“I Put a Spell on You”: The Power of Memory and Music in Writing

The other day, I wrote a lengthy chapter that blended a second-person narrative (a bit tricky, but useful when trying to incorporate backstory without bogging the flow of the story too much) with third-person present narrative. My protagonist, a failed superhero, is slowly hitting bottom, but he has to hit bottom before he can begin taking his path towards redemption. Before he hits bottom, he finds himself back where a key moment in his life took place: the place where he met Emma, the love of his life, who would one day be his wife, and then his ex-wife.

Much of Daniel’s narrative involves his lament over losing Emma. When the world was younger, and more innocent, their love made them inseparable, but as he become a superhero, and his greatness became paramount, his being a superhero create a silent chasm in their marriage, inevitably leading to their divorce. This is something both Daniel and Emma face throughout the novel, both through different emotional channels.

In this chapter, Daniel is bitter about how he’s been perceived later in life, and he’s subconsciously wanting to drown himself in a pity party of booze. Bad idea, especially for someone like Daniel, who possesses superhuman strength and an incredibly volatile personality. His night at the bar, drunkenly of course, will not end well for him, nor for others.

This entire chapter was fueled by a pair of prompts, one from memory, one from music.

I take a lot of my writing cues from music. Listening to music helps me concentrate. I can’t write in silence, so I need music to stimulate my writing. As I was jotting some notes down on some upcoming scenes and chapters I wanted to work on, this song came on the iTunes playlist I was listening to:

“I Put a Spell on You” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

I love Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ original version, and Nina Simone’s take is simply amazing, but Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version has a greater emotional significance for me. This version used to be played a lot on the jukebox of a bar I used to frequent in New York, called the Village Idiot.

(Also, I can neither confirm nor deny I used to drop acid and listen to this song. LSD is a terrible drug…)

The Village Idiot was one of the greatest dive bars anyone could have ever set foot in. An appropriate name for a bar, really, because you didn’t go to this bar to be seen or be trendy. You stepped foot inside the Idiot to get piss-drunk, cry in your beer when Patsy Cline came over the loudspeakers, and watch turtles fight each other to the death. More on the turtles in a bit. This was the perfect bar for the Meatpacking District, dark and secluded, just before the district became the place for soulless yuppies to drop $4K on a 500-sq. foot studio apartment, and the tranny hookers were chased away by Sheriff Rudy’s thugs.

The Village Idiot was a bar I’d heard of, something that seemed more like an urban legend than literal truth. As a point of reference, the Idiot was the bastard father of now-legendary bars like Coyote Ugly (before it became a fucking franchise and a terrible film) and Hogs N’ Heifers (without the tourists and drunken celebrities trying to “keep it real”), real rough-and-tough, but with a heart of gold in its’ center. I ended up at the Idiot one night during a weekend-long booze binge, when my sister’s ex-fiance decided we were all going to the Idiot.

It was love at first site. You couldn’t help but fall in love with a bar that flew a sign on the window that said SHAMELESS SLUTS WANTED: NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY.

The Idiot was dark, it reeked of sawdust, stale beer, and piss. No comfy lounge chairs, no oak booths. Just a collection of rickety stools and a long bar counter. A couple of boozehounds had fallen asleep on the counter. Adding more flavor to this alcohol-soaked carnival were two drunken buffoons wrestling each other. The smaller of the two gave 5 inches and more than 150lbs to his larger, toothless opponent, but you know what having beer balls does to you. Turns out the larger of the wrestlers was the owner of the Idiot. He wore his in something that can only be described as a sweaty mop of cotton candy curls. He was missing several teeth. His Hawaiian shirt looked like it had seen better and cleaner days. It didn’t take long for him to pin his overconfident foe to the floor. Graciously, he bought his beaten opponent a shot; he challenged any takers to wrestle him for the chance to drink all night for free. But, like wrestling with a grizzly bear, once he had you in his paws, the prize wasn’t as appealing as getting out alive.

During the summer of 1995 to the spring of 1996, the Village Idiot was my weekend home away from home. It was at the Idiot where I developed a fondness for Lone Star Beer and learned the words to David Allen Coe’s You Never Even Call Me By My Name. The jukebox was loaded with country music, REAL country music and not that fake crap with the slick production values. Most people I knew would have been driven nuts with a jukebox full of Waylon and Willie and Dolly, but, surprisingly, I grew up listening to country music. My mom would only listen to WHN 1050AM, because she loved the music, and it was one of the ways she learned to speak English. Why she didn’t learn English with a drawl is beyond me. So when I heard I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry or Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ With Lovin’ On Your Mind blaring out of the jukebox, it was like comfort food all over again.

