Joe Loya, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell

How I Chose My Bank Robbery Getaway Song

Every Life Getaway Deserves A Soundtrack

Joe Loya
Joe Loya
May 19, 2013 · 8 min read

I’ve done many bad things in my life, most of them criminal.

And I have genuine remorse for that rogue behavior, just the way any self-respecting person should. I wrote an entire memoir [The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell] copping to that lifetime of shame, so I’ve sort of worked through the embarrassment of thinking I was kind of cool in those days when I was really just a knucklehead. Now all I’m left with, for the most part, is the regret of those detour years. But I still have a few embarrassing things to cop to from my previous criminal days, one of which I will share with you right now.

The year was 1988. I concluded, after my third bank robbery, that I needed a getaway song to blast on my CD player while I cruised away with the loot. I reviewed the canon of great music, from Beethoven’s “Eroica” to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” and for some ridiculous reason I landed on “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson.

There I was, driving on Highway 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles, a minute from the bank, a clean getaway, thousands of dollars in my fanny pack on the backseat, and I was feeling ferocious. So I pulled out the Bad CD case and slid the disc into the player. Then the song began.

Quick violent horns and a loud drum startle you. Followed by the sound of a heartbeat picking up speed. Okay, I could feel how this music would work. I got what just went down. The burst of horns meant a crime had just occurred. Followed by somebody panicking, the rush of adrenaline. Like me at the bank counter threatening the teller that if she didn’t give me all the money I’d blow her brains out. She stiffens as her heartbeat quickens.

What next? A pause. Then a strong bass track kicks in. Good. Just like I felt in that driver’s seat, sturdy and vital. The song was working.

Then Michael opened his mouth.

As he came into the window/ It was the sound of a crescendo

He came into her apartment / He left the bloodstains on the carpet

She ran underneath the table / He could see she was unable

So she ran to the bedroom / She was struck down, it was her doom.

Annie are you okay? Annie are you okay?

What the fuck? This song’s about a rape? Or murder? I ejected the CD.

Listen, I was no stranger to terror and violence. I’d once made a teller piss herself as she faced the wall in the bank vault. I get that I wasn’t in a position to pass moral judgment on other types of criminals, believe me, I get that. But I wasn’t about to listen to “The Ballad of Annie’s Rapist” during my pristine getaway.

So I drove the rest of the way home annoyed, feeling cheated for not being able to celebrate my achievement with a triumphant song. I wanted music that made me feel mighty, indomitable, heroic, and historic. Maybe some Wagner. And I don’t mean “Wedding March” Wagner. Or “Tristan and Isolde” Wagner. I mean “Ride of the Valkyries” Wagner. Which I happened to have at home.

The only problem with “Ride of the Valkyries” was that I mostly associated it with the beach scene in Apocalypse Now where Robert Duvall famously quips that he loves the smell of Napalm in the morning. I didn’t mind playing a song that would have conjured up a movie scene, but after the “Smooth Criminal” debacle, I decided that any song choice would have to echo my mental state in that car. And while you can’t find more triumphant music than Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the mood of the song would forever be tied to the Vietnam War—for me, anyway, an ill-conceived police action. Basically a defeat, in the end.

Once home, I started plucking the CDs that showed promise. The first was the Allman Brothers’ greatest hits collection. From there Southern rock made a strong initial showing, probably because I dug the hint of violence in the bands’ names—like Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, the Outlaws.

Next was Canadian rock. I picked Neil Young’s LIVE RUST CD because I love the grinding electric guitar sound in “Like a Hurricane.” The deep dissonant chords toward the end of the song charge me, really make sense on some elemental level. Bachman Turner Overdrive also got the nod. “Let It Ride,” one of my all-time favorites, is a hard-charged, drum-driven song, a real shit-kicker, with tight harmonies and a clean acoustic guitar sound throughout.

Early on I quietly favored “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult, mostly because I loved the line, “Caesars don’t fear the Reaper.” (Stay with me.) I used to tell people that I was Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the Superman, alive to stomp all over normal categories of proper behavior. I existed to prove that timid moralities were a thing that were meant to be surpassed. So I had a kinship with every manner of authoritarian—Czars, Führers, Pharaohs, Popes, and Kings—who believed themselves supreme. So the notion that Caesar, like me, did not fear the Reaper, appealed to my gargantuan vanity. The problem was that when I listened carefully to the song, I discovered that it was seasons, not Caesars, that didn’t fear the reaper. And on top of that, the song is actually a love song with way too many “baby take my hand” verses to qualify as dangerous, or darkly textured, getaway music. So I let it go.

Then Led Zeppelin got me excited.

“Communication Breakdown” felt like a great fit, since metaphorically my bank robberies were evidence that sometime earlier in my life my ability to communicate normally had broken down. Led Zeppelin hard rock songs are primal music, and wonderfully able to prepare you for any kind of action. You want to confront your cheating husband but are worried about what the cost to your marriage might be? Listen to “Black Dog” first. Wanna march into your boss’s office and call him or her a prick? Listen to “Rock and Roll.” Been foreclosed on and wanna rob the neighborhood Bank of America? Listen to “Immigrant Song.”

