• Clair Lamb

THE MISSING — A Soundtrack to the Novels of John Connolly, Vol. VIII

As many of you will be aware, I’ve so far put together seven CDs of music to accompany my books: six compilations of the work of various artists, and one dedicated soundtrack composed by David O’Brien, aka Envoy, who also recently created the fine soundtrack to accompany “The Sisters Strange.”

The compilations came about because music played a significant part in the Parker novels — as it does in my own life — and occasionally songs were referenced in the books, or lyrics were used as section breaks. Sometimes, I’d simply hear a piece of music that seemed to connect — lyrically, thematically, or in terms of mood — with the tone of the books. In those pre-streaming days, I thought it might be interesting to find a way for readers to hear some of that music, which meant putting them on a CD. It was also a means of providing additional content, thus representing a small token of gratitude to those who bought my books. I guess it was the equivalent of handing out a mix tape to tens of thousands of people.

Lord, it was an expensive business, and the money came entirely from my own pocket. We paid each artist a set fee on a “most-favored-nation” basis. What this meant, effectively, was that no artist could be paid less than any other. If we increased the payment for one, we had to do so for all. In addition, we were required to pay an additional sum per track per CD, so the more CDs we manufactured, the more we paid the artists.

For the most part, though, we didn’t struggle to get musicians to agree to participate. As the music market began to change, most saw the benefit in exposing their music to a new potential listenership, while many of the more established acts simply liked the idea of this kind of cross-pollination. (Kate Bush, for example. I kind of hoped she might write to me, but she never did. Sigh.)

On occasion, though, songs slipped through the net because an artist got back to us too late, didn’t want to be involved, or asked for so much money that we had to decline — that tricky most-favored-nation business. Here, then, are the Songs That Got Away, a kind of alternative soundtrack that might have been.

ROCK EL CASBAH — Rachid Taha

“The Shareef don’t like it/ Rock the Casbah, Rock the Casbah…”

(from the album Tékitoi)

I’m trying to recall whether I actually ended up referencing this song in a Parker novel. I certainly intended to, because the Algerian musician Rachid Taha’s take on “Rock the Casbah” is the best cover version of a Clash song ever, and one of the greatest covers of any song, period. I first heard it while waiting to be interviewed on a late-night radio show in Melbourne, Australia, and went out the next day to buy the compilation on which it was included, 2005’s Rock The Kasbah: Songs of Freedom from the Streets of the East. (I later also bought the parent album proper, Taha’s 2004 record Tékitoi.) I think I just liked the verve of this version, and thought it was the kind of music Parker would appreciate. We approached Rachid Taha’s people, but received only a blanket refusal. There were no hard feelings, though. It was fine that they didn’t want to be involved, and “Rock El Casbah” remains great. Taha passed away in 2018, far too young at 58.

SOME KIND OF FOOL — David Sylvian

“The rules of the game/ We constantly play/ Can be cruel…”

(from the album Everything & Nothing)

I wanted this for the first compilation, Voices From The Dark, but the record company asked — if I remember correctly — for five times what I was willing or able (see most-favored-nation) to pay. It was a shame, because I’ve loved Sylvian’s work since becoming a fan of his band Japan in my late teens, and their song “My New Career” (from their fourth album, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, 1980) may be one of the most frequently played pieces of music in my collection.

“Some Kind of Fool” has an odd history. It was originally set to be included on Gentlemen Take Polaroids but was bumped in favor of the inferior “Burning Bridges” — for reasons of pacing, I believe. It was performed live only once, and the original version remains unreleased, although an unlistenable bootleg has been doing the rounds for years. Two decades later, Sylvian took the original recording, added new vocals and some new instrumentation, and included it on his Everything & Nothing (2000) compilation. I wanted to include the song not just for the lyric quoted above, but also because I thought the piece was just beautiful, and felt its mood would perfectly suit Voices From The Dark, which is still probably the most tonally consistent of the compilations.

Some years after the CD appeared, the late Kate Mattes, owner of Kate’s Mystery Books in Boston, rather unexpectedly told me that she played the compilation a lot in the store. She liked it, she said, because she felt it reflected more of my character than the later collections, which might well be true. After all, I really didn’t anticipate putting together further compilations, especially after my accountant saw the bill for the first one, so I probably spent more time thinking about, and planning for, Voices From The Dark than the collections that followed, although I’m happy with all of them.

Kate was a good soul, and passed away earlier this year, God rest her.

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE — Emmylou Harris

“I want her everywhere/ And when she’s beside me I know I need never care…”

(from the album Elite Hotel) This is one of those rare instances of a cover version equaling, or even surpassing, the original, in this case a song written by Paul McCartney (although credited, as was usual, to Lennon-McCartney) for the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver. What elevates Harris’s take on it, apart from her distinctive vocals, is the instrumental passage that begins at about the 1:49 mark and continues for a minute. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking.

The Harris version is referenced toward the end of The Black Angel (2005), where Parker describes it as “one of those cover versions that most people have never heard but most people should.” Emmylou Harris’s representatives eventually got back to us quite late in the process of putting together the tracklisting, but the fee was very high, and out of fairness to the other artists I had to let the option lapse. I was tempted for a moment to pay, though, because it was Emmylou Harris, and this song. When you listen to it, you’ll understand why.

