“Whether through lyrics or melody or both, music has always fueled something. I often wish I possessed some musical ability, because it just seems like a much more direct route to whatever emotional truth I’m trying to tap with words.” — Andrew Forbes, in conversation with Rob McLennan

Click the song titles to hear the tracks.

Story: What You Need (Read it here) | Song: “Immigrant Song”  by Led Zeppelin

As “Immigrant Song” kicks off Led Zeppelin III, so does “What You Need,” the story, begin What You Need, the book. It’s the galloping fury of the vividly remembered hormonal fever dreams shared by brothers Richie and Jamie, raised on freedom and corn and hot sun, growing their hair out to listen to Zep records in the basement rec room. Then, as grown men, they headbang along to strained minivan speakers as what’s left of their vitality kicks against their ribcages. And that cold stop at the end is the sound of Janet Evans slapping down a dishtowel, putting an end to the conversation.

Story: In the Foothills | Song: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

CCR’s version of this Motown chestnut is just about my favourite way to spend eleven minutes, and it’s what I imagine Marty and the narrator are listening to in that blue GMC truck (earlier, in the apartment in Calgary, CCR yields to Rush on the CD player by Marty’s choice, and it’s an early indication of his questionable judgment and trustworthiness). The first bar of unadorned plucked bass is the sound of the busted muffler on Marty’s blue Cavalier (with lightning bolts down the sides) as he rolls into town. Then things seem okay, like maybe everything will be fine, and some jaunty, even happy momentum will carry the two men. But the menace returns, and eventually things get more and more fucked up. Our narrator figured he was just in for some chooglin’ this sweet spring night, but winds up in a mountain of trouble.

Story: Jamboree | Song: “Story of My Life” by Social Distortion

I have a friend who has, since high school, maintained that Social Distortion represent a pale, second-rate Clash rip-off act. This, in short, is why I love them, and they’re never truer to that also-ran status than in “Story of My Life,” a born-loser tale of never-was and coulda-been. All of the characters in “Jamboree” fit these descriptors; the most successful person they know took a look at his prospects and opted for death. None of them say “I coulda been somebody!” because they know that isn’t true.

Story: Edwards, on the Next Flight Out of Town | Song: “The Obvious Child” by Paul Simon

“The cross is in the ballpark.”

Story: I Was a Willow | Song: “Crazy on You” by Heart

The stuff karaoke dreams are made of. The Wilson sisters are incomparable, and I can imagine them being great heroes to a teenage girl stuck in smalltown Ontario in 1980. Samantha sings a portion of the song to her doomed first love, thereby giving the story its title, and more broadly, the song feels like that time and place to me: tight jeans and shaggy carpeting, loud, muscular cars, and rock bands putting out disco records. Many were guilty of this, and most were awful, though some weren’t, and Heart’s was the best.

BONUS TRACK: “Star Witness” by Neko Case

Case’s music—especially the entirely of her Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album—was the true inspiration, the starting point, for this story. There are no rawer or more evocative songs to be found anywhere. She’s amazing. I foolishly thought I could maybe harness a bit of that in story form. Silly me.

Story: Dark Blue | Song: “Archangel” by Burial

Burial’s entire schtick is to take familiar elements and garble them into something sinister, lonely, and claustrophobic. Like, all the ingredients of an R&B party jam are present in “Archangel,” but something’s off. It’s skewed. It would be flippant and reductive to compare such a thing to the experience of the girl in “Dark Blue,” but reductiveness is pretty much the point of this exercise, isn’t it? And that haunting, repeating line, “If I trust you,” that kind of sums up the whole thing.

Story: Cycles | Song: “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA

Elements of “Cycles” are autobiographical, insofar as I did play high school football during the time period described, and we did listen to NWA and Metallica in the dressing room at ridiculous volumes in order to pump ourselves up. If you weren’t there then, I can’t really describe to you just how dangerous NWA felt when we first heard them. As Canadian middle class, suburban kids, we thought, somehow, they were speaking to us. We co-opted that feeling of barely-contained aggression and put it to use in the form of a completely undeserved swagger. We wanted to shock others as we ourselves had been shocked. We pretended, of course, not to be intimidated by the idea of Compton, but who believed that?

Story: I Cannot Believe We Are Having This Conversation | Song: “Skip the Details” by Knapsack

I don’t believe for a second that the narrator of this story has ever listened to (or even heard of) Knapsack—he seems like more of a 2 Unlimited guy. But I like how the song’s key lyric—“This conversation is ending, starting right now”—could easily be inserted as a line of dialogue. He’d totally say that.

