meet Adrian Fallon, who does not suck as a friend

Hi, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying getting to know the characters of my novel Sam’s Town, which is getting so close to being released. I saw a mock-up of the cover last week, and it looks awesome. I can’t wait for you all to see it.

Today, I’d like you to meet Sam’s best friend, Adrian Fallon. At one time, Adrian was basically a second protagonist. I had been written stories about Sam and Adrian for a few years before I decided to throw them into the zombie apocalypse and make a whole novel out of their adventures. Eventually, Sam came to be the main character, but Adrian still has some crucial point-of-view scenes, and I would argue that his friendship with Sam is the central relationship of the novel, even more so than the romantic connection, which I’ll talk about next week. Adrian and Sam have known each other for fourteen years–since their sophomore year of college. They’ve been through hard times together, eaten many pizzas, had many convoluted all-night conversations on various finer points of geekdom, and watched Night of the Living Dead too many times to count. Their personalities contrast, but they share some crucial hopes and fears, and they understand each other better than nearly anyone else in the world. They look out for each other, like brothers.

I mentioned last week that Adrian is more like me than any of my other characters (though Ramona, whom you’ll meet next week, is a close second). Like me, Adrian is a tense person who gets easily frustrated when he himself, other people, and the world don’t meet his high standards. (As you can imagine, the zombie apocalypse poses a problem for him.) Adrian worries–among other worries–that he isn’t the good friend that Sam needs and deserves, but he’s wrong about that. He’s empathetic and fiercely loyal, and if he says something hurtful in his irrational anger, as occasionally happens, he won’t rest until he’s apologized and done all he can to restore the relationship. All of these, I think, are qualities that Adrian and I share.

Here are a couple of fun facts about Adrian:

  • Speaking of things we have in common: Probably my worst physical habit is picking at my cuticles–especially those of my thumbs–when I’m nervous, sometimes to the point of making them bleed. I gave this habit to Adrian as well.
  • Adrian is from Boston, and I wanted to make him Irish-American but not to hit readers over the head with this. So I added a couple of subtle hints, one of which is that his mother, Eileen, used to make and sell “Celtic” clothing and accessories. I also gave him the last name Fallon, which is Irish but not to the point of caricature…
  • …and is also the last name of a musician whose work I enjoy, Brian Fallon, formerly of The Gaslight Anthem. Like Adrian, Brian Fallon has always seemed to me like a deep thinker and a frustrated person who wants to do what’s right. And Adrian is a musician too, a former high school music teacher who can pick up and play nearly any instrument, and who ends up using a broken guitar as a zombie-slaying weapon.

Here’s a scene about Adrian being frustrated:

It was thirty minutes since Adrian had left the restaurant. He knew this because he always wore a watch. He sat down on the edge of the mine nearest to the town and felt the blood and adrenaline coursing through his body.

The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine was nearly three miles long. Most of the zombies had been contained at the opposite end, but one had strayed down to this end—or, more likely, had fallen in from above, and was clawing uselessly at the steep, smooth wall of the pit. It hissed monotonously. Adrian concentrated all his anger on the zombie. He wanted to throw a rock at this idiotic creature that was too stupid to give up. He looked around in the moonlight for a rock he could throw. Although he was sitting on the edge of an enormous quarry, he didn’t see any rocks, which made him angrier.

Adrian lay on his back and looked at the pale, round, mild, stupid face of the moon. He put his forearm over his eyes to block the light. He tried to take deep breaths, but his lungs felt like somebody’s knees were pushing down on them. With a strangled cry, he scrambled to his feet and looked around. Nobody was there, of course. Adrian started running toward the far end of the mine.

Okay, so be honest (even though Adrian is like me, he isn’t, actually, me)–do you like Adrian? Do you think you’d want a guy like him around during the zombie apocalypse?

