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Under the Influence of: Music
A Few Notes on Musical Notes
This is going to be a hot mess, but I’ll start small.
For the first twenty years of my writing life, readers always asked, “What music did you listen to when you wrote this?”
And what strikes me is that I always had an answer. Each of my books—at least the first dozen or so—was written while listening to a single song. I’d play just one song endlessly, to recreate a consistent mood for the book, each time I’d work on it. And in hearing a song tens of thousands of times, I’d no longer hear the lyrics as language. The words would break down, the way the words of a mantra break down with repetition. You see, I come from the world of record albums, and taping a couple pennies to the tone arm so the stylus dug into the album grooves and gave you a “deeper” sound, and douche-y friends would remove each album from its sleeve and ceremonially wipe it with an anti-static pad, and only touch the edges of the album. So to hear a song over and over you’d need to lift and move the needle …
Andy Warhol got around that pretentious audiophile bullshit. In the Jean Stein autobiography of Edith Sedgwick, Edie, there’s an account of Warhol painting as he plays a 45 rpm single of the 1962 pop song I Saw Linda Yesterday. By all accounts, Warhol played the record endlessly for months to put himself into a trance. The needle eventually ruined the vinyl, and he’d buy another copy. With a 45 single you could leave the record changing arm lifted and the record would play endlessly.1
In my lifetime I’ve bought the same music on albums, 8-Tracks, cassettes, and CDs—and with CDs and their “repeat” function, I could finally listen to Radiohead’s Creep the ten million times needed to write a book. In that case, Choke. Fight Club was written to NIN. Invisible Monsters was written to Burt Bacharach. Writing—especially a first draft—can be a lonely slog, and anything that makes it more of a party will help.2
Consider also that people will be reading your work in less-than-perfect situations: noisy airports, loud buses, prisons. And your words will have to complete against the world. If you can’t listen to one song on repeat and get work done, how will your reader read with similar distractions? And by writing with at least one pounding song3 present, you’ll keep your stuff simple and understandable.
It’s not lost on me that I’ve done this my entire life: play the same song endlessly. It’s how I met my editor, by playing Young Americans by David Bowie until everyone else fled the scene. And yeah, I can hear The Look of Love looping for the rest of my life,4 but it drives everyone away, giving me the isolation and concentration I need to get my work done—while also comforting me and entrancing me into the exact, consistent mood of the book or story I’m revisiting. So that’s the music part of my method.
And then there was punk …
The first time my baby-pinned, glue-mohawked, freak friends played the Flying Lizards doing Money, I was changed forever. After seeing comedians mug for laughs and actors swanning around for love, it was amazing to see performers who didn’t seem to give a shit.5 The flattened emotional affect of punk and New Wave removed all the scheming vulnerability from music and writing. There was less trying-too-hard falseness. I felt the same way when Monica Drake read her fiction in Tom’s workshop. She didn’t play for laughs. Things just happened in her work, and we found it funny. Monica was never the wannabe stand-up comic who used a funny voice and expressions, and then waited for a laugh. She forged ahead, constantly, in the expressionless recording angel that allowed us to find plot events funny. Her listeners were allowed to decide what was funny or tragic.
There was a do-it-yourself vibe to culture then. You could see yourself and your friends making this music6 or writing books such as Jesus’ Son. Your success didn’t depend on getting a laugh or a muted sob, and that lack of attachment allowed us the freedom to create things … which eventually got emotional reactions.
Back then, the culture seemed like it was created to be destroyed. A good short story wouldn’t have a life longer than a radio song or a newspaper article. Everything was disposable. Even our deepest emotions. And this lack of emotional investment allowed us to accidentally arrive at emotional truths we could never have dared or planned to explore.
It’s that lack of pandering to the reader that attracts me to the Minimalist writers like Amy Hempel and Mark Richard. In so many ways the entire style of Minimalism seems akin to the flat, unpolished sound of punk and New Wave.7 The looser, voicey style of Minimalism, with its lack of abstracts and “received text” clichés, and its rough phrasing called “Burnt Tongue,” resonated with the raw garage-band sound my friends and I loved.
Billy Idol once remarked that punk music sounded the same because songs started at full throttle, ran for two minutes, and dropped off a cliff. And for decades that was my ideal for a short story or scene: start in midstream, get it done, end abruptly.
The central tenet of Minimalism was: don’t sound writerly. And punk wasn’t trying to sound musical. Instead, it sounded raw. It sounded real.
The Age of Ballads
I’ve mentioned this so I won’t repeat myself too much here. During my childhood, rock music merged with folk and even country music to drown us in ballads. From The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia to Angie Baby to Taxi to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and American Pie and Hotel California, you couldn’t listen to AM radio8 without hearing a story sung aloud. Music and storytelling were synonymous for a decade.
