Using Music to Enhance Stories

by William F. Wu

Recently Jason Powell wrote a great essay about rock ‘n’ roll in Wild Cards. It made me think about the ways I used popular music in two of my Wild Cards stories. No major plot spoilers here, just descriptions of music in relation to characters and some minor events. 

I created a joker nicknamed Chop-Chop, based on the early version of a character by that name in Blackhawk comic books. As part of the Blackhawk team, representing a number of Allied nations in World War II, the original character of Chinese descent was drawn to be cartoonish, as a laughable mascot, starting in 1944. 

My character appears in my story called “’Til I Kissed You,” set in August 1959 (Card Sharks, 1993), but shares much of his inspiration’s appearance. In the interstitial introduction to the story by Stephen Leigh, he’s described in the viewpoint of another character this way: 

“The joker was a walking cliché of every bad comicbook depiction of an Asian. He squinted at her from behind coke-bottle bottom, black-rimmed glasses. His myopic eyes were almost comically slanted, the epicanthic folds stretched and exaggerated. He was horrendously buck-toothed, his upper front two teeth extending entirely over his bottom lip, and his ears stuck out from under jet-black hair like twin handles on a jug. His skin was a bright, chrome yellow.” 

The Blackhawk character also has a pigtail, which is supposed to be reminiscent of the queues Chinese men were required to wear by the Qing Dynasty until it was overthrown in 1911. I decided that my character’s haircut would be one of the few ways he could influence his appearance, so he has a flattop instead, which was in style in 1959. The original wears an apron and carries a cleaver because he started out as the cook for the Blackhawk team, not a pilot like all the other members of the team. My character has no reason to wear an apron or carry a cleaver, so he doesn’t.

This character’s real name is Chuck Tanaka. I wanted him to have Japanese descent to emphasize the fact that Americans of East Asian ancestry often live with blurred and inaccurate ethnic distinctions from other people. He’s sixteen years old and lives and works on the border of Jokertown with Chinatown. He tells the story in first person.

So what about the music?

The title is taken from an Everly Brother’s song, though their title has parentheses: “(‘Til) I Kissed You.” It became a hit in both universes and fits the story by the end. 

I chose songs that were out at the time of the story. Much of the Wild Cards universe is anchored in references to our own and that helps make the alternate universe more believable. Each song I picked also references the situation in the story where it is mentioned, sometimes in a light-hearted way and sometimes not. As it happens, crooning is more common in the choices I made than rock ‘n’ roll. That’s about the demands of the story, not my listening preference.

Early in the story, Chop-Chop is at work loading crates of frozen seafood into a refrigerated delivery truck. Paul Anka’s song “Lonely Boy” is playing on a radio. Because Chop-Chop is lonely and blue, with nothing to do, the song fits him and he observes in narration that he hates Paul Anka.

He’s approached by a beautiful, fifteen-year-old Caucasian girl who is out of place in the neighborhood. While they talk, the Johnny Mathis song “Chances Are” comes on the radio as an oldie from 1956. As the song indicates, Chop-Chop is about to wear a silly grin because she comes into view and talks to him like he’s a regular person.

I didn’t write much about the performers, so they aren’t described with differences between the Wild Card universe and ours. Instead, I focused on what Chop-Chop would hear on the radio. His new acquaintance, Flo, does offer the opinion that teen U.S. Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is an ace.

Then again, when Chop-Chop takes her to dinner in a small Chinatown restaurant with a joker owner, he mentions that he saw the movie “I Was a Teenaged Joker,” starring Michael Landon. That title’s not much weirder than our universe’s name for “I Was a Teenaged Werewolf.” Given that the Wild Cards universe has more jokers than ours has verifiable werewolves, maybe the former is the mundane one.

I had fun picking songs from that particular month to fit the story. Just as Chop-Chop and Flo become intimate, the Everly Brothers’ song comes on the radio. Chop-Chop is about to find out what he missed ‘til he kissed her. After their interlude, right before new developments in the plot, Johnny Horton’s song comes on about Brits at the Battle of New Orleans running so fast that a hound couldn’t catch ‘em — more of a stretch, but action is on the way for Chop-Chop. Fats Domino sings about walking you home a little bit before Chop-Chop walks Flo to the Bowery so she can flag down a taxi outside of Jokertown. The next day, after his first sexual experience, Chop-Chop goes to a place called Biff’s Burgers and hears Connie Francis is singing from the jukebox how lipstick on your collar told a tale on you.

The story turns more serious after that, including incidents of violence. I didn’t plan this, but no more songs are introduced after that point. Music didn’t fit the events that followed — until the very end, but no details here. I promised no spoilers.

