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April 20, 2012

Book Notes - Dan Barden "The Next Right Thing"

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dan Barden's The Next Right Thing is a literary thriller that lives up to both halves of the term. Filled with dark humor, acute insight into the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and vivid characters, this novel brims with life.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Barden offers a grim picture of addiction but one that rings true, and he makes clear that he considers AA the last best hope for millions of desperate people. By the end, Randy thinks he knows why and how Terry died, but that knowledge offers little consolation. The novel’s final passage is a kind of prayer, as angry as it is loving, that Randy offers to his dead friend. As I put the book down, I wondered whether Barden had a friend whose death inspired those haunting paragraphs. It feels that real."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Dan Barden's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Next Right Thing:

I'm afraid this is a list about how uncool I am. It took me almost a month to write because I started channeling my shame from high school. I never liked the right bands. Not Led Zeppelin when it was them. Not Television when it was them. Not The Talking Heads, either. I'm a singer/songwriter guy, please don't make fun of me. And these are the songs that influenced my book, The Next Right Thing.

1. Jackson Browne, "Late for the Sky"

At one point in the composition of my novel there was this page-long conversation between my protagonist and a young cop he knows. They were talking about Jackson Browne, who the young cop adored and my protagonist loathed. It had to be cut because I enjoyed the conversation too much. There was a line where Randy, my hero, said, "Singer-Songwriters make me want to kill myself." This is the precise place in my book where I can prove that I am not my protagonist. Randy hates the introspection and whineyness of an album like Late for the Sky, and I just don’t know how to stop loving that album and the silly but also morbid stance it takes toward life. I really wish I could quit Late for the Sky. This album — the whole damn thing — is in my blood and bones. It's probably in the DNA somewhere of everything I've listened to since. When attacked by my much hipper friends in high school and college, I would not give it up and I will not give it up now.

I’m not sure any singer-songwriter is ever cool in the way that I’ve always wanted to be cool. In fact, that's at the heart of why I’ve always distrusted Dylan as an artist. As much as I love him — particularly Blood on the Tracks — Dylan is the only singer-songwriter ever that you don’t have to be embarrassed to tell your friends about. But I also think that might be what’s wrong with him, too. His glibness. That ability you have with Dylan to pull out a verse and impress the shit out of everyone with how brilliant it is. I don’t actually believe that’s the province of a singer-songwriter, when you come right down to it. I think when you share your favorite line from a song, you should be a little ashamed of yourself — that’s because it’s so meaningful to you.

2. Deb Talan, "Ashes on Your Eyes"

I have no idea how I found this woman, but her album A Bird Flies Out is precious to me. She later found success in a band with her husband called The Weepies. Her voice is so strange, her lyrics are so twisted in that Zevonesque way. When she says something, you deeply believe her, particularly when you have no idea what the fuck she’s talking about. Also, she wrote a song about Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, and, ever since I first heard it, I’ve wanted a beautiful singer/songwriter to write about one of my books, too.

3. Tift Merritt, "After Today"

To further deepen my embarrassment that I seem incapable of listening to music that my hipster friends would approve of, I give you Tift Merritt. You know you’re in trouble when you and Stephen King love all the same music. That’s right: Stephen King and I are not hipsters. This woman writes songs that I can't ever get to the bottom of. Her verbal gestures are luminous. I often feel like she’s been reading my mail. I can listen to her albums on a continuous loop. Forever.

4. Brett Dennen, “Ain’t No Reason”

I first heard this song on David Mamet’s I’m-still-so-fucking-pissed-off-it-got-cancelled TV series The Unit. It felt like a wild pitch to the head, and I played it so many times in my car that my five-year-old son started reciting lines back to me. It speaks to a certain kind of romantic resignation wrapped inside of just plain old Jackson Brownesque whiney complaint. I don’t know what it means, and yet it means everything to me.

5. Lori McKenna, “Your Next Lover”

In my writing, as in my life, I have completely embraced sentiment. I can cry over art that’s a lot less profound than this song about a woman wishing her former husband a wonderful first date. It’s exactly the kind of tone that I wanted to hit with my novel Late for the Sky: we’re all such a mess but we do really love each other, don’t we?

6. Mindy Smith, “Come to Jesus”

I’m not a Christian, but if every folk song about Jesus were as wonderful as this, I might pretend to be. I’m only putting songs on this list that I have played more than a hundred times during the writing of my novel. This one might have been a thousand. Although I’m not a Christian, I’m absolutely convinced that God loves me. And He loves me in precisely the way that Mindy Smith describes in this beautiful song.

7. Steve Earle, “Pancho and Lefty”

Earle’s loving cover of this greatest of all Townes Van Zandt songs reminds me that I am only a novelist because I can’t write this song. There is nothing better in our entire culture than this song. I like to believe that Townes Van Zandt could have been as influential as Dylan if he hadn’t been wrecked by alcoholism, but, really, who knows? I think you’ve gotta give a pass for a man who wrote a song as good as this one. It’s about a Mexican revolutionary/bandit/who knows what and the shiftless American who betrayed him to the Federales. There isn’t a line in the whole damn song that didn’t change my life. Which reminds me: this version of the song was sung by a pretty complicated alcoholic/addict himself, and I realize that I stole an exchange between these two great songwriters for my book. Steve Earle apparently visited Van Zandt in a drying out hospital and Van Zandt greeted him by saying, “I must be in really bad shape if they sent you.” I stole that line. It's in my book. Buy it and look it up.

8. The Wailin’ Jennys, "Heaven When We're Home"

These three angel-voiced women were my writing soundtrack for most of the composition of my book. Them and Tift Merritt. I want to say something profound about their wonderful music — because they deserve that — but it might come down to a tonal thing. I love their music and I haven’t stopped loving it, but I also find that I can listen to it without really listening to it. It calms my ADD so that I can write. I hate to say this about such amazing artists, but I use them as background music. That’s the truth of it. Still, allow me to say something about Canada where these ladies are from: there's Robertson Davies and there's John Irving – John Irving wishes he were as good as Robertson Davies. There's The Wailin' Jenny's and there's The Dixie Chicks – The Dixie Chicks wish they were as good as The Wailin' Jennys. Oh, Canada.

9. Brian Koppelman’s playlist(s) on Spotify

My friend is a brilliant director/screenwriter/producer. I’m not only taking this opportunity to suck up to him, but it’s true that mostly when I’m writing these days, I’m listening to one of Brian’s playlists. Brian has almost all the same musical instincts that I do, but because he used to be a very successful A & R guy, I don’t think he’s an asshole for it. He introduced me, carefully, to The Hold Steady, and he taught me to never be ashamed of my love for Counting Crows. I’m working on that.

10. Lou Reed, "New Sensations"

I did not listen to this song as I wrote my book, but I find that I can't abandon this list without trying, at least once, to sound like a hipster. My book is so much about how recovering alcoholics live their lives, and this song was in my car, on a seemingly endless loop, when I first quit drinking. Still, I got misty almost every time I played it.

Dan Barden and The Next Right Thing links:

the author's website

Addiction Inbox review
Book It. review
Bookmarks review
BookPage review
The Fix review
Full Stop review
Kirkus Reviews review
Neon Tommy review
Publishers Weekly review
Reviewing the Evidence review
Three Guys One Book review
Washington Post review

The Atlantic interview with the author
Huffington Post articles by the author
Indianapolis Star profile of the author
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the author
Random House Reader's Circle interview with the author
Silver Square interview with the author
Three Guys One Book guest post by the author
The Week guest list by the author (his six favorite book about addiction)

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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