It’s no secret that there are musical references in Dennis Cooper’s work. At times music has played a quite prominent role in his stories and the subject has been discussed before. But it was only after I become acquainted with his music journalism through Smothered in Hugs and had read Guide a few months ago that I stopped a moment to wonder just how much of the musical component in his books I had missed. I had been so intensely wrapped in my new interest in Cooper that I had breezed through everything I could get at the San Francisco Public Library at an unreasonable speed. So, I decided to read it all over again both to better understand my appreciation of his works as well as to tackle the project of cataloging the music in these books. Happening a upon a Guide-and-music-focused blog called The “Guide” Thingfurther encouraged me in this endeavor.
You can view Musical References in Dennis Cooper’s Books over at Rate Your Music and listen to the corresponding Spotify playlist here. Following the text below I have also selected a few music-referencing passages from Cooper’s books and added music videos to supplement them. Horror Hospital Unplugged was particularly enjoyable to take a closer look at for this purpose, because there are many references tucked away that I missed on first, second, and even third passes through, from the integration of lyrics in the background of scenes, to the atmosphere of the record store and bedroom shelves packed with albums.
I am already an obsessive list-maker and, relatedly, a library tech — imagine my delight at finding the best-of lists tucked away at the back of Ugly Man! — so I desired to fill this perceived gap as soon as I found out that someone hadn’t done this already. But I also felt it important due to the reasons why his writing, as a whole, is important to me personally and how I came to read these books in the first place.
I found out about Dennis Cooper around 2009 through this list of Richey Edwards’ Favorite Books, where Frisk was listed. [Richey Edwards: a member of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers whose history was posted about here at DC’s in 2012] I had never heard of Cooper or this book before, and became intrigued. Shortly thereafter I read Frisk as an eBook and Closer as a check-out from my college library, without reading any summary or review beforehand – no clue what to expect. Afterward, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be haunted or enthralled. Not until much later did I decide that it was perfectly okay to hold both in my head at the same time.
It is significant that I began reading Dennis Cooper’s books around the same time I was finally coming to terms with my gender and sexual identity. In short, I don’t identify as a man or a woman, but I do strongly identify with gay male sexuality. It occurred to me that the subject matter of many of these books reminded me of the content (rather than the writing style I lacked and still lack: the immaculate, enviable crispness of words Cooper often uses to great effect) of my own bizarre scribblings in my teenage years. Reading an author like Dennis Cooper has somehow made me more comfortable with my identification and creative modes of expression than more positive bastions of “hope” or “transformation”. This is likely not despite but because of the preponderance of devastatingly pretty boys in ethically problematic situations. So much of what “squicks” some people out about his books are exactly what has drawn me in, because I am somehow reminded of what both mixed me up and interested me about sexuality in my past and something that is at times uncomfortable to recognize that is still inside of myself. This is probably the reason why it took me about two years from reading Closer and Frisk to make the decision to go on to read more.
And here we come to music. It has not been unusual for me to follow an interest in a particular artist to their own influences and interests. This not only helps me better understand and appreciate the interest that I started with, but expands my own tastes. In the case of the Manic Street Preachers, getting into them greatly expanded my literary reference pool. Through Cooper I have, perhaps inevitably, circled back around to music again through my tracking of these references. Music has been long established as a lens that I can better understand the world through, especially in the realm of making sense of emotions. Dennis Cooper, through his use of music, makes it clear that it is not just a plot prop: he loves music himself, and so it isn’t surprising that it often plays a significant role in the world/s of his characters, including at times characters with music taste dissimilar to his own.
When I read Dennis Cooper, it doesn’t resonate at all with some sense of self-hatred or whatever else people who think his writing is invariably about “shock value” feel is there. For me personally, reading Dennis Cooper’s books challenge me to interrogate the concepts of chaos, beauty, masculinity, and lust, and on a more intimate side, there is a connection with my own sphere of self-identity and attraction. That he does not hesitate to integrate his kickass music taste when it is fitting to do so makes the journey through this dark landscape that much sweeter.
