Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Musical Exercise: Creating Literary Soundtracks

By posted at 3:18 am on April 27, 2009 5

Some books just demand a soundtrack – they either are about music and musicians or music is threaded through the book like a character. Pandora, one of several sites where you can create your own radio stations, has long been a daily musical companion of mine, but recently I’ve been thinking of it as a tool for building open-ended literary soundtracks. So, far I’ve built three such soundtracks – a pair based on two of my favorite non-fiction books about music and a third based on a novel with a finely wrought musical backdrop:

  • coverMy station Please Kill Me is based on the oral history of punk by Legs McNeil. The book (and my Pandora radio station based on it), trace the early origins of punk from MC5, The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground, through to the New York heyday of The Ramones and British invaders like The Sex Pistols, not to mention various new wavy offshoots like Television and The Talking Heads, all of which get through treatment in McNeil’s book.
  • coverMy station Our Band Could Be Your Life is based on the book by music journalist Michael Azerrad that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from “Double Nickels on the Dime” supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening effectively constitute the history of indie rock for a generation of music fans.
  • coverMy station Fortress of Solitude delves into the realm of fiction and is inspired by Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel. Music is integral to the book – especially its first section, in which protagonist Dylan Ebdus befriends Mingus Rude, son of soul superstar Barrett Rude, Jr., and funk and early rap music is heard on Brooklyn street corners. In the book’s second half, a grown up Ebdus is an obsessive music writer with a CD collection spanning a generation of soul music and with music tastes and knowledge far beyond. The book’s publication spawned a question in the early days of The Millions about where a supposed soundtrack compiled by Jonathan Lethem to accompany Fortress of Solitude could be found. It turned out to just be a pair of “mix CDs” that Lethem was handing out to friends at readings, but lucky for us, a Lethem fan posted a track listing (and the site he posted it on – now defunct – was archived by Scroll way down on this page to find the track listing. As much as was possible, it was used as the basis for this station.

There are no doubt thousands of non-fiction and fiction books that could be augmented with soundtracks (largehearted boy’s “book notes” project in which “authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books,” would be a great source). Share some of your own ideas for literary soundtracks or links to soundtracks you’ve made in the comments below.

A note to our international readers: Pandora, because of music licensing issues, is only available to U.S. listeners. Sorry about that, and if there is a similar site to Pandora available in your country, hopefully you can try it there.

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5 Responses to “Musical Exercise: Creating Literary Soundtracks”

  1. Rohan Maitzen
    at 5:14 am on April 27, 2009

    Does it count if someone else compiled the soundtrack? Vikram Seth's wonderful novel An Equal Music has a 2-CD soundtrack available that definitely enriches the experience of reading the novel.

    As it turned out, I had on my iPod most of the music referred to in Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, and it was great to select the appropriate track as the occasion arose.

    Especially since the decline of CBC Radio 2, there's not much radio up here that I'm interested in, so I'll have to see if Pandora works north of the 49th.

  2. Dale
    at 8:12 am on April 27, 2009

    Cool!!! I created an infinite jest playlist on that's been growing ever since I finished the book. I love the fortress of solitude station!

  3. fapolito
    at 12:14 pm on April 27, 2009

    What a great post! As a writer, I've always been inspired by music. In fact, in my debut novel BAND FAGS! (Kensington, June 2008) each chapter is named after an '80s pop tune that is/was not only current to its day, but also relevant to the action of the story.

    For a list of songs, check out Large Hearted Boy's blog post here:

  4. Rebecca Keith
    at 9:38 am on April 28, 2009

    You can hear the sort-of soundtrack to Lethem's You Don't Love Me Yet on his website, as part of the Promiscuous Materials Project. and hear "Monster Eyes" in the Italian book trailer, here

    (and yes, this is self-promotion of my own band, but also do love the idea of soundtracks for books, so…)

  5. Anthony
    at 12:08 pm on April 28, 2009

    A fantastic idea. Unfortunately I cannot listen to your radio stations as I am in the UK. Please Kill Me and Fortress of Solitude sound excellent. Pandora, last time I tried, was available here but it was some time ago.

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