Tag Archives: rock and roll

Growing Up Under the Mushroom Cloud, Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

It was about a year ago that I started this blog. Although I’m not a big marker of milestones, I’d say it’s definitely been an interesting time. The past year has seen me rise from the dungeons of utter obscurity to the lofty heights of absolute anonymity. Which is to say, not a lot has changed, but it’s been a fun ride.

The first thing I posted here was an examination of a song by my all-time favorites, Queen, rock royalty and my personal “Shakespeare of Music.” The song was “Machines” from the album The Works, which has always been one of my favorite Queen records. It’s music that takes me back to the summer days of my youth. So now, with summer again upon us, I want to look at another track from The Works, one of the greatest rockers in the Queen canon, “Hammer to Fall.”

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Would You Die for the Things You Believe In?

I lived most of my teen years during the 1980s, which is to say I pretty much grew up during the 80s. Musically speaking, I’ll always think of this as the video era: the MTV generation, the time when image—specifically, what a band or artist looked like and how they presented their music in videos—meant the difference between success and failure. Yes, it was a time of glorious excess.

Because of the reliance on videos, I’m sure some music became popular that never would have gained an audience without the visuals, and probably as a result of poor video choices, some artists failed whose music deserved a better fate. MTV promoted the airing of a new video by a big-name band for weeks ahead of its debut, much like movie releases. Some of the best videos were high-quality mini-movies, with intriguing storylines, special effects, and large casts.

And then that fad faded. MTV got into broadcasting all sorts of content besides music videos. No one really seems to spend much time on videos anymore.

So imagine my surprise when I came upon a music video made just a couple of years ago that took me back to the halcyon days of music videos. Continue reading

“Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

I spent a lot of time writing about literature in college and during my MFA program. As a writer, learning to evaluate and talk about writing is a pretty handy skill, some might say an instrumental skill. Even when I read for pleasure now, part of my mind is always evaluating, trying sentences in different constructions, trying to predict character actions or upcoming turns of plot, and so forth.

Because music is a vital part of my daily life, it’s probably no surprise that I frequently run the same mental games on the songs and albums I listen to—evaluating how or why a song achieves its effect, explicating how lyrics and music combine to form meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.

A while back, I wrote about a musical selection by the Devin Townsend Band called Synchestra and how it had influenced a short story I was writing (“Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street”). I’d like to take a look now at one of the tracks from this album, a song called “Pixillate.” The song comes on the second half of the album; if we were to consider the album as a novel—a not inappropriate comparison, considering we’re talking about progressive rock here—this song would be well into the rising action, heading into the dark of the woods, approaching the black moment or crisis.  Continue reading

Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street

I’ve written before about my reliance on music to form an appropriate mood while I’m writing, and how music can influence a story I’m working on. And I’ve written about my constant search for new and stimulating musical experiences. The point is: I really love music. A while back, someone posted the following pic on Facebook, and yeah, I totally get it:

That moment when the music is so good you turn into a transdimensional space goat

My latest transdimensional space goat moments have come from a musical selection called Synchestra by the Devin Townsend Band. Devin Townsend has been around for more than 20 years, recording under a number of different band names, although I only discovered him about six months ago. That introduction, by the way, came via another band that’s influenced some of my recent writing, Voyager. When Voyager tweeted about opening some shows last fall for the Devin Townsend Project down in Australia, I figured DTP was worth checking out, which led to finding all the other Townsend permutations.  Continue reading

Top 5 Musical Choices to Write By

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter: “Why do stormy summer afternoons always seem to go better with David Byrne’s The Forest?” One of my long-time friends soon replied, “Nearly everything goes better with David Byrne’s The Forest. It’s one of my favorite albums to write to.” And I thought, of course! I, too, frequently choose this CD when I’m writing.

But that got me thinking about what other musical go-tos I have. When it comes to choosing what to listen to while I write, the selection can have profound effects on what I turn out, so having the best music playing is a must. What I’m working on can sometimes dictate an appropriate musical choice—something that sets a certain mood or evokes the right setting or emotions. Other times I might just want something to shut out the noises of the rest of the world and help me focus on the page in front of me.

