Literary Mixtape: Music For The Weary Soul— Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.

In observance of National Codependency Awareness Month, I’ve decided to feature Fuckhead, the known-by-nickname-only narrator of Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s harrowing, funny and beautifully written collection of linked short stories, originally published in 1992. I admire the spare, stark prose style that Johnson utilizes in this collection, as well as his ability to suss humor out of morbid circumstances. The action in Jesus’ Son takes place across many cities and towns throughout the U.S. over the course of the 1970’s, with Fuckhead hazily recalling tales of savage drug abuse, crime and bleak recidivism.

Jesus' Son by Denis JohnsonOur narrator, in the throes of booze and heroin addiction, engages in unsound and illegal behavior and occasionally plays dangerous games with unsuitable women. He is finely attuned to tragedy, finding beauty in the seemingly grotesque. He is also introspective and keenly observant, and indulges in the type of sentimentality common among addicts. In spite of his trials and travails, Fuckhead manages to hold onto a sense of optimism, and when we leave him, our narrator seems potentially to be on the road to recovery.

Listen to the songs on his playlist.

I Ain’t Superstitious by Howlin’ Wolf (1961) A mid-tempo blues thumper, I Ain’t Superstitious sees the song’s narrator claiming just that, even as he catalogs every misfortune that he attributes to his eventual, inevitable downfall. “When my right hand itches, I gets money for sure/ But when my left eye jumps, somebody got to go”

Long As I Can See The Light by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970) A restless yet hopeful ballad that pits the narrator’s itch to get out on the road against the promise of one day returning home. “Pack my bag and let’s get moving/ ’Cause I’m bound to drift awhile”

Bron-Y-Aur Stomp by Led Zeppelin (1970) For when it’s ass-kickin’, name-takin’ time.

Sneaking Sally Through The Alley by Robert Palmer (1974) Written by the legendary Allen Toussant, this Robert Palmer vocal, backed by members of The Meters and Little Feat, sees the narrator “trying to double talk, get myself in trouble-talk” as he’s caught in a compromising position with a mistress.

The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) by Tom Waits (1976) The narrator’s personification of every inanimate object in the place manages to beat once sinister and hilarious, and Waits’ guttural, pie-eyed growl imbues the song with just the right texture and atmosphere.

Carmelita by Warren Zevon (1976) The bright Spanish guitar on this track belies the increasingly desperate narrative. An incredibly catchy tragedy in the making.

Lust For Life by Iggy Pop (1977) A driving rocker that manages to apply an optimistic sheen to the desperation of heroin use. “I’ve been hurting since I bought the gimmick/ About something called love”

Ball Peen Hammer by Chris Whitley (1998) If Fuckhead hung around long enough to see this song by the late, great Chris Whitley released, I’d like to think he would have connected with it. Featured on Dirt Floor, a single-mic’ed, live analog gem of an album recorded in a barn in Vermont, the track displays a breathtaking immediacy and intimacy.

* I Won’t Do Anything by Lezli Valentine (1968) A contemporary of Dorothy Moore, who’s song “Misty Blue” is referenced in Jesus’ Son, Lezli Valentine sings of her intentions to stay true to a lover who’s gone while fending off potential suitors. Melancholic, aching and sensual.

* Wastin’ My Time by Creation (1974) A searching, introspectively funky excursion that touches on the theme of getting one’s act together and taking responsibility. “I can’t be wastin’ my time, dyin’/ There’s so many things that have to be changed”

*Bonus tracks. Not available on Spotify.


Greg is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York city. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script.