February 25, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Keith Lee Morris's novel Travelers Rest is an impressive work of literary horror.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"It says much of Morris's skill that he's able to keep us bewitched and beguiled in this topsy-turvy world with its endless corridors, twisting stairs, and Escher-like surroundings. The novel culminates in an almost operatic grand finale where past and present meet in a satisfying conclusion."
This is my third playlist for Largehearted Boy, and as I sit down to write it, I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing almost constantly for the past three years or so—listening to records on the turntable my wife bought me for Christmas in 2012. This turntable (along with new speakers and receiver) turned out to play a pivotal role in the composition of Travelers Rest, my new novel, so I’m going to pay tribute to this turntable (and to my wife) by talking almost exclusively about records that I listened to on said turntable while I was in the process of writing and editing the novel, and at the same time reading Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, which also played a large part in where the novel was headed at the time.
But first—let me talk about what I was listening to before the arrival of the new turntable, back in the days I would refer to as the “B.T.” (before turntable, obviously) era. These were dark days indeed. Refusing to adapt to the new world of iTunes and Pandora, I stubbornly holed up in a room off of our kitchen where I kept a cheap CD player purchased at Best Buy and a CD rack filled with 500 or 600 CDs. When I wasn’t reading Proust, this is where I would go to work on my new novel, handwriting in a spiral notebook while listening to what I thought was appropriately moody music and hearing vaguely in the distant reaches of the kitchen and living room the ghostly babble of my family as they went about their more 21st century pursuits.
Like I say, I was reading Proust, which is serious business (mostly, anyway), and I was writing a novel about a family that gets lost in a snowstorm and trapped in an old, abandoned hotel, separated from one another in time if not actually in space, each family member awash in a sense of his/her own cosmic aloneness, and slowly realizing that they may not get out alive, at least in the sense of what they thought that word meant prior to the time of their arrival. So, given the nature of the material, I thought I needed to be in a serious mood while I worked—maybe even a downright bad mood, if I wanted to get anything done. I’m sure this made me very pleasant to be around. It also didn’t work, at least beyond the novel’s initial stages. 60 pages, 70 pages—there I was, and I was stuck.
But the music I was listening to on the CD player while I struggled through the early chapters was important to me. My go-to CD was The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. The Caretaker is actually James Kirby, an experimental musician who took old recordings of ballroom music and cut them up into 10-15 second loops that play over and over. He enhances the scratches and pops on the old vinyl and creates a hollow texture and introduces random noises like shuffling and coughing. The result is just about the most haunting, lonesome music you’ll ever hear in this world. I listened to these endlessly repeating loops over and over and over in the early stages of writing the novel, so that I knew the whole CD almost by heart. There are no track listings on the CD cover and no information about the artist—the words “The Caretaker” do not even appear, the cover being simply a picture of an empty picture frame—but you can find them on the Internet. My favorite (if you can call it that) is “Mental Caverns Without Sunshine” (cheery, right?), in which a piano and a double bass play one note simultaneously, then the double bass drops what sounds like two notes on the scale (don’t have a keyboard in front of me to try it out) and then repeats the note twice. That’s it. Those four notes loop again and again for nearly four minutes. At about the two-minute mark, you can hear a kind of shushing sound, like when you put a seashell to your ear. Two tracks later, the same four-note sequence returns, this time accompanied by a faint cough in the background. It’ll break your heart, I swear.
Other than that, there were really only two songs I listened to obsessively while I thought about and worked on the book initially. Those were Cat Power’s “Metal Heart” and Cass McCombs’s “County Line,” both of which will make you cry because they’re so damn pretty and so damn sad. I recommend listening to “Metal Heart” in a dark room with a big moon out the window, “County Line” driving on a deserted two-lane road with a thunderstorm on the horizon.
But it was getting hard listening to these few songs all the time, and I had made myself about as sad as I could get, and, as I say, it didn’t seem to be helping me anymore.
