There might be cooler things in the world than a band you really like, writing brand-new songs based on your novels. But at the moment, I can’t imagine what. Here’s Tuatha Dea premiering their original song, “The Hum and the Shiver.”
There might be cooler things in the world than a band you really like, writing brand-new songs based on your novels. But at the moment, I can’t imagine what. Here’s Tuatha Dea premiering their original song, “The Hum and the Shiver.”
Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”
What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.
Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)
My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.
A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.
Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.
The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.
It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.
What musicals about musicians would you add?
Here’s a little treat…or is it a trick?…from us to you. Hope you enjoy!
“On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” –Hunter S. Thompson
When I was a teenager–and I suspect this is true for most people reading this–music was incredibly important to me. I didn’t play an instrument, but I had strong opinions and preferences, and I would listen to records (yep, I’m that old) with the kind of attentiveness that would probably be diagnosed as ADD today. I absorbed the trivia found in Rolling Stone magazine, kept up with the charts and eagerly awaited the next release by the artists I followed.
I also insisted upon the sanctity of the music experience. By that I mean that if I was listening to something, whether it was the Bee Gees or Lynyrd Skynyrd, I would get irate–sometimes vehemently so–when interrupted. My parents (neither of whom I recall as having a favorite song, unless it was a hymn) never understood that. But music was crucial to me; it certainly gave me hope and meaning when nothing else did.
Now, the Bible says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Or, more appropriately, in “Two Hearts,” Bruce Springsteen says:
To become a man and grow up to dream again
So the question becomes: is making the act of listening a priority one of those “childish ways,” a “childish dream?”
I say, no. Hell, no.
I am on this soapbox (made of old record crates from Peaches Music and Video) to insist on the importance of listening to music. We live in a crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven world, and the only way that’s going to change is for people to pay attention, really pay attention, to things that aren’t crass, obvious and entirely profit-driven. Sure, there’s lots of crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven music out there; but there’s also good stuff, real stuff, that deserves our attention. Music can help us escape, but it can also be a way to confront the very real problems we encounter. The right song at the right moment can change the course of your life.
Someone coined the term “rock blocked” for when your listening is interrupted by something tedious and mundane, usually at the point where you’re in the middle of that air guitar solo or lip-synching to the most emotional part of the lyrics. It happens to everyone, and it certainly happens more when you’re an adult, because most other adults assume that, unless you’re in the music business, listening can’t be that important. But that’s wrong.
So stand up for your right to listen. Carve out that space for music, because you never know when it could be one of those songs, one of those moments that changes your life. Don’t let yourself get rock-blocked!
Last week, stuck for ideas for upcoming blog posts, I put out the call for questions from fans. I got this one from poet Eileen Sullivan:
“In what ways do you think you nurtured your creativity as a child, wittingly or not? What remains of that life in your and your work? And in what ways do you seek to encourage and nurture creativity in your kids? How does this link with that open mind of play and childhood inform your writing and life today?”
Thanks, Eileen. I love simple questions.
I grew up in a town of 300 people, 200 of whom were related to me. That limits your dating options, if nothing else (or it certainly should). The street we lived on was finally paved when I was in junior high school. When I turned fourteen, some kids up the street burned down the school, which in hindsight was the death knell for a town that had literally nothing else going for it. So it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of the arts.
As a kid in this town who wore glasses (the big, thick plastic kind that were all the rage in the Seventies), liked to read, saw no particular reason to kill small animals and (lest I slight the importance of this) liked to read, I never really fit in with the good ol’ boy culture around me. But I was always, for lack of a better term, “creative.” I loved to draw. I loved listening to music (learning to play was never a real option). And for some inexplicable reason, reading led me to attempt writing.
Was I nurtured in this? Technically yes, I suppose. I wasn’t actively discouraged, at least. But there was nothing like the communities you can find online now, so I worked in isolation, encouraged by a couple of teachers and benignly tolerated by my family. I have no idea why I felt so driven to create, and to this day the origin of it confuses me as much as it did my parents. But I did get one thing out of it that’s stuck with me to this day: I’m self-motivated. I don’t need encouragement, although it’s certainly appreciated. But either way, I’ll write.
Now that I’m a father, particularly of boys, I’m aware of the danger of both not encouraging them, and over-encouraging. As I said above, I used to love to draw, and can still sketch a mean T-Rex. But I had a relative who, when she saw my interest, took it upon herself to turn me into an “artist.” What actually happened was that she killed any fun I’d gotten from art, and made it so that I never wanted to draw again.
