October 11, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead is a fictional "biography" of the man Jesus raised from the dead, a story meticulously researched, endlessly informative, and always fascinating and entertaining.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Beard's take on Lazarus is nothing less than astonishing—and he respects the reader by taking religion and religious questions seriously."
I can't write and listen to music. Impossible. Fortunately, I can type and listen to music. So no music at all during the early drafts in black fountain-pen, nor during the re-writes in blue biro followed by the transfer to the computer. No music, no distractions. I print out a hard copy, and edit with a propelling pencil. I will do this many times, and when I return the edits to the computer text, that's when I put on the ear-goggles. Listen up.
Music is a reward for hard yakka. For my first books the music that worked best was upbeat and inspirational, making me feel good about myself and my text. Then I wrote a novel where the title came from a song.
I didn't actually listen to this old church standard while I was writing the book (it was some time ago, and the music I was listening to I've forgotten, which suggests I wasn't choosing my typing music very carefully). "Dry Bones" is the song in which the foot-bone connects to the ankle-bone and so on, with Ezekiel at the end hearing the word of the lord. The bones supply a structure for the novel (about celebrity grave-robbing) but also embody the quest of the confused narrator – if only he can connect one thought to the next then there is nothing he will not understand, including the word of the lord. Spoiler: he doesn't really make it.
My version of "Dry Bones" the song I uploaded from a gospel anthology I borrowed from the library, possibly an illegal act. The only description my iPod now gives is: 'Various Artists Charlotte N.C.' Probably not enough information to find that exact version, but of the many different recordings upbeat is usually best (for writing purposes).
When I came to write Lazarus is Dead, I decided to find some inspirational music related to the subject. I think I had the idea that a religious sensibility (which I felt I lacked), or at least a sense of popular religion, could somehow leak into my writing through my ears.
I asked singer and non-fiction writer Ian Marchant for some suggestions, and old-fashioned gent that he is he sent me a CD burned from his extensive collection of all forms of popular music (no classical). Have to admit – didn't like all of his choices (which spread from Bebe Winans to Prefab Sprout), but I had a start. From there I grew my playlist of Lazarus is Dead typing songs.
Here's a selection, the songs I listened to most often or liked best. The first is easy. The novel Lazarus is Dead, a 'biography' of the biblical figure Lazarus, builds his character from the many appearances he makes in novels, paintings, operas, poems. The truth of his life is founded in the reality of art, or the reality of a collective unconscious. His guest appearances in the culture also include popular songs.
"Dig Lazarus Dig," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave is a writerly type, a two-time novelist. In the title track of his Lazarus album he sings Lazarus as an embittered bum, who never asked to come back from the tomb, and who ends his life in the flophouse tradition of New York City losers. I love the chunky guitar at the beginning, a Pavlovian set-up to a few hours of typing and feeling like a writer (as opposed to the harder business of actually writing, where musical self-indulgence isn't going to help.)
"Jesus is All," The Staple Singers
I couldn't write the biography of Lazarus without including Jesus (or as the Christian Surfers once said to me in Sydney – 'we'll have a blast, but you're going to hear about Jesus'.) Jesus is a daunting subject, and anyone who enters the murky world of New Testament bible commentary may never return alive. This song was a reminder to keep it simple. It has an effortless swing, a group of musicians at ease with their material and playing within their limitations to keep everything connected. This may have been the song that convinced me Jesus shouldn't speak in the novel. That wouldn't have been simple at all.
"I Was There When It Happened," Johnny Cash
I feel sorry for this song. Johnny Cash wants to express his sense of revelation, which never left him, and also his sense of connection to the eyewitness disciples who like Johnny had been there and done that. Then here comes the song in the biopic Walk the Line, when Joaquin Phoenix strums harmless gospel with his Tennessee Three band and fails to impress the supremo of Sun Records. In the film he stops playing "I Was There When It Happened" and launches into "Folsom Prison Blues." The record boss perks up, and the audience is supposed to understand that this hard-edged Johnny is a more convincing and more 'real' proposition. My own reaction was a bit different – 'Hold on Johnny, play that first one again, I was enjoying that.'
"Mangisondele Nkosi Yam," Soweto Gospel Choir
This song is a reminder, every time, of the longing central to religious experience. Religion starts from the feeling that something is wrong, and the subsequent realisation that some force we don't quite understand might have the means or the power to put it right. This song pleads with god to fulfil the most hopeful of human expectations.
"Work Me, Lord," Janis Joplin
The live version from Woodstock. I love the strength of feeling in this song. It channels all the love optimism of the festival while pulling the inner Janis out of her shoes. These songs only mean something to me and my book, I think, because I can apply them to my own experience. Don't know if there's a lord, or if there is not. But if there is, and he can help me write a better novel, then work me lord. Work me – I need all the help I can get.
"The Christian Life," The Byrds
I like the Byrds, and in this track they sing very politely that they like the Christian life. Yes they do. I don't really believe them, but I admire them for making the effort, and not getting too passionate about it. But really, if it was so easy to walk in the light (I like the Christian life) everyone would be doing it.
"Oh Happy Day," – Edwin Hawkins Singers
I've included this one because it provides the uplift that can confuse skeptics when they come to attack the Christian experience. It also seems to me a classic gospel track, in that it builds from a slow murmur of possibility to a surging flood of joy. It also offers material to choral buskers everywhere, so generous as well as emotionally satisfying.
"As I Went Down to the River to Pray," Alison Krauss
This was my straight-up favourite of those original tracks sent to me by Ian. No instruments, just Alison singing in her all-American white-teethed voice. Other women's voices join as she goes down to the river to pray. As the verses build one on another (down to the river to pray) there may be men singing too, the whole riverside commune. Alison stops, pause, she starts again. This song could loop endlessly - every verse a mantra, an appeal. The first time I heard it, I thought her voice contained all that was good about the women of America.
"The Sound of the Sinners," The Clash
'After all this time, do you believe in Jesus?' A reminder that the patterns and harmonies of gospel music, as with the stories of the bible itself, can be taken and turned into something new. Another example I like is the gospel swell that runs through "Tender" by Blur.
"Jesus Christ," Woody Guthrie
Can't write about Jesus and leave out social justice. Nor the sense that originally the Jesus stories would have been shared around campfires by traveling folk. All the best Jesus songs are simple – the words need to spread from one mouth to the next, and Woody is a serious witness. He would not sing this song unless he believed the ideas were important.
"When the Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash
This is Johnny again, but now towards the end and possibly the last song he ever wrote. He reads from the Book of Revelation, which is terrifying. Death is coming, and Christianity has been paying attention to the sharp end of life for two thousand years. At the same time Johnny can still enjoy his double entendre of the virgins trimming their wicks. Nevertheless, the man will come around and Johnny knows it (the whirlwind is in the thorn trees). Listen. The man is coming around. He is.
"In My Saviour's Care," The Charioteers
Something to bring back the joy. The Charioteers sing out like trumpets. I'm a terrible singer, but alone in my study even I can't help singing along to this and giving indiscriminate praise for the mysterious privilege of being alive.
"More News from Nowhere," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I want to finish with the last track on Dig Lazarus Dig!! Because this was often where my typing marathons came to an end (one more page, get to the end of the album). The album has a sense of narrative, so the last track is both a finale and a conclusion to the tracks that have come before. Here comes my book, here comes Lazarus, dead not dead, with a little more news from nowhere.
Richard Beard and Lazarus is Dead links:
The Blurb review
The Bookbag review
Financial Times review
Herald Scotland review
Just William's Luck review
Kirkus Reviews review
Muse at Highway Speeds review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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