‘I knew she and I were both fast nothings forever in the same big lonely dream’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is Michael Stutz @MichaelStutz
Soundtrack by The Carpenters, Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown
Writing and music are together, are one. That’s how it’s always been for me — I started to make music at about the same time I began writing, and in perfect synaesthesia they’re both ways of painting out the colors inside me. I have an acoustic in my workoom and most days, when I get up for a sec from the keyboard, I’ll play it — when you’re working on something that takes years to complete, it’s no small exhilaration to grab a guitar and make a new song in like 48 seconds, which I literally do all the time.
My new book Circuits of the Wind is the story of a life — Ray Valentine, a slacker who grows up online. It’s a big, serious, literary history of the net generation, taking place over three decades — from the 70s through to 2000, which is far enough back to be pretty nostalgic now. There’s plenty of music along the way, but the writing itself’s also directly informed by it – often some piece of popular music will haunt a gestating scene, and in the process of writing I’ll pick up on it.
In the beginning, for instance, about 23 pages in, there’s a scene that goes on for a while in what I call a rhapsodic soundmovie – it’s a sweeping vision of Christmastime and what that means to little Raymond in the suburban America of the 70s and 80s. When preparing to write it I’d recalled The Carpenters’ 1978 version of The Christmas Waltz, a song originally written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. I knew that somewhere in that world I was trying to capture, this song was playing — and now when I hear it, I think back to that passage.
I love Karen Carpenter. I love her so much, I mean, man, she could sing — what she and her brother were doing so perfectly well was also anachronistically against the whole hulking motion of postmodern culture, and in that sense is just how I feel about my own place in it now.
Styne and Cahn are among the best of the best of those songwriters that make up what they call the great American songbook — to which I’d include Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, John Blackburn, Johnny Mandel, Mitchell Parish and two dozen more. This stuff’s in my blood thick and for a long while I thought for sure I was going to be one of those guys, until I realised that I needed to go to an emotional space where songs don’t quite reach, where you need long narrative prose to arrive.
But one piece of music needs to be mentioned because it literally sparked the book. The idea for Circuits of the Wind came to me, complete and whole, while listening to this divine recording of Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown’s performance of Lullaby of Birdland, written by George Shearing and George David Weiss.
Something unforgettable happened that night, incredible, that showed me the end of the book and everything that led up to it. It was late and I was alone and it was like the whole world around me melted away — I mean I actually saw this, like Allen Ginsberg’s vision of Blake over Manhattan there was this real, physical, external experience of reality bending right back, and everything melting; even my own heartbeat stopped at one point and I saw that not only was the world a big dream but me too, because I’m in it, and therefore I didn’t hold or own anything, not even myself – when Sarah was scatting in the middle of the track I knew that she and I were both fast nothings forever in the same big lonely dream universe.
To think I’d hoped to look into eternity for so long and here suddenly whoah, I was actually doing it, where now a whole book was neatly laid out for me ready to go. It was originally subtitled ‘a ghost story’, which is probably about as much as I can say without giving it all away, and that’s plenty – because after all what’s writing anyway, but us ghosts in here singing?
Michael Stutz is the author of Circuits of the Wind, published in three volumes (and a single, unabridged Kindle edition). You can sometimes find him on Facebook and, rarely, Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Michael is excited to give away a copy of Circuits of The Wind to anyone who shares this post on Facebook, Google Plus or Twitter – each platform counts as one entry with a maximum of one entry per platform. To let him know, leave a comment here. You can also enter by leaving a comment here! The prize is either a print or an ebook edition – you choose.
12 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Michael Stutz”
Michael your prose is gorgeous and your sense of pitch is striking. I love the composers and singers that you talked about too. I’m a singer-songwriter, and I began my career when I was hired to sing and play piano for Burt Bacharach’s restaurant out on the North Shore of Long Island. Bacharach stopped in every now and then to ‘check up’ on his entertainer and it was thrilling for me. It was a wonderful room to perform the American Songbook in and Karen Carpenter’s songs were right up there with the most audience requests.
Beth, are you still up? You’re the quintessential songwriting nightbird.
What a fantastic story about Bacharach – a total thrill to have that experience. And I’m delighted to see Michael pay such homage to Karen Carpenter’s voice. She’s so smooth and easy.
Hi Roz, I’m wide-awake and working on writing 2 songs at once! Yes, working for Bacharach was so thrilling. His restaurant was a few miles away from The Westbury Music Fair, so after Billy Joel or Neil Sedaka finished their performances, they would stop by for a drink and hear me sing. They gave great feedback and I learned a heck of alot on my feet as they say!
You got it, Roz, she hits the mark—and I’ll say that right up there with Karen for smooth and easy are Julie London and Doris Day.
Beth, thank you so much—it’s especially gratifying coming from someone with a background like yours. And wow, I can so imagine the thrill it must’ve been, and the privilige, to play there and have Mr. Bacharach himself come ‘check up’ on you! That is so cool—I’ll bet you have some great stories. A lot of people probably don’t realize that he’s classically trained and wrote his own orchestration … I count these composers and singers as direct-line influences, as much and as strong as any literary influence—the way I see it, words don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that swing!
It’s such a pleasure to have Beth as a regular commenter here. Her perspective as an accomplished working musician is fascinating.
Michael, if you haven’t seen it already, you might enjoy the special Undercover Soundtrack interview with Beth – she describes how she writes songs for book trailers. https://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2012/09/08/the-undercover-soundtrack-from-the-other-side-singer-songwriter-beth-rudetsky/
This sounds like a gorgeous read. 🙂 I always like something which has a poetic feel as so much of today’s writing feels clunky and uninspired. Good luck to you, Michael!
Rae, thanks for commenting here! I agree – Michael’s passion, sensitivity and wide vision come through beautifully in this piece and will undoubtedly transfer to the novel as well.
Thanks, Chloe – and I couldn’t help smiling at your Facebook link!
Chloe, please drop me a line with your format preference (paperback or Kindle) and how to get it to you. Thanks!