In my last journal entry, One Year Later, I touched upon the challenge of maintaining narrative consistency in my writing. Beyond those initial paragraphs, I wrote a great deal more on the subject: a tangent that flourished into this reflection, an inherently incomplete account of the importance of music to my writing.
As self-contained art that I can reference outside of myself, certain songs have emerged as cornerstones of the realities and characters of Perchance and Letters from the Waste. Some music motivates the textural furnishings of atmosphere and pacing; recently, when I write horror scenes, I often listen to the eeriest piano music that I can find to put myself on edge. Other songs strike something deeper, unveiling narrative depths and possibilities that I myself have yet to fully understand.
In spite of all its overt horror, I have often thought that Perchance depends upon the perturbing, not the terrifying. This is a difficult clarification to make and is not the same as the Victorian distinction between terror and horror. The best way to think about it is through music, listening to a song like The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman,” which itself showed up in Perchance: Part X. This version of the song opens up with a strange clicking, one that I always felt to be similar to the stride of someone running away in fear. Otherwise, the song itself sounds like a simple delight, a fantasy both in lyrics and in harmonies. I never trusted it though, whether because of that initial tapping or because, at its core, the song felt to me like a lie, a call to manipulation. Listen to many popular songs of the former half of the twentieth century: Ray Noble’s “Midnight, The Stars and You”–not simply due to the song’s horrific lack of an Oxford comma in its title, Kubrick seemed astute in using this song to close his film The Shining–Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” Whispering Jack Smith’s “Me and My Shadow,” to name just a few. (For that matter, anything by Whispering Jack Smith.) To me, they are cold and remote, not unlike the ethereal chill of a ghostly presence. To me, they feel unsettling, like mouthless voices wafting through the faux-gilded halls of an ancient, empty Hollywood hotel. These songs are the white sheets draped over abandoned furniture. They serve excellently as a façade, producing the same sense of perturbedness as the oft-used trope of moving eyes in a painting. There’s something blank to them, hollow, worse than death in their tinny immortality, and that is what makes them the perfect backdrop for fractured moments and particular characters in Perchance.
While reading James Baldwin this past semester, I encountered in his essay The Fire Next Time his description of a similar sensibility (more incisively stated) towards this era of music, as he observed the presence of a cultural disaffection common to the twentieth century’s early tunes. “White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad…–sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices” (311): amputated from reality, these unworldly songs proved perfect as binding cords of insufficient identities and false narratives. Their fatuousness can serve as a powerful lure, a siren song to self-delusion. When writing, I listen to these songs to comprehend the forced barrenness of Perchance’s world, with the knowledge that the revelation of that pervasive barrenness is more fearful than any corporal monster I could construct. This is not to say that this era or genre of music is bad in itself–context does a lot–or that enjoying it now is wrong. This is to say that if it were the only music in a world, that world would be a dismal one. That world would be utterly sterile. Haunted, even.
With similar instincts, I have written The Puritan of Letters from the Waste with an attachment to so-called “Oldies,” updated a little bit closer to the days of early rock but with a sprinkling of Sinatra flare. Indeed, The Puritan’s demeanor is meant to emanate a darker version of the magnetism present in Sinatra and Elvis Presley’s music. The Puritan conceives of himself as an icon, a burning symbol, the manifestation if Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust became a televangelist instead of a musician. He is larger than life, and he is quite aware of it. After all, I think it takes a certain unsavory, evil kind of person to unironically have Sinatra’s “My Way” be their favorite, defining song. The ego! I digress.
A necessary confession: I still love classic rock and older music. I like a lot of music. But it does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Like stories, musical compositions converse with each other, and our present reality, to form the stories and narratives we live by. Like letters, they correspond.
One tremendous example of this, an interconnected contrast that has informed my thought process when drafting Letters from the Waste, is the real-world correspondence between three songs: “Comme d’habitude” by Claude Francois, “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, and “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie. While I could probably write an entire treatise on the relationship between these three songs, the rough history speaks for itself.
