The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is memoirist Ricky Monahan Brown @ricky_ballboy
Soundtrack by the Lumineers, LCD Soundsystem, Nick Cave, Stereolab, Primal Scream, Mercury Rev, Ennio Morricone, Simple Minds, Edwyn Collins
Towards the end of my memoir, Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival, I mention the psychology writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond and something she calls the Reminiscence Bump.
It’s why we remember the experiences of our formative years so vividly. That’s when we experience so many things for the first time… The details around them reinforce the formation of our identity. It’s the reason your favourite album came out when you were seventeen.
1991 was a good year. But, my current identity was also forged by the massive haemorrhagic stroke I suffered in 2012, a couple of days after losing my job. So, it makes sense to me that songs from the period are interwoven into that story.
An early chapter of Stroke is called Classy Girl, for my partner Beth. The Lumineers’ song Classy Girls could tell some sort of version of our meeting in a dive bar in Brooklyn, and it was the perfect length for Beth to listen to on her twice-daily walks from our apartment to visit me in the hospital. It conveys hundreds of words’ worth of information and insight into the story of Stroke and its characters and its physical setting.
I like that the song is an Easter egg for pop music fanatics. Another Lumineers song – Dead Sea – always transports me back to those days when that heroic and brave and funny woman dragged me back from the edge of death. It condenses the emotion poured into Stroke and reduces me to tears, every time.
Stroke is a story of the love between Beth and me, and also our love for New York City. Something of LCD Soundsystem’s New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down permeates my memoir. For a decade and a bit, I loved that city and it gave me so much in return. But eventually – with more than a little help from me – it broke me down. NYI©YBYBMD demonstrates how music acts on my work these days: by osmosis rather than direct inspiration. It’s a 5:35 epic that sounds like ten minutes, and the barman at that dive bar let me add it to their jukebox as a value-for-money bonus track. I’ve heard it a lot.
The story of Stroke made its first appearance in a kind of short-form rock opera (or long-form concept single) I wrote and performed with my bandmates Paul and Stephanie in our weird little transatlantic band, Nerd Bait (find them on Twitter @NerdBaitBand). Condensing extracts of an early draft of the book into a short collection of songs helped me drill down on the story I wanted to tell. And, to prove that the musical-literary muse travels in both directions, The Treacherous Brain track Yes, Ricky lifts liberally from John Donne. Paul’s also written music to accompany some of my short stories.
I think that my love of pop music contributed to my long, slow journey to becoming a writer. My listening always had a literary bent, whether the Gothic storytelling of Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat or Stereolab’s motorik rendition of Baudelaire’s Enivrez-vous. Maybe something of those sorts of songs is why my recent short fiction has appeared in places like Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling from Scotland and the Hauntings issue of the horror zine Blood Bath.
As a teenager, I would say that I couldn’t read or write as effectively without music on. Now, I can’t write with music on. Instead, the music I listen to seeps into me and then out onto the page. This is certainly the case with three projects that I’m currently working on.
I’m completing a short story collection tentatively entitled Little Apples. The common thread running through those stories is something that I heard David Constantine and Jenny Niven give name to in an Edinburgh event for his short story collection, The Dressing-Up Box: Angry Hopefulism. I’m finding that listening to Primal Scream’s album XTRMNTR, and particularly the Jagz Kooner mix of Swastika Eyes, is a more enjoyable way to find that mindset than rewinding the Six O’Clock News.
I’ve now begun work on Unnatural Strife, a novel about Highlanders fighting on the British side in the American War of Independence, and a screenplay called Nova that I think of as Mad Max meets Once Upon A Time In The West in the Scottish Highlands of the early nineteenth century. Something about Mercury Rev’s album Deserter’s Songs (particularly the song Holes) gets me into the right frame of mind for Unnatural Strife. Ennio Morricone’s The Grand Massacre from Once Upon A Time In The West sets the scene for the Nova, soundtracking as it does a story of property rights and the evil men will do to lay their hands on them. The vast title track of Simple Minds’ Street Fighting Years album helps unlock the scale of the story and the forces and the landscape I’m addressing in it.
I think of the music that informs my writing as a tool to help me try to create the kind of emotion that the best popular music can convey. A couple of years before my stroke, in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I saw Edwyn Collins play an intimate venue in Brooklyn, touring his album Losing Sleep. Losing Sleep was the first album he had written and recorded after suffering his own cerebral haemorrhage.
Edwyn was accompanied to the mic by his wife, Grace, and his between-song banter betrayed the remnants of the aphasia that had originally left him able only to repeat four phrases, over and over again: Yes, No, Grace Maxwell and The possibilities are endless.
But his reliance on a silver-topped cane seemed to me an act of defiance, a promise that the young dandy who had founded the Glaswegian band Orange Juice and the legendary Postcard Records persisted. It was an incredible night.
the physicality of the band’s inspired mix of post-punk and northern soul compelled me to join the politely flailing mass of limbs, and before I knew it I was dancing like a maniac and sobbing uncontrollably.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to survive my stroke with my expressive abilities intact, and it’s been a privilege to tell a story that I hope might help people who have suffered strokes, their loved ones, and maybe ever some other people who have experienced difficult times. If anyone can find in it a fraction of the inspiration that Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell seeded in me that evening, my entire writing career will have been a success.
Ricky Monahan Brown’s memoir Stroke: A 5% chance of survival is published by Sandstone Press and was one of The Scotsman’s Scottish Books of 2019. He is the producer and co-founder of the irregular, multiple-award-winning night of spoken word and musical entertainment, INTERROBANG?! (who you can find on Twitter @InterrobangEdin ). He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and their son. Stroke is available from all good bookshops and from Sandstone Press – and readers of this column can get 10% off Ricky’s memoir by using the code SOUNDTRACK10 at the checkout. You can find Ricky in all the usual places: his blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and with his band Nerd Bait (@NerdBaitBand) on Soundcloud.