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Saturday, January 18, 2020

It Ain’t Just the Words by Trey R. Barker

  •  AC/DC’s Back in Black
  • Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No
  • Michael Jahn’s The Black Sheep Squadron: Devil in the Slot
  • Stephen King’s The Shining.

The first two books and first two albums I bought with my own money. 1980? or early 1981? I was in junior high school and just beginning to suss out my own tastes. There had been books and music before that, but from libraries and 45s like “Undercover Angel,” and “Rubberband Man.”

But those four new, shiny things were my own, not what my mom or the radio gave me.

And just a few months later, spring 1981, I started writing. Stephen King rip-offs mostly; terrible stories but written as earnestly and genuinely as I could.

So even that far back, at the beginning, my words and my music were two facets of the same life.

My newest novel, The Unknowing, (Down and Out Books), is chock full-o'-music. Reading through the lonely death of a young girl in rural Illinois, the writing will evoke Merle Haggard’s I Am What I Am; Waylon, Willie, and the boys; the musical Bye Bye Birdie; country music generally, Tejano music; “The Eyes of Texas” on a music box mechanism. There’s even a mention of the University of Illinois music program.

My novels have soundtracks because I absolutely believe the kind of music a character likes tells you something about them.

My grandmother was goofy about 1940s-era big band jazz because that’s when she was a young woman, when life was vital and exciting. It moved fast, faster still hanging on the daily death of World War II, and it promised nothing.

But as she got older, she found herself with an abiding love for classical. Slower, more paced and thoughtful than big band jazz, more nuanced. Life was gentler and so became her music.

As a writer, I see that youthful energy becoming middle and late-aged certitude.

That’s good stuff, but I try to mine the music even more deeply. For example: what flavor of music within whatever genre happens to be the soundtrack?

In my Jace Salome novels, the protagonist soundtrack is jazz. Lots of different jazz, but the flavor is Miles Davis. Incredible musician? Sure. Also a drug addict, a cold-hearted bastard, an egotist of gigantic proportions. But mostly…a rule breaker.

And that detail can inform a character.

Ditto Johnny Cash. Remember him flipping his middle finger at the camera? San Quentin Prison, 1969. The photographer asked Cash what he thought of the prison authorities.

That was Cash’s answer.

So how about a character who doesn’t really care for country music, but has huge issues with authority and wears a t-shirt, or has a tat, of that picture?

Music allows me into the heads and hearts of my peeps. The characters are already at least partially born as I start to write but choosing their soundtrack either (a) helps me add dimension and depth, or (b) puts me onto something different but more interesting.

The Barefield novels (Down and Out Books) each have a particular artist as soundtrack. For 2,000 Miles to Open Road, it was Johnny Cash (for exactly the reasons I already cited). Exit Blood was Joe Ely. Death is Not Forever—Merle Haggard.

Though those novels had mentions of other music, overall they had an outlaw country vibe so the soundtrack was obvious, even if the flavor took some tweaking.


As I write, January 10, 2020, about 3:50 central standard time, my phone started blowing up.

Neil Peart is dead.

The drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock band Rush. I have followed this man, and learned from him, since I began to discover my own music. Call it 40 years.

I am a drummer, and most of the licks in my drum set repertoire I straight-up stole from him.

But I also stole ideas and thoughts, ways of looking at the world, from his writing. From his lyrics, his books, articles, even album liner notes and tour books sold at their concerts.

This is how I write: a melding of two loves until they are a single thing. It ain’t just the words, it’s the words and the notes, and I can’t imagine one without the other.


KM Rockwood said...

When I'm writing, I often find myself listening to the music that a main character would select.

Kait said...

I admire the way some writers can associate music with a character. It adds depth and texture.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm with Kathleen, though it's usually after a writing session while I'm thinking through what comes next in my story. Is it a Vivaldi mood or Grateful Dead?

Grace Topping said...

Interesting way to look at your characters. I'll have to analyze my characters and think about what music they would like.

Bhicks69 said...

Reading that, I had Spirit Of the Radio ringing in my head. I thought about a quote from that but felt that posting the enticing lyrics wouldn’t be so nice. It may be best captured and summarized with “One likes to believe in the freedom of music”. Music in many of us is something that goes with us each and every day - with every breath, every thought, every emotion. Music helps us to deal with reality and takes us to places we’ve only ever been to in our mind and add color and a dimension fully BE wherever we choose to go.