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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’s post is by novelist and Talking Writing columnist David Biddle @dcbiddle
My novel, Beyond the Will of God, is about many things: murder; rural Missouri in the heart of the summer; odd conspiracy theories; altered states of consciousness; and the realities of telepathy. Most importantly, though, this book is about the power of music and its connection to creativity, and what ultimately lies beyond death.
The story begins as a murder mystery, but very early on the reader is confronted with the realization that there may be a sort of magic to music that we don’t understand — rock ’n’ roll music in particular. Understanding that magic is the real mystery of the book.
The idea came to me when I was 17 and had just discovered the sorcery of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar work. The first time I heard his masterpiece, 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be), I became convinced that Hendrix had discovered a way to channel and tune human thought to a unified vibration. The title for my novel comes from a phrase in this song.
I wouldn’t start writing, though, for another 15 years. New Year’s Day 1990, I was listening to a radio special on Elvis Presley’s early career. Strains of acoustic guitar started up. A voice-over told us That’s Alright Mama was Elvis’s first hit. As I listened to The King of rock ’n’ roll, I saw a bar full of hard-drinking young people in rural Missouri listening to his first hit song, and an Amish boy sneaking in the back. I began to write. That work became the scene that is now in the middle of chapter one, ending with two characters lost in dark farm country hearing strange guitar music on the wind.
I knew the story was a mystery-thriller, but it would also be about the power of sonic vibration of all kinds. The untimely deaths of so many great musicians and personalities in the 20th century would become the center of the plot I was concocting.
Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are connected to all the sound in our lives. One song I kept coming back to that helped me meld the CIA with the hippie search for ‘higher consciousness’ was The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. Even today, almost 50 years after it was recorded, the use of tape loops, sitar, non-standard rhythm, and Lennon’s lyrics can crack open the most stodgy artist’s mind.
Over time, as I wrote, I listened endlessly to music by artists who, like Jimi and Elvis, had all died before their time – Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Croce, etc. Blues legend Robert Johnson’s story of selling his soul to the devil is where the black magic of rock ’n’ roll got its start. He died at the age of 27. In the classic Come On In My Kitchen he is haunting and mystical. Johnson has an important part to play in Beyond the Will of God.
Ideas of immortality
In the spring of 1997, I read about a singer and musician I’d never heard of before named Jeff Buckley. He’d just drowned in a channel of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. As I read, it became obvious Buckley was important to my story. His highly regarded album, Grace, was a smorgasbord of new music inspiration. Last Goodbye is my favorite song, but the title track, Grace, speaks directly to the ethos of Beyond the Will of God. It is dark, swooning, and ponders the idea of immortality. The first draft would be completed shortly after discovering Buckley.
But I wouldn’t have been able to edit and re-write my first draft it if I hadn’t found the rather esoteric album, Sushilove Sessions, by the world beat-improvisational jazz combo Global Illage. There are no easily accessible renditions of Sushilove Sessions online, but check out this recent recording by two of the group’s musicians, talented drummer, Jim Hamilton, and guitarist extraordinaire, Tim Motzer. Here they are, recorded in the spring of 2013, improvising the composition As Real As Life.
I listened to Global Illage non-stop every night for 23 days doing the final re-write of Beyond the Will of God. It went from 450 pages down to 350. Sex, drugs, (metaphysics), and rock ’n’ roll all wrapped up in a murder mystery.
Along with his novel Beyond the Will of God, David Biddle has published two collections of short stories: Trying to Care (2011) and Implosions of America (2012). He has been writing professionally for over 30 years, publishing articles and essays in the likes of Harvard Business Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, In Business, Huffington Post, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He writes the ‘Talking Indie’ column at the online magazine Talking Writing. You can track him down at http://davidbiddle.net. Tweet to him as @dcbiddle
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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 musician, playwright, performer and award-winning novelist Nathan Singer @nathansinger1
My music and my fiction are often so inextricably linked there is very little separating the two. The music that I write for my bands is fairly ‘literary’ I suppose … and sometimes I just rip off my own novels for lyrics (gotta do whatcha gotta, and so on). Each of my novels corresponds to a different musical genre: A Prayer for Dawn is a thrash novel, In The Light of You is a punk novel etc. As such I often write — and occasionally record — my own soundtracks for my books to get a sense of tone first and foremost. Today I will be talking through the sounds that inspired/created/were created by my blues novel Chasing the Wolf, my only novel to date whose original soundtrack album was officially released, originally as part of a special limited edition of the book, but now for all to have on its own. So here is the (free) full soundtrack album that I wrote and recorded to accompany Chasing the Wolf called On Through the Night. It’s best to listen along while you’re reading the book.
