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 novelist and Talking Writing columnist David Biddle @dcbiddle
My novel, Beyond the Will of God, is about many things: murder; rural Missouri in the heart of the summer; odd conspiracy theories; altered states of consciousness; and the realities of telepathy. Most importantly, though, this book is about the power of music and its connection to creativity, and what ultimately lies beyond death.
The story begins as a murder mystery, but very early on the reader is confronted with the realization that there may be a sort of magic to music that we don’t understand — rock ’n’ roll music in particular. Understanding that magic is the real mystery of the book.
The idea came to me when I was 17 and had just discovered the sorcery of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar work. The first time I heard his masterpiece, 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be), I became convinced that Hendrix had discovered a way to channel and tune human thought to a unified vibration. The title for my novel comes from a phrase in this song.
I wouldn’t start writing, though, for another 15 years. New Year’s Day 1990, I was listening to a radio special on Elvis Presley’s early career. Strains of acoustic guitar started up. A voice-over told us That’s Alright Mama was Elvis’s first hit. As I listened to The King of rock ’n’ roll, I saw a bar full of hard-drinking young people in rural Missouri listening to his first hit song, and an Amish boy sneaking in the back. I began to write. That work became the scene that is now in the middle of chapter one, ending with two characters lost in dark farm country hearing strange guitar music on the wind.
I knew the story was a mystery-thriller, but it would also be about the power of sonic vibration of all kinds. The untimely deaths of so many great musicians and personalities in the 20th century would become the center of the plot I was concocting.
Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are connected to all the sound in our lives. One song I kept coming back to that helped me meld the CIA with the hippie search for ‘higher consciousness’ was The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. Even today, almost 50 years after it was recorded, the use of tape loops, sitar, non-standard rhythm, and Lennon’s lyrics can crack open the most stodgy artist’s mind.
Over time, as I wrote, I listened endlessly to music by artists who, like Jimi and Elvis, had all died before their time – Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Croce, etc. Blues legend Robert Johnson’s story of selling his soul to the devil is where the black magic of rock ’n’ roll got its start. He died at the age of 27. In the classic Come On In My Kitchen he is haunting and mystical. Johnson has an important part to play in Beyond the Will of God.
Ideas of immortality
In the spring of 1997, I read about a singer and musician I’d never heard of before named Jeff Buckley. He’d just drowned in a channel of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. As I read, it became obvious Buckley was important to my story. His highly regarded album, Grace, was a smorgasbord of new music inspiration. Last Goodbye is my favorite song, but the title track, Grace, speaks directly to the ethos of Beyond the Will of God. It is dark, swooning, and ponders the idea of immortality. The first draft would be completed shortly after discovering Buckley.
But I wouldn’t have been able to edit and re-write my first draft it if I hadn’t found the rather esoteric album, Sushilove Sessions, by the world beat-improvisational jazz combo Global Illage. There are no easily accessible renditions of Sushilove Sessions online, but check out this recent recording by two of the group’s musicians, talented drummer, Jim Hamilton, and guitarist extraordinaire, Tim Motzer. Here they are, recorded in the spring of 2013, improvising the composition As Real As Life.
I listened to Global Illage non-stop every night for 23 days doing the final re-write of Beyond the Will of God. It went from 450 pages down to 350. Sex, drugs, (metaphysics), and rock ’n’ roll all wrapped up in a murder mystery.
Along with his novel Beyond the Will of God, David Biddle has published two collections of short stories: Trying to Care (2011) and Implosions of America (2012). He has been writing professionally for over 30 years, publishing articles and essays in the likes of Harvard Business Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, In Business, Huffington Post, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He writes the ‘Talking Indie’ column at the online magazine Talking Writing. You can track him down at http://davidbiddle.net. Tweet to him as @dcbiddle