While Alex showered I reached behind his cassette deck. I found the baggie where he hid his grass, rolled a joint, struck a match on my belt buckle. I tried the radio. Out popped Sparks’ “Amateur Hour,” a flop song from my childhood that sounded best loud.
Sparks – “Amateur Hour”
Mr. Miles wandered back to the kitchen. George lifted his Mickey Mouse cap, grabbed a tab of the acid he’d stashed there, and slipped it under his tongue. He set The Cramps’ “Garbage Man” forty-five on his turntable. “. . . Do you understand / Do you understand? . . . ” By its end he was seeing things.
The Cramps – “Garbage Man”
As the room starts to bustle we chat in a nerve-wracking whine we’ve developed to crack ourselves up. A great new song by The Swans is drowning us out. “Greed,” I think it’s called. We go insane when this born-again Christian we know actually sobs when the lyrics begin.
Swans – “Greed”
He ran a damp washcloth under both arms, across his cock, between the cheeks of his ass. He tried to whistle the tune of The Smiths’ “Handsome Devil” but the thing had no melody so he just sounded asthmatic.
The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”
On the way to the shower Pierre makes a stop at the stereo, plays side one of Here Comes the Warm Jets, an old Eno album. It’s still on his turntable. It has this cool, deconstructive, self-conscious pop sound typical of the ‘70s Art Rock Pierre loves. He doesn’t know why it’s fantastic exactly. If he were articulate and not just nosy, he’d write an essay about it. Instead he stomps around in the shower yelling the twisted lyrics. “By this time/I’d got to looking for a kind of /substitute. . .” It’s weird to get lost in something so calculatedly chaotic. It’s retro, pre-punk, bourgeois, meaningless, etc.
Brian Eno – “Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch”
The Hüsker Dü tape’s reached his favorite song, “I Apologize,” a raucous, fierce, kind of confused, pretty rant against the way the world works that’s so appropriate to his current situation it’s almost hilarious. That’s why he borrowed the name for his magazine. But every Hüsker Dü song is relevant to Ziggy’s life every second. That’s why they mean tons to him now.
Hüsker Dü – “I Apologize”
But the Sex Hole’s door’s closed, not sitting open an orangy slit, as per most visits. So Ziggy does like he does when Ken’s doing whatever he, ha ha ha, does in the Hole, and turns off the stereo system, to let the guy know he’s present. . . . A cannibal’s desire feeds the fire that burns in your—Click. Ziggy loves how, like, even after it’s off, loud music, especially guitar hangs around in the air tinkling faintly for two, three seconds. “Cool.”
Slayer – “Live Undead”
Luke smiled mesmerizingly, he could just tell. Then he let his thought patterns crap out to the music.
Guided by Voices: Everything fades from sight / because that’s all right with me.
Guided by Voices – “I Am A Scientist”
I’m in my office, typing a draft of the previous chapter. Several minutes ago, I pushed PLAY on my boom box.
Blur: I met him in a crowded room / Where people go to drink away their gloom.
The office is smallish and barren, apart from my desk, a file cabinet, a filthy Macintosh laptop, and a bulletin board pinned with pictures of people whose beauty inspires me for whatever reason.
Blur – “Charmless Man”
“Wake up, Chris.” Pam poked, poked. She was weighing a gnarly idea. “I’m counting to five, then I give you a salt-shot. One. . .two. . .”
Chris had nodded out at her desk. “Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled.
Guided by Voices: Are you the person I’m scheduled to meet / To assess my skeleton’s worth?
Pam leaned in close to his ear. “I have an idea,” she said. “Take off your clothes, and go stand next to Goof.”
Guided by Voices – “Do the Earth”
Scott laid down his pencil and shook out some early arthritis.
On the radio, a strangely good song by the Lemonheads, whom Scott normally hates or, more specifically, thinks he could be up with indie-rock gods, i.e., Pavement, Guided by Voices and Sebadoh, if they cared a little less about fame.