Story: The Rate At Which He Fell | Song: “Eyes to the Wind” by The War on Drugs

In the story, Nick Mazurek is an idiot who makes an idiotic decision, but one which he probably believes to be heroic and in some way poetic. He’s like the character who sings Springsteen’s “Hungry Hearts,” who says, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back.” The War on Drugs are the new dad-rock favourites (and I implicate myself here, too, because Lost in the Dream was my favourite album of last year, hands down) who temper their Dinosaur Jr. vibe with a heaping tablespoon of The Boss. This, I expect, is what Nick insisted on putting on the stereo in Terry’s truck.

Story: Floridians | Song: “Ft. Lauderdale” by Cheap Girls

Wrong coast—Atlantic instead of Gulf—but it’s a Cheap Girls song, so it’s automatically great, and it happens to be about Florida, which we’ll just view as a bonus where this playlist is concerned. Plus, he sings “There’s no telling what I'll do in this state of mind, with this point of view, and I ran up all the tabs with my close friends just to show them that I have become reckless,” which fits the story, sort of.

Story: Below the Lighted Sky | Song: “Good Morning, Captain” by Slint

The band Spiderbite in this story is a thinly-veiled version of Slint and all they represented about twenty or so years ago: the post-Rites of Spring, early-wave emo of introverted art kids playing songs that wound and plinked along until they exploded cathartically with some skinny, thrift-store-outfitted, zine-reading dude screaming himself hoarse over guitar and drum. It seemed really important at the time, but I wonder now if for some of them/us, the entire construct actually worked to inhibit sincerity, as opposed to encouraging it. I was more into Fugazi and Jawbreaker and Nation of Ulysses at the time, but Slint is really the sound of this story.

Story: Lighter Things | Song: “Ascension” by John Coltrane

They used to call a loose, open jazz recording with a thrown-together band a “blowing session.” Coltrane’s blowing session, recorded in 1965, involved carefully assembling an eleven-piece group of sympathetic performers (seven horns!) and giving them almost complete freedom (except, he said, end your solos on a crescendo), and the result is an LP-length study in pure noise and total cacophony. It’s the sound of a gale would make if you gave a gale a rhythm section, which is what makes this blowing session the right soundtrack for a story about a month-long windstorm.

Story: Dorothy | Song: “Party in my Tummy” by Yo Gabba Gabba

There seems little doubt that this lightly fictionalized version of me during the earlier years of my stay-at-home parenthood would hear a whole lot of Yo Gabba Gabba, day in, day out. Write what you know, they say.

Story: A Stunt Like That | Song: “Kid Candy” by Seaweed

The fifteen year-old protagonist of “A Stunt Like That” is all about his red BMX bike, and the freedom and thrills it grants him, until it gets damaged, at which point he and his friends simply decide to destroy it, which is about the most fifteen-year-old act imaginable. And Tacoma-bred skatepunks Seaweed seem like the perfect choice to soundtrack all this, especially given that the video for this song was all about arcade-prowling bike thieves riding stolen wheels like bats out of hell.

Story: The Marys | Song: “Oh, My Girl” by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter

“Between them trees / is all the world’s fuckery” sings Sykes, which is essentially what the charismatic at the centre of “The Marys” tells all his wives. I think, like most of the men in this collection, he’s genuine in his wrongheadedness, which is to say honestly idiotic, so that he believes there to be tenderness at the heart of his monstrousness. I think he sees something sweet and beautiful in his actions. He imagines that he and each of his wives “dance across that sunlit room” while he whispers nonsense to them, tells them that in order to be protected they must surrender everything to him.

Story: The Gamechanger | Song: “He Got Game” by Public Enemy

Robert Grainge most definitely got game, or else college hoops recruiter Eddie wouldn’t be in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in late December, pitching the woo to Robert’s dad. “He Got Game” is, of course, from the soundtrack to the Spike Lee movie of the same name, and is all about the recruiting racket, and which receives bonus points for starring a young Ray Allen as the titular He, otherwise known as Jesus Shuttlesworth. Robert is kind of a mashed-together character, a little Allen, a little Andrew Wiggins, though Robert’s dad is no Denzel Washington.

Story: Fat Albert | Song: “Dog Gone” by Frank Black and the Catholics

The overall tone of “Fat Albert” is one of weary resignation, and I don’t know of a song that expresses that better than “Dog Gone.” “I was so tired, you know,” says the man in his garage building his device. “No Paris,” sings Black, “And no Nepal / No Barstow / Won't be none of them at all.”


Purchase WHAT YOU NEED from:

Amazon | Indigo | McNally Robinson | IndieBound

Read the title story here at Little Fiction:



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