Posts Tagged Bob Dylan

The Undercover Soundtrack – Trevor Richardson

 for logo‘When I listen to Tom Waits I feel my brain chemistry change’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian

Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles

All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.

My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.

headshotOn my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.

Connective tissue

My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.

Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.

The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.

Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.

As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.

It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.

Smokin’

Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.

Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.

A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’

Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’

I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’

That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.

Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.

After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.

Mentors

Music also helps me get ideas.

When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.

dystopia boy frontListening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.

Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.

The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.

Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.

Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.

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‘When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my brain chemistry changing’ – Trevor Richardson

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – David Gaughran

for logo‘Break your heart in just three minutes’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is publishing blogger and novelist David Gaughran @DavidGaughran

Soundtrack by The Supremes, Freda Payne, Bill Withers, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Bobby Gentry, Dave Van Ronk, Ernie Ford, The Pogues, Special AKA, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash

Music has always played an integral part of my writing process. I wrote my first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while traveling the world. These days, I can’t work without something playing in the background. Silence can be deafening sometimes.

I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction, so specific songs and artists don’t often directly inspire the story. But music is essential for setting the appropriate mood.

David GaughranMy latest book Mercenary is an adventure story on the surface – the story of a guy called Lee Christmas, a colour-blind railroad engineer who became the most famous soldier of fortune in the world. What I wasn’t expecting was to find such tragedy in his life. I must somehow gravitate towards bittersweet stories. My endings don’t tend to wrap everything up neatly and can often leave the reader with more questions than answers, or with mixed feelings about the outcome for the protagonist. I guess that’s because I see the world like that too. Even a life filled with highs doesn’t always get a happy ending.

Pleasure and pain

That tension between emotional pleasure and pain is difficult to capture, but it’s a rich seam for novelists to mine and the best songs do it very well. In fact, you could argue a core philosophy of Motown was to do just that. In many of their signature hits the tune was invariably upbeat but the lyrical content was the opposite. For example, in You Keep Me Hanging On some awful character is stringing Diana Ross along – but she’s so much in love with him that she can’t do anything about it; in fact, she’s begging him to end it because she doesn’t have the requisite strength (and all to a stomping beat).

You can see the same powerful dissonance in many other Motown tracks, like Band of Gold by Freda Payne. It wasn’t something that Motown invented, but it was particularly good at it. I think the idea was to reach people on two different levels. Your toes tap the happy beat, but in a more cerebral or subconscious sense you’re processing the pain being described, adding a heady level of emotional resonance to the whole ensemble.

Strength is weakness

I think that kind of contrast can be very powerful and I tried to tap into it with Mercenary. One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I received was that a character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. So if you have a naturally charismatic and impulsive figure like Lee Christmas, you can really flesh them out by exploring the dark side of those traits. Why are they so impulsive? Are they naturally restless? Is there something unresolved in their past?

Bill Withers considered himself a writer first and a performer second, which you can hear him speak about that in this BBC Archive footage from 1973 before an amazing live version of Grandma’s Hands. I think that the emotional power that Withers conveys comes from the conflict between the pleasure of his memory and the pain that he can never sing this for her.

The song is also authentic. I hate bland bilge-fests like American Idol for innumerable reasons, but primarily because I don’t feel anything when these people perform. When Bessie Smith sings Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer), or Nina Simone despairs in Mississippi Goddam, or Bobby Gentry pours out her Ode To Billy Joe it makes my arms tingle because they mean it. They’ve lived it.

Dave Van Ronk never sold that many records but we will still be listening to Cocaine in 50 years time, instead of all those vapid ballads from reality show winners that sell millions in a few months before being forgotten forever. And that’s what we’re all doing this for, right? We’re all raging against the dying of the light. We’re all trying to leave our mark on the world, to reach people, to affect them, to tell stories that will be remembered long after we’re gone.

One of my favorite parts of Game of Thrones is when characters are heading into battle – or waiting to be executed – and express hope they will be immortalised in song. There’s no doubt this was an important function of music in a world before photographs and obituaries. And we can see remnants of that urge to immortalise in classic folk like Sixteen Tons, ballads like The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and even more modern songs like Free Nelson Mandela.

mercenaryAuthenticity and resonance

Music can help us achieve this authenticity and emotional resonance in our own work. I listened to Dylan’s Romance in Durango a lot when writing Mercenary. It was perfect for setting the mood for the many scenes where Lee Christmas drank and brawled and flirted in Honduran cantinas. When trying to describe how Lee looked back on his life and was overcome with regret, I had Johnny Cash’s cover of I Hung My Head in the background.

