Do You Hear What I Hear?

I love music. 

Colin Headphones

Hang around me for any length of time, and you’ll probably discover that my favorite genre is hard rock. It seeps into the way I talk, the way I dress, and the way I connect with others. While some in my age bracket (a slacker wave to those in Generation X) might be embarrassed to say they’re still metalheads, I’m not. 

Even though I like everything from early Black Sabbath to modern bands like Halestorm, my favorites are still those from the eighties—Motley Crue, Cinderella, and Ratt, to name just a few. 

Rock & roll is wrapped up into most of my favorite memories. Either music was the focal point—attending various concerts, for example—or it played an essential part in the setting—hanging at the lake or cruising Riverside Avenue as a teenager. 

But I don’t stick just to the hard rock genre. It’s impossible to get to fifty-plus in this life and not be exposed to music beyond metal.  

My dad is the one who gave me the love of music. He raised me in an atmosphere of fifties and sixties rock—The Beatles, Buddy Holly, and The Dave Clark Five. For good measure, he even mixed in a little seventies folk music from guys like Jim Croce (still one of my all-time favs). Whenever we got in the car, my dad turned on some tunes. If he was doing house projects, he had the radio playing. I grew to love music because of my father. 

I had friends during my days in the military and college who were into rap, soul, or hip-hop. They introduced me to those genres. In my collection of CDs (yep, I still have them) are albums from Sade, Anita Baker, and Keith Sweat. Oh, man, Sade. What can you say about that woman’s voice? And Keith Sweat’s album, Make it Last Forever—I played the hell out of it. 

There was even a time when I dabbled a bit in country music—not much, just a little. Back in the early nineties, it seemed like everyone listened to Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. While I did some of that, I must admit I prefer my country music to be a little more seventies in the style of Eddie Rabbit, Ronnie Milsap, and John Denver. I’ll take sappy and lovelorn over good ol’ boys any day. 

Outside of rock, the genre I am most enamored with is the blues. As a rock and roller, it’s not hard to like the blues. They are so intertwined. For cryin’ out loud, just listen to rock god Eric Clapton—the man is playing the blues.  

But I didn’t come to blues just by understanding that the genre directly impacted rock and roll. I knew that for years, but never truly cared. Nope. I was in that happy little bubble a lot of us find ourselves.

I also didn’t come to the blues by hearing "The Thrill is Gone" and then going down a rabbit hole into B.B. King’s catalog. That would have—should have—been what did it for me. I loved that song for many years, but my interest stopped at that tune. 

So, what finally brought me to the doorstep of the blues and got me to stop and listen?

A book. 

Well, a series of books. 


Andrew Vachss wrote a series of novels about Burke, an ex-con and career criminal who lives on the fringes of society, protecting the family he built. I first discovered this series in 1988 with his second book, Strega. I then read the first novel in the series, Flood. After that, I devoured each successive one whenever they came out. 

Throughout the series, Vachss would mention Burke listening to musicians such as Judy Henske or Son Seals. I had no idea who these folks were. This was pre-internet days. Oh, I could have gone to Sam Goody or Hastings (remember those?), but by the time I got there, my mushy brain was usually distracted by something metal.

Safe House CD

It wasn’t until the tenth Burke novel, Safe House, that everything made sense. When the book was released, Vachss dropped a CD of the same name that featured a fifteen-song collection of the blues. I snapped up both the book and the disc. The book was good, but the CD was excellent. I couldn’t stop listening to it. 

The songs in the collection fascinated me. After listening to it on repeat umpteen times, I went crazy buying blues CDs. That’s when I discovered my current favorite artist—Keb Mo. The guy is fantastic, and I can’t recommend him highly enough.  

And this love for a genre of music came from words in a book. 


A Long Cold Winter

The Long Cold Winter

One of my favorite Cinderella songs is the ballad, “Long Cold Winter.” Cinderella is/was a band heavily influenced by the blues, and this is one of the best songs to highlight it. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve listened to this song—hundreds, at least. 

At one point, I even imagined a story behind the song. You can read a full post about how my book, The Long Cold Winter, came about here. But here’s a quick synopsis: a detective hears music whenever he wakes in the morning and is concerned these songs are coming from his dead wife as some sort of communication beyond the grave. Like me, he’s a rock and roller, so I knew his musical selections well. It was easy for me to plant songs throughout the story—some that I loved, some that I didn’t, and one that was a jingle for a commercial.

In my short story, "The Death of Wilbur Pennington," the protagonist is a classical music fan. I describe in detail the music he hears. One reader complimented me on the musical choice and said how much she liked the same piece our hero hears.  It allowed her to better connect with the character.

I occasionally listen to classical music (very seldom, but it still counts). I wanted to make the detective in Wilbur Pennington radically different from the detective in The Long Cold Winter. I figured one way to do that was to show their taste in music. 

As authors, we describe characters by height, weight, age, but if you tell me a guy likes classical music over rock & roll, I get a pretty good idea of who that person is right away. Maybe those are preconceived notions, but a lot of us view music the same way. 

I have a new series slated for early 2021. I wrote the first book in 2004 and will be set in that period. The protagonist likes the music I was experimenting with back then—1970’s funk. Yes, that really is what I got into for several years. There are references to songs like "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson and Average White Band’s "Cut the Cake." This character will be different than my others, and music is just one way I choose to show that. 

In an upcoming 509 novel, the protagonist Detective Jim Morgan (from The Blind Trust) dislikes music. After all this music talk, why would I choose to create a character that doesn’t listen to it? It was a subtle way to show his intense focus for the job and the fact that he doesn’t find joy in many things.


What's All This Mean?

If you get inspired to look up Little Milton’s "I Play Dirty" because you read that it was being played in the barbershop during the final scene of Charlie-316, then that makes me happy. It’s a great song, and you’ll experience the scene just a little bit differently after that. 

You’ll hear what I heard while I wrote those words, which might make the scene richer for you. 

You’ll hear what my character heard, which allows you a little more insight into them. 

And maybe you’ll even get an appreciation for some song or artist you’ve never heard before. 

Like I did with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s "I've Got a Mind to Give Up Living" courtesy of Andrew Vachss and Safe House.  It led me to an appreciation for another genre of music.

All because an author let me hear the music his characters liked.


Read The Long Cold Winter today.

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