Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

14 July 2018

Yacht Rock Badasses

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
I used to joke that I was going to write a series of novels where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would use their time off of touring with Steely Dan to solve mysteries. Can’t you just picture it? They’re a perfect detective pairing; they’re snarky and sardonic, with a clever patter and a long history of writing songs around lowlifes. It would have been amazing and the most on-brand Libby Series of all time, combining my well-honed talent for writing mysteries with my deep and passionate love for the Dandom.

Tragically, Becker’s death last September put an end to this and many of my other Steely dreams (like getting to hear them do “The Second Arrangement” in concert again) but it did get me thinking about the core of hardboiled noir that runs throughout a lot of Yacht Rock.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, (coined by J.D. Ryznar in his eponymous and, frankly life-changing Channel 101 series) “Yacht Rock” generally refers to a style of smooth, often jazz-inflected music from the late 1970s and early 80s, bolstered by studio musicians (Jay Graydon, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, etc) and, if you want to get hyper-specific, containing the word “fool.” Think Michael McDonald. Think Christopher Cross. The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” is Yacht Rock. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is not. Do not try to fight me on this, I swear to God, I will mess you up.

02 July 2018

Recognition

by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.

I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

14 May 2018

Seeing Eye To Ear

by Steve Liskow

When I was young, I wanted to play piano but my parents wouldn't drive me across town to my great aunt's house to practice on her Steinway baby grand. They let me study violin instead, and I quit after one year. Years later when the British Invasion hit, I was one of thousands of guys who saw girls go crazy over the Beatles. In 1966, I spent twenty-five dollars on a Stella Harmony guitar with strings thicker than coat hanger wire and set about cultivating terrible technique and a crop of blisters.



Since then, I've bought, sold or traded at least twenty guitars and a half dozen amplifiers. Right now, I own five guitars, two of which are for sale. Around the Millennium, I bought a used Roland keyboard and have wasted lots of time and a little money on books that promised to turn me into the next Glenn Gould, Otis Spann or Dave Brubeck. None of them did.


A few months ago, I saw a series of DVDs on playing piano at a ludicrously low price and decided to bet on one more losing hand. Surprise, the videos are excellent. After watching the first three, I understand the keyboard and music theory better than I ever have before. Piano gives you a fuller understanding of what is going on in a song because you play two separate lines. It's changing how I look at and hear the guitar, too.

The old blues players often used alternate guitar tunings, which I avoided until I bought a resonator guitar and started playing slide more often. Different tunings change the sound of a chord you've heard for years, and it forces you to think about what those tones mean. I'll never be great on either guitar or piano, but I'm thinking a lot more about what I'm doing.

Looking at your writing from a different perspective can have the same effect.

In 2005, I wrote a short story featuring Woody Guthrie (under a different name) and Megan Traine and a rock band. It was a complicated story and one of my friends commented that he had trouble keeping all the characters straight. The story was almost 7000 words long, which meant few markets would look at it, and when I cut characters and words, the whole thing became incoherent. I ran out of places to send it, and it languished on a floppy disc for about four years.

In 2009, someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Among other requirements, entries had to be between 15 and 20 thousand words. Could I expand that short story into a novella and introduce the large cast more gradually?

Over the next four days, I added nine thousand words and nothing felt padded! I'd never considered writing a novella because at that time the market was non-existent. But now I had one on my hands and I sent it out. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2010. I was so used to thinking "short story" that I couldn't see it was really a novella waiting for its growth spurt.

A few years later, something felt wrong near the end of a WIP and I couldn't figure out what it was. I swapped manuscripts with another writer, who suggested that I change the point of view in one of the last scenes. Both characters had POV scenes throughout the book, so the change was feasible. It also made the ending much stronger. Someone with more distance could see that right away.

The Whammer Jammers introduces Hartford detectives Tracy "Trash" Hendrix and Jimmy Byrne exploring the world of roller derby. I interviewed skaters, referees, coaches, boyfriends, announcers, spectators, and Hartford police officers before I developed an outline and started writing. After about sixty pages, I felt like I was hip-deep in quicksand.

