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  • Anita Sullivan

Adapting Steve Erickson's 'Shadowbahn' for radio.

Adapting Steve Erickson’s monumental Shadowbahn for a BBC Radio 4's 'Dangerous Visions' has been one of my greatest writing pleasures, and my biggest challenge. To see why let's start at the beginning, with the story.

The Twin Towers, looking up into blue sky

Its 2021. Zema and Parker, a 15 year old black sister Zema and her 25 year old white brother, are driving from LA to Michigan to visit their mother when the Twin Towers materialise in South Dakota.

Listening to the twin playlists their Dad made in September 2011, they take a diversion: an epic road-trip through an American in Disunion. With the arrival of The Towers an alternative history of America starts to unfold. Instead of Elvis, we got his stillborn twin Jesse. The Beatles didn't happen. John Kennedy no longer became President. It's a US where atrocities happen and music is slowly disappearing from every place except the silver Camry carrying Zema and Parker.

Steve Erikson's Shadowbahn, book jacket

So that's the story. But it isn’t told in a linear way. It's layered, intercut and so tightly woven with history and music reference it’s sometimes like deciphering code. It is also ambitious in its reach and we had to make some tough editorial decisions. Jesse and JFK were quite big enough for one 60 minute drama: we couldn’t fit in Lennon, Warhol and Malcolm X as well. I’m sorry Valerie Solanas and Candy Darling got lost along the way too. As I say, really tough choices.

The novel is not just an alternative history of America, but also of its music. As the map has a Shadow-highway, so music has its Shadow-playlist of the multi-faceted multicultural voices that make up the country.

Music runs through the novel like lifeblood, as discussion, inference, quotation and of course, the Twin Playlists.

Steve Erickson's Shadowbahn, page open at Twin Playlists

The pages from the novel show the moment where the Parker and Zema's dad discovers one of his tracks has gone missing. This is photo of my own copy hence all the Post-Its... yes I do write in books. Radio allowed these songs to come off the page and speak.

Robert James McCarthur, Elvis impersonator

The two pivotal tracks in the story are bootlegs Elvis (probably) never recorded: ‘Oh Shenandoah’ and ‘O Souverain’. The El Cid aria 'O Souverain' inspired Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman', the playlist's missing track. 'Here come the planes, they're American planes...'

Producer Judith Kampfner specially recorded the two mythical tracks with Elvis tribute artist Robert James MacCarthur (left, photo by Judith). He’d never been asked to sing French opera before. In addition his guitar/ vocal of 'Shenandoah', we commissioned a haunting violin-only version.

Incidentally, I discovered that Elvis did in fact record the tune of ‘O Shenandoah’ as it's used in the song ‘Tender Feeling’ on the ‘Kissing Cousins’ soundtrack. Shadowbahn turned me into that much of a music nerd!

To hear the music referenced in the novel, explore this Spotify playlist from Rees Melwin. We also used Ethiopian music (including ‘Tezeta’ by Getachew Kassa) for Zema's own playlist.

Antu Yacob and Robbie Tann recording Shadowbahn in a car

Steve Erickson had script approval and I knew he would be acutely aware of everything that was missing from his text. Had we made the right choices? To my relief his feedback was generous, clear and practical, helping me get the facts of his alternative America straight.

Script approved, we were ready for the monumental recording, with a large cast on location in Arizona and New York. The photo (left) shows Antu Yacob and Robbie Tann in 'the camry' on location in Queens NY. Patch Darragh gave an incredible performance as Jesse Presley.

The epic record meant a complicated edit. Judith Kampfner and sound designer Steve Bond worked closely to create a soundscape as detailed, layered and multi-dimensional as the novel: text, music, history and imagination working together.

I loved working on Shadowbahn. I haven’t felt such responsibility and loyalty to author vision and voice since I worked on Janet Frame’s ‘An Angel at my Table’. Shadowbahn also introduced me to some incredible music that will stay with me forever.


'Shadowbahn' was first broadcast June 2018 for Dangerous Visions.

Produced and Directed by Judith Kampfner and Steve Bond

A Corporation For Independent Media production for BBC Radio 4


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