Novelists have so much space to play with that they often try and squeeze in too much. But the more visceral power of music shows us that, sometimes, what you leave out is even more important.

We have this huge canvas – 400 pages where we try and make the reader feel something by the end. But the economy that great songwriters practice is astounding – they can break someone’s heart in three minutes flat, all while trying to shape their narrative around a tune!

Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to balance a spoon on my nose while they’re juggling chainsaws.

David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in Prague, who spends most of his time traveling the world, collecting stories. You can see his books on Amazon here, his blog is here, and you can follow him on Twitter here. Mercenary is out now, and you can sign up to his mailing list here to get an email when it’s out.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Philippa Rees

for logo‘The impossible bridge between words and music’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by novella-ist and poetic explorer Philippa Rees

Soundtrack by Don McLean, BeethovenJuliet Hughes-Rees

Unlike the many writers I have followed on Undercover Soundtrack, whose love affair with music seems mostly benign, a supportive friend, for me music has been an unforgiving taskmaster. My writing relationship with music is the tantalising one of trying to emulate its evocative power, through the rhythm of speech and the musical cadences of words. Vain hope!

To illustrate: I have to bridge the music with the words so here are the entrails of two books and they probably only reveal the failure of that aspiration.

A poetic novella

_MG_4621cropped and reducedI now realise that the first, A Shadow in Yucatán, was a trial run for the second. Just after the birth of my youngest daughter I recalled with piercing poignancy a story I had been told years earlier by a young woman on a beach in Yucatan. She had run away from all she knew after having to give her baby away for adoption. Now with my own, I fully realised the depth of her grief and loss. Her tragedy had mythical overtones too universal for an anecdotal short story. It was mythical for other reasons too, the loss of the period, and all it had promised. The story and era fused. (Bob Dylan on acoustic in the local coffee bar and Woodstock and Joan Baez evaporated…Yes, I am that old!)

I set the story in Florida which I knew, not California where it had happened. Some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie accompanied Stephanie as a hitchhiker to New York (where abortions were legal) from Florida (where they were not). The power of this song conveyed the nostalgia yet to come; itself a ballad picking up speed as the pregnancy inexorably will. In the event, she cannot bring herself to go through with abortion and returns still pregnant.

Later, now heavy, Stephanie, having consigned her baby to an adoption agency, is awaiting the birth in a refuge amongst orange groves in Georgia, where the child will be removed as soon as it is born.

I wanted to give her one great gift of love, but of mythical dimensions. She is caught in a sudden tropical storm, and, lightly clothed, too heavy to run, she surrenders to the Sky God’s power. To write this passage I listened non stop for perhaps a month to Beethoven’s storm in the Pastoral Symphony, until the playfulness, and building tension lets rip, as she lets rip all inhibition, an orgasm of complete joy. The final clarinet solo that brings back the fluting sun endows her with the capacity to sacrifice her child, and the strength to bear it.

Soft he lifts up every weeping leaf; licks each saturated bud.
Bathes pain and past together in mercury and salt
Rests his quivering nostril in her aromatic ear
Whispers unbelieving joy and strokes her rivulet hair…

An odyssey

The second and very different work just published is Involution- An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God. In the mouths of Reason and Soul, the poetic narrative traces the history of Western culture to suggest that science is the incremental recovery of evolutionary memory (Involution). This work has in every sense written my life and what it cost (first marriage, country, children) was restored by music, not recorded but very much ‘in house and every waking minute’. Life offered another chance and the daughter who rode to my rescue turned out to be an obsessive violinist from age six and music took over all existence. As I was re-writing this work she was assaulting her equivalent aspiration, to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Each day when the strains of the simple Larghetto replaced the frenzy of the cadenzas I knew practice was over; she was simply enjoying herself. We climbed our respective Everests in tandem and opposite ends of the house. Her live recording is here.

updated amazon front cover ( resized thumbnail) 17.5 (1)My equivalent  liberty was to leave off Reason’s scientific ‘cadenzas’  and enter Soul’s serene celebration of painting and music which gave me greater poetic freedom to illustrate; from unity through diversity and then dissolution back towards unity.

