Words and Music

This blog first appeared on the site Large Hearted Boy – which is dedicated to the intersection of music and literature.  I highly recommend you check it out.  Anyway, they asked me to create a playlist of the music that influenced the writing of THE WANTING.  Here it is:


Okay, this is going to be a very odd playlist.  First off, I never listen to music when I write.  I used to, but I found I was writing in whatever mood the music was setting instead of what was actually inside me.  I discovered I require silence.  But that doesn’t mean music isn’t vital to me and my work.  It not only appears within my stories, but it helps me find my writing vibe, so to speak.  It sort of leads me to the well and then leaves me there to drink in peace.  Or fall in, depending.

So here is a rundown of the music that either made it into my new novel, THE WANTING, or had some impact on its creation.


1.  Personal Jesus, Depeche Mode.

I actually am not a big fan of electronic music, but without one such group, I may not have had the courage to write (and to do many other things in my life).  It was way back in 1996, and I was in L.A. on a shoot, for what product I don’t remember.  I was staying at the then (and maybe now, for all I know) ultra-hip Sunset Marquis with my producer, who was also my girlfriend, and we decided to stop in the bar one evening, a smallish but stylish room, with couches instead of chairs, or maybe they were banquettes, I don’t recall.  Very soon, my producer – let’s call her Jessica – caught the eye of some sleazy-looking guy who began to chat her up.  He had that classic English rocker look: and an armful of tattoos, dark, matted hair, and a kind of frenetic air.  Naturally I stepped between him and Jessica, but because I couldn’t think of anything smart to say, I just asked him what he was doing in L.A.  He said he was a musician, and I said, Oh, what band? and he said Depeche Mode, and I (please don’t laugh) replied in all honesty, “Sorry, never heard of it.”  Which, as it turned out, were words of gold.  Before I knew it, we were deep into a personal conversation – about his life and mine:  his dependence on drugs, the downward spiral of his life, how deeply he worried about his son – all of which touched profoundly.  I myself had been going through a divorce, was concerned with my own son’s welfare, and various other things that could have messed up my life, so I felt I could relate.  On we went for an hour, maybe more – the guy just needed to spill and felt he could because I hadn’t a clue who he was (I actually thought he was a burnt-out singer from some failed little opening act).  At last Jessica said it was time to go.  As soon as we were in the elevator, she upbraided me, “You really have no clue who that was?”  And then she took me through the last ten years of rock history.  To this day I can’t be sure which band member it was.  Doesn’t matter.  Because I learned two important lessons from that chance meeting.  The first is that ignorance can be a blessing.  It keeps you truly open and allows others to enter freely.  It helps you see things as they actually are, not as fame or notoriety has fashioned them.  Secondly, I saw more clearly than I had in many years how lucky I had been, how precious were the things in my life I’d taken for granted, and, in reviewing the traumas of my own life, how I fortunate I had been not to succumb to devastating self-destructive behavior.  It was time to move on with my life – and that’s what I did.  Thank you, Personal Jesus!


2.  A Thousand Days and Desert Rose, Sting  Every time I listen to these two cuts from Brand New Day  I get the same reaction I did when I first heard them: euphoria.  Transmigration to another world, another mode of thought – foreign yet somehow familiar.  Let’s face it, the guy’s a genius and he’s got a great voice, but what these songs do for me is remind me that the world is filled with beautiful difference and if you listen hard enough you can find all the intricate patterns of the universal human experience.  This was critical in THE WANTING, in which I portray a young Palestinian kid who eventually becomes a suicide bomber (not a spoiler – you learn this on page 1) – a kid whom I learned to love in the process of coming to understand him by entering, to the best of my ability, into his world.   It was daunting and incredibly rewarding, and I listened to A Thousand Days and Desert Rose many, many times during those years of writing.


3.  Just about anything by Vladimir Vysotsky.  Please immediately go to youtube and listen to anything he recorded.  If you love soulfulness, it will be hard for you not to fall under his spell.  Vysotsky was the voice of disaffected Soviet youth in the 60’s and 70’s, and I love everything he ever sang even though I can’t understand a word of it unless I see it in print.  His voice is like the grinding of broken gears, the rasp of a thousand years of pain.  But his songs, in translation, can be funny, bitter, romantic, acrimonious, sexy, generally criminal — and always passionate.  In an early version of THE WANTING I quoted some of his lyrics, which possibly I translated myself, and if so, probably incorrectly.  It went like this:   I saw the bar.  A lot of fun, and many sexy women.  Paradise for a drunk — but for me? Prison!  Impossible to get the feeling of the song, which is like a machine gun to the heart, impossible in mere words to communicate what it means to listen to Vysotsky.  So I cut his song from the text and added another form of underground Russian protest song called chastushki.  These were sometimes made up on the spot, but mostly were passed around orally, like musical samizdat.   Here’s one from the book that my friend Sasha Ortenberg told me: Uncle Saveli had a trick/ broke three boards with one stroke of his dick/ Just another confirmation/ of the growing might of the Soviet nation!  You cannot write about Russia without imbibing its music.  And once you do, it stays with you always.


Me not writing.  Thank you, Cold Play.

Me not writing. Thank you, Cold Play.

