Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Against the Days and Days and Days… Part III: Musical Musings on Pynchon

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So I’ve been taking my time on posting this last entry on Against the Day, partially because I’ve been busy, partially because I’m working on an extended post that will test the boundaries of my Ryder-Harris Hypothesis, and partially because links to my last two posts were posted on a Pynchon-obsessive mailing list. This last installment is frivolous by design and will probably cause some furrowed brows among those to whom Pynchon’s work is sacrosanct. Not too surprisingly, it’s about pop music, because I can’t stay away from the stuff even when I’m writing about literature.

It’s been my contention for a while that, while The Crying of Lot 49 would be an impossible book to adapt for screen (though probably the easiest of the Pynchon works I’ve read), it practically scores itself. The fact that it’s set in early/mid-60s California (it was published in 1966), is littered with lyrics, and even features a Beatles-influenced band, the Paranoids, doesn’t hurt (neither does the amazingly over-the-top cover on the paperback edition I own).

But I don’t hear the early Beatles in my head when I think of the music that populates the world of Lot 49. In fact, I don’t even hear the psychedelic-tinged later Beatles that might seem more apt for the tone of the book or the American garage rock that a band like The Paranoids might have actually sounded like in 1964. Instead, I hear the darker, stranger, tweaked versions of the Beatles that followed directly in their wake. It’s the mid-60s Who at their most maladjusted and twisted (circa A Quick One and The Who Sell Out) and the Zombies with their minor keys and hazy invitations and warnings.*

Now, I make a slight distinction between the music one would hear if actually hanging out with Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s California, and the music that the text manages to evoke – its soundtrack, if you will. Curiously, much of this subtextual, entirely subjective, music is still almost all period-appropriate and some even locale-appropriate (though the vibe established seems oddly prescient – almost all of this music came out a few years after Pynchon wrote the book).

Again, I can’t shake the Zombies. If their early singles like “She’s Not There” and “Leave Me Be” are what the characters are hearing, it’s the darker moments of the Zombies’ 1967 masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, like “Beechwood Park” and “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” that they’re thinking.

I tend to think of Love’s Forever Changes (1967, as well) as Odessey‘s slightly more well-known Californian cousin, and it fits the bill just as well here. In fact, listening to something like “The Red Telephone,” you almost have to wonder if Lot 49 was on Arthur Lee’s reading list.

To round out the mix of mid-60s psychedelic touchstones (I’m not getting predictable here, am I?), I also hear the Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968). Recorded just a few short years after their chiming, transcendent early period and just a few months before their foray into Americana and country music with Gram Parsons, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a reconfiguring of the psychedelica the band had explored earlier on songs like “Eight Miles High.” Here, it inhabits drug-fueled white boy soul on “Artificial Energy,” country waltzes like “Get to You,” and even Brill Building pop on “Goin’ Back” (a Goffin-King cover that Dusty Springfield got to first). But it’s the David Crosby oddballs, “Draft Morning” and “Triad” that sound the most like Lot 49 to me. Granted, you have to ignore the unintentionally laughable lyrics on “Triad,” which basically amount to the least convincing argument for polyamory in the history of pop-musicdom and, possibly, history (though right in line with the W.A.S.T.E.-affiliated group sex ad that Oedipa spots). But the music… perfect!

The most strikingly anachronistic, but somehow fitting, music that Lot 49 evokes for me is Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead. Maybe it stuck with me that The Scope, the novel’s hangout for Yoyodyne tech geeks, has an electronic music-only policy (Stockhausen gets name-dropped). But straight-up electronic music can sound almost too detached. There’s a soul here, no matter how bizarre and threatening, and that era of Radiohead is a perfect mesh all-too-human emotion and electronic detachment. It probably doesn’t hurt that Radiohead has openly encouraged the connection via their co-opting of the book’s W.A.S.T.E. and muted post horn via their marketing material.

It’s only certain books that give me this sort of specific musical charge. I didn’t get it much at all with Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps due as much to my lack of familiarity with WWII-era music as the fact that my brain was probably too busy making sense of its elaborate design. But I got it in a big way with Against the Day, although it’s an oddly direct correspondence.

Anyone who’s heard The Decemberists can tell you that Colin Meloy’s a reader. More than just about any songwriter today, he delights in telling archetypal stories with a vocabulary more suited to character and setting than to their 21st century theater geek/lit nerd singer. He seldom writes in what would be considered “his own voice,” opting instead to assume an appropriate narrative tone for his decidedly non-autobiographical songs.

This has led to a bit of backlash toward the band by rock fans who can’t seem to tolerate what they see as an emotional distancing – if he’s not writing about himself, how can his music be “genuine?” While we generally tend to give novelists a pass on this sort of thing, playfully postmodern writers like Pynchon sometimes get slammed for it, nonetheless. The logic seems to be that if the plot is too complicated and the framework too meticulously constructed, the characters can only operate to serve those things. I find that Meloy and Pynchon, at their best, both manage to transcend these problems, imbuing their characters with life and making them sympathetic, despite the complicated scenarios and their perceived distance from the author.

Though the idea may confound some devout Pynchonists (although I’m apparently not the first to have devised something like it), the vast number of stories told and the respective knacks of Pynchon and Meloy to actually make you care about their inhabitants, the last couple of Decemberists albums practically work as an alternate version of Against the Day.

