It probably says a lot about Condominium that none of the top five songs looming over the plot are by bands that ever existed. Whether this is an indicator of good things about the novel (“A cutting, surreal satire!”) or negative aspects (“What the hell is this thing even about?”) is up in the air, but the fact remains that these five songs have never been heard within this world. But they are heard loud and clear in the world of the novel and within the headspaces of Charles and Sarah and the rest of the gaggle of characters slouching across its pages.
If this list were to be extended past these five (“Just What Everyone Wanted: The Top 310 Songs Influencing An Unknown Novel”), there would be detailed analysis of lesser known Stones songs from their “Sucking in the 70s” period, long and passionate passages about how ethereal and otherworldly The Byrds were in their prime, and at least one heartfelt tribute to the criminally underrated songwriting prowess of Boy George, but hey man, I’m lazy, so we’ll just get Lenny Kaye or David Fricke in to cover these at a later date. If we can afford them. Which we can’t.
Here are the top five songs only that reign large over the nonplot of Condominium, a novel.
Cyanide Breakfast, “Ultraviolet Ditch”
Cashing in on the post-Nirvana “sign anything in plaid with a pulse” mid-90s record company gold rush, Skags Cassidy and his merry band of Doc Marten warriors found themselves with their lone MTV Buzz Bin hit in 1996. Although it landed them a gold record, an opening slot on a Soundgarden arena tour, and semi-intensive Spin coverage for much of that year, one thing it didn’t lead to was another hit. Best known today for The Ditch’s inclusion on a variety of “Grunge Greats” Spotify playlists, Cyanide’s legacy has not managed to achieve the same level of cult dedication that similarly defunct peers such as Candlebox or Blind Melon have enjoyed. Yet although Skags’s eventual, and sadly inevitable, 2001 death from a combination of heroin, pink starburst, and Prozac in his mother’s Washington State trailer missed all the daily papers and received only single paragraph obits in the music monthlies, there is at least one individual on the planet who has been haunted by the man, his lyrics, his pain over the decades that have since passed.
It isn’t just that Charles mourns the anniversary of Skags’s death by setting up makeshift murals comprised of old Cyanide Breakfast cassettes, notebooks full of his high school poetry, and crusty old photos cut from 1996 issues of Sassy and Spin. It isn’t just that he owns bootleg copies of Cyanide’s early demos and can identify key points in each song’s progression. It isn’t just that he can talk for hours about the difference between a 1990 Cyanide bass progression and a more advanced 1994 progression. What really bleeds through is Charles’s obsession with these forgotten and unappreciated lyrics, his looking to them for guidance and his hopes that they will fly him away from his present situation on their pseudopoetic wings. What is Skags telling him in this song, he wonders. That the vibes you cast help shape your dimension? That due to this, nobody ever really dies? No, no, Skags isn’t telling him this. It is something simpler, something far less abstract. Skags is telling him to speak to Abrielle.
Living this life in an ultraviolet ditch, three roads, three turns, three chances I’ve missed, crashed to the gutter but I’m telling you this, I’m vivid as ever in this ultraviolet ditch.
Alligator Uprising, “Scales of Love”
Representing the gutter grime of the 70s’ Lower East Side even though they were born in 1980, fashioning gritty, minimalist guitar lines in a $1,500-per-hour ultra-modern Pro Tools studio, slurring lyrics scrawled on napkins in by-the-crate dive bars frequented by slumming models, Alligator Uprising ascended to eventual Coachella big font status on the back of the catchy and derivative “Scales of Love” in the early 2000s. This is a song assembled from pieces of so many other artist’s songs that it stands ironclad against litigation. Which is a good thing, since it was their only mainstream hit and still the song all the kids scream for when they’re headlining Molly Fest in Birmingham, Alabama, each year to pay those mortgages.
Although we never actually meet the shag-cut, plastic jacket-clad crew in Condominium, they still loom large over the plot just like they do over Urban Outfitters. They may not be playing over the sound system, but their legacy reigns over every aisle of $110 v neck t-shirts. As the love interest, and heroin source, for part time H&M model Ruthie, Micah Deluca of Alligator Uprising plays a key role in the story, fueling both the drama between Ruthie and her sleazed-out advertising BF Andrew and the heroin use of the main characters. Scales of Love even shows up on Ruthie’s ringtone. I’ve been told by many that Andrew and Ruthie should have been the main characters in the novel, that they are much more interesting than Charles and Sarah, and though I mostly agree, I would instead say that the main characters should have been Micah D. and his Alligator cohorts. In the original manuscript, the Alligators were based on a real band, and that band’s afro-sporting guitarist was the heroin source/Ruthie love interest, but I was told by many an agent and publisher that this would be an instant lawsuit from those born-rich, lawyered-up Chuck Taylor enthusiasts. So Alligator Uprising they became. Claws To The Sky.
Andrew: I don’t know which one it is. Some drug addict with stringy hair and bad skin
Sarah: That doesn’t narrow it down at all, Andrew.
As Cyanide’s old rivals, The DO never managed to score a hit despite two Spin-acclaimed records on Columbia. Grittier and more “real” than Skags and the boys, the DO crew were known for wearing real-deal stained and mothballed thrift store plaid as opposed to The Breakfast’s designer lumberjack shirts, scuffed motorcycle boots instead of pricey Docs, and claimed to have “grown up around some real dark shit” and not just press release fodder. “Skags Cassidy makes a big deal out of growing up in a trailer park and stuff,” the band once famously stated in their lone 120 Minutes appearance from 1993. “Well, we grew up in a train station, man. Next to a homeless shelter. And there was no vending machine.”
