In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters is not only one of my favorite books of the year, it is my favorite rock novel ever. Jackson vividly captures the connection to music for both performer and listener in this engaging and smart read.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“[Jeff] Jackson builds an anxious, deeply felt narrative probing a nationwide epidemic of murders of musicians . . . Infected with this eerie conceit, and expressed through gritty, sharp prose, [Destroy All Monsters] provides both deep character exploration and a nuanced commentary on music, creativity, and violence.”
Destroy All Monsters is a dark valentine to rock and roll. It’s my attempt to harness the blissful hours spent losing my hearing in clubs, obsessively listening to albums like they were life rafts, and talking about bands with friends as if they were codes to unlock our personalities. I tried to put that energy into a novel that would capture my feelings about music so I could repay my debts and move on. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
It’s a novel about an epidemic of violence that sweeps through small town music scenes, bands struggling to make a mark in a culture where it’s hard to tell the signal from the noise, and fans who worry music doesn’t mean what it used to.
Like a cassette or classic single, Destroy All Monsters has a Side A and Side B—you read one side and flip the book over and upside-down to read the other. As much as the novel is about rock, it’s also trying to embody it.
Here are some songs and moods embedded in the book, which serve as skeleton keys to some of its secrets.
The book’s title:
Destroy All Monsters as a phrase feels increasingly resonant for our current moment. It started as a 1968 Godzilla flick, a creature feature battle royal. A few years later in Detroit, an art-damaged punk band featuring visual artists Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Carey Loren, and Niagra bestowed the name upon themselves. They recorded a host of incredible songs and sound experiments as part of concocting their own high art trash universe. This song is especially close to the novel’s heart:
Destroy All Monsters “You Can’t Kill Kill”
The A Side:
This early single by Pere Ubu, one of their most plaintive love songs, provides the title for Side A. David Thomas warbles “I don’t get around, I don’t fall in love much,” and that’s the tip of the iceberg. In the novel, whose dark ages exactly?
Pere Ubu “My Dark Ages”
The B Side:
Another Detroit connection, but Iggy Pop finds himself far from home in a sun-stunned city that’s plotting his demise. He’s checked himself into a mental health facility and leaves on day passes to record with Stooges guitarist James Williamson. Each night he returns to a narrow white room and tries to imagine his way back to some form of defiance. The lead track of this lost years record supplies the title for Side B. In the novel, it becomes a password, a rumor, cryptic graffiti.
Iggy Pop “Kill City”
Some songs are haunted. Bad things happen to people who cover Johnny Ace’s ghostly ballad, just as bad things happened to Ace himself when he sat down to play Russian Roulette shortly after he recorded it. But it soon went to number one – as the saying goes – with a bullet. In the novel, the characters take the song as a dare, not knowing whether it’s fully loaded.
Johnny Ace “Pledging My Love”
In the novel, this isn’t a haunted song so much as a haunting. There are many versions, but let’s stick with the original for its mix of apocalyptic imagery and mariachi horns, a version so familiar that it’s easy to forget it’s so strange. Sometimes I also forget that it’s a love song.
Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire”
That Humming in Your Ears:
It’s a sound, not a song. A thickening of the environment that subtly shades the air. If you squint your eyes, you’ll spot it throughout the novel in key moments. Eliane Radigue is the queen of drone, an electronic composer whose shimmering music is meant to prepare us for death—gently, gently.
Eliane Radigue “Kyema (Intermediate States)”
In one of the greatest rock songs ever, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney sings it both ways: “I’m your monster / I’m not like you.” And then: “I’m no monster / I’m just like you.” And back again.
Sleater-Kinney “Call the Doctor”
Chan Marshall sits at the piano to play the same repetitive riff and report on the local scene. “It must just be the colors and the kids,” she sighs, “because the music is boring me to death.” But her insistent repetitions slowly open a portal to an imagined realm where singing to yourself at a piano at 3 a.m. still means something.
Cat Power “The Colors and the Kids”
The Last Rock Novel:
Ever feel like you’ve been cheated? “No more rock and roll for you!” Vic Goddard sneers at the euphoric height of punk’s Year Zero. You can almost feel the slate being wiped clean, but he’ll soon take it all back. They always do.
Subway Sect “We Oppose All Rock and Roll/Sister Ray (live)”
Jeff Jackson and Destroy All Monsters links:
Charlotte Magazine profile of the author
Charlotte Observer profile of the author
Creative Loafing profile of the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Mira Corpora
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
Tin House 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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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