Posts Tagged John Hiatt

The Undercover Soundtrack – Daniel Paisner

for logoThe 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 NYT bestselling ghostwriter and novelist-in-his-own-right Daniel Paisner @DanielPaisner

Soundtrack by James McMurtry

Confession: I listen to the Spa channel on Sirius when I’m writing.  Like, a lot.  In my defense, I don’t actually ‘own’ any of this music, and I’m not really ‘listening’ to it.  It’s just on, like white noise, a little something to fill the space between exasperated sighs.  I’ve tried listening to jazz, or symphonic music, or even piano sonatas, but when there’s a mood to a piece it messes me up.  I hate it when some long-dead composer’s sense of bombast or melancholy seeps into my work, so this New Age pap is just the thing.  (Plus, sometimes there are zithers!)

Mostly it’s the lyrics that get in the way.  I need music to fill the room, but there’s no room in my head for the words – not when I’m working on a piece of my own.  That’s not always the case.  You see, I make most of my living writing other people’s stories.

undercover soundtrack daniel paisner 1I’m a ghostwriter, by principle trade.  I work with actors, athletes, politicians and assorted colourful or celebrated characters and help them craft their autobiographies or their 15-minutes-of-fame tomes, and when I’m collaborating on one of these assignments I can listen to pretty much anything.  Classic rock, mostly.  Loud.  Since I’ve got the satellite radio set up in my office, that lately means Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel. Are you hip to this channel? Here, I’ve got it on now as I write this: Chocolate Watchband’s Let’s Talk About The Girls into Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie into Social Distortion’s Ball and Chain.  Lots of surprises here, always, and some of the jocks dig deep into liner notes and back-story, so there’s good context too, and when I’m rendering a life story that’s already been lived by someone else I can absorb these distractions.

A book of my own

But it’s when I’m not writing somebody else’s memoirs that the music starts to matter, and it’s when I’m not sitting at my desk that I’m doing most of my own work.  For example, I’ve got a book coming out called A Single Happened Thing, from a terrific indie press called Relegation Books (‘craft publishing at its finest’), and that sucker was gestating for a long, long while before I actually rolled up my sleeves and started writing.  During that long, long while I listened to a lot of singer-songwriter types – alt rockers and folk rockers, troubadours and hillbillies.  James McMurtry.  Jason Isbell.  John Hiatt.  Bonnie Raitt.  Christopher Paul Stelling.  Courtney Barrett.  Storytellers, all.  Writers, all.  Foot-stompers, most of ’em.  I was drawn to artists with a singular vision, a way of looking at the world that hadn’t been slick-polished by mainstream success.  There was no formula here, only a clear sense of voice and place.  A  sensibility.

A lyric that persists

A lot of times I’ll hear a snatch of lyric or a turn of phrase that stays with me and informs the piece I’m working on.  That’s what happened with this new novel.  It’s based on the life (and death) of an old-time baseball player named Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, one of the forgotten greats of the game.  He played in the 1880s, most notably for the 1884 St Louis Maroons of the Union Association, where he had one of the greatest seasons ever, ever, ever.  For a stretch, he was one of the best-known ballplayers in all the land, at a time when our national pastime was taking root.  And yet he died at the relatively young age of 43, penniless, friendless, all but forgotten.  His body lay unidentified for days — far too long for a man who was once baseball’s highest-paid player — and strangers had to be pulled from the street to serve as pallbearers.

undercover soundtrack daniel paisner 2Sad, huh?

I started thinking about Dunlap’s curious legacy, and looking for ways to attach his story to a contemporary tale of a middle-aged protagonist coming to terms with the fallings short in his own life.  Alongside this thinking, I was playing a shit-ton of James McMurtry.  (Yep, his dad is Larry McMurtry, so he’s got some serious pedigree to go with his serious chops.)  His first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, was on all the time in my study — and, after that, his follow-up, Where’d You Hide the Body.

There’s one song of McMurty’s, I’m Not From Here, that haunted me, stayed with me, and as he sang that title refrain and told his story of a vagabonding soul my own story began to take shape.

I’m not from here

978-0-9847648-3-9It was just a phrase, a snatch of lyric, but it spoke to me of the rootlessness that must have been at play at the end of Dunlap’s life — the life of an itinerant ballplayer, with no apparent tether to family or community.  At least, that’s how I imagined it.  The song, I think, is about something else entirely, but the line itself was all Dunlap, and out of that one line a story emerged.  Really.  Those album titles had a hand in things, too.  Left me wondering what would happen if together with that rootlessness there was also a restlessness in Dunlap that left his spirit to wander in the cosmos, like an unreceived radio transmission, only to alight in the path of another lost soul.

And so I was left at the intersection of two lives without footprints — one real, one imagined — separated by a century, and joined somehow by this one line from this one song.  Anyway, that was the germ of it, the nut of it.  And now, if you don’t mind, I’m back to the Spa channel.  There’s another story to tell.

