Wednesday, 10 March 2021
The Draftsman’s playlist: music and a novel
I was reading somewhere that authors like to have a particular playlist running in the background while they are working. I cannot imagine anything more annoying or likely to mess up what I am trying to write. But perhaps it depends on the type of music you like and if you like super samey bland stuff, it probably doesn’t interrupt what you are doing. But if you like music that’s in your face and challenging, it’s likely to get you twitching and fidgeting and that’s not good for the typing or the lexical accuracy.
Musicians are for the most part poets too, so words set to music from the likes of Stormzy or Springsteen are going to knock out any other words in one’s head. Like many people for whom music is an intrinsic and constant part of their lives, I do like to see musical references in a novel. There are quite a few in the Draftsman. It wasn’t part of the plan, they just snuck in.
The playlist for book, in no particular order runs as follows:
- Billie Holiday – Isn’t it a lovely day;
- Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree;
- Glenn Miller;
- Lonnie Donnegan – The Party’s Over;
- Richard Thompson;
- Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright;
- Gerschwin – Rhapsody in Blue;
- Louis Armstrong – West End Blues;
- Ma Rainey – Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues;
- My Chemical Romance;
- Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
- Meatloaf – Bat Out of Hell; Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
- Chopin - Nocturnes
This is the point in the blog where I should explain in very erudite language the reasons for having musical references in a novel. They are as follows (according to me, that is):
- Music in a novel makes it more interesting
- Musical references can be used as a narrative device
- Music is a means of shifting the plot
- Song lyrics can remind people of some shared experience
- It’s random, based on what was playing during the writing
- All of the above
- None of the above
These reasons are all subjective and completely depend on the work you’re writing, the target reader and the selection of references. So it’s all rubbish and none of the above is a hard and fast rule.
But perhaps an explanation of the choices I made for the Draftsman is worth exploring, so here goes. For me there is no musician to compare with Billie Holiday. The breadth of her work and interpretations are still astounding and utterly unmatched. Billie was a warrior and she rarely backed down. A fighter who was alone and under attack, deceived and abused for pretty much her entire life. And yet the work she produced is sublime, beautiful, resonant, tender and joyful. It endures and stays ahead her and all times. I even heard Billie singing in Tesco’s over Christmas. I was in the bath and shampoo aisle, and she wafted down “I’ve got my love to keep me warm”. Said it all really.
The Andrews Sisters are a different part of the soundtrack to my life. My sister Candy and I used to mime along to the Andrews Sisters, although the details have faded with lack of use. I just know that whenever I hear the Andrews Sisters I can’t help but think of Candy and her gifted mimes, right down to the accents. Glenn Miller is of a piece with the Andrews Sisters in many ways, but mostly I love his work because it takes a catchy tune and breaks all the rules with complicated yet accessible arrangements. Defiant and up and positive. I don’t know if he and Billie ever played together though they had lots of colleagues in common.
Lonnie Donnegan was once, a very long time ago, a part of my life and has echoed over the years for diverse reasons. The song referenced in the Draftsman, played at the protagonist’s father’s funeral, is not one that Donnegan was very famous for. But my dad once told me what it was about and, since it is about the end of an affair, I find it deeply poignant and tender. And I don’t know whether Uncle Tony had lots of affairs (probably) but if he did, the song adds another dimension to the man. It also reminds me that my own affair with a married man might have ended very differently, and not in our very happy marriage.
I could not overlook Richard Thompson in this book, not least because he’s up there with the poets, and also writes clever tunes and snazzy arrangements. Although we are both English, it took an American, my first husband Todd, to get me to listen Mr Thompson’s music. There were lots of girls at school keen on Fairport Convention et al but I became too obsessed with Elton John, Billie Holiday and Gerschwin to notice much else.
