Everything I’ve ever published has been written in near silence. And if it were possible, I would prefer absolute silence. Just the keystrokes and movements across the mouse-mat audible. No drills – I can hear one now, pummelling the old playground, ripping out concrete flags and metal joists – no cars slowing and speeding over traffic calming measures, no screams from the nearby schoolyard. No music either. No trance from open car windows, no gospel from the church, no classic rock from a builder’s radio. These especially. Above all, no music.
This was not always the case. In my mid-twenties I wrote a novel while listening to Where You Been by Dinosaur Jnr on constant repeat. Over and over, night after night, day after day. When the resultant novel was a mess, I decided then: no music. Concentration. Rhythm. Solitude. No music at all. It’s a decision, and now a routine, which has affected my relationship with music. If there was once a self-curated soundtrack to my life, populated by favourite bands and brand new sounds; now it’s more a confusingly eclectic pub jukebox: out of my control, and mainly on in the background.
I don’t think this is a unique experience. There is, I’m sure, a difference between the way the youthful listen to records – the way they consume them (in the sense of devour) – and those who have come to be less interested in how that consumption defines us. There is a very specific line crossed when you no longer sniff the vinyl on the bus home after buying a record (as Morrissey once put it), but just enjoy listening to music when and where you like.
I thought about this a lot while writing If This is Home. But until recently I hadn’t realised how much of that had seeped into the fabric of the novel. There is music everywhere, music at every stage – whether explicitly mentioned or not. Music is the vehicle of dreams back in 1990s England. In New York it is a link to the past and an idea of the future. In Las Vegas it is memories of better times – and also confrontation.
The opening scene of the book has Mark, the central character, watch an altercation between two groups of men, one young one old. Mark cannot hear the music that the young men are loudly playing on a ghetto blaster, but I knew it was always The Real Slim Shady by Eminem. The kind of song that was just loud and obnoxious enough, and male enough, to be provocative. Las Vegas was about music and I invented an anecdote around Sammy Davis Jnr’s Candy Man song (which is even creepier than the version in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And as life is slowly unravels for Mark, a Vegas radio station plays Mariachi band music, imploring Mark to believe in the word of the trumpet.
These were accidents, which they weren’t in the sections which concentrate on Bethany Wilder in 1990. Here the music selected itself. Especially Run, Run, Run, by the Velvet Underground, which is a kind of unofficial anthem for the novel. But also The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie… that New York sound was always going to inspire a longing to escape to the Bowery. But these dreams of leaving to go to New York, I knew, would not come fully formed. The New York escapist dream was more likely to have its genesis in Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan than anything else. Radio was always important then, but perhaps not as much as your parents’ record collection.
But a soundtrack to anything fails if it just accounts for the records you like, that are obvious. While Bethany is having her hair done at a salon before she is, against her better judgement, to be crowned Carnival Queen, the local radio is playing Sacrifice by Elton John. To her it is everything that is wrong with the town in which she lives, and the country in which she is stuck. Listening to it now, I can take her point. I won’t feel upset if you skip it.
Music changes when the narrative briefly stops in New York. The theme to Somewhere in Time – I love a time travel romcom – fitted in because the solo piano works well with Mark’s increasing isolation. The next five songs on the playlist are the ones chosen by his best friend O’Neil on the first time they meet – “old country songs and rockabilly as well as some fading metal acts.” Do not skip the Poison track, it is immense.
The final tracks are about the inevitable return home for Mark – and Joni Mitchell, who has been haunting the book a little, is finally mentioned. Fugazi are also dropped in, perhaps in the way I would have done when I was 16, as are forgotten dreampop innovators The Telescopes – a local-ish band who briefly achieved a small level of fame in the late 1980s and early 90s. Reacquainting myself with them was a pleasure – though there is little pleasure derived from it for Mark.
Unconsciously, the way Mark shies away from music, the way he doesn’t react one way or the other to the sound of t.A.T.u, is a way to show how he has become stunted, how he has lost an understanding of joy. In the brilliant Un Coeur En Hiver, the reticent Stèphane is forced at a dinner table to offer his definition of music. Music is not art, he says, but dreams. And this is what I wanted to see through Mark, and through If This is Home : what it is like to finally stop believing in dreams.