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November 18, 2021

Jen Fawkes's Playlist for Her Story Collection "Tales the Devil Told Me"

Tales the Devil Told Me by Jen Fawkes

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.

Awarded the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, Jen Fawkes' story collection Tales the Devil Told Me brilliantly captures the lives of literary and fable villains with clarity and humanity. Another remarkable book from one of our most talented short fiction writers.

The Chicago Review of Books wrote of the book:

"She writes with the wisdom and empathy of someone who’s swept her share of cinders. Perhaps this is the source of the magic Fawkes brings to Tales the Devil Told Me: watching her peel back the masks of the malevolent to find the misunderstood beneath."

In her own words, here is Jen Fawkes's Book Notes music playlist for her story collection Tales the Devil Told Me:

If the stories in Tales the Devil Told Me have counterparts in the realm of music, they are most likely cover songs and/or remixes. Some of my tales stick to their original scripts, extending them backward or forward in time, or sinking down into and expanding some particular set of scenes. Other tales lift characters from the worlds of their originals and build fire-new worlds for them to inhabit. But regardless of how each tale works, all were inspired by a deep love, admiration, and respect for the original texts from which they sprang.

I am the furthest thing from a musician, but I assume that when one decides to replicate and/or reimagine a tune, it’s not because they dislike or do not respect it; it’s because the original struck some primal chord within them – plucked a string at the core of their being. And that the need to reproduce the song isn’t motivated by the desire to improve on the original or fix something that’s broken, but to explore how additions, subtractions, and/or revisions might expand the original, make it larger, and reveal more beauty and wonder and coherence than is already evident.

I think of the stories in Tales the Devil Told Me as a mosaic of imitation, homage, and respectful expansion, and I believe the twelve songs here – all covers and/or remixes – do essentially the same thing. In addition, I truly love all these replicas, as well as their originals.

“Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner (original by Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Here’s one of my favorite examples of a sonic reimagining and transformation. “Proud Mary,” written by John Fogerty and recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968, was a single from CCR’s second studio album, Bayou Country. Ike and Tina Turner recorded their version two years later; it was the second single from their album Workin’ Together (1970). I love both versions, but Ike’s and Tina’s pivots at the halfway point to transform “Proud Mary” from a melodic rock ballad to a gospel-infused funk-rock vamp fueled by ecstatic horns and Tina’s scorching vocals (not to mention those of her backup singers, the Ikettes).

“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” by Linda Ronstadt (original by Warren Zevon)

I have worshiped Linda Ronstadt since I was a child. She covered some great songs, including “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” written by Warren Zevon. In addition to its infectious melody, the song’s lyrics – which chronicle a suicide attempt, domestic abuse, and sadomasochism – are clever, biting, and hilarious. The song first appeared on Zevon’s 1976 self-titled solo album; Ronstadt recorded “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” for Simple Dreams (1978). She revised Zevon’s lyrics to conform to gender norms, which doesn’t detract from the song’s power, and I love hearing her enormous, multi-octave voice at play. An aside: I had very a hard time choosing between this and “You're No Good,” originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick.

“Take Me to the River” by Talking Heads (original by Al Green)

Originally recorded for the 1974 album Al Green Explores Your Mind (what a title!), this song wasn’t released as a single by Green and has been covered at least a dozen times. “Take Me to the River” is seen as Al Green’s attempt to reconcile his religious upbringing with more “earthly interests,” or, as David Byrne put it, the song “combines teenaged lust with baptism.” The Talking Heads version, from their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), co-produced by Brian Eno, charted in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Talking Heads’ infusion of the classic soul song with pop-punk sensibility truly made the song their own.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Tori Amos (original by Nirvana)

Another utter sonic transformation. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first single from Nirvana’s second album Nevermind (1991). As a high school senior, I heard the song – which Kurt Cobain described as an attempt to write “the ultimate pop song” and to “rip off the Pixies” – unceasingly, but I never understood the lyrics. It wasn’t until I heard Tori Amos’s version – from her debut solo album Little Earthquakes (1992) – which transforms the furious pop-rock hit into a leisurely piano ballad, that I finally understood its heart-rending lyrics. I love the way Amos’s reconstruction of the song lays it so completely bare.

“Superstar” by Sonic Youth (original by The Carpenters)

Written in 1969 by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, “Superstar” achieved its greatest success on the Carpenters’ self-titled 1971 album. Released as a single, the song went gold and reached number two on the Billboard charts. “Superstar” dealt with groupies’ relations with rock stars, forcing the family-friendly Carpenters to tone down the lyrics for their version. Sonic Youth, who were deeply inspired by the Carpenters, recorded “Superstar” for the 1994 album If I Were a Carpenter – an homage of Carpenters covers recorded by popular artists of the day. Unlike the Carpenters’ version, Sonic Youth’s “Superstar” features breathy, barely-there vocals and electronic distortion, which lend their version its own sense of heartbreaking fragility. The song is clearly a tribute, a fact made even more obvious by the video, which replicates the Carpenters’ video for “Superstar.”

