April 14, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Andre Alexis's novel Fifteen Dogs is a clever and beguiling study of human nature through the eyes of dogs.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Clearly familiar with canine behavior, Alexis manages to encapsulate an astonishing range of metaphysical questions in a simple tale about dogs that came to know too much. The result is a delightful juxtaposition of the human and canine conditions, and a narrative that, like just one of the dogs, delights in the twists and turns of the gods' linguistic gift."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I listen to music almost obsessively. I have since the age of ten or eleven when I thought I wanted to be a guitar player. My taste in music is broad but what I listen to while writing tends to fall within a fairly narrow spectrum. The songs are rhythmic, above all, and they usually have lyrics that I know well enough to sing while I write. They usually have melodies so catchy that I always know exactly where I am in the song. That is, the music I listen to while writing is familiar and comforting without being bland. (I very rarely write to instrumentals. Maybe because I started out loving jazz, I feel compelled to actually listen to – as opposed to sink into – instrumentals. The exception: Beethoven's 6th Symphony, which has strong rhythms and lovely melodies.)
I finished writing my most recent novel, Fifteen Dogs, a few months ago, so I'm going to write about the fifteen most listened-to songs on my computer's iTunes. While writing Fifteen Dogs I will have listened to each of these songs over and over until they led me to something like the trance I fall into when I write.
1. "Breathless", Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (552 plays)
Nick Cave is a writer with whom I have a tricky (imaginary) relationship. I'm indifferent to some of his songs but what I like I cherish and I can't exhaust. I love his lyrics, naturally. He's a great writer. (My favourite of his lyrics are from the Scream 3 version of "Red Right Hand": "You think you're in his arms but you're in his hands. Still, he seems so cute and true and groovy".) The thing about Cave's lyrics is that they never distract me from my work. They're as rhythmic as the drums or bass. The keep you deep in the music. In "Breathless", for instance, when I hear "the happy hooded bluebells bow and bend their heads all a-down", it's like hearing a percussion break.
2. "La Terza Guerra Mondiale", Adriano Celentano (541 plays)
A perfect pop song about desire. (Well, it's about a woman's breasts, her arse, the Italian renaissance and, unexpectedly, Alexander Manzoni's The Betrothed. But I defy you to listen to it without at least thinking about rubbing up against someone.) Rhythm's the thing, here. It begins with the sound of heels clacking on a floor. That sound becomes the song's driving rhythm, acoustic guitars echo it, Celentano's voice comes in to plead for contact, and the acoustic bass begins to bubble. In a novella I wrote called "A", I quoted from this song. (The lines I used: "… e l'uomo sai chi e? Un certo Alexander che Manzoni fu …".) It was partly because I'd listened to "Terza Guerra Mondiale" so much it had penetrated to the part of my self that does the writing. But it was also because I was writing about death and hospitals. And "desire" seemed the right note to sound against all that whiteness.
3. "A Shebba", Hamid Bouchenak (540 plays)
Rai, pure and simple, from Hamid Bouchnak, a Moroccan prodigy. The horns are fantastic, as compelling as the percussion. The song's synths are kind of cheesy but they works because everything in "A Shebba" serves the rhythm. I have no idea what the song is actually about. It's in a language I don't know. But I still find myself singing along, from time to time. (I have a fear that anyone who watched me writing while "A Shebba" was playing would assume I'm insane.)
4. "Flash Delerium", MGMT (461 plays)
A song that's a journey, from the vaguely middle-eastern beginning to Beach Boys-ish harmonies to a playful flute and then, my favourite section, which begins with the words "Why close one eye and try to pledge allegiance to the sun?". Then a chorus sings against the weird-voiced lead while the song becomes a kind of carnival-ground stomp. No matter what I'm writing, thinking or feeling when this section comes on, I'll find myself singing out the words "My earthbound heart is heavy, your heartbeat keeps things light". (Now that I think about it, it really would be odd listening to me write. I bang on things and sing random bits of song at the top of my voice. But all of this takes me deeper into my work. I felt sympathy for Kafka when I read that he preferred to write late at night because the world was never quiet enough for him. In a way, it's the same for me. I need loud, constant waves of sound to blank out the real world. The opposite of quiet, yes, but for the same effect: to become mindless of the real.)
