Guest Post: Words and Music By… by Brett Marie

Today’s guest is Brett Marie, author of The Upsetter Blog, which will debut on Sept. 15. You can find the book on Amazon, through Owl Canyon Press, and elsewhere.

Check out the synopsis:

To write the Upsetter Blog, washed‐up author Henry Barclay will have to leave behind his adult son Patrick, who has Down syndrome, and follow the Flak Jackets, a rock band of no renown, on a grueling, months‐long nightclub tour for the obscure magazine startup, Upsetter. He’s reluctant to take on the assignment, but when Patrick catches the band’s act and immediately declares himself their “Number One Fan”; Henry sees a chance to redeem himself for decades of clumsy parenting. Setting out from Los Angeles, blasting through the deserts of Southern California and up the West Coast, Henry quickly learns how tough this job will be. He did not expect he would become obsessed with the mystery behind lead singer Jack Hackett’s tortured wailing and violent onstage antics. He did not expect he would fall in love with Jack’s new girlfriend, Wendy, who’s along for the ride. Faced with Jack’s hostile stonewalling, struggling to hold back his own feelings for Jack’s girl, Henry can only hang on tight and keep writing, filling in the blanks Jack leaves with musings about his own troubled past—and watching in horror as life on the road takes its toll, and Jack’s fragile world begins to fall apart.

Please welcome Brett Marie:

After a childhood spent dreaming of being a novelist, I hung a sharp left into rock ‘n’ roll at age thirteen. Perhaps it was the influx of hormones into my system, but the driving drums and trashy guitars of AC/DC and George Thorogood hit me with the intensity of a first crush. These sounds consumed me, and throughout a lovelorn adolescence, music sustained me in ways that literature failed to do. If I felt humiliated or alone in the way only teenagers can, I always had that good-time rock ‘n’ roll rhythm waiting in my cassette deck back home. All I had to do was hit Play, and it would do the beating for my weary heart, giving me the momentum I needed to carry me into the next morning.

That beat ended up carrying me a lot farther – first, into a guitar shop, for a Samick electric on which I began bashing out my first original songs; and later, on my nineteenth birthday, to a spare bedroom in my uncle’s New York office-apartment, from which I attended dozens of auditions, wrote more songs, and scored a day-job at Manny’s Musical Instruments.

I got married and moved to Los Angeles three years later. I was living there, working an office day-job and fronting my own group, when my childhood itch to write a novel returned. Inevitably, the first story that came to me was of a rock band on tour. But I wanted more. I wanted my book to act as a love letter to the songs that meant so much to me. And I wanted to take the feelings I’d drawn from those songs – excitement, comfort, catharsis – and pass them on to my readers.

The way to do this came in an early epiphany: I would lace key passages of my manuscript with lyrics to these classic tunes. The themes I was exploring – life, death, love, loss – were the bread and butter of the songwriters populating my record collection. Their words might echo mine, amplifying my subtext. Furthermore, perhaps the breaks they made between my paragraphs would give the text a unique rhythm, more akin to songwriting than story structure, with my words always giving way to those familiar choruses.

To my delight, my trick worked. Reading the completed manuscript, with every lyric I came across, I felt the very shivers I’d sought to evoke in the surrounding prose. The effect was like watching a big scene in a movie and hearing a favorite song swell up in the soundtrack.

But my self-satisfaction lasted only as long as it took for one of my readers to bring up the issue of copyrights. Their advice – essentially, “You’re gonna get sued,” – shook me out of my delusions, bringing me face-to-face with the sad reality that I would have to kill these lyrical darlings.

Months passed before I worked up the gumption to start culling. When I finally broke out my red pen, I continued to dither, plucking lines here and there, scribbling question marks alongside others, before finally building up the nerve and crossing them all out.

I nearly abandoned my manuscript after that, convinced I’d disfigured it beyond repair. But when I finally reread it, I discovered something fascinating. Where I expected gaping holes in place of the pilfered lyrics, my words simply flowed over the line breaks, from one paragraph into the next.

In fact these passages, which I’d crafted to match the pitch and urgency of their borrowed accompaniment, had taken on more of that urgency than I’d ever felt capable of capturing. Without Elvis Presley’s words blaring from the car stereo between tour dates, my band’s dialogue still crackled with Elvis’s electricity. The quiet melancholy that the story’s female lead exudes still permeated every scene she graced, even after I’d scrubbed every line of Françoise Hardy from between paragraphs. And when my lead singer, inconsolable following a heart-crushing loss, takes the microphone and grieves in song, the scene which originally had him crushing the Rolling Stones’ ‘I Got the Blues’ retained every ounce of its bereft yearning even after I’d swapped in a self-penned verse and chorus.

In my early days as a musician, making my first forays into the studio, I heard more than one tall tale about the excesses of various recording greats. One story involved an unnamed producer dubbing a full orchestra onto some rock track, only to wipe the results away, saying, “I just want the feel of an orchestra on there.” Reading my work after excising a double album’s worth of lyrics, I was reminded of that urban legend, and had to smile.

It’s funny: I would have saved myself hours of work if I’d thought about the hassles of copyrights. But considering the novel I have now, I can’t argue with the path I took. The music I started with acted as a mold for my prose. Now, with the mold tossed aside, my words stand on their own, but they retain much of the shape that the music provided.

No, it’s more than that. In emotional times, the right song has always been able to pry my heart that smidgen further open, to shake it that little bit harder, to squeeze out those few more drops of cathartic feeling. Writing a poignant scene alongside Françoise Hardy’s ‘Voilà’, or trying to match Elvis Presley’s euphoria throughout the exhilarating ‘Guitar Man’, re-energized those songs in my heart, and stepped up my writing as I scrambled to bottle this newfound energy into language.

And so, though I couldn’t redirect the lyric lightning bolts of Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller, or Jagger and Richards into my own work, their influence turned out to be as great – no, greater than – that of the novelists I’d thought I was aping: Steinbeck, McCullers, Robert Penn Warren. And for that influence, my novel sings where otherwise it might only have spoken. Take a bow, hubristic producer of myth. You knew exactly what you were doing.

Thank you, Brett, for sharing your writing process and musical inspiration with us.

About the Author:

The literary alter ego of American rock ‘n’ roll musician Mat Treiber, Brett Marie is a contributing editor for the online journal Bookanista, and a sometime staff writer for the website PopMatters. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines, including New Plains Review, Words + Images Press, and The Impressment Gang. His story, “If It Had Happened to You,” was shortlisted for LoveReading UK’s first Very Short Story Award in 2019. He currently lives in England with his wife and daughter. Visit Brett at his website, on Goodreads, or on Twitter.