However, several CDs have stood out as recurring choices. Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I think of musical selections based on the whole CD. I’m that old. Actually, I’m old enough to think in terms of the vinyl album, and sometimes I revert to that terminology, but the CD is so much more convenient in many ways (even when I’m actually playing all my music from digital sources on my computer). My point is that, although I do create playlists or play random from time to time, I’m much more likely to select a specific CD/album to listen to in its entirety.

My top choices are largely, though not entirely, instrumental, as that presents less possibility of distraction (i.e., I’m not going to find myself singing along instead of concentrating on what I’m writing). See what you think of these, and let me know if you have any great favorites of your own that help you get in the zone for writing.

5. Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains

CD cover for Fire in the Kitchen, The Chieftains & various artistsThis CD has Irish legends the Chieftains performing back up for various Celtic music artists of Canada. The featured artists include names such as Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, and it was the first place I ever heard Great Big Sea. The collection is a great taste of Celtic music, at times sublime, at times raucous and reeling. It’s that variety in the music that makes this a good choice for writing for me—a reminder, perhaps, of the constant need for tension, one thing playing off another. About half the tracks on the CD include vocals—but some of those are in Gaelic, and since I have no understanding of the tongue, the singing ends up just sounding like another instrument in the mix.
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4. Divinities: Twelve Dances with God, Ian Anderson

CD cover for Ian Anderson's DivinitiesThis CD is a bit more subtle and consists primarily of flute and keyboards. Ian Anderson is best known for his work as front man for classic rockers Jethro Tull, and if that’s all you know of him, this solo work might come as a surprise. Entirely instrumental, the tracks that make up this one are heavily influenced by and evocative of Asian, particularly Indian, culture. And of course it features a healthy dose of Anderson’s unique flute playing style. I find this particularly good music when I’m working on any writing in the fantasy genre.
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3. Fantasia 2000 (Disney movie soundtrack)

CD cover for Fantasia 2000 Disney movie soundtrackAlmost any classical music can serve as a background to writing, but what I like about the selections from Fantasia 2000 is that it’s the sort of music that tells a story even without the visuals that the Disney animators provided. It’s music that going somewhere: it has a goal, a purpose, momentum. It’s telling a story; I’m writing and trying to tell a story—these things go well together. Over the course of the CD, you’ve got a variety of musical styles, alternating through calm, restrained passages and loud, thundering sections. That diversity helps keep my brain awake and actively creative.
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2. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd

CD cover for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were HereSometimes writing calls for rock and roll. As I wrote in “Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together,” writing about a fictional band got me listening constantly to a real band, Voyager, for that particular story. Sometimes, a story can call for a particular band or type of music. But if I’m looking for some rock, maybe a little psychedelia, this Pink Floyd gem works better than anything to help my writing shine on. Although this CD has some good songs for singing in the middle, much of it is instrumental—and I’ll often find that if I get in the writing zone, I won’t even notice when those songs pass by.
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1. The Forest, David Byrne

Now we’re back to The Forest. This truly is my default choice; when nothing else seems appropriate to help me on my way to writing success: The Forest. I’ve been listening to this CD for more than 20 years, and it never fails to inspire. The music is orchestral and instrumental, with occasional vocalizations or chanting; only one short song has a sung lyric. The whole composition is dramatic and theatrical (owing to its roots as part of a theater piece). Yet no description of the music will accurately capture it: You just have to listen.

CD cover for David Byrne's The ForestI will always remember the first time I heard this music. It would have been the summer of 1991, around the time the CD came out. For an evening’s entertainment, three of my friends and I went to the Tower Records in West Covina. Upon entering the front doors, we each went our separate ways to look for our various favorite artists. After half an hour or 45 minutes, we began to regroup. And we all commented on this strange, bizarre, yet somehow wonderful music that had been playing overhead on the store sound system all the while. It was like nothing we’d ever heard, and certainly like nothing any of us were listening to before.

