Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Soundtrack for your Life

By Tim Smith

I’ve heard the term “facing the music” for years and never gave it much thought. Since we’re writing about it this month, I decided to find out where it came from. My research revealed that it means “To accept the unpleasant consequences of one’s actions.” The phrase has been used by writers to the point where it’s become a cliché. Irving Berlin even wrote a popular song called “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Why he thought dancing was the best way to atone for your sins is a mystery to me, but Fred Astaire choreographed it beautifully in a movie.

It is thought to have originated in mid-19th century America, and came from the tradition of a soldier being “drummed out” of their regiment. Another popular theory refers to actors taking the stage facing the orchestra pit (i.e. facing the music). Still another theory claims roots in British culture, where common peasants had to sit in the west end of a church, facing the higher status folks in the east wing when singing hymns.

I have long been influenced by music in all phases of life. I studied it in college, taught it for a few years, and even had a brief professional fling as a jazz trumpet player and singer. When I hear a particular song, it often brings back a memory. Some good, some not so pleasant, but they comprise the soundtrack of my life. When I hear Sinatra lament “I’m a Fool to Want You,” I find myself remembering someone from the past. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” will forever be associated with a sensuous turn on the dance floor many years ago. I’ve never been one who laid claim to a melody and claimed it as “our song,” but I used to joke that Marvin Hamlisch had me in mind when he wrote the James Bond tune “Nobody Does it Better.”   

I brought this love of music into my writing. I always try to work it into a scene to enhance the atmosphere. You will often read references to some of the piano jazz masters in the Nick Seven series, and the reason is simple. I like that kind of music, therefore my leading character does, too. I’ve dropped in little bits like “Nick scrolled through pages on the computer while the soothing sounds of Oscar Peterson’s piano jazz played in the background.” In my most recent mystery, “The Other Woman,” the action takes place around Christmas, so naturally I had to include holiday music to set the mood.

I actually did use the song-as-a-memory thing in one of the Nick Seven spy thrillers. He requests a certain song to be played by the jazz trio at his club, and when Felicia asks him why he chose it, he reminds her that it was being played the first time they went on a date several years earlier. It forged a prominent place in his memory, and was forever associated with that special night. Yes, I know that’s straight out of “Casablanca,” but at least he didn’t request “As Time Goes By.”

I’ve used my knowledge of the music business as fictional fodder. My current work-in-progress, “The Neon Jungle,” tackles the dark underside of the entertainment industry in Miami. The person Nick Seven is helping is a popular local musician trying to get out from under the control of a supposedly legit music mogul who is using his business as a cover for criminal activity. Do these things actually happen? Maybe, maybe not. Is any of it based on my personal observations? I’ll rely on the disclaimer at the front of the book.    

This story gave me the chance to include song references within the plot, and some of them were used as metaphors to reflect the action. A character talking about the gal that got away? I trotted out the ballad “Here’s That Rainy Day” to emphasize what he was feeling. When it was time for the happy-for-now ending, “Never Gonna Let You Go” is featured. When I was writing the action sequences, I loaded the stereo with CDs by Buddy Rich and Henry Mancini to help me set the mood and pace. If only I could transfer those tracks to the book.

Times and tastes change with each generation. There’s a scene in the comedy “10,” where Dudley Moore played a successful middle-aged songwriter lusting after a much younger Bo Derek. At one point, he’s lamenting to a bartender about changing musical tastes. He says “One day, a couple will be listening to a band and the woman will say ‘Honey, they’re playing our song!’ And the band will be playing ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’.”

We’ll always have Bogart, Bergman and Paris.         


1 comment:

  1. So you count music among your many talents, Tim! I didn't realize.

    I'm glad you looked into the etymology of our topic. I've often wondered about the phrase.


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