In 1992, Ray Bradbury won an Emmy Award, the top honor in television, for his adaptation of his own book, The Halloween Tree. The Emmy was for "Best Animated Children's Program." Here is the award in the Bradbury living room. Behind it, the green bankers lamp, was a prop from the set of his 1983 film, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Ever since I was a kid, music has been central to my creative process. Whether building an airplane model kit in the basement of my parents' home; drawing my own comic books late into the night in my childhood bedroom; or writing my very first, simplistic novels when I was all of 11—music has been paramount. I have always listened to music while creating.
Today is certainly no different.
As I worked on the first edition of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, and the new, updated art book, I had a constant soundtrack going in the background, a low dB companion to the task of assembling this taut little tome of Bradbury’s memories, philosophies, ideologies, and inspirations. When I am writing, music is seldom a mental distraction. Many writers simply cannot work with background noise. For some reason, I need it. Music has forever been one of the most important things in my life.
It goes back to my very early days. I remember my brother and sisters playing Beatles and Badfinger records.
When I was 8, living in Malibu, California, I was a Beach Boys fanatic. It just so happened that Carl Wilson, the band’s guitarist and velvet-throated vocalist, lived not too far from my own home. His house was a Moroccan-style mansion, fittingly right by the beach, near Trancas Canyon. One sun-soaked afternoon (as most Malibu days are), I decided to hang out on the street near the house. This was a different era when kids wandered around unsupervised, whiling sunny days away, exploring and discovering. I stood on the street outside the Wilson mansion hoping for a glimpse of the famous Beach Boy. It didn’t take long, maybe an hour, and a Mercedes wheeled in to the driveway and a woman stepped out from the vehicle. I recognized her from the liner notes of my vinyl copy of the Beach Boys' 15 Big Ones—Carl Wilson’s wife. She wore over-sized sunglasses and carried bags from a local children’s clothing store. The rest of the car was loaded with groceries. She saw me right away.
“Are you waiting to meet my husband?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, nodding. She informed me that her spouse was, predictably, on the road. But then she made a most generous offer:
“If you help me in with my groceries, I can try to find an autograph picture for you.”
I helped her carry the bags from the market into the house. Just passed the front door, we walked through the foyer, which had a small rectangular swimming pool with flower pedals floating on the surface. We went into the shady, richly appointed home, and I set down my armload of brown paper bags from the local supermarket. Mrs. Wilson looked around a bit, in a closet, in drawers, and emerged with a publicity photograph of her husband, along with a handful of promotional material for the Beach Boys’ latest album.
I was elated.
A year later, in a twist of cruel meteorological fate, my father relocated our family to the frozen suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota—the land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 times that many mosquitoes come summer. Along the way, my musical tastes morphed. I spent the entire summer of '78 down in the darkness of the cool, musty basement writing a mystery novel. I drank large glasses of ice-cold soda and blasted Ace Frehley’s KISS solo album throughout that entire season, finishing my first book (I still have it, somewhere, in old and tattered KISS spiral notebook). It was during this time that the connection between listening to music and writing was firmly cemented.
As I write this blog post, I am listening to bootliquor.com, one of the coolest outlaw and alt-country streaming stations the bandwidth has to offer.
Ever since I seriously took pen to page, music has played. When I work, I tune in at times, crank it up, and then it vanishes into the ether when I strike a creative groove, a high, incidentally, far better than any buzz provided by stimulants legal or otherwise. And the music simply lends to the creator’s euphoria. I like old country. Old big band. 50s and 60s jazz. Hard rock. Punk. Bluegrass. Classical. Some metal. Some hip-hop. From Johnny Cash to Johann Sebastian Bach. I just love music. I believe that music penetrates the subconscious while creating. Whether it is the bop rhythm of cool jazz, the empowerment of hard rock, or the soothing tide of melodious classical, it all affects the psyche.
During the course of my career working as a journalist, I have met and interviewed many musicians: Gene Simmons, Mike Ness, Puffy AmiYumi, Redd Kross, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Material Issue, King’s X and on and on. One night, after I had interviewed Tony Bennett by telephone, I was invited to a concert he was performing on the occasion of his 70th birthday. When I arrived at the show, I discovered front row tickets and backstage passes for after the performance. When the concert ended, I was ushered backstage with a small group of about 15 friends of the artist. And there was me, an alt-weekly writer at the time, relatively unknown, young, wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt.
