One of the first things I do when I write a book is make a playlist. I’ve got three rules: It can’t have too many songs—I like to keep it to roughly an hour’s worth of music. Only one song per musician or artist. And none of the songs can have been used in a previous book’s playlist.
I don’t listen to it while I write. When I’m actually sitting at the keyboard I prefer music without words, like Bach’s cello suits or Aphex Twin or Sigur Ros (they sing in a made-up language; doesn’t count).
The soundtrack is for editing, or while I’m walking to and from work, or when I’m at the gym. Anytime my mind is wandering and it helps to be in the right headspace.
South Village is the third Ash McKenna novel, set on a hippie commune in the middle of the woods. Ash, an amateur private investigator (though he prefers to himself as a blunt instrument), is hiding out from a bad thing he did, waiting for his passport to come through so he can flee the country. And then someone gets killed. Just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in.
The book is a little bit about madness, but also a little bit about loneliness. And it took me a while to find the right combination of songs, but this is what I came up with.
The ‘Nam Connection
“Shelter from the Storm” – Bob Dylan
“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones
This isn’t exactly scientific, but I wanted to evoke the feeling of the Vietnam era, when hippie communes were growing in popularity. These are some songs I’d expect to hear while watching a movie in which soldiers traipse through the jungles along the Meikong River. And each one plays a bit into Ash’s personal journey.
Plus, the first two Ash novels—New Yorked and City of Rose—feel very current to me, whereas this one feels a bit untethered to time period, given the lack of modern amenities at the commune. So I wanted the music to reflect that.
The Hippie Connection
“Revolution” – The Beatles
“Redemption Song” – Bob Marley
“John and James” – The Maytals
“What I Got” – Sublime
It’s a hippie commune. There’s got to be some Bob Marley. And “Redemption Song” is a little on the nose, but it’s also a really good song. “Revolution” is the same—a little obvious, but it works for me.
I went to SUNY Purchase College, which had a big hippie scene, so I’m pretty used to that vibe. I spent a lot of time listening to Sublime, though I guess that’s not exactly unique to my college experience. But I also listened to a lot of the Skatalites and the Maytals, ska bands from Jamaica. Something was going to end up here; just happened to be “John James”.
Time to Get Angry
“Sleep Now in the Fire” – Rage Against the Machine
“Dogma” – KMFDM
“I’m Against It” – The Ramones
Part of the book involves militant hippie activists and a protest, so I needed some angry songs on here, too. The Ramones because I always need at least one punk song on every soundtrack. Rage Against the Machine because it’s Rage Against the Machine.
KMFDM, to my mind, is Rage Against the Machine with more staying power and a better sense of humor. I could have picked a lot of songs from their huge catalogue, but went with “Dogma”, because there was a snippet I wanted to use in the epigraph. Which the band leader, Sascha Konietzko, very graciously allowed me to use.
The Personal Cuts
“You Learn” – Alanis Morissette
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Johnny Cash
Twelve years ago, when I visited The Hostel in the Forest—the commune South Village is loosely based on—my friend Jacqui and I were driving from Brunswick to Athens. It was the middle of the night and I got it in my head I wanted to listen to Jagged Little Pill. I don’t even know why. We had to visit three Wal-Marts before we found the CD, and then we sang along until sunrise, driving back road through Georgia. I associate that album with that trip. “You Learn” gets a spot.
And, finally, Johnny Cash. This particular song made it because Ash is dealing with his loneliness, and how he relates to other people. But also, I’ve always got to have Johnny Cash. That should probably count as the fourth rule.