That night, I watched a baseball game on TV, the announcers giving the play-by-play in present tense, the way they always do. It dawned on me that Roller Derby is a sport, so what if I went back and changed the book from past tense to present? Bingo. I finished the rough draft in six weeks.

I did lots of research for what I thought would be the third Woody Guthrie novel, too. The more I played with it, the more it felt like it would work better with Zach Barnes in Connecticut. From there, it evolved into a police procedural with Trash and Byrne again. Once I have an outline, I usually produce eight or ten pages a day, but this beast needed three weeks to reach page fifty. I put it aside for a month, and when I looked at it again, I saw that two crucial premises actually contradicted each other. Oops. I recycled about half the characters into The Kids Are All Right, a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

When you revise, you become more committed to what you already have on paper. You tweak, but you don't rebuild. Looking at it from a different angle helps you see other possibilities. What if the other person is the main protagonist? What if you try it as a comedy instead? Should you expand that short story? Could it become a play, or maybe even a screenplay?

Going back to music for a minute, I remember Leonard Bernstein discussing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and saying that the original opening, the da-da-da-DUM, included a flute in the score. Beethoven, one of music's great revisers, realized that a flute didn't belong in that "strong masculine utterance" (Bernstein's words, not mine) and removed it.

Learn from the masters. And maybe pick a different instrument.

17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

15 November 2017

A Policeman's Lot, A Writer's Plot

by Robert Lopresti

It seems like just two weeks ago I was writing about having a new story published.  And it was.  After an 18-month gap I have two fresh kills in November.  Go figure.

"The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" is my first appearance in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.  It is an old-fashioned fair-play mystery in which the aforementioned cop, who is happily engaged in running the evidence room, is dragged out of his cozy shelter to solve a murder which may or may not depend on a clue only a Savoyard would understand.

Did I hear someone ask What's a Savoyard?  Perhaps I need to explain a bit.

Gilbert and Sullivan were nineteenth century Englishmen who created comic operas.  G wrote the words, S composed the music.  The third member of the duet, so to speak, was Richard D'Oyly Carte who produced their works.  Think of him as Brian Epstein to the Beatles, trying to keep them from breaking up, or killing each other.

D'Oyly Carte  created the Savoy Theatre, where most of the works premiered, and thus, a fan of their work is called a Savoyard, because Gilbert-and-Sullivan-head takes too long to say.

Here is an example of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking D'Oyly Carte contributed to the operation.  You may remember that Oscar Wilde made a famous lecture tour of the United States.  (Customs Official: Do you have anything to declare?  Wilde: Only my genius.)  The tour was arranged by D'Oyly Carte because the G&S opera Patience was a satire on the Aesthetic Movement and would have fallen flat if Americans didn't know about Wilde.

The operas featured memorable, beautiful music, hilarious, ingenious lyrics, and, let's be honest, abysmal plots.  As my hero notes in the story you can't go too far into the stories of any of the operas without finding a plot hole you could  drive a hansom cab through.

A random example: In The Gondoliers a woman admits to trading her own baby for one of a pair of other boys.  But twenty years later, coming across those now grown men, she expresses no interest in knowing which of them was her flesh and blood.  Huh?

The fact is that Gilbert couldn't plot his way out of a paper bag  But his stuff was hilarious and being tied to Sullivan's tunes makes it immortal.

Fortunately, considering Gilbert's dreadful plotting, he never tried a mystery, but crime does feature in a few of the operas.

The main character of The Mikado, for instance is  Koko, the Lord High Executioner, who promises that he's ready to do his job:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list -- I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed -- who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs --
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs --
All children who are up in dates and floor you with 'em flat --
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that --
And all third persons who on spoiling tete-a-tetes insist--
They'd none of 'em be missed -- they'd none of 'em be missed!

The Mikado himself rolls off a gleeful list of appropriate punishments he has ready for evildoers.