I was eight years old in August 1959. I don’t have any memories I can connect to that month, but I recall some music-related moments. The TV show American Bandstand was significant, though I had no particular interest in it. Because other people watched it, I do recall Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” being played and Pat Boone appearing, though my memories alone — as opposed to looking it up — don’t tell me what year or which song he was promoting.   Controversies about Elvis were impossible to miss entirely, though I didn’t really understand them at that age. 

Some other cultural references in the story also come from my memories, including ponytails, penny loafers, and the TV sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I did stretch a little, though. In the story, Chop-Chop mentions that show to Flo even though it started a month later—in our universe. 

My story “Jade Blossom’s Brew” is in the mosaic novel Texas Hold’em, which is set at a national high school jazz festival. Music is central to the events. Jade Blossom, an ace  fashion model and actress with a diva attitude, appeared in Inside Straight (2008) and American Hero (2020) in stories by other writers. I wrote about her for the first time in this story. 

Her ace is to change the density of her body, for instance from that of tissue to steel or granite with a corresponding weight change. Anything or anyone she’s touching at the same time takes on the same density. At tissue density, she can catch a breeze or updraft and effectively fly as long as air is moving. At granite density, she can crash into a door and break it down without getting hurt — though her extreme weight might make movement slow.

Again, no major spoilers. Jade Blossom is capable of working professionally with people, and has had brief relationships, but she often uses her diva personality to keep people at an emotional distance and to manipulate them if that suits her purpose. In the story, she has a role in an upcoming film adaptation of the novel Lord Jim, but the studio has demanded that she show up at this national event for high school students to promote it — and even sent a studio flunky to keep an eye on her. She resents being there and takes out her anger on everyone she deals with. That includes a high school boy named Cesar who is her “date.” He plays the piano and resents jokers and aces.

My familiarity with jazz is limited, but I remembered an album by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis from 1970 called “Bitches Brew.” Since the term fits Jade Blossom’s behavior in the story, I made the title a play on the album’s name, though I felt it worked better with her name being possessive. Mention of the Davis album is worked into the dialogue.

In the story, the kids from Xavier Desmond High are jokers — and, of course, all the kids are prone to the kinds of behavior common to teenagers. The hostility toward the jokers from some other kids and also adult protesters is central to the big picture. 

In the evening, in the middle of a crowd at a mixer, Jade Blossom tells Cesar to sit down at a grand piano and play to impress her. When he objects, she increases her density and forces him back down onto the piano bench.   After he starts playing, she arranges for a joker named Marissa to join him and play.

Cesar rebels, however, in a musical way. Instead of jazz, he starts with a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Marissa takes a moment to watch his hands, then begins playing. Jade Blossom quickly realizes that she is not only keeping up, but harmonizing. When Cesar shifts to an atonal piece, Jade Blossom realizes that he’s not trying to impress her at all. He’s playing music he believes will be unfamiliar and too difficult for her. In this mixer full of kids who play jazz, he’s trying to embarrass the joker girl.

Instead, Marissa keeps up with the atonal piece, then takes the lead by changing to another tune.

Jade Blossom recognizes “House of the Rising Sun” because her mother played a lot of classic rock, including British Invasion songs. So she knows the version by the Animals. This was also a way of establishing her mom as a baby boomer and indicating part of Jade Blossom’s upbringing as well.

Cesar hesitates, then follows Marissa to the song. With their jazz backgrounds, they improvise and continue playing together. Cesar plays a bass line with his left hand and an A minor chord arpeggio with his right. Marissa plays the main melody line that’s usually sung with lyrics. Then they — no spoilers. Never mind.

No, I don’t play an instrument. I played the cornet for a while as a kid but never got a feel for it. Like many other interests I dropped, I quit for more writing time.

So in these two stories, music has different roles. For the time and place of “’Til I Kissed You,” I used songs to anchor the characters in August 1959 for anyone who recognizes them, or anyone who is curious enough to look them up. A little of this goes a long way, which is why I did not reference songs in the latter part of the story. Chop-Chop would not have been listening to a radio during events described there.

Because the setting of “Jade Blossom’s Brew” puts jazz-playing high school kids in focus, I wanted to have kids playing jazz as a subplot. That is the reason for the musical contest between Cesar and Marissa, which Jade Blossom causes but did not plan. They end up playing “House of the Rising Sun” because I’ve always liked the version by the Animals. Regarding the instrumentation on that recording, I especially enjoy the organ part but chose to go with two piano players in the story. I also felt I’d be a fan of whatever Cesar and Marissa came up with if I could hear it.