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July 8, 2016

Book Notes - Christopher Hebert "Angels of Detroit"

Angels of Detroit

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christopher Hebert's Angels of Detroit is a powerful and evocative ensemble novel.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Written in evocative prose with careful detail, this is a veracious portrayal of a decimated city. It moves at an exciting pace, the various plot threads braiding rapidly. Most poignant is the insight offered about those fighting to amend the damage. These characters are flawed and more appealing for it. Perhaps Hebert intends to suggest that this is true of the city itself. An expansive yet intimate tale of the efforts made to save a decaying Detroit."

In his own words, here is Christopher Hebert's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Angels of Detroit:

My second novel, Angels of Detroit, took me sixteen years to finish. I started working on the book shortly after I moved to Michigan in 1999 and began a long obsession with the state's most famous and tumultuous city. The book is my attempt to wrestle with what it means to live in and fight for a place with so rich a past and so uncertain a future. On top of this historical complexity, I decided to layer complexities of form, with the result that I needed a long time to figure out how all the pieces fit together.

One benefit of the long period of gestation was that it gave me more time to come to know the city. One way I especially came to know the place was through its music. For fifteen of the sixteen years that I spent working on the book, I made my living as an editor at the University of Michigan Press. My main focus there was books about music—in particular the music of the city I had come to love. Not surprisingly, music gradually crept into Angels of Detroit.

All the books I mention below are ones I worked on as an editor during the time I was writing my novel.

"Ramblin' Rose – Intro" by the MC5

It's the track with which the MC5 introduced themselves to the world—love song transformed into aural assault. Recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 1969, the song and the album begin with a preamble by Brother J.C. Crawford, "spiritual associate" of Trans-Love Energies, combining revivalist fervor and revolutionary thunder:

"Five seconds for you to decide your purpose here on the planet. Five seconds to decide if you are gonna be the problem, or if you are going to be the solution."

It's a sentiment the activists at the center of my book would share a good forty years later, and the wall of sound is what I imagine coming from the activists' offshoot band, Bricoleur. David A. Carson's Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘n' Roll (2005), captures the story of the MC5, and it was one of the first books I published about Detroit's music history.

"Catching the Rich Train" by Wolf Eyes

I love to listen to music while I write, and I'm not sure what it says about me or my work that I find noise and cacophony and dissonance soothing. Within my household, I'm the only one who feels this way, which is why my wife does most of her writing in coffee shops. One of my favorites is Wolf Eyes, the band at the center of the Detroit noise scene. This track, from their newest release (their first for Detroiter and White-Striper Jack White's Third Man label), is at the milder end of their vast discography. The band gets a shout out in one of the most recent books I published, Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music (2016), by Stephen Graham.

"50-21" by Tommy Flanagan

Composed by Thad Jones of the royal family of Detroit jazz (his brother Hank a pianist, Elvin a drummer), and performed here by a trio of Elvin, Detroit pianist Tommy Flanagan, and bassist George Mraz. The title, "50-21" is a reference to the address on Tireman St. of the Blue Bird Inn, one of Detroit's most important venues for modern jazz from the late '40s through the '70s. My own tribute to the now-vacant Blue Bird Inn is the Sparrow Room, the club that meets its end in Angels of Detroit. The Blue Bird is well documented by Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert in their Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit (2001). The Jones brothers and Tommy Flanagan feature prominently in Mark Stryker's forthcoming book about Detroit jazz musicians, Made in Detroit.

"Open the Door" by Betty Carter

Betty Carter, the great jazz vocalist, was born in Flint but grew up in Detroit, and "Open the Door" is her signature song, one she wrote and performed herself. It's also the title of William Bauer's 2002 biography of the singer. It's easy to hear why "Open the Door" is the song Carter was known for—sensual and full of her scatting improvisation. As love songs go, this one is inflected with more than a little desperation, and in my book I imagine it being what Myles might sing to McGee, if only he could find the courage.

"Hamtramck Mama" by the York Brothers

Hamtramck—a city within the city of Detroit, incorporated with that improbable combination of letters in 1922 by Polish immigrants who swarmed to the area to work at the newly opened Dodge Main facility. In Detroit Country Music (2013), Craig Maki and Keith Cady write that the fervent Polish Catholicism of the freshly settled immigrants wasn't enough to fend off Prohibition-era mobsters, who earned the brand new city a reputation that would become immortalized in this 1939 York Brothers hit (recorded on East Jefferson St.), upon which much of Detroit's country & western scene was built. As with Detroit itself, Hamtramck has tended to rise and fall with the fortunes of the auto industry, a history also central to Angels of Detroit.

"I Hear a Symphony" by the Supremes

In the swelling strings and tremolos of "I Hear a Symphony," the Supremes' 1966 hit, Andy Flory hears a different kind of symphony from the one swooning the love-sick young woman in the song. For Flory, the song's literal markers of symphonic sound point to both the possibilities and challenges of black musicians in the '60s crossing over into the American mainstream. In its form and arrangement, the song captures the drive for black class mobility and uplift that were a hallmark of Motown, as well as being a complicated part of Detroit's racial fabric and an inextricable piece of the story of Angels of Detroit. Flory's I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B is forthcoming in 2017.

"Scorpio," by Dennis Coffey

Dennis Coffey was a Motown session musician, a latter-day member of the legendary Funk Brothers. That's him bringing the wah-wah to the Temptation's "Cloud Nine" and riding the rock guitar through Edwin Starr's "War." "Scorpio" was Coffey's 1971 million-selling instrumental single, recorded with fellow Funk Brother Bob Babbitt on bass. After working with Dennis on his 2004 memoir, Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars, I added "Scorpio" to my writing-music rotation for days I'm feeling the groove.

"So Far" by Eminem

Eminem's answer to Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," built around samples from the original. In Rhymin' and Stealin' (2013), Justin Williams writes about how Eminem and other hip hop artists appropriate and reappropriate to turn preexisting material into something new. In "So Far," Eminem's meditation on his rise to fame, he even appropriates himself, working in references to songs from his past. In fact, the entire The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013), from which this song comes, is in dialogue with Eminem's earlier The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), a relationship made explicit in the way the two album covers directly mirror one another: on the first Marshall Mathers LP, we see Eminem himself sitting on the front steps of his childhood home in Detroit; in the second, we see the house in its current state, boarded up and abandoned.

"Got it all but I still won't change," he sings in the chorus,

maybe that's why I can't leave Detroit
It's the motivation that keeps me going

This is the inspiration I need
I could never turn my back on a city that made me

For the art on the actual compact disc of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem goes further with his appropriations, borrowing the official seal for the city of Detroit. But in place of the two classical female figures representing the city's past and future, Eminem has placed his dilapidated house, circled by the city's motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes).

I appropriate the same words for the epigraph of Angels of Detroit.

Christopher Hebert and Angels of Detroit links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chapter 16 review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

The Indianola Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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