Monday, March 7, 2011

How Pink Floyd and My Dad Made Me a Writer

    I am a music freak who is a terrible musician. I took piano for six years.  Every year's recital was the same story.  I'd play the first four measures. Then I'd play them again.  And again, my musical memory as stubbornly stalled as a balky mule. With a sigh, my piano teacher would hand me my music, and the show would go on. I took classical guitar with similar results. I have sung in choirs for years, but give me  a two note solo, and I sound like a thirteen-year-old boy going through "that changing voice thing."  I love music; I'm just not a musician. A music lover who writes.

   I never realized how much music influenced my writing until I was critiqued by an Award Wining Writer who I knew was also a music freak. I sweated bullets, waiting to hear I'd written yet another piece of junk.  AWW looked up and asked...."Were you a music major in school?"  Oh no. This was going to be he worst kind of critique;  the snarky kind. Somehow AWW knew my musical history and say I was as talentless at writing as I was at piano.

    "Um, no," I stammered. "Drama major."Such a weird question since the story had nothing whatsoever to do with music, musicians or freaking out at recitals.

     "Odd," said AWW.  "Do you play an instrument?"

    AWW had a kind voice and mild manner that snookered me into admitting my Miserable Musical Past.  But he wasn't giving up on his theory, whatever it was.  "Are your parents musicians?"

    Trying to keep a straight face, i told him my father was an FBI agent who had played high school trombone, my mother a Russian translator for the National Security Agency, and both of them were absolutely tone deaf.

    My critique time I was running out, and I still didn't know what AWW thought of my story, so I cut to the  chase.

    "Not to be rude, or anything," I began in the humble-sort of voice one uses talking to Award Winning Authors, "but what does this have to do with my story?"

    AWW tapped his glasses on the desk. "I don't understand," he said.  "You write like a musician."

    "Well, I am kind of a music freak," I offered.  "I usually write to music."

    "Aha!" AWW exclaimed. "What kind of music?"

    I figured "everything" was too general a response, although true. On the the other hand listing the musical genres I had heard in childhood would be too specific, to say nothing of bring. So I told him about my dad.

   My dad, former first chair high school trombonist whose tiny rural high school won a national high school band competition his senior year, is a music nut job, a phrase not often used to describe FBI Agents. After work,when other Mad Men era fathers might go straight from work to Martiniville, my dad made a beeline to his "hi-fi" system. He'd pile the spindle (remember spindles?  remember LP's?) with anything from Harry Belafonte and Mahalia Jackson to Mahler and Mozart. Our house was wall to wall music until bedtime. As an adult, I realize he wasn't your average music lover.  Music was his release from had to be the most stressful job in America.

    I did my homework to Carmen and Copeland and Beethoven's Ninth (which I still think of as The CBS News theme.)  Mahler's First Symphony still brings back memories of my war with Algebra I. According to my mother, the only thing that shut me up when I was teething was the "Circus Band" section of Walter Piston's The Incredible Flautist.  I fell asleep to whatever was on the local classical radio station. Whenever my mother couldn't take the pressure of living in Mississippi in the 60's, she would break out her secret stash of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I still play Tijuana Taxi and Spanish Flea as a cure for Them Old Book Rejection Blues.

   Dad's tastes ran to classical organ, marching bands and anything Beethoven, but he was no musical snob. He introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd and the eighteen minute version of the Chambers Brothers Time Has Come Today. I often wondered what J. Edgar Hoover, a man with an incredibly rigid set of standards for his agents, would say about Dad's "inner musical freak." When 8-tracks got hot, Dad was first in line for his player. (A fortunately short-lived trend, since Dad was going through a George Jones/Willie Nelson stage, and the only 8 track was in his bathroom. At 87, my dad has not only moved on to CD's (but not Ipod) and is planning to transfer his 12,000 LP 's (no, there is not an extra 0) in there to CD with some new gizmo he's found.

    "Well, there you are," said AWW. (Remember him and my critique?)  "You wrote as a child and absorbed all this music into your creative mind." He finally began the critique, pointing out the rhythm of my prose. Staccato here, legato descriptions.  Similes involving squeaky clarinets, out-of-tune guitars, the pure tone of a Bechstein piano.  And the music references---the Beatles, Benny Goodman, Vladimir Horowitz. Well, duh, Mary Ann.   How could you have missed all that?

   I missed it because music is so much a part of who I am, that I didn't think anything of it when it turned up in my writing.  I can't imagine writing in utter silence. The few times I have been forced to, I wind up playing Boggle on my laptop.  There is a musical "prescription" for everything. When I am working on a picture book, I haul out the Tijuana Brass.  Dramatic or sad scenes call for Mahler or Erich Korngold who composed a lot of movie scores in the 30's and 40's.

  When I am writing historical fiction, I research the music of the period more than all the other details put together. The music is my private time-machine, sending me instantly to my setting, with my characters dancing in its wake. Thanks to the five years I spent writing Yankee Girl, my 16-year-old not only knows the lyrics to every Beatles, Beach Boys, Supremes or Temptations song, she can tell you who sang lead, who was on keyboard, etc. Living with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman during the Jimmy's Stars years were fun for me, but not so much for the rest of the family (although Lily fell in love with the song Pistol Packin' Mama, of all things.)  The music envelopes me and my fictional world so completely, it takes me about an hour to re-orient myself to 2011 when I finish for the day.

   Right now, I am "living" in 1925. Thanks to Dad, who is also on every catalog list known to man, I found an obscure company that transfers pre-World War II recordings to CD.  When they hear "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" or "The Tiger Rag" coming from my office, the family flees to their Ipods or the neighbors.  I hardly notice; my characters and I are off somewhere doing the Charleston.

    But maybe Lily, my daughter, has absorbed more of her mom's "weird" musical soul than she knows.
When she competed in her first figure skating competition in second grade, her coach allowed her to choose her own music. After watching at least ten girls skate to music from The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas (Disney is big in that age group) Lily's music cues up. I look at the judges, all my age or older.  They grin from ear-to-ear as Lily bunny hops to Whipped Cream by the Tijuana Brass (aka
The Theme from the Dating Game.)  Yes, she won.

As for me,I win every time I turn on the CD player and laptop.

Thanks, Dad.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Looking for the Write Words said...

Mary Ann,

Did you hear my big "AWW" when I finished reading your post? Loved it and it is such a nice tribute to your dad. Funny thing just a short bit ago I wrote my Slice of Life Story that ended with a connection to a song. My post was surely nothing profound, but I get what you are saying about the power of music. If only I could put something "musical" on paper.

April Halprin Wayland said...

This post was a musical tour de force. Liquidly lyrical.

BJ Schneider said...

Oh, I also had a similar pinao recital event. That was the first and last recital. My parents realized that I had no interest or ability and sold the piano.

BJ Schneider said...

What a fun story! I had the same piano recital reaction. My parents realized I had no interest or ability and sold the piano. (I wanted to be a ballerina, but I couldn't touch my toes. sigh) My sister and I had 45s and the spindle, but they were in the drawer in a table that was sold. I hope someone knew what they were. We had no music, dance or the arts when we were growing up, other than pop music. Today's pop music is the same line over and over, with no story. And it's loud! I now listen to NPR classical music and jazz and I've taught myself about art. Interesting how the music affects your writing. Drawing or going to an exhibition helps me focus on details. Any time I take notes, I doodle in the margins. That's what they're for, right?