When your title has the word ‘songs’ in it, like my novel No Sad Songs, it should be simple to create a musical playlist. Theoretically, all one should have to do is write all the song titles that appear in the book on a slip of paper and then scribble a few lines about how they play leading roles in every aspect of the story. But that wouldn’t be completely honest, because such a list would fall far short of capturing the patchwork quilt of an anthem I heard as I wrote about a young man thrust headlong into caring for his ailing grandfather, an Alzheimer’s patient.
Music, in addition to poetry, do play on a loop throughout the duration of my debut novel, but there were so many songs that influenced the paths I walked as a writer but didn’t, in the end, fit the story like a glove or simply galloped over the line of what would be appropriate in a work of young adult literature. After all, we’re talking about a playlist rife with punk-induced, grunge-rock madness here. The following is not an exhaustive list, but rather one that captures the essence of No Sad Songs. I recommend cranking it to eleven and letting it rip in the background as you read. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“In Bloom” – Nirvana
Whenever someone mentions the 90s, the first thing that comes to mind for me is Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I’m probably not alone. I also hope I’m not alone in thinking “In Bloom” is a quintessential dirge of the time. My protagonist, Gabe LoScuda is a kid from the Philly suburbs, a place that, at least to me, felt like an East Coast extension of the Seattle grunge scene. Hey, I was young. Gabe’s barely passed his eighteenth birthday when both of his parents are ripped out from under him and he’s left to become a parent on his own…to a man who’s lived Gabe’s live four times over. He doesn’t even have time to grieve before he’s sorting medications, arranging doctor visits, and struggling to make ends meet. The more I got to know Gabe as I wrote him, the more I kept hearing echoes of Kurt’s words “he don’t know what it means,” which happens to be a perfect reflection of this young man’s admirable sense of duty, but also how blind he is to the fact his service means he has willingly forfeited youth.
“Fly Me to the Moon” – Frank Sinatra
Gabe loses his parents in one of the early chapters, after they’re involved in a late-night accident on the Atlantic City Expressway. It’s not like his parents were high-rollers or anything, but they embodied a spirit of hope they passed down to Gabe. Gabe’s father likes to see himself and his wife “out among the stars” from time to time and this song reflects how he dreamed big for his family. It helped me to better grasp Gabe’s internal struggle. To have his parents so far removed from his life—to Jupiter and Mars—and to have to stand right back up the next day in their shoes.
“Back in Black” – AC/DC
Gabe and his best friend, John Chen, enjoy one of those obligatory Philadelphia-style friendships that are both competitive and supportive, critical and complimentary—meaning they bust each other’s chops for sport and for love. There’s at least sixty percent brutal truth to each verbal jab, but the love part is that everyone involved gets to pretend it’s all a joke and nobody gets insulted. It’s a system that’s been saving lives in Philadelphia for generations and it plays out most often during the epic John Madden Football battles that occur in the book between Gabe and John. “Back in Black” is not only the perfect video game football hype song, but it also captures the importance of friendship in this novel and how sometimes the people around us have their own unique ways of forcing our asses back in the game.
“God Save the Queen” – Sex Pistols
Gabe also gets the tough love he needs from a punk rocking tattoo artist named Sofia he meets on one of his many hospital visits. The only things they have in common are a stark belief their lives have “No Future!” and a fondness for Mr. Potato Head. Don’t ask. All I can say is I knew from the beginning this Sex Pistols classic needed to be the primary catalyst to spark a bizarrely endearing friendship between the two, one that helps both Gabe and Sofia see a glimmer in the distance where previously there had been only darkness.
“I Walk the Line” – Johnny Cash
Ernie LoScuda is Gabe’s grandfather. His declining mental state in the present contrasts harshly and intentionally with his portrayal in Gabe’s personal essays, which are embedded throughout the novel. These essays provide a look at Grandpa before he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and they create a gloomy paradox between the man Ernie had once been and the man he has come to be through no fault of his own. In my mind, Ernie LoScuda had once been like Johnny Cash, a man who kept his “eyes wide open all the time.” He was a war hero, but now he’s been reduced to something else altogether. Something he’d never wanted to become. Johnny Cash helps Gabe remember the man instead of the patient, and keeps the real identity of Ernie LoScuda alive.