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll meet the woman who loves the man that the novel is named after.

sad songs playlist

I sometimes half-jokingly refer to one of my favorite genres of music as “sad folk.” It’s the kind of music that inevitably comes to dominate my Avett Brothers artist station on Pandora if I listen to it long enough. (The Avetts themselves are always painfully sincere and can be quite sad–have you heard “Murder in the City”?) The voices of this genre tend to be soft and introspective, and the music sounds like a rainy fall day: think Bon Iver or Alexi Murdoch. And yes, sometimes the lyrics can be rather devastating (the question is whether you can actually hear them). I tend to like sad songs in general, even if they don’t fit under the “folk” designation (which has recently gotten so broad as to not be very helpful). Here are some of my favorites.

  1. “She Loves You” by The Gaslight Anthem. No, this isn’t a Beatles cover, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the title is a deliberate allusion; TGA does love naming their influences. This was a bonus track on American Slang, and I feel bad for all the people who got the regular album and didn’t find out about this song. Brian Fallon’s voice can make any song sound sad, even Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” which he covered with side project The Horrible Crowes. The lyrics to “She Loves You” aren’t necessarily sad, though, just wistful. Like West Side Story and that Dire Straits song about Romeo and Juliet, this song places everyone’s favorite Shakespearean young lovers in an urban setting, which means that like most good Gaslight Anthem songs, this one has a strong sense of place. The tune is wonderfully singable and sounds like it’s been around for a long time (you know what kind of tune I mean?), which evokes another sense of the word “folk” even though this song fits more into the rock genre.
  2. “The Stable Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov. You’ve probably heard this singer’s beautiful, pained voice even if you’ve never heard his name; one of his songs was in a Subaru commercial recently. (One of the many reasons why hipsters buy Subarus, I guess.) I’ll be honest; I’m not 100% sure what “The Stable Song” is about, though I get hints of deep regret over a series of foolish decisions. (It’s definitely not about the stable where Jesus was born, though it did come up on a Christmas station I was listening to once!) What I love about this song, aside from its heartbreaking tune, is that it seems to have an Appalachian setting: it mentions the Ohio River, and one of its loveliest metaphors is “turn these diamonds straight back into coal.” Listen to the album version, but also check out the movie-score-worthy version featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
  3. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart. Despite the creepy cover, which shows a man with a sheep’s head, I own and really enjoy The Head and the Heart’s first album. (I just have to hide it behind my other records.) I’ve loved this song for a long time, but just in the past week, as I’ve been thinking about moving away from the place I’ve lived for 15 years and, in fact, entirely out of the Appalachian region (see above), where I’ve lived pretty much my whole life, I’ve started to listen to it in a new way. This song, like most of the album, is about coming and going and wanting to return. My favorite line, which in its matter-of-fact profundity sounds like a line The Avett Brothers would write, says, “My family lives in a different state/And if you don’t know what to make of this, then we cannot relate.”
  4. “A Little Bit of Everything” by Dawes. I posted a link to this song on Facebook the other day on National Chicken Wing Day because while there are probably lots of songs that rep chicken wings (mostly country songs, I bet), this is the only one I’m actually aware of. I included a warning that this is NOT some light-hearted novelty song, despite the chicken wing reference, so you should not listen to it unless you are prepared to weep. Dawes has written some of the most perfect rock lyrics since the classic rock era, and many of them are on display in this song. The verses are about, respectively, a would-be suicide who can’t nail down one reason why he’s about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (“it’s a little bit of everything”), a beaten-down-by-life older man experiencing decision paralysis in a buffet line, who reviews his bittersweet life and then decides to eat everything!! (this is the chicken wing part), and an engaged couple contemplating the life they’re about to embark on (this is the happy verse, though it still mentions the bride-to-be loving “the way you ache”). It’s a sad song, but it also communicates a defiant, white-knuckled determination to hold onto the good parts of life.

Maybe don’t listen to all four of these songs right in a row. Or maybe do. And while you’re at it, let me know what your favorite sad songs are.