That changed that night, of course. And thankfully so. I was writing and listening to The Forest back in 1991 and am still pleased to do so today. Give it a try and see what it inspires for your writing.
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Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Mood Music for Your Weekend

I logged on to Facebook this morning and everyone is posting hallelujahs to it being Friday—as if they didn’t just have a four day weekend. Oh well, I guess that can make the next week feel longer. In celebration of Friday and the coming weekend, here’s a few musical selections to help get you in the mood for fun—that is, a playlist for play.

There are two artists that come instantly to mind for uplifting sweet-sounding music: classic rock band Triumph and Celtic/pop band Great Big Sea. The message of both of these bands is overwhelmingly positive—and just good fun. (And hey, they’re both from Canada—coincidence? You tell me.)

Triumph was best-known in the late 70s and early 80s for their brand of melodic hard rock. The first track for the weekend playlist should be “Hold On,” which starts with a good explanation of the power of music:

Music holds the secret,
To know it can make you whole
It’s not just a game of notes,
It’s the sounds inside your soul

However, as exciting as that song is, Triumph’s “Magic Power” has got to be one of the best songs of all time. No matter what your age, when you listen to this song, you are “young, wild, and free.”

Next it’s time to turn to Great Big Sea. These boys from Newfoundland have been out on the road this year celebrating their twentieth anniversary of singing the folk songs and traditional music of their native land, infused with infectious pop melodies. If you really want a pick-me-up, go see them live! If they’re not in your area, the music will suffice.

“Good People” from GBS’s Safe Upon the Shore CD wasn’t initially one of my favorites, but with it’s simple yet necessary message and with seeing it played live several times, it has definitely grown on me over time.

One of my favorite GBS tunes is one of their earliest. To me, “Goin Up” explains what this band is all about. You know how it is when you plan to have a gathering of people at your house, and you spend lots of time cleaning and making sure you’ve got enough seating in the living room, but a half hour in, everyone’s standing around informally in the kitchen? Yeah, it’s like that. A kitchen party.

There’s thirty people in the kitchen
And there’s always room for more

And as long as you’re going up with Great Big Sea, you can’t miss “Ordinary Day,” which is their song that reminds us to believe in ourselves:

It’s up to you now if you sink or swim,
Keep the faith and your ship will come in.

Of course, no weekend playlist would be complete without a little Queen. To get you back in a rockin’ mood, how about a little “Fat Bottomed Girls”—cause they make the rockin’ world go round.

And to finish, another Queen track that perhaps many people won’t know, but one that’s appropriate for looking forward to a great weekend:

Obviously this isn’t enough music to get you through the weekend, but you could do a lot worse than exploring additional tracks from the three artists featured here. And perhaps I’ll feature more of my weekend favorites another time. Of course, your tastes might vary, in which case I’m not sure I can help you. I hope these selections help you enjoy your weekend, whether you’re out in the garden, playing sports, having a kitchen party, or just enjoying the beautiful day.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

Writing Rocks: How Stories Come Together

For many years, I had a story idea sparked by the Falling Rock warning signs you see placed along mountainous roads. Actually, it was an idea without a story, which is at least one of the reasons I didn’t write it for a long time. It required a few additional elements before the story evolved: reading a novel by Robert McCammon, a specific discussion with my writing group, and discovering a new band with a new flavor of music.

Head East road sign album cover

Album cover for Head East’s self-titled 1978 album

The basic idea went something like this: What if a rock band chose the name Falling Rock, and then their fans started stealing all those warning signs from the roadways of America? A what if can be an interesting place to start, but it doesn’t inherently lead to the elements necessary for story: characters, conflict, and so forth. As a side note, the idea owes something to the classic rock band Head East, whose self-titled album from 1978 had an album cover made to look like a road sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions and the band’s name spray painted over them; although you might not recognize the band name, you almost certainly know their most famous song, “Never Been Any Reason (Save My Life).”

I started thinking more seriously about how to write my story after reading Robert McCammon’s novel The Five, which came out about two years ago. First of all, McCammon has long been one of my favorite authors; I recommend his books unreservedly. (What, you haven’t read Boy’s Life? Then how did you think you knew what a story was or what it takes to be a writer?)