“Ride the Lightning” – Metallica
When I was writing No Sad Songs, I kept imagining Gabe’s hectic life with all of his old responsibilities and new responsibilities piling up on each other, and this being the song that blares from his clock radio every morning, first thing. It’s no surprise that everything becomes a rush and a struggle when you suddenly have the equivalent of a newborn to take care of—even more so when said child is eighty years old. I kept picturing the coils of electricity on the album cover and hearing Hetfield shout, “there is someone else controlling me!” as if Gabe himself were strapped in the chair against his will. This song represents loss of control at the maximum level, and that is Gabe LoScuda’s waking life.
“Box of Rain” – Grateful Dead
The only real adult in Gabe’s life is his Uncle Nick, who’s probably more of a responsibility for Gabe to look after than Grandpa. It was the Dead who originally set Nick in motion on a nomadic lifestyle where he quickly lost touch with his family. This song perfectly sums up how Gabe sees his bumbling, alcoholic uncle as an intruder upon his return. Gabe remembers him from when he was just a boy, but it’s more like “in a dream they dreamed one afternoon long ago.”
“Lithium” – Nirvana
We may not like it when our friends or family members actively fight against our wishes, but sometimes that’s the only option we give them. They need to fight to save us. That’s what real friends do. Ultimately, No Sad Songs is a story about friendship and loyalty and what you’re willing to do to keep the people around you safe. John and Sofia fill this void for Gabe and Nirvana’s “Lithium” captures that angst and reminds Gabe everyday why he’s so happy because “today he found his friends.”
“Long Black Veil” – Johnny Cash
This song plays on the cassette player in Grandpa’s Cadillac. Always. It comes through in one of Gabe’s essays in a memory that reveals Grandpa’s humanity and one of his deepest regrets, a feeling you cannot help by be haunted by the second you hear Johnny Cash’s voice.
“I Just Want Something to Do” – Ramones
I probably listened to more Ramones while writing No Sad Songs than any other band. Then I decided not to name any of their songs specifically in the novel. Go figure. I just felt the band’s dominance of punk culture could be portrayed in more prominent ways as you’ll see if you read a copy. But this song is one that loomed large over my creation of the character Marlie McDermott, the subject of most of Gabe’s fantasies. What I love about the song is how it captures superficiality in such offhand terms. When it comes to Marlie, Gabe’s superficial tendencies become overt, clumsy, and downright hilarious.
“Heavy Duty Rock n’ Roll” – Spinal Tap
So much of the subject matter in No Sad Songs is heavy duty that I had to constantly remind myself and others that this book uses humor as a bed rock. My close, personal experience with an Alzheimer’s patient taught me that, at times, laughter is the only mode of survival. So, No Sad Songs is a rock n’ roll kind of book. It deals with mental illness and death and substance abuse and soul-crushing responsibility. But it’s equally loaded—or rather balanced out—with biting sarcasm, Whoopee cushion mishaps, and even fart jokes. This Spinal Tap masterpiece helped me to remember not to take myself or my characters too seriously.
“Under Pressure” – Queen/David Bowie
The central conflict in No Sad Songs revolves around a hit and run accident involving Grandpa, an ’81 Trans-am, and an adorable neighborhood kid. Oh, and the police, the local media, the shameless gawkers at Gabe’s high school and, of course, Gabe. This Queen/David Bowie tag team does not appear in the book, but it represents Gabe’s feeling of combustibility when he has to decide whether he’ll take the fall for Grandpa and lose the life he knows, or turn his grandfather in and lose him forever.
“Don’t Stop till you get Enough” – Michael Jackson
This is the greatest Michael Jackson song of all time. Period. It’s also the epitome of Gabe’s best friend, John Chen. On the outside, he’s a reserved scholar and sort of uptight. But he’s also the friend who’s not afraid to break into a moonwalk in the middle of the cafeteria if it’ll help you out. This song reflects John’s unwillingness to give up on his best friend as well as the bullheadedness that forces Gabe to make the right decision for Grandpa.
“My Way” – Sid Vicious
One of the realizations I made while writing No Sad Songs was how important it is for human beings to remain connected across generations. We’ve become such islands, both as individuals and as groups, and that endangers our ability as a human race to learn from our mistakes and build context for future decisions. It also makes it difficult to empathize with people who fall victim to generational diseases like Alzheimer’s. To me, there is no song that connects generations and builds a common experience like the famous Sid Vicious rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way”. It’s the song I hear playing as I close the back cover of my book and realize Gabe couldn’t have done it any other way. None of us can.