All prosy dull society sinners, 
Who chatter and bleat and bore, 
Are sent to hear sermons 
From mystical Germans 
Who preach from ten to four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies 
All desire to shirk, 
Shall, during off-hours, 
Exhibit his powers 
To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

Among the lesser known (but still good) works is Ruddigore, in which a character named Robin  is cursed. He must commit a crime every day or die in agony.  Unfortunately, he is not very good at it.

Robin (melodramatically) How would it be, do you think, were I to lure him here with cunning wile -- bind him with good stout rope to yonder post -- and then, by making hideous faces at him, curdle the heart-blood in his arteries, and freeze the very marrow in his bones?  How say you, Adam, is not the scheme well planned?
Adam.  It would be simply rude -- nothing more.

But the greatest connection between G&S and our  field is The Pirates of Penzance, which features a gallant troupe of constables.  No doubt my sergeant, dragged out of his cozy evidence room to cope with murder would agree with them on this subject.

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes

by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



04 September 2017

Location, Location, Location

by Jan Grape

Most if not all writers have heard teachers, agents, editors and mentors tell us to write what we know. That it is very important. It's also important to research the subject, the occupation and the location of your characters and where you are writing about.

It's not always possible to visit the town or the state you desperately want your characters to inhabit. You can read books about your location, read travel guides, talk to friends or relatives. Yet we all know if possible, we should try to visit the area or town. You do understand your travel expense will be tax deductible, right?

Sometimes a town can surprise you. Take Nashville, TN for instance. Home of Country Music. Grand Old Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. The Columbia River runs all through the town. It's also the home of the Tennessee Titans, The Nashville Predators are their winning hockey team. It's the Home of President Andrew Jackson, Vanderbilt University and Medical Center. Yes, Nashville is all that and even more.

My daughter, Karla has lived there for twenty-three years and I've visited several times, seeing all the things I mentioned above. This summer's visit, I saw things in Nashville that I had never seen before and wouldn't write about in a story unless I had visited there with a daughter who loves exploring the town where she currently lives.

One of the first things we did was go to a Jazz Club. A Jazz Club in the heartland of Country Music? Yes. It's new and since Nashville is a music loving town it likely will become a hip place to go. The night we were there a young man was playing a piano. He was quite good and after he took a break he added a friend who played saxophone along with him. A full jazz band came in a little later but we had already had dinner and a couple of drinks and were ready to head home.

A week or so later, we met a couple of friends at an Irish Pub. There was a five or six person band playing Irish or Celtic music on the other side of the room. Irish Music in the home town of the Grand Old Opry? Yes. Why not? It's not unusual to find an Irish Pub in a large city. Or probably even a mid-sized one, but I personally had never been to one. The Guinness Steak and Pie was fantastic.

Another night we went to a Holiday Inn in downtown Nashville to their famous Commodore Room. So named because it's across from Vanderbilt University who's nickname is the Commodores .We were hoping to be there for a singer/songwriter night. Up and coming performers come and play their original music for tips. A group of four performers were there and we got to hear them each play and sing a couple of songs.

When they left the stage, we were expecting second group of singer/songwriters but instead a Jazz Band took the stage. Jazz again? Yes, indeed. Maybe jazz is going to be an up and coming thing in Nashville. Who knew?

We did have a treat as this band had a jazz singer. A gentleman singer who's name I'm sorry to say that I have forgotten, but he was awesome. He opened with "My Funny Valentine," slow and sweet. Then mid-way he began a series of jazz riffs with his voice that would have thrilled Ella Fitz Gerald.

Since our big goal was a singer/songwriter night we left after Karla called and found out a friend was hosting such an event in a club in Hendersonville (a bedroom town to Nashville) so we headed there. Of course, we heard some good original music. Many of these folks may only play in small venues but they often pick up fans and followers and make their own CDs to sell and often make a decent living.

One of the last days in Nashville we drove downtown on a Sunday afternoon and drove down Music Row. Most record labels have offices there. Also some booking agents have offices. Then we drove down Lower Broad (Broadway) where many clubs are located. Some of the clubs are owned by a famous country star like, Blake Shelton. Or a famous star like the late, George Jones.

