Showing posts with label songs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label songs. Show all posts

29 October 2018

I'm Only Fakin' It


by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, one of my favorite writing workshop venues announced that they're offering a four-week class in songwriting to start in November. It required no knowledge of music (Always a plus in my case), but said voices and instruments were welcome. How many of each will show up is an intriguing question--I love synecdoche-- but I won't be one of them.
Bill Arnold on the keyboard is a real musician and songwriter. Beldon the bass player is a multi-intrumentalist. I'm just trying to stay out of their way as we rehearse Bill's musical.


I play guitar adequately and have a keyboard I punish occasionally but can't really play. I have a basic understanding of music theory, too, but songwriting is a mystery to me, like brain surgery, drawing, and serious cooking. I have two recipes, and one of them is coffee. I already have enough skills I'm poor at without tormenting people with bad songs, too.

Oddly, I've written three stories with a fictitious song that's crucial to the plot. In Blood on the Tracks,
I wrote enough lyrics for a song so people could understand how Woody Guthrie put two and two (or maybe that should be four-four) together and tied the song to two characters he was investigating. I knew just enough theory to figure out how a good musician could make a mistake playing that song in the studio, too. I have a vague idea what the song might sound like, but that's all. It was enough.

A few years later, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom" used a non-existent tune, too. Someone claims the song was plagiarized from him and he ends up dead mere paragraphs later. That happens in my stuff. I didn't write the music, but I discussed the rhymes and rhyme scheme in the verses so people could fill in the blanks. I know most of the words but have never really thought about the melody or chords.

I have another story that's out looking for a home and gathering rejections along the way that has my most complete non-song yet. I wrote five verses that tell a story nobody understands (I was channeling the Sherlock Holmes story "The Musgrave Ritual") and the characters have to figure out the music by listening to an old cassette. The song is loosely based on old Appalachian ballads and I know the chords and melody pretty well. If that story ever sells, maybe I'll try to put the whole thing together and play it at an open mic--and see if I can pass it off as an obscure oldie.
Bill again, in the hat. Kit Webb, in red, plays about five instruments well.

I'd love to have people think it was a "real" song. I don't see myself writing any more of them unless I come up with another story idea that calls for it.

A little learning may be a dangerous thing, or it may be just enough to get by. What do you think?

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death


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.

10 March 2018

Zip Gun Bop: Songs About Crime & Criminals


by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Let’s be real, I could write about crime songs all day, because there are a billion of them. But we’ll come back to this series every so often, because songs about the wrong side of the law are my favorite genre of music. This month’s theme? The criminals themselves, the best of the bad guys and all of their gruesome deeds. Consider this the start of your master heist mix tape.

  1. Kid Charlemagne” Steely Dan (The Royal Scam). Oh, like you didn’t see this coming. Steely Dan writes a LOT of songs about crime and criminal acts, ranging from drugs to murder to gambling to prostitution to child molestation. But “Kid Charlemagne” remains not only their greatest song, but possibly the greatest song in the history of all pop music (Fight me, I dare you.) This song, inspired by famed, ah, chemist Owsley Stanley, is a little tiny novel in itself, the tension building through Larry Carlton’s legendary guitar solo, from the talk of the town to hiding drugs from the cops. Is there gas in the car….?

  2. The Long Arm of The Law” Warren Zevon (Transverse City) Zevon, like Becker and Fagen, is no goody-two-shoes when it comes to songs about crime, and as a fan of Raymond Chandler and a friend of crime and thriller luminaries like Stephen King and Carl Hiassan, it should be no surprise that mercenaries and murders crept into his songs. But “The Long Arm of the Law,” like “Kid Charlemagne,” is a whole arching narrative, starting with a gun runner in South America and ending with him in chains. “Only the dead get off scot-free,” he laments, and he isn’t wrong.

  3. I Remember Larry” ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (Bad Hair Day). I love this one because it’s so unexpected. The man who gave us “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” can also go to some dark places, rapidly escalating a series of pranks played on the narrator by his neighbor Larry, who makes prank phone calls, post embarrassing photos and dumps toxic waste on the singer’s lawn—where he got toxic waste is probably another song—to the final snap in the last verse. “If the cops ever find him who knows what they’ll say/but I’m sure if ol’ Lar were still with us today/he would have to agree with me/it was a pretty good gag!” Yankovic bleats cheerfully. April Fools can be deadly, folks.

  4. Sweet and Tender Hooligan” The Smiths. (Louder Than Bombs) Who doesn’t love a bad boy, especially one on a post-punk beat and a Morrissey wail? Maybe I’ll put this one on a mix for LesterNygaard.

  5. Only a Lad” Oingo Boingo (Only a Lad). Danny Elfman takes a decidedly less romantic look at teenage criminals, snarking on a soft society that lets arsonists, car thieves and murders walk free because of their white and suburban precociousness. This song is just as true today as it ever was, as young men repeatedly get away with rape, assault and other crimes because, hey, boys will be boys, right?

  6. Hospital Food” The Eels (Electro-Shock Blues). Dark and low and grimy like an alley after midnight, everything about this song, sound and lyrics and all, captures a hitman’s nightlife. I think of Vic Mackey when I hear this one, or Eric Powell’s The Goon and Franky.

  7. Gimme The Goods” Boz Scaggs. (Two Down, Then Left) Another pulp-novel narrative coming out of the yacht rock canon, Boz takes his all the way back to 1948, telling a doomed tale of drug runners, complete with one final and badly botched job, a bullet wound, a femme fatale and the wail of sirens coming down rain-slicked streets. I would watch whatever movie was made from this song.

  8. Opportunities” Pet Shop Boys (Please). “If you’ve got the inclination/I’ve got the crime” is the most perfect invitation to wicked deeds ever set to music. This is the soundtrack to assembling your team for a casino heist, a bank job or maybe a long con played out of a sleazy motel room.

  9. Stool Pigeon” Kid Creole and the Coconuts (Tropical Gangsters). Sure, he’s bringing in the bad guys, but this ex-con isn’t getting the hero’s ballad for turning in his old friends to the FBI. Singing the chorus through the crackling static of a policeman’s radio, Kid Creole seems to be warning him of the oldest adage in the book—snitches get stitches. So maybe he’s got a plane and a boat and a new face, but all that money can’t buy him the kind of friends he had in the joint.

  10. Zip Gun Bop” Royal Crown Revue (Mugzy’s Move) The neo-swing revival of the late 1990s drew much of its songwriting inspiration from pulp of the 1940s and no one drew more heavily on it than Royal Crown Revue, widely considered to be the founders of the movement. This gangster-addled number incorporates the slow scream of the police siren, rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire and plenty of other genre pastiche.