I think I’ve mentioned this before, but writing a novel is kind of hard. One the main reasons it is so hard is the time needed to complete it, time that can be spent in so many ways that don’t involve sitting at home by yourself in front of the computer screen. Not to mention that simply being at a computer screen offers so many distractions. I’m constantly worried that I’m “missing” something on Twitter; breaking news about the Mets, perhaps, which I am semi-professionally obligated to keep on top of, or perhaps a hilarious meme that cries out for my contributions.
One of the biggest enemies of novel writing is lack of focus, be it internet enabled or just the wandering of mind that tends to happen when you have to do one thing and one thing only. My biggest problem is I’m a multitasker by nature. I find it extremely difficult to work on one single thing when I have ideas for a dozen others, all of them vying for headspace. When it comes to shorter nonfiction stuff, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with working on more than one project simultaneously. But that method is deadly for fiction writing in general and novel writing in particular.
Colson Whitehead (whose novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days are in my own person canon) wrote a great piece about this a few years back for the Times, “What To Write Next.” The intent was humorous, but even more so than the jokes, what struck me about the piece was its subtext: The writer’s fear that you’re toiling away on one thing when you can and should be working on something else, an impulse that can prevent you from doing anything at all.
An excellent way to combat this lack of focus is through music. I’m far from the first person to point this out, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts anyway, as I owe a debt to all the music I listened to while writing this book. I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it without clasping headphones to my dome and letting music push the outside world away for a while.
I found listening to albums (remember those?) helped the most. A complete album–a good one, anyway–immerses you in a universe, which helps you focus your energies and attention for the running time and hopefully beyond. The albums I listened to most often while writing Love and a Short Leash were:
- Miles Ahead, Miles Davis
- Double Nickels on the Dime, The Minutemen
- Mikal Cronin S/T
- David Comes to Life, Fucked Up
- Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Guided By Voices
- Get Happy!, Elvis Costello
- Singles 06-07, Jay Reatard
- The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
- Melted, Ty Segall
- Murmur, R.E.M.
In addition to these records, I also got sucked into various boots of Petit Wazoo/Roxy and Elsewhere-era Mothers of Invention shows (1972-1974). I can’t quite explain why; I listened to a ton of Frank Zappa in high school and college, but only rarely since then. This was an addiction I thought I’d conquered. Whatever the reason, my desire to listen to this music again reemerged right when I was finishing up my final draft, and I’m glad it did. I found the funk-and-jazz charged jams of this era of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre to be helpful for this particular stage of my toil.
I found that commercial radio doesn’t help me all that much, with its incessant breaks and complete lack of imagination, but listening to WFMU definitely did. I did most of my work on the weekends, and the Saturday afternoon block of Michael Shelley, Fool’s Paradise with Rex, and especially Terre T’s Cherry Blossom Clinic powered me through many marathon writing sessions.
To honor this debt, I wanted to share a playlist of songs that were often drilled into my ears when writing the novel. Some have particular resonance for reasons related to novel’s plot/subject matter, some are mood setters, and some are just bitchin’ tunes. I’ve arranged them in an order that helps my own process: Get pumped up, settle in, shot of energy, scale back again, repeat. I’m not sure if this will be instructive to anyone or if it really shares anything except a glimpse into my weird headspace. But hey, you get some rad tunes, so shut your noise. Playlist available here, deets after the jump.
“X Marks the Spot: Something Dull Happened Here,” The Monorchid: I’ve always thought this would make great “show opener” music for a DJ or walkup music for a batter, were it not for the defeatist lyrics.
“Ramble Tamble,” Creedence Clearwater Revival: The instrumental breakdown makes me wanna jump down a flight of stairs, hit the ground running, and keep going.
“Queen of Hearts,” Fucked Up: I listened to David Comes to Life a bazillion times while writing this novel. Hard to pick one track from it but this one seemed to fit the best.
“Krayola,” Lung-Leg: When I reacquired a record player, I rediscovered this tune from a split 7″ with The Make-Up. One of my all time faves.
“You Can’t Blame Me,” Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum, and Durr: From the Capsoul edition of Numero’s Eccentric Soul series. This song completely murders me.
“Clowntime Is Over,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Elvis’ best song, and possibly the best song ever.
“Biomusicology,” Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Been listening to The Tyranny of Distance a lot since I saw Ted play the album in full at South Street Seaport last summer. This tune’s in my all-time top 10.
“Spring Is Here,” Bill Evans: If I was in the right mood, I could have filled this whole thing with Bill Evans. As it is, you just get this perfect song.
“I Do Believe You Are Blushing,” Unrest: I slept on Unrest for a criminally long amount of time and am trying to make up for it.
