Turning Music into Narrative

It’s no secret that 2016 has been a rough year for pop musicians. Did someone set off a slow-acting neutron bomb that kills platinum-sellers?

Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), Merle Haggard, David Bowie, Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire), and Prince, to name a few, have all passed away since January 1, 2016, leaving behind a lot of vinyl and CDs worldwide, and a hefty portion of my mental sound track from adolescence.

I would rather be a normal person who medicates loss with alcohol, drugs, exercise, shopping, and gambling, but like many writers, I’ve been converting obituaries into “material,” some of which may emerge in a short story or novel, but is now doing a great job filling notebook pages.

Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane). As a kid in New York City I spent every spare dollar on rock & roll albums at Korvette’s, a discount department store on 45th Street. One of my favorites during that era was Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow,” an archetype of the so-called San Francisco Sound. Grace Slick’s haunting vocals on “Today” and “White Rabbit” spoke to my pre-adolescent self from the mysterious realm of adulthood. I’m intrigued by the idea of a present-day character working on the Bernie Sanders campaign who falls in love with someone much younger, rekindling his/her experiences in the Summer of Love.

Merle Haggard. My father had passed away when I was two. When I was eleven, my mother remarried and we moved to Cleveland to live with Bill and his son from a prior marriage, Michael. Bill owned a collection of Merle Haggard records, despite having acquired a rack of business suits for a career in marine insurance. One of his favorite Haggard tunes, “Okie from Muskogee,” seemed to speak to my mother’s Midwestern roots. “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,” Haggard sang through my mom’s stereo speakers in New York, and Bill’s speakers in Cleveland. I’ve always wanted to equip a story character with my mother’s yearning to escape New York for the Midwest. Tapping further into Merle Haggard’s music may be the surest form of research.

David Bowie. I smoked my first joint listening to Bowie’s Station to Station album, aged 13. My stepbrother and I were visiting a friend of his, Aaron, in Lansing, Michigan. A former high school football star who’d gotten injured playing for Michigan State, Aaron had since channeled his energies into exotic stereo systems and high-grade pot. After midnight I had an out-of-body experience listening to “TVC15” and “Golden Years” on six-foot-high speakers. That first intense exposure to marijuana and Bowie has left me wondering: what became of Aaron in adulthood? Insurance salesman? High school football coach? Felon? It seems inevitable that Aaron — wild hair, leg-o-mutton side burns, wire-rim glasses, captivating smile — will find his way into a story.

Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire). My first halting attempts at intimacy with women are tied up in the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. Their danceable hits — “September,” “Getaway,” “Love Music” — surface at weddings and bar mitzvahs most often these days, but they produced a string of slow grooves — “Reasons,” “After the Love Has Gone” — that were essential make-out tracks in basements and automobiles during the late 70s. I’ve been working through drafts of a short story about an oncologist in Providence grappling with the compromises of middle age. Given problems I’ve had tapping into my protagonist’s emotional core, I may need to revisit the innocent hedonism of that character’s pre-AIDS, pre-9/11 adolescence if I want to move the story forward.

Prince. I’m not sure where to start. Prince’s music has been a constant presence since high school in Minnesota during the late 70s, where my mother and I moved with Bill after Cleveland, and has followed me through college, grad school, six cities, twelve apartments, a marriage, a house, and two kids. A high school friend introduced our circle to Prince in 1978. We all had a flirtation with disco, and piled into cars for trips to First Avenue in Minneapolis, Prince’s favorite local performance venue. I would like to situate a short story in that first ecstatic exposure to Prince’s music, and the societal changes it presaged.

Where does this all lead? “Write about your obsessions,” they say. My top obsessions have been male role models and the search for a personal version of masculinity. These musicians (all male, it turns out) and memories supply a rich trove that I expect will feed that obsession.

I only wish it hadn’t taken the death of five amazing musicians to unearth this material. May their super-talented, prolific selves Rest in Peace.


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