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June 14, 2013

Book Notes - Andrew Vachss "Aftershock"


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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Andrew Vachss impresses again with his new, dark and compelling thriller Aftershock.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"[C]ompelling first in a new thriller series ... [R]eaders will stick with the story, and the series, because the steadfast, relentless Dell, with his uncompromising morality, commands attention."

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 Andrew Vachss's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Aftershock:

I'm always listening to music–although not necessarily via a recording. When I'm writing, when I'm doing anything really. Thanks to this little “souvenir” of malaria that apparently will be with me for life–tinnitus. Music helps–dead silence is unbearable, but with a multi-tasking (or overloaded) brain, it doesn’t intrude much.

There are songs I know well, songs I've had inside me for a long time. Some of those songs were playing when I wrote my newest novel, Aftershock. It's the start of a new crime series. Why another series after 18 Burke novels? Well, if you want depth of character like I was able to do with Burke, it needs to be a series, needs to be layered over time. You can't write a 500 page intro. Also, you can't keep creating totally new protagonists if you are always writing in the first person. I can't write in a woman’s voice ... some do this perfectly, I can’t even come close. I'm not interested in “research”–too much of my life has heard that music on an Agenda organ. I write what I know. And I've been thinking for a long time about the way that mercenaries are viewed. Movies aren’t a good reference for most things, unless they’re made from non-fiction books by that vanishing breed–the journalist whose only God is Truth. But if you’re going to research mercenaries-and-motivations, look up Simon Mann.

So my playlist. I don't want to give away too much about Dell, the 1st-person narrator of the new series, but it's kind of a map of his life. There’s a philosophy that maintains people are “useless” unless they possess certain useable skills–you’re useless if you can’t be used. Mercenaries fall into that category. We assume that their life is their choice, but that’s as intelligent as any “they’re all alike” statement would be. But let's say you believe you’re useless. What then? You want to connect with someone else, you want to feel something. That's brutally hard for some of people, and the outcome isn’t always a good one.

Dell, that's him. Dolly? Maybe a beautiful nurse he encountered when he woke up in a field hospital in the Congo. Or maybe just what he’d fever-dreamed. Dell can’t trust his memory ... hell, he doesn’t even have a memory before age nine or ten. Retrograde amnesia, they told him in that “clinic” in Belgium, the one he walked away from and merged with the darkness outside its sterile walls.

But Dell’s dream of Dolly is the first time in his life that he's ever had a mission that someone else hasn't given to him. What would someone like Dell be had it not been for Dolly? Probably dead–spin the wheel enough times and the ball lands on zero. Dell never sought death, but his interest in life wasn’t very high.

So what happens when someone like Dell decides to help solve a crime? Well, it wouldn’t be with that noir staple, the “friend on the force.” Dell has been an outlaw for all his life, and he’s not about to change sides. And that's what Aftershock is about.

"Born in Chicago" (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band)

This is Butterfield’s signature song, leading an incredible group that included guitar genius Mike Bloomfield. They both died young, while Elvin Bishop just kept rolling. Butterfield was born and raised in Hyde Park, not in the juke joints of Chicago. A born musician, he could have played the flute in any classical orchestra. He knew the truth of his life, and learned the truth of life a short distance from his home. So the lyrics (Nick Gravenites) has his father telling him, “Son, you had better get yourself a gun.” Dell has no past, but he and Butterfield are alike in that they each saw only one way open to them. In “Born in Chicago,” the singer has two friends, and neither makes it past the age of 21. Neither did the only two friends Dell made.

“The blues are all right, if there’s someone left to play the game.
But all my friends are going, people ... and things just don’t seem the same.”

Butterfield died young. He didn’t understand what the blues musicians he idolized knew from birth ... those first-class seats on planes are going to be back seats on the ‘Hound soon enough. And drugs only numb the pain, they don’t cure it.

"Goin’ Down Slow" (Canned Heat)

One of a thousand versions of this song, but the only one with Blind Owl Wilson adding his magic. He died young, too ... as did lead singer, Big Bob Hite. The lyrics have morphed into personal versions: a man who once had money and friends, and now has neither; a man dying of disease, waiting for his last visitor; a man whose sins have caught up with him, and tries to smuggle a letter of of jail asking his mother to forgive him ... no matter: he’s going to watch himself die. And that's what Dell was doing before he met Dolly. He saw this one little chance to be a person, and he went all-in. If he failed, he died ... and he was OK with that. It's not as if mercenaries had retirement communities.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" (The Charlie Musselwhite Blues Band)

Dell's permanent state–he was a man who searched all his life, and when he (to his amazement) found his dream could be true, what he did to keep it alive made a lot of other people dead. This is a song that personifies the Chicago Blues. It's intrusive and hard; it has to be. It’s designed to cut through a club where getting audience attention is no easy trick.

"Goin’ Back Home" (Son Seals)

That was something Dell could never do, something he finally accepted—you can't go back to a place you never knew. Son Seals was Chicago blues legend. And a friend. Hell, he “opened” for me at Barbara’s (when it was still on Wells Street) for me when I did one of my infamous “readings,” and jammed the place ... even the bouncer from the nearby strip club came over. You know about Doc Pomus? Well, he was a blues musician too. He was born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn in 1925.But just like Jewish boxers (see, e.g., Barney “Ross”), he changed his name so as not to embarrass his family. Doc hated the humans that I go after in my real work. That's how I knew him. The man had such personal charm that waitresses would fight over who got to work our table. No photo will ever convey this, but, if you saw it in action, you'd never doubt it. I wrote a tribute to Doc in my 1990 novel, Blossom:

“It took the front man a while to make it to the microphone. He had a chest big enough to play solitaire on, a head the size of a basketball, thick long hair swept back from his forehead in crashing waves. He was standing on metal crutches, the kind that angle about halfway up. A massive upper body on useless legs.”

