need to mention that you should own Exile. If you don't own it already, you probably aren't reading this blog.

"Muzzle of Bees," Wilco

On studio recordings, Jeff Tweedy's band has sometimes left me cold (of those efforts, I like the relatively traditional songwriting and country bent of the debut, A.M.) but in concert their music connects on a more potent level. Kicking Television, Live in Chicago is the Wilco album to try if you want to hear what all the praise is about. For me, "Muzzle of Bees," from the live set, is their strongest performance, a song that goes from quiet emotion to straight power, ending in a Nels Cline solo that's both violent and spiritual. This one would be on the Lucas all-time playlist; I know it's on mine.

Spero's Best Live Records

Live at Leeds, The Who
Steppenwolf Live
Band of Gypsys, Jimi Hendrix
Full House, J. Geils Band
Live and Dangerous, Thin Lizzy
Berlin Live at St. Ann's Warehouse, Lou Reed
Live, Johnny Winter
Live at the Old Waldorf, Television

"Multitude of Casualties," The Hold Steady

In The Cut, this song, from Separation Sunday, is mentioned in conversation along with the following lyrics: "She said I shipped it out from Boulder/packed in coffee grounds and wrapped around in dryer sheets." Spero and a woman he just met are talking about the method of shipping marijuana via FedX (coffee grounds deter dope-sniffing dogs) but what they're really discussing is how the mutual love of a band can lead to the next, possibly physical step in a relationship. The Hold Steady is the kind of group that can bring literate listeners, bangers, and club drunks together in the same space. When Slash and Springsteen are referenced in the same song, someone is doing something right.

"That Man I Shot," Drive-By Truckers

Patterson Hood's raging vet anthem, from Brighter Than Creation's Dark, is a deep look into a soldier's psyche and a stark reminder of the lasting cost of war. While this tune is never mentioned in the book, I imagined it was in heavy rotation in Spero Lucas's head. Another classic from the American band of the past decade.

"Summer Babe (Winter Version)," Pavement

Lucas walked out onto the street after midnight, satiated, a cocky lilt in his step…he started up his Jeep and drove over to Thirteenth Street with the windows down. The ride home was sweet.

What does a young man listen to after a chance encounter with a woman turns into something completely eye-popping and unexpected? The killer opener from Slanted and Enchanted would be a good place to start.

George Pelecanos and The Cut links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Chicago Sun-Times review
The Daily Mail review
Financial Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
The List review
London Evening Standard review
Los Angeles Times review
Mulholland Books interview with the author
New York Times review
Philadelphia Inquirer review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

CNN interview with the author
HitFix interview with the author
The Kenyon Review Blog interview with the author
Kirkus Reviews interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Drama City
Morning Edition profile of the author
Observer essay by the author
Times-Pacayune interview with the author
USA Today profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
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)
weekly music & DVD release lists