Robert McCammon, The Five

Cover of Robert McCammon’s novel The Five

In The Five, a small touring band embarks on what might be their last tour together before familial and other obligations pull them in other directions. They’ve each got ulterior motives that prompt them on the journey, and of course they encounter tragedy, heartbreak, and terror. Along the way, something really magical and creative happens. I loved this book—beautifully written and engaging throughout.

What The Five gave me in inspiration for my Falling Rock story was a glimpse into what the life of a small touring band might be like: that constant struggle to do the thing you love—play music—but also needing to make it pay. The novel also helped begin to answer the what if I’d started with. The band in the novel gains notoriety through tragedy such that suddenly they’re a hot ticket. What if, I thought, my band becomes popular because of stolen road signs?

That’s still a situation, an idea, not a story. At that point, I brought up the idea with my writing group. I don’t normally talk about my ideas or what I’m working on before I write them, but in this case I didn’t have a story, and I guess I was afraid I would lose the impetus to write it if a story didn’t come about soon. So, I laid out the idea.

The lesson here is really how important it is to have a suitable group of writing companions that you can work with and share ideas and stories, give and receive criticism and encouragement, whether online or in person. After I described what I was thinking about, my group members saw the potential and immediately started asking the right questions—or more importantly, getting me to ask them.

The biggest question was: Whose story is this? It might seem silly that I hadn’t figured that out—and naturally that was a big stopping point in being able to write it. I’d had a vague sense that it was a story about the band itself (although I hadn’t figured out who the band was). But my writing group got me thinking about other possibilities. Was this a fan’s story? Was it a story about someone stealing the signs? Or someone trying to stop the sign stealing?

By the end of that short conversation, I had plenty of ideas that could develop into a true story, characters to build story around. Because each of the possibilities seemed to have life in it, I began thinking of a fragmented, multicharacter story to use all the ideas. As my former MFA workshop mates could attests, I’ve always had trouble telling just one story at a time.

For a variety of reasons (you know them—work, life, procrastination), it was still a couple of months before I started writing anything. Once I did start writing, I needed a name for my rock band. Initially, I thought the band would be called Falling Rock, but I decided instead that should be the name of their latest CD, which would be designed to look like the road sign. Because the band would be at the center of the story, the reason all the other characters and their stories were swirling around, I wanted a band name that somehow represented that movement, that journey. Unfortunately, Journey was already taken.

My first thought was Voyager, as I knew of no band with that name. I checked online through Spotify, however, and found such an artist. In fact, what I found was a recently released CD titled The Meaning of I with a very striking cover:

Voyager, Meaning of I CD

Cover artwork for Voyager’s The Meaning of I

When I see artwork such as this on an album or CD, I have a good feeling that the music might be something I’d be interested in. I’ve always believed in the old adage, Always judge a book by its cover. But only as it applies to books, or in this case CDs or albums. I’ve been hooked on progressive rock since I first discovered Pink Floyd back in high school, and I’m always on the lookout for new artists to add to my collection. These are the sort of artists that typically makes an artistic statement with their album/CD artwork to complement their music.

Voyager, from Australia, was described as progressive metal, so I figured I’d give them a listen. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Intelligent lyrics combined with a nice vocal style—and a hell of a lot of drums and guitars. Pretty soon, I was listening extensively to all the available Voyager music (they’ve only released four CDs to date, although according to their Facebook fan page they’re working on number five now).

Voyager became a spiritual model for my fictional band, and their music was frequently my inspiration while writing. It’s a rock and roll story, so I wanted to stay in a rock and roll state of mind. And by the way, my band ended up with the name Go Forth Traveller, in case you were wondering.

That’s pretty much it. All the pieces were in place, and I was able to complete this story, “Falling Rock.” Of course, from the beginning I envisioned it as a short story, and that’s what I tried to write. The final result, with four intertwined storylines, came in at about 15,000 words, which is novella range by many definitions, or at any rate a very long short story. And it’s currently out in the world looking for a publication home.

You just never know how a story is going to come together. Sometimes an idea sticks around for ages before it connects with some other piece or pieces and a story develops. Other times, the story forms almost instantaneously. And then there are the stories you think will work that lose momentum altogether and die. It’s all part of the writing life, I suppose. And the writing life is all about searching for the meaning of I.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins