Sunday, August 06, 2006

On Music

The first record I ever bought was “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. EMI. Plain white cover. Off-white label. I think this gives me a certain credibility. Even at the age of nine, I knew what I liked.

Mind you, the first single that was ever bought for me, quite possibly at my own request, was “Two Little Boys” by Rolf Harris. I’d like to stress that I rarely listened to it and found it cheesy and emotionally manipulative, just like Shirley Temple movies or bad renditions of “Old Shep” (actually, all renditions of “Old Shep”). I’d like to stress that, but I can’t. I seem to recall that I rather loved “Two Little Boys”, and when the chorus came in that second time, after one former little boy has rescued the other former little boy from the battlefield, well, that was a choker. I’m feeling a little weepy just writing about it.

I bought books before I bought music, but I listened to music long before I read books. Music and books were my first loves, and my affection for both remains undimmed. True, there has been the odd falling out over the years. I was forced to read Francis McManus’s dreadful Men Withering while in school in Ireland and it put me off books for a good three months. (Even the title makes your heart sink. Men Withering: it sounds like some form of sexual dysfunction. “Sorry, doc, got a touch of the old ‘man withering’. You couldn’t sort me out with some of those little blue pills, could you, and maybe a subscription to Granada Men & Motors?”) I still haven’t listened to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica the whole way through, and every time it crops up on one of those 100 Greatest Albums Ever polls I feel like I’ve failed a test. I have similar problems with nu-metal, although that’s excusable on the grounds that it’s rubbish.

Nevertheless, music and books have been my near-constant companions through life, so that when I came to write my books it probably wasn’t too surprising that music would find a way into them too. After all, the central character in most of my novels, the private detective Charlie Parker, isn’t far off my own age, and it seemed natural that he should share my tastes in music, just as he shares my views on most other matters.

In fact, the very first page of my very first book, Every Dead Thing, contains a musical reference. Parker is listening to the radio as he drives, and recognises a tune as “early REM, something about shoulders and rain”. The song is “Perfect Circle” from the album Murmur, a title that is particularly apt as the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible throughout. Even Michael Stipe’s fellow band mates confessed that they didn’t know what he was singing about most of the time. With this in mind, it’s not surprising
that Parker mishears the words. (According to various lyric web sites, the shoulders are actually high in a “room”, not in the “rain”. Not that it makes any difference, frankly.)

I’m not unusual in using music in my books, especially as a crime writer. Pick a modern crime novel written by any male between 30 and 70 and I suspect you’ll find musical references of one sort or another, some of them admittedly a little more hackneyed than others. Personally, I always feel my hackles start to rise when a detective spends a lot of time listening to the blues. Nobody spends a lot of time listening to the blues, except perhaps blues musicians, and to be fair that’s because they have to play it. It’s depressing, and if you listen to more than a couple of songs in a row it all starts to sound the same. Don’t get me wrong, it has it’s place, but using it in crime fiction as some kind of signifier is the equivalent of buying a black dog and calling it Blackie. Jazz can be a bit problematical for the same reason: its evocation of noir can seem just a little too contrived. John Harvey tends to handle it well, though, as does Michael Connelly. Handled badly, the use of jazz in crime fiction leaves the reader feeling like he’s trapped in a Woody Allen pastiche, and we’re talking late-period, unfunny Woody, not funny, Sleeper-era Woody.

Classical music, meanwhile, brings with it a whole new set of problems. Take Inspector Morse, for example. Classical music became an integral part of the Morse experience, particularly when the novels were adapted for television. Unfortunately, it was pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the kind of music Classic FM plays in the early afternoon when it doesn’t want to frighten the elderly. The music contributed to the creation of a comfort zone: it was familiar, a bit sad, and you could hum along to the best bits. Morse was right up there with crumpets and The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time as a quintessentially English experience, nicely done but almost entirely without an edge. The music also reflected the emasculation of Morse. In Dexter’s early novels, he’s a seedy, vaguely dislikable character, prone to losing himself in pornography and not above noticing the shortness of the odd schoolgirl’s dress. By the time Morse died, he was like everyone’s favourite bachelor uncle: a bit of a curmudgeon, fond of a beer, but still likely to slip you a tenner at Christmas and on birthdays. He was Morse-lite, backed by classical-lite.

Popular music arguably provides more fertile ground. George P. Pelecanos, one of the finest modern chroniclers of American urban life, soundtracks his novels with classic soul, funk, even Ennio Morricone themes, the latter reflecting his later novels’ links with the western, the genre that was itself the precursor of modern crime fiction. After all, is there really much distance between Shane, the lone gunman who arrives in a small farming community and rights its wrongs for no reason other than the fact that it is intolerable for him to turn his back on them, and Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer who says “I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter.”? Arguably, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest marks the most obvious point at which the two traditions merge, and it’s no coincidence that his short, bloody novel of rival gangs being played against each other should have inspired a gangster version (Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing) and a western (Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars) as well as a samurai interpretation (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).

