By Louise Ure
“What in the world has come over you?
What in heaven’s name have you done?
Broken the speed at the sound of loneliness
Out there running just to be on the run.”
– Amos Lee
Speed at the Sound of Loneliness
There’s something special about a songwriter’s ability to distill a character, an emotion, an entire story down to fewer than three hundred words. They can often say more in a chorus or a three chord transition than we can with chapters of dialogue and description and narrative.
It is a skill I admire.
An economy of words. And just the right words at that.
And they’ve got the advantage of being able to use that haunting minor chord, or guitar twang or perfect soprano voice to wrench our hearts even further.
There are a few songs – mostly old ballads and country western songs – that spell the whole story out for us.
Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”
“Puff the Magic Dragon”
Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”
Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”
Those black-eyed peas
They tasted all right to me, Earl
You’re feeling weak?
Why don’t you lay down
and sleep, Earl
Ain’t it dark
Wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?"
And my all time favorite in the category: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” by Meatloaf.
“Ain’t no doubt about it
We were doubly blessed
‘Cause we were barely seventeen
And we were barely dressed.”
These are no one act plays. They tell the whole story — all the way from asshole to appetite. We know the characters, we know the plot, we know the conflict, we know the ending.
But there are other songs that touch me and make me ache to hear more. Not just of the song, but of the story told. Those are the songs I’d like to turn into novels.
Amos Lee, quoted above, is one of those. His song is a sad plaint about a woman living on the edge, making bad choices, and leaving a good man in her wake. Who is she? Why has she driven herself to this lonely place? It’s a book I’d like to read. It’d be a perfect vehicle for Ken Bruen. Or Denise Mina. Or Sara Gran, dontcha’ think? Somebody who carves into the hearts that beat in cold gray places.
How about Janis Joplin’s version of "Me and Bobby McGee?”
I want four hundred pages of the saga of these two drifters. And would we dare turn this tale of harpoon-blowing hitchhikers into a crime story? Duane S. could do it. Or Megan Abbott.
Maybe Solomon Burke’s "Honey, Where’s the Money Gone?"
Even the oldie “Walk Away Renee” leaves me wanting more pages. (Although the new ballad version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy seems to tell more of a story than the old Four Tops pop-and-R&B song.)
“Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still find a way to haunt me
Though they’re so small
Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame”
What drove these young lovers apart? A pregnancy? An abortion? Narrow-minded parents? A new lover? “Romeo and Juliet” was written with less inspiration than these lyrics.
And Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is tailor-made for a mystery novel.
“Well, I started throwing things
And I scared folks half to death
I got up in his face
And smelled whiskey on his breath
I didn’t give a second thought
To being thrown in jail
Cause baby to a hammer
Everything looks like a nail.”
I want to write that book. The wacko ex-girlfriend who hunts down the sleazy ex and his trashy new lady. I do so love writing about strong women bent on revenge.
And I was going to add that Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” would make a good book, too, but she seems to be living out that story for us live and in person. Still, ya gotta love that song. It’s got echoes of “Dancing in the Streets,” but only if you’re dancing in a funeral procession.
How about you guys? Is there a song you’d like to see taken to 400-page length?
Is it one you like to read or one you’d like to write?
And if you aren’t the perfect person to write it, which author should we talk into it?
Desperado. Not sure if I could be up to writing that one. Maybe Marshall Grover could do it justice?
Virtually anything by Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. Cave did a fabulous album called Murder Ballads which included a duet with Kylie Minogue. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did!
Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Three generations at war with the law, with the won-lost record at 1-1 and the tiebreaker being played by the grandson…
I volunteered for the Army on my birthdayThey draft the white trash first’round here anywayI done two tours of duty in VietnamAnd I came home with a brand new planI take the seed from Colombia and MexicoI plant it up the holler down Copperhead RoadWell the D.E.A.’s got a chopper in the airI wake up screaming like I’m back over thereI learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you knowYou better stay away from Copperhead Road
Fie on Goodness, by Alan Jay Lerner (Robert Crais)The Highwayman, by Jimmy Webb (William Kent Krueger)Pirate Jenny, by Bertolt Brecht (Karin Slaughter)
I agree with everyone here so far.
One of my favorite musicians of all time is Kirsty MacColl. Below is a link to a YouTube clip of her singing Fairytale of New York with the Pogues.
Since she was from Croydon, I immediately thought of Ken’s post. I bet Mr. Bruen would do quite a number on this story.
Damn, Amy, I should have thought of Desperado. It would be a great book.Marshall Grover? Maybe. I say we ask Cormac McCarthy what he’s up to this year.
