Writing The Devil’s Music
My new novel is set in Denver in the mid-1970s. Like my previous novels Hank & Muddy and Jimi After Dark, it’s a mashup of my love of the blues with a suspense- style plot you likely haven’t encountered before.
The title refers to the old-time Southern label hung on the blues by “respectable” folk who’d rather be listening to spirituals . . . Unless it was Saturday night and no one’s around, whereupon they might quietly slip in some BB King or Bobby Blue Bland. (I didn’t make that up. It’s been known to happen.)
A writer pal once told me when I write stories about musicians, my writing comes alive. If he’s right, I think I know why.
By 1975, I knew that I wanted to be either a writer or a musician.
That year I saw my first fiction published in a national magazine.
And I was a working musician, blowing harp (as in harmonica) in Eagle Park Slim’s Mile High Blues Band, the house band at a black after hours club in Denver’s Five Points. From the 1930s to the 1950s Five Points was considered the “Harlem of the West,” with bars and clubs where people like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday played, but by the 1960s it had suffered the same demise as inner cities across the U.S. In 1975, Five Points was a rough part of town.
Eagle Park Slim was a real deal St. Louis bluesman (and the Mile Hi Band was hot. I’ve got the tapes to prove it.) The band’s gig was Thursdays through Saturdays, 11PM to 3 AM. The drummer and I were the only white boys in the place.
I was living the life.
Trouble was, by late ’75 I was beginning to gradually sell more of my writing to the smaller markets of the day. No bread to speak of but I was establishing a presence. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I could taste the dream of being a published novelist becoming a reality, that’s how close it was even though the rejections continued to outnumber the sales.
I was also starting to realize that life as musician was not exactly conducive to the discipline of schedule and routine necessary to produce fiction. Plus, an earlier conversation with the famous blues harp player, James Cotton, lingered in my mind. I was in a band called Blue Tale Fly at the time, a bar band playing Allman Brothers and J. Geils covers and a few originals. We’d landed a four-night gig as the opening act for Cotton at the old Rio Grande down by Denver’s rail yards. Cotton was a party animal. Plenty of drink and smoke and passing the time with small talk between sets. He’d just signed with Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, who had landed him a contract with Capitol. Star time! Except, Cotton added, for the last two years, he’d been on the road 50 weeks out of the year.
That sunk in and stayed. I’d only been “living the life” with Eagle Park Slim for 18 months and I was already starting to burn out. I like to entertain and socialize well enough but like most writers, I am by nature a solitary soul.
Then author Don Pendleton stepped in to nudge me into my future with an offer to assist him in the writing of Mack Bolan novels. (This was years before Don sold the Bolan franchise to Harlequin, where it went on to flourish, scripted by a cadre of contract writers.) For me, Don’s offer was the writing dream come true. No more smoky bars (remember them?), bad food and crazy hours. I could sit at a keyboard and make a decent living. An apprenticeship! I could not say no, and so I said goodbye to Slim and the guys and to the musician’s life. I resettled on a country road near Don’s spread in Brown County, Indiana.
Well, that gig lasted for six months (not Don’s fault; we remained close friends until his passing) but in the process I acquired a lifelong taste for what is called the writing life. I’ve lived on back roads ever since, writing short fiction and novels which, I’m happy to say, have been published for the most part to favorable reviews and reader acceptance.
And guess what? Turns out that being a writer is not that different from being a musician. Sure, the work conditions are more comfortable but it’s still all about hustling up the next gig, about finding an audience by striving to provide something worth their while.
The Devil’s Music is a suspense novel about a detective who searches through the Five Points nightlife scene in search of a missing, once famous blues singer. A lot of love and work went into it. I hope you like it.
These days I perform now and then around Tucson and Bisbee, sitting in and blowing blues harp and I’ve written another novel about the music I love.
Who says you can’t have it all?
Just wish I’d figured that out back in ‘75.