Bands Read Books, Too
Music and literature are just two different ways of telling stories. So it makes sense that many musicians have translated books into song, from Bob Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited," which retells Abraham’s moral dilemma over killing his son in Genesis, to Death Cab for Cutie's “Meet Me on the Equinox,” which recounts Bella’s lip-biting dilemma over dating a vampire in Twilight: New Moon. While most people have heard of the Bible before Bob Dylan, music like The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” (based on the 1870 novella by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch) popularizes otherwise obscure book titles. So when musicians reuse phrases like “Venus in Furs,” the line of influences is strung along and preserved in a new medium. This recycling of material shouldn’t be seen as lack of creativity but rather creative reinvention. After all, Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which inspired Metallica’s song of the same name, was based on the 1623 John Donne poem, yet it still exists as separate, valid piece of art. And J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that is referenced in Led Zeppelin songs like “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Ramble On” and “The Battle of Evermore” is inspired by Norse mythology, containing an ancient mystique echoed through Led Zeppelin’s mandolin and other early instrumentation. Many songs are as inspired by contemporary life as they are from past literature, as reality and fiction often mirror each other. Thom Yorke explained that Radiohead’s “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is based on Alice’s dread of opening unknown doors in Alice in Wonderland, reflecting his own feelings at the time. Similarly, Brandon Boyd wrote Incubus’ “Talk Show on Mute” after watching muted talk shows on a plane and wondering whether TVs watched us while we watched them: a “Big Brother Is Watching You” nightmare fitting of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about complete government control. The strange yet frighteningly familiar concepts that early 20th century science fiction writers imagined have been reasserted by modern bands in music that is similarly strange yet familiar. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four inspired Radiohead’s “2+2=5,” Muse’s “Resistance” album and David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” record (including “Rebel Rebel”), amongst others. The theme of artificially induced happiness through the perfect pleasure drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the topic of The Strokes’ “Soma:” “Soma is what they would take when / Hard times opened their eyes.” Bands today also cover modern books, like The Decemberists’ “Song for Myla Goldberg” about the author of 2000’s Bee Season and “Calamity Song” with accompanying video (directed by Michael Schur of Parks and Recreation, The Office and Saturday Night Live fame) influenced by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Authors and songwriters share a talent for artistic narration, so it’s only fitting that they should borrow from each other. The Vitamin String Quartet has transposed the music of some of these literate bands a step further into complete musical emersion, narrating the lyrics through notes while keeping the sensations intact. The String Quartet Tribute to Bob Dylan.