Daniel Paisner is the author of more than 60 books, including 13 New York Times bestsellers.  As a ghostwriter, he has written more than 50 books in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians, business leaders and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell, including tennis great Serena Williams; Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich; football legend Ray Lewis; Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn; and potty-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried.  He is co-author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, written with Krystyna Chiger; and, the gripping 9/11 diary Last Man Down: A Firefighter’s Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center, with FDNY Deputy Chief Richard Picciotto – both international bestsellers.  In addition to A Single Happened Thing, from Relegation Books, he is the author of two previous novels: Obit and Mourning Wood.  Find him on his website and on Twitter @DanielPaisner

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – David Penny

for logo‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’

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 science fictioneer-turned-historical-murder mystery writer David Penny @DavidPenny_

Soundtrack by Tinariwen, Neil Young, Joe Satriano, Grace Potter, Counting Crows, John Hiatt

I’m a frustrated musician. Many writers I talk to wish they were musicians (yes, we know who you are, Mr Rankin) but, when I talk to musicians they often want to be writers. Or actors. As for the actors, well…

For me writing is a constant striving to achieve the same visceral punch I get from great music. It’s hard because writing is a different medium, but every now and again, for a brief moment, I like to think I’ve almost attained that ambition.

david-penny-full-bw-600-webI use music to inspire me, to turn off my analytical mind and don a cap of imagination. While writing my first new book for over 35 years (don’t ask) I used music as inspiration, but also as a wash of sound through which my hands drifted across the keyboard.

That book, The Red Hill came to me complete in less than a second, the entire idea and thread for a multi-book series. Then it took two years to write. The protagonist, Thomas Berrington, is an Englishman a thousand miles from home, a surgeon working in the final years of the Moorish caliphate that has ruled Spain for over 700 years. For much of that period the Moors were a beacon of civilisation in a Europe shattered by invasion, war and ignorance. They were cultured, scientific, and curious about the world. While the Vikings invaded the north, the Moors were inventing flying machines (1100), algebra, the clock, and studying the stars and medicine. In the book Thomas uses the techniques and instruments invented by the Moors – many of which have developed into those now used in modern operating theatres. His life is settled, deliberately constrained, until a man he can’t refuse asks a favour that could get him killed.

Below is the music that inspired me in the writing of the book, but more importantly music that just inspired. What more is there?

Tinariwen

This is how I see Thomas dressed in The Red Hill. It’s also here because I listen to Tinariwen when I need to get into the emotional world of the Moors before they came to Spain, the world they carried with them. I can hear this music – without the electric guitars, but the Moors did have lutes and some even believe they created the acoustic guitar – being performed in al-Hamra at the time The Red Hill is set – the music rhythmic, dense, ululating. And the performers – you can see their lives etched deep on their faces.

Neil Young

I love everything about Neil Young when he plays electric guitar this way. His acoustic, Harvest Moon period, I can take or leave, but when he performs like this it sums up how I feel about writing. The music is on the edge, barely constrained, constantly threatening to tip over into chaos and feedback, always pulling back from the brink. I love his uncompromising nature. I understand it’s also what turns people off his music, but the point is he doesn’t care. He does what he does, what he must do. Whether you like it, love it, or loath it, it is what it is. The struggle to write something possessing this raw power and emotion is what keeps me coming back to the keyboard over and over again. It’s an unattainable dream, but that’s all right, because it means I never need to stop. Just like Neil. And take time to listen to the words.

Also there is this cover of Cortez the Killer by Joe Satriano and Grace Potter. Written by Neil, of course, but included for a couple of reasons – the main one being the dichotomy between the slight Spanish vibe and the words. And it tells the result of the victors in the battle the Thomas Berrington series is about. I can’t help wondering how different the world would be today if the Moors hadn’t been defeated.

Counting Crows

Another band I can’t get enough of, another singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. My wife and I – kids too – have seen this band more than any other, and every time they’re different. Some people don’t like that, wanting things to sound just like on the album. Us? No – we like different. This song, A Long December, contains one of my favourite lines: about oysters and pearls… listen… Also listen to Miller’s Angels – stark, haunting, beautiful.

the-red-hill-600-webJohn Hiatt

This song, Have a Little Faith in Me, has nothing to do with The Red Hill, other than I listen to John Hiatt all the time. It isn’t my favourite song of his (that’s another guitar blow-out, but I’ll spare you), but it is his best known and most covered. John Hiatt it the best unknown singer-songwriter in the world. No, don’t disagree – he is. He just is. And again, listen to the words and bow down to the man…

I first saw John Hiatt at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 90s and at the end of a three-hour show that blew my socks off he said something that sums up exactly how I feel about writing: ‘Hey, thanks y’all for coming. If you weren’t here we’d still be playing this stuff, but we’d be doing it in our garage.’

Also try Cry Love. I’ve included this because Immy from Counting Crows is on mandolin (plus it’s brilliant).

David Penny is the author of four science fiction novels and several short stories published during the 1970s. Near-starvation led him down the slippery slope of work, which distracted him from his true calling. He has now returned to writing and The Red Hill, a Moorish mystery thriller, is out July 13 2014. He is currently working on two new books: the follow up to The Red Hill, and a thriller set in the world of industrial espionage. You can find out more about David and his writing at his website and you can connect on twitter @davidpenny_

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