LET’S PLAY A GAME.
Review the following list of musicians and try to guess what, apart from their shared occupation, they have in common:
Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), John Doe (X), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Steve Earle, Blag Dahlia (Dwarves), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Dave Alvin and Aimee Mann.
Now, just for the heck of it, add to that group Mark Maron (podcaster), Damien Echols (West Memphis 3), Donal Logue (actor), Rob Delaney (comedian), John Sinclair (poet), Tom Hansen (author) and Mark Boone (actor, Sons of Anarchy).
Any guesses? No?
Here’s the answer: each artist has donated their larynx to narrating a chapter for the audiobook version of In Case We Die, an enthralling, razor-edged novel set in the explosive landscape of Seattle in the 90s and seen through the eyes of a dope-addled antihero, set against a vibrant landscape of supporting characters that includes bank robbers, go-go dancers, musicians, porno slingers and junkies. Oh, there are villains, too.
Admittedly, one of the very last things that planet Earth currently requires is another too-clever tome centered around a burned-out protagonist and his cast of cartoonishly-eccentric characters; one of those vainglorious attempts at hipster cool celebrating jaded grumps whose sole capacity for joy is rooted in snarky pop culture observations and tedious rejections of hope. Refreshingly, In Case We Die is anything but that.
Protagonist Charlie Hyatt, a heroin addict working the graveyard shift in a porn depot, slips further into the overpowering physical debilitation of his disease, stumbling through the triumphant highs of scoring and the skin-peeling lows of dope sickness until finally smashing into the proverbial wall. The beating heart of the story, and what invests the story with its resplendent gravitas, is not his battle with addiction, but the relationship between Charlie and Carrie Finch, a supernova of a 21-year-old who salves her deep emotional wounds with toxic substances, electric guitar and an abiding fascination with 60s psychedelic icon Roky Erikson. Their bond is authentic, organic and ultimately agonizing, with a masterful twist at the end.
First-time author Danny Bland reveals a gratifying mastery of imbuing this otherwise bleak backdrop with generous swaths of humor and heart, finding empathy not in the terrifying realities of addiction, but in Charlie’s refusal to roll over and die, physically and figuratively.
One of the tastier undercurrents throughout In Case We Die is of course music, which was a cornerstone of Seattle culture in the 90s. To be fair, music has long played a prominent role in the culture of Seattle, but the 90s were when the rest of the world took note, rabidly embracing acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and to a lesser extent, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone.
Because so much of Danny’s real life intermingles with the story of Charlie Hyatt, when the time arrived to discuss the audiobook version, Danny conceived a novel way to connect the two threads—by summoning the artists who influenced both men to narrate their story.
We sat down with Danny to discuss the origins of the book, his own experiences battling drug addiction and how he ended up enticing some of the most talented voices of our time to narrate his story.
The book takes place in the 90s, a period of explosive growth for Seattle. What was your life like at that time?
Well, the book covers a pretty long span and I was in Seattle the entire time. I paralleled the events in the book pretty closely. I worked the graveyard shift in the Champ Arcade (the sex shop where Charlie Hyatt works), in the early 90s and then I spent a good chunk of time as a professional musician after that and then I went into the management side of the music business and I even took a year off from all that and worked in a treatment center for a year, as well. I liked working in the treatment center, but the truth is that it just doesn’t really pay enough to sustain a guy. (chuckles)
Touching on the treatment center, drugs are a huge theme in the book. You paint a vivid picture of addiction by focusing on the tiny, terrifying details of a junkie’s reality, such as the crippling onset of dope sickness. What sources did you draw from to depict this world?
Well, (laughs), the research I did for the book was being a junkie for a decade. I’ll rat myself out on anything, but I won’t rat anybody else out. So I did my research “in the field,” as they say. I learned how to describe dope sickness by being that, and I came up with my multiple ways of trying to describe the act of shooting up, by having my own multiple ways of experiencing that.
Did it make you uncomfortable at all to revisit those feelings in such bright detail? Some junkies can’t even watch certain movies, like Requiem for a Dream or Blow, because it induces a sort of post-traumatic stress experience.
Did it make me uncomfortable? Yeah, I’ll admit that sometimes I’d sit down and sort of try to put myself back in that frame of mind. There were times when I was trying to make the act of using drugs seem like an ugly thing, and there were times when I was trying to make it seem like a beautiful, pleasurable thing. So you have to go back and remember those things. I’ll admit to getting goosebumps, sometimes.
There’s a saying that when people finally hit that wall and make the decision to try to get clean and sober, it’s because they have finally lost something or are about to lose something of profound importance to them, even in addiction. Was that the case for you?
