A Soundtrack In My Head

The prologue of Where’s Merrill makes reference to the fact that I wrote large portions of the novel with a certain piece of music playing in my head. This was the rather unique instrumental titled Music For A Found Harmonium, and a link to the original and most fascinating rendition of this tune by The Penquin Café Orchestra is provided below. This piece of music was composed by the co-founder of the experimental orchestra, namely Simon Jeffes. Appropriately enough, the story behind the composition is that Simon found a harmonium whilst on tour in the Far East and sent it to a friend’s house in Kyoto. When he later visited his friend and his “found harmonium”, he was inspired to write an unforgettable yet simply structured composition which suited the quirkiness of the instrument.

In turn, Jeffes’ relentless harmonium tune inspired me to put into print the passages which describe the research processes used by modern genealogists … and the confusion and/or excitement generated by first discovering a new fact which forms part of a much larger multi-dimensional puzzle.

Music For A Found Harmonium has been compared in style to a traditional Irish reel. Indeed, many talented Irish musicians have recorded or performed their own take on the composition. Check out Sharon Shannon’s version, for example, if you would like to hear a more up-tempo, foot-tapping rendition. I have no doubt this association is the reason why the tune became my overriding theme song for Where’s Merrill because the novel jumps back and forth between present-day Ireland and often hectic goings-on in Midwest America of yesteryear, especially near the end as Merrill himself jumps from place to place. Music For A Found Harmonium can be played on any instrument, at any tempo, but the resultant output always evokes images of normality being turned on its head, and then the temporary mayhem being restored after a while – in my opinion. The music also seems to fit the diverse locations and eras in which the book’s main characters, Jed and Merrill, dwell.

I don’t know how other authors work, but during the writing of Where’s Merrill, I found myself getting into a routine wherein I would naturally wake up early in the morning, between 4 and 5am, with a multitude of ideas buzzing around my brain. I would then sit in silence in the dawn light with just hot coffee for company as I scribbled down a few scene-setting notes. And then as I expanded each passage of the complicated story, I found myself subconsciously writing to music. I was not playing the radio or any other physical music-playing device. The tunes just jumped involuntarily into my mind as I focused on each developing scene. Before long, I had a complete soundtrack in my head covering the whole novel. I could jump from scene to scene, and mood to mood, by simply recollecting each inspirational piece of music.

I can only think that I was influenced by modern film-making techniques which sometimes use completely random background music to emphasize key moments in movies. It does not seem to matter anymore if the film director’s choice of music is historically or chronologically out of sequence with the action being portrayed. It is the “mood” or sentiments of the musical pieces which matter more than period appropriateness. In effect, I eventually realized that I was not really creating a story in “black and white,” in the conventional style of a creative writer. On the contrary, I was writing down, as quickly as possible, my description of a colorful movie being shot on location in my head.

There are other references in the Where’s Merrill novel to musical accompaniment. Early on, Jed’s sidekick and faithful partner, Sue, tells him that his ultimate research quest is like looking for a “Needle In A Haystack” and they sing along to this classic 60’s pop song by The Velvelettes. At this point in the story, Jed is upbeat and enjoying the developing search for Merrill, so a fun song is quite fitting.

In a similar vein but with darker undertones, there is a reference to another hit record from the “Swinging Sixties“. This occurs when a Swing Band from the 1930’s plays a number to which the young dancers sing out loud the chorus, i.e. “they seek him here, they seek him there,” etc. The song influencing my thoughts at this point was Dedicated Follower Of Fashion by The Kinks which itself was influenced by music heard in earlier generations in the Dance Hall era. At the time of the song’s release in 1966, the composer, Ray Davies, was lampooning both the London fashion scene as well as the type of music his parents used to enjoy. Whilst the original lyrics do not sit well with the antics of Merrill Harrison in the 1930’s, I did find myself changing the title line to “Dedicated Follower Of Finance” when thinking about our anti-hero and his tendency to turn up in unexpected locations.

I found that writing passages set around weddings and funerals with their church connections to be relatively straightforward in the context of my spontaneous musical play-list stimulation. We have all heard very moving music played at church services, even though we often haven’t got a clue what the pieces being performed are called, and maybe even less so, who composed them. Many of the most memorable pieces of church music were written centuries ago by classical composers such as Bach, Handel and Purcell. This pedigree of musical maestros used to claim that church compositions were just simple tunes created almost as a whim, and that is why we probably retain these moody melodies somewhere deep inside our consciousness. They were the pop singles of days gone by, and the more complex album tracks were only played in the theatres and opera houses. The composition that came back to me instantaneously one bright summer’s morning was the once-lost Canon In D by the German composer, Pachelbel. It is strange to think that this now instantly recognizable tune was tossed aside as a bit of lightweight fun and not played for about 200 years. The fact that it was lost, then found (like Jeffes’ harmonium), seems to have some perfect irony when I link Canon In D to my search for Merrill.