The ‘hinge’ was written after soaking in the Rasumovsky quartets, Opus 59 No 3 particularly. Not yet in chaos but in structural jeopardy, the composition is, at every moment, threatening to  come apart, through the violence of the tempestuous pace and the intricate interconnections in the sunniest of keys, C major. It seemed to echo the seeming clarity of the enlightenment, in which something darker is growing, man’s rationality burying his vulnerability and innocence. (If you are minded to see the text squeezed from this music, it is the latter part here). So, there it is; the impossible bridge between words and music.

Philippa Rees was born in South Africa on both sides of the Boer War divide (half fighting the other half). Her grandmother was related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and her great great aunt corresponded with George Eliot, She has taught courses on Saints and Scientists at Bristol University. Her writing has never slotted into a Dewey Index easily. Her poetic novella A Shadow in Yucatan is an evocation of the atmosphere of the 60s, set in Florida. Involution is a poetic history of Western thought. She next hopes to publish her short stories revealing the gulf between New and Old World attitudes and a novel based upon her personal experiences. She has four daughters and lives in Somerset. Connect with her on Facebook and on her blog.

GIVEAWAY Philippa is excited to give away a print copy of Involution – an Odyssey to a commenter here. Usual rules apply – extra entries for sharing the post around the ever widening interweb, but don’t forget to mention how many places you’ve shared it when you comment here.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Barry Walsh

for logo‘Love starts with a face’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by debut author Barry Walsh @BJWalsh

Soundtrack by Neil Young, Handel, Beniamino Gigli, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Marvellettes, Rod Stewart, Adele, Flanagan & Allen, Mozart, JS Bach, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Dexy’s Midnight Runners

The Pimlico Kid is about first-love, which can quarry a hollow in one’s life that is hard to fill. It’s also about kids scrabbling past puberty and slamming into emotional or physical barriers set by adults.

… the most we might have expected to deal with was a first kiss or a dying grandparent, we were undone by love itself, and violence – and that adults betrayed us.

BJ Walsh (Medium)-1The lyrics of Neil Young’s songs were ever-present in my head while writing the book. For years I had piled up notes from which to make The Pimlico Kid a novel but it was the beautiful reference to childhood friendship and secrets being revealed in Philadelphia that turned intention into action.

Happy families

The narrator, Billy, unlike some of his friends stands on the solid ground of happy family life. His easy-going father is a hard man and his volatile brother, John, will become one. However, Billy’s father is comfortable revealing his softer side and expresses it in his fine singing. And, when his sons were small, he kidded them he knew Italian and sang his favourite Beniamino Gigli songs, such as Handel’s Ombra mai fu, in beautiful gibberish.

This contrasts with Bob Dylan’s less mellifluous The times they are a changin’ (played loudly enough to shake the house) that defines the rebellious younger brother John, who is yet to discover his softer side:

 When he’s asked or told to do something, he has this stiff, chinny look that makes it clear he doesn’t have to comply, but that he will, only on this occasion.

The exhilaration of first attraction is almost always about a face. And it is nailed by the Beatles’s I’ve Just Seen a Face. When Billy falls for Sarah, he worries that his more mature friends will disapprove because she is still flat chested. However, he’s prepared to wait for breasts:

 I know that whatever Rooksy says about fabulous flesh, love starts with a face.

A host of songs evoke the summer of 1963 but none more vividly than the Beatles’s She Loves You. Billy and his friends stand transfixed outside a pub from which it is blasting out, again and again. This is the song that vanquishes the old pop music order  – along with Brylcreem. When an Elvis song starts up, they leave.

Never-ending summer

During one of those never-ending summer days of childhood, the loves of four friends – Billy, his best mate, Rooksy, Sarah and Josie collide and magic is conjured up by declarations of love and secrets revealed.  The Marvelettes’ When You’re Young and in Love kept popping into my head as I tried to pin down the excitement of new love. The lyrics may be simple but if you are young and in love, they couldn’t be more true.

At a critical moment Billy’s behaves like an idiot in front of Sarah. Burning with shame, he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t affect how she feels for him. This reflects my experience of how often weak and flawed people, usually men, are lucky enough to find someone who loves them anyway. Neil Young ‘gets’ it in Hangin’ on a  Limb, in which a man wobbles at the edge of an emotional precipice and a girl teaches him how to dance.

As their relationship grows, the four friends come to learn that love breeds compassion and diminishes judgement of those it’s easy to ridicule, whether it’s because of a birthmark or sexual orientation. In the early sixties there were few openly gay teenagers and a great deal of unthinking homophobia. A decade later, Rod Stewart’s The killing of Georgie helped to change things a little and it came to mind constantly while I struggled to get this issue onto the page.

