George Pelecanos' Capitol City Soul
Washington, D.C., was a tense place to be in 1968. White suburbanites generally viewed “the District line” as a sort of Berlin Wall. Black city dwellers erupted in fury after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Schoolyard fights were often racially motivated; though official segregation was gone, self-imposed school-cafeteria segregation continued. Only music seemed to bridge the gap.
“In ’68, at the time of the riots, I was 11 years old,” George Pelecanos recalls. “My dad had a lunch counter at 19th and M, and I worked [there]. His employees were all black. He let them play what they wanted—which was WOOK and WOL”—the twin flagship stations of black-oriented music at the time. “That was the summer I got interested in music.”
Pelecanos (who himself lives inside the Beltway, in Silver Spring, Md.) isn’t a musician. Rather, he’s an acclaimed author of crime fiction set in the nation’s capital. His 13th novel, Hard Revolution, features protagonist Derek Strange, who’s familiar to Pelecanos fans. But this book, set in 1968, looks back at the genesis of his anti-hero. “It explores who he is as a middle-aged man. In the previous three Strange novels, I was dropping hints about his past. … There was something that happened in his past that made him become a police officer, and then made him leave the force,” Pelecanos says.
For the author, the time travel involved immersing himself in the music of his childhood (and Strange’s young manhood): “Before I start writing, I go out and buy a bunch of music from the period.”
With this novel, though, Pelecanos went a bit further. He’d been wanting to produce an accompanying CD since 1997’s King Suckerman, a bicentennial-era story he calls “the American Graffiti of funk.”
He wasn’t able to persuade his publisher, Warner, that this would work, he says, until a fellow Warner writer recently had the same idea: “Michael Connelly convinced them to let him produce a jazz CD to go with one of his books, City of Bones … He’s got a little bit more clout than I do. So he sort of kicked the door open for me.”
Pelecanos’ “soundtrack” to Hard Revolution was given away at readings and with online purchases. (With the book’s success, he’s nearly out of copies of the CD.) Featuring liner notes on his website by one of his heroes, Peter Guralnick, it offers eight cuts of “the underexposed side of ’60s soul—I’m not talking about Motown, but Deep South soul—Stax-Volt and like that.
“When I went for Percy Sledge, I definitely didn’t want ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ I wanted ‘It Tears Me Up.’ For Sam and Dave, ‘I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.’ And then there’s The Impressions’ ‘A Fool for You.’ Curtis Mayfield is a hero of mine. … I didn’t want to put protest music in there. I wanted love songs. These are the songs these people listened to. So I didn’t want ‘People Get Ready.’ But one of the reasons I admire Curtis Mayfield is how brave he is. ‘This is my country, with people darker than blue …’ You can’t ignore Mayfield, especially in the context of the book.”
Pelecanos further explores his musical interests on his website, where he gives readers his listening choices (this summer’s include the Drive-By Truckers, Johnny Cash and the vintage Jamaican soul covers on Darker than Blue: Soul from Jamdown 1973–1980). And his favorite sounds slip into his writing in other ways. As story editor for the popular HBO crime drama The Wire, set up the road in Baltimore, he’s wielded a minor musical influence: in a scene last season Detective Jimmy McNulty, on a bender, seeks his own soundtrack. “When he’s drunk, he throws the Pogues in the tape deck?” Pelecanos recalls. “That was me.”