Posts Tagged Lou Reed

The Undercover Soundtrack – GD Harper

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 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.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper suspense thriller ScotlandBut 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.

Reinvention

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.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper noir music writingAs 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.

Narcotic life

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.

Final cover designAs 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.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Meg Carter

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 Women In Journalism advocate and debut novelist Meg Carter @MegCarter

Soundtrack by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins, Elvis Costello, REM, Madonna, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Patti Smith

I grew up in a house full of music – classical music. An only child, I was discouraged from playing pop music at home by my parents who were a little older and a bit more conservative than others.

Instead, I spent countless rainy weekend afternoons lying on the sofa in my father’s study imagining film visualisations of LP tracks from Walton’s Façade or Holst’s The Planets. With eyes tightly shut, music shaped my characters, plot and place.

The Undercover Soundtrack Meg Carter 1Until with the arrival of teenage-dom, a pair of headphones, and some new friends, the role of music in my life changed.

Suddenly, music was social currency. Almost overnight, which band you liked or disliked and which non-chart acts you rated (the more obscure, the better) mattered. It defined who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ and also who we wanted to be: lover, survivor, rebel.

How earnestly we’d make each other audio tapes, too. I found one just a few years back in a drawer when we last moved house: a home recording of Freaky Styley (an early Red Hot Chili Peppers album: pre-mainstream success, of course) gifted to me by a classmate’s older brother.

And I kept thinking of this as I began work on my first novel.

The Lies We Tell is a psychological thriller about former school friends Kat and Jude. Set in the present and the late 1980s, past sequences build towards the last time the two girls saw each other: on a school trip when Jude was attacked by a stranger and Kat ran away.

This basic idea is one I’d had for some time. But for a while that was all – no who, where, when or why? Yet I knew the relationship between them would would define what happened next. Hungry for inspiration, for a creative spark, I began to replay old LPs that I’d not listened to in years.

Inside the sleeve of one I found a clutch of A4 sheets on which an old school friend had written out for me every lyric from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album… in long hand. She and I were once close then drifted apart. Yet I was intrigued by the fact I still felt deeply touched by her gesture, and grateful. I decided then that Kat and Jude had to be drawn together and – to begin with, at least – be defined by music. It just felt right.

Past and present

How best to interweave and differentiate the now and then stories in The Lies We Tell was an immediate challenge.

The Undercover Soundtrack Meg Carter 2

The musical references helped me establish time and place. But as important was its role in understanding context and mindset; music also provided me with a short cut to excavate the tangled web of teenage friendship. For example, Kat would rather listen to Elvis Costello or some early REM rather than chart hits like Phil Collins’s Groovy Kind of Love – as she proudly tells Jude on their first meeting. And when she visits Kat’s home, Jude greets her collection of early Pretenders, Bowie, and Lou Reed with a nod of approval. Musical taste is a badge of honour, a powerful means of self-differentiation and a declaration of independence, too.

As important as the role of music in the girls’ teenage years is its lack of importance in Kat’s present.

On inveigling her way way into her one-time friend’s home more than two decades later, Jude notes much of the music collection belongs not to Kat but her partner, Michael – with the exception being a collection of Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.

Without hesitation, she selects Madonna’s Like A Prayer – a track she closely associates with a buried secret that once unearthed would change both girls’ lives, forever.

lies_we_tell_final_cropShadow of the past

The dulling of Kat’s musical interest is a reflection of the shadow cast by her past. But it is a pattern played out widely in real life too. Like many, I’ve found as careers and family move centre stage, the joy of discovering new music has been replaced by something else – a nostalgia and a craving to rediscover old favourites that transport us back to a younger, simpler life.

Kat, then, would rather not look back. Jude, however, cannot stop as for years she has navigated life’s challenges with a grim determination fuelled by an acid sense of injustice.

The intensity of Jude’s grievance is encapsulated by her misquoting of Patti Smith’s Babelogue – the spoken poem off the 1978 album Easter, which reverberates with biblical reference and death and resurrection imagery. Jude’s mis-appropriation of Smith’s meaning demonstrates the extent to which her life has become derailed.

I didn’t hear Babelogue until I was at university in the early 1980s at which point, having only encountered Smith through her UK chart hit Because the Night, I found it as shocking as it is haunting. It’s still an inspiration today.

Meg Carter worked as a journalist for 20 years before turning her hand to fiction. Her features have appeared in many newspapers, magazines and online with contributions to titles including You magazine, Independent, Guardian, Financial Times, and Radio Times. She is on the advisory committee of Women in Journalism. Meg recently relocated from west London to Bath, where she now lives with her husband and teenage son. The Lies We Tell is her first novel and is published by Canelo. You can find out more about her at  http://www.megcarter.com and on Twitter @MegCarter.