Beyond my own original music, though, many masters of the form make direct (and indirect) cameos within the novel, and their music was playing constantly throughout the writing of the book. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Part One – Midnight Creepin’
The song quote that starts Part One is from a song by Rev. Robert Wilkins called That’s No Way to Get Along. It captures the deep well of the main character’s sorrow (as does the Blind Willie song below), and it’s also foreshadowing of what’s to come in the story.
The plot of Chasing the Wolf, in a nutshell, is this; a young white artist named Eli Cooper is living in NYC in the early 2000s with his beautiful African American wife Jessie. Jessie is a dancer. They are an ultra-hip couple. All is going just swell, until Jessie is killed in a tragic backstage accident. Overcome with grief, Eli attempts to commit suicide. He runs off into the night in a bind frenzy, passes out in Central Park … and wakes up in Mississippi 1938. Cue Dark Was The Night, by Blind Willie Johnson.
Once Eli accepts that he is not dreaming, he sets out through the dark of the night to try and make sense of what has happened.
Part Two – Dry Long So
Eli muses that one of his favorite blues legends Robert Johnson would by murdered at a juke house soon. He ponders how cool it would be to go witness it when he realizes that a mysterious young black man he had met some time ago back in NYC was actually the one and only (and long deceased) Howlin’ Wolf (the ‘Wolf’ of the title). He decides he needs to find Howlin’ Wolf in order to get back home. What Eli does not yet know, however, is that both he and Howlin’ Wolf are being followed by group of men in fancy, pinstriped suits that are likely not men at all. They are the hellhounds on your trail that Robert Johnson sang about. (Robert Johnson makes a brief but important cameo in the novel as well, but Eli never meets him.)
(Here I am channeling Robert to the best of my abilities at Morgan Freeman’s blues club Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi.)
Part Three – In Devilment
Even though Skip James only gets a passing mention in this novel, his music informed the entire vibe of the novel and I played him constantly during the writing. His music is just so sinister and otherworldly, it provided the perfect ambiance.
In his search for The Wolf, Eli takes up lodging at a boarding house near West Point, Mississippi. To his shock he discovers a beautiful young widow working there named Ella Brown. Ella Brown looks, talks, and by all appearances is his late wife Jessie, even though she doesn’t know Eli at all, and is a bit frightened of him (much to his heartbreak).
Unbeknownst to Eli, Ella and another maid from the boarding house slip out of the house to a juke joint one night to see Howlin’ Wolf. After the show Wolf comes up to Ella and says, desperately:
You gots to tell him come find me, Miss Jessie.
Ella has no idea who ‘Jessie’ is. Out behind the juke house, Ella catches Wolf ‘killing’ a white man (actually one of the hellhounds).
When I’m upset, blood leaks from my head. When I’m over the edge my gums bust open and my nose bleeds and my eyes get little red polka dots on them.
You’ll have to read the novel to find out why.
Part Five – Lonely One in this Town
Eventually Eli catches up to Wolf. For a moment Eli thinks he sees a way out of his situation and con maybe even get Jessie to come with him. But, as Mr LeRoy Carr says in How Long Blues, the train seems to be gone. Here I am reading/ performing the scene – enjoy!
Nathan Singer is a novelist, playwright, composer, and experimental performing artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novels published by Bleak House Books A Prayer for Dawn, Chasing the Wolf, In the Light of You and the forthcoming sequel to A Prayer for Dawn, Blackchurch Furnace. He is also the lead vocalist, lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the bands Starshaker and The Whiskey Shambles. He is currently at work on two new plays, an opera, and three albums of original music, plus probably some other stuff. His website is here, connect with him on Facebook, or Twitter @nathansinger1.
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- 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 2011-2021. 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'