‘Neon, nostalgia, regret and joy’
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, spoken-word poet and novelist Dan Holloway @agnieszkasshoes returns with the soundtrack to his latest collection
Soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, Mamas and Papas, Pink Floyd, Garbage, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Kills, Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, Tracy Chapman, Eagle Eye Cherry, Melanie Pain, Emily Barker
i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry is, according to the blurb I put together for it, ‘a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous picaresque across the neon-soaked night cities of the world in search and celebration of lost friends’. It is about a feeling – one that blends joy and nostalgia and sorrow and celebration and neon piercing the night sky and damp bridges and lives that spring fully and tragically formed from the concrete. The times I’ve seen that done best have both been through powerful connections between image and soundtrack – in the 70s, Bernard Herrmann’s oppressive industrial backdrop to Taxi Driver, and from the 90s the marrying of the dazzling colour of East Asian cities and the Mamas and Papas classic piece of nostalgia California Dreaming.
So music was right at the front of my mind from the start as I was putting it together. It’s also an accompaniment to my first solo spoken word show, which will premier at Cheltenham Poetry Festival on 24 April. So rhythm, cadence, pulling the audience through sound through a rollercoaster ride of the emotions were all right there at the fore. And with the multimedia background to the book, that initial draw towards the neon, nostalgia and grime of the cinematic city soundtrack was the perfect place to begin getting myself into the right place to construct and compile the book.
Rhythm is all
The thing about a collection – and a show for that matter – is that at every level rhythm is everything. Not just within the pieces but within the whole. Every dazzling, intense, searing effect you create is diminished by the wrong amount of repetition, enhanced by the right number of carefully placed repetitions, burnished or dulled by what comes before, after, a similar distance from the beginning, from the end. Every piece must hang together and flow effortlessly just like a perfectly-constructed album. This sense of flow, rhythm, shape is essential to all forms of the written as well as the spoken word, but it amazes me how little I see writers refer to beautifully-crafted albums as their exemplars.
Prog rock and poetry
Being the age I am, married to whom I am, of the musical persuasion I am, and someone who calls himself a prog rocker of the poetry world, there really is only one album to turn to for the perfectly constructed emotional and sensual journey. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is perfect in just about every way, and makes as great a live show as it does an album. From helicopters to gloriously crashing waves of sound via alarm clocks and lunatics on the grass, every step is in just the right position in relation to every other to make the journey an almost mystical path to enlightenment.
And yet, steeped in Bernard Herrman and Pink Floyd, I have the path mapped out before me but it’s still not enough. Still not the mix of anger, desolation, joy and nostalgia and, well, neon-soakedness all in one that I’m looking for. Which is why playlists are so fabulous.
I’ve always loved playlists, ever since as a seven-year-old I’d endlessly sort through my dad’s 45s making little stacks to play in order. And there is nothing better for keying you into the rhythms of whatever you are writing than a playlist the follows your work’s rhythms. So, get your headphones and have a listen to what is, in essence, my latest book.
Each track manages to blend the urban and the nostalgic, painting a constant backdrop as it were whilst the foreground moves with the rhythm of the collection’s picaresque.
We begin with the wistful recollective regret of Garbage’s You Look So Fine and the haunting Red Hot Chilli Peppers classic Scar Tissue we find the brutal, angry, relentless drumbeat of The Kills’s No Wow as the reality of loss loses its romanticised edge and gives way to a despair that becomes exhaustion at the nadir of Nine Inch Nails’s stunningly dissonant Hurt and Portishead’s Roads with its pitch perfect association with the film Requiem for a Dream. From that low point we emerge to appreciate the preciousness of the memories with Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Eagle Eye Cherry’s celebration of the intense, fleeting joyfulness of life, Save Tonight. But the celebration is only temporary and gives way to the bitterness and desperation of the pounding beat in Portishead’s Machine Gun before, exhausted and scarred but unbowed we emerge with Melanie Pain’s Bruises and finally lay down our heads, our lives and lost friendships streaming ever slower before our eyes as we fade into the night with Emily Barker’s Pause.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator. He runs 79 rat press through which he publishes his own conceptual books and will, in June 2013, be publishing debut collections from five of the most groundbreaking new voices in poetry and prose. In the picture he appears with Diophantus, one of the 79 rats. He blogs at Authors Electric and is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Find him on Twitter @agnieszkasshoes