Slowly it occurred to me that I was picking pump-you-up-for-a-good-day-of-bank-robbery music, not enjoy-your-comfortable-ride-home-and-bask-in-your-glory-after-a-heist music. What I really needed was to match music to my post-robbery mood.

So I went to the refrigerator, pulled out a Corona, popped in Pink Floyd’s The Wall Disc 2, sat down in my big comfy leather chair, closed my eyes, and told myself to think about the way I felt on the drive home from a bank robbery. Which inevitably lead me to begin to take stock of the mood I was in as I reclined in that chair. One thing was clear: I felt positively post-coital. Like I’d just shot my wad and I was lying in bed naked, half-drugged by a fierce lusty conquest that had proven to be terribly right. I felt mellow. Otherworldly. Slightly buzzed. Like I had a minor concussion.

Not like the drive to a bank robbery, where my body always fought off an anxiety attack. My hands would get sweaty. My stomach would cramp. My head would feel like it was trapped in a tightening vice. Intense fatigue would sweep over me; if I pulled over to the side of the road, I could have slept for three hours. My body would be panicked, and doing everything it could to try to shut down before I got to my destination. In order to combat the mutiny I would summon memories of boyhood humiliations, like the time three boys beat me up and broke my glasses in eighth grade. My preacher father’s response had been to drive me around our East L.A. neighborhood looking for them so that he could have me fight them one-on-one, threatening to beat me if I didn’t win each fight. My reverie would soon lead me to the time when I was sixteen, when I stabbed him in the neck with a steak knife after he’d given me a vicious beating. Then, in that car, under tremendous physical duress, an incredible rage would jolt me and instantly subdue my body, as if I’d just shot twenty grams of endorphins. I would be overwhelmed by an amazing sense of mission. Outwardly, I was stoic. No more jitters. But my brain would be throbbing with mad purpose. Listening to Ozzy Osbourne would have suited me in that moment. The screams, echoes, and antic-sounds in “Crazy Train,” along with the lyrics (“I’m going off the rails on a crazy train”), all suggested asylum bedlam.

That’s what it felt like driving to a bank robbery. Like getting ready to stab my dad. But returning home felt more like the sensation I had two hours after I’d done it.

My brother and I had run out of the apartment to my aunt’s house, where we raced through the door and I told her that I had killed my dad. (He survived, but I didn’t know that at the time.) My aunt drove us to the police station. During the interview a cop noticed that I was calmly telling the story. He suggested that they might charge me with premeditated attempted murder. Even I knew enough to know that I was acting rather cool for having supposedly just killed my father. After a few hours, I complained to a female cop that my arm hurt badly and my side hurt when I breathed. She drove me to the local hospital, where it was revealed that I had a fractured rib and elbow. The doctors also concluded that I had sustained a major concussion. All talk of charging me with attempted murder ceased, and I was taken to a facility named MacClaren Hall, where kids wait to be placed in foster care.

At MacClaren Hall, I lay on that county cot and wore my wounds as a badge of honor, a “you-should-see-the-other-guy” kinda cockiness. Later, in prison, I reread The Red Badge of Courage, and I remember that there’s this part in there where Henry has suffered head trauma in battle and he talks about how he conceived his “torn body to be peculiarly happy.” That’s how I felt in my concussive state after bloody combat with my father. Peculiarly happy.

The violence of my childhood was like one fuzzy dream-state. I can now say that my entire crime spree could be understood as my replicating the mood of the home I was raised in. Full of terror, episodic violence, and extreme disassociation from the normal frequencies of human emotion.

In fact, the dominant motif of “Comfortably Numb”—the song I was listening to in my leather chair—resonated with my life’s motif of hazard and contingency. It was as if the baroque confusion of my childhood concussions had been given voice in David Gilmour’s plaintive guitar licks, in the Moody Blues–like orchestral strings, and finally in the brooding, anguished, psychedelic lyrics:

When I was a child I had a fever.

My hands felt just like two balloons.

Now I’ve got that feeling once again.

I can’t explain, you would not understand…

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse,

Out of the corner of my eye.

I turned to look but it was gone.

I cannot put my finger on it now.

The child is grown, the dream is gone.

I have become comfortably numb.

The song ended and I opened my eyes, and I knew what song I would be hearing after every future bank robbery. Which ended up being approximately 25 more, over the next twelve months.

Straight, Crooked, Or Sideways

Things That Make You Go Hmm

    Joe Loya

    Written by

    Joe Loya

    Essayist, Playwright, Actor/Director, Speaker, and Author of the Memoir, “The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber”

    Straight, Crooked, Or Sideways

    Things That Make You Go Hmm

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