If you can’t get David Bowie to join your book club, do the next best thing and pick a book he’d recommend—his taste for Orwell is not-so-well hidden inside songs like “Big Brother.” It’s alway fun to spot a literary easter egg, tucked away in the music of everyone from hipster godfather Lou Reed to perennial Romeo-seeker Taylor Swift. Here are some of my favorite book-inspired songs, brought to us by rock stars who play lit geek on the side.
“White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane). Once you’ve heard it, you can’t forget the spare, spooky opening sounds of 60s anthem “White Rabbit,” the aural equivalent of hashish. Plug in your lava lamp, bake some bread, and listen to Grace Slick’s love letter to a darker reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
“Ramble On” (Led Zeppelin). As Robert Plant always says (probably), I like a little troll in my rock and roll. Not of the internet variety, but honest-to-God trolls. Yes, behind the leather pants, glorious hair, and rock-and-roll howl, Plant was a Tolkien geek. He doesn’t even try to hide it: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.” Want to see The Hobbit with me, Bob? I’ve got Netflix.
“The Stranger Song” (Leonard Cohen). Cohen’s autumnal work, sung to a discarded woman, references Nelson Algren’s Chicago underbelly–set masterpiece The Man With the Golden Arm, about a morphine-addicted card dealer: “O you’ve seen that man before/His golden arm dispatching cards/But now it’s rusted from the elbows to the finger.”
“Angelene” (PJ Harvey). “Rose my color is and white/pretty mouth and green my eyes.” This heartbreaking rhyme, written by a cuckolded husband for his wife (and recited, unwittingly, to the woman’s lover), provides the title for “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” one of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. It’s also a central lyric of this haunting song, off of Harvey’s Is This Desire—in Harvey’s reimagining, the rhyme is spoken by and about a prostitute.
“Been Down So Long” (The Doors). “I been down so long it looks like up to me,” growls Jim Morrison in this track off his final album, echoing the title of Richard Farina’s 1966 counterculture classic. Farina, husband to Joan Baez’s kid sister, Mimi, died far too young, but left behind this unimprovably titled debut novel, which comes with the Thomas Pynchon (a close friend of Farina’s) stamp of approval.
“Scentless Apprentice” (Nirvana). Cobain’s sweaty ode is inspired by the creepy protagonist of Perfume. He has no scent of his own, but nurses a repellent obsession with the smell of pubescent women, leading him to obsessively track and murder them in hopes of transmuting their scents into perfume. Creepy, suggestive lyrics like “I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets/There are countless formulas for pressing flowers” effectively distill the essence of this horror novel.
“Red Right Hand” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). This eerie song, cousin to a murder ballad, cadges its title from a line in Paradise Lost: “Should intermitted vengeance arm again his red right hand to plague us?” Milton spoke of God’s vengeful hand, and Cave talks of a dark, charismatic figure (“he’s a god, he’s a man”) who has the same bloody touch.
“Horses” and “My Blakean Year” (Patti Smith). To listen to Patti Smith is to swim in a sea of brainy references. These two songs make it real easy: “Horses” refers to poet Arthur Rimbaud by name, and “My Blakean Year” gives homage to William Blake, poet and illustrator of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.