5. "Anyway the Wind Blows", J.J. Cale (434 plays)
For me, a perfect song to write to, perfect in its imperfections, rattling bass notes and all. With a great, short, slide guitar break. Hearing "Anyway the Wind Blows" makes me want to write. (It's like Dr Pavlov's bell. I hear it and I start looking for a pen.) While writing Fifteen Dogs, I wanted to quote from a song playing loudly in a car. Majnoun, a black poodle, hears the song and suddenly understands its lyrics. I wanted to quote from "Anyway the Wind Blows" ("If time won't tell you then don't ask me, I'm riding on a hurricane down to the sea …") J.J. Cale's estate wouldn't give their permission, so it was cut from the novel. But this and the overture to Wagner's Tannhaüser are what I hear when I think about Fifteen Dogs.
6. "Back to the Life", Spoon (432 plays)
Like Nick Cave's "Breathless" and Celentano's "Terza Guerra", this one uses acoustic guitar like it's a percussion instrument. On top of that, "Back to Life's" middle section is repetitive, creating lovely tension as a violin (or violin-like synth) plays over a simple, driving rhythm. And on top of that, the song makes me think about death, with its references to scythes and a world "not being meant for us both" . You can't get better than that, for me. If a song's not about love, it should be about death. (Best, of course, would be a song about both, but I've listened to "Last Kiss" more times than a human should.)
7. "Breathless", The Corrs (405 plays)
It's a little strange to write about this one because I've exhausted this "Breathless". I've listened to it more than any other song on this list, having reset the counter on it a number of times over the years. I've heard it a thousand times if I've heard it once. And that's at a conservative estimate. In principle, it's a perfect writing-song for me. I love Andrea Corr's voice and, both rhythmically and melodically, the song is insanely catchy. But I've grown sick of "Breathless". The things that attract me in a writing-song – rhythm and melody – now distract me with this one. I'm too aware of everything and, as a result, I feel a kind of irritation when I hear "Breathless" now. Irritation takes me out of my work. I can no longer concentrate when The Corr's "Breathless" is on. Of course, I eventually, inevitably exhaust every writing-song I've ever had. This one has lasted longer than most. (It took many fewer listens before I couldn't stand Scorpions' "Wind of Change".) It sometimes happens that a song will come back to me, though, that I'll be able to listen to it again, to sink into it again. Teenage Fanclub's "Don't Look Back" and The English Beat's "I Confess" both work for me again.
8. "All the Old Showstoppers", The New Pornographers (370 plays)
The New Pornographers are my ideal group. I've exhausted (or almost exhausted) any number of their songs ("Challengers", "The Bleeding Heart Show", "Fake Headlines", "The Electric Version", etc.) What makes them perfect, for me, are Carl Newman's songs (memorable melodies), Neko Case's voice, and Kurt Dahle's drumming. "All the Old Showstoppers" is a fairly representative Newman/New Pornographers song. It begins with the sound of a submarine's sonar then builds to a crescendo, like a great, happy beast rising.
9. "Give the Mule What He Wants", Queens of the Stone Age (350 plays)
I love Queens of the Stone Age anyway but "Give the Mule What He Wants" is made to give you a lift. It starts off with a thunking, fuzzed-out bass, played by Josh Homme. The guitar – also Josh Homme - comes in sounding, first, like sirens and then like heavy machines cleaning a scrap yard along to a fantastic beat. (QoTSA have had a number of great drummers but my favourite is still Alfredo Hernández, who's playing here.) I once listened to this – at three minutes a shot - for about an hour straight while writing Pastoral, my previous novel. My ears were ringing by the end, but I'd done a thousand words. It's been years and I haven't tired of this song. I think it's because the drums are so compelling. (I'm thinking about Nietzsche, here. In The Gay Science, he writes that even the gods are compelled by rhythm. If I remember rightly, Nietzsche thinks this is the reason man invented poetry: rhythm to compel the gods to listen. It's not a bad reason to invent Queens of the Stone Age, either.)