Doc had had polio as a child. This scene happens in a bar where Doc holds the whole place captive. I wrote the song Doc sings there:

“The man on crutches came through the music like a fist punching through a door, his cobalt voice nailing the crowd.”

I've done you wrong
So many times
Treated you cruel
Played with your mind
I know you're leaving
And I'll miss your loving touch
But won't you listen just one more time?
Woman, don't you owe me that much?

I drank and I gambled
But you always let me come home
Yes, I drank and I gambled
But you always let me come home
You always forgave me
Till you heard that little girl on the phone

“A woman in the crowd screamed something up at the stage. The singer bowed in her direction and went back to work.”

I lost my job, even went to jail
And you always stayed by my side
When I lost my job, and I went to jail
You always stood up, right by my side
But you saw me with that other woman
You swore your love had died
First you said you'd kill her
And then you changed your mind
Yeah, you said you'd take her young life
But then you changed your mind
You threw my clothes in the street
And told me to stay with my own kind

“He hit us with verse after verse, telling his story. Telling the truth. When he got to the end of the road, he had us with him.”

I need you for my woman
I need you for my wife
You know I need you, woman
Lord knows I need my wife
But if you won't send an answer
I guess I don't need my life

And that song, my tribute to Doc, is one that Son Seals recorded. You can listen to him sing it here:

Those lines spoke to Dell. And of him.

"Crazy" (Patsy Cline)

Patsy Cline was not a good-looking woman. But nobody in a C&W bar says that. You don’t say that. Patsy expressed such longing and such pain. Dell would have loved to feel that pain. But he had nobody. Unless he counted the fever-dream of Dolly. This, Patsy’s “Crazy,” is how Dell thought of himself, every time that dream invaded his reality. For the longest time, he couldn’t even be sure she was real.

"God Bless The Child" (Judy Henske)

The truth that marked Dell's life. Dell knows damn well he wasn't a blessed child so he this song sings his song. But he never stopped him from reaching into the darkness for what he knew had to be there ... somewhere.

"Walking This Big Road By Myself" (Lightin' Hopkins)

Billy Bizor's harp work brought this truth of Dell's life to life. Without Bizor, there's no lyric that can express such need. Most people don't know who he is though. He wouldn't leave Texas for some reason.

"I Don't Know What You Got" (Little Richard)

If Dell could express his feelings in music, this would be his song for Dolly–I don’t know what you got ... but it’s got me. Dolly does in fact turn out to be real and she changes Dell's life. And her own. Drastically. A life with a man like Dell isn't anything you know about until you’re in it. He was a killer-for-hire; she was a battlefield nurse in places where there no “neutral” is recognized. But about this song. Some people might remember that Little Richard quit after Sputnik–some say he interpreted that as a sign from God that rock-n-roll was evil. But preaching didn’t do it for him, and he came back. There's a 15 year old Jimi Hendrix on guitar in this song. Listen and you'll forget everything you thought you knew about Little Richard.

"My True Love" (Jack Scott)

Another song that says what Dell feels for Dolly. But Jack Scott was no average rock-n-roller. I saw him perform a million years ago. He'd do three sets of 100 push-ups before going on stage. He was one of the first rock guys to segue into blues. Going in the opposite direction from the way most people think of music evolving. But actually lots of musicians went from rock to blues. The other side of this single is “Leroy's Back in Jail Again.” The sax man on that cut sent me a fan letter. From prison. I get a lot of letters from prison. Some good, some not so good.

"It Hurts Me Too" (Elmore James)

Eric Clapton didn't write that. Sorry. This song is as powerful a tribute to empathy–the mercenary's worst enemy–as there is. Dell had never felt somebody else’s feelings before Dolly. That’s why she’s worth his life. Or yours, if it comes to that.

"I Want To Hold Your Hand" (Fats Domino)

This isn't Blueberry Hill. Fats was a blues musician who stood at the crossroads of a thousand different kinds of music. New Orleans has a great piano tradition, Champion Jack Dupree among a long list. But Fat's phrasing is what set him apart. Just so clear and true. This song is pretty much Dell: simple and limited, but very clear, and totally true. All Dell wanted to do was hold Dolly's hand. Wherever they walked. And when Dolly chooses to help a teen-aged soft-ball star who shot and killed a fellow student at her high school, Dell’s going to walk alongside her there, holding her hand or a pistol ... but with Dolly. And that’s all he ever wanted.

"Rainin’ in My Heart" (Slim Harpo)

Weather may change, but only within a climate. It’s always raining in Dell’s heart. And, somewhere inside him, he knows that he has to change climates to find the piece of himself he’s never known. Slim Harpo didn’t live long, but he lasted long enough to pull the Louisiana Swamp Blues into the public’s consciousness. Until Dolly, it wasn’t just raining in Dell’s part, but only the pain he lived with proved he had one.

"Pledging My Love" (Johnny Ace)

Johnny Ace allegedly killed himself playing Russian Roulette. Dell knew the truth of that game, and the truth of who played it. While a Legionnaire, he knew those who saw roulette as a test ... and a pastime. It figures into Aftershock because the song itself matches Dell's pledge to Dolly word-for-word.

"Nadine" (Dion)

Doc Pomus wrote a lot of Dion's songs but Chuck Berry wrote this one–and, yeah, he was a bluesman who went the other way. This song is about the chase, the search. “Honey, is that you?” It reverberates the reality for Dell–if you can just keep moving long enough, you will get there.

Andrew Vachss and Aftershock links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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