I once heard Canon In D played “live”, many years ago, by a talented chamber quartet who were busking (of all things) on a Dublin shopping street. Back then, I didn’t know what the piece was called. I thought to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” A mental image of a church, and then a wedding, popped into my mind. I couldn’t recall a specific wedding I attended where it was played – but now the Canon In D and weddings seem to be forever intertwined. In hindsight, my resourceful mind was being quite logical when it decided that Madeline Forster should walk up the aisle to Merrill to the advanced strains of Pachelbel’s delayed pop song.

I have got to admit that I struggled to find the right background music to accompany the closing sequences of Where’s Merrill. I reckon that the reason was twofold. Firstly, the scenes and dialogue had to describe sinister events and the majority of my mentally-retained musical repertoire is of an uplifting nature. Secondly, I initially did not know the precise details of how Where’s Merrill ends because there was no corresponding text in my research notes to guide me. So, how could the brain cells in charge of associated memory-recall link something musical to passages which were not fully defined?

I am a believer in fate, and that’s how my writing dilemma was resolved – not for the only time during this adventure. I went for a short, late morning drive in my car and turned on the car radio. I normally listen to a station dedicated to 24/7 news; all chat and nothing else. So how come it was playing the opening chords of a very vaguely familiar pop record? I turned up the volume trying to work out what was being played. The chords struck a chord, and the initially jolly tone of the song became shadowy and eventually threatening enough to suit the “end of Merrill.” I started to listen to the lyrics, and they matched the murky mood as well. It was probably the first time that I had re-heard the particular song on the radio in over 20 years. The radio presenter never did explain why he was playing a peculiar old pop tune in an interlude between “deep” discussions on current affairs. Fate.

The radio song was Skin Deep by The Stranglers, a perhaps under-rated group of talented musicians who hid behind their self-created image as the intimidating Men In Black. My fateful hearing of the song helped me over the finishing line and the main body of the novel took its final shape. The closing chapters of Where’s Merrill see multiple characters acting deceitfully, some even pretending to be completely different individuals. Watch out for the skin deep. The Velvelettes never warned that sometimes it’s tougher to look than to leap when we started looking for that Needle In A Haystack.

Many people tell you that they’re your friend
Believe them, you need them for what’s round the river bend
Make sure that you’re receiving the signals they send
‘Cause brother, you’ve only got two hands to lend

Maybe there’s someone who makes you weep
And some nights they loom up ahead when you’re asleep
Sometimes, there’s things on your mind, you should keep
Sometimes, it’s tougher to look than to leap

Better watch out for the skin deep
Better watch out for the skin deep
Watch out for the skin deep
Watch out for the skin deep
Better watch out for the skin deep

One day the track that you’re climbing gets steep
Your emotions are frayed, and your nerves are starting to creep

Just remember the days as long as the time that you keep
Brother you better watch out for the skin deep

The timely intervention of The Stranglers also led me to listen again to my favourite composition by this band, the eerie but entertaining instrumental titled Waltzinblack. I now retrospectively attach this scary waltz to my vision of Mame Novak dancing all over the best endeavours of poor Horace as he attempted to keep the financial affairs of incarcerated “Aunt Edith” in proper order.

Other pieces of music played their part during the conception and delivery of Where’s Merrill, but two songs from the same genre crept into my head during the laborious proof-reading and pre-publishing phase. Strangely, without knowing it at the time, both of these songs produced in the familiar American Country Music style turned out to have been written by Europeans in the mid 1970‘s. I have written a separate post about one of these two songs, a country lament which I now call the Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme.

The other song was actually a record I grew to loathe when it hit the Number One spot in the pop music charts in 1976. I am referring to Mississippi by Pussycat, (apparently) a Dutch band led by three sisters. The song got so over-played, and usually with the same badly-mimed video backing, that a catchy ditty turned into parody of itself within one month, to be only ever heard again on Golden Oldie radio shows decades later. But as I finally published my Where’s Merrill novel after months of toil, an overwhelming sense of relief engulfed me – and the first song I randomly heard on a TV music channel that evening was a “new” (to me) and “live” version of Mississippi complete with full orchestral backing. Fate? It sounded wonderful, and I just sang along, and laughed and danced, and laughed some more. I had got to the final end credits of the movie in my head.

If you read Where’s Merrill, then you might appreciate the absurdity of Merrill’s researcher singing about the Mississippi just “rollin’ along until the end of time.” The search for Merrill might never end, and the empathy for many of his tragic extended family members might never go away – but Merrill’s grandson and I have learned that life must go on, and we can sing and dance when the mood takes us.

Back to More Merrill Musings


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