Although we never actually get to hear Dormitory Overdose in the novel, we do come across them in a flashback sequence where Charles describes, in hallucinatory fashion, a business trip he had made to London several years prior where he discovered a DO CD at a used items sale in Camden. As a Cyanide devotee, his choice of Skags and crew over the realer, darker Dormitory boys is an important one. Charles is accused many times throughout the book (and several times by critics of the book) for being too bland, to finance worker, too white baseball cap for the earthy, stoned-out Sarah. But there is a darker side to Charles that goes beyond his lone real-life bad habit (hint: cotton candy), an inner Dormitory Overdose that is only reached through his internal observations and long flights of spiraling thoughts and fears. That he runs across this grittier group in a flashback sequence only known to readers says lots about Charles. There is a lot going on inside, but those ripples barely register on the surface. Sarah recognizes this hint of “real” below the overgrown frat bro exterior, which is essentially what has kept her with him for this long.
Well, that and the fact that he can afford a Williamsburg condo, of course.
The International, “Unwritten Dirge”
With Waterfront Tower(s) 96 percent sold, moving those final units is a life-or-death priority for the Community Board. Unfortunately, one of the prospective new tenants just refuses to give up his pet monkey and won’t move in unless the Board’s primate ban is lifted. And just who might this troublesome prospective tenant be? No less that Gentrified Brooklyn royalty, the mumbling lead singer of white person crisis dirge-crescendo-heavyweights The International. Can you imagine the StreetEasy wow factor of having this early-middle-aged, wine drunk, suit jacket aficionado inhabiting a condo building? Imagine what this would do for the square footage value. Surely this tenant is entirely worth the possible chimp hoarding fines?
Although the dirge in question has not yet been written by the novel’s close, it is more the threat of the dirge that impacts the book. “He’ll write a dirge about this, man,” warns Charles when the Board tells him of the situation. Not only would Waterfront Tower(s) lose a key prospective buyer that could be leveraged for his fame (and really, being the lead singer of The International is basically the equivalent of being Justin Bieber in North Brooklyn), but they would also be the target of The International’s latest eight-minute dirge, seven minutes of depressive mumbling followed by a minute of life-affirming crescendo. A developer may be able to handle the loss of a big-name buyer, but could never live through this dirge.
Needless to say, the monkey stays.
Gaggle of Hens, “Unnamed Animal Band Song”
Sarah: I believe they are called Deer Tick, or maybe Deer Hunter, or wait, no, they are Band of Foxes or Wolves or Horses or Snakes. I guess what I’m getting at is that they are one of those animal groups.
Charles: All groups are named after animals these days, huh?
Sarah: Every. Single. One.
At the time Condominium was being written, every single band that received even cursory attention on Pitchfork or the other indie payola music blogs was named after some sort of animal. Or bird. Or reptile. This was pretty much a requirement at that time if your band wanted any attention at all or to even get a gig within the borough of Brooklyn. Fortunately, the formula was pretty easy. All you had to do was pick an animal, any animal would do, and add a noun that described some sort of grouping. Animal Collective would be a good example. Band of Horses another. Or Wolf Parade. Some bands stepped outside this box and included the animal without the grouping, and those bands were mercilessly mocked or ended up failures (Deer Tick would fall into the former category, Wolf Eyes the latter). So when it came time to decide which fake band Charles and Sarah would come across playing the coveted Williamsburg waterfront summer series, it could only be Gaggle of Hens.
What Gaggle of Hens represents is the very spirit of the then-rapidly gentrifying north Brooklyn. It really was an interesting time period to witness, when invading gentrifiers like Charles and Sarah had to stare right into the eyes of their very worst nightmare: people without 401Ks. Found objects sculptors living in illegal lofts. Barbacks playing bass in nine different bands. Cute bearded barista boys trying, and in some cases succeeding, in luring away their girlfriends or wives. Girls with unlicensed pottery stands and half-ironic Indian headdresses turning the heads of their day trader husbands on Sunday walks to the new Duane Reade. It was an unsettling meeting of the urban tribes that even, for a few short months there, saw an unlikely mingling of two worlds drawn together by common interests such as Molly and dancing stiffly to Gathering of Panda Bears. Just like with the pilgrims and Indians, the invading tribe stepped back and slaughtered the natives mercilessly after this brief utopia, killing off music venues and artist spaces to make room for much-needed juiceries, banks, and wine bars, but for a brief flashing moment there it really was looking like the Summer of Love. With Gaggle of Hens providing the soundtrack. Or Fleet Foxes. Or Grizzly Bear. Or Dayglo Lemurs. Or Smattering of Pterodactyls. Or …
Okay I’m tired, so I’m happy to announce that numbers 6-99 will be covered by Lenny Kaye and David Fricke after all. We can’t pay them, but fortunately our lawyers discovered that these two are contractually obligated to appear or be quoted in any written music list or documentary on underappreciated but highly influential bands. So it’s been real, but I’m off to have a bowl. Take it away, Lenny.
Daniel Falatko is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Pennsylvania, he lives and works in New York City. Condominium is his first published novel.