The espionage tale of “The Bagman’s Gambit” on Picaresque (2005) may be set during the Cold War, but it’s not all that far removed from the various seductions and political double-crossings involving Theign and Cyprian, among others. The Decemberists’ sustained narrative, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” covers similar iconic territory to the Traverse revenge arc. While one is built on classic Western archetypes and the other uses pirates on the high seas, they both involve the avenging of a parent, take place over decades, and rely, in equal parts, on careful planning and luck.

Most of all, the record’s jittery refusal to be pinned down to a specific era mirrors the novel’s. While Against the Day‘s ostensible time period is roughly 1893 to just after WWI, the feel is all over the map. The denouement reads like something from James Ellroy’s L.A. quartet (40s and 50s), Frank’s misadventures and the characters of Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno seem like relics of the Old West, and many of the characters have such enlightened views on gender and sexuality that it’s nearly impossible to conceive of them living in pre-feminism, pre-sexual revolution America or Europe.

The follow-up to Picaresque, The Crane Wife (2006 – in fact, about a month before Against the Day was released) has a similarly out-of-time element in its lyrics, but feels even more akin to Pynchon’s work through its greater musical adventurousness. What other album stages a mutated take on The Tempest to ELP-inspired prog rock or marries jangly R.E.M. folk-rock to a Civil War story, half-narrated by a ghost? As Against the Day sets some of its segments against a backdrop of the story of Orpheus, so does The Crane Wife get mythical on its three-part title cut, a story lifted from a Japanese folk tale. “When the War Came” depicts committed botanists protecting their work during the Siege of Leningrad. To these scientists, the plants are everything. It’s an ethic we see again and again in Reef, Yashmeen, and their fellow math and physics-obsessed brethren.

But most of all, it’s “Sons and Daughters,” the final track of the album that strikingly makes the case, using that seldom-used-in-rock convention of the round. In these lyrics, though overtly war-related, one can’t miss the various paths the characters take (even the Chums of Chance!), and the music even ends on a similar note of cautious optimism.

When we arrive
Sons and daughters
We’ll make our homes on the water
We’ll build our walls aluminum
We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon now

These currents pull us
Across the border
Steady your boats, arms to shoulder
Until tides are pulled, hold our grounds
Making this cold harbor now home

Take up your arms
Sons and daughters
We will arise from the bunkers
By land, by sea, by dirigible
We’ll leave our tracks untraceable now

When we arrive
Sons and daughters
We’ll make our lives on the water
We’ll build our walls aluminum
We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon

Hear all the bombs fade away
Hear all the bombs fade away
Hear all the bombs fade away
Hear all the bombs fade away

I make no claims that there’s any intention behind any of these correlations (although Meloy has admitted to being a Pynchon fan). But it’s an amazing (at least amusing) synchronicity that beats out that Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz thing, in any case.

By the way, if you thought this post was horrifying, navel-gazing crap, it’s nothing compared to my next one.

* Not so much the Stones or the Kinks, though. The former run contrary to the Paranoids’ aspirations – the Paranoids are Americans who want to be British pop stars, and the Stones are English pop stars who wanted to sound like American soul and blues guys. The Kinks, on the other hand, were the most English of the British Invasion bands. No American band could fake it that well.


Written by Dave

March 9, 2008 at 4:31 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I’m affraid to read your next post!

    “By the way, if you thought this post was horrifying, navel-gazing crap, it’s nothing compared to my next one.”

    This one took forever. HAHA!

    Lyrics Hot Spot

    March 9, 2008 at 7:46 pm

  2. You’re telling me!


    March 10, 2008 at 7:40 am

  3. “You are afraid, embarrassed too
    No one has ever said such a thing to you
    Your mother’s ghost stands at your shoulder
    A face like ice, a little bit colder
    Saying to you
    You can not do that it breaks all the rules
    You learned in school
    But I don’t really see, why can’t we go on as three”

    For me it’s the combination of bad lyrics and earnestness of the vocals that make this song cringe worthy. If it had any sign of a winking knowledge of how truly bad this pick up attempt is, it could be a very funny song.

    Great stuff, again, Dave.

    Ryan S~

    March 11, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  4. It probably doesn’t help that, when I hear the song, I can’t stop from thinking of Crosby in his current, walrus-like incarnation rather than the thinner, younger hippy who originally sang those lines.

    I guess it should be noted that “Triad”‘s a bonus track that isn’t on the Notorious Byrd Brothers album as originally released, and it became more well-known as a Jefferson Airplane cover. I haven’t heard their version, but they tend to be far more po-faced than the Byrds, so I assume they didn’t realize how unintentionally funny the lyrics are, either.

    I’ve read that McGuinn rewrote some of Crosby’s lyrics to “Draft Morning” for the version on Notorious Byrd Brothers (Crosby left the band mid-recording). It’s too bad he couldn’t do the same for “Triad.”


    March 11, 2008 at 4:01 pm

  5. Plus, considering his donation of sperm to Melissa Etheridge and her partner, the song takes on a whole new subtext.

    Ryan S~

    March 12, 2008 at 1:42 pm

  6. He’s probably just glad that his song’s subtle message got through to someone after all of those years, even if Melissa and Julie slightly misunderstood.


    March 12, 2008 at 3:37 pm

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