And I saw one of the funniest vehicles I've ever seen.
It's known as a party-tavern. It's about the size of a horse drawn wagon but it is powered by ten or twelve or eighteen people pedaling away. The people sit on bicycle seats and pedal. And the company renting them has a driver to steer this vehicle, while the people who have brought their own alcohol, sight-see and party. If you ride on these party taverns they are NOT allowed to serve alcohol as then the company and the pedalors could be charged with a DUI. These party taverns may be in many cities but I live in a small town and had not seen them before.

Nashville is now known as the Bachlorette Party Capitol of the World. The ladies in the bachlorette groups usually wear t-shirts saying they are Maid of Honor or Bridesmaids and of course the bride has a T-shirt that says BRIDE. And usually she wears a short veil.

We also visited Centennial Park on another Sunday afternoon and Karla pointed out a Pavilion where on Saturday nights there can be Big Bands playing music from the 30s and 40s and dance instructors to teach Jitterbug and Charleston, etc. People bring chairs or a blanket and maybe a cooler and dance or just enjoy the music.

Also there's a Musician's Corner where Singer/songwriters will come on a Saturday afternoon in late summer and early fall to perform. Again people bring their chairs or blankets. A picnic basket and a cooler of drinks to listen to some good music.

Nashville is still known as the biggest and first Music City and you can certainly enjoy live music to your heart's content. If you are going to write about Tennessee I suggest you visit Nashville. Or where ever you're writing about, it certainly will give you the best flavor possible if you can visit and remember, location, location, location.

Hope you're enjoying a good family day and cook-out on this last holiday week-end of the summer.

31 August 2016

Bound for Valparaiso in a Rowboat

by Robert Lopresti

It's the end of the summer and I don't feel like tackling anything too heavy. So let's talk about smuggling illegal substances.  Better yet, let's sing about it.

I am sure you have heard of narcocorridos, the Mexican song genre that celebrates and heroizes people who smuggle drugs north across the U.S. border.  Well, that is not our subject for the day. 

Instead we have a song from my friend Zeke Hoskin, discussing the true story of some earlier smugglers heading in a different direction.  You may remember Zeke from his occasional words of wisdom in our comment section.  He wanted you to know that he wrote most of the song on Canada Day, 1992, while waiting to cross the border.



That's his wife Flip Breskin on guitar, by the way.

Enjoy.

01 June 2016

The Truth Is Plain To See

by Robert Lopresti

A couple of warnings: I am not a English copyright attorney.  (I'm sure that astonishes you.)  And I am discussing a court case that could easily fill a book.  So take this for what it is worth.  You can read more about it here and here.

Do you remember "A Whiter Shade of Pale?"   It was a huge hit for Procol Harum in 1967, and is one of the most played and recorded songs of all time (almost 1,000 covers).  Can you call up the tune to memory?  If not, try this:


Most people I have talked to, if they remember it at all, remember that ethereal organ part.  And that is what we are here to discuss (don't worry; it will connect to the subject of this blog eventually.)

According to 40 years of labels and liner notes, Pale was written by two members of the band: Gary Brooker (piano and vocals)  and Keith Reid (lyricist).

But neither one of them was responsible for  that famous organ part. That was Matthew Fisher who played Hammond organ in the band.  He stayed with the group for three albums and then split.  His first solo record included a number with the refrain "Please don't make me play that song again."  What could he have been referring to, I wonder?

He rejoined the band when it reformed in the 1990s, but quit in 2004 and filed  a lawsuit, asking to be recognized of co-creator and co-owner of Pale.  (It turns out that this was not the first time someone threatened to sue over this ditty, by the way: "Where there's a hit, there's a writ.")   After Fisher's case bounced from venue to venue the highest court in England, namely the Law Lords (sounds like a rock band, doesn't it?) got to make their first ever ruling on a copyright case involving a song.  (It turned out to be that court's last decision as well, being then replaced by a Supreme Court.)

So what does it mean if Fisher were to win?  According to his opponent, Gary Brooker: "Any musician who has ever played on any recording in the last 40 years may now have a potential claim to joint authorship.  It is effectively open season on the songwriter."