Then came Christmas, and the new record player. The old record player had featured a turntable with a stylus that had to be weighted down by a penny to keep it from skipping and speakers with faulty wiring that would randomly short out, so that my wife had finally gotten tired of trying to interact with me while my head was behind the entertainment center and my only verbal responses were muffled curse words directed at the speaker wire. I was overjoyed with my new stereo system; the problem was I didn’t have very many records. I set about fixing the problem immediately, scouring all the area record stores for used vinyl from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
And what happened was I started having fun. I listened to all my favorite stuff I listened to when I was kid, sometimes re-purchasing records I’d owned 30 or 40 years before (Elton John, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, The Pretenders), sometimes revisiting stuff you weren’t supposed to listen to if you were a high school kid in Idaho trying to look cool—meaning, of course, disco.
Soon I was reading Proust with the record player on, playing 60s and 70s rock and disco and soul and R&B, and my mood was getting lighter, and I was even discovering a sense of humor in my book. And the next thing I knew I was writing like a fiend and even halfway enjoying it. It had taken me about two years to finish the first 70 or so pages; I finished the last 250-300 pages in about six months.
It’s been a really rough stretch for 70s musical icons—within the span of just a little over a month we’ve lost Natalie Cole, Bee Gees manager/producer Robert Stigwood, Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, and Maurice White. The 70s were my musical decade, the formative years in terms of what I liked to listen to, and it’s the music I returned to the most in writing Travelers Rest. So here’s a list of the 70s music that helped me to finish my novel, starting with the stuff I was listening to just to make me feel good:
The Bee Gees, “Nights on Broadway” and Yvonne Elliman, “If I Can’t Have You”: I’ve already written recently about my belated fascination with the Bee Gees—suffice to say that the album Main Course w/ “Nights” and Side 1 of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack w/ the Bee Gees-penned “If I Can’t Have You” were in heavy rotation.
A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “This Love of Ours”: Most disco albums feature a hit track or two and a lot of hastily prepared filler—not so with A Taste of Honey’s eponymous effort, which includes a few gems besides the big hit, “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” one of my favorite disco songs ever with its scratchy guitar line and pinging keyboard. Everybody here tonight must boogie/Let me tell you, you are no exception to the rule. You could do worse than have that as an epitaph.
KC and the Sunshine Band, “Get Down Tonight” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong”: From another excellent self-titled album with strong deep cuts like the second song I mention here. But the undoubted gem even of the three Top 10 hits on this record is “Get Down Tonight,” which has one of the coolest guitar/drum intros of all time. Yes, that’s a guitar you’re hearing—crazy, huh? The producer simply had the idea of doubling the speed and this was the result.
The Ohio Players, “Love Rollercoaster”: In addition to being an awesome song, this one has the advantage of having provided some of the spookiest moments of my childhood. You probably know the urban myth about the woman you hear screaming a few minutes into the song, that she was murdered in the studio next to the one where the Players were recording. It’s not true, of course—it was simply a sound effect that was supposed to represent a frightening ride on a rollercoaster—but my friends and I used to make up grisly details about the murder while we listened to the song at the Beach Hut, where there was a juke box and you could buy ice cream and sno-cones, in my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho in the summer of 1976.
Thin Lizzy, “The Boys Are Back in Town”: Even the Stones never could top this one for just flat-out bad boy rock ‘n’ roll with a keen sense of humor and a healthy dose of I-Don’t-Give-a-Shit. Plus a great melody and you’ve got to love Phil Lynott’s rhythmic delivery on the vocals. Sounds as good as it did when I was 12.
The Supremes, “Up the Ladder to the Roof”: First Supremes hit without Diana Ross. They didn’t miss her a bit on this one, but her absence probably explains why this song wasn’t a bigger hit.
Speaking of Diana Ross—“These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” and “I Thought It Took a Little Time”: I was surprised to discover how many good solo albums Diana Ross strung together through the 70s and 80s—there were some duds in between, sure, but she successfully moved from Motown to R&B to ballads to disco with some great songs along the way. These are from her 1970 self-titled album and her, um, 1976 self-titled album (are we noticing a pattern here?), respectively.
