I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.
I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.
But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.
I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.
The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.
For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.
For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.
But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post.
First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.
Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.
Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.
But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.
I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.
What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?
Over the weekend, I’ve been playing with Garageband and iMovie; getting reacquainted with them after more than a decade. (I blogged about some of my “early works” here and here.) Here are a few things I put together as tests to learn the new features.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen this first one, but it’s actually the one I’m proudest of:
This next one was probably the easiest of the three. The graphic is a rejected cover design for my first book–it was the only cyberpunk-y graphic I had handy.
And finally, this track is meant to have a Twilight Zone feel to it. In truth, I put it together just because I felt like I needed to have three projects. Just two would seem weak.
I’m particularly interested in what you think of the music. I have basically nothing in the way of musical knowledge or training, so I’m very eager to hear any feedback people have in that regard.
I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate,
I have thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
From starting as a dark horse, I’ve become the odds-on favorite
Saying I will build a wall and then force Mexico to pay for it.
And though Establishment Republicans think I am despicable
Ev’ry charge they level at me has proved totally unstickable.
And even though I’ve said disgusting things about my progeny—
And made so many statements that are dripping with misogyny–
By thwarting ev’ry action that the GOP has planned to date,
I’ve proved myself the model of a charismatic candidate.
My “Apprenticeship” in showbiz has undoubtedly done well for me–
I am so telegenic, all the major networks fell for me.
My domineering manner plays so well when I’m debating folks
It doesn’t even matter that I sometimes tell degrading jokes.
Believe me, folks, I’m so very, very big-league entertaining
That I have no need coherent policies to be maintaining.
I’ll be so much like Reagan, it will make your head spin, I insist–
Heads will spin so much it will all be like the film The Exorcist.
Since I’ve thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate.
In fact, when I know whether Judges “sign” on “bills” or not—
When I’ve decided what to do with all the immigrants we’ve got–
When I’ve some idea what is and isn’t Constitutional–
When I’ve proved my economic plans are not delusional—
When I have shown I will not always act impulsively–
When I behave towards women just a little less repulsively–
In short, when I have turned into my very living opposite–
You’ll say a better candidate has never run for office yet!
Though all my civic knowledge is just stuff I learned in real estate,
I am sure a brand-new wall will make our location really great.
And since a country is the only thing I’ve yet to brand to date,
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate!
‘To ev’rybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two/ I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute-and I do!/ But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can/ Yet ev’rybody says I am a disagreeable man/ And I can’t think why!’–W.S. Gilbert. King Gama’s Song in Princess Ida, Act I.
Andrew Crowther recently wrote a great piece in The Guardian, examining the oft-leveled charge that Gilbert was quite sexist. Crowther’s opinion is more or less mine, which is: yes, Gilbert was sexist, but his female characters weren’t just caricatures–there is more nuance to them than critics realize.
One thing to note is that I don’t get the sense Gilbert was any more sexist than the society he lived in was. (Contrast with the subject of my previous post–H.P.Lovecraft was an extreme racist even by the standards of his time.)
That doesn’t excuse Gilbert, of course, but it makes it more understandable why he thought the way he did. Moreover, I have never gotten the sense that Gilbert hated women. He didn’t see them as equal to men, but that’s different than flat-out misogyny.
The best way of addressing the issue of the unpleasant old spinster characters that feature in many of the Savoy operas is to play the men as shallow cads. This isn’t that hard to do. Frankly, I don’t think Gilbert liked romantic tenors any more than he liked spinster ladies. Want to make Ruth in Pirates sympathetic? It’s not too much of a stretch to play Frederic as a shallow imbecile–the entire plot hinges on him being one anyway.
Also, I’ve never thought Princess Ida was just a satire on women’s education–Gilbert pokes fun at it, sure (he was a satirist, after all) but he also mocks men as being dumb, brutish oafs.
None of this is to say Gilbert is innocent of sexism, but just that the plays must be understood in the context of their time, and sexism unfortunately comes with the territory.
Should the plays be re-written to be less offensive? There is precedent for that, as the “N word” was removed from both The Mikado and Princess Ida. But it was an easy re-write, as it occurred only in passing in a couple of songs. The sexism is a harder task, since it involves whole characters. I agree with Crowther: reinterpretation is the best solution here.
Like all great writers, Gilbert wrote about human nature, and I believe that his wit was so sharp, and his insight so keen, that he sometimes unconsciously saw through the prejudices of his day to essential truths. Take this song from Princess Ida:
Is it mocking prototypes of the so-called “man-hating feminist”, or is it mocking anti-feminist men–“pick-up artists”, who try to cloak their misogyny but nonetheless think of women only as sexual objects? It’s a little of both, I think. It works perfectly well as either.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden/ I was in love, but in vain I could tell
The old “you love her, she doesn’t love you” problem, eh? Yeah, that’s no fun. So far, a good, solid tragic tale of unrequited love. But then, our narrator relates, one night a guy comes in and starts flirting and drinking with Faleena. So how does our tortured love-lorn hero handle this?
