The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where 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 GD Harper
Soundtrack by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tangerine Dream, JS Bach, Wagner, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Billie Holiday
In 1974, I saved up my paper-round money and bought a turntable. David Bowie burst into my monochrome life like a rainbow, daring me to be different. Aladdin Sane was the first album I bought, and every track seemed to be a coded message telling me there was no such thing as normal, there was no need to conform, that we had to be true to who we really were. Jean Genie filled my mind with surrealistic, decadent imagery, although on Cracked Actor a 27-year-old Bowie singing to a 16-year-old schoolboy about how fundamentally sleazy is a 50 year-old man brings a smile to my face today.
But it was Bob Dylan who set out the agenda by which I’ve lived my life. It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) told me if I wasn’t always busy being born, then I’d soon be busy dying. I’ve spent my life reinventing myself, in appearance, in career, in lifestyle, in geography. It’s what keeps me alive. Curiosity is a muscle that needs exercise to stop atrophy setting in.
And so to my novel, Love’s Long Road. I was 55 years old, had sold my business and finally in my life had a financial breathing space to take the risk of another reinvention, to become what I always wanted to be, a writer. My novel is set in the 1970s, of course. There’s never a time in your life like the one when the music in the charts is being written for your generation. It was an era I could write about with passion, and, with a little prompting from Wikipedia, from experience.
Lyrics had inspired me to start on this journey, but to write I needed to find music to fill my mind but not fight the words I was trying to get out. So thank you, Ian Rankin. He did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his writing process and revealed the secret of his productivity: Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, whose vast, formless swirling soundscapes formed the perfect sonic background to my brainstorming and planning as the story took shape. I invested in the 4 CD boxed set, and loaded it into a multi-disc CD cartridge. I’d play it over and over again, never tiring of its astonishing ability to sooth and refresh my addled brain.
Bach and Wagner helped me raise my game when I was trying to be a bit cerebral when writing more literary prose, although I did feel a bit of a heel in the way I used Wagner in the book. The suave, sophisticated baddie in the tale quotes Frederick Nietzsche, has two Doberman Pinschers called Lucifer and Satan, and generally does all the things that scream out at you ‘run away, run away’ (which of course my heroine doesn’t do). So I had him listening to Wagner, even being a real Wagner buff, playing on all these Nazi connotations. Nothing could be more different from the ugliness of fascism than the beauty of Wagner’s music and I’m a bit ashamed of myself that in my own small way I’ve perpetuated a negative stereotype.
Legacy of Bowie
My main character was a 22-year-old woman, and I wrote the story from her perspective in the first person, a legacy of Bowie daring me from all these years ago. And as I started to write the story, the 70s setting started to grow in importance, becoming almost a character in the novel in its own right. The characters pored over the lyric sleeves of albums trying to decipher their meaning; there were parties, with blue lights and joss sticks and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon providing the soundtrack to mass snogging sessions. Clare Torry’s vocals on The Great Gig in the Sky 15 minutes 42 seconds after the thudding heartbeat opening on side one always seemed perfectly timed.
My character had to keep escaping from jeopardy and reinventing herself, so It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) spoke to her as well. And my faith in the corporate music world was boosted when I approached Dylan’s publishing company to quote his lyrics in my book and after they’d read the excerpts that feature Dylan’s lyrics, they became fantastically helpful and supportive in me securing the rights to do that.
As the story progressed, music continued to shape the writing. If I needed a burst of energy to complement Tangerine Dream’s calming influence, some early-period Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen would do the trick. And at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, some of my favourite lines in the novel came when listening to lyrics. A seedy bar in the book, where
cigarette smoke hung in the air like a blue fug, the colour of missed chances and broken dreams’
was written as Springsteen was singing in the background of broken heroes and their last chances in life on Born to Run.
And my description of a character as
having sprouted into a tall, gangly explosion of energy, jumping about like an oversized grasshopper
suddenly materialised while listening to Jarvis Cocker singing Common People.
Perhaps the most powerful and harrowing part of the book is in the later stages, which deals with taking heroin and the lifestyle that goes with it. Writing in the first person, I felt I had to show my character initially embracing this destructive lifestyle, but it is a very challenging topic to write about, being mindful of the responsibilities of in any way glamourising or condoning drug abuse. It is still a bit of a literary taboo to describe the narcotic effect of heroin and I found as I wrote about my character’s descent into an opiate hell my writing became more metaphorical in nature. I let songs like Lou Reed’s Heroin or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit send goose bumps down my spine as I wrote this part of the book. I hope I’ve captured in some small way both the temptation and the danger of drugs as powerfully as these songs have done.
As I finished the novel and it went off for proof reading, I was, of course, shocked and devastated by David Bowie’s death. This is a blog about music but I can’t help but finish without paying tribute to not just Bowie’s musical genius but also to how his spoken word can be an inspiration. As I sat down to start my next book, I thought about what I’ve learned writing this one, about what to write, who to write it for, what people want to hear. And I saw this clip someone posted on Facebook today, with Bowie’s thoughts on the creative process. He says ‘Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.’
Good advice, David. Thank you.
Glyn Harper spent his career working in marketing for multinational corporations around the globe before setting up his own media and marketing consultancy in 1999. After selling the business in 2012, Glyn trekked the ‘Great Himalayan Trail’ in six months, becoming the first British man to cross the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route. On his return Glyn started writing, being placed third in the Lightship Prize for new authors in 2014. Glyn’s hobbies include music, photography and writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Facebook and his website. Love’s Long Road is his first novel.