Most importantly, the Idiot was where I was introduced to the finest swill beer in all of North America: Pabst Blue Ribbon. For $1, you could buy a tallboy. If you were dumb enough, the owner you challenge you to bite into the tallboy and suck down a PBR. Think about it: for $5, you could get shitfaced on 120 ounces of PBR. I call that a bargain and a good night.

The truth was, however, anyone was welcome, regardless of their disposition. I’m making the Village Idiot sound like a dump, but it was the kind of dive bar that made everyone feel welcome, as long as you left any and all pretentions at the door. Eventually, the Village Idiot became a hipster hangout – no biggie, as far as I was concerned – but it closed its doors for good in the winter of 2003, to little fanfare. That dive bar deserved a better sendoff.

In the chapter I wrote, the Idiot was the bar I used as the setting for the scene, where Daniel drinks his sorrow away. When he sees the jukebox, that very same jukebox he and Emma once danced in front of, to I Put a Spell on You, it triggers a flashback to a better time. And it sets off an emotional time bomb. When I recast the bar in the chapter, I made the Village Idiot less of the dive bar I’d remembered it being, for some reason, but I can still remember the sawdust and the $1 PBR and the faint smell of vomit coming from the bathroom. This memory, along with the song, became an incredibly power prompt for me, thereby demonstrating the power that recollection can have with a writer’s imagination. 

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10 thoughts on ““I Put a Spell on You”: The Power of Memory and Music in Writing

  1. I love “Put a Spell on You”. Like you, I love music when I’m writing. Gus, the premise to your story sounds intriguing. I don’t think I know how to write in second person, but my editor said I did once. It wasn’t planned, and if you actually did it on purpose, good for you for knowing how!

    • Second person narrative is actually pretty easy to pull off. Basically you’re using the pronouns “you,” “your” and “yours” to address the reader, but what you’re really doing is establishing a narrative between the narrator and the protagonist. I like using second-person narrative for my characters, especially when they’re a few cards short of a deck, if you know what I mean.

  2. Couldn’t agree more about music adding to the creative flow! I typically try to listen to Norah Jones or Madeleine Peyroux for the book I am writing, because it fits the “feel”. I can just imagine the feel of your book with CCR playing in the background. Sounds great!

  3. I love when you weave music into your posts, Gus. I enjoyed this piece a lot! I could picture myself in the smoky bar, sipping a beer, and flipping through the jukebox pages trying to decide on my five songs (will they mind if I play “Crazy” five times in a row?). I’m very impressed with your country background, tres cool!

    I too love the CCR version. But when I think of that song, I always think of Diamanda Galás’ version combined with Jane’s Addiction, “Sex is Violent” and Juliette Lewis… I may have to pull out that soundtrack.

    Enjoyed, thanks!

    • There were a few times when I played a lot of Patsy Cline on that jukebox. Nothing like seeing some burly biker dudes being reduced to tears by Patsy Cline.

      So glad you enjoyed this one!

  4. Nice one! And so true about the “real” country music. I grew up listening to that too because I had one uncle who was obsessed with it. The other, the Vietnam vet, is the one who introduced me to Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic music. Counteracted the Lawrence Welk my grandmother preferred. 🙂 Never went to the Village Idiot, but NYC was never short on awesome dive bars. I wonder if there are any left. We used to hang at Rudy’s on 9th Ave., which is still there, but no longer full of terrifying naugahyde banquets and off-duty UPS workers. I bet they don’t even have a bowling machine anymore. And speaking to your music and place theme, I can’t ever hear Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” without thinking of Rudy’s. It was a mainstay on the jukebox.

    • I remember Rudy’s. In fact, 9th Avenue was rife with dive bars. Something about Hell’s Kitchen just being the place where people went to drink themselves to death.

  5. Loved your description of the Village Idiot. I’ve never been there but I feel like I have. And I too am a country music fan, although not exactly the top 40 variety I hear on the radio lately. Saw Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard (two of my favorites) live a few months back – they both still have it.

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