If you’re reading this now, and you have the means, stop and listen to “Comme d’habitude,” followed by “My Way.” If you did not have the means, allow me to attempt to describe it as best I can: the two are aural duplicates. They are the same tune. Sinatra’s “My Way” is undoubtedly more well known that Francois’ “Comme d’habitude,” but it was the French “Comme d’habitude” that existed first, composed and performed in 1967. Eventually, the song came to Sinatra’s attention, at which point he obtained the rights to the rough melody (not the lyrics) of the song in 1969. The English lyrics were in turn composed for him by a man named Paul Anka. It was here that the songs diverged: while Francois’ song lyrics focus upon the unraveling of a romance when confronted by the monotony of repetition and routine in daily life–“Comme d’habitude” translates to the remorseful phrase “as usual”–Sinatra’s song seemingly celebrates the boldness of a man at the end of something, whether a career or a lifetime. Both songs have a sense of finality, but, despite their common tune, one can sense the deviation between the two songs.
Now, if you can, listen to Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” While certainly different, it possesses a lilt not entirely dissimilar to the carrouselesque glide of the former two songs. This is not a coincidence. In 1968, between the original “Comme d’habitude” and the derivative “My Way,” Bowie wrote English lyrics for and nearly obtained the rights to the melody of “Comme d’habitude,” before Sinatra. He was unsuccessful. Still, those unused lyrics eventually informed the composition of my personal favorite of the bunch, Bowie’s spectacular “Life on Mars?” Where the other songs explored topics of stale passion and self-centered, victorious reflection, Bowie’s song offers a unique, complex, and, most of all, surreal allegory of individual and societal alienation. Across a short span of time, these songs offer quite different stories, despite their common wellspring.
Tempered in their own ways, they do seem to gravitate towards a common theme, although from rather different angles: isolation. “My Way” leaves a sane listener (or, perhaps, just me alone, in which case I’m just being arrogant in my attestation of taste–oh, the irony) with the impression of a man who has utterly isolated himself from genuine human connection in his crusade for dominance and the lofty ideal of genuine self-expression. “Comme d’habitude” offers the perspective of a lover increasingly isolated from his counterpart. “Life on Mars?” uses the isolation of a young girl to typify all of society’s alienation from itself, in its relationships, in its art, and in the very question mark in the song’s title. Layers of isolation: isolation of self through self-delusion, isolation of self from mutual disaffection, isolation of self as a result of total societal apathy; alienation of one, alienation of two, alienation of everybody.
The songs are vastly different. They are also vastly complementary, if one considers their narratives. They can be made to converse. Of course, the same could be said for any songs or any works of art. These three only show especially that, out of common mechanics and tools within the respective art, many meanings can be grafted to the same basic scaffold. Likewise, many meanings can be received.
Receive your own meanings from the playlists below. Whether you listen while reading my stories (which would be awesome; I wish that my stories came with the soundtracks that I play inside my head while writing. For my own enjoyment, I have written passages to specific rhythms and audio cues) or in other settings, perhaps you will hear some of the conversations that I hear present amongst the songs and their characters. Almost certainly, you will find your own characters within them as well:
Perchance: Playlist #1
- “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees
- “Przebudzenie Jakuba” by Krzysztof Penderecki
- “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by The Mamas & The Papas
- “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes
- “Lontano” by Gyorgy Ligeti
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beetles
- “Your Love” by The Outfield
- “After Hours” by The Velvet Underground
- “Terrified” by Childish Gambino
- “Polymorphia” by Krzysztof Penderecki
- “Lark” by Au Revoir Simone
Letters from the Waste: Playlist #1
- “My Way” by Frank Sinatra
- “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley
- “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle
- “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
- “Heaven On Earth” by The Platters
- “This Is America” by Childish Gambino
- “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie
- “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar
- “You’re the Devil in Disguise” by Elvis Presley
- “II. Earth: The Oldest Computer” by Childish Gambino
- “Comme d’habitude” by Claude Francois