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-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Honor of Ray Bradbury: Sound of Thunder/Duran Duran, and More

In honor of Ray Bradbury, the prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction who died yesterday at the age of 91, here are some musical selections influenced or inspired by his work.

The title of Duran Duran's song Sound Of Thunder, from their 1981 album Duran Duran, alludes to Bradbury's celebrated short story "A Sound of Thunder." First published in the magazine Collier's in 1952, Bradbury's tale has become one of the most widely reprinted science fiction stories ever written, and is currently available in A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories. It concerns a hunter named Eckels who contracts with a company called Time Safari to go back in time to kill a tyrannosaurus rex. While visiting the distant past, Eckels is repeatedly warned by his guide not to stray from Time Safari's predetermined path--damaging even a single blade of grass might cause reverberations through time that could have a dramatic impact on history. "A little error here would multiply in sixty million years, all out of proportion," the guide warns him. Unfortunately Eckels is terror-stricken when confronted with the live T. rex, and in his panic he steps off the path, inadvertently killing a butterfly. Upon returning from the past, the hunting party discovers that the death of that single butterfly millions of years earlier has produced devastating changes to their own time. The song's lyrics seem to refer specifically to Eckels with the lines: I'm the man who stepped off the path/And I just lie here/It's what I was made for. [In the story, the phrase "a sound of thunder" does double duty: It is used to describe the terrible noise made by the approaching dinosaur as well as a climactic gunshot.]

Elton John's Rocket Man, from his 1972 album Honky Château, is often said to have been inspired by Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man," but as lyricist Bernie Taupin explained in an interview in  Billboard, that's not entirely true:

No, it was a guy named Tom Rapp, who used to be in a band called Pearls Before Swine. He actually wrote a song called Rocket Man, which was based on a Ray Bradbury story from The Illustrated Man. It's about a guy who's an airline pilot and he goes off every day and then one day he sort of burns up. And the kids are always looking up to see their dad come home. It's a great story. The Tom Rapp song was much more based on that… I thought it was a great idea to sing a song about a guy in the future, where being an astronaut would be akin to being an airline pilot—which will probably happen. And I just made it a bit more a product of its time and made it a bit more spacey.

Harry Nilsson's second album Pandemonium Shadow Show is named for the sinister carnival featured in Bradbury's book Something Wicked This Way Comes. Nilsson reportedly hoped to name the album after the book itself, but never received permission to do so from Bradbury.

The Los Angeles Times has compiled a list of ten musical works inspired by the writing of Ray Bradbury.

The Dallas Observer posted a list of five musicians who love Bradbury.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Helen and Cassandra/Al Stewart


Two recurring figures in these pages are Al Stewart, a literate and literary songwriter, and Homer, the shadowy poet of ancient Greece who is credited with writing two of the foundational volumes of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey. They intersect in Stewart's song "Helen and Cassandra," which appears as a bonus track on a 2007 reissue of his 1988 album Last Days of the Century.

Stewart focuses on the events of The Iliad  and, as Suzanne Vega did in her song Calypso, he approaches Homeric themes from the perspective of female characters. The first part of the song deals with the abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by Paris of Troy, the event that precipitated the Trojan War. Key figures from the epic make appearances--the warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, king of Mycenae--but the focus always returns to Helen, who is depicted as a seductress (She could have turned the head of Paris/With the gentle sway of her hips).

In the second part of the song, Stewart focuses on Cassandra, who stands in stark contrast to Helen. The god Apollo granted Cassandra the ability to see the future, but for spurning his advances he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her warnings. Stewart presents her as a tragic figure, powerless to prevent the destruction she knew was coming (Gazing at the ruined city/That your warnings could not save/Oh Cassandra, so still and so grave).

Stewart also acknowledges the author of the source material:

It's funny how the story lingers
It's probably a myth of course
A whisper in the ear of Homer
Perhaps there never was a horse

The last line is, of course, a reference to the Trojan Horse. Technically this episode does not occur in The Iliad, but is mentioned in The Odyssey.