Adele’s Someone Like You wasn’t a creative influence but, on a more exalted level, it provided creative confirmation of the universal theme that I was trying to make personal. During my fourth re-write, the song was playing every day and everywhere and its reference to glory days of summer goes to the heart of The Pimlico Kid, in which …

love can endure but … promises are hard to keep.

TPK Large cover picFinally, the streets of London are the main stage for The Pimlico Kid. Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner  anchors Billy – and me – ­to the greatest of cities.

The writing

I write to classical music, which provides welcome harmony to counter the dissonance in my head. I start most days with Mozart’s String Quintet No 1 because it lifts my default mood of pessimism about finding the right words. Each day features Bach, lots of Gregorian chant and the liturgical songs of Hildegard von Bingen. I regularly work my way through Beethoven’s quartets but stop when I reach No 15, which triggers Wordsworthian ‘thoughts that lie too deep for tears’.

When the writing has gone really well, I celebrate with the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which isn’t at all ‘solemn’. And, when there’s no one else in the house, I turn to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen and jig around like mad Ben Gunn on the beach.

 Barry Walsh grew up in the heart of London during the 60s and thought belatedly that there might be a story in it. The result is The Pimlico Kid, published by Harper, a story of first love. He is now writing his second novel.
 When not at the keyboard, Barry enjoys cycling (he once rode non-stop to the top of Mont Ventoux), holidays in France, watching Arsenal, listening to Neil Young and gazing at Audrey Hepburn’s face. He is a proud trustee of the world’s oldest youth club – St Andrew’s, Westminster – and believes that London might just be the centre of the universe. He is married with two daughters. Find him on his website and Twitter @bjwalsh

GIVEAWAY Barry is offering a signed print copy of The Pimlico Kid. For a chance to win, leave a comment here or share this post on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note here saying where you shared it).

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Joni Rodgers

‘I listened, eyes closed, hands on the keyboard, remembering the *why* of this book’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by New York Times bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers @jonirodgers

Soundtrack by Doug Kershaw, Rockin’ Sidney, Hadley Castille and L’Angelus, Michael Doucet, Patti LaBelle and Moby, Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, Bob Dylan c/o Frenchy Burrito, Seal,

Volunteering with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, I heard a New Orleans police officer comment that this was perfect weather for con artists and media people. The story hammer hit me. I saw a scientist obsessed with storms, a con artist using chaos as cover for murder and identity theft, a hungry reporter hot on her trail.

To keep the original vision

The bones of a novel always come that quickly for me, but it takes years to lay on muscle. I do a variety of other things between (sometimes during) each draft – researching, editing, ghostwriting, living my life – but the novel is always present in my head, and on a daily basis, something resonates with it, revealing something the story needs. Quite often, that’s a song, which I store in a playlist that instantly returns me to those insights and keeps my original vision for the book intact.

The main character in The Hurricane Lover, Dr. Corbin Thibodeaux, is a hard-drinking New Orleans climatologist and hurricane specialist. An old video of Doug Kershaw doing Louisiana Man on the Tonight show gave me Corbin’s nerdy brilliance. He’s awkward and lanky with a large nose, huge passion and bounding, houndish energy.

Cajun music like Rockin’ Sidney’s Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot and Hadley Castille and L’Angelus Le Swing Cajun defined Corbin’s raucous family and the raw southern charm of New Orleans. The traditional Cajun lullaby La Petite Poule Blanche brought tears to my eyes, because I realized that for Corbin, the destruction of New Orleans was no less than the death of his mother.

Underlying sorrow

Climatologists and engineers had been saying for decades that a hurricane would eventually wipe out New Orleans. No one would listen. One of These Mornings by Patti LaBelle and Moby told me I had to build in the emotional component of that. Beyond the science was the sorrow Corbin felt as he tried (and failed) for years to make people understand what was at stake.

Corbin’s longtime on-off lover, Shay Hoovestahl, is an ambitious journalist, struggling to overcome her beauty pageant past. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy clarified her classy bad-girl vibe. She’s a Texas rich girl who knows how to use her assets, a character who’d be easy to hate. ZZ Top’s Legs told me how to give her the likeable feistiness and joie de vivre Corbin finds irresistible.

The recitation of small casualties in Bob Dylan’s Everything is Broken (I like the Frenchy Burrito cover version) made me rewrite everything about the flood. Instead of the typical big drama, I wrote about the seemingly insignificant chairs, dishes, baby shoes and water bottles that add up to a lost civilisation and good intentions that crumble into broken hearts.

