Lots have been written about life-changing bands — especially the Smiths and Morrissey — usually in the context of some shy suburban boy whose life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll. Much as I love the Smiths, I know that countless people have been inspired by less mainstream bands and records that haven’t been discussed to death. Heartworm is my story.
Initially, I pitched Heartworm as a submission to 33 1/3. While I didn’t make the short list, I finished writing the book and found another publisher. Most of the books in the 33 1/3 series are in the rock criticism format, but I was inspired by two that were written as fiction: Joe Pernice’s Meat Is Murder (perhaps, the best Smiths-inspired book I’ve read) and, especially, John Niven’s Music From Big Pink. In the latter, members of The Band are actually characters in the book, who hang out with the drug dealer protagonist.
I lived in Ireland in 1992-1994 and while I wasn’t friends with Whipping Boy, I would later interview their guitarist Paul Page for my fanzine Vendetta. This gave me a starting point; I would attempt to write a novel about an expat American journalist living in Dublin, who’s part of the scene that spawned bands like Whipping Boy and Into Paradise.
I wanted to develop on this idea by having my character and some of his friends go through some of the issues and emotions found in the lyrics on Heartworm, the album, including addiction, betrayal, infidelity, anger, and outright violence. Heartworm was an album that saved my life when it needed saving. I was thirty and suddenly single after having been married for eight years. Most of my friends who were my age were just starting their adult lives, getting married, having kids, working serious jobs. I was back at square zero, thirty going on twenty. I was living in a small flat, working temp jobs, drinking far too much, and dating girls six to eight years younger than me.
While writing the novel, I was able to lock myself into that head space and relive many painful experiences, while creating new, slightly different ones for my protagonist.
When people ask me to describe Heartworm the album, I tell them that it’s a very male record. I remember an interview where Whipping Boy vocalist Fearghal McKee talked about the record in those terms, adding that it’s very hard for men to express themselves. Not that Heartworm is for men only — plenty of women I know like it as well — it’s just that it captures the male psyche far better than anything I’ve ever listened to. The Afghan Whigs’ masterpiece Gentlemen is the closest I can think of to Heartworm to in capturing the damaged male psyche, but their singer/songwriter Geg Dulli displays far more bravado and swagger than what’s found on Heartworm.
Heartworm and other Whipping Boy records were played on loop as I wrote the novel. What I find most amazing as time has gone by is how timeless it still sounds. The orchestrated arrangements still amaze me, the lyrics still pack the same guttural punch. Most albums sound very much like products of their time, whereas Heartworm falls much more in the ‘where the fuck did that come from?’ category like Psychocandy or Wire’s 154.