When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?
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.
There are no casual Frank Zappa fans. You don’t merely like his music; it becomes a focal point of your existence. This is due partially to the fact that he worked on developing a cult among his fanbase almost from the beginning of his career, and also because the sheer volume of stuff he put out is so staggering. It’s a devotion tailor-made for obsessives, like myself.
In high school, I had dual musical allegiances. On the one hand, straight up punk rock. On the other, modern classical stuff like Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives and jazz like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. I’m not sure how this happened, exactly, but here we are. Frank Zappa satisfied both sides of my musical brain at once. It had rock elements, but also had the complicated instrumentation and chops I liked from classical and jazz. It also had plenty of satirical and transgressive elements to it (sex, poop) that were exciting to High School Me.
The problem with liking Zappa is that he pushes all your other likes out to the margins. He had a concept called Conceptual Continuity, which said that everything he ever did was interrelated. The only way to truly understand it all was to listen to everything–including every live show you could get your hands on. That’s why I have not only 40-something legitimately released albums of his, but twice as many boots I downloaded in the early, bountiful days of torrenting. The time and scrutiny required to listen to all of this stuff leaves you no inclination to consume anything else.
I’d consider myself a lapsed Zappa fan at this point in my life, because I feel like I’ve pulled out as much as I can from his oeuvre. There’s also elements to some songs that are way too close to misogyny for me to excuse or dismiss. However, I still listen to the occasional track or old show. I also stand by certain incarnations of his bands, like the Roxy and Elsewhere lineup, which was pretty funky and fun (plus it had lots of marimba, which always pleases me). But my favorite remains the original Mothers, who were unlike anything assembled before or since.
Zappa basically took this band that used to play R & B and blues and got them to play rockified versions of Edgar Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen compositions. And when they felt like it, they could also rock the fuck out. You’ll see examples of both in this video from a performance on the BBC from 1968.
The song in that video, “King Kong,” was a heavy duty workout that took up all of side 4 of Uncle Meat, the final proper album by the original Mothers lineup. (There were a few others featuring material they’d recorded, of course, since Zappa released virtually everything he ever did. This was the last one recorded as a for-real album.) I’m not the full time Zappa fan I once was, but I still stand by this as a masterpiece. There’s virtually no vocals on the entire album, and it has this strange, stilted baroque quality to it. Much of it was assembled using insane amounts of overdubbing all done on four tracks (the only kind of recorder then available) and edited with razor blades, a small engineering miracle.
The Uncle Meat liner notes came with sheet music for both “King Kong” and the title track, which I was obsessed with for a while. The notation informed me that the song’s chord structure was composed almost entirely of suspended 4ths. If that means nothing to you, just know that in traditional Western music, a fourth interval (i.e., a difference between a root and a harmonic of four full notes) sounds kind of “Eastern” or “Chinese.” This budget music theory lesson has been brought to you by a class I took junior year of high school.
Using the tiny transcription in the CD booklet, I tried to play “Uncle Meat” on the beatup piano in our basement (acquired for the cost of renting a truck when family friends gave it away), but I couldn’t play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with two hands, let alone Frank Zappa. Oh well.
While this is completely inappropriate for use as walk up music, any player who dared do so would earn my eternal love. Yes, even if it was a Marlin.