The familiar and repeated line Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships derives from Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, published in1604 but performed much earlier. In the play Faustus, with the help of the devil, conjures up Helen of Troy and, upon seeing her, says: Is this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

For other songs that reference the works of Homer, see these previous posts.

For an additional musical reference to Homer, visit our new companion blog Classics Rock! The Sequel.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Wasteland Companion/M. Ward


"April is the cruellest month," according to the first line of T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land, but that's when M. Ward of She & Him chose to release his new solo album A Wasteland Companion. While it would be a stretch to say that the album was inspired by Eliot's poem, Ward says Eliot wasn't far from his mind. "I'm a huge fan of T.S. Eliot," Ward told Austinist, "and I probably first heard of that 'wasteland' idea reading T.S. Eliot in high school; to me, it's a pretty useful term, because it can be applied to someone or something in many different situations."

Ward recently told the New York Times that in addition to Eliot, his favorite writers include Virgil, Homer, and Dante. "I’ve been reading The Inferno for a long time," he says. "I’m a huge fan of that book."

For more music influenced by The Waste Land and other works by T.S. Eliot, check out these previous posts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Boats Against the Current/Eric Carmen

The last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby--

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

--provides the chorus and the title of Eric Carmen's song Boats Against the Current, as well as the title of the 1977 album it appeared on. The song wasn't directly inspired by the book, however, but by a falling out Carmen had with his record producer.

On his website, Carmen describes the origins of the song:

It came, music and lyrics, at four in the morning out of a sound sleep. I wrote it down as fast as I could. It came all at once—the first two verses were completely written. The lyric was originally inspired by the breakup of myself and Jimmy Ienner, my producer. It was written about a friendship that had reached a point where we both knew we had to go our separate ways for a time....As is sometimes the case with me, my very best song will come last, when I don't need it anymore. I just happened to be finishing The Great Gatsby the day I had written the verses of "Boats Against The Current," and that one paragraph was exactly about what the song was about. So I sat and read it and I thought, "Tomorrow, we'll run a little bit faster, tomorrow…" I was on that last page when I said, "Here's the chorus and the title of my album."

Carmen describes "Boats Against the Current" as "my favorite song that I've ever written."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In Memory of Harry Crews: The Gospel Singer/Harry Crews, and More

Novelist Harry Crews died last week at the age of 76. In an obituary in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that Crews's novels "out-Gothic Southern Gothic by conjuring a world of hard-drinking, punch-throwing, snake-oil-selling characters whose physical, mental, social and sexual deviations render them somehow entirely normal and eminently sympathetic. . . . Despite their teeming decadence, or more likely because of it, Mr. Crews’s novels betray a fundamental empathy, chronicling his characters’ search for meaning in a dissolute, end-stage world. His ability to spin out a dark, glittering thread from this tangle of souls gave him a singular voice that could make his prose riveting."

Crew's novels include The Gospel Singer (1968), Naked in Garden Hills (1969), Car (1972), A Feast of Snakes (1976) and The Knockout Artist (1988), among other works of fiction. He also wrote a celebrated memoir called A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978).

Crews and his work have been embraced in various corners of the music world:

The  website for the band Men Without Hats features a quote from Crews's story The Hawk Is Dying: "Find what was real in the world and touch it, that was what a man ought to do." The band's 1991 album Sideways includes a track called "Harry Crews," but, the website states, "the links between Sideways and the author run even deeper. Like Crews, the album is characterized by this search for what is real and meaningful, and is bound to real places, people and memory, offering a new perspective to those who think they know Men Without Hats…. Sideways is a testament to a way of life championed by the Bukowskis and the Crews of the world--that is, the idea of living life and music by the moment." Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk sums up Crews's writing style by saying, "He's really real. . . . He wrote a lot of things for Playboy magazine and Esquire and he's just real--like Bukowski's Barfly."

