Music figures prominently into both of my humorous suspense novels—in Ring of Fire, one of my main characters is a college student whose iPod is improbably crammed with selections from the Great American Songbook. In Battle Axe, the protagonist leads a weekend swing band. If I had any musical aptitude, I’m sure I would have tried to start my own band at some point in my life. As things went, I’ve had to settle for lyric writing for my best friend (who IS a world-class musician, songwriter, and now ebook cover designer) and simply surrounding myself with good music whenever and wherever possible. In fact, whenever I’ve changed addresses, the stereo is always the last thing packed and the first thing unpacked.
You hear people say “oh, I like all kinds of music,” but they don’t really mean it. I really mean it. Among the 30,000 songs on my iPod, you’ll find everything from Benny Goodman to Bob Marley, from Flight of the Conchords to Frank Sinatra. Classical, country, Latin and jazz, too. Basically, if it’s got a melody, it’s fair game.
Lyrics are another matter. I can suffer through lame lyrics if the melody’s catchy enough, but not the other way around. To me, great lyrics set to bad music is simply poetry. Great lyrics set to great music, however, is timeless. Sorry Bob Dylan—I can’t hum words.
Here are my Top 10 Musical Novelists. Criteria? The ability to consistently create compelling, memorable characters, conjure up moods or atmospheres or flat-out tell a story. All in the context of an unforgettable tune.
Haven’t we all known a Brenda and Eddie? Or had a Leyna we were fruitlessly obsessed with? I was born well after the early days of rock and roll, but An Innocent Man takes me back, every time. And when 2017 rolls around, I will be nowhere near Miami.
Thanks to Ben, I know how it feels to take your girlfriend for an abortion. I know how it feels to get fired after working for a newspaper for 30 years. He cheated recently, because he did an album with a novelist. But for my money, Ben’s lyrics are as good if not better than Nick Hornby’s.
Fountains of Wayne
An easy pick—their titles are characters: Michael and Heather, Denise, Yolanda Hayes, Richie and Ruben, even Stacy’s Mom. Their eye for detail—no, rhyming detail—is amazing, and no action is too mundane to be immortalized. Oddly enough, it all rings true. “Checking out the women on Spanish television?” Come on, we’ve all done it.
Paul is a thinking man’s lyricist, but he knows it. He gave Billy Joel the complete Oxford English Dictionary as a wedding present. Sure he’s oblique, but he puts you in places you’ve never been before. When I was in Brussels recently at the Magritte museum, I had trouble focusing on the artwork because I couldn’t get “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” out of my head.
Texturally, Aimee can get a little redundant, and her voice has its limits, but when it’s singing plaintively to Mr. Harris, it’s right on the mark. In her hands, the 30-ish woman pining for her 60-ish neighbor isn’t creepy, but naively sweet.
Weird yet accessible. I’ve never sat on a picnic blanket by a babbling brook in the English countryside in the dead of summer, but I have listened to “Summer’s Cauldron/Grass,” and that’s pretty much the same thing. “Then She Appeared” is either about Botticellis’s Birth of Venus or the church doors parting, revealing my soon-to-be-wife walking down the aisle.
I admit I’ve never been a huge “Boss” fan (mainly because of that ragged voice), but for working class characters with oversized—or shattered–dreams, no one can touch him. Rosalita, Sandy, all the tortured souls on The Rising. If you aren’t these people, then you know these people.
If Springsteen creates characters you can relate to, then Donald Fagan creates characters who send you scrambling for the Purell. Cousin Dupree is the guy who gets a little older, gets a little money and “befriends” Janie Runaway. There are no morals here, only self-interest. Come to think of it, I guess I can relate to that.
Leiber & Stoller
In 2 ½ minutes, tell me a story about a sideshow belly dancer, describe her gyrations, her tattoos and her jewelry, and do it from the POV of a fan who stumbled upon her act, fell in love and started a family with her. Never mind, it’s been done: “Little Egypt.”
Before he was “allowed” to write music, he was tossing off classic lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. When he finally had control over the entire songs, he created one of the latter day classics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which perfectly complemented the slapstick script. Yet when the story called for murder, blood and cannibalism, he was right there with the uncomfortably hilarious “A Little Priest.”
All over the map, right? I warned you. As long as we have music, we have the means to put ourselves into whatever kind of mood we wish. Hope you enjoy Battle Axe on Wattpad and give Ring of Fire a chance, too.
4 Replies to “Top Ten Musical “Novelists””
Great post, Bill. Loved it. Hate that you limited yourself to 10. I feel the same way about some instrumentalists like Bela Fleck and Mark O'Connor.
Thanks, Steve! Gotta draw the line somewhere, and honestly, this list could change depending on what day I'm writing it–or even what time of day. So many good storytellers out there, both known and unknown.
You missed the best: Bob Dylan.
And I always thought 10,000 Maniacs had great story-songs.
Apparently you didn't read the entire post–I acknowledged Dylan, then dismissed him because one of the two criteria was "melodic." I'll grant you the 10K Maniacs.
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