A strong argument.  But I felt there had to be some reasonable middle ground between "Joe went twang on the chorus so he's entitled to ten percent" on  the one hand, and on the other "the composer of the most famous organ solo in pop music contributed nothing to the  song."  And sure enough, the Law Lords, clever folks that they are,  agreed with me.

They ruled that Fisher should have a credit and 40% of the music royalties, starting with the day he filed the suit.  He gets nothing for the years before he went to court, which seems reasonable.

So what does that have to  with the subject of this blog?  Glad you asked.  Before I send a story to an editor I first send it to R.T. Lawton.  He does the same with me.  We read the stories, make suggestions and corrections and generally help each other's literature inch ever closer to perfection.

But we don't get paid for that.  At what point does a helpful first reader become a co-author?

When I sent my story "Street of the Dead House" to the anthology nEvermore! the editors, Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Sole, made significant suggestions that improved the tale.  Without them would my tale have been selected for two Best of the Year collections? 

I don't know.

Did they get a share of the reprint money?

That I know.  They didn't.

But I think editors are a special case, somewhat like record producers.  They get their appropriate fee but don't expect a writing credit.

Speaking of books, I revised this piece after discovering Procol Harum: The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale by Henry Scott-Irvine.  He makes it clear that the story is even more complicated than I thought.  Any fan of the band should read the whole book.  Anyone interested in copyright issues should at least read the last two chapters.

I want to give the last word to Chris Copping. Copping replaced Fisher in the band in the 1970s which means he probably played that organ part more than anyone else alive.  He perhaps has a less romantic view of that melody than most of us.

In this essay he discusses joining Procol Harum and then analyzes the song virtually note for note, explaining what he thinks Fisher created and what he borrowed from Bach.

His conclusion on what Fisher is owed? "Let him have the ring tones."

06 November 2013

The Story I Said I'd Never Write

by Robert Lopresti

I am delighted to report that the January/February 2014 of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is out this week and features my 24th appearance in that fine periodical.  Even better, it marks my third chance to grace the cover (and what a perfect illustration it is!).  "Devil Chased The Wolf Away" is a short story but the history of how it came to exist is a long story, so you might want to fortify yourself with a cup of coffee or something.  I'll wait.

Ready?  Okay, here goes.

About fifteen years ago I attended a concert by a man who had been considered a master musician.  The problem was he was long past his prime, and it showed.  He was confused and his playing was clumsy.

That would have been bad enough, but worse was the fact that his accompanyist, the man who had been driving him from show to show, was clearly fed up, and was rude and disrespectful.  This made the show quite unpleasant.

And as I watched it, being the person I am, I found myself thinking: is there a story here?  A crime story?

By the time the show was over I had invented Cleve Penny, an over-the-hill old-time fiddler from Kentucky.  His tale, "Snake In The Sweetgrass," appeared in the December 2003 issue of Hitchcock's.  

I thought it was my best story and some people seemed to agree.  Several urged me to write about Cleve again, but I didn't want to.  I was afraid that what seemed magical the first time might turn out to be just slight of hand the next time around.  Besides, if I kept dragging my old guy around from stage to stage, wasn't I being like that accompanyist?  So I made up my mind not to write a sequel to "Snake."

Then Bruce Molsky came to town.

Now, I must immediately explain that Molsky is not over the hill.  He is king of the mountain, and can play old-time guitar, banjo or fiddle as well as anybody.  This video should prove my point.  (And he can sing while he plays the fiddle, which is just plain cheating.)



But a few years ago Molsky performed here with a brother and sister act, only one of whom was old enough to drive, and watching him interact with those talented youngsters I had a sudden thought: wouldn't it be fun to have Cleve Penny work with some children?

I thought it would.  Not long before this my family had visited Chicago for the first time, which  included a pilgrimage to the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The School was founded in 1957 and has been offering lessons, concerts, and jams ever since. 

So I invented the Cornheim School of Folk Music, and installed Cleve Penny as guest Artist in Residence.  Then I gave the school a problem and invited Cleve to take his unique approach to solving it.  



