Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Why I bothered to write The Story of John Nightly
The Story of John Nightly by Tot Taylor
My (very long and involved) one thousand page novel The Story of John Nightly will be published by the esteemed UNBOUND. At present they are crowdfunding the book, particularly the print - which is (obviously) going to be expensive. Friends told me it was self-indulgent to write such a long thing but having observed the everyday woes, particularly financial and psychological, facing so many of the truly gifted individuals I have had both the pleasure and the misfortune to encounter, I wanted to find some kind of platform to give them the space they deserved. So I carefully wrapped them up into a handful of characters to play out my ‘work of pure fiction’. And that is…
Why I bothered to write The Story of John Nightly…
Damn! I’m sitting here minding my own business about to devour a cheese sandwich. Been looking forward to it all morning. Suddenly a whole load of ‘writing’ comes upon me. Shit! I’d rather stay with the soft white bread, but aware that the ribbon has descended, I know I must abandon it and open up the detested laptop.
(For a start) I never expected to spend fifteen years of my life writing The Story of John Nightly - or any time at all for that matter. I never expected to be writing a novel in the first place. The word ‘writer’ embarrasses me, just as the word ‘musician’ always has. What I am is a ‘creator’ - in general, a ‘composer’… ‘inventor’, if I’m lucky. What I create, compose and invent is words and/or music.
I had read about how RLS had invented Treasure Island to keep his nephew amused. He’d written it quickly - the story laid out overnight - and drawn the map as well. I was aware that James Hilton had knocked out the devastating Lost Horizon in a couple of months - though I also knew that John Fowles had written, rewritten, then rewritten the rewrite, before remixing, reproducing and remaking from scratch the already published (and best-selling) Magus over a very long period from the early 1950s even after its publication (1977)*. Richard Wagner worked on his final masterpiece Parsifal for all of forty-three years. The subject matter of these works - psychological treasure, youth, age, struggle, glory, rise and fall - and their prolonged, difficult births must have all fed into The Story of John Nightly.
Anyway, it happened like this…
I was in Bristol doing some recording, sometime around the early nineties. I got into a mini-cab on the way to the railway station. The driver was a bit groovier than usual. He had a vibe. It didn’t take me long to figure that this was my childhood hero, bass-player in an heroic era-defining band on the venerable Island label. Why was this former coolcat driving a mini-cab (in Bristol) ? Couple of days later back in the studio in London, a guy was sweeping up end of session debris. He made some kind of unusually incisive remark about the track we were working on. I recognised the (still youthful) cleaner as the teenage frontman of one of the all time classic 60s one-hit-wonders (one of the most significant…still heard daily on the radio), yet here he was sweeping my studio floor. Not long after that a bricklayer who came to fix my roof, admitted that he was now “back on the building site”, as he put it, after having played drums on “at least nine” bona fide Top Ten hits during the punk era.
The music business is tough, and fame is (almost always) brief. After an initial, generally time-compressed, period of creative activity - or ‘spirit-wind’ as I refer to it in the novel - what the hell are these people to do but go back to the drudgery of everyday life? I began to think about all those (thousands of) future ex-pop stars? My own pre-pubescent idols. The teenage monsters who enthralled me as a five year old wide-eyed dope, opened me up as a ten year old dreamer, beat me up as a fifteen year old manically busy aspirator, and those who amazed and inspired me when I myself was a (supposedly established) backroom studio wizard.
What happened to these individuals? These golden children? That was to be the essence of it - John Nightly’s story. Could their lives be combined within a single character? Maybe a handful of characters who, battling with the effects of simply being born a bit too gifted, ‘too clever for their own good’, would suffer for the rest of their lives from what Mr Micawber called being ‘under pressure of pecuniary liabilities’. Maybe they ‘survived’, their financial wealth intact, they just weren’t famous anymore. As crippling psychologically if you’re a naturally creative, self-taught music-obsessed egotist (like myself) who wants and needs to be loved - not for who they are, but for what they do.
After three or four years of weighing it up. Another couple of years compiling, devouring hundreds of remaindered books about how people in other occupations and in other eras had dealt with their all too brief ‘spirit wind’, I began to write.
Christmas 2000, I was in the music-room watching a programme about canna plants, followed by a documentary about tides and their wider effect on the weather and on our world in general. That set a scene. I went to my desk and wrote fifty/sixty pages in a brand new exercise book which had been waiting patiently, ready to receive my ‘golden ribbon’. In fact, I had kept buying new notebooks, in anticipation of the act, never doubting that my inspiration was a-coming. They lay unused. Piled up on the windowsill behind.
That day, I scribbled as fast as my fingers and brain would go, a whole wodge of writing. And that whole wodge is still, more or less, the introductory section of the novel. It describes a meeting, then another meeting, with the same characters, thirty years on. One dramatic scene in the present then the same dramatic scene twenty years previous on another continent. The settings are a kitchen in Cornwall, a madhouse in LA, an ex-vicarage, a China clay pit, a Lyceum ballroom, a terraced house in Cambridge, a rock face, a market garden, a piano-smashing contest, a free festival.
The magoos are the Top Twenty countdown, a churchwarden’s manual, a tides timetable, a Methodist hymnbook, a muse’s cookbook, a scratched bootleg, a gold disc, a Jetstar bass guitar, a mellotron, the score to Holst’s Planets, a child’s violin, a skipping-rope. Places, Times ... Births, Marriages and Deaths which feed into the tale, taking my characters from oblivion to the stars and back. In and out of orbit. In and out of tune - and Time.
To read that very first chunk go to
- there’s a film of myself and John Mitchinson of UNBOUND speaking about the book. It really has taken a long time but we’re on the last leg. A whole load of copy-editing, pages and scenes to be cut, an index to expand, record and book catalogue numbers to check, song lyrics still to be written. What happens is that you press RECORD, then PLAYBACK, then you press FAST FORWARD and REWIND at the same time. Just like life itself.
UNBOUND are 25% there in raising the money to print the damned thing which is of course four times ‘normal novel length’. We know that. But the damned thing is coming out, believe me. And … it’s one hell of a read.
Tot Taylor - Christmas 2015
* John Fowles decided to completely rewrite/revise and then republish The Magus in 1977 when the novel was already an international bestseller. The Magus was first published in 1965, but Fowles admitted he had been writing it “since the early 1950’s”.
The film of me speaking about the book is here - and the PLEDGE button is next door to it ! Get down there quick...it's a real teenscene...
John Nightly’s Cambridge college scarf and ebook