‘An anxious, urgent sound: the music of chance’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland @JimVermin
Soundtrack by Jay Reatard, The Lost Sounds, Dillinger Four, The Stitches, AA Bondy, Kurt Vile, Mind Spiders
For a book with such an upbeat title, Forest of Fortune was drenched in despair.
The first draft was written in a frenzy. The novel has three points of view. I’d work on a scene, get a character into trouble I didn’t know how to get out of, and move on to the next character. By the time I made it back to that first character, I’d have thought of a solution and start the process over again.
The novel is set in an Indian casino. At the time, I worked in an Indian casino. If the first draft has a soundtrack, it’s the chiming of the slot machines, calling out to be played, jangling their jackpots, paying out their plunder.
The music a slot machine makes when no one is playing it is called an attract sequence. It’s an anxious, urgent sound. The music of chance. That’s what the novel felt like: a machine that promised big rewards if I just stayed in the chair.
I don’t remember much about those days, but then the calendar flipped and I wish I could forget the days that followed.
Music to grieve to
When I lost a close friend to a drug overdose, I mourned his passing by listening to the dark, violent punk rock music we loved.
My first choice was Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions, an album as disturbing as the title implies. My friend’s name was JJ and we had seen Jay Reatard together and the aggressive, menacing songs matched my anger over losing my friend.
That led me back to The Lost Sounds, Jay Reatard’s former band. Their self-titled record is filled with songs like I Get Nervous. Frantic guitars, wailing keyboards, droning feedback. It’s music to get lost to, which is what I did with the help of a steady supply of vodka and cocaine. I succumbed to the seduction of lostness.
When the anger passed and the sadness moved in I turned to Dillinger Four’s Civil War, the saddest punk rock record I’ve ever heard. The songs are suffused with melancholy that I drank up like the cheap vodka I drank on the long drive to and from the Indian reservation every day.
I tried to write about the record but after repeated listens, a little beer and a lot of blow, I wasn’t sure I knew what a record review was anymore. Civil War made me intensely sad, and that sadness made me feel close to JJ. I never wanted that feeling to go away.
A better way
One of JJ’s favorite songs was Better Off Dead by the Stitches. They played the song at his benefit show about a month after he passed away. It’s one of the last things I remember about that weekend. The rest is lost to a blackout.
When I came to, I knew I was done with the drinking and the drugs. I asked for help and I got it. I got sober and stayed sober.
Eventually, I returned to the novel. One of the characters in Forest of Fortune is a Caucasian copywriter with a severe drug and alcohol problem. Suddenly, his behavior didn’t seem so mysterious anymore. I could see his problems so clearly.
The revision process was slow, deliberately so. Jay Reatard released a new album called Watch Me Fall. It was softer, slower and poppier than his previous album. I didn’t really like it but it liked me. It got its hooks into me and its melodies pulled me along.
Then the calendar flipped and tragedy struck again. This time it was Jay Reatard who overdosed. Another life senselessly lost. I went back to his music, but I didn’t let it derail me. I stayed on the sunny side of the street.
I sought and found solace in nurturing my novel along to completion. Without realizing it I found myself listening to music that was more soothing than shocking. A swampy mix of AA Bondy’s lush guitars on Believers and Kurt Vile’s wry but barely there vocals on Smoke Ring for my Halo.
It was music I could listen to over and over again as the final pieces of my novel fell into place.
I had changed a great deal since I’d invented the characters that inhabit Forest of Fortune’s haunted casino. Part of me wanted to take them on a journey that would turn their lives around – just as I had – but their fates were already sealed.
I quit the casino not long after I sold the book. I didn’t sell it for a lot of money, but finishing the book and knowing it was going to be published gave me an immense feeling of freedom. Freedom to quit a job I didn’t like. Freedom to try new things. Freedom to live.
When it came time to choose a song for the book trailer, I asked Mark Ryan of Mind Spiders to come up with something. He wrote a song that captures in 90 seconds what it takes me 300 pages to accomplish, a spooky shriek and mournful lamentation for my autobiographical ghost story.
Jim Ruland is the author of the novel, Forest of Fortune, the short story collection Big Lonesome and is currently collaborating with Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF!, on his memoir My Damage, which will be published in the fall of 2016. Jim is the books columnist for San Diego CityBeat and his column, The Floating Library, appears every three weeks. He also writes for the Los Angeles Times and Razorcake – America’s only non-profit independent music zine. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Believer, Esquire, Granta, Hobart and Oxford American, and his work has received awards from Canteen, Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. He runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year. Tweet him as @JimVermin and find his website here.