The mixtape of Northern Fires
Like many writers, I can’t help but let the music I listen to influence my writing. I listen to a lot of songwriters, but when I draft, it’s usually instrumental jazz. Brubeck and Davis and Coltrane and Mingus.
But there are songs and songwriters that influenced my writing constantly. Some you can find referenced directly, some were, but were cut, and some just flavored things. I thought I’d list a few that came to mind.
Green On Red—Gas Food Lodging, The Killer Inside Me
Twenty short stories, so whiskey soaked that they couldn’t be printed on paper, so put them out on vinyl. Mostly violent and tragic, all brilliant. “That’s the way the West was really one, plenty of cheap labor and the mighty gun” is one of many perfect lines here. They lifted more than a title from Jim Thompson. Both albums are shot through with grime and tragedy. (The Killer Inside Me doesn’t seem to be available digitally. I’ve linked to an Amazon page with the original vinyl.)
Janis Joplin–Me and Bobby McGee
I wanted to make the chorus of this song the epigraph for the book, but the time discontinuity stopped me. It’s still the central idea.
Again, perfect short stories in song form, but these are crafted with care and love. Peter’s from the hood, so to speak. Orchard Park, a half hour drive from Town Line, and this album has a Western New York flavor. I’m pretty sure I remember hearing the news stories behind Small Town Spree as a child. Or it might be so perfectly written, it just feels that way. At one point, I had a passage in the book where Mary told of someone named Peter Case disappearing into the woods never to be seen again, a la “Walk In The Woods”, but like so much it got cut. That sense that you could just disappear and start over again pervades the whole story.
I listened to A LOT of Pink Floyd when I was growing up, but this album has more to do with Roger Waters solo albums than anything else the band put out.
It is deeply personal. It’s central prayer is that, somehow, the WWII death of Waters father, can come to mean something, and, of course, that hope pervades all wars, including the Civil War. I tried to create a better fate for him in the final pages of my own book.
Waits’ brilliant early records were all brilliantly urban. His brilliant later albums, especially Mule Variations, feel brilliantly rural. I cut dozens of Tom Waits lines that seeped into the manuscript, but there’s probably a few that I missed.
“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”.
Mary Willis longs for the open road. The territories call for her to light out. She wants to find herself down in Mexico where she has to go out for the doctor and never come back. This is the song she hums to herself as she slops the pigs.
This is the song that set me on the path of writing this book. I was editing an audio literary magazine, and heard this piece and decided it was the perfect instrumental piece to include in the fourth issue. After the band granted permission, I googled the title, just out of curiosity, and found that I had spent more than half my life in “The Burned-Over District”, and that there was an important history with the title. It made me realize that the history of my homeland had somehow been hidden from me. From there, I went down a deep rabbit hole that led to the book.