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 Wayne Clark @Wayne_Clark_1
Soundtrack by Johnny Hodges, Sly and The Family Stone, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie), Frank Sinatra, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Hubbard, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin
As an adolescent with dysfunctional parents, Kit, the protagonist in he & She, had already found an escape in jazz, especially ballads, the cathedral where the hymnal is full of lonely, sad songs from the Great American Song Book (Where Do You Go by Frank Sinatra, Skylark by Aretha Franklin, Body and Soul by Freddie Hubbard). Before he has had any experience in life, Kit equates adult life with these emotions. Experiencing them while listening makes him a grown man, liberated from parents and adolescence.
As Kit ages, he is alone most of the time in his small New York apartment. He is an alcoholic who watches life from the outside. He works at home as a translator and practises alto sax when he thinks no one is listening. As he did as a youth, he spends more time daydreaming about life than living it.
Cold, grey backdrop
I am a music lover and profoundly amateur musician, but I’ve long known that I must treat music with kid gloves because it tends to take over my mood instantly. The right-wrong piece of background music at the dinner table can take me right out of the conversation. For that reason, I never start a writing session with music on. However, early on while writing he & She I chanced upon a YouTube video of a piece I knew well, a Billy Strayhorn composition called Day Dream, played by Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It’s not really a video but a succession of black and white photographs of New York streets, strangely devoid for the most part of people. Against that grey, cold backdrop, the wistfulness of Hodges’s playing absolutely nailed for me the way Kit looked at his world.
Realising that, I used Day Dream on several occasions while writing – not so much to help me describe periods when he felt particularly lonely or empty but to apply a patina of disconnect to his experiencing of external situations. He could be telling himself everything was all right, be it about work or a girlfriend, but something was always missing.
Because I found Day Dream useful, I ended up breaking my no-music rule when writing the early sections involving Kit’s best and only friend, his neighbor, LeBron, a professional bass player. LeBron agrees to pass on some of his skills to Kit, and to do that he teaches him to play sax riffs from classic R&B pieces. The possibility of becoming a real musician is exciting to Kit, a dream come true, and I dug up several recordings that Kit would have been thrilled to have taken part in as a sax player. I used these several times while writing to capture his excitement. LeBron the bass player would have chosen these because of the powerful precision of the horn and rhythm sections. These recordings included ones by Sly and The Family Stone (You Can Make It If You Try), Curtis Mayfield (You Can’t Say Nothing) and The Temptations (Papa Was a Rollin’Stone).
As Kit turns 50, he is running on empty and desperate about his life. He tells himself all he wants is to feel truly alive one more time. By chance, he spots an image on the Internet, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dominatrix. He becomes determined to meet her, and when he does he becomes obsessed. From their first encounter on, he feels joy he’s never felt. Can a man that age feel in love the way a young man, even a teenager, would? That’s what I wanted Kit to feel. I found this tricky to write because I didn’t want him to appear a complete fool. He knows it’s an impossible situation, her being half his age, and him being no longer even capable of having sex, but it feels too good to run away from. This will sound terribly obvious, but I used a song by Wilson Picket to convince me Kit could indeed feel love that way. It’s a Bobby Womack song called I’m In Love. Picket sings that being in love makes him feel like a boy with a brand new toy on Christmas morning. There’s nothing schmaltzy whatsoever about this recording. I was convinced.
There were other pieces that I didn’t listen to while actually writing but, because we never stop writing in our minds, a couple of pieces by Charlie Parker (Parker’s Mood) and Parker with Dizzy Gillespie performing Ko-Ko ended up suggesting dialogue between Kit and LeBron, as did the lyrics by Lambert, Hendriks and Ross for Nothin’s the Same As It Used to Be.
I have to say that using music to help create words is a two-sided coin. The music can take over your writer’s metronome for the good, for a while, but it can also take your writing on a perhaps unwanted side trip. Like anything fragile, handle with care.
Wayne Clark is the author of he & She. Find him at http://www.wayne-clark.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, Facebook, Twitter as @Wayne_Clark_1, Goodreads, The Independent Author Network, and LinkedIn