Tony Bennett walked into the room, triumphant after his b-day performance. He proceeded to walk down the line of waiting VIPs backstage, greeting each one, and kissing them on the hand. He finally came to me, kissed me, and said,
“Who are you?!”
At the time, I wondered that myself.
Music has always been there for the journey. That’s part of the reason I asked Black Francis, the founder of the influential alternative rock band the Pixies to write the foreword to Listen to the Echoes. I knew that Francis (aka Charles Thompson) was a towering Bradbury fan. He even went so far as to title his 1996 solo album, The Cult of Ray. Sure, I might have asked Hef or Spielberg to write it, but that would have been predictable. Black Francis came through with something different, something more special. A love letter. No surprise, I listened heavily to the Pixies through much of the process of Listen to the Echoes. (Incidentally, Trompe Le Monde had steampunk elements before steampunk was cool).
But without a doubt, my favorite band provided the most oft-spun, most inspirational, most exalting music I listened to while assembling the interviews and writing the essays in Listen to the Echoes.
I speak with high-praise and high-reverence of the U.K. band, the Wildhearts.
Imagine, if you will, if James Hetfield of Metallica married Frida of Abba. This vodka and marzipan soaked union would go on to spawn a wild and eclectic brood of kids named Cheap Trick, the Ramones, Kiss, and the Replacements.
And don’t forget the family mutt: Motorhead.
This wicked and dysfunctional lot, these Wildhearts, founded in 1989, would go on to record a towering discography of genre-mashed, guitar-heavy bliss. If you like your riffage heavy and your melodies sublime, you are in orbit.
So that is what I listened to while I transcribed, edited, and wrote Listen to the Echoes—The Wildhearts. In 2009, the band released the sonically soaring platter of fist-pumping-sing-along-goodness, Chutzpah! The album, in many ways, is a snapshot of New York City. Ginger, Wildheart founder, frontman, philosopher, and songwriticus prolificus lived in New York City in 2008. Chutzpah! was on heavy rotation during the entire making of the first editon of Listen to the Echoes.
But what is sort of weird and cool and mind-blowing all at once, is that while the Wildhearts influenced my creative process in a Mothra-sized capacity, in my own little way, me and my friend Ray Bradbury made our mark on them. It’s a tale of meta-inspiration if you will, sort of like how streams flow into rivers flow into the sea and it all connects.
In 2008, as Ginger Wildheart was residing in the cacophonous metropolis of NYC, I met up with him one day for lunch in lower Manhattan. We have shared an email correspondence over the years, spurred by my fandom of his creative brilliance and musical back catalog. We have talked about working on projects together. It was a mild winter day and we had a good lunch at a barbecue joint down in St. Marks. We chatted about music and books and religion and philosophy. I gave him a copy of my first Bradbury biography, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. I showed him the quote at the front of the book, my favorite Bradburyism, the one that Bartlett’s, when they get off their arse, will canonize:
Jump off the Cliff and Build Your Wings on the Way Down.
Ginger liked it.
“I’ll have to use that in a song one day,” he said.
The rest of that afternoon we shopped for CDs. Later, we went to a Supersuckers show (another outstanding, shitkicking goodtime band, by the way). And we have stayed in touch.
The Wildhearts released Chutzpah! a year and a half later on August 31, 2009. The record, as I said, was my audio blanket while I finished Listen to Echoes.
A few months later, the band released the EP, Chutzpah! Jnr., an 8- song collection of jet fuel rock/punk/pop. Over the years, the Wildhearts have sort of become known for their b-sides. Many of these harder-to-find songs have become staples of Wildhearts shows from Tokyo to London to Brooklyn.
Track four on Chutzpah! Jnr, titled, “Vernix,” is, in some ways, vintage Wildhearts, boasting enough time-changes to give Neil Peart ADHD. The armada of guitars are there. The melodies are as glassy and as perfect as the ocean in the morning, and sweet enough to make the metal crowd puke. One Wildheart diehard called “Vernix,” bat-shit crazy.
And it is.
But just listen to it. Listen what happens when the song hits the one-minute mark.
Ray Bradbury rocks.
And so do Ginger and the Wildhearts.
