Liner Notes from John Zorn’s “Spillane”

“What is this shit?”

John Zorn‘s 1987 album Spillane, a twenty-odd minute performance piece (some of it very odd), is an aural dumpster dive, full of jagged bits of jazz, spoken word, sound effects and who knows what else, inspired by pulp fiction and in particular the works of Mickey Spillane. It’s the centerpiece of the album, taking up the whole of Side One, while the flipside boasts three equally pulp-inspired tracks: “Two-Lane Highway,” Two-Lane Highway: Hico Killer-Long Mile To Houston” and “Forbidden Fruit.”

Spillane kicks off with a blood-curdling scream and works its fever dream way through burlesque, some otherworldly sci-fi themes, some nasty, discordant saxophone bleats, a chicken-plucking country vamp, crowd noises and some other aural crap than Zorn probably found stuck to his shoe, suggesting a wild night in some hell hole of a town where it’s always raining, and there isn’t enough booze or love in the world to make it right.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a friggin’ clue.

Or, as Mike Hammer might say, “What is this shit?”

And yet in an strange way, it’s affecting, even compelling–an audacious, abrasive ear-worm that’s managed to penetrate even the thick skull of this jazzaphobic rock’n’roll kid.

Anyway, here, Zorn tries to explain it all in the liner notes below, but I’m not sure he succeeds.


Because I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, I sometimes find it convenient to store these “events” on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. After choosing a subject, in this case the work of Mickey Spillane, I research it in detail: I read books and articles, look at films, TV shows, and photo files, listen to related recordings, etc. Then, drawing upon all of these sources, I write down individual ideas and images on filing cards.

For this piece, each card relates to some aspect of Spillane’s work, his world, his characters, his ideology. Sometimes I wrote out only sounds: “Opening scream. Route 66 intro starting with a high hat, then piano, strings, harp.” Other times I thought of a scene from a movie like Year of the Dragon, and I wrote: “Scene of the crime #1 – high harp harmonics, basses and trombone drone, guitar sonorities, sounds of water dripping and narration on top.” That image had its origins in the scene where Mickey Rourke, who plays a Polish detective in Chinatown, goes down into the bean sprout cellar and discovers the body. It’s an image that stayed in my mind, and I wanted to include it in Spillane. So I scored it the way I would have done it if I had written the music for that film.

Sorting the filing cards, putting them in the perfect order, is one of the toughest jobs and it usually takes months. Picking the right band is essential because often just one person can make or break a piece. I set up the overall arc, but there’s a real give and take with the musicians in the studio. Sometimes I bring in written music and I run it down to the players, layering and molding it as it is being played. Other times I’ll simply say something like “Anthony, play some cheesy cocktail piano.” Or, “Bill, go and improvise My Gun Is Quick (an early Mickey Spillane novel)” and we’ll do take after take until we’re all happy that every note is perfect.

I do have a reputation for being a tyrant. In pieces like Spillane, I control the complex matrix of the structure, the detail in the arrangements and orchestration. This is clearly my world – ultimately I have the final say. But the collaborative spirit is still very, very strong, and with different players, the individual moments of the piece would obviously sound quite different.

My works often move from one block to another such that the average person can hear no development whatsoever. But I always have a unifying concept that ties all the sections together. In Schönberg’s early atonal compositions, he didn’t know what he was doing. To give his atonal pieces a sense of unity, he worked with texts, and the only way he knew when a piece was over was when the text ran out! In the same way, in these early pieces of mine, I’m unifying the disparate elements by relating them all to one dramatic subject. Not a set of pitches or a set of keys that modulate from one to the next. Instead, a group of images, ideas, all drawn from one source. Director Jean-Luc Godard was my first subject. Mickey Spillane is the next.

As for the listener, ultimately the most subjective response is the best response. Eventually, total subjectivity becomes total objectivity. That’s the way I see the world. That’s the way I see all my heroes: Ives, Partch, Varèse, composers who created their own musical worlds, regardless of the incomprehension of those around them. These artists were doing something no one else had done before because it was a subjective and ultimate expression of their vision. But soon people got attracted to the freshness of these worlds and kept coming back to them. And then they became part of our culture.

These composers – along with them Stravinsky and many others – attacked every parameter of music to make it their own: rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, everything. And, all along, that has been my desire, too.


  • SPILLANEBuy this CD Listen to it now
    (1987, Elektra/Nonesuch)
    John Zorn

    1. “Spillane”
    2. “Two-Lane Highway: Preacher Man – White Line Fever – Nacogdoches Gumbo- East Texas Freezeout – San Angelo Release , etc.”
    3. “Two-Lane Highway: Hico Killer – Long Mile to Houston”
    4. “Forbidden Fruit”


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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