Monday, October 24, 2011

R is for Ritter: Todd Ritter

Today the Crime Fiction Author Alphabet Meme continues with R is for Ritter: Todd Ritter. As you've figured out by now, each author gets to write a guest post about whatever they'd like. Love this post on Music to Murder By. 

Todd Ritter has been a journalist for fifteen years and is currently at The Star-Ledger. During that time, he has interviewed celebrities, covered police standoffs and written obituaries. His latest novel, BAD MOON, just launched from St. Martin's Minotaur.www.


A few months ago, a friend told me about an album Alfred Hitchcock recorded. No, good old Hitch wasn’t singing. Instead, he was playing deadpan DJ of sorts to a bunch of fifties standards and instrumentals. The album’s title: Music to Be Murdered By.

Ask any writer and I'm sure they'll tell you that certain music affects the way they think, the way they feel, the way they write. Music has the power to inspire, and sometimes writers need all the inspiration they can get. I certainly do. In fact, I have a go-to set of five songs that I listen to when I need to get into the right frame of mind to write about murder and mayhem. It's not an album. It's not even a playlist on my iPod. But if it was, I'd likely do Hitchcock one better and title it Music to Murder By.

Track No. 1 — “(Don't Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult

Rock history is littered with teenage corpses. The fifties and early sixties gave us "Leader of the Pack," "Last Kiss" and sundry other songs in which bad boys and good girls met their makers in a blaze of speed and twisted metal. The seventies and eighties brought us heavy metal, faux-Satan worship and "Thriller." Yet none of them comes close to the creepy beauty of Blue Oyster Cult's classic.

First, that guitar riff. Right off the bat, it's catchy enough to lodge itself into your brain, but unusual enough to signal that all is not right with this song. Then the lyrics kick in. "Seasons don't fear the reaper. Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain. (We can be like they are.)" That’s when you understand: The song is about a lovers' suicide pact. How sick. How twisted. How utterly brilliant. Band members claim it's about eternal love, but I'm not buying it. Yes, "Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity," but it’s helpful to remember how they got there.

Regardless of what it truly means, there's no denying that the song is an eerie masterpiece. It's been effective background music in many horror films, from the original Halloween to The Stand, from Scream to the woefully underrated The Frighteners. And, yes, it makes an appearance in my first mystery, DEATH NOTICE. In a cemetery, naturally.

Track No. 2 — "Time of the Season" by the Zombies

My second book, BAD MOON, is about the modern-day search for a boy who vanished on July 20, 1969. It might have been a simple accident. It might be abduction. Or it might be something more nefarious. When writing it, I listened to a lot of oldies. This was one of the songs that inspired me the most, thanks to its undeniable sixties vibe.

On the surface, there’s nothing remotely creepy about the song. It’s about getting it on in the Summer of Love (I think) with a few recreational drugs thrown in for good measure. Yet listen closer, especially to the song's oft-repeated lines "What's your name? Who's your daddy? Is he rich like me?"

What does that sound like you? To me, it brings to mind a skilled predator seducing his prey. Let the chills commence.

Track No. 3 — “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry

Go ahead. Chuckle. You know you want to. This 1967 smash was so popular that there was bound to be a backlash. Now it’s a musical punch line, an example of folksy story-songs, so popular in the sixties and seventies, taken to extremes.

It deserves more respect. What Gentry has given us is an enduring musical mystery. What happened up on Choctaw Ridge that was so awful it drove poor Billie Joe to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? What role did the unnamed narrator play in his decision? And what in tarnation did the two of them toss into the water before Billie Joe took that fateful plunge?

Gentry doesn’t provide any answers. And what begins as a dirt-poor ditty ends as a bleak portrait of a family’s indifference as time — and sadness — marches on. It’s the country-pop equivalent of WINTER’S BONE.

Track No. 4 — “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones

While I'm a Beatles guy through and through, no band got me through the writing of BAD MOON more than the Stones. One of the songs that helped was "Paint It, Black." Or "Paint It Black," depending on where you see the title. Comma or no comma, it's still a kick-ass song.

First, it's pretty relentless. From start to finish, it never stops riding on a wave of catchy sadness. You’ve got that sitar, bending in and around itself. That beat, galloping along. That half-whine, half-hum that closes the song.

Then there are the lyrics, which always hit their mark. Instead of merely saying "I'm sad," Mick Jagger’s words get right to the essence of what sadness can feel like. If there's a better musical description of despair than "I see a red door and I want it painted black," I have yet to hear it.

Track No. 5 — “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones

Yes, the Stones again. No, I don’t care that they’re on this list twice, especially since “Gimme Shelter” is a perfect song. The opening has become shorthand for turbulence in the late 1960s, thanks to its appearance in a hundred different movie trailers. (The previews for The Departed and Zodiac are two recent examples.) By this point, it's pretty much a cliché. Still, it works every time.

That guitar intro by Keith Richards is haunting. Paired with ethereal cooing, it's an otherworldly sound that's both pleasant and confounding. You like it, but you can't quite grasp it. Then Jagger enters the picture and, well, the rest is history.

Jagger once described "Gimme Shelter" as "a kind of end-of-the-world song." Yup. The lyrics warn of threatening storms, rape, murder and war. Adding to the turmoil is guest vocalist Merry Clayton, whose powerhouse voice sometimes sounds like a siren, at other times sounds like a scream. It's perfect.

Lest we get too depressed by the song, it ends with a bit of hope. Because although war, children, is just a shot away, there's a way to counter it. That would be with love, sister. It's just a kiss away.


Kelly Robinson said...

'Paint it Black' gets used in a lot of movie soundtracks for good reason.

Todd Ritter said...

Thanks for having me, Janet! Glad you enjoyed the post. And I'm sure a lot of people thought I was going to mention a certain Creedence Clearwater Revival song that gave BAD MOON its name. It's a good song. Just one that inspires titles, not writing.