By Gary M. Almeter
Here are songs that, in their own way, inspire me to write. In Baltimore, we chant “Seven Nation Army” at our sporting events and then delight as the Ravens defense sacks the quarterback or the Orioles hit a walk-off home run. If ever I was in a sporting event, albeit one requiring a typewriter, I would want the crowd to chant one of these. Thanks for letting me share.
I Miss My Stove
I get inspired when a song makes an ordinary person its subject then revels in that person’s ordinariness. This serves to ultimately make that person, while still ordinary in every sense of that word, something extraordinary. That’s what writers aim to do. Holden Caulfield didn’t really do that much in the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep; certainly nothing that warrants a whole book. But give him a red hat and an acute revulsion for phoniness and a sister named Phoebe and then write about him well, and he becomes an icon.
“Stove” by The Lemonheads
This is a song about a guy who gets a new stove. Then he feels bad when he sees his old stove sitting, dejected, on his front lawn. Evan Dando treats such an event as a milestone, adds some anthropomorphism and emotion, and it’s poignant. Who hasn’t felt sadness at saying goodbye to an appliance or automobile? Also, we learn a great deal about both the guy getting the new stove and about the guy who delivers the stove (he was a prize fighter once and his son goes to UVM).
“Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega
Similarly, Vega’s song makes an ordinary setting an event by noticing the little things that people do, like the woman shaking her umbrella and kissing the man who pours the coffee and the woman whose hair gets wet while she’s hitching up her skirt.
“Scenes from An Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel
The fact that we know that Brenda and Eddie had deep pile carpet in their apartment and bought their paintings from Sears makes their story just a little sadder. I frequently wonder what Brenda and Eddie are doing today.
“Escape (the Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes
The two nitwits in this song had to take out personal ads in order to realize that they really did still love each other. They even discovered something new, i.e., that they like pina coladas and making love at midnight in the dunes on the cape. For writers, a wonderful reminder that there is a story behind every personal ad.
“Daysleeper” by REM
Michael Stipe said he was walking in New York City when he saw a sign on a door that said ‘Daysleeper.” He created a story about the person living inside and the alienation he or she must feel.
By now you might be saying, surely every song is about someone. But take for example the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” It’s about a woman, disco’s own Eliza Doolittle, who once worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar. Ordinary enough. But there is a dearth of detail in this song. We don’t know the people. Details are what give a thing its authenticity. If we knew precisely which cocktail bar the waitress worked at when the guy met her, what she was wearing, what her name was, how exactly he picked her out and shook her up and turned her around, then this might rise to the level of inspiring.
This isn’t to say that just because we know someone’s name, we genuinely know their story. Even the songs about a particular someone don’t necessarily provide a tableau for a story. See, e.g., "Barbara Ann," "Roxanne," "Suzanne," all the Delilahs and Sara(h)s, "Mustang Sally," "Charlotte Sometimes," and "Wake Up Little Susie."
Until the Dolphin Flies
Sometimes I think that lists are just crutches for people who cannot master the narrative. Other times I am inspired by songs that employ lists to evince various ways of saying the same thing. It’s a good lesson for a writer. Why say “I will love you forever” when you can say, as Stevie Wonder does, “I will love you until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea.”
“As” by Stevie Wonder
There are literally hundreds of ways, some more effective than others, to say “always” in this song. It’s awesome.
“Hawkmoon 269” by U2
Similarly, U2 uses myriad similes to express the concept of yearning. And again some are more effective than others. “Like Nicotine” is succinct and spectacular. I listened to “Rattle & Hum” from start to finish while on a long car trip recently and when the car stopped I took wrote down “Like Nicotine.” I’m not sure what I will do with it yet but I was literally inspired to write it down. That said, I have no idea what “Like a Phoenix rising needs a holy tree” even means. U2 does this with some frequency. See also, “Mothers of the Disappeared” to hear how many ways a mom can be reminded of a dead child.
“Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel
Lots of ways to say “I want to sex you.”
Can’t Expect the World to Be Your Raggedy Andy
“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” by Rufus Wainwright
Writing is both a compulsion and an indulgence. Like cigarettes and chocolate milk respectively. Cigarettes also evoke the scene of the writer listening to scratchy LPs of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Rodgers and Hart songbook as he sits in his apartment with typewriter ribbon stained fingers clutching a lit cigarette and the dreamy smoke therefrom gets stirred by the dreamy lazy sweaty ceiling fan. It’s okay this song says to be indulgent, to sit down and write even though there are chores to be done etc. See also, “Cigarette” by Smithereens and “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso.
“Empire State of Mind Part II” by Alicia Keys
Alicia proclaims that New York City is a concrete jungle where dreams are made of, and her displaced preposition notwithstanding, she’s right. I can’t help but think of Cheever, Capote, Foer, Lee, Lethem et al using New York as both home and their muse.
“A Lady of A Certain Age” by Divine Comedy
This song is an epic in every sense of that word, chronicling a lady’s reverie from London to New York to Capri over the course of several decades. It’s a novel in four minutes. What is inspiring about this song again is the details. We know what kind of dresses this woman wears and what kind of perfume this woman wears.
Be Running Up That Road
“Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush
I didn’t expect to get inspired by this. But sometimes hearing a song in a different context can be so jarring as to inspire.
“Forever In My Life” by Prince
This was the song JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy played for their first dance after their wedding in that old slave church on Cumberland Island, September 21, 1996. Sometimes I listen to it, picture the scene and wonder if anyone will ever be able to write a story quite like the Kennedys’. Also, does Prince know this?
“Like the Weather” by 10,000 Maniacs
I remember where I was the first time I heard this. I was driving home from tennis practice and at the top of this one hill by my house you could get a radio station from Toronto and I was at the top of this hill for about four minutes and caught this whole song. It was like nothing I had ever heard.
“Don’t Change” by INXS
This song gave me courage in high school. And decades later helped me finish the Boston Marathon.
“Busby Berkley Dreams” by Magnetic Fields
If I ever write anything as beautiful as, “I haven’t seen you in ages but it’s not as bleak as it seems. We still dance on whirling stages in my Busby Berkley dreams,” I will consider myself a success.
Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. Also check out his short story “The Love Song of JFK Jr.” featured in Writer’s Bone’s original fiction series.
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