So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden/ Down went his hand for the gun that he wore/ My challenge was answered–in less than a heartbeat/ the handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor
Wait… so he killed the guy who, for all he knew, might well have been Faleena’s actual lover or husband? “Challenging his right” when he himself had none? That seems… borderline psychotic. Ok, so it’s a crime of passion and he says he regrets it but still, it’s a bit extreme.
Having done this “foul, evil deed”, our “hero” skips town and flees to New Mexico, only to decide he can’t stand to live without Faleena, and so he rides back. (This takes Robbins about as long to sing as it took you to read it–the song has some pacing issues here, and you’re left with the impression he rode away and then immediately turned around and rode back.)
When he returns to El Paso, the citizens are waiting for him and they shoot him as he rides back into town. It’s unclear what length of time he’s been gone, but apparently they recognize him instantly from hundreds of yards away and are waiting to kill him.
Finally, as he lies dying, he sees Faleena, who kisses him as he dies in her arms. (Some have suggested this is just his imagination, which would indeed be the only possible way this makes any sense. Why would she kiss the man who apparently killed her boyfriend?)
It’s a testament to how pleasant the music, and Robbins’s voice, make this song sound that it’s such a hit. Lyrically, it’s not a love song at all, but rather a song narrated by a psychopath.
In my previous post, I wrote something that I’d like to enlarge on a bit. I mentioned how the alleged Bob Dylan conspiracy required a bunch of people to be involved in a conspiracy that would not come to fruition until long after they were dead. I realized this might be a good rule of thumb for determining how likely a conspiracy is to be true: “are the alleged conspirators going to be around to reap the success of their conspiracy?”
In a lot of these Illuminati/Freemasons/CIA/Assorted Other Shadowy Group conspiracy theories, there is at least a strong insinuation, if it is not outright stated, that it is all part of some centuries-old plot. And that has always struck me as really unlikely because it requires these conspirators to not only know which actions will have which consequences centuries later, but also care enough about how it develops after they’re dead.
Most real conspiracies (here are some) are conspiracies that generate immediate results for the conspirators. They’re not doing it to achieve some long-run goal decades later. And while I’m not saying that all conspirators care only about themselves–ideologues of any type will often justify whatever they are doing by saying “it’s for future generations”–I am saying that it’s one measure of assessing a theory’s plausibility. There needs to be something in it for the conspirators, not just for future generations of conspirators.
Conspiracy theories like the Dylan one, which are supposedly about making money, strike me as especially unlikely, since people generally have a preference to have money sooner rather than later, and especially have a preference to have money before they are dead rather than after. This is one of the finer points of decision theory.
Contrary to what many of you may think, I do not listen only to Gilbert and Sullivan. I occasionally listen to musical artists whose works were written as recently as this millennium, if you can imagine that. One of my favorites is the late Warren Zevon. He was not a very nice person, to put it mildly, as I discovered from reading his ex-wife Crystal’s biography of him, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. But he wrote some great songs–here is a list of my ten favorites.
“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“. (1978, with David Lindell) This tale mixes two of my favorite subjects: mercenaries and ghosts, and is coupled to a well-crafted narrative of war and betrayal. The opening notes give me chills every time I hear them. It was fitting that it was the last song Zevon performed publicly, during his final appearance on the David Letterman show–I think it is his greatest.
“Mohammed’s Radio“. (1976) I go back and forth on whether I prefer the studio version or the live version that appeared on Stand in the Fire. The former has better lyrics, but the latter has better energy. Either one is brilliant, however.
“Transverse City“. (1989, with Stefan Arngrim) This song is also the title of Zevon’s most unjustly neglected album. For the life of me, I don’t know why people didn’t like it. (Maybe the horrible cover art?) In any case this song is a very unsettling journey through a cyberpunk landscape.
“Mr. Bad Example” (1991, with Jorge Calderon) Again, this was also an album title, and this song was definitely the standout (though it’s a very fine album). An amusing saga of outrageous misdeeds that probably didn’t seem quite so outrageous to the late Mr. Zevon himself.
“Ourselves to Know“. (2000) This haunting song will creep into my mind at the oddest times. I am not a religious person, but I do find the Crusades imagery the lyrics evoke to be curiously powerful. Zevon at his most reflective.
“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)“. (2002, with Mitch Albom) I played hockey as a kid–not very well, though. Like the enforcer hero of this song, I “wasn’t that good with a puck”. It’s one of the few inspirational sports stories I don’t find tedious.
“Turbulence“. (1989) Another one from Transverse City. I love his topical political songs, and this one also contains some very nice Russian singing.
“The Envoy“. (1982) Note that this is the title track of what is by far Zevon’s worst album. There are only about four songs that are not awful on it, and this is the only one that is really “good’. I half suspect he made the whole album just to get this gem published.
“Bad Karma“. (1987) This is a great song for when you are feeling down. It won’t make you feel better exactly, but it will kind of make you laugh.
“My Ride’s Here“. (2002, with Paul Muldoon) It sums up Zevon’s body of work perfectly; capturing both his witty, humorous side and his melancholy gloominess. I suspect you don’t get the full effect of it unless you are pretty familiar with his other stuff going in.