Love Unlimited, “Move Me No Mountain”: Love Unlimited was made up of the three backup singers for Barry White, who are not to be confused with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, which was the backup instrumental section for the three backup singers for . . . ok, it is confusing, but trust me, Love Unlimited’s album In Heat, despite the rather poor taste displayed in the choice of title (one would guess this was Barry’s idea), is a damn good record, especially Side 1, which is downright phenomenal. “Move Me No Mountain,” the first song on the album, is a kind of anti-“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” love song—backed by an insistent, slapping drumline, a healthy dose of Barry White signature strings, and a flute that appears briefly midway, the trio tell the object of their romantic fervor to “Move me no mountain/Turn me no tide/Swim me no ocean/Long, deep, and wide/Just love me, baby/Long, strong and true.”
Three Dog Night, “Out in the Country”: The only song I ever liked by Three Dog Night. When I was in my early 20s, I worked swing shift at a hotel in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and I used to hang out after work at a bar called The Chart Room on the corner of Chartres and Bienville. At about 3 or 4 a.m., fuzzy-headed with beer, I would meander down the lane and stop at another bar on Royal Street, halfway to my apartment, order one last beer, drop 50 cents in the jukebox, and listen to this song.
Earth, Wind, and Fire, “That’s the Way of the World”: My favorite all-time E,W, &F song—RIP, Maurice.
David Bowie, “Golden Years”: I love David Bowie, some incarnations more than others, and this is one of my favorites—I never have understood why this song doesn’t enter the discussion more often when people talk about Bowie’s best.
Olivia Newton John, “Magic”: If you weren’t about 15 years old when the movie Grease came out, you could never possibly understand the shocking transformation of Olivia Newton John from rosy-cheeked girl next door to smoking hot sex symbol—you can watch the video for this song and try to imagine, but nah, it still won’t work. You just had to be there at the time. When this song hit the airwaves, I had just gotten my driver’s license. I was listening to “Magic”—its haunting melody and sultry vocals—on the radio while I pulled into the parking lot at the local movie theater, and my teenage brain became so heated and scrambled as Olivia whispered that last come-hither line—“for yooooou”-----that I locked my keys in the car with the car still running. While my friend laughed at me and called me an idiot, I had to run a mile home to get the extra set of keys and hurry back before the car ran out of gas. That’s what Olivia could do to you back then.
“Entirely Separate Category” Award--Linda Ronstadt, EVERYTHING SHE RECORDED IN THE WHOLE FRIGGING DECADE: Seriously, who knew? I certainly didn’t. I was too busy joining the KISS army and providing air guitar accompaniment to Eddie Van Halen. I remember that Linda Ronstadt was always on the radio—“Blue Bayou” and “Heat Wave” and whatever—but I was barely listening. Then later, in the 90s, if you were into alt-country, you were supposed to acknowledge that Heart Like a Wheel was a classic, which it is—but it may not be her best of the decade. Don’t Cry Now, which immediately preceded it, is about equally strong, and the three albums following Wheel are simply filled with one standout track after another. Five awesome albums in a row, from ’73 to ’78—who else had that consistent a stretch of excellence during the decade? By my count, no one except maybe Steely Dan, who absolutely refused to ever ever ever make a wrong move (which was probably why they inspired such intense dislike in some quarters). Anyway, Linda Ronstadt’s body of work was the biggest surprise of my record-buying spree. There are too many great songs to choose from, but I’ll take “I Can Almost See It,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Try Me Again,” none of which are on Heart Like a Wheel, just to make a point.
Now, there were times during the course of writing the rest of the novel that I would suddenly feel the need to get all sad and melancholy and maybe even a little haunted by memories and nostalgic for my long-lost youth and all the things I couldn’t have back anymore . . . but you don’t want to go down that road till you have to, so I won’t drag you with me. Here are some songs, though, that sent me on that journey when I needed to take it:
10cc, “I’m Not In Love”: I’m kind of fudging a little with this one, because it wasn’t like I really rediscovered it—I don’t think I’ve quit listening to it for any substantial period of time since it was released in 1975. The layered vocals were a minor production miracle at the time, I’m told. I just love how they seem to ripple out forever in time and space. Enough to bring tears to your eyes, but remember, as the song tells you—Big boys don’t cwy/Big boys don’t cwy.