10. "Till the Morning Comes", Neil Young (324 plays)
It would seem, if you were good at choosing music for its effect on your writing, that it'd be possible to devise an ideal order of songs: something to start you off, something to keep your heart pounding while you sit at the desk, something to leave you wanting to come back the next day. And maybe some people can do this. But I can't. At the start of a day, I'm never sure what I want to hear and it sometimes happens that I choose the wrong song. That's a bad way to start a writing day. If I choose the wrong song, I then have to find the right one to get me going. A really bad day is one in which old reliables – like "Till the Morning Comes" or "Cripple Creek Ferry" from After the Gold Rush – don't work. There are days when I can't write because I can't find the music to set me on my way.
11. "Timber, I'm Falling in Love", Patty Loveless (296 plays)
I'm a black Canadian who grew up in Petrolia, a small town in Ontario, Canada. Most of my friends and schoolmates were farm boys or farm girls. A number of them were bussed in to go to St Phillips, my grade school. In grade seven and eight, in the days when my sister Thecla and I would listen to CKLW and make tapes of the top ten songs from motown, my school friends would be listening to country and western. Country and Western was also the music you'd hear around town: at the barber shop, in the post office, at the greasy spoon, wherever. I used to dislike it but, at a certain moment, country and western just started to make sense to me: rhythmically, first of all. "I Walk the Line" and "Jackson" made sense to me as rhythm before anything else. "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" is great for a number of reasons. The drum in it is doing double-duty, meaning-wise. It's the sound of an axe hitting the side of a tree, as well as being the sound of a heart beating. The song's melody is simple. The rhythm guitars are, well, rhythmic. And there's the harmony sung by Vince Gill – one of my favourite voices.
12. "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere", Dwight Yoakum (290 plays)
Like the Patty Loveless, this reminds me of Petrolia. It's my favourite Dwight Yoakum song, by some distance. It's got great guitar playing, lyrics you can drop in on any time (lost love, loneliness), and Dwight Yoakum's voice – which is perfect.
13. "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", The Walker Brothers (283 plays)
I remember an interview with Stephen King during which he said he listened to music loud while he wrote. The same song over and over. And one day his wife, Tabitha, screamed down to him that if he played Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" one more time, she would murder him. I can identify with both sides of that equation. Once, while writing in a cubicle at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), I was listening to "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" over and over and loud enough for the woman in the next cubicle over to hear it though I was wearing headphones. She came over to my cubicle, tapped me on the shoulder and told me that she "knew what I was doing". More: she told me to stop it. She knew that I had recently broken up with a woman and assumed, wrongly, that I was playing the song over and over because I had what Trinidadians call "tabanka" (love sickness, more or less). Heart-broken I may have been but I played the song over and over so I could escape the world, so I could write and not be reminded of my feelings.
14. "The Caterpillar March", Kyuss (265 plays)
The sound of a lumber truck careening dangerously down a steep hill, the driver careless, the passenger nervous but exhilarated. It makes me write like my life was in danger. It's only 1 minute and 56 seconds long but the top and the tail go perfectly into each other, like ouroboros. The only surprise, for me, is that it was written by Brant Bjork not Josh Homme. And that's a surprise only because Josh Homme has written the soundtrack for so much of my writing I assumed he'd written this too.
15. "Brand New Second Hand", Bushman (261 plays)
Written by Peter Tosh. Originally done by the Wailers and then recorded by Tosh on Legalize It, a great album. But this is the version, by Bushman, I prefer at the moment. I recently played it for my mom. She thought it was cruel and went on to complain about how Caribbean men treat women. I hadn't thought about the song that way. And, for months, I wasn't able to listen to it with quite the same pleasure. But songs have significance beyond their lyrics. They're more than a thing I use, more than just a spur to writing. I first heard "Brand New Second Hand" in Buccoo, Tobago where I lived for three months while writing a novel. Listening to it now, I can recall the house I stayed in, the rat (eventually poisoned) that made its nest behind a mattress in my bedroom, and two dogs slyly collaborating to kill one of the many chickens that roamed the yard behind my house. Those two dogs - clever, thoughtful and efficient hunters - are at the origin of my novel, Fifteen Dogs. In short, "Brand New Second Hand" holds a part of my world within it. Whatever else music may be, it is tied to my deepest needs as a human being. And I sometimes wonder if writing isn't, in the end, only one of a number of ways my psyche expresses its longing for music.
Andre Alexis and Fifteen Dogs links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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