But we digress. The point is that the music in Pelecanos’s books is a reflection both of his own inner life and the inner life of his characters, the society in which they live, and arguably the roots of the genre itself. It’s there for a purpose, and is an integral part of his work.

Music, too, infuses the work of Britain’s most popular crime writer, Ian Rankin, starting with the titles themselves and their nods to The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Cure (The Hanging Garden) and even Antipodean nearly-made-its The Mutton Birds (The Falls). Titling books after familiar songs is an easy way to signal a particular type of reader. Someone who gets the reference is perhaps more likely to pick up the book than a potential reader who does not. It’s a way to make the book stand out on the shelf, as well as giving an indication of an author’s personal tastes. Again, if those tastes match the reader’s own then another connection has been made.

Needless to say, this works better if the author’s tastes have a certain kudos. There is an element of showing off when male writers make references to music, a display of their perceived credibility. There are sound reasons why no male author has yet seen fit to name a book after, say, a Michael Bolton b-side, or a Kajagoogoo song. There is also the question of aptness: the decision by the hard-boiled Newcastle-born crime author Martyn Waites to name his most recent novel The Mercy Seat after Aussie gloomster Nick Cave’s tale of execution by electrocution is unlikely to raise expectations among muso readers that the book fails to fulfil.

Women, on the other hand, are less snobbish about the use of music as signposts in book titles, leading to books named after old disco hits and Abba songs, even if the references often don’t extend beyond the cover. The songs chosen, though, do say something about both the age of the author and the potential market that the book is aimed at. After all, the title of a novel named after a 70’s disco hit is perhaps less likely to resonate with a 20 year old girl than a book named after a Pink song. Similarly, Rankin’s Cure reference gives an instant clue as to both his own age and the age of those at whom the title is aimed.

But what is it about crime writers, particularly male crime writers, and their fascination with music? When Rankin set about putting together this year’s BBC Radio Four series Music To Die For, an exploration of the links between crime fiction and music, he had real difficulty finding women to contribute. They simply did not appropriate music for their books in the same way that their as their male peers.

Young men, I think, use music to define themselves in a way that young women do not, or at least not to the same degree. Music becomes a pointer towards fashion, a central topic of conversation, a way in which one can judge oneself against others. A certain type of man - and I may well be one of them - will allow that fascination to continue into adult life. (That type is pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones who, when they first arrive in your house, head straight for your record collection and begin dividing it into piles of the acceptable and unacceptable, quietly tut-tutting along the way at more shocking errors of musical taste.)

Also, we have now entered an era where large quantities of music are easily transportable for the first time. Most of these writers are also products of a generation for whom that music is available in greater quantities than ever before, and is accessible with greater ease. We have moved from unwieldy vinyl to tiny boxes capable of storing 10,000 songs. We are not longer at the mercy of DJs, or tied to the record player in the corner. From the Walkman to the iPod, we have reached a stage where we can virtually soundtrack our own lives. If we can do that for ourselves, then it’s hardly surprising that it should filter into the lives of the characters in our books too.

But why does crime fiction provide a natural home for these musical references? Well, crime fiction has always had a fascination with what G.K. Chesterton referred to as the poetry of urban life. It is closely linked to the workings of the society that it chooses to explore, from the mechanisms of law and order to the petty crooks on the streets. It has an acute awareness of changes in culture, and uses them to give its novels a sense of raw immediacy. Crime fiction cherry-picks from film, music, television and politics. More than any other type of genre fiction, it engages with the reality of the world around it in all of its messy glory.

Yet the songs chosen, the music used, can sometimes have a far deeper link to the action of the book than merely acting as a lure for readers or a means of mutual congratulation on shared good taste. Music, selected and used carefully, can deepen one’s understanding of a character, a scene, a dilemma.

In my third novel, The Killing Kind, Parker faces the choice that most private detectives face at some point in a crime novel: whether to turn his back on a case and leave an injustice uncorrected, or to take it on and risk having violence and emotional trauma visited upon him. While he debates this question, he puts a CD into the player in his kitchen. The album is Wrong-Eyed Jesus by Jim White, and the song that begins to play is called “Still Waters”. The lyric that Parker hears as he works through his problem goes like this: “Well don’t you know there’s projects for the dead and there are projects for the living/ But sometimes I must confess I get confused by that distinction.”

