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March 31, 2015

Book Notes - T.C. Boyle "The Harder They Come"

The Harder They Come

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

T.C. Boyle is a master at exposing the American psyche in his fiction. His new novel The Harder They Come is yet another stunning example, an engaging portrait of family, violence, and anarchy.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Boyle's...hypnotic narrative probes the complexities of heroism, violence, power, and resistance...Written with both clarity and compassion, each of the novel's characters inhabits a rich and convincing private world. As they traverse a landscape none of them control, their haunting stories illuminate the violent American battle with otherness."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is T.C. Boyle's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Harder They Come:

Ah, well, to talk about music, which is the very soul of my being, is always a pleasure, but especially in this case, since my new novel, The Harder They Come, shares a title with the Jimmy Cliff tune and film. Unlike in many of my other books and stories, Greasy Lake, for instance, or Drop City or Budding Prospects, the current novel doesn't reference specific tunes beyond "The Harder They Come" and one or two others, but reggae, country music and thrash metal play a definite role in the lives of my characters. Adam, the twenty-five-year-old schizophrenic protagonist (and shooter), loves thrash metal, but when he was in high school he burned through his reggae phase, during which he dreaded-out his hair and wore Burning Spear T-shirts to school. Perhaps for this reason, his father, Sten, seventy, hates reggae. Sten does remember a night in his youth in the late sixties when he was drifting along in his car, very drunk, and listening to "Magic Carpet Ride," just prior to being arrested on a DUI, but that's about it for his music: oldies. Finally, Sara, Adam's girlfriend, a country girl—a farrier, in fact—listens exclusively to country. The three of them listen to music because they're characters in a novel and their music defines them. But what music defines me? Lately, that is? Now that I've got over playing Mozart's "Requiem" on a loop all day every day? Here's a sampling:

Kristin Asbjornson's "Slow Day." This was the key song in the soundtrack for Factotum, the 2005 movie based on Charles Bukowski's work. It's got a dragged-down, way-too-slow waltz rhythm to it that just tears my heart out. You want a sad song? Here it is. And I love sad songs, only sad songs, the sadder and miserabler the better. Which is why I especially love:

Bebo y Cigala's album, Lágrimas Negras. The tunes that really get to me here are "Corazón Loco" and "Veinte Años" (which the Buena Vista Social Club also covered). Cigala's high hoarse floating vocals really inject the pathos into these two songs of love and its conjoined twin, heartbreak. Listen to him soar up high on the line, "Y muestra loco," and tell me you don't want to drop a few tears into your Habana Club?

Nina Simone, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." (Or better yet, go to YouTube for her live 1963 Paris concert in which she covers Dylan's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and watch her go right out of her body, poof, like magic; now that is setting the soul free.) But this is all about sad, and her version of the Animals' hit, slowed down, whispered, makes the song less a complaint and more a dirge. Beautiful. I defy you to listen to it only once.

Van Morrison, "Carrick Fergus." Saddest song of all time. This is the tune Alma's mother sings for her dead daughter at the end of When the Killing's Done, remembering when Alma was a girl and asking her about the lyrics: "Carry me over where, ma?" How many times have I (usually drunk) thrown back my head to howl along with the lyric, "I'm drunk today/And I'm rarely sober/A handsome rover,/From town to town." Millions. Hundreds of millions. More millions than the National Debt. Or make that billions. Or wait a minute, trillions.

Fleet Foxes, "Oliver James." Enough of the shit, misery and heartbreak. Here's a tune you can really exercise your lungs behind, one that lifts you up and up. I love this band's flawless harmonies and the lovely lilting melody here. Again, a challenge: how can you fail to sing along, to howl, actually, with the refrain, "Oliver James washed in the rain/No longer"? (And I do sing, I sing all the time, along with and contra too. Check out my vocals on "I Put A Spell On You," with the Ventilators, at

Taj Mahal, "John the Revelator." I'd forgotten all about Taj, forgive me, but my chief musical buddy these days (his given name is Party, his surname Shuffle) brought this one up for me a couple months ago. It's Taj doing a spiritual with the kind of vocals that just scare me they're so good, plus it's the sort of tune that thrusts you right up out of that chair to wave your arms in the air and beg for redemption. Get on it.

Tom Waits, "Chicago" and "Face to the Highway." While we're dancing, that is. "Chicago" is as propulsive a song as you'll find anywhere. I just want to . . . get up . . . and, there we are, there we are . . . shake it out. Thanks, Tom. And, of course, my love for "Face to the Highway" is because it's another howler. Drunk or not (and whether Frau Boyle's asleep or not), I cannot resist bellowing out the refrain here, "I'm going away/I'm going away/I'm going away." Frau Boyle's response: "Go, already."

Alt J, "Fitzpleasure." Wow. Nothing like it. When I first heard the tune year before last, I didn't even know what language they were singing in. The changes here just knock me out. Especially when the big low-end droning starts in. Makes me feel like skinning animals, smearing my naked chest with the blood and running riot through the neighborhood. Yeah, it's that good.

Amy Winehouse, "Rehab." Real life. It's her voice, wise, wise, wise. And the lyric: "They tried to get me into rehab/But I said no, no, no . . . I ain't got the time." Who doesn't want to be a genius and flame-out young? Uh, not me, I guess. Though lord knows I tried.

The Mars Volta, "The Widow." Again, I have to (re)confess my enslavement to power vocals, but not just to power but to naked emotion too. This is another one that keeps Frau Boyle up at night, whether she sleeps alone or not. Of course, she's not a widow. Yet.

The Kinks, "Milk Cow Blues." Another champ Party Shuffle recently turned me onto. The early Kinks, proto-punks, live in the studio doing a killer blues after a lame voice-over intro from a clueless drone at the BBC. How simple it is. Rock and roll, stripped to its basics. And oh that raw vocal from Ray Davies. My voice is hoarse at this very moment from screeching along, "Oh, please, don't that sun look good goin' down."

Marianne Faithfull, "Why D'ya Do It." This is the far end of heartbreak, the angry end, right at the edge of the pier—and there he is, the crud, push him right off. Her nasty, rasping vocals here just stick a knife into you, and the lyrics, oh, yeah: "Why d'ya do it, she said/. . . every time I see your dick/I see her cunt in my bed." So furious, so unrelenting, so vengeance-driven it's hilarious. I am very, very happy that Marianne wasn't my girlfriend and I was not the one to betray her. Whew!

Jennifer Warnes, "Famous Blue Raincoat." I've got to take this out with a weeper. You want heartbreak, here it is. Warnes makes the Leonard Cohen song her own, and that saxophone doesn't hurt. When she sings "And if you ever come by here,/Be it for Jane/ Or for me/I want you to know your enemy is sleeping/I want you to know your woman is free," I feel the sorrow in my every cell and fiber. Come to think of it, the tune has the same slow waltz quality as the Asbjornson tune referenced above, which is maybe why I love "Slow Day" so much. But wait, wait, sorry, one more:

Jet, "Are you Gonna Be My Girl?" From the opening bass line to the first hammered guitar chords, this is quintessential balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. Perfect. Flawless. Nothing but pure energy. Go ahead, set your ears on fire.

Thanks, folks. I could do this all night, but I suspect the editors might have a thing or two they'd like to squeeze in.

T.C. Boyle and The Harder They Come links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Buffalo News review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Newsweek review
Oregonian review
Paste review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
St. Louis Post Dispatch review
USA Today review
Washington Post review

Brooklyn Rail interview with the author
New York Times interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)