Well, the catalyst for me getting clean was the classic tale of running out of resources. I did drugs until I ran out of money, and friends to steal from, and eventually the criminal element that I became involved with became too hot. Luckily, like some people, I had a collection of friends who cared about me and I got the opportunity to go to treatment and luckily the idea was proposed to me when I had no other options, and so it seemed like a pretty good one. If it were proposed to me when I was busy, or when I had a bunch of money or had a lot of drugs on my person, or opportunity to get them, it would have been a different story. Luckily, when the idea was proposed to me, I had nothing.
Were you still able to play music while you were in your addiction?
Oh yeah, I was able to play music as a junkie. I enjoyed it, although I don’t know if the audience did. But I sure did.
What’s your take on the music of the 90s? For you, what did the music of the that period represent?
I grew up in Phoenix as a punk rock kid, so I was drawn to the sort of filthy punk rock elements of the Seattle music scene, and I think whatever it became in the historical sense was sort of peeling away the excesses of what was heavy metal and arena rock. That’s the way that music seems to go; if something becomes popular and starts to generate successes and it begins to overflow, someone’s going to come along and peel away all the bullshit and strip it back down to its basic core, to the stuff that moves people’s souls as much as their hips, and start over again. That’s what grunge was to me.
Some in Seattle rue the rise of grunge and the influx of record labels and money as the destruction of an intimate and creative scene. As a musician, was grunge a good thing for you or a bad thing for you?
It was a good thing for me. I would hesitate to call myself a musician, but I liked to play and I was always that way. Even as a young punk rock musician or rockabilly musician in Arizona, I liked to do shows and I was good at organizing shows and tours and getting records made, but I wasn’t what you would call a musician. That wouldn’t be fair to actual musicians. That being said, then punk rock and grunge were perfect for a minimally-talented fellow like myself. Not that both genres didn’t include people who were extremely talented, it just wasn’t me.
As a fan then, who were your five most important acts to you from that period?
Hmmm… You have to give the crown to Mudhoney, of course, because they were the punk children. Maybe not in the huge worldview; that crown would go to Nirvana. But I would say Mudhoney, and I would include the Afghan Whigs in that group. They weren’t a traditional grunge band but they dealt with grungey subjects in sort of a more soulful way, so I would give it to them. Nirvana, of course, because they took it worldwide. Then you’d have to go with Soundgarden and for that genre I’d include L7, too. So basically that makes me sitting around, listening to my friends play.
One of the fascinating aspects of this project is the audiobook. How did you conceive this approach and how did you then get it all together?
Doing what I’m doing now (Danny is the road manager for Dave Alvin and the Blasters), I’m on the road quite a bit, so I started listening to a lot of audiobooks, and we started listening to a lot of podcasts in the van as well. I had been thinking about that format and how they seem to be the future of what’s happening, so when I thought about how I would approach this sort of thing as a debut author, I have what I think is a good book, and I thought about what would be an interesting way to do an audiobook. As a new author, no one’s going to be clamoring to hear me read my own book, but perhaps if I call in favors from all my friends that I’ve been working with for the past twenty-five years, and have them help out, that would get me some attention, and apparently it has. I have a lot of friends who have some of the finest raspy baritones and honey-soaked voices on the planet, so why not?
It’s a crazy list of narrators. When you sat down to think about who might read for you, who absolutely had to be involved?
I sat down and wrote my list of usual suspects, which included Dave Alvin, who I work with all the time, and John Doe. I recently finished road managing the Gutter Twins, so Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan both have fantastic voices. Going down the list of my friends and heroes that I get to work with, there’s Wayne Kramer. Also I had put together that first West Memphis 3 benefit record a few years ago, so I had been friends with Damien Echols since then. At the time I thought of doing it, I had to apply to the prison for a media pass so I could go into the prison (where Echols had been held) to record Damien Echols reading a chapter on a prison visit. Thankfully, and luckily for us all, it ended up not being necessary, and he just got to go into a recording studio in New York City and do it because he got out.
There are guys on the audiobook that I never dreamed I would get, like John Sinclair, who’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid. He happened to be visiting Wayne Kramer in Los Angeles. John lives in Amsterdam now, and Wayne was kind enough to drag him into the studio and have him record for me. Then Mark Boone, from Sons of Anarchy, I didn’t know, but I ran into him at a party and talked him into it. Donal Logue is a friend of Greg Dulli’s, so Greg got him to do it for me. So I called in favors and having been a road manager for quite a few years, you know everybody’s secrets, so it’s hard for people to say no to me. (laughing)
How would you describe the experience of being a first-time published author?
I couldn’t be more pleased. Just holding the book in my hand…that’s it. That’s the victory to me because that’s what I wanted to do my whole life. Everything else is gravy.