Follow Ginger on twitter @Gingernyc
And follow me on Twitter @Sam__Weller
Ray Bradbury signed many books for me over the years, and they all have special meaning. But when he put my name on the dedication page of BRADBURY STORIES in 2003 and handed me a copy in his den, late at night, I was rendered speechless. And given that his favorite city was Paris, the Bastille celebration made it extra special.
I loved this man and always will.
It's gone now, destroyed by bulldozers in the early days of January, 2015. In its place now stands a garish modern monstrosity of a house. But Ray Bradbury's home of more than 50 years, and his storied basement office, will never be forgotten. He wrote a good many of his second-half of the 20th century masterworks in his basement laboratory, including sections of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I spent incalculable amounts of time in this basement, poring over files, reading unpublished story starts, leafing through old photographs and documents, discovering all manner of Bradburyana. This picture gives you a pretty good glimpse of the chaotic land of metaphors Bradbury intentionally created in order to surround himself with endless inspiration.
I am excited to share many never before seen images like this one with you on this blog. Here is a good one from my Bradbury files. This image has not been seen or published since it originally ran in the Waukegan Daily Sun, the hometown newspaper in Ray Bradbury's birthplace of Waukegan, Illinois. When I first began researching his life, I had a feeling that there might be a birth announcement listed in the newspaper. After combing through the microfiche files at the Waukegan Library, I landed upon this image. Note they got Bradbury's birthday wrong by one day. He was born on August 22, 1920. Still, this was a major discovery. When I showed it to Ray Bradbury, he welled up with tears. He had no idea his arrival into the world had been listed in his hometown newspaper.
I spent 12 years working with Ray Bradbury as his biographer. We worked on four books together, starting with The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 2005).
I first encountered the words of Bradbury in utero—my Dad read the freak show frescoes from the 1951 collection The Illustrated Man aloud to my Mom while I was still a month from arrival.
I grew up, like many Gen X adolescents, nerding out to Dungeons and Dragons, the spandex bravado of KISS, the space opera allure of Star Wars and, of course, the fantastic fictions of one Ray Douglas Bradbury, caretaker of Mars, gatekeeper to Green Town, tour guide to all things that lurk long after midnight.
It was a surreal experience to later become his biographer, to spend thousands of hours with the man. He loved the inherent fate in the entire confounding scenario, deeming my pre-birth encounter with his words and work as a premise that was, in and of itself, decidedly Bradburian.
In 12 years, as one might imagine, I observed many of Bradbury’s creative secrets. I peered behind the Oz-ian curtain, as it were, and paid close attention. Bradbury was a master storyteller and visionary artist who created across an unprecedented nine decades. Fahrenheit 451. The Martian Chronicles. Dandelion Wine. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Massive collections of poetry. Massive collections of essays. Hundreds of short stories across every conceivable genre. He owned and operated his own theatre company. He wrote episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hicthcock Presents. On a whim, he scripted an animated short film that was later nominated for an Oscar. He earned an Emmy for an animated television adaptation of his own YA novel, The Halloween Tree. Bradbury developed architectural concepts for shopping malls, the 1964 World’s Fair and EPCOT. There is a crater on the moon named, by NASA, for Ray Bradbury’s book 1957 novel-in-stories, Dandelion Wine.
The man was a force.
Not surprising then, that much of my own creative ethos is culled from what I learned working alongside Ray Bradbury. I share many of these insights into craft as a professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and when I conduct writing workshops at public libraries and high schools across the country.
So here are just a few of the many creative secrets gleaned from working alongside one of the 20th Century’s great creators.
1. Do What You Love and Love What You Do
This was Bradbury’s mantra. He wrote about subjects, themes and ideas that he loved, often going back to childhood, from dinosaurs (“A Sound of Thunder”) to circuses (Something Wicked This Way Comes) to Mars (The Martian Chronicles).
“Make a list of ten things you love,” he often instructed young writers, and write a short story, poem or essay about each one.”
Everything about Bradbury came back to his passion. “Looking back over a lifetime,” he said in my book Listen To The Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, “you see that love is the answer to everything.”
Many of his passions, from the stories of Poe and Baum, to dinosaurs and deep space, to circus sideshows and mysterious stage magicians, all trace back to his formative years. And this, I think, may be the greatest secret to Bradbury’s towering global success. Up until his final days, Bradbury never abandoned his inner-child.