And Shaz, I agree about the Johnny Cash and Nick Cave songs. I’m off to listen to Murder Ballads now.
Dusty, that songs speaks to you. And God, what a song it is. I think you’re the man to write it.
B.G., great suggestions, but even better pairings with the authors! Can you imagine a William Kent Krueger version of The Highwayman?
Great idea, Pari! The Pogues are my all-time favourite group. Come to think of it, a lot of their songs would work, especially if Ken B was let loose on them. How about The Old Main Drag and Boys From the County Hell for a start? Or, to tie in to JD’s post, Johnny Come Lately, where they collaborated with Steve Earle? I don’t much care for country music, but I’ll make an exception for Steve Earle and Johnny Cash!
Pari, I watched the video but don’t have the ear this morning to understand it. Happily, though, a search for the lyrics to Fairytale of New York, turned up the words I couldn’t hear:
“You’re a bumYou’re a punkYou’re an old slut on junkLying there almost dead on a dripIn that bed
You scum bagYou maggotYou cheap lousy faggotHappy Christmas your arseI pray GodIt’s our last
The boys of the NYPD choirWere singing ‘Galway Bay’And the bells were ringingOut for Christmas Day”
Now THAT’S a grim song.
Shaz, I’ll vote for the Boys from County Hell.
“I recall we took care of him one sundayWe got him out the back and we broke his fucking ballsAnd maybe that was dreaming and maybe that was realBut all I know is I left that place without a penny or fuck all”
Whoa – what a great post!
I too was thinking Desperado and of course Cormac would do it justice.
And Goodbye Earl is another of my favorites.
Song to the Siren by Jeff Buckley and reprised awhile back by This Mortal Coil is one that I’d love to write.
I’ll be thinking about this all day!
Hi Billie. It’s Tim Buckley, yeah? That is one gorgeous song. When will you be starting the book?
Great question, Louise! My vote goes for nearly any of Springsteen’s “troubadour” songs. (There was a short story collection a while back based on “Meeting Across the River” in fact).
I’ve always wondered how the woman got to this stage of her life in “Point Blank”:
Well I saw you last night down on the avenueYour face was in the shadows but I knew that it was youYou were standin’ in the doorway out of the rainYou didn’t answer when I called out your nameYou just turned, and then you looked awaylike just another stranger waitin’ to get blown away.
And of course, “Highway Patrolman,” tells the complete story of Joe Roberts and his no-good brother.
But my favorite is the lyrics of the J. Geils song “Monkey Island,” which actually inspired our book “Island of Bones.” I had always listened to these words and wondered what the hell happened on that island:
No one could explain it,What went on that night.How every living thingJust dropped out of sight.We watched them take the bodiesand row them back to shore.Nothing ever like thatHappened here before.There ain’t no life on Monkey Island…
400 pages later, I figured out what happened!
You’re right – Tim. Jeff is his son!
LOL – my head is bursting at the seams with books today!
Dave Matthews – The Space Between
a certain Loreena Mckinnitt song I’m blanking on the name of
Your post is getting me through today – I came back from 5 days writing retreat to a 12-year old freaking out b/c his new computer game just released is NOT YET HERE and the transition from retreat back to the real world is hitting me like a brick wall. Clients are calling and emailing and I’m reeling. It’s great to have a fun distraction to keep refocusing my thoughts on. 🙂
Awesome post, Louise!I took a James McMurtry song, Red Dress, and did a short based on it:
Remember when we’d get togetherBurn the candle don’t you knowSmoke and drink and live foreverNo one there to tell us no
This time I’m gonna kill that bastardThis time I’m not gonna missThis time there ain’t no doubt about itLet me be quite clear on this
Out the back and down the alleyGone to get your bucket spikedCome back when you think you need meCome back any time you like
Where’d you get that red dressWhere’d you get that red dress
Yes I’m drunk but damn you’re uglyTell you one thing, yes I willTomorrow morning I’ll be soberYou’ll be just as ugly still
I don’t know what you got going onBut I know I never seen you with that red dress onTell me where’d you get that red dressWatching out the kitchen windowRight here in this old brown chairStack the empties on the tableToss ’em down the basement stairs
Where’d you get that red dressWhere’d you get that red dress
Remember when we’d get togetherBurn the candle don’t you knowSmoke and drink and live foreverNo one there to tell us no—There’s no doubt, anything by McMurtry would make a great book. Also, a guy named Richard Stooksbury, from here in Nashville, tells these amazing stories that would be perfect for someone like James Lee Burke to write.
P.J., you guys did a fabulous job creating the world of Monkey Island! So what are you going to call the Point Blank book? That’s one I’d love to read.