“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O'Connor (original by Prince)

This song takes the POV of an abandoned lover and was written by the Purple One for his funk side project, The Family, appearing on their eponymous 1985 debut album. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor recorded “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1989 for her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990), and it became the biggest song of that year, named the “#1 World Single” by Billboard. The new, understated arrangement O’Connor and producer Nellee Hooper devised, along with O’Connor’s haunting voice and raw inflection, push Prince’s ballad to new, very powerful heights.

“The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana (original by David Bowie)

This was the title track from David Bowie’s third studio album (1970), but Bowie’s version of “The Man Who Sold the World” wasn’t released as a single and received little attention until others began to cover it. In retrospect, the song is seen as one of Bowie’s best, notable for Mick Ronson’s circular guitar riff and the song’s haunting atmosphere, which has been described as “enigmatic” and as having an “unassuming air of pathos and menace.” In 1993, Nirvana recorded a live rendition of “The Man Who Sold the World” while performing on MTV Unplugged. For the performance, Kurt Cobain ran his guitar through a fuzz box, which made it sound electric. The song was released as a promotional single and was a hit; after Cobain’s death, it grew more popular, considered by many to be his “ghost song.” David Bowie said complimentary things about Nirvana’s version, which on one hand is a pretty straightforward cover, but which some critics say transcends the original, catapulting Bowie’s song into a dark, dreamy arena Bowie himself was unable to reach.

“La Vie en Rose” by Grace Jones (original by Édith Piaf)

“La Vie en Rose” was the signature song of Edith Piaf, France’s national chanteuse. Written by Piaf and Louiguy in 1945, the song was released as a single in 1947 and became wildly popular in the US, so popular that in 1950, seven versions of “La Vie en Rose” – all recorded by male singers – reached the Billboard charts. A hymn to a love affair so great that it allows the speaker to transcend her misery and pain and see the world afresh, Piaf’s dreamy, romantic version helped France heal from the horrors of WWII. Supermodel, singer, and power-diva Grace Jones recorded the song three decades later for her debut album Portfolio, in 1977, and “La Vie en Rose” again became an international hit. Jones’s disco-inflected bossa nova interpretation of Piaf’s signature tune is both a radical transformation and a sheer delight.

“Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill (original by Neil Diamond)

“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was written by one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, in my humble opinion. Neil Diamond recorded “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for his 1967 album Just For You, and the single reached number 10 on the US pop charts. Like most Neil Diamond songs, this song’s rhythmic melody and off-kilter lyrics create a compelling pop concoction. British rockers Urge Overkill recorded the song for their 1992 EP Stull; this version was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Of all the songs here, this one may be the closest cover of its original; maybe that’s why I love it so. Or maybe I feel this way because I was twenty when Pulp Fiction opened in theatres.

“Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann's Earth Band (original by Bruce Springsteen)

“Blinded by the Light,” written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen expressly to be a single, appeared on his 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. The Boss’s version, however, failed to chart in the US. British rockers Manfred Mann’s Earth Band recorded the song three years later, for The Roaring Silence (1976), and in 1977, “Blinded by the Light” went to number one in the US and the UK. Something about the song’s poppy, infectious melody combined with the absolute inscrutability of its lyrics makes it downright irresistible.

“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper (original by Robert Hazard)

The 45 of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was the first record I ever bought myself. The song was written by Robert Hazard, a largely forgotten Pennsylvania songwriter who recorded a demo of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in 1979. He sang the fairly sexist song from a male POV; flipping the lyrics into a female POV provided new wave-pop songstress Cyndi Lauper with her first hit. The lead single from her debut She’s So Unusual (1983), “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was one of the album’s four Billboard top five hits. Cyndi Lauper’s aim was to transform the song from a misogynistic artifact into a feminist anthem for young girls, and according to the nine-year-old who still lives inside me, she was absolutely, wildly successful.

"Borderline" by The Flaming Lips, with Stardeath and White Dwarfs (original by Madonna)

Madonna must be represented on all my playlists, so I’m including this great cover of “Borderline.” Written by American record producer Reggie Lucas, “Borderline” appeared on Madonna’s 1983 self-titled debut album. “Borderline” reached the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 and charted in numerous European nations. Critics called it the “most harmonically complex” track on the album and praised Madge’s emotional vocals. Twenty-six years later, The Flaming Lips – an Oklahoma-based experimental psychedelic rock band – covered “Borderline” (with Stardeath and White Dwarfs) for the 2009 Warner Brothers Records compilation Covered, A Revolution in Sound. This version could be said to “deconstruct” Madonna’s ultra-pop song, involving an atmospheric slow-build, heavy distortion, screeching reverb, a guitar solo, organ, and some general “sonic schizophrenia.” One critic said this cover “turns the original inside out,” which strikes me as pretty apt.

Jen Fawkes won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for Tales the Devil Told Me. Her debut book, Mannequin and Wife (LSU Press) won two 2020 Foreword INDIE Awards (Gold in Short Stories/Honorable Mention in Literary Fiction), was nominated for a 2020 Shirley Jackson Award, and was named one of Largehearted Boy's Favorite Short Story Collections of 2020. Jen's work has appeared in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, storySouth, The Iowa Review, Best Small Fictions 2020, and many other venues. Her fiction has won numerous prizes, from The Pinch, Salamander, Washington Square Review, and others. The recipient of the 2021 Porter Fund Literary Prize, Jen lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.

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