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The Unheard Music

Text by Jeff Jackson
Songs by Nelly Kate and Stern

The biggest challenge writing a novel about rock? You can’t include music. Not a single note. Sure, you can suggest songs by arranging words on the page in italicized stanzas. But really, they’re lyrics, man. There’s not a note in them, none that you can hear aloud, none that will tickle the tympanic membrane of your ears.

True to a novel that has both a Side A and Side B, I decided to offer two kinds of songs: a cover and an original. Both were inspired by my debut novel, Destroy All Monsters.

I first chose a song featured in the book: Johnny Ace’s early rock and roll ballad “Pledging My Love.” It doesn’t just sound ghostly, the song is rumored to be a haunted. Shortly after Ace recorded it, he lost his life in a game of Russian Roulette. Bad things have happened to those who’ve played it—it was the last thing Elvis recorded before he died. In Destroy All Monsters, it’s performed by a woman during a high-stakes concert, and it feels like the tune might still be fully loaded.

I asked Nelly Kate, my band mate in Julian Calendar, to create her own version of the song. In turn, she asked me to supply some abstract inspirations for how I imagined it might sound. I sent her photos of blue neon tubes and a James Turrell light installation, a link to an old Yaz song, and this question: “How would it feel to hear a synth-pop version in 2046, sitting alone in a dive bar, late on a rainy and windy night, far from your home and your lover, watching a young couple drunkenly slow dance in the corner?”

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Remarkably, she found my comments useful and created a compelling reinterpretation of “Pledging My Love” that’s futuristic and full of yearning, pulsing with odd and contrasting sounds, but still faithful to the core of the original. It’s something I can imagine the book’s lead character Xenie listening to obsessively.

For the original song, we engaged Chuck Stern of the acclaimed band Stern. Playing off the idea of Destroy All Monsters being “the last rock novel,” we asked him to write us his interpretation of the the last rock song. Where many musicians might have delivered a noise-drenched screamfest, Stern created something more unusual and unexpected. His elegy to the form harnesses the abrasiveness of rock in order to emphasize loss. It strikes me as a funeral lament, a processional leading to the grave of something already gone.

“I was inspired by the doomsday feeling in the air these days, the ‘last’ gasp of democracy, as it were,” Stern told me. “The lyrics also deal with the end of my father (who died last year) and my relationship with the girl I thought I was going to marry. I think it’s the last rock song I’ll make with this band before I go solo again. ‘The Last Rock Song’ is not a band song, but the fact that my drummer programmed the beat gives it more of that feeling. There’s poetry in this being the end of the ‘rock’ version of Stern.”

What I like about both songs is that they don’t try to directly evoke the world of Destroy All Monsters. Instead, they do something better—they’re parallel artworks with their own integrity that have initiated a conversation with the book.

The biggest surprise is that both songs feel like they belong to the same sonic universe. Neither musician heard the other’s contribution, but it’s as if these songs were always meant to be paired together, Side A and Side B of a classic vinyl single.


Destroy All Monsters book cover

Destroy All Monsters

FSG Originals, 2018

“At some point, I began to think of it as an ancient folk tale. It’s fine work, with a kind of scattered narrative set within a tight frame. Fast-moving throughout—fragile characters who suggest a bleak inner world made in their own collective image.” —Don DeLillo

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