Billie, welcome back to the real world. I hope the retreat was a good one. Sorry about the hard landing.
JT, where can I find that Red Dress story? Those characters would be great.
And James Lee Burke could make the phone book come to life, n’est-ce pas?
Louise, it went up on the now defunct Flashing in the Gutters, I’ll send it to you. I need to find it a real home. Can anyone send me a clock with 40 hours in the day???
Yeah, Burke’s fascinating. I’m just starting to read him and I’m so impressed.
Here’s one of Evil E’s favorites:
“Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear, And he shows them pearly white – Just a jack-knife has Macheath dear – And he keeps it out of sight.”
Not sure who told the story better though – Armstrong or Darin? A standard plot maybe – but still – some of the oldies can’t be beat.
What about Miss Otis Regrets?
Jeanne, “Miss Otis Regrets” is a perfect example. Great heart and character, and we’re left wanting to know more. You want to take it on, or do you have someone else in mind?
And Elaine, you’re the ideal writer for Mack the Knife. And what a decade and era to write about.
OK, I know this is just a tease, but I can’t help it. JT just sent me that short story “Red Dress” she wrote, inspired by the James McMurtry song.
It’s a killer. Now we just have to find a way to retrieve it from Flashing in the Gutters, or get her to publish it elsewhere.
How ’bout Hotel California by the Eagles?
I’d nominate Alex Sokoloff to write the book…
Louise a grabrilliant postMusic is the beat of our battered heartsNanci Griffiths, living in IRELAND now, recorded Speed at the sound of lonliness just after my grace was born and she used to hear the song all the timeMe, I get music, they give me free razor blades when I buy music, cos it;s the sad melancholy stuffwonderful lines in your postshowing me age I MET JANIS JOPLIN ONCE………….she had truly the doomed beautiful soul and eyes of the best and the brightestHer only words to me……….you have nice eyesme thoughts on nice eyes are on record, tis the only thing they can come up withLoved the postken
“The Hole” Townes Van Zandt = (The Highway Kind)
“Camelot Motel” Mary Gauthier = (Filth and Fire)
“The Road Goes On Forever” Joe Ely = (Love and Danger)
I’d have a blast with anyone of the three. But, first I’ve got to complete my present work which was inspired to a great degree by the Waifs’ “Service Fee” = (Sink or Swim)
Louise, “Service Fee” brings to mind your murdered character Amy, from “Forcing Amirilous” (forgive my spelling)
I’ve always thought Dire Straits’ “Six Blade Knife” would make a excellent, nasty little noir novel.
Your six blade knife can do anything for youAnything you want it toOne blade for breaking my heartOne blade for tearing me apartYour six blade knife-do anything for you
You can take away my mind like you take away the top of a tinWhen you come up from behind and lay it down cold on my skinTook a stone from my soul when I was lameJust so you could make me tameYou take away my mind like you take away the top of a tin
I’d like to be free of it now – I don’t want it no moreI’d like to be free of it now – you know I don’t want it no more
Everybody got a knife it can be just what they want it to beA needle a wife or something that you just can’t see
You know it keeps you strongYes and it’ll do me wrongYour six blade knife – do anything for you
What? I should write ‘Mack the Knife’? Are you implying that I have sharp teeth and a dangerous bite? 🙂
Great idea, Stacey. I’ll bet X could make The Hotel California as spooky as The Shining.
Of course, Elaine! The better to eat you with!
And Rae, I want to claim “Six Blade Knife” for myself. God, what a song. And what a story that would be.
Greg,you’ve got three good books ready to go there. I had to go look up the lyrics to “Service Fee.” I think I found some of the verses that made you think of Amy.
“It wasn’t very pretty, it wasn’t very kindI’d rather go deaf, paralysed or blindBut I lay back, held still by the fearThat you would smash me to piecesAnd I’d die here.
No thank you, boy, I’d rather walk home aloneNo thank you, sir, I’d rather walk home aloneNo thank you, brother, I’d rather walk home aloneNo thank you, mister, I’d rather walk home alone.”
On a lighter note, my friend Tony Broadbent’s comment, when my debut novel first published: “Thank you so much for writing this book, Louise. I now know how to spell Amaryllis.”
My dear Ken,
As long as those free razor blades don’t come labeled “left wrist” and “right wrist,” I think we’re still fine.
And Janis was right.