Ghosts by Gaslight

Last night my brother Mark and I went to our second Gaslight Anthem concert, this one in downtown Raleigh’s tiny Lincoln Theater, a perfect venue for getting up close and personal with rock and roll.  On the way home, I remarked that I’ve noticed that The Gaslight Anthem’s songs are constantly referring to ghosts.  Mark added that they tend to write about radios a lot as well.  I’ll let Mark treat the symbolic valences of radios (maybe he could do that on his podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This?), but let me give you a few of my thoughts on the ghost imagery in the Gaslight canon.

First of all, it’s everywhere.  Here are just a few samples from last year’s album Handwritten:

  • “I danced with your ghost” (“45”)
  • “All of our heroes were failures or ghosts” (“Biloxi Parish”)
  • “I already live with too many ghosts” (“National Anthem”)

I’m sure a thorough or even a cursory listen through the catalog would turn up many more examples.

Invariably, these ghosts aren’t spirits of dead people returned to complete unfinished business.  In the Gaslight Anthem universe, which looks a lot like a Christian universe much of the time, the dead go On (to echo Albus Dumbledore).  This is very clear in the masterful requiem “The ’59 Sound” (“when we float out into the ether/into the everlasting arms”) and in “Biloxi Parish,” one of the few almost cheerful songs on the new album (“when you pass through from this world/I hope you ask to take me with you/or that I don’t have to wait too long”).

No, the ghosts in The Gaslight Anthem’s repertoire are memories–not mere memories, for as the songs heart-wrenchingly demonstrate, memories are powerful and, far too often, malevolent.  I can think of only one example in which ghost imagery is positive, and it’s “Biloxi Parish” again.  In that song, which I think is highly romantic, I don’t think the line “I will eventually haunt you” is meant to be sinister.  But that’s the exception.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the main theme of all of TGA’s music is figuring out how to go on living in the shadows of a devastating past–the shadow of a failure of a father, the shadow of a burned-out New Jersey factory, the shadows of girls named Virginia and Maria.

The ghost references go all the way back to the first album (“like I was a ghost in your dreams” in “Red in the Morning”) and are used to convey a number of different ideas.  For example, “Old Haunts” (which I always thing of as The Gaslight Anthem’s more depressing answer to Bruce Springsteen’s already-sad “Glory Days”) is about people who voluntarily become ghosts by refusing to move forward, always falling back on “if you’d have known me when.”  Even when they’re not using the word “ghost,” The Gaslight Anthem are singing about ghosts: “Keepsake,” the saddest song on the latest album, is about exorcising those angry memories–or, to use the song’s own metaphor, burying them deep at the bottom of a river.  Another theme addressed without explicitly employing the ghost imagery, though the allusion is certainly there, is the determination to avoid creating haunting memories for others.  This is why the speaker in “The Spirit of Jazz” asks so earnestly, “Was I good to you/the wife of my youth?”

If all these ghost lyrics were accompanied by minor keys and funereal tempos, they would be maudlin.  But many of The Gaslight Anthem’s most haunted songs are among their loudest, fastest, and most danceable.  Part of this, I think, is defiance: Hey ghosts, you can’t stop me from playing rock and roll.  But also, maybe–I don’t want to presume to read something that isn’t there–maybe there’s also some hope for what we’ll find after we hear our “favorite song one last time.”

Two texts that inquire into the moment just before death

“If I Only Knew”

a poem by Nelly Sachs, Holocaust survivor  and Nobel laureate

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

“The ’59 Sound”

a song by The Gaslight Anthem, the greatest presently active band in any genre

Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.
’cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on Grandmama’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

And I wonder were you scared when the metal hit the glass?
See, I was playing a show down the road
when your spirit left your body.
And they told me on the front lawn.
I’m sorry I couldn’t go,
but I still know the song and the words and her name and the reasons.
And I know ’cause we were kids and we used to hang.


Young boys, young girls, ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night.