#writing #music: #TheWho

A rare gift comes to the writer when the story and its mixed tape of music ka-chunk and transform. No longer is the music merely the writer’s atmosphere, her source of ambience while storytelling. Oh no. The music is the heroine. The music is the villain. The music is the tension. The music is the scene.

Quadrophenia_(album)This happened to me during 2010’s National Novel Writing Month when I first began drafting Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. At the time I was only using instrumental music for storytelling, while  music like The Who’s Quadrophenia helped me survive the piles of grading in my dropbox. The month had barely started, so I was early in the story of Charlotte and her sister leaving their abusive family in the Dakotas for Wisconsin. Their coach bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Another peculiar bus appears with far-too-friendly good Samaritans, and despite Charlotte’s suspicions, she gets on, too.

And….now what?

I tried magical feathers. I tried mysterious goo in the axles. How could I get Charlotte and her sister to the Wall if I can’t make this frickin’ Samaritan trap–I mean, bus–have a plausible reason (for humans, anyway) to break down near the farmland by the Wall? I shoved the story aside and opened up a batch of essays. In the midst of telling the umpteenth student to please remember her thesis statement in the introduction, The Who’s “The Real Me” came on…

…and I saw it.

I saw the scene. I saw it all, frame by frame like a movie trailer. I knew what had to happen:  utilize the shapeshifters’ gifts,  the song to feel Charlotte’s fear race like a heartbeat.

For this song, I realized, embodies Charlotte.

The percussion, guitar, and style of singing are defiant to the point of raging. The song demands anyone, everyone, to look past the surface and see the pain, confusion, and ambition to be.  

In this snippet of the story, though, it is Charlotte who does the seeing. Only she sees the bus driver’s inhumane ability, and realizes they’re all trapped. I could feel all this when I first drafted the scene with the song on repeat in 2010.

Eight years later, little’s changed.

~*~ From Fallen Princeborn: Stolen ~*~

Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETINGCharlotte bites back the snark and hides in her headphones again. She starts “The Real
Me,” thinking, The bus SMELLS old and gross, but nothing FEELS old and gross. Give me two seconds and I’d be out cold, it’s so damn comfortable.…

At least food has settled Anna down. Now she’s content to walk that quarter from Uncle Mattie up and down the fingers of her right hand. Then flips to her left. The quarter continues its deliberate tumble from pinky to ring to middle to forefinger to thumb and back again. Up and down. Then down and up.
Like practicing scales on a piano, observes Charlotte.
“Nice moves.” Studchin’s face betrays a lack of skills with a napkin.
“Thanks. My uncle taught me.”
Charlotte does a quick passenger check: Potential Homicidal Maniac sits as far from Anna as possible. Twitchy is de-threading his own coat. Mumbles starts singing “Lizzy likes locked things.” The Sweenils argue over who won that Waters Meet Bingo tournament. Mr. Smith sings too softly for her to hear.

Black feathers fly across their window. Violet flashes, a cackle rumbles.
Charlotte spins ’round and stares at the back of the bus.
Jamie is gone.
“Where is he?”
Anna bats those damn glitter-lashes at Studchin one more time before asking, “Who?” Slurp.
“The crazy acne boy with the bags. Where is he?”
Anna opens another cake. “Probably bathroom. Why, wanna ask for his number?”
“What’s this about numbers?” Studchin’s breath reeks of mouse turds and sugar. “Cuz I’ve got one, if you want it.” |Charlotte’s chest burns beneath the pendant. It’s burning like hell, she’s going to pass out— “Can you see the real me, can ya? Can ya?”
What the—? Who the—? Who has the audacity to sing a Who song OVER The Who? Charlotte swivels around in her seat, trying to locate the source. Not Studchin, he wouldn’t know good music if a chorus of show girls sang it from a Jacuzzi of custard. Not his bandmates and, thank god, not Mumbles. Potential Homicidal Maniac? Nope. Dead silent, head still.
It’s Mr. Smith, singing right along with Roger. But how can he hear what she’s listening to on her headphones, from that far up front? Charlotte shakes her head and stares at the back of Burly Man’s head. He stares right back at her from the rearview mirror. Not even the Sweenils notice him singing. No one but Charlotte, always Charlotte.
“Charlie?” Slu-urp. “What’s going on?”
“Shut it.”
“Char—”
“Can you see, can you see the real me?”
“SHUT IT.” To Anna or to Mr. Smith—Charlotte doesn’t care. Get away from my music, my head, my sister. Get away.
Ash-wind pulls on Charlotte’s nose. Black, green, black, green, black: the raven’s circling again. Get AWAY!
“Can you see the real me, Preacher?”
“I mean it, where is that Jamie guy?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. Why do you care?”
“Dude, what is up with your sister?” Studchin to Anna.
“Can you see the real me, Doctor?”
Ash chokes, feathers fly, song deafens, eyes glitter— “Can you see the
real me, Mother?”
Charlotte sees Mr. Smith’s fingers drum along in perfect sync with the song.
And he stares right back. His teeth are painted, ablaze in his smile.
“Can you see the real me me me me me me?”
The raven strikes.

