Keeping Track: Five Indie Rock Literary References
by Chad Jewett
American Football, “Letters and Packages”
Given their shared focus on glum young people hopelessly caught between adolescence and adulthood, it makes all kinds of sense that emo legends American Football would reference J.D. Salinger in their shimmering, pensive “Letters and Packages”. More specifically, the song cites Salinger’s classic 1950 story, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”, wherein a precocious 13-year-old British girl strikes up a conversation with a young, lost-in-thought American soldier waiting to deploy to active duty in World War II. The story ends, heartbreakingly, with the soldier fighting through debilitating PTSD (and his own lost youth) to write a letter to Esmé, who has kindly sent the soldier her deceased father’s pocket watch as a good-luck charm. American Football, for their part, use the story, characteristically, to mull over fading love and fading youth: “Maybe everything is tragic and temporary / Remember Esmé at age thirteen / Already blasé and broken hearted / So elegant, so considerate”. It’s hard not to think of the young GI as Mike Kinsella sings “I’m afraid that I’ll let you down”. The band finds both the tenderness and the melancholy that ebb and flow throughout the story, and cannily commits to both.
Refused, “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull”
Though Refused’s “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” never makes direct reference to Allen Ginsberg in its actual lyrics, the title is a direct quote from the famed Beat poet’s epic 1955 classic, “Howl”. And while the Swedish avant-garde-hardcore greats don’t cite Ginsberg past the title, the song (and its surrounding album, 1998’s masterful The Shape Of Punk To Come – itself an Ornette Coleman reference) shares some of the poem’s radical politics, obsession with jazz, and vivid critiques of modern industrial-capitalism. Ginsberg didn’t write “I took the first bus out of Coca-Cola city / ‘Cause it made me feel all nauseous and shitty” – but he would likely have recognized the sentiment. The Shape Of Punk To Come is defined by the same general themes of youth-in-rebellion that have made “Howl” indelible and secured its place in the American literary canon long after lesser contemporaries like Charles Bukowski have largely reached an expiration date. Similarly, The Shape Of Punk To Come stands at the very acme of modern punk music for its own inventiveness and the bracing energy of its vivid, buzzing ideas.
Sinai Vessel, “Flannery”
Largely a conflicted exploration of the band’s southern home (North Carolina and Tennessee), Sinai Vessel’s debut 2014 EP, Profanity largely recalled writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and early John Kennedy Toole, even before the album explicitly nods to one of the region’s literary greats. But on album-highlight “Flannery”, Sinai Vessel raises the specter of Flannery O’Connor, one of the South’s most hallowed and complicated literary figures. The song directly references O’Connor’s classic 1955 story “Good Country People” – a story of a young woman who, in a crisis of faith, turns to and is betrayed by, an untrustworthy grifter – going so far as to quote the story’s title in its closing refrain (“We’re just good country people with bad city hearts”). But where O’Connor’s story seems to turn Hulga Hopewell’s story into a parable about the central importance of faith, Sinai Vessel take a more humanistic approach, relating empathetically to Hulga’s feelings of angst, doubt, and disappointment.
Okkervil River, “John Allyn Smith Sails”
There is a general aura of the literary about the catalogue of Austin, Texas indie rock dramatists Okkervil River, one of few bands whose lyrics actually read as well off the page as they do in your headphones. But the group’s bookishness reached a soaring, poignant apex with “John Allyn Smith Sails”, the rousing, operatic closing track from the band’s career-best 2007 LP The Stage Names. The song charts the life and suicide of Confessional poet John Berryman (born John Allyn Smith – hence the title). The song arrays the gritty details of Berryman’s last years, during which the poet battled depression, while mirroring some of the sharp blend of despair and dark humor that defined Berryman’s classic 77 Dream Songs. “John Allyn Smith Sails” eventually eclipses into a re-worked version of The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” – Will Sheff and company are as well known for their record-collection wit as for their well-used library cards – all while simultaneously mourning and celebrating precisely the kind of innovative, emotionally-intuitive writer that made bands like Okkervil River possible.
Tom Waits, “Nirvana”, “Home I’ll Never Be”, Alice / Blood Money
Tom Waits has long flirted with literary antecedents: the dime-store noir of his early work and Rain Dogs, the Faulkner/O’Connor/McCarthy southern gothic of Mule Variations, the Dadaist modernism of Frank’s Wild Years. But occasionally, the sixty-five year old singer-songwriter has made his library more explicit. On 2002’s underrated (and unnerving) Alice, Waits explored the mythos and mystery surrounding Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, its author Lewis Carroll, and a vaguely nightmarish vision of Victorian England in general. Blood Money, released alongside Alice, consisted of songs Waits wrote for an updated, musical version of Woyzeck a 1913 play by the German Expressionist Georg Büchner. Lastly, 2006’s just-about-perfect triple-disc rarities collection Orphans featured works by two famous Beat poets – Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski – set gorgeously to some of Waits’ most hushed, moving balladry. Taken together, the direct nods Tom Waits has made to his own bookshelf – gonzo modernism, freak-show Victorian gothic, the Beats – reads like a list of ingredients for the singular artist himself.
Honorable Mention: The Jazz June
Though (as far as we can tell) Pennsylvania emo greats The Jazz June never directly quote any of her poetry in their lyrics, the band’s name does appear in Gwendolyn Brooks’ essential 1959 poem, “We Real Cool”: “We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon” (Brooks). That the band would take its name from a poet who balanced experimentation and human touch as brilliantly as Gwendolyn Brooks underlines The Jazz June‘s similar instinct for the cerebral and the emotive.