But I had another problem.  "Devil" is in some ways a direct result of the events in "Snake."  Cleve's actions in the second story are heavily influenced by what he did in the first.  I can't assume that everyone who reads "Devil" will have read "Snake," much less remember it a decade later.  So how do I slip in the backstory?  I actually got into an interesting discussion on this subject with mystery writer Neil Schofield and wrote about it  at Criminal Brief.

I think I licked that problem, but Linda Landrigan, editor of Hitchcock's, offered an even better solution.  As I said last week, you can download a free podcast of "Snake."  I highly recommend you read/listen to it before you dig into "Devil."  You will enjoy them both more that way.

I think I'm done with Cleve Penny now, and he can settle into a well-deserved retirement.  But I have learned to never say never.

30 October 2013

Media Blitz

by Robert Lopresti

A long time ago, Robert Benchley wrote the following about his most famous piece, "The Treasurer's Report:" I have inflicted it on the public in every conceivable way except over the radio and dropping it from airplanes.  (And as proof, here is a short, hilarious movie version.)

I am thinking about that because this autumn is seeing my own work coming at the public from a variety of directions.  Not to worry; the phase will pass and by December I will sink back into obscurity.  But let's go over the details of my temporary onslaught.

As I wrote last time, September marked my first appearance in an e-book anthology.  I am sure by now you have all run out (or run your cursor over) to buy a copy of Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble.  Right?

I am happy to inform you you won't have to spend any money for this next feature (although I do like dark chocolate if you're thinking of a gift).  This one is a freebie.

Linda Landrigan, who edits Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, suggested doing a podcast of my story "Snake in the Sweetgrass," which appeared in the December 2003 issue of AHMM.  And if it isn't up now here  it should be by next week.


She sent me the recorder they use and after much diligent practice I was able to record the story with only three mistakes.  And that was the best I could do.  Three different mistakes every time.  (It wasn't like I consistently tripped over the same tongue-twisting phrase, alas.)  Linda assures me they can clean that up.

But here is the cool part.  My story is about an elderly Kentucky fiddler and the title refers to a traditional fiddle piece that is his personal signature tune.  It seemed logical to include a recording of that tune in the podcast.

The problem with that is that I made up the name.  There is no such tune. 

No biggie.  My daughter, Susan Weiner, is a fine composer so she created a tune that matched the description in the story.  And then, extra special treat, my wife Terri Weiner recorded it on the fiddle.

So it is a real family operation and I recommend it highly.  But if that isn't enough to entice you to give it a listen, here is a bonus.  Remember, I said this is a media blitz. 

The January/February issue of Hitchcock's comes out November 4 and I am thrilled to report that the cover story is "Devil Chased The Wolf Away," a sequel to "Snake."  And while you can read "Devil" without experiencing "Snake" you will definitely enjoy them more if you read (or listen to) "Snake" first.

And next Wednesday I will explain how "Devil" came to be written, much to my surprise.

29 May 2013

Working on my novel

Just bought myself a webcam and guess what I did with it?  Lyrics follow...




When the cop cars finally caught up with me                               
I was down from a nine day drunk                                        
With a side door missing, the radiator hissing                     
And an alligator in the trunk                                                 
The judge said “You’ve got such potential, son          
So why is your life a mess?                                         
You’ll be making, they say, great art one day.”          
“Well, your honor, I must confess.”                                    

I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel) 
Starting on a great career                                                               
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through 
I’m working on my novel here         
                                    
My wife hit me, then she hit the road
‘Cause of rumors that flew her way
‘Bout her ex-best friend and a lady bartender
And some games that we liked to play
She said through sobs “I work two jobs
To support you and your art.
Can’t the research cease on your masterpiece?
When will the writing start?”


I said: I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel) 
Starting on a great career                                                               
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through 
I’m working on my novel here         


The outline’s done after years of work
But my agent said, “Hey, boy,
I love the plot but its really not
What sane people would enjoy.”
So I started on a story of the common folk
And the struggles that they go through
So nine to five you can see me strive
With the scum of the earth like you.


I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel)                        
Where'd my alligator disappear?
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through           
I’m working on my novel here