And Elton John’s was the first non-Jazz gig I ever went to. I was newly arrived back in London following a few silent years at a school in Brooklyn, and Jacqui Smith asked me if I would like to go to see Elton John play at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. I was 14, intensely lonely and still wallowing in the ugly facts of the previous five years. And I had no idea who Elton John was. I said yes straightaway and loved every moment of the gig. I even got to see Marc Bolan who came on at the end. I only noticed because Jacqui screamed so very loud and dragged me to the stage. I’d never heard of Marc Bolan either, and he just looked like all the others on the stage. Maybe bigger hair. Now the memory brings back the colours and the noise, the stink of sweaty men and an audience who knew the words to all the songs. In Croydon.
At that time I was still more interested in jazz but was trying to be more grown up, to pull forwards. I don’t know where I first heard Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but I fell in love with it and still it’s one of my favourite things to listen to. It brought me closer to Alison Taylor at school. Alison was a classical violin and piano player extraordinaire, bent on defying her parents ambitions for her by embracing jazz. Gerschwin was as close as it got. Gerschwin and then my dad because her boyfriend Billy liked him. Billy was aware of my dad before he was aware of me which Alison thought dusted my dad with glitter. I rather liked that. Nowadays I rarely listen to Gerschwin because Alison always jumps up to sing along with me. Ba ba ba baa ba baba baaa baaa. She died some years ago, but I still can hear her. All of us who knew and loved her can still hear her.
No one with an interest in jazz can overlook Louis Armstrong, a man whose presence in my life has recently become much more vivid. You won’t hear a more inventive bit of horn playing anywhere than Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues. Our friend Winfried in Berlin, one of my dad’s oldest and most loyal fans has a Louis archive from 1963. He’s bequeathed to the Louis Armstrong museum in Queens and it’s fantastic to browse. Winfried calls him St Louis Armstark.
I don’t know what made me reference Ma Rainey and Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues but I think it was probably the fact that her real name is Gertrude Pridgett and I have always loved that. She also sings in a moany sort of way that has echoes in the vocals of Bessie Smith and of course the sainted Billie.
When it comes to My Chemical Romance this is not a band I have ever much listened to. I think the reference weaselled its way into the Draftsman because my daughter Hannah was a big fan. I remember collecting her and a friend, Christian, I think he was called, from a gig in Brighton. They had explained to me that I wouldn’t need to park, always a struggle in Brighton, and that I would be able to find them because they dressed so distinctly. “We’ll stand out, so you’ll find us”. I think they were about 15. I got to the venue and tried to spot them, superbly camouflaged amongst hundreds of other teenagers in black jeans, white shirts, all black eyed and scowling. Hannah’s white blonde hair was fortunately unique amongst the throng.
Don’t you just love Meatloaf? He’s so loud and tender, in your face with his gentleness and the whole of the Bat Out of Hell album is unrelenting brilliance. It’s Meatloaf’s first album and I have never understood how work that is so melodic and poetic could be called Heavy Metal. Its honesty and poesy are probably why it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time.
And what book would be complete without a reference to Queen? I had a very wealthy boyfriend who was ten years older than me when Bohemian Rhapsody came out. Another nine minutes plus long song. He gave me the album for Christmas and I wasn’t particularly thrilled (Elton still ruling). But I still have the album and as Elton faded into blah blah, Queen just kept on getting better and better and I was hooked. No so on the boyfriend, despite the Rolls Royce and the Jensen Healy. They couldn’t begin to make up for a total absence of personality.
Towards the end of the novel when the Draftsman is hiding up in the woods from friends and family, he hears music drifting up to his secret place. I don’t know why it had to be a Chopin Nocturne: they were all down there at a barbeque and you really would have thought something a little more upbeat would have been playing. Except as the Draftsman’s torn and twisted psyche was fighting to right itself, Chopin would have been high on his agenda as he put together the party’s playlist.
Martin Cox’s musical interests are actually a lot denser than I realised in writing the book. Just another part of the man that I only started to understand as the book went on. He’s stayed hidden for most of his life, so I suppose I should be glad that he clambered into my head to share himself on the page, even if only a little bit.