A few years ago I was out grocery shopping when I noticed a helicopter circling the parking lot and sweeping out over the surrounding streets and fields. I would later learn from the news that it was a police chopper scanning the bushes for heat signatures in an effort to find a masked man who had pointed a gun at the attendant of the local tree dump before running off in the direction of the middle school.
On this outing, I needed to hit two different supermarkets and a drug store, all in the same plaza. At the checkout of the first supermarket, I heard the cashiers talking about a guy with a gun on the run somewhere between the middle school and the stores.
Needless to say, this added a bit of an edge to my second stop. I gathered my groceries in a heightened state, worrying about my toddler, who was spending the afternoon at his grandparents house in the same neighborhood, and wondering exactly what I would do if a maniac appeared around the bend and started popping people in the produce section.
By the time I entered the pharmacy to the sound of rotors from a not-so-distant stretch of gray sky, my heart rate was up and my breath was shallow.
But then…walking over the electric doormat, I was enveloped in the incongruous sounds of Steely Dan playing loud and clear through the overhead speakers. The song was “Hey Nineteen,” with its laid back, feel good groove, and my tension melted away.
It’s just not a song people get shot to.
It wouldn’t even be ironic or blackly comic to get shot with that relaxing grove playing in the background. And I realized in that moment that it is physically impossible to feel fear while listening to Steely Dan.
I don’t know what you can do with that information; if the Department of Homeland Security can utilize the fact as part of some kind of mass panic prevention strategy, I just know it’s true.
The guy with the gun was never found and no one was hurt.
Now, I’ve been playing guitar since age ten, I’ve been to music school, and worked in a studio for a while, but I learned something that afternoon about the power of music to hijack the autonomic nervous system and change your emotional channels instantly. Something I already knew intellectually (same as anyone who takes note of the tension in a horror movie soundtrack), but in that moment I learned it anew on a more visceral level.
So I could never write horror to Steely Dan, but I do sometimes use the emotional energy of music as fuel for writing. Especially when starting a book, I’ll loop a playlist of songs that capture the feelings and themes I’m going for, and invite them to get under my skin for the duration of the project.
My current book is an urban Lovecraftian thriller titled Red Equinox, and it has been fueled almost entirely by Tool. In particular, the song 46&2 is the leitmotif of my main character, Becca Philips.
Now that I’m digging into the final drafts and deepening her character, I’m finding this cover version with female lead vocals especially inspiring. Check it out. These kids will take your breath away.