South coast, New South Wales, 2015

Crime In the City conjures images of shootings, drug lords, money laundering – or as Neil Young himself sees it: firemen putting out every fire in town – but what I see is:

  • a kitchen
  • a book that was slowly killing me
  • possibly the simplest riff in history
  • and, of course, a German clockmaker.

See, in the beginning I’d started writing this book called Bridge of Clay, and I knew it would be hard; I thought it would take three years. At last count it’s hit eleven. I’ve been married to it, divorced it, slapped it, killed it, went to a self-imposed jail for it – only for it to be my cellmate, mocking me from the top bunk – with all its filthy habits.

For whatever reason, I just couldn’t give it up, or actually, I do know the reason. People would say, “Just put it aside – write one of your other ideas…” But that was the thing. There were no other ideas – so I continued to slave away. I would take trips to the New South Wales south coast, and work in a little shack down there, and go through the usual routines.

Before work, I always listen to music, on headphones:

A song to take me up, a song to bring me in – to concentration…and then one day – I think it was afternoon, and the sun was hot on my back, from the window – I thought, ‘Oh, what the hell, I’ll finally listen to that song on Weld I’ve been ignoring’

Listening to Crime In the City was like sticking my head in the oven.

In the best imaginable way:

Neil Young blew the God damn roof off.

…So there I was.

The house was obliterated.

All around me was this rubble, the toaster was over the road – my book was blown to bits – but somehow the oven and my headphones were still intact, and Neil Young (ever the unfuckingkillable – the rock n roll cockroach if ever there was one), was STILL singing…and I still hadn’t got to the best bit – because then, then, at the 3:49 minute-mark, behind the lyrics –

That’s the way all my friends are

– there lay this riff, and I found myself (and I was NEVER an air or tennis or squash racquet guitarist) – I found myself playing the riff with him.

Oh, the excitement was visceral.

The house was still mid-crumble – a clock collapsed from the wall – and still I was playing on.

I stood and thought and told myself:

Go and write like THAT.

And I did.

I started writing the book anew with everything I had, but with a newer, older attitude, borrowed from the Godfather himself:

Care a whole hell of a lot whilst not even caring at all. Let it come from the guts.

And then…

Just as I’d worked onwards, and found myself returning to black holes, and marriages and divorces again – even whilst obeying the rules of Neil – I was reminded in no uncertain terms what all of this meant again…

In the same south coast shack, I took a break around nine in the evening, and watched a random episode of Northern Exposure, in which Maurice Minnifield, the insufferable ex-astronaut, buys a vintage cuckoo clock, and has it installed by an expert German technician, Rolf Hauser – who, it turns out, is not what Minnifield expected would be a techno-kraut in a white coat, but seemingly an extra from the set of Run, Lola, Run. Pure Berliner grungemaster, with leather pants, blond, spiky hair – played incidentally, by the blond hired thug at the beginning of The Big Lebowski – who drops the bowling ball on The Dude’s bathroom tiles while the Asian American assassin is relieving himself on The Dude’s rugbut anyway – there’s a great moment, when Minnifield and Rolf Hauser are in the pub-slash-restaurant, The Brick, when Hauser puts a hard rock number on the juke box – and then, mid-Minnifield sentence, interrupts him, pulling this face, and saying, ‘Listen – hear that lead???’ and proceeds to get up and play an invisible Gibson all through the myriad drinkers …then sits back down, shoves about eighteen potatoes in his mouth, and lives on –

And that’s what Crime In The City reminds me:

I hear it and go, Hear that lead? It’s simple and real and true, and tells me to write from that place – at least if I want to blow the roof off.

Forget being saved by rock n roll.

I was saved by a life of crime.

© Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak and The Stereo Stories Band presented this story at the Williamstown Literary Festival on Saturday evening 17 June 2017.

Bridge of Clay was published in 2018.


Writer, mistake-maker, and fan of Sam-I-Am...I wrote The Book Thief and Bridge Of Clay, but still not sure how.