~*~*~*~

Of course, using a song in a story is one thing. Getting permission to use that song is another matter entirely, as I explain in “Days of Walkmans Past.” 

I hope you take deeper look at Fallen Princeborn: Stolen on Amazon, and perhaps grab a copy to keep! Click here for paperback, Part 1 of the e-book, Part 2 of the e-book, or the complete e-book with bonus material. Please don’t forget to leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon, too!

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Blondie the Skeleton helps me say thank you!

My deepest thanks to all fellow writers and readers who have been sharing my stories and thoughts on craft. No matter how much I beat myself up for not writing enough, reading enough, living enough, you step up and share my words and make every struggle matter. Folks, these are writers well worth sharing, reading, and befriending, I promise you.

Historical Smexy Romance Writer Shehanne Moore

Family Drama & Mystery Writer James Cudney

Short Fiction Writer Cath Humphris

Short Fiction Writer Sally Cronin

Young Adult Fantasy Writer Laurel Wanrow

Poet & Photographer Sue Vincent

Fantasy Writer Michael Dellert

nanoIn the meantime, I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. It’s time to rewrite the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. I promise you even more mystery and mayhem, perhaps even a murder or two in the dank Pits dark and deep…

Are you joining thirty days and nights of literary abandon? Let me know so we can be writing buddies!

 

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

Days of Walkmans Past

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Earlier this spring the ever-lovely lady & author Shehanne Moore set me to the “Music that Means Something” Challenge: five pieces of music with meaning to be shared over five days.

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Well of course I never got to my computer in time to fulfill the challenge properly, and her own choices gave such lovely visits to her family that I couldn’t help thinking on the music of my own childhood. Plus, when I think of music from those days, I can’t help but think about Dad.

Those who knew Dad strictly as a pastor tended to assume he only listened to choirs or Christian contemporary. While he willingly listened to such things during Lent or Christmas, he rarely had them on just because. I mean, come on–St. Olaf’s choir is nice and all, but they ain’t Pink Floyd.

Yet I can’t share Pink Floyd. Oh no. I gotta share the music I hated when it was on: Renaissance.

According to my kid-self, the singer’s voice drove me nuts. The lyrics made no sense. You couldn’t day-dream anything exciting going on with the music. And worst of all, these songs go on forever. The video I found to share here was one of the short ones, and it’s FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.

But Dad just loved this stuff. Peer into his study any given night. Greek and Hebrew texts are flopped open and piled on one another with Post-It confetti. The Fourth Doctor Who stares frog-eyed from the calendar. Three cans of flat cherry Coke all on the verge of spilling on Minor Prophets. And Renaissance, because of course Renaissance, whines on that big relic of a boombox while he clacks away on the old IBM. There was no escaping it, not even on the road, thanks to that ancient 1980s wonder known as The Mixed Tape. Imagine being eight and on a road trip for twelve hours, knowing there were tapes of John Williams and James Horner soundtracks locked away like the Ark of the Convenant beneath the passenger seat, while this was on, and on, and on:

No wonder my brothers and mom slept for hours while Dad drove. Meanwhile, wee me in the way back of the van struggled to read, or just stare out the window. But sometimes, I would catch Dad’s eye. He’d smile, or start dramatically lip-singing. I can still remember the way his eyes would twinkle, like a goodbye, just before he turned his focus back to the road.

