"Classics Rock! is the best of both worlds--music and books."
-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Friday, August 28, 2009

Andromeda Klein/Dr. Frank and the Mr. T Experience

To support the publication of his new novel Andromeda Klein, which came out this week, musician and author Frank Portman, aka Dr. Frank, wrote a theme song for his oddly-named teenage occultist heroine and recorded it with his band, the Mr. T Experience. The song is available for download on Portman's web site. A second song based on the book, "Bethlehem," will be released on September 15th, at which point both tunes will become available for purchase on vinyl (including a limited edition on red vinyl, signed by Dr. Frank and Lane Smith, who created the cover art) and as downloads. The listing on Interpunk says the two songs "take his trademark quirky hook-laden punkish guitar-pop bubble-glam sound to new heights."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Anthem, from Rush's 1975 album Fly by Night, is based on Ayn Rand's short dystopian novel Anthem. Rand depicts a future society in which all individualism has been banished by the ruling body, the World Council (even use of the pronoun 'I' is punishable by death) and everyone's activities are focused on the good of the collective. Just as Rand intended the book to be an ode or anthem celebrating mankind's ego (the last word in the novel), so the song's lyrics celebrate the individual: Live for yourself, there's no one else/More worth living for/Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more. In keeping with Rand's concept of the "virtue of selfishness," the lyrics state: I know they've always told you/Selfishness was wrong/Yet it was for me, not you, that I came to write this song. The same book served as the inspiration for the title track of Rush's 1976 album 2112. This futuristic 20-minute mini-rock opera so closely parallels Rand's novel that the band felt compelled to credit her in the liner notes.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tea in the Sahara/The Police

Tea In The Sahara, from Synchronicity, released by The Police in 1983, is based on a story-within-the-story from Paul Bowles's 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. Traveling in North Africa, one of the novel's main characters is told a story about three sisters named Outka, Mimouna, and Aïcha. They dance in cafés to earn money so that they can realize their eccentric dream of drinking tea in the Sahara. One day a handsome visitor tells them of the desert in the south, where he lives. They dance for him and he gives each of them a piece of silver, then departs the next day. The sisters grow increasingly unhappy, finally deciding that if they don't pursue their dream now, they never will. They pool their money, including the three silver pieces, to buy a teapot, a tray, and three glasses. They head south to find the desert the handsome stranger described, eventually joining a caravan into the Sahara. When they reach the great dunes of sand, they leave the caravan looking for the dune that is high enough to allow them to see all of the Sahara as they sip their tea. They finally find a suitable dune around midday, set out their tea things, then lie down to rest. Many days later, another caravan finds the bodies of the three sisters where they lay. "And all three glasses," the narrator of the story says, "were full of sand. That was how they had their tea in the Sahara." The lyrics faithfully describe this scenario, and include the phrase Beneath the sheltering sky. (The album title Synchronicity contains a literary reference: It alludes to a theory of psychiatrist Carl Jung's, which Sting found in a book called The Roots of Coincidence, by Arthur Koestler. An earlier Police album was named after another book by Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Song for Myla Goldberg/The Decemberists

The title of Song for Myla Goldberg, from The Decemberists' 2003 album Her Majesty, refers to the author of the novel Bee Season, published in 2000. Colin Meloy met Goldberg when she visited Portland as part of a promotional tour for the book, though apparently Goldberg doesn't remember the encounter. The lyrics allude not only to Goldberg herself, but to the novel, particularly the main character, a young girl named Eliza, whose success in a series of spelling bees has unforeseen consequences for her family (Put paper to pen/To spell out "Eliza").

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Zipless/Vanessa Daou

Vanessa Daou's 1994 debut album Zipless consists entirely of musical interpretations of the poetry of feminist writer Erica Jong, as found in her 1991 collection Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected. In putting together this collaboration, Daou had a bit of an inside track: she is married to Jong's nephew, Peter Daou. According to the description of the album on Daou's website, "Jong's emotionally complex and sexually-charged narratives radiated against the sumptuous backdrop of Peter’s masterful arrangements and Vanessa’s engrossing vocal caresses." Jong herself provided a vocal for the album, reciting her own poem on the track Smoke. The album's title alludes to a two-word phrase coined by Jong in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, referring to a sexual encounter between two strangers, without emotional commitment or involvement. One of the words is "zipless." We're far too delicate to include the other word here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cold Missouri Waters/James Keelaghan

Cold Missouri Waters, from James Keelaghan's 1995 album A Recent Future, is a folk song about the Mann Gulch fire, which occurred in the Helena National Forest of Montana in 1949. Ignited by lightning, the fire ultimately burned out of control and claimed the lives of 13 smoke jumpers who parachuted in to try to control the blaze. The song takes the point of view of Wagner Dodge, who led the effort to fight the fire and survived unharmed, only to die a few years later. In the liner notes to the album, Keelaghan says: "This song is inspired by Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire about the Mann Gulch fire, August 1949. When reading I kept coming back to the image of Dodge, who survived the inferno, dying of Hodgkin's disease. Fate, which had saved him at 33, took him at 38." Maclean's book was published posthumously, having been edited by his son John Norman Maclean, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1992. Keelaghan's song has been covered by other performers, most notably Cry Cry Cry. The Black Irish Band recorded the song for their 2007 album Into the Fire, which also features their own take on the Mann Gulch fire called "Montana Skies," though this song is unrelated to Maclean's book.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gold Rush Brides/10,000 Maniacs

Gold Rush Brides, from 10,000 Maniacs 1992 album Our Time in Eden, is drawn from Lillian Schlissel's 1982 book Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. The book tells the story of the great westward expansion that occurred in the mid-1800s from the point of view of the women who took part in it, drawing heavily from diaries, letters, and other primary sources. In the song, the narrator is thinking about these women as she travels the same route: Who were the homestead wives? Who were the gold rush brides? Does anybody know? Do their works survive their yellow fever lives in the pages they wrote? The lyrics make plain the hardships they endured: In letters mailed back home her Eastern sisters they would moan as they would read accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief. When the band appeared on MTV Unplugged, Natalie Merchant read a passage from the book aloud as an introduction to their live performance of Gold Rush Brides.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Resurrectionist/Pet Shop Boys

Here's a synthpop song about body snatchers, which appeared as a b-side to the Pet Shop Boys single I'm with Stupid, from their 2006 album Fundamental (though "The Resurrectionist" does not appear on the album). "It's inspired by this book I read called The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London by Sarah Wise, which is about how, in the early nineteenth century, people called resurrectionists used to dig up corpses and sell them to hospitals for medical research," Neil Tennant told the PSB fanzine Literally (as quoted on Pet Shop Boys at dead of night). "That was the only way they could get bodies to dissect them. . . . When we work in our London studio I walk from the tube through Smithfield Market; there's a fantastic description of Smithfield in the book, and there's a pub where the resurrectionists used to go and there's actually a plaque now which mentions them." The song mentions two real-life pubs that were notorious resurrectionist hangouts, the King of Denmark and the Fortune of War. The lyrics are macabrely witty (We've all got to earn ourselves a living/All it takes is a little bit of digging) and concludes with the observation We don't bring them back to life/But we do bring them back/From the dead.