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The Undercover Soundtrack: Sarah Yaw

for logo‘Music as a space to make sense of life’

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’s post is by award-winning author Sarah Yaw @SarahYawWrites

Soundtrack by Alexis Zoumbas, Lou Reed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you’ve ever spent time with kids, you know that they play out whatever event has dominated their recent life. They need the space to do this, to find peace after a new experience. This is how they register and assign meaning to the things they encounter. This is how they create the map of what they know and how they learn to respond to new events in more sophisticated ways. They have context and reference for what occurs. And when life throws them a curve, they play it out and add that curve to their map. In the event of a, b and c, d can also occur. It soothes them. Life becomes known and thus less threatening. Watching my children play recently, I thought how stories and music do this for me. They give me a place to work through experiences so that I can make sense of my own life. Stories and music, in other words, are my play.

YawGet to the heart

In the mountains of northern Greece, there is a religious festival held each year. People attend the festival to cleanse themselves of mourning and rejoice in the fact that they are still alive. This is literal. The person seeking healing will sit in the middle of the sound. The music is played at them. It’s a vibrational experience as well as a melodic one, they say. The music, its vibrations and its intensity, can get into places that words can’t. It helps wash the person free of sadness and loss. Then the music shifts to joy. It becomes a celebration of the life that remains. Follow this link and scroll down to listen to Alexis Zoumbas play Epirotiko Mirologi and you’ll understand how this music gets to the heart.

When I was a very little girl, it was my habit to fall asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to my father play music. He toured the world with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and his own band The Everyman Band, among others. Here he is playing bass on Lou Reed’s 1975 Coney Island Baby. My parents divorced soon after this. I had no words then to work out my grief; I was too young for the kind of play I watched my children doing recently, but I had all that music, and in that way that music can, it got into me, into my places that needed soothing.

Very internal

What I love about music is that it touches everyone who can hear it and while it is an individual experience—the mourner in Greece is on her knees, wiping out something very internal, very personal—all who surround her are connected by the sound and the experience. There was constant live music in both my parents’ homes when I was growing up. Someone was singing or picking up an instrument and filling my space with vibration. When I was old enough, I chose the clarinet and became Woody Herman’s youngest fan (and the world’s biggest dork). The clarinet is a reed instrument. Controlling the vibration to make pleasing sounds was how I spent my youth. I was an only child. Done alone, play was not as fulfilling as music; music was heard by others, shared and, therefore, not lonely. I excelled as a musician because it was my birthright and because it was all I had. I wasn’t a reader. I rehearsed music for hours on end. It cleaned out my head. It calmed me. I went to it the way a swimmer goes to water, the way a yogi is called to asana, the way a runner seeks a path. Then, I developed tendonitis; I couldn’t play.

In college, the instructor of my women writers course said: ‘You can take an exam or you can write in the voice of one of the authors we read this semester’. It was the word ‘voice’ that caught my ear. Voice is musical. I may not have been much of a reader or have been all that good at spelling and punctuation, but I understood sound. So I wrote what I heard and this relief came over me. There was all this blocked up teenage, young-adult stuff that had built up since losing music—my sense of belonging, my value, was I lovable? —that I hadn’t been able to move and it started to move and I had once again found the relief of music. And this idea of voice was why. The sound of words, rhythm, dynamic, all of this mimicked the irresistible tension and release of music. The narrative gave me a place where I could explore paths, work through what it meant to be me.

Silence

In You Are Free To Go, my first novel, I wrote about a prison. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d chosen to write about a musicless place. Right before I started writing the book, my marriage to a musician had ended and so did the music. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by silence. I wrote about a prisoner who was mourning the loss of his friend; I wrote about a town where people wall themselves off from one another; I wrote a narrative with one moment of music: The characters are in a bar, coming together, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird is playing. What else? I can’t know the deep forces that drive us to our subjects, but still I have never been alone like I was when I began writing this book, nor as sad.

YouAreFreetoGo-webA friend of mine recently organised the first musical performance in decades in the prison that inspired You Are Free To Go. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performers and said, ‘I haven’t heard live music in twenty-eight years’. My friend, who had just read how the Nazis brought the prisoners their instruments each day so they could perform for each other, said: ‘I think we can do a little better than the Nazis’.

In You Are Free To Go, a condemned man’s death affects countless lives at all strata of society. Yet, none of the story’s characters, in the prison or outside the walls, are given the relief that music could provide to help connect them to each other, soothe their grief, and help them contemplate the ubiquitous desire to understand how we belong in a world that is fundamentally unknowable. And in retrospect, that makes sense. Writing this story, the music was gone from my life when I needed it most. What I had was this book, the joy of writing it, so I used it to make sense of all that silence around me.

Sarah Yaw’s novel (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College. She fell asleep in rehearsal spaces listening to the music of Lou Reed, Don Cherry, and the Everyman Band. She lives in Central New York. Her website is here and you can find her on Twitter @SarahYawWrites

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‘Music: a space to make sense of life’ – Sarah Yaw

for logoMy first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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