DEAD HEARTS — Stars

“Tell me everything that happened/ Tell me everything you saw/ They had lights inside their eyes…” (from the album The Five Ghosts)

Trying — and failing — to secure this song for Love & Whispers was a hugely frustrating experience that, in retrospect, is kind of funny. The parent album, The Five Ghosts, is a concept piece about ghosts and haunting, and may be the best record Stars have yet recorded. The opening track, “Dead Hearts,” was the one I was after, and I submitted the usual letter explaining why I wanted to use it and how much I was willing to pay. We then received a response from someone connected with the band advising us that Stars never gave away their music for free. Slightly puzzled, Kate, who was looking after clearances, replied in turn that we weren’t asking for the song for nothing, and had made it clear how much we’d be paying for the rights, which ran into thousands of Euro. Another missive from the Stars camp followed, but more irate this time, reiterating the band’s absolute commitment to being paid for their work.


At which point we stopped asking.

[Edited to add: appropriately enough, the track was not available to be included in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post. It seems to be available for streaming in the US but not in the UK, so you US readers can go off and listen to it on your own, then come back.]

GOING WRONG — Planningtorock

“Am I holding on to something going wrong…?”

(from the album W)

The English electronic musician Jam Rostron has worked with The Knife (see Fever Ray below) and I was an admirer of their (Rostron identifies as non-binary) second album, 2011’s W. “Going Wrong” was a track I wanted for the sixth volume of the series, The Deep Woods. It seemed to reflect something of Parker’s frame of mind as his relationship with Rachel Wolfe, the mother of his second child, continued to deteriorate. It was, I think, the last song chosen, but the very gracious reply from Ellie Rostron, consenting to its inclusion, came just too late to add “Something Wrong” to the CD, which had already gone into production.

FOURTH OF JULY — Sufjan Stevens

“The evil it spread like a fever ahead/ It was night when you died, my firefly.”

(from Carrie & Lowell)

Singers rarely write about true grief, the kind that arises from mortal loss. “Fourth of July,” therefore, is both unusual and intensely moving, a meditation on the death of Stevens’s mother, Carrie, in 2012. (Carrie, who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, and addiction, had abandoned Stevens when he was just an infant.) For a series of novels that are suffused with grief and loss, “Fourth of July” was an obvious choice. The approach was turned down, but in fairness to the label, we had been given permission to use Stevens’s song “John Wayne Gacy” on Into The Dark, so we may have been pushing things by going back for a second bite of the cherry.

DRESS BLUES — Jason Isbell

“You never planned on the bombs in the sand/ Or sleepin’ in your dress blues…”

(from Sirens of the Ditch) Back in 2001, I can recall handing out copies of Southern Rock Opera, the third record by the Drive-By Truckers, to any friends with half an ear in their heads. A two-disc meditation on the South, it features, in “Ronny and Neil,” one of the 21st century’s greatest guitar riffs. The guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers for the tour to support Southern Rock Opera, staying with them for three albums before embarking on a solo career. (One of those albums, The Dirty South, shares a title with the next Parker novel, although only incidentally.) “Dress Blues” featured on Isbell’s first solo record, Sirens of the Ditch (2007), and was written about a US Marine from Isbell’s hometown of Green Hill, Alabama, who was killed in the Iraq War. As such, it was particularly apt for Love & Whispers, given that the conflict in Iraq provided the backdrop for The Whisperers (2010). Unfortunately, Isbell wasn’t willing to give the song to us. Perhaps it was just too personal for him.

HOME — Depeche Mode

“A cage or the heaviest cross ever made/ A gauge of the deadliest trap ever laid…” (from the album Ultra)

I listened to this track a lot when I was writing the second Parker novel, Dark Hollow (2000), just as I’d listened to “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails when I was having trouble keeping focused on Every Dead Thing (1999) amid rejections. Each song provided a virtual soundtrack to the trailer for the novel that ran in my head, because I realize I often think in quite visual terms for the books. I suppose I should have looked at “Something I Can Never Have” for a compilation, too, but it does drop a single f-bomb, as the Americans say, and I was conscious of where, and by whom, the CDs might be listened to. “Home” presented no such problems, but the record label turned us down, I think, rather than it being a question of money. To be honest, my memory is a bit flaky on this one.

BLUEBEARD ­— Cocteau Twins

“Are you the right man for me?/ (Are you safe? Are you my friend?)/ Or are you toxic for me…?”

(from the album Four-Calendar Café)

This was one of the first tracks I earmarked for the third compilation, Love & Whispers, included with The Whisperers (2010). I thought it complemented the scene in which Karen Emory hears her lover, Joel Tobias, engaged in a conversation with an unseen other through the basement door of their home. This was another occasion on which discussions came down to money, and petered out at an early stage as a consequence.

KEEP THE STREETS EMPTY FOR ME — Fever Ray

“Uncover our heads and reveal our souls/ We were hungry before we were born…”

(from the album Fever Ray) Fever Ray is the solo project of Karin Dreijer, one half of Swedish electronicists The Knife. Her eponymous 2009 LP may be even better than The Knife’s own work, and I badly wanted “Keep The Streets Empty For Me” for Love & Whispers because its mood and lyrics — particularly the couplet quoted above — perfectly encapsulated the threat posed by the titular pair of malevolent entities in The Lovers (2009). As with Rachid Taha, though, this was another case where the artist simply declined to give us the song under any terms.