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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.
On 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.
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.
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.
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.
Listening 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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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 screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips @i_ebookreview
Soundtrack by Michael Jackson, Shaggy, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, The Muppets, Nat King Cole, David Rovics, Sam Cooke, John K and Fred Ebb, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters
All my life I have made up words to songs. As a student I used to entertain my companions on the way to and from the pub by making up ‘different’ lyrics to pop songs and musicals. It was just something I did. I heard music as a soundtrack in my head all the time and used the melody to write my own version of songs. I had a love of musical theatre and sort of wished that the world could be like that, people breaking out into song in the oddest places without any provocation. Strangely, I never thought about a career as a lyricist (I didn’t know you could). When I ‘became’ a writer for a job in my late 20s I chose screenwriting because I needed to earn a living. But life takes you on all kinds of unexpected paths and sometimes all the creativity inside you just hits that perfect moment. I’m lucky. For me the moment lasted the best part of 10 years. And changed my life.
In 2003 I started working with an advocacy group for adults labelled with learning disability who wanted to learn drama. I had no experience of ‘learning disability’ but plenty of experience of practical drama. It was challenging to begin with. Most of the group couldn’t read or write, some couldn’t or didn’t even speak. However, an amazing thing happened. Music unlocked the door.
One member of the group who never spoke beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Happy’ just came alive when we started to use music. He revealed a talent for singing as well as a keen memory of 50s and 60s music. Consequently I started using music to bind together our flexible scripts. I found that by changing the lyrics of familiar pop songs to suit the story we managed to create dramas that the cast could engage with and which entertained an audience.
In 2004 we did a comedy musical version of Hamlet (called Piglet!) which included ‘ghosty’ pigs doing a song and dance version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (song starts 04:40) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me alongside my adaptation of a well-known classic with one word changed! ‘Piglet, do you want to know a secret.’ This was followed up by devised musical plays around the theme of Fairtrade – Go Bananas which featured Day-oh and Wake up and Smell the Coffee which featured, among other songs You’re the cream in my coffee and a play on recycling using the title of a David Rovics song The End of the Age of Oil and built around that song. Performed at the Scottish Parliament, we opened the event with our ‘star’ singer (the man who didn’t speak, remember) singing Amazing Grace accapella. That was a high point of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Our most ambitious project was performed in 2008. Aiken Drum’s Recycled Musical was our first full musical. For the uninitiated, Aiken Drum is a traditional Scots tale which deals with how people view ‘outsiders’. It was a really political piece in many ways. We set it in a sort of fictional Industrial Revolution town called Trade Town. All the songs were adapted from pop songs. For example I adapted the lyrics of Wonderful World (song starts 0:38) –
‘Don’t know much about industry,
Don’t know much about commodities,
Don’t know much about stocks and shares…’
and my favourite line
Don’t know why you want to work for money, I don’t think consumerism’s funny.’
And we also butchered Cabaret’s classic Money Makes the World go round
‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet and your coat’s thin as paper and you look thirty pounds underweight
My advice is get a job, get a mortgage, pay with credit, have all the luxuries you need
Cause money makes the world go around…’
Having moved 200 miles north I no longer work with the group, but I have taken our experiences from that time and published them as a novel, A Week with No Labels, which includes all the ‘dramas’ I’ve mentioned and a few more besides. It includes many of the ‘created/adapted’ lyrics. Described by Julia Jones as ‘perhaps the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year’, it is a tribute to my time with this amazing bunch of people who changed the course of my life and changed me irrevocably as well. Without the music there would have been no creativity. Without ABC there would have been no novel.
On the way to writing A Week with No Labels I have learned that music and creativity is for everyone. And that life can be a musical. One shouldn’t take it too seriously, one shouldn’t strive for perfection because what’s most important in life is to live and love and be creative together. The song which was always in my mind while I penned A Week With No Labels and remains there whenever I think about it is You’ve got a friend. Sung by my friend, Larry. Among other things he taught me that in our real life musicals the voice is less important than the heart. So maybe music is about more than just words.
Cally Phillips has worked as a screenwriter and playwright for 20 years and is now focussed on fiction writing. Committed to a life of creativity, she publishes advocacy work through Guerrilla Midgie Press and other writing through HoAmPresst Publishing. She writes in silence but still makes up songs, sometimes to extant tunes, sometimes recycling other melodies. Only the dogs get to hear these masterpieces. She is currently director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival and reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective. She is also a member of the Authors Electric Writers Collective. A Week With no Labels is available in ebook format for Kindle and epub and as a paperback.Her website is here. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @i_ebookreview
A Week With No Labels, adults with learning disabilities, advocacy group, authors, Authors Electric, Bing Crosby, Cally Phillips, comedy, contemporary fiction, David Rovics, Desert Island Discs, Do Authors Dream of Electric Books, entertainment, Harry Belafonte, Joel Grey, John K and Fred Ebb, learning disabilities theatre group, learning disability, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nat King Cole, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, Sam Cooke, Shaggy, The Andrews Sisters, The Beatles, The Muppets, The Undercover Soundtrack, theatre, undercover soundtrack, unexpected paths, Women Writers, words to songs, writers, writing, writing to music
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2020. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'