4. Everybody Knows Ehud Banai.   I listened to a lot of Israeli music in preparation for writing THE WANTING – my favorite character is a 13 year old girl, and of course music is important to her.  The action takes place in the ‘90s, so much of the music I listened to was older – fine with me, since I like oldies.  Banai was very popular back then and still records and his music has quite a bit of depth.  The song that I felt most closely spoke to my character, Anyusha, was Everybody Knows.  It’s a ballad about the fleeting nature of life and love – so true for people living on the edge as they do in Israel, never knowing if it all will come crashing down.  The song, though, is also one of hope:  by asserting the tenuousness of our condition it embraces the poetry of experience – and the bittersweet power of love.


 5.  Tudo Bem!, Joe Pass and Paulinho da Costa.  I love guitar – guitar in any form – classical, jazz, flamenco, rock, folk – it is by far my favorite instrument.  One of my all time favorite guitarists is Joe Pass and one of my favorite albums is Tudo Bem! Recorded in 1978 and then re-mastered in the ‘90s across the bay in Berkeley; it’s one of my go-to albums when I’m blue, or stuck, or need a drink.  Scotch with a Brazilian kick – what could be better?   Joe Pass also has an amazing album he did with Ella F. – a kind of perfection of voice and string.  The whole thing with Latin jazz – I can’t get enough of it.  My friend Russ Hamer, who happens to now live in Brazil, is a scientist and also a brilliant salsa dancer – they call him “Dr. Dance” — he made a series of mixes for me that include people and groups like Eddie Palmiere, Manolito, Oscar D’Leon, Charanga Cubana, Juan Fornell y los Van Van, that I still listen to even though the mixes are ten years old.  The lead character in my first book, NOT ME, was a comedian.  Another of my best friends, who died very young, was a comedian, and I think the book in part was working through that truncated relationship.  But he was also a guitarist, and one of the best I’ve ever heard.  A white kid from the south, he’d play black clubs in places like Memphis – he was so smooth, his licks so tasty.  He introduced me to bossa nova, to George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and of course Joe Pass.  All things are connected.


6.  Local Color, Mose Allison.  Okay, let me stay with the ancient jazz motif for just one more minute.  I LOVE Mose.  Love, love, love, love.  Is that enough love for ya?  His singing style is what I would love my writing style to be  (but isn’t).  His lyrics exhibit everything I love about turning words into swords.  And his piano is – well – love on ice.  So witty, so clean, so weirdly Satie.  This may not be his best album, but the cut Lost Mind is as classic Mose Allison as it gets:  If you would be so kind/ to help me find my mind/ I want to thank you in advance.  I mean, come on.  Who writes like that?  I put this album on at every dinner party and always with the same results: as soon as he starts singing, my wife tells me to turn it down.  But I don’t care.  It’s love.


7.  I Kissed a Girl, Katy Perry and Yellow, Cold Play.  I mention these two together because they remind me of who I used to be and how far I’ve come.  Once upon a time I was in advertising – a writer and then a director – and one day an art director I partnered with introduced me to Cold Play when they first emerged.  She wanted to use their opening cut Don’t Panic in a commercial (not to be), but I used them for inspiration.  I must have listened to that first album (Parachute) a thousand times, but Yellow is the song that best represents them in my mind.  Aside from their haunting melodies, it’s nice when a lead singer actually has a great, unique voice.  Katy Perry is a different story.  Near the end of my career I wrote scenarios and dialogue for various celebrities who were doing infomercials – not that many of them knew it was me putting words in their mouths (and not that they actually said them!).  I wrote copy for Jamie Lee Curtis (Pilates), Susan Lucci (dermabrasion), Tom Selleck (self-actualization), Heidi Klum (skin care), plus Kelly Clarkson, Selena Williams, and Jessica Simpson (zit control).  I’d listen to long interviews they’d given with the sponsor and then try to write something that was vaguely in their tones of voice.  Katy Perry was the last I ever did – also for acne, which apparently was fairly severe at some point – and the story she told was incredibly honest and vulnerable and totally normal.  So different from the persona on stage, it seemed to me.  I kind-of fell for her, I guess.  I wasn’t at the shoot.  They say she was wonderful to work with.  And I was glad my last ad copy was for her.


8. Violin Concerto in D, Brahms.  There’s something about the music that reveals itself to you early in life – your first opera, your first symphony —  that creates a life-long love affair.  You just can’t outgrow it.  For me it’s the Brahms Violin Concerto in D.  It’s unabashedly romantic, totally over the top, verging on treacley.  Who cares?  It’s mine.  It used to be a specialty of Fritz Kreisler, and his D was amazing, but Heifitz played it too, also amazing, and Joshua Bell, (amazing, amazing), and Isaac Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter, Isaac Stern, Vadim Repin, and ….. amazing, amazing, amazing!   I guess everyone wants a ride on the D-train.  When I am uncertain of the whole project of art, I listen to the D.  When I need to be elevated, released from earthly care, teleported into that alternative universe of endless possibility, I listen to the D.  When I want to wallow in the maelstrom of human emotion, when I to feel the full force of life’s confusion and sadness,  I listen to the D.  Probably it’s because this music touched me when I was a teenager and still radically open and unformed, still searching for meaning, still so certain of my powers and unafraid of consequences.  Maybe it brings back those feelings or maybe it lets me know that kid is still me and the world can still be an open path.  That’s Brahms.  Of course, if I need a shot of reality to remind me how limited I really am, I can always listen to Beethoven.


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