I was so very, very tempted to go with James Horner for this list, as his Star Trek scores were thankfully played during road trips, too, but I’d rather dedicate a post to Horner later. Besides, there’s another composer who had a huge impact on me.

il_fullxfull.1216505053_iphyMy elder brother was an avid reader of books by Tom Clancyso when a movie version came out, he and Dad would usually see it. The Hunt for Red October was such a hit with both of them that Dad invested in the CD. (Buying a new CD was a pretty big deal with three kids and a shoe-string budget.) I made my own cassette copy for the portable cassette player I earned with Kool-Aid points and made myself deaf with a Russian choir whenever that Renaissance tape ka-chunked into the player. It was the first time I heard a choir singing something not-religious with so much power. There was height, and depth, and terror, and joy, all in the first minute of the first song. Basil Poledouris’ score has a few slow moments, but the thrills elsewhere more than make up for them.

When my kid brother was old enough to inherit the relic boombox, he took to rooting through Dad’s CDs for music. Unlike me, who only took from Dad’s movie soundtracks, he took to the rock…sort of. Look, I just don’t know if this Alan Parsons Project song qualifies as “rock,” or even progressive rock. YouTube users say it’s “underrated.” All I know is that one night a twelve-year-old boy tossed aside his algebra and performed a lip-sync and dance routine with his desk chair to this song that could never, ever be repeated in any universe ever again, and I was the only witness.

Mom listened to these various genres with the patience only a mother can have. Some of it was to her taste, some not–she never really complained. As a kid I didn’t get it, but gosh do I ever now. I’ve let the kids have the most irritating songs on repeat for ages, just because it kept them laughing and/or quiet. This “song” was on repeat for an hour once. No joke.

So apart from some particular Christmas songs, I don’t have many childhood connections between music and my mom.

Beauty and the Beastthough, was a game-changer. My mother adored this movie, and I’ll admit, it’s one of the few animated Disney films I genuinely enjoy. Knowing how much Mom loved the story, Dad splurged when the broadway musical came to Chicago and got the whole family tickets. Mom HATES big cities, but seeing Chicago lit up for Christmas and this story performed live? Worth it.

For this list, though, I’m not picking any of the musical numbers. Those songs are okay, but they weren’t what hitched me to this story, even as a kid. Nope. It was the very first sequence, the prologue. The hushed piano and strings, like fairies flittering just out of sight. That first shot of the lush woods, the hidden castle, and those windows! Again, I grew up with stained glass being just for God. To see it tell other stories just as beautifully stayed with me ever after, even coming into my own writing.

One more song to go. (That Weird Al snippet does NOT count. It’s not a real song.)

When I met Bo, my music knowledge was, um, limited. I had my movie soundtracks, and some Christian contemporary from my years working at the Christian bookstore, and that was about it…well, and Monty Python. And The Firesign Theater.

Anyway.

Bo’s mother died of cancer when he was in college; that same year his girlfriend of over a year dumped him. He was currently studying for the ministry, but no longer felt like God wanted him there, or anywhere. The only thing that seemed to connect to him was, of all things, Quadropheniaa rock opera by The Who. He even wrote to Pete Townshend, thanking him for the music and how it helped him through this point of life.

Pete wrote back.

Bo proudly displays that postcard still.

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This was one of the first albums Bo shared with me: the narrative gripped and still hasn’t let go. The melodies hit hard, every damn one. The sounds of the sea are such a perfect touch. I loved this album so much that it became the core support of one of my protagonists. I could not write the story without those songs. But what if by some miracle of God I publish? It’s not like I could refer to these songs without Townshend’s permission.

Unless…I write to him for permission. There. Done.

Nah, he’ll never write back. What’s he going to care about some random American writing a story?

