Sunday, January 3, 2021

Lit Rock 101 - Layla and Other Tales

Musicians often write songs about literature, from novels to short stories, from Shake or Shelley. Whether it's the pedophilic teacher Humbert Humbert in The Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" or one the many Tolkien references that saturate Led Zeppelin songs, there is an endless list of literary references in Rock.

Love isn't easy for anyone, not even famous rock stars; that's why we have endless songs of broken hearts. Guitar God Eric Clapton got the memo when he met—and immediately fell for—Pattie Boyd, model and actress who appeared in A Hard Day's Night. There was a problem: she was already married to Clapton's good friend, George Harrison. When Clapton read The Story of Layla and Majnun, he felt a connection to the ill-fated Majnun. In Ganjavi Nizami's 1192 poem, a young man named Majnun falls in love with the beautiful Layla. "Falls in love" is a nice way of putting it—he becomes obsessed. Layla's father, refusing to marry her to a madman, marries her off to someone else. Denied his love, Majnun goes to live in the wilderness, where he is sometimes seen writing poetry and singing songs to Layla. In Clapton’s "Layla," he begs her to, "make the best of the situation, before I finally go insane," like the poor Majnun. Of course, unlike Majnun, Clapton did eventually marry, and later divorce, his Layla. "Bell Bottom Blues" was also a tome to Patty Boyd. Ah, love, the great muse.

It is crazy to think that if Frederich Nietzsche hadn't been so popular, we may never have experienced the Beatles' psychedelic phase. Searching the bookstore for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, John Lennon instead picked up a copy of Timothy Leary's The Psychedelic Experience. Inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Leary's book is an instruction manual meant to aid your psychedelic drug-taking experience. Lennon brought the book home, took some LSD, and had a mind-altering experience. "Tomorrow Never Knows" provides the listener with some of the same instructions: "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream."

While the clever title might make it obvious, "ReJoyce”" is Jefferson Airplane's paraphrasing of James Joyce's Ulysses. Loosely inspired by Homer's Odyssey, the famous novel follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, and how their lives interact. Jefferson Airplane takes this lengthy work and boils it down to its basics. They invoke the dark madness that permeates the novel and even mention, "Molly’s gone to blazes, Boylan's crotch amazes," referring to Molly Bloom's affair (cf. Kate Bush: "and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes").

"Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasies:" Right from the first line, you know what’s going down. In this tale of an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and his student, the man struggles against his urges but eventually gives in. Whenever a story like this pops up, you can’t help but immediately go to the quintessential story of pedophilic love: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Lest there be any question about their inspiration, The Police include the lyric "just like the old man in that book by Nabokov."

Led Zeppelin has a well-documented love for J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth, referencing it in songs like "Ramble On" and "Misty Mountain Hop." "The Battle of Evermore" tells the story of one of the final battles for Middle Earth: It talks of Sauron, "the Dark Lord rides in force tonight," and "the Ringwraiths ride in black tonight." And of course, Frodo and the One Ring get special attention: "The magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back. Bring it back." Though it’s unclear who the Prince of Peace is, the Tolkien connection is clear.

In the 60s, it was not uncommon to look to Eastern philosophies for guidance and inspiration; Pink Floyd was no different. In "Chapter 24," Pink Floyd take the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text on divination, and set it to music. Specifically, they pull from chapter 24 of the book, which describes the process of divining using hexagrams, a process that goes through six stages. The song has a meditative sound that carries the teachings of the I Ching through the listener and deepens the experience.

Lest we forget, Bowie's take on 1984, Wakeman’s on Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Cure's "Killing an Arab" (Albert Camus' The Stranger), Morrison’s references to Huxley, William Blake and Berthold Brecht. The question remains, how often is it the other way around? How many examples are there of literature based on music instead? Hmm, well there is this novel by, oh, me, Jay and the Americans, but that’s just a shameless plug. Instead, how about Haruki Murikama’s Norwegian Wood, Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes or Dylan as the inspiration for a key character in Scott Spencer’s The Rich Man’s Table? Before Dylan, rock stars and literary writers were considered contradictions in terms, the pure division of mind and body. Even Dylan was mocked by Updike for looking "three months on the far side of a haircut" at a concert in the early 1960s. By the late '60s, English teachers were reciting the lyrics of Dylan, the Beatles and Paul Simon with the kind of reverence usually shown for John Donne. Meanwhile, rock stars became more self-conscious (and pretentious) and literary, from the "rock theater" of the Doors to the "rock opera" of the Who's Tommy. "For people of that time, some of the rock lyrics were more important to us and occupied us more than reading the great poets, even those of us who went on to study those poets," said T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose books include Water Music and World's End.