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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Make Love Stay/Dan Fogelberg

In his 1980 novel Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins establishes a key theme early in the book in a neatly self-referential passage from Chapter 2:

     Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not.
     Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end.
     Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm.
     There is only one serious question.  And that is:
     Who knows how to make love stay?

The late Dan Fogelberg picked up on that theme in his song Make Love Stay, one of two new songs that appeared on his 1982 Greatest Hits album.  In the liner notes he dedicated the song to "Dr. Robbins and the Woodpecker" (Dr. Robbins refers to the author as well as to a character from Robbins' 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), and later described the song as a "sinuous piece written around a chapter of Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker."  The song employs many images from the book, including moonlight, mystery, and fire.

Fogelberg, who died in 2007, was an admitted fan of literature.  "I love reading," he said during a live MSN chat in 2000.  "My favorite writer is Jim Harrison. I am currently reading Sterling Hayden's wonderful autobiography Wanderer. I'm also trying to get to Tom Robbins' new novel. I've also read all the Patrick O'Brien books and the Hornblower series.  Great stuff."

Submitted by Stacy Clopton Yates.

Still Life with Woodpecker (Kindle Edition)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Kindle Edition)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Personal Jesus/Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode's song Personal Jesus, from their 1990 album Violator, has been interpreted in a variety of ways--from an assault on organized religion to an endorsement of Christianity--and lyricist Martin Gore thinks that's just fine.  "He never explains the lyrics at all," says bandmate Andy Fletcher in Jonathan Miller's 2003 book Stripped: Depeche Mode.  "I've heard about ten different interpretations of 'Personal Jesus' and that's what Martin really likes. . . The lyrics are very ambiguous, so although it could have been controversial, in fact it turned out not to be at all.  Most people thought it was a pro-Christian anthem, which wasn't intended."

As its inclusion in these pages suggests, the inspiration for "Personal Jesus" came from a book, but it's not The New Testament, as one might think.  According to Gore--who opened up about the song in an interview with Spin Magazine--the unlikely inspiration was Priscilla Beaulieu Presley's book Elvis and Me, written with Sandra Harmon and published in 1985, which chronicles her relationship with her late ex-husband, Elvis Presley.  Gore told Spin:

It's a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody's heart is like a god in some way. We play these god-like parts for people but no one is perfect, and that's not a very balanced view of someone is it?

In the book, Priscilla Presley writes of Elvis:  "Over the years he became my father, husband, and very nearly God."

Stripped: Depeche Mode (Kindle Edition)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

B.S. Johnson/The Pernice Brothers

 When novelist, poet, and filmmaker B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson committed suicide at the age of 40 in 1973, his obituary in The Times of London began this way:

B. S. Johnson . . . was one of the most naturally gifted writers of his generation. He was also one of the very small number to commit himself whole-heartedly to the experimental presentation of fiction. His Albert Angelo (1964) included carefully holed pages in order that readers might choose for themselves the order in which they received the writer’s words; The Unfortunates (1969) carried the pursuit of disintegration further by being printed and boxed in interchangeable sections. Throughout his career he believed that to adhere to the disciplines of conventional form was to risk the distortion of truth.

The Pernice Brothers' 2006 album Live a Little includes a tribute to the late writer called B.S. JohnsonStereogum quotes Joe Pernice describing the song this way:

"B.S. Johnson" is simply an homage to the late great writer of the same name.  It's safe to say that he was not/is not widely read here in America, but he should be.  My brother is a pretty bright guy.   He's read a couple books, and upon seeing the title, thought I'd created a fictional character, a Walter Mitty type named Bullshit Johnson.  I told him I had, but that's for the next record.

Jonathan Coe (a master in his own right), upon hearing the song, emailed to let me know I'd managed to sum up BSJ's life in two minutes, twenty-two seconds, and that it took him 500 pages to do so in his spectacular bio of B.S. called Like A Fiery Elephant.

Incidentally, Joe Pernice is an author in his own right, having published a collection of poetry called Two Blind Pigeons in 2001; a consideration of a classic album, The Smiths' Meat Is Murder, in 2003; and a novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, published last year.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

For the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus/The Noisettes, and more

This Sunday, July 11th, marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in a small Alabama town during the Depression, the story concerns Scout and Jem, two young children living with their widowed father, attorney Atticus Finch. In the course of the novel the children indulge a fascination with their mysterious, reclusive, and somewhat frightening neighbor Boo Radley, while Atticus tries to defend Tom Robinson, a black man unjustly accused of rape. The book has sold about 40 million copies over the last five decades, has never been out of print, and is a fixture on students' required reading lists. The acclaimed 1962 film version is an acknowledged classic and gave Gregory Peck his only Academy Award, for his portrayal of Atticus.

To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired some popular music, including the three songs featured here:

Atticus, by the Noisettes, from their 2009 album Wild Young Hearts, states its inspiration in the first line: To kill a mockingbird is/To silence the song that seduces you.  As the title suggests, Atticus Finch provides the central image of the song, serving as a symbol of character and quiet courage from which the singer draws strength: I have no fear/I am Atticus now.

Each Year, from Ra Ra Riot's 2007 EP Ra Ra Riot, is also drawn from Lee's novel. "I had recently read To Kill a Mockingbird, which had a huge impact on me," says band member Wesley Miles," and John [Ryan Pike] and I talked a lot about it on our way down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Those experiences served as the lyrical inspiration." The racially tinged trial of Tom Robinson is alluded to in the line Coverin' a fault with trials and show displays. The song also addresses another focus of the book, the children's relationship with Boo Radley, a figure only glimpsed through a window because his abusive father keeps him locked up in the house: Silhouettes in a window frame/Better run if it's Boo's old man/He won't know if you're white/Oh, in the night. Other lines seem to allude to young Scout and her role model, the admirable Atticus: Never mind what your/Daughter is taught in school/What she remembers is/What she has learned from you.
Jem and Scout's fascination with Boo is also the focus of Bruce Hornsby's "Sneaking Up on Boo Radley," from  his 1998 album Spirit Trail: They say he's crazy, they say he's gone/We play our tricks, make up funny songs/Sneaking around, feeling badly/Sneaking up on Boo Radley. The song depicts the kids creeping around the Radley house, trying to catch a gimpse of Boo, and conveys their mixed feelings about what they're doing: They say he's funny, got a loose screw/Stay away, he's a threat to you/Give him a break, what do we know/Might turn out we would like him so/We fear what we don't know. (In the novel, Boo comes to the children's aid at a crucial moment.) The lines Down the street, walking sadly/My little sister, loves him madly suggest the song is narrated by Jem.  "I grew up on that novel," Hornsby said of To Kill a Mockingbird on NPR's "World Cafe."  A live version of Sneaking Up On Boo Radley appears on Hornsby's 2000 album Here Come the Noise Makers.

In addition to inspiring songs, To Kill a Mockingbird has also provided names for such bands as Atticus and The Boo Radleys.

Finally, if you're looking for music to read To Kill a Mockingbird by, you couldn't do better than Elmer Bernstein's evocative original film score, which was nominated for an Academy Award.