2. Don’t Think.
Bradbury had these words written in Sharpie marker on a piece of masking tape affixed to the front of his typewriter (that’s right, he never worked on a computer). Bradbury maintained that first drafts must be written all the way through, impulsive bursts of joyful creativity affording the subconscious the space to get the story down, uninterrupted by our self-conscious intellect. This is how the man was able to write a complete draft of Fahrenheit 451 in the unfathomable window of just nine days time. It’s important to note that after a quick first draft, Bradbury would then allow for the intellect to intrude during the much slower, more laborious revision stages. But firsts drafts, he maintained, must be intuitive. “In quickness, is truth,” he said. “The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”
3. You Must Love It
Going to back to when he was 12 years old, Bradbury wrote for the pure joy of the creative act. Ray Bradbury was one-man celebration of joie de verve. When he wrote, he was like a child with a box of 64 Crayolas scattered out before him, fearless and indefatigable. Bradbury never wrote for money. He never wrote for fame. He wrote simply as a celebration of creativity. He believed the best writing came from a sense of play.
4. Read a Short Story or a Poem or an Essay Every Night
This was Bradbury’s reading assignment, suggesting that serious writers follow it for 1000 nights to “stuff their heads with metaphors” that might later emerge in their own original work. Bradbury read everything, from the Sunday comic strip Mutts to Herman Melville.
5. Make Lists of Nouns
When Bradbury was 21 or 22 and just beginning to publish in the pages of the pulp fiction magazines of the 1940s, he stumbled upon a word association game that ignited his imaginative process. He made lists of nouns, each word beginning with the word “the” to lend specificity.
“The Lake.” “The Crowd.” “The Jar.” “The Night.”
Bradbury allowed his subconscious to surprise him, writing down nouns and then letting the word inspire a memory, a scene or a story. Almost the entirety of Bradbury’s first book, the groundbreaking work of the dark fantastic, Dark Carnival (later revised into The October Country) was written using this generative writing prompt.
6. Ignore Rejection
When he was 17 and 18 years old, Bradbury started submitting his stories to the slick, New York literary magazines. He was rejected at light speed because, as he would say, he was a “terrible writer.” I once found a rejection slip from legendary Esquire co-founder and editor Arnold Gingrich telling Bradbury that his ideas weren’t original. I asked him how he dealt with this constant, early rejection and he was succinct: “I assumed [the editors] didn't know what they were doing.”
The point here is that young writers must plow ahead. They must ignore the speed bumps, the potholes, the blockades and the brick walls and stay myopically focused on reading and writing constantly.
“In quantity,” Bradbury advised, “eventually comes quality.”
7. Work on Multiple Projects Simultaneously
Ray Bradbury never suffered from writer’s block, per se. In the late 40s and early 50s, working on his “Illinois novel,” which would later become Dandelion Wine, he regularly hit walls and struggled. But here is the difference between Ray Bradbury and mere mortals: When Bradbury faced creative challenges, he just moved on to other creative projects. This way he continued writing. This work ethic is what enabled his singular prolificacy. While most scribes quit at the first encounter with frustration, Bradbury started something completely new and, quite often, this cleansing of the creative palate helped solve his initial vexation.
8. Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings On the Way
When Bradbury was a teenager, he fished radio scripts out of the dumpsters behind the studio where George Burns broadcast his national radio program. He studied the scripts and started writing his own, eventually chasing Burns down and hand- delivering his juvenile creative meanderings. After two years of this routine, the first publication of the words of Ray Bradbury came on February 26, 1936, coast-to-coast on the Burns and Allen radio program. George Burns used one of Ray Bradbury’s jokes on air.
When film director John Huston asked Bradbury in the summer of 1953 if he would write the screenplay for Moby Dick, Bradbury had limited experience with film scripts and had never read the Melville novel in its entirety. No matter, he accepted the job.
Everything the man did was a leap of faith. He designed shopping plaza concepts with famed L.A. architect Jon Jerde, never having gone to college.
Ray Bradbury’s entire career is one of creative risk taking. He believed in himself, even, in the early days, when he had no reason whatsoever to believe at all.
“The message of Zen,” he offered in my book Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, “….is something I have been teaching people for years when it comes to writing. It’s what Yoda says,” he said, dropping a Star Wars reference. “Don't think . . . Do.”