Yours in melancholy songs,Louise
I love this idea, have considered it myself from time to time. My favorites:
“I Wanna Be Around” – Johnny Mercer”Funny How Time Slips Away” – Willie NelsonSeveral by Kris Krisotfferson – “Me and Bobbie McGee,” (original version); “Sunday Morning Coming Down;” “Silver-tongued Devil”And these, by Delbert McClinton – “Lone Star Blues,” “When Rita Leaves,” “Down into Mexico,” “The Rub.””Fever” has potential for a “Body Heat” style series of stories.
Dana, you’ve got some really good ones there. I’d jump on “Silver Tongued Devil” and “Down into Mexico.” Oh, the stories you could write.
And Santa Tom, doesn’t it make you wish you could tell the story of the Dutchman when he was young? Maybe we can ask Mr. Bruen to step in here.
Another favorite from the Canadian band The Weakerthans:
I’m standing on this corner.Can’t get their attention.Facing rush hour faces turned around.I clutch my stack of paper, press one to a chest,then watch it swoop and stutter to the ground.I’m weary with right-angles, abbreviated daylight,and waiting for a winter to be done.Why do I still see you in every mirrored window,in all that I could never overcome?How I don’t know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you.How you don’t know where you should look, so you look at my hands.How movements rise and then dissolve, melted by our shallow breath.How causes dance away from me.I am your pamphleteer.I walk this room in time to the beat of the Gestetner,contemplate my next communique.The rhetoric and treason of saying that I’ll miss you.Of saying “Hey, well maybe you should stay.”Sing “Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one”like me remembering the way it could have been.Help me with this barricade.No surrender. No defeat.A spectre’s haunting Albert Street.I am your pamphleteer.
They sat at each end of the couch, watched as the fire burned down,So quiet on this winter’s night, not a house light on for miles around.Then he said, “I think I’ll fill the stove. it’s getting time for bed.”She looked up, “I think I’ll have some wine. how ’bout you?” She asked and he declined.
“Warren,” she said, “maybe just for tonight,Let’s fill the stove with birches and watch as the fire burns bright.How long has it been? I know it’s quite a while.Pour yourself half a glass. Stay with me a little while.”
And Warren, he shook his head, as if she’d made some kind of joke.”Birches on a winter night? no, we’ll fill the stove with oak.Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon.
“And you hate a cold house, same as me. Am I right or not?””All right, all right, that’s true,” she said. “It was just a thought,’Cause,” she said, “Warren, you do look tired. Maybe you should go up to bed.I’ll look after the fire tonight.””Oak,” he told her.”Oak,” she said.
She listened to his footsteps as he climbed up the stairs,And she pulled a sweater on her, set her wineglass on a chair.She walked down cellar to the wood box — it was as cold as an ice chest –And climbed back up with four logs, each as white as a wedding dress.
And she filled the stove and poured the wine and then she sat down on the floor.She curled her legs beneath her as the fire sprang to life once more.And it filled the room with a hungry light and it cracked as it drew air,And the shadows danced a jittery waltz like no one else was there.
And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.And she knew the time it would be short; the fire would start to fade.She thought of heat. She thought of time.
She called it an even trade.
What a fabulous thread today – wow.First songwriter who came to mind for me wasthe amazing John Prine…”Angel from Montgomery”Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery/ Make me a poster of an old rodeo/Just give me one thing that I can hold on to/To believe in this living is just a hard way to go/When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy/He werent much to look at, just a free rambling man/But that was a long time and no matter how I try/The years just flow by like a broken down dam.
Or his “Sam Stone”Sam Stone’s welcome home didn’t last too long/He went to work when he’d spent his last dime/And Sammy took to stealing when he got that empty feeling for a hundred dollar habit without overtime/ And the gold rolled through his veins/Like a thousand railroad trains/And eased his mind in the hours that he chose/While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes//There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose/Little pitchers have big ears/Don’t stop to count the years/Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios…..
and many more are rolling through my brain, including Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”…
Now, if only I were a writer.. 🙂
Damn, Dusty. You’re going to make me blow my music budget this month again. “The Pamphleteer” is a wonderful song. Any song would be that includes the phrase “I’m weary with right angles.”
But “Birches.” I’ve got to go buy that one right now.
And Annie, the “Sam Stone” lyrics will stay with me for a long time. It may not be the blues … but it’s for damn sure noir. I think we should get somebody at Hard Case Crime to write that one tout de suite.