Jefferson Airplane, “Wooden Ships”: I’ve never been a huge Jefferson Airplane fan, but I flipped out over their 1970 album Volunteers and especially this song. Yes, if you haven’t heard it, it is another version of the more famous Crosby, Stills, and Nash recording, but it’s not a cover version—Paul Kantner co-wrote the song with David Crosby and Stephen Stills but wasn’t credited because of some legal issues with his record contract at the time. This version of the song was released on Volunteers only a few months after the C,S,&N version, and while I like both recordings immensely, this one has a very eerie, brooding quality that the other never quite manages, despite the post-apocalyptic lyrics. Maybe it’s the solemn sound of the piano here, the combination of Kantner and Grace Slick’s vocals—whatever it is, this one would hit me hard late at night, when all the rest of my family was in bed. Spent some hours sitting in front of the speakers with the last beer of the evening listening to this one.
Pure Prairie League, “Call Me, Tell Me”—They wrote another song besides “Amy”? Yes indeed, they did, and some better ones, too, arguably, such as this simple love song that soars upward on a string section that sounds like it came straight out of the theme song from The Magnificent Seven—a genius move by none other than, crazily enough, arranger Mick Ronson, who was otherwise known as David Bowie’s lead guitarist. The whole album—Bustin’ Out—is way, way better than you can imagine if you know the band by nothing other than their lone hit.
ELO, “Mister Kingdom”: I’ve taken a lot of grief over the years for my championing of ELO. I loved them as a singles band, but thought they had just one good album, A New World Record—oops, wrong again. One of my big finds was Eldorado, a dreamy, melodic, wandering set that breaks out of its haze only once, with the one obligatory Jeff Lynne rocker tucked in the middle of the album’s 2nd side, which is definitely the weakest point of an otherwise seamless production. “Mister Kingdom,” which opens Side 2, is a blatant Beatles rip-off (yeah, yeah, I know, all Jeff Lynne songs are Beatles rip-offs, boo hoo, cry me a river), this time of “Across the Universe”—but wow, he extends the verse by about two beats and teases it into doing something magical and weird that makes my hair stand on end.
Roberta Flack, “Sweet Bitter Love”: Ok, Aretha fans, you can go ahead and start hating on me now, but this is far superior to the Queen of Soul’s take on this Van McCoy (best-known for “The Hustle”) composition. So simple that it’s painful—just the vocal and Flack accompanying herself on the piano (other than one ill-advised string intrusion), a stunningly beautiful performance that ends on these lines—Sweet Bitter Love/Why have you awakened/and then forsaken/a trusting heart/ like mine?—with Flack’s gentle vibrato on the last word and one quiet note on the piano. You’ll feel like you just fell off a cliff. A real lesson in the potential power of minimalism. Aretha (or her producer, more likely) overcooks the song all the way through.
The Babys, “Every Time I Think of You”: 9th Grade, day of the Christmas Dance. I’ve heard through the grapevine that this girl I have a huge crush on has been telling people she wants to dance with me. I’m so excited I can barely sit still all day. But I start to develop a sore throat. It gets worse and worse, and I’m feeling hot and listless, but I’ll do anything not to miss the dance. I go to basketball practice after school and practically kill myself trying to stick it out, but I’m shivering noticeably while we’re running passing drills. The coach tells me to go home, and I know my mother will give me two aspirin and take my temperature and make me go to bed, and I’ll never get to dance with the girl I have a crush on, who will no doubt find someone else. This is the song that was playing over the loudspeakers while I took one last look around the gym, where the dance was going to be held, at all the girls on ladders hanging bright-colored streamers and giant snowflakes. “Every time I think of you/It always turns out good.” Saddest song I ever heard in my life, under the circumstances. I hope I managed to get half that lost, lonely feeling in the book somewhere.
Keith Lee Morris and Travelers Rest links:
Chicago Tribune interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Call It What You Want
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Dart League King
The Millions interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)