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October 15, 2020

Charles Holdefer's Playlist for His Story Collection "Agitprop for Bedtime"

Agitprop for Bedtime by Charles Holdefer

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Charles Holdefer's Agitprop for Bedtime is filled with dark, clever, and whimsical bedtime stories for adults.

Elizabeth McKenzie wrote of the book:

"Satiric gold. Agitprop for Bedtime is darkly funny and inventive and just the book for this moment."

In his words, here is Charles Holdefer's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Agitprop for Bedtime:

Bedtime stories for adults? Why?

Well, much political writing sounds like preaching to the choir. Even when I agree, I get restless. I start running out of amens.

What I hunger for are human tales which manage to feel both strange and inevitable at the same time. Like fairy-tales, but for grown-ups.

This was the genesis of Agitprop for Bedtime. The book contains 17 short pieces: some polemical, some speculative yet mostly realistic. I try to stay hopeful while being in touch with my inner monster.

Here are songs that relate either to a particular piece in Agitprop, or to its general sensibility.

Noir Désir, “Le Vent Nous Portera”

I lived in France for a couple of decades and at first I was bewildered by French pop. But this tune by Noir Désir is simple and hypnotic. It’s about ephemerality, but happily I never get tired of it.

A piece called “Story of Ralph” in Agitprop touches upon similar ideas though in a rather different tone.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”

Guns, guns, guns. Such is the theme of “Second Thoughts.” A deeply-anchored mix of fascination and fear accounts for much our conversation about the Second Amendment. As popular superstitions go, this one ranks high.

This song still sounds fresh. From opening drums and the first phrase of the guitar, there’s an inexorability here, taking us down a rabbit hole in the human psyche. A place where “off with your head” is no joke.

Half Man, Half Biscuit, “Joy Division Oven Gloves”

Can anything be commodified? Sure, it’s easy to point your finger at the obvious corporate targets. Fish in a barrel. But it can start getting uncomfortable, closer to home.

Look what I’m doing now, talking about my book. No one twisted my arm. Don’t let me twist yours.

That’s the point of a piece called “Kickstart Me, Harder, Harder.” Failing artistic purity, how to be decently impure? “Physician, heal thyself.”

In any case, people should be listening to more Half Man, Half Biscuit. This band is brilliant.

Paul Westerberg, “Actor in the Street”

Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a bad movie and we do need a retake on our scenes. That’s the formal premise of “Closing Credits in the Culture Wars.” Americans are a rag-tag family and it’s hard to agree on the script.

I could’ve chosen a number of Westerberg songs, I admire them like an oddly assorted collection of seashells, but this one is a natural fit here.

Phat Bollard, “Millionaires”

I first bumped into Phat (or Pat) when a friend on social media posted of video of them performing in the street. They don’t have a record contract or a Wikipedia entry. No, they’re just real.

For my piece “The Prison Forecast,” the song “Millionaires” seems appropriate. A number of versions can be found online. The live one of them busking in Reading, England, is good.

Melanie, “Candles in the Rain”

Heard this again just as I sat down to work on my next book. Will it make sense? Will it come together? Will it amount to anything good?

Some old hippie tunes haven’t aged well but this one remains strong: the gospel of the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Melanie Safka’s lead vocal. It feels idiosyncratic and raw. It’s not apologizing for being sincere. There’s not a neat correlation to a particular piece in Agitprop but perhaps it identifies an aspirational mood.

Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”

I grew up on a farm in Iowa. One night, when I was a little kid, I was watching The Andy Williams Show. On came Sly and the Family Stone. A live performance.

The sound, the look, the lyrics: everything was amazing. In four minutes, a new continent opened up for me. Sly—and the whole family—clearly had a lot of self to be, even while, the lyrics tell us, wrestling with the devil:

“Thank you for the party, but I could never stay
Many thangs is on my mind, words in the way”

It was OK not to join the party. You could make your own. Maybe I could make my own, mice elf?

Les Rita Mitsouko, “Les Amants”

People toss out the phrase “haters gonna hate” on social media like it’s some nugget of world-weary wisdom. I’ve heard it too many times. So maybe it’s time for some push-back? Agitprop ends with “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex.” Lovers gonna love.

Les Rita Mitsouko were the first French pop band I warmed to after I left the United States. Catherine Ringer is a huge talent. Part of the chorus, about lovers, says: “Ils marchent sans sourciller d’un pas irrégulier.” Loosely translated, that’s something like “lovers stumble forward without so much as blinking.”

Such is the force of their desire, which takes so many forms. The dandelion grows in the crack in the concrete.

Charles Holdefer is an American writer based in Brussels. His recent books include Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots and Dick Cheney in Shorts. His short fiction won a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in the New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review and Slice. He also writes essays and reviews. Visit Charles at

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