Season to Risk has a song called Snakes on their self-titled first album, released in 1993. The song is inspired by the Crews novel A Feast of Snakes, which centers on the bizarre ritual of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in a small Georgia town. Another band, Drag the River features a song called Mr. Crews on their 2006 album Its Crazy. The lyrics begin: I was a gospel singer feasting on rattlesnakes, and continue with a grab bag of Crews references. The song also captures the spirit of Crews's work with the lines: I never seen this kind of beauty before/Mud, blood, lost love, liquor, guns, whores.

In 1989, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth), Lydia Lunch, and Sadie Mae formed a band called Harry Crews and released one album, a collection of live performances, called Naked in Garden Hills after Crews's novel. As Spin Magazine points out in a review, "lyrics to some of the songs—notably 'The Knockout Artist,' 'The Gospel Singer,' and 'Car'—are inspired by Crews's stories, though the connection is loose, a sort of Cliff's Notes/free-association combo. Once in a while the lumbering brake-shop squall of the music suggests something of Crews's stories…."

If Spin did not embrace the album--"The stated good intentions of the project (promoting Crews's work and reading in general) count for something, but more effort should have gone into composition and execution"--Crews himself was even more dismissive: "Anybody that thinks this album in any way illuminates my work or is somehow related to my work except in instances lifted out of my books—my reaction is that whoever thinks that, they have misread me," Crews told Spin. "I wish [the band] well. But my feeling is, if you want to do something with your life, that's great, but don't jack around in mine."

One other related note: Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon's Sonic Youth band mate and husband, provided a blurb for Crews's short novel An American Family: "God bless Harry Crews, America's best writer. He'll break your heart but he'll always bring you love. They just don't make 'em like this anymore."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Classics Rock! Exposé: Highway 61 Revisited Revisited


One night not long ago Elton John awoke in a cold sweat, shaken from slumber by an alarming revelation: his 1976 song Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word got it all wrong. In a moment of crystalline insight, Elton realized that the hardest word is, in fact, "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis." He vowed to correct the lyrics and record a new version of Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis Seems to Be the Hardest Word later this year (for a free download, visit www. pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.com).

A few days later, Paul McCartney heard Live and Let Die on his car radio and was "stunned" by the lyrics. "All this time I thought it was 'Live and Let Live,'" said McCartney, who has been performing the song for the last 39 years. "'Live and let die' is not the kind of message I want to send to young people today," he told friends, who assured him that young people don't listen to his music. But he was dumbfounded when pressed about the Beatles song Happiness Is a Warm Gun. "You sure about that?" he said.

Meawhile, Paul Simon was at work updating his 1973 hit Kodachrome. "The advent of the digital camera has rendered it an anachronism," Simon said. "I'm changing the title to 'Mem'ry Card,' so now the fade-out goes:

Mama don't take my mem'ry card 
Mama don't take my mem'ry card 
Mama don't take my mem'ry card awa-a-a-ay 

"I'm still stuck for a rhyme for 'pixel,' though."

These incidents, seemingly unrelated, proved to be harbingers of an inexplicable and disturbing trend that has shaken the music industry to its core, as growing numbers of veteran rock stars rethink, rewrite, or renounce their classic songs.

Gene Simmons, lead singer of Kiss, was next. Simmons was studying his tongue in a mirror when it occurred to him that the band should stop performing their signature tune Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day). "Such a schedule is unrealistic," he said. "It doesn't allow for sufficient sleep, an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Nor does it leave time for other rewarding activities, such as reading, gardening, and spending time with friends."

Bob Dylan came forward to reveal that his classic album Highway 61 Revisited is a lie. "I've never even been on Highway 61. It's all been a sham," Dylan told Rolling Stone. The magazine, being inanimate, just lay there on the coffee table and didn't respond.

Considered individually, these incidents don't amount to much. When viewed as part of a larger pattern, it becomes clear that the cumulative effect is potentially devastating for rock and roll.