Scott’s thoughts, in summary: Maybe I’m jealous.
The Lemonheads: Mary my path / Mark my path down.
The Lemonheads – “The Turnpike Down”
Tinselstool: You’re gonna die too, bad boy / Bad boy, die till tomorrow. Scott grinned insanely at Daniel James’s ass. The boy was hunched over, playing a solo. He meant every predictable note.
Silverchair – “Tomorrow”
Horror Hospital Unplugged
Any thought could be the beginning / Of the brand new tangled web you’re spinning
“I see two…no, three gods.”
Sebadoh – “Brand New Love”
‘Cos nobody loves me / it’s true / not like you do
“So…why do you always want to, uh, lick me and stuff?”
“Because you’re beautiful.”
Portishead – “Sour Times”
“Yeah, it’s cool. So your friend, uh…”
“…Yeah, Frank.He really wants to make a documentary about Horror Hospital?”
I’m an alligator…
“Sure. Here, take one more of these.”
David Bowie – “Moonage Daydream”
“If a ten ton truck…” Sung to the tun of The Smiths song “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” Meanwhile, in Tim’s car…
The Smiths – “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”
My all-time favorite song is Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” I didn’t know it was their cover version of an old blues song for years. By the time I found out, I was already a fan. After I heard the original, Zeppelin’s copy seemed overstated and weak. But I didn’t change my mind. I just decided I was weak for continuing to love it.
Led Zeppelin – “Dazed and Confused”
Jake Holmes – “Dazed and Confused”
We’re feeling nostalgic so I’ve cranked KROQ. It’s playing a set of so-called nuggets from the ‘80s. Tommy happens to walk in the living room when KROQ’s playing a song called “She Sells Sanctuary” by a band that I think was called the Cult. Tommy smiles at the sound and grabs an imaginary microphone. He can’t sing, but he sings anyway.
The Cult – “She Sells Sanctuary”
The Marbled Swarm
I retrieved my brother’s backpack from the floor and rummaged through its
mishmash until I’d clutched the cold hard outlines of an iPod. “What do
manga characters listen to when they’re … ?” I asked him. “Nothing,
strangely,” Alfonse said. “But I wouldn’t mind hearing Cartoon KAT-TUN II
KAT-TUN – “Signal (from Cartoon KAT-TUN II You)
“I slept horribly, and yet my iPhone’s silent, rumbling alarm so piqued my interest in exploring day-lit rooms and views, it might have played my favorite TV program’s theme song if the show in question weren’t predictably Twin Peaks and were its overture less soporific.”
Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks Theme
“Fuck it, I’m going out.” He puts on jeans, a T-shirt, and stumbles off to the stereo, digging out his favorite record. Its doom and fashion sense waft from the speakers, through the lead singer’s stiff upper lip. Mark sways around in its breezes: “Gods will be Gods / but when mine opened up / I was made out of skin / and bones will be bones / but when I came home / there was no one in.” He mouths the lyrics. There’s a draft in their thinking that chills him each time he listens.
Echo and the Bunnymen – “Gods Will Be Gods”
Lunch (The Tenderness of the Wolves)
“I still say,” Xeeman yawned, “that Magazine is the biggest bore. Their last two albums didn’t live up to the first one, but with a guy like Howard Devoto at their helm, who has an IQ of 140, you know they’ve got something.”
From the tape recorder, Devoto accompanied her: “Time flies,” he intoned in a deep, broken wail, “time crawls, like an insect up and down the walls.”
Magazine – “The Light Pours Out of Me”
My Dad (The Dream Police)
Paul Petersen sang “My Dad,” his ’64 hit, on The Donna Reed Show. He did so stage-left, in full view of Carl Betz, his dad in that scene, in those days. Now it’s ’83. Feelings for dads aren’t so simple.
Paul Petersen – “My Dad”
Shelley’s survived. Her song “Johnny Angel” a cult hit today with ironic and sentimental young fags. But I forget what she said about boyfriends whereas I parenthesized what Mr. Petersen felt for his dad, played it over and over.