Songs and Stories.
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
I'm delighted to announce that a new story, 'Highway 29' will appear in the Andrew Hook edited anothology of new crime fiction, Bang, due for publication in early 2023. The anthology will feature new stories from Maxim Jakubowski, Rhys Hughes, Brian Howell, Roxanne Dent, Andrew Humphrey, Melissa Pleckham and Gary Fry among others.
More info about the anthology can be found at: https://headshotpress.com/bang/
and, about Head Shot Press and its other books at https://headshotpress.com/store/
'Highway 29' takes its inspiration from the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name that appeared on his 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. The album is one of my favourite Springsteen recordings, along with Nebraska, and like that earlier work, and Born in the USA, it explicitly addresses contemporary social concerns--the continued oppression of the American working class, the exploitation of immigrants, the decimation of traditional heavy industries like coal and steel, the plight of the young and marginalised, struggling to get by. Springsteen himself has cited the influence of Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass (1985), by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, a study of contemporary homelessness in the USA, on the songs.
As with Nebraska, the largely acoustic songs on The Ghost of Tom Joad are narrative sketches, providing glimpses into the lives of men and women on the edges of society-immigrants and migrant workers, unemployed vets or those caught up in dead-end jobs with no real prospects, and young men forced into criminality.
One such is the the narrator of Highway 29, a sparse, almost whispered song with minimal acoustic backing, about a young dreamer working in a shoe store and the fateful consequences that follow on from his meeting with a pretty young woman in the store.
I've always loved the song and Springsteen's quiet, almost fragile delivery, the hushed tones of which force the listener to pay attention. Like an impressionist painting, the lyrics sketch out the bare bones of two wasted lives, leaving the details of their story hidden in the muted chords and the emptiness of the vast landscape they inhabit.
When I learned about Andrew Hook's anthology and started thinking about ideas for a story, the song came immediately to mind. The truth is, for a while I'd been mulling over the idea of trying to flesh out a more complete story from the fragmented vision Springsteen had given us. Over the course of the last ten years or so, I've written a number of stories that took their inspiration from particular songs, or were prompted by the lives of their creators.
The first of these was my novella Eyepennies, the initial inspiration for which came from the Sparklehorse song of the same name that featured on the 2001 album It's a Wonderful Life. I scrapped that first version following Mark Linkous' tragic death in 2010, and wrote a longer story that was essentially a phantasmagoric re-imagining of Linkous' life and the events leading up to his suicide.
The most recent, prior to 'Highway 29', was the novella Pervert Blood, which was prompted by the bleak images that unfurl like a series of southern gothic vignettes, in the Ohtis song that appears on their superlative 2019 debut, Curve of Earth (2019). The startling incidents that Sam Swinson sings about, are largely autobiographical.
Eyepennies was published by TTA Press in 2012. It can be purchased through Amazon.
Pervert Blood appeared in Black Static #80/81 in 2021, copies of which can be brought here
Other stories I've written that were inspired by songs or their creators, are:
'Lost Highway' (inspired by the Hank Williams song), is about a guilt-ridden songwriter fleeing a brutal act of revenge, who encounters the ghost of Hank Williams, taking his final, fateful ride down that lost highway to his last, never realised gig at Canton, Ohio. The story appears in my collection The Dream Operator, published by Undertow Publications in 2017 and available direct from Undertow.
'Shadows on Parade' was born out of the images and ideas contained in the song by Oregon born indie-folk singer & songwriter, Laura Gibson, from her 2009 album, Beasts of Season. Although there is no narrative as such in the song, the abstract and hallucinatory nature of the images that Gibson sings about, reminded me of the struggles of a woman I had worked with while managing a day centre for adults with mental health difficulties. The notion of bullied and blurred bodies, captive to cautionary words, seemed to speak precisely of the fears this woman grappled with on an almost daily basis. The story was published in Black Static #57 in 2017.
'Shore Leave' drew its inspiration from the Tom Waits song that featured on his seminal 1983 album, Swordfishtrombones. The song's vivid and noirish lyrics offer a surreal portrait of loneliness and longing, coupled with a radical departure from his former jazz and folk oriented music into a kind of nightmarish fusion of blues and older, more European and Balkan musical traditions. The sense of desparation and yearning evoked by the song and Waits' falsetto chorus, seemed perfect territory to mine. The story I dug up appeared in Black Static #67 in 2019.
And my novella, Medication, is, like 'Highway 29', an attempt to put flesh on the bones of the story Damien Jurado delineates in the song that appears on the album Ghost of David (2000). The song speaks of the terrible burden of caring for someone with schizophrenia. The story expands on the song's themes of despair and guilt, temptation and betrayal, exploring the lengths that a man wanting to find peace with his lover, will go to free himself from that burden. Medication was published in CrimeWave #13: Bad Light (2018), available from TTA Press here.