"This type of second-guessing is typical of artists in middle-age," said Dr. John, Counselor in Residence at the Mr. Mojo Risin Center for Getting Your Head on Straight, Man at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. "It reflects an unconscious desire to remain relevant--to be what Freud called 'hep' and what Jung referred to as 'with it.' B.F. Skinner preferred 'fly,' but these are merely clinical terms for what you and I would call 'cool.' Underlying this desire, of course, is a repressed fear of mortality."

This last theory was borne out by a panel of aging rock stars who appeared on "Piers Morgan Tonight" to discuss why musical icons would disavow their own work.
  •  • Blue Oyster Cult's Eric Bloom told Morgan why he no longer performs Don't Fear the Reaper: "I'm a lot older now. Man, I'm terrified." 
  •  • Roger Daltrey expressed similar sentiments about the Who standard My Generation: "I never really wanted to die before I got old. Also, I don't stutter." 
  •  • Bruce Springsteen admitted he had second thoughts about his iconic hit Born to Run: "I get winded pretty easily these days, so I’m reworking it as 'Born to Mall Walk.'" 
The program offered no easy answers, and concluded on an ominous note when Robert Plant explained his decision to retire Led Zepplin's The Song Remains the Same: "Obviously, it doesn't."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Extravagant Gestures/Dionne Warwick

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRdYbPhxopA https://books.google.com/books?id=RpoXjjpJJEYC&q=%22extravagant+gestures%22+%22carole+bayer+sager%22&dq=%22extravagant+gestures%22+%22carole+bayer+sager%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiLosaopb_LAhVILyYKHbVHB6YQ6AEIHDAA

People Magazine described Extravagant Gestures as "the only song in recent memory to have been penned as a theme for a novel."

Extravagant Gestures is the closing track of Dionne Warwick's album Friends, released in December 1985. But it was first recorded as a limited edition single earlier that year by lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, who co-wrote the song with then-husband Burt Bacharach. Sager composed the song as a promotional tool for her first novel, also called Extravagant Gestures.  

People covered the glitzy publication party, held at the Tiffany Boutique in Beverly Hills and hosted by Sager's good friend Elizabeth Taylor. Noting the A-list celebrities in the crowd, People's writer observed: "When they leave, they take copies of Extravagant Gestures—the record, not the book." When Sager appeared on TV to promote her novel, she would often perform the song live. [Full disclosure: We may have had something to do with organizing the publicity tour for the book.]

Sager's novel is about a glamorous pop psychology author writing bestsellers about the mother-daughter relationship, who must come to terms with her own estranged mother, a larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. According to an interview in the Washington Post:

Sager said she decided to write a novel because she felt "constricted" by the 36 bars of a song's lyrics, having to make things rhyme and so forth. She started out to write a screenplay, but that was constricting too. "You make your own form in a novel," she says..."My goal was to write something from me, that turned me on, that told a story. And I didn't even know what that story was until I was well into writing it," she said. "It was a growth experience for me. As a collaborative being, a person who has spent 20 years writing lyrics for composers, this was the first time I felt I could do something alone."

The year after Sager's novel was published, another industry insider, entertainment lawyer Freddie Gershon, published Sweetie Baby Cookie Honey, a roman à clef about the music business. [Sager's publisher, Arbor House, also published Gershon's novel. Full disclosure: We may have had something to do with this book too.] Like Sager, Gershon produced a promotional record to publicize his novel at book industry events and other venues. The Los Angeles Times noted: "One of the many dark themes running through Gershon's book is that pop stars are now worth more dead than alive, which he sees as symbolic of the music industry's greed and cynicism." In 2009, when Michael Jackson's sister La Toya suggested publicly that her brother was murdered to increase the value of his music catalog, Sweetie Baby Cookie Honey became part of the conversation. Around that time Gershon himself weighed in on the novel and its themes on his blog.