Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Thoughts on the Writer’s Playlist

Every writer I know writes to music. The music we write with may or may not have anything to do with what we’re writing. Some writers apparently change their music daily. I don’t. When I wrote The Through, I composed playlists for each of the main characters. I listened to the same songs, over and over, every morning from about 4:30 – 7:30. The music became my other companion, besides the sex workers, cops, drug dealers, and my cat. If I slept in, I still heard the songs in my head. When I finished the book, (finished is not the right word. stopped?) I found I missed the music.

So I’m going to write an occasional tribute to the songs that got me though my first novel. I’ll include a link to the video, and whatever else I can find. Today’s song is the opening of Ben’s playlist: Mix Master Mike’s Greatest Opening.

Most mornings, I let this one play while I gathered my thoughts. Mix Master Mike captures something about anticipation, something about getting ready (to rumble). My heart beats faster, and the last remnants of sleep shrug off.  The cuts turn clashing, seemingly unrelated sounds – Jimi Hendrix, Michael Buffer, Jam Master Jay, Busta Rhymes – into a seamless whole.

I write the way Mix Master Mike cuts records. If anyone were to every look at my “notes”, they’d find a mish-mash of half-remembered dreams, sudden inspirations from reading academic articles, unfinished character sketches, all sorts of mental flotsam, like this: the recording came from Amsterdam, a city I visited in 1986, when I still played tuba. I was touring with this Midwestern outfit that assembled symphonic bands from kids around the country and took them on tours through Western Europe. We landed and found out one of our tour buses had broken down. The tour company had another bus on the way from their base in Germany, some 12 hours away. So we had an unexpected 12 hours to kill in Amsterdam.

After a perfunctory canal tour, we were allowed to roam the streets with a partner. A new friend and I wandered into a hash bar. The bartender took one look at us, all scrubbed clean in matching tour jackets, and asked if we wanted some hash. Our mouths hung open, which he took as a sign that plain hash wasn’t good enough for American teenagers. Then he asked if we’d like cocaine in our hash. We finally came up with the words to politely say no. That same day, I nearly spent my entire summer allowance – $400 I think – on a suit made of cork. In the end, my buddy and I settled on a gigantic plate of lamb ribs, fries, and beer. I drank a lot of beer on that trip. None of that has much to do with Mix Master Mike.

Much of my task in writing The Through was paring memories, notes, dreams, loose thoughts into something that made sense and told the story I needed to tell. Took me about 4 years altogether. The finished manuscript came in at around 210 pages. The writing that got cut (very necessarily) was maybe another 400 or so pages. Will the rest ever be seen? With one or two exceptions, I doubt it.

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