It’s Parker’s dilemma in a nutshell, yet the song simply plays in the background. At no point does Parker acknowledge its aptness, or imply that it affects the choice that he makes. That’s for the reader to pick up on.

The difficulty in using songs lies in giving the reader a sense of the auditory in a literary context. Put simply, how can you let someone hear a specific song when they’re reading a book? The answer, and it’s often an expensive one, is to use lyrics, for the use of which the songwriter will normally demand payment. Another solution, also expensive, was the one I used for The Black Angel. I put together a selection of songs that were important to the Parker novels and gave the CD away with the book and at signings. Artists like The Walkabouts, Lambchop and The Blue Nile allowed me to use their music, and I hope the compilation gave readers got a chance to experience the books, and the songs that influenced them, in a new way. Strange to say, though, I think I got more pleasure from hearing someone say “You know, I’ve just discovered The Triffids/ The Go-Betweens/ Red House Painters because of your CD” than I did from hearing that they liked the book.

And, sad fan boy that I am, Kate Bush was on that CD too, which brings us full circle.

But at least it wasn’t Rolf Harris.

This week John read

The Ruins by Scott Smith

and listened to

The Weed Tree by Espers
Folk Off! (compilation)


Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...


You have turned me on to some wonderful music over the years.
The Drive By Truckers are amazing.
And I love the one Notwist CD

Tzanerman said...

Before I write anything else I must say that my book tastes make me buy fantasy books more often than any other genre, from sci-fi to heroic fantasy, from horror to dark fantasy.
Reading your latest blog, I realised that books labeled as Science Fiction, or Fantasy, are mostly devoid of music. Or, to be fair, offer a description of music listened to by the characters. Some of them do, at least...
Thing is, I've just now discovered a sense of loss, that I didn't know I had. In your books the characters acquire another dimension through the addition of music, which you don't see often in non-contemporary genre fiction. Non-contemporary as to the period/area/world the book is set, anyway...
My two bits.

ultra_violet said...

Hi John,

I have your soundtrack to thank for turning me on to Americana music in general. What a fabulous compilation. Jim White is awesome too.

Not sure if you own them already, but below are a few albums I’ve recently heard and absolutely recommend:

Six Organs of Admittance - School of the Flower
Circulatory System - S/T
The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely

Jayne said...

Thanks for another interesting column, John. I love "Wuthering Heights". It wasn't the first record that I bought, but it's one I've always loved listening to, and only Kate Bush could have made it sound so hauntingly beautiful.

You've inspired me to dig it out and play it again. I think I'll re-read Emily Bronte's masterpiece too. Heck, I might even go running across the wild Yorkshire moors, with the wind in my hair, pretending that I'm Catherine Earnshaw.

lucifuge616 said...

sorry to be a bit of a know it all, but Rankin's 'Hanging Garden' was named after a Cure song, not Banshees...sorry, I'm bored, picky and I've a taste for old Goth well as Kate Bush, admittedly...

John said...

You're so right! I feel humiliated now. I hate getting stuff like that wrong . . .

John said...

In fact, so ashamed was I that I immediately corrected the references, but I have let these comments stand as a testament to my carelessness. . .

Tim said...

Well, I have to admit it...I got interested in trying Ian Rankin because of the titles of two of his books, Black and Blue and Let It Bleed--both titles of Stones' songs.

It was all but a written invitation to me! Yes, shallow, but they did catch my eye.

Anyway, it got me to read his books and I love them.

OpinionatedMadam said...

John, I'm having difficulty with you being 9 when Wuthering Heights came out in '78. Are you still short of 40 then? I thought you'd pushed that barrel a year or so ago?

I don't even remember my exact first purchase, but I do remember taking "How Can I Be Sure?" (David Cassidy - sad aren't I?) to a friend's party and never seeing it again.

No one's ever highlighted Cassidy in a crime fiction novel as far as I know. And before you say it, I will - "Do you blame them?"

OpinionatedMadam said...

And please don't take offense, I didn't mean to imply you looked older. It's maturity that matters and is what is noticeable on this occasion. I just got the thought that you were the other side of ...

John said...

Me, 40? Not yet. You're hurt my feeling.

John said...

Me, 40? Not yet. You've hurt my feeling.

shaun belcher said...

Just discovered your books through Independent article apologies for discovering so late but will track them down now - especially the one with a Jim White referrence. I run a americana podcast and play a bit myself :-) Also teetering on edge of writing a novel see below.
First page of trailer star novel / screenplay am posting it on film blog at film part of myspace and at blogger page :-)

all best the late great Trailer :-)

Anonymous said...

You ought to read Men Withering again as an adult. It might not be everyon'es cup of tea, but it can not reasonably be called 'dreadful' - while the action is slow, the writing is quite good with peaks to gorgeous.