Great idea, Louise.I nominate “Road to Ensenada” (or anything else) by Lyle Lovett, written by Larry McMurtry, maybe:
As I lay sick and brokenViva MexicoMy eyes just won’t stay openAnd I dream a dream of home
Where there’s coffee on the tableAnd kindness in your handsHoney I’ll help you when I’m ableBut right now I’m feeling bad
Listen to your heart that beatsAnd follow it with both your feetAnd as you walk and as you breatheYou ain’t no friend to me
The road to EnsenadaIs plenty wide and fastIf you head South from TijuanaThen I’ll see you at last
But my eyes they open slowlyAnd look around the roomThe old man he seems worriedAnd there ain’t no sign of you
So listen to your heart that beatsAnd follow it with both your feetAnd as you walk and as you breatheYou ain’t no friend to me
You can offer to the righteousAll the good that you have doneBut down here among the uncleanYour good work comes undone
The sisters at the borderlineThey’re holding out their handsThey’re begging me for something LordBut I don’t understand
So it’s adios to AlveroTell him to stay between the linesAnd if he sees that Gabriella girlTell her I’ll look her up next time
Because the road to EnsenadaIs plenty wide and fastAnd this time through TijuanaWell it won’t be my last
Listen to your heart that beatsAnd follow it with both your feetAnd as you walk and as you breatheYou ain’t no friend to meNo, you ain’t no friend to me
Oh! Lyle Lovett!
She left Dallas for CaliforniaWith an old friend by her sideWell he did not say muchBut one year laterHe’d ask her to be his wife
And the lights of L.A. CountyLook like diamonds in the skyWhen you’re driving through the hoursWith an old friend at your side
One year later I left HoustonWith an old friend by my sideWell it did not say muchBut it was a beautyOf a coal black .45
And the lights of L.A. CountyLook like diamonds in the skyWhen you’re driving through the hoursWith an old friend at your side
So I drove on all the day longAnd I drove on through the nightAnd I thought of her a’waitingFor to be his blushing bride
And the lights of L.A. CountyThey looked like diamonds in the skyAs I drove into the valleyWith my old friend at my side
And as she stood there at the altarAll dressed in her gown of whiteHer face was bright as stars a’shiningLike I’d dreamed of all my life
And they kissed each otherAnd they turned aroundAnd they saw me standing in the aisleWell I did not say muchI just stood there watchingAs that .45 told them goodbye
And the lights of L.A. CountyLook like diamonds in the skyWhen you’re kneeling at the altarWith an old friend at your side
And the lights of L.A. CountyAre a mighty pretty sightWhen you’re kneeling at the altarWith an old friend at your side
Lisa, Larry McMurtry would be perfect for The Road to Enseñada. I’d love to know what led that man to a place where he’s “sick and dying” and dreaming of home.
Dusty, you’ve got the ending of that book right there:
“And they kissed each otherAnd they turned aroundAnd they saw me standing in the aisleWell I did not say muchI just stood there watchingAs that .45 told them goodbye.”
I want the rest of the story.
I did write a story based on this song by my friend Carolyn Bradley, who records as Ravyn, but I’ll bet anyone here could do a kick-ass job of it.
AVENGING ANGEL© Carolyn Bradley/ravyn
There is no light behind your eyesThere is no truth, there’s only lies,There are no angels ‘round your bed,There is no light behind your eyesBecause your soul is dead.
You walk in darkness, smile at pain,The fire you drink makes you insane,You conjure demons to your side,And there’s no light behind your eyes,Your soul’s been crucified.
But I am avenging angel.I am the hand of justice.You have unleashed my anger.I will see you in flames.
You roam the land to sow despair,Come harvest time, it’s everywhere,You thought you were beyond control,But roam the land no more,It’s time, yeah time to join your soul.
For I am avenging angel,I am the hand of justice,You have unleashed my anger,I will see you in flames.
Sharon, I love the Nick Cave/Kylie duet. Great video to back it up. And the Pogues/Kirsty McC duet always brings a smile to my face. Such a sad and odd way that how Kirsty McC died.
A couple of songs that always appealed to me are: Life in the fast lane (the Eagles) has a nice pulp novel in it and Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Tom Petty) is suitably dark hearted.
Louise, what a fantastic post… I’m so sorry I missed all the discussion yesterday.
Stacey, I’d be more than happy to write HOTEL CALIFORNIA, thanks for asking! Having lived it several times over I think I could do it justice.
There are several songs by the Psychedelic Furs and by Todd Rundgren that I’d write as novels – I use parts of them all the time.
Fran, that Avenging Angel song is fabulous. You’re writing short stories? Send them on! I’d love to see this one.
What an interesting mix of songs and songwriters this post has spurred: from Simon’s “Life in the Fast Lane” (and oh yes, you should write it) to X’s Psychedelic Furs.
There’s inspiration all around us, non?
Hi Louise,Yes, a great post and great responses too. One little nit–Speed of the Sound of Loneliness is by John Prine, according to my own recollection and this page:
Doesn’t detract from your point.
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