So I’m very careful not to impose my desires on the boys. My oldest takes martial arts and theatrical acting classes; my youngest likes to build his own elaborate Lego spaceships. When they ask for my help, I try to do it in a way that lets them learn how to help themselves next time.
I suppose I am still tapped into that childhood well of creativity. Then again, who says creativity is a child-like quality? Our culture thinks of it that way, but I look at it as a job: I punch an unofficial clock every day, and management expects me to be creative. So I have to bring my “A” game, except it’s not a game. As John Ford said, it’s a job of work.
Hope that answers your question, Eileen. Thanks for asking!
“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion.
The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.
And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:
Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:
“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk
And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
So stayed on the floor
All day long
Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:
This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:
“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:
She is also, like me, the parent of two small boys. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on balancing an artistic career with the demands of parenthood.
When I was a little girl, I had dreams of becoming many things when I grew up. One of them was becoming a concert pianist: I would be on stage, dressed in all sorts of beautiful dresses, playing the piano for thousands of people.
I started playing the piano in real life when I was five years old and became quite good at a young age. It was my release into a secret world all my own. But the words of my mother throughout my teenage years always came to mind. “How are you going to be a concert pianist and a wife and mother? You won’t, so I think you should think of something else to do.”
But here I am in my thirties, married with two young children at home, and I am living my dream. And not only have I released three successful albums, but I’ve been able to perform onstage in beautiful dresses for thousands of people, walk the red carpet in Hollywood, and win some pretty neat accolades. And through it all, I still take my kids to the park, make them sandwiches for lunch, love them and tuck them into bed at night.
I sometimes look at other professional musician moms and wonder how they do it and keep it all together (because it seems they do a much better job than I do), and then I realize that they are just as human as I am and I feel much better. I have come to accept the fact that I don’t have to be good at every little thing. There was a time when I thought I had to be the perfect pianist, the perfect housewife, as well as the supermom who handcrafted activities every day and made perfect cookies, all the while getting in my hours of practice time, while looking amazing.
I would get so down on myself for not being all of these things! And then a very wise friend told me, “You can be a great mom, and you can be a great musician, but you can’t be great at both 100% of the time.”
She was right.
A more accurate depiction of my life would be that on some days, I am a really excellent mom. I take my kids to the park, we go on picnics, play games, engage in meaningful conversations and are extremely happy. My four-year-old will be up to speed on his alphabet and numbers, and my two-year-old will get lots of snuggles and books read to him. But I probably didn’t do an ounce of music on that day.
On other days, I will get my practicing in, emails done, projects started or mapped out, and my kids probably got to watch way too many movies on Netflix while I tried to get a good solid block of time to compose and orchestrate. I will get caught up on some music projects, be on my computer editing quite a lot, or at the piano. And on days like that, I would say I was probably not the best mom. But I got a lot of music done.
How do I do it?
Well, I have learned to excel at the things I am good at, and not stress over the things at which I’m not perfect.
I have learned to accept that it takes me longer to write music and finish projects now than it did before I had children – and I’m okay with that.
I have learned I can be a good example of hard work to my children, and I try to include them in my practice time and in my concerts as much as I can.
I have learned methods and ways to do things that work for our family. For example, I can practice and compose with my children around (sometimes even sitting at the piano bench with me), but I can’t record or orchestrate with them there (they tend to push buttons they shouldn’t). So my husband and I have formulated our schedules to accommodate uninterrupted “music time” for me each week. I have also learned that sometimes I may need to lose sleep in order to fit in that music time.
I have learned not take on too many projects where my family will suffer, and so I am much more choosy.
I am always making adjustments and learning as I go and yes, there are days when I feel I may go crazy, but this I do know: Music careers come and go, but my family is constant and I always try to put them first priority in my life. And I would say I am a better musician because of them, not in spite of them.
Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her thoughts with us. Be sure and check out her music at her website.
Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.
Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.
You can watch the trailer:
and additional clips can be found here.
Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.
This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.
Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).
How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?
The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.
So far, there are three honorary Tufas.
The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.
Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.
He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title. You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.
And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”
So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.
It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.
My playlist is a little different. This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.
For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:
For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:
For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:
Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:
And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:
(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)
Any suggestions for some of my other books?