Through many revisions, Seal’s Love’s Divine provided a solid conceptual anchor for this novel. When the plot was a tangle, subplots in shreds, I listened, eyes closed, hands on the keyboard, remembering the *why* of this book, mindful that the goal was a place of redemption, a moment when these characters could move beyond how deeply they’d screwed up and disappointed each other.

Shay and Corbin’s relationship is a microcosm of what happened that summer in New Orleans and Houston. The Hurricane Lover is a tale of two cities, one ruled by denial, the other by fear. The rolling thunder at the beginning and the end of Love’s Divine brought the story home and reminded me to invest it with a sense of future.

New York Times bestselling author/ghostwriter Joni Rodgers lives in Houston, Texas. After a dozen books with corporate publishers, she opted to go indie for The Hurricane Lover with her own digital imprint, Stella Link Books. Rodgers continues to work on ghost projects with NY publishers and is the founder of The League of Extraordinary Authors, an international coalition of authors blurring the boundaries between old school and new world publishing. Find her on Twitter @JoniRodgers

The Undercover Soundtrack is taking a short break but will be back on 6 June. If you can’t wait that long for your next fix, you can now search through the archives by musician, composer or artiste – and find out who writes to what. See you soon

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrew Blackman

‘George Winston’s dreamy piano had to go’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning literary fiction writer Andrew Blackman @BlackmanAndrew

Soundtrack by The Velvet Underground, Reef, Jimi Hendrix, burningpilot, Supergrass, Alien Ant Farm, Bob Dylan, Stereophonics, Pink Floyd

It was 1st November 2007, and I’d set myself a ridiculous challenge. By the end of the month, I would have written a novel, from start to finish. It would be a road novel for 21st-century Britain, a forlorn but determined attempt to live authentically and spontaneously in a highly controlled society. As I stared at the blank screen, planning things out and calculating just how many thousands of words I would need to write each day, I came to an important realisation.

Before I could begin typing, I would need new music.

Before then, you see, I’d been a devotee of calm, soothing, contemplative music. I’d always started my writing day by lighting an incense stick and playing George Winston. Beautiful, aren’t they, those dreamy piano notes? A perfect soundtrack for a morning spent gazing at swirling incense smoke and waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, not a good way to get a novel written in a month, certainly not a novel of frustrated youth raging against the stunted future mapped out for them. Poor George would have to go.

Enter The Velvet Underground and Heroin. Yes, I know, it starts out slow, but just listen to it ramp up around 1:20, and again at 2:22, and a few more times until, 6 minutes in, you can almost feel the spike in your vein. Suddenly some words appeared on the page:

I first met Neil not long after my father died.

Not much, but it was a start, and soon I was describing Neil, and the words started to flow, and I followed it up with Reef and Jimi Hendrix and burningpilot and Supergrass and I saw my characters, Jack and Neil, rampaging up and down the Holloway Road on a cold November night. I kept writing as they ran the life of drinking and parties swiftly to its conclusion, and after a week or so I was already five chapters in, and Jack and Neil had ditched London and made it to John O’Groats and were paddling in the freezing North Sea at three in the morning to the accompaniment of the suitably weird Alien Ant Farm.

By this time a change was called for, both for me and my characters. The frenetic pace couldn’t last. I took to walking a few miles every morning, and completed the bulk of the book sitting in a now-defunct north London cafe all afternoon for a couple of weeks with the likes of Bob Dylan and Stereophonics on my iPod. The quieter mood suited my characters, who were getting worn down by their quest but kept going anyway, taking one more step, visiting one more town, drinking, like me and Dylan, just one more cup of coffee. They went forward not with the hopeful enthusiasm of earlier; they went forward simply because they couldn’t go back.

For the ending I wanted something quiet and poignant, almost an anti-ending after all the noise and fury of earlier on. It was 30th November and I was tired, and so were Jack and Neil, and the three of us gritted our teeth and limped to the finish line with the dying chords of Wish You Were Here reverberating in our ears.

I took a week or two off from writing, printed off my manuscript and was amazed to discover it was ten times better than the novel I’d spent years working on before that. It would go on to win an award for unpublished writers, netting me £2,500 and a publishing deal, and my life would change.

Of course, that was still in the future. Before all that happened, I still had to edit the novel. That’s where George Winston and the trusty old incense stick came in handy again.

Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He’s a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now converted to fiction. More information available at his website, or you can connect with him via Twitter.

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