Going to Chaos …
When I read the story Romance aloud, and I come to the part near the end: “… life goes around and life goes around and life goes around …,” my goal is to repeat that phrase for as long as I possibly can,9 changing the emphasis on the words with each go-round. In doing so, I’m being Bill Withers as he sings, “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know …” in his hit Ain’t No Sunshine. Midway through the song, when he hits that repeating phrase, it’s glorious.
The repeating effect mimics the dreaded “skipping” of a record, when the needle (stylus to my audiophile douche friends) keeps bumping at one spot in a groove and repeats the same word or phrase. As record listeners we panicked at that effect—it meant our album was ruined—and it automatically creates tension in my generation.10
The longer I write, the more I’m convinced that the point of writing is to punish language. To break words. And in music, no song seems complete unless it devolves into non-words. Whether it’s the yodeling of Jan & Dean or the yelping of James Brown or the rebel yelling of Billy Idol. Or the moans of Donna Summer.11 With that in mind, my goal is to reach a point where the meaning of language is suspended. It’s in the story Zombies, when the “lady voice of the white paging telephone” sings opera to a packed airport. It’s the random repetition of the word “dad” in the short story Dad All Over, a device I based on the drum machine ubiquitous to ’80s pop music.
Lyrics are already a distortion of language—we don’t talk they way we sing—so why not push that distortion to breakdown.12 Unless a story goes to chaos at some point, it feels too controlled. Too false.
Also, consider that of the three types of writing—descriptive, invective, expressive—going to chaos allows you to use the onomatopoeia of expressive language. We seldom get the chance to use abstract, expressive language, and going to chaos gives us that opportunity.
In short, break the language. Go to chaos.
Then there were music videos …
In the spirit of full disclosure, I was in a music video. It was shot for the MTV Basement Tapes in 1985, when I was twenty-three. And yes, I’m naked in the meatlocker. If you’re ever going to shoot a naked anything, do it when you’re twenty-three.
As opposed to the “Great American Novel,” no one ever set out to create the “Great American Music Video.” There was a wonderful freedom in that. Here was the great garbage art form. At the time music critics hated videos because the visuals might corrupt a listener’s more personal experience of the song. The video would impose a narrative on something that had been only auditory up to that point.
Nonetheless, here was the short-storytelling method for a generation. My friends and I would sit around for hours just watching the videos on MTV, smoking clove cigarettes and drinking beer. It was fun to write while watching, to write garbage that I knew no one would ever read. No one was trying to make high art. Here were just people my own age expressing themselves. It was kinetic. Things moved. Images changed constantly.
Why couldn’t a book be just as shrill and loud … just as quickly cut as a music video? It’s while watching ’80s videos that I wrote Invisible Monsters. And with that, I no longer hated to write. Writing wasn’t the lonely garret bullshit I was trying to make it. My friends would say funny, insightful stuff. Music would blare. And I could still write. And afterward I never felt as if I’d wasted an afternoon or evening alone. There was something fantastic and stupid about the mood. The videos got us buzzed. It was liberating, and that comes through in the books I wrote on those nights with friends.14
Stories written as songs …
As I’ve mentioned, songs are a distortion of language. So why couldn’t a short story be structured like a song. Not a ballad—but even a ballad is interrupted and paced by choruses. But like a song with verses, choruses, and a bridge?
The original short story Fight Club, which became chapter six in the novel, I wrote as a song. I wanted the ability to jump around (like in a music video) but not lose the reader as I flashed from the past to the present, from setting to setting, from little voice to big voice. So I just invented seven rules to use like the chorus of a song. Then I created the verses: how the fight club started, who you meet there, the context for the story, what fight club means to the narrator. And I used the rules as touchstones to signal each “jump” to a new image or message.
Like the sorbet served between courses in a dinner, the rules became a ritual. Once a reader had read them one time, the reader could anticipate them. The reader learned them through repetition, and the reader could “sing along,” the way people will join in on the chorus of a song in concert.
Likewise, in the story Guts, I had three anecdotes. Each demonstrated an escalating precedent: how masturbation can go wrong. So why not structure them like a song? Plus I could insert a “bridge verse” about the history of auto-erotic asphyxiation to ground the dramatized scenes in some forensic authority. The call-backs, such as “One minute you’re just a kid getting off, and the next minute you’ll never be a lawyer,” act as the lines that get a laugh and cut the tension when needed. These choruses refer to events the reader is already privy to, so the reader has become an insider. An effect like learning to sing along to the chorus of a song.
To cite another example, the short story The Toad Prince uses this same structure. But it uses escalating examples of body modification to slowly deliver the reader to the ultimate incredible monster reveal. The call backs such as “Hickey Mouse” keep the past present and cut the tension as the “sorbet” that signals the switch to a new subject.