Totally forgot about it. Putzed with the story some more, finally discovering the key problem with its voice. Started reworking it.

An email a few months later from Pete Townshend’s rep: show us where the songs are used, please.

Bo: Holy cow, that’s awesome!

Me: HOLY SHIT I’M SCREWED.

Because of course, I was barely one act into my rewrite. Bo calmed me down, got me thinking about the specific scenes I knew Quad came into play. Fucking blitzed through those and sent them back in tears, because they were shit, of course they were, and now there would be no hope for this WIP at all.

An email one week later.

Townshend approves.

Peter Townshend of The Who approves.

The shock of that moment still ripples into my present.

Bphilipnov2016efore this, when my WIP was barely a WIP, Blondie barely a toddler, and the boys barely done with colic, we learned Bash had acid reflux. If we kept him upright a little while after the last feeding of the night, he–and therefore we–had a better chance of sleeping all night. To fill that time between stories, feeding, and bed-tuckings, Bo started putting on music videos. Sometimes it was Peter Gabriel, sometimes Genesis, sometimes ZZ Top, and sometimes The Who. It took some ninja-skills with the mute button to hide the occasional”fuck” and such, but The Who’s live concert at the Royal Albert Hall quickly became a huge favorite with all three. As the boys grew bigger, Biff took to playing guitar on his blanket complete with Townshend’s signature windmill move. Bash still insists on wearing one of  our three The Who shirts every day. Heaven help me the day he outgrows them.

Music always has and always will contain a piece of the divine to me. I’m not just talking about religious music, which, yes, the right hymn brings me to tears and stirs the faith into something tangible. But the right song at the right time always transcends me. I can feel the lift, the change inside. I know when hope blossoms again. I no longer cringe from the world. I want to move forward. I want to try, to do.

hope. 

know. 

live. 

Writer’s Music: Jim Parker

Music tells such marvelous stories. Sometimes, though, music written so perfectly for one story never fits anywhere else. Many of John Williams‘ themes, for instance, are cemented in their iconic-ness: Superman, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars–even Harry Potter. The themes for those characters fit. Period. For a sample of Williams’ work, this is a decent mix:

But then there’s the occasional surprise: an iconic sound that still produces a fresh image far removed from the music’s original universe.

Take Jim Parker‘s theme for Midsomer Murders. The original novels were written by an amazing old granny named Caroline Graham. Never have I seen point of view shifts performed so smoothly and so often than in her work–a “Lessons Learned” post is coming, I promise you. For now, though, let’s listen.

The discovery was something like an apple to the noggin. I had experienced a very, very weird dream brimming with potential for a kid’s adventure story, but I wasn’t capturing the bizarreness of the world: the details felt, well, lame, like a flannel-graph presentation for teenagers. I was desperately flipping through Hans Zimmer, The Beatles, The Who, and even Joel McNeely to get me into…well more like “out of.” I needed to feel the fall out of the humdrum and into the crazy. But without the right music, I just couldn’t get over the edge.

Now this is back when Biff and Bash were still wee and nursing. I often had a show locked’n’loaded in the player for late-night feedings. Weary of our home’s offerings, I had picked up Midsomer Murders from the library earlier that day. 2am: Biff and Bash are hungry. I situate the pillows, crook the boys to the boobs. On comes the title sequence and that clarinet like water in a shopping mall’s fountain: a quiet fluttering one only notices on the corner of perception. Then come the theremin and the strings. They float about like the bedsheet ghosts one hangs from trees on Halloween: eerie, a touch off, but not nightmare fuel. The sort of music for spooking kids, filling a night with as many giggles as shrieks…

YES! I could picture it all now: the kid stuck in the middle of nowhere who meets another bored kid who isn’t a proper kid at all, the trip down below to the goblin king and his mastery of giants–Brilliant, must write! But the boys are still nursing. Suckle faster, dammit!

It’s amazing what sights and sounds can spark up our imaginations, especially when we’re worn out by all that life requires of the grown-up. Let Jim Parker give you a break from adulthood and run loose as a kid, full of mischief for the humdrum village outside.