by Warren Moore
The marriage between rock and roll and noir fiction seems like a pretty natural one, to me, anyway. At its best, rock and roll is outlaw music; at its best, noir carries you with enough adrenaline to fuel a mosh pit. And of course, sometimes we can blend the two. We’ve seen rock and roll noir going at least as far back as Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss, and running to the present day in works like Dope Sick: A Love Story and some other recent book… Broken Glass Something or Other, I think. But today I’m interested in the other side of the equation. I thought it might be fun to take a look at some rock songs that I think offer a shot of noir attitude. Some will be obvious, but I hope some others are less so. Let’s take a look and a listen, shall we?
Tom Waits – “Jockey Full of Bourbon”
As I said, some will be obvious – Waits has been working a hard-boiled beat bricolage for much of his career, so I figured we’d go ahead and bow to our bishop. The filtered, whispery vocals, Marc Ribot’s stinging guitar, and lyrics that include two-dollar pistols and being on the lawn with someone else’s wife all add up to a good time and some furtive body stashing.
Stan Ridgway – “Drive She Said”
There’s no question Stan knows noir. He did an album called The Big Heat, for crying out loud, and “Peg and Pete and Me” is straight up James M. Cain (with backing vox by a not-yet-mopey Tori Amos). But this little account of a cabbie and a femme fatale is a nice distillation of Ridgway’s jittery, Jimmy Stewart-meets-Edward G. Robinson style. “Lost Weekend” (by Stan’s original band, Wall of Voodoo) is another slice of life during the hangover from the American Dream.
The Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting for the Man”
Scoring smack never sounded so cool. “First thing you learn is that you always got to wait.” OK – those are the obvious ones, but let’s dig a little deeper, huh?
Blue Ӧyster Cult – “Then Came the Last Days of May”
Here’s a little story of some cross-border commerce that has a nifty twist ending. I take a certain pleasure in having introduced Lawrence Block to this song – he dug it.
Whyte Boots – “Nightmare”
For sheer over-the-top melodrama, it’s hard to beat some of the mid-60s girl groups like the Shangri-Las, but this one-shot account of a catfight gone wrong is replete with screaming sirens and adolescent angst. From 1966 – the greatest year in rock and roll history.
The Delusionaires – “She Crawls On Her Belly Like A Reptile”
Orlando’s Delusionaires bring us this soundtrack for a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback. This instrumental is redolent of cheap cigars and bourbon – and that’s just the way they like it. Travis McGee probably heard this stuff in a bar during a salvage operation.
MC 900 Ft. Jesus – “The Killer Inside Me”
We might not think of Jim Thompson’s magnificent Lou Ford in a hip-hop context, but it’s pretty cool that someone did. It’s remarkably faithful to Thompson’s character as well.
Bruce Springsteen – “Johnny 99”
This track is a working-class outlaw ballad, but the whole Nebraska album (1982) could do the trick.
… and last, but not least, the song that launched Broken Glass Waltzes…
The Misfits – “Die! Die, My Darling!”
I was driving one night in Lexington, Kentucky when I heard this song. I turned the car around, went home, and started writing. And really, it doesn’t get any more noir than “Your future’s in an oblong box.”
So there’s a playlist for some hard-boiled rock and roll. Some of it whispers and some of it screams, but all of it sounds like noir to me.