In a different way, the run-on stories such as The Facts of Life and Loser are experiments in how to sustain a story the way a beat sustains the lyrics and energy of a song. In Facts of Life I decided to use “only if, only when, only there, only then, only now” as the conjunctions that would carry the story/song forward relentlessly. They are the “beat” of the story/song.
Which brings us to …
The Big Stuff: Melody vs. Lyrics
Ideas are easy. You can get ten great ideas in a day. The guy who insists, “You should write my story. I have this great story,” he’s proof of how easy ideas come.
The tough part is: How do you get into the story? What’s your way in? What’s the voice, the only voice that can tell this story? In film this seems to be called the “execution.” As Clark Gregg told me about optioning Choke, everyone warned him the project would be very, very “execution dependent.” How you told the story would be crucial.15 For example, if I pitched you a story about clubs where strangers could go to beat each other by mutual consent, you’d pass.
But once you find the “way in,” the storytelling is effortless. The “voice” will create its own rules and make all your aesthetic choices for you.
Consider that plot is your lyrics … but melody is your voice, or “way in.” The beat of the melody will dictate every word. The melody will dictate all the transitions between topics. The melody is all the meme-y devices or choruses that keep the backstory present in the next moments of a story. It’s all the consistently “burnt” phrases the narrator uses. From “I am Jack’s white knuckles,” to “Worried isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind,” to “Give me hyper-intellectualizing as a coping mechanism. Flash.”
Maybe this is why good songs start as a melody to which lyrics are affixed? Once you stumble upon a good voice, it seems to dictate the story to you, organically. If you’re faithful to the voice, the story will come naturally and effortlessly.
This is why first-person and second-person have an advantage. They can exercise a greater voice because they represent a narrator with her own tics and prejudices. With third-person, you’re somewhat stuck with some standardized voice. The plot is forced to carry the entire story. To me, such plot-driven stories seem a little dead.16
Melody = voice = way into a story = how you’ll distort language for this specific story. It makes or breaks the best ideas. Ultimately, voice (melody) will determine how the story/song goes to chaos.
Now, in the spirit of going to chaos, one last song.
If this made any sense at all, please …
Pity my parents. As a twelve-year-old, the first single I bought was Doctor’s Orders, and I played that record until it was dust. When I saw the song used in the opening sequence of The Last Days of Disco, it only made me crush harder on Kate Beckinsale. Amy Hempel once wrote that true, true love feels like the moment when all the Ronettes come in together at the end of Be My Baby. And that’s how I feel about Doctor’s Orders. Illness = love. Death = true love. Another echo of EC Comics.
Except for marijuana. Smoking kills my language skills. And booze isn’t much better. Music works better than either.
At this moment I’ve got Carol Douglas wailing in my earbuds.
Dusty Springfield, sigh. This still seems like the essence of adulthood to me. The sax solo kills me.
They appeared not to care whether or not I loved them, so of course I loved them.
The concept of “art-school band” hit big with MTV and music videos. According to the history I Want My MTV, the ’80s were the decade of one-hit wonders, because with videos a band only needed to look good and have one good song. The old process through which a band toured and built a following and learned their craft … it went out the door. Now good-looking bands with a catchy single could hit big on television, but that gave them no time to build a body of work.
By this I mean the less slick, older punk/New Wave. Darby Crash. The Germs. Black Flag.
During my adolescence FM-band radio stations came into being. It was a seismic event for us. But AM was our go-to for pop music.
My record is about three minutes.
A side note. Back in the AM radio days, the disk jockey would put on a long single when he or she had to leave the broadcast booth and use the toilet. If you heard Don McClean’s American Pie or the Moody Blues’s Nights in White Satin, you knew the DJ was taking a shit. On an otherwise-forgotten afternoon, I was in a car with my siblings, driving down some 1976 two-lane desert highway when the radio began to sing, “… with a voice like Ella’s, with a voice like Ella’s, with a voice like Ella’s …” It was Stevie Wonder’s song Sir Duke. We howled with laughter for miles, amazed at how long the record continued to skip. The DJ must’ve had food poisoning, and everyone within a couple hundred miles knew the booth was empty as the song skipped and skipped. To add to this wonderful mistake, as nice poor white trash, we all thought the lyrics were, “with a voice like Alice ringing out …” To this day, we can say, “With a voice like Alice ringing out,” and make each other laugh like we laughed as teenagers that day.
And that’s seventeen minutes you’ll never get back.
"You know, you’re a real ‘up’ person.” Music history.
My friends always raked me over the coals about wanting to be a writer. I’d be scribbling as we sat around, and they thought it was a somewhat pathetic pipe dream. Once I had Trent Reznor’s number in my phone, they finally thought the writing thing was kinda cool.
To my mind, this beats the other dread phrase, “This project is very marketing-dependent,” which means the idea is crap that needs heavy market support.
Okay, they seem really dead. When I pick up a good story told with a banal voice, I never finish the book.