“Pilgrimage,” R.E.M.: Apart from the Zappa boots mentioned above, the most surprising reentry into my musical rotation while writing this book was early R.E.M., which I hadn’t listened to much of since high school. Also similar to Zappa, not sure why I felt compelled to listen to these albums again but I was glad I did. This was always one of my faves, and still is.
“Everything Flows,” Teenage Fanclub: Another rediscovery. One day I remembered “oh wait, that song’s great,” I listened to it on repeat 10 times.
“Grape Juice Plus,” Cupid Car Club: Crank it.
“Cooling Card,” Jawbox: The remastered For Your Own Special Sweetheart sounds amazing. Get on that.
“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” The Buzzcocks: In my very brief post-collegiate softball playing days, our self-appointed DJ used to spin this one a lot. It reminds me of summer afternoons in McCarren Park and completely illegal to-go cups from the Turkey’s Nest.
“Motor Away,” Guided by Voices: I did not listen to Guided by Voices until the last year or so, because I haven’t the slightest idea why.
“Get Along,” Mikal Cronin: My brother gave me the Mikal Cronin album just as I was reaching the home stretch of my first draft, and I’ve been playing the ever-loving shit out of it ever since.
“Little Man With a Gun in His Hand,” The Minutemen: No explanation needed, I hope.
“The Next Ball Game,” Inell Brown: From Saturday Night Fish Fry, a fantastic comp of New Orleans R&B from the 1960s and 1970s.
“I Am If…,” The Make-Up: I used to go see The Make-Up every single time they played New York. Their recorded output, while pretty great, only occasionally approached the live experience. This is one example thereof.
“Poinciana,” Ahmad Jamal: Just one of those songs I could listen on repeat and write for hours.
“The Prophecy of Daniel and John the Divine,” Jobs Daughters: From Cherries Jubilee, Terre T’s DJ premium from last year’s WFMU pledge marathon. A creepy psych-tinged take on the Cowsills’ weird apocalyptic number, heavy on Biblical numerology a la “Monkey Gone to Heaven”. Fit the mood of the book more often than not.
“Beware of Darkness,” George Harrison: I don’t think it reveals too much to say that, for a while, I felt like this was the book’s “theme song.”
“Don’t Stop Now,” Guided by Voices: Tried not to have repeat artists, but here we are.
“Wolf Boys,” Life Detecting Coffins: Catatonic Begat Napoleonic might be the best album you’ve never heard.
“Scream Team,” Deerhoof: Not sure why I dig this song a bit more than most of Deerhoof’s output, but I’m not sure I need to know either.
“The Dream,” Thee Oh Sees: I came to this album very late in my writing process (or two EPs, technically, Carrion Crawler and The Dream). But they are some sides I could dive into while writing, trippy and enveloping.
“Headache,” Frank Black: Don’t have much of Frank Black’s solo stuff, but I’ve always dug this song.
“The Underdog,” Spoon: Added to this playlist mostly for the reasons outlined here.
“My Shepherd,” The New Pornographers: Together almost made the frequently-spun albums list above, but in truth I probably listened more to isolated songs from this record than I did to the album as a whole while writing, and this song more than most.
“On Green Dolphin Street,” Miles Davis: The Bill Evans piano intro on this is one of the best things ever recorded.
“Imaginary Person,” Ty Segall: Like Mikal Cronin’s debut, Melted came to me just as I was finishing my first draft, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since.
“No Language in Our Lungs,” XTC: I can’t hear this song and not think of Freaks and Geeks.
“Hung Up on a Dream,” The Zombies: One of those songs I can’t listen to too often, because it’s so brutal. Except for those times when I listen to it repeatedly.
“Cubs In Five,” The Mountain Goats: Thematically appropriate, and amusing (unless you’re a Cubs fan). But hey, the Tampa Bay Bucs got past this song, right?
“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” Johnny Thunders: It was either this or a track from one of Johnny’s live albums where he’s hammered and makes racist jokes. I think this works better.
“Redmen and Their Wives,” Guided by Voices: Yes, I have three GBV songs. Sue me. (Though I don’t think you’d have much of a case. Also, please don’t sue me.)
“Searching for You,” Jay Reatard: Again, hard to pick just one of Jay Reatard’s singles, but this one worked the best thematically.
“Drowning,” Reigning Sound: Not sure what I can say about this song that would approach listening to it.
“Re-Gyptian Strut,” Frank Zappa: From my sudden reattachment to this era of the Mothers. Straddles the border between fake bombast and real majesty, which is somewhere close to where my book lies (I hope).
“C.I.A.,” Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: This song has been in heavy rotation for me for a very long time. It resonates with me for both personal reasons and in terms of my book’s theme. I can’t think of a better song on which to end this.