May 22, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Andrew Ervin proves himself a master satirist with his wickedly funny and smart new novel Burning Down George Orwell's House.
Maurenn Corrigan said of the book on Fresh Air:
"[A]n evocative novel of place that makes pointed commentaries about the 'wired world' of the 21st century that 1984 intuited. … As all good comedies do, Ervin's novel contains a sober question at its core."
Author's Note: For the Burning Down George Orwell's House playlist, I've recruited an expert mixtape maker. Steph Optiz came up huge, as she always does. She's the literary director of the Texas Book Festival and also works for the Brooklyn Book Festival. Among countless other literary activities, she reviews books for Marie Claire magazine and stands out as one of our strongest activists for contemporary literature. She also, as you will soon hear, has tremendous taste in music. Her playlist for Burning Down George Orwell's House made me think about my own book differently, for which I'm extremely grateful. It's available for streaming at Spotify.]
"Friday Fish Fry" – Kelis
"Hunter" – Pharrell Williams
"Midnight Confessions" – Phyllis Dillon
"Burning Down the House" (45 version) – Talking Heads
"Werewolves of London" – Warren Zevon
"Take Me to Church" – Hozier
"Avant Gardener" – Courtney Barnett
"When a Fire Starts to Burn" – Disclosure
"Spit on a Stranger" – Pavement
"All this Time" – Heartless Bastards
"Murs Day" – Murs
The novel is set in Chicago and on Scotland's remote Isle of Jura, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. I began the domestic sections while living in downstate Illinois and they were written under the immediate influence of J. Dilla's Donuts album. That recording pays homage to forty years of musical tradition but it also created something entirely new. It's a masterpiece of hip-hop and of contemporary music in general. But because asking you to just put on Donuts would be the worst playlist ever, I've chosen some other songs that have interested me.
"Scotch & Soul" – Rufus Harley
Rufus Harley was one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. He was a jazz bagpiper here in Philadelphia, with a few records on Atlantic back in the day. He would usually perform in a kilt and viking helmet. The coolest stories he told me involved a middle-of-the-night phone call from John Coltrane, who had apparently picked up some bagpipes and needed advice. In 2001, David Byrne and Lydia Davis and a few others did an event at the Free Library and the organizer asked me to hire a musician to entertain the massive crowd during the book signing. Who would you hire to play for David Byrne? Rufus was so loud we had to move him to another room.
"The Rat Cage" – The Beastie Boys
I was seventeen the first time I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and an exchange student in what was then West Germany. The part I remember most vividly was the torture scene in Room 101, with the rat cage on Winston Smith's head. It still upsets me.
"Everyone Has a Silver Car" – I Think Like Midnight
As of today, I Think Like Midnight's instrumental debut album Warm Seclusion Structure is my favorite record I've heard this year. The band consists of Andrew Chalfen (guitars, bass, keyboards and bells), my longtime friend Dean "Clean" Sabatino (drums, percussion and bells), and the author J. Robert Lennon on keyboard. The atmosphere of "Everyone Has a Silver Car" reminds me of every rock song I've ever loved, but it's also entirely its own thing.
"1984" and "Jump" – Van Halen
Van Halen's 1984 opens as well as any rock album out there. I couldn't resist including it. And for all of David Lee Roth's aging-frat-boy caterwauling, at his finest moments—and we might argue all day and all of the night if this is one of them—he epitomized the greatness of 80s glam. I bet "Jump" is playing in Bud's SUV when he and my protagonist Ray Welter are drunk driving around Chicago.
"The Sun Turns Our Patio Into a Lifeless Hell" – The Dead Milkmen
In 1985, I went to our local, suburban shopping mall and bought the first Dead Milkmen album Big Lizard In My Backyard on cassette. Since then, I've also owned it on CD and LP and it has been a constant part of my life. It's a classic. All of their records are great—these guys are not only spectacular songwriters, but also technically astounding players. Don't let the humor distract you from the incredible musicianship.
I met the drummer Dean Clean (who also plays with I Think Like Midnight) in 1994 and he introduced me to their original bass player, Dave Blood, who once stayed with my wife and I in Budapest when he was living in Serbia. Blood passed away in 2004 and I still miss him, but he remains a Philadelphia icon and I'm glad to hear the band—now with the amazing Dan Stevens on bass—is now making some of their best music. "The Sun Turns Our Patio Into a Lifeless Hell" appears on their newest album, Pretty Music for Pretty People.
The Dead Milkmen performed an acoustic set at the release party for Burning Down George Orwell's House.
"2+2=5" – Radiohead
I caught Radiohead in Philly on the OK Computer tour in 1997 and listened to them so obsessively in the following years that I'm a bit burnt out on them now. It's not them, it's me. I just need a little space. But this Orwell-inspired song had to be here.
"Big Brother" – Stevie Wonder
Here's another of those tracks that simply had to be here. I couldn't imagine living in a world without Stevie Wonder.
"Sheela-Na-Gig" (Peel 29.10.91) – P.J. Harvey
Were I only allowed to listen to one musician for the remainder of my life, it might have to be P.J. Harvey. She was spinning more or less nonstop when I wrote the scenes with Flora and Molly. Sheela Na Gigs are medieval, gargoyle-like statues—likely with pagan, goddess-worship origins—that feature exaggerated female genitalia and may have been used to ward off evil spirits.
"Unsatisfied" – The Replacements
I can picture Welter lying on the bare floor of his new-bachelor apartment, on the brink of passing out from too much scotch, singing this at full volume. The poor man.
"Apeman" –The Kinks
The Kinks are the music of my people. Ray Davies stands as my all-time favorite songwriter, with the ability to get complicated emotions across even in the confines of the standard pop-song structure. "Apeman" in particular speaks to Welter's desperation to get away from the big city. "I don't feel safe in the world no more / I don't want to die in a nuclear war / I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman."
"(Nothing But) Flowers" – Talking Heads
When things fall apart for Welter, he attempts to get off the grid by moving to a remote island. Leaving the hectic and consumerist world behind is one of the longstanding and traditional themes of American literature, but the similarities between the pastoral and urban are more interesting to me than the differences. "(Nothing But) Flowers" is, I think, a song about what's lost and what's gained by getting away from civilization.
"Comfort Eagle" – Cake
What we have here is the theme song for Logos, the Chicago creative-solutions firm where Welter finds work. The corporate Newspeak of this song sounds so ominous, but it's the use of the second-person plural that most evokes Big Brother to me: "We're behind you / We're behind you / And let us please remind you / We can send a car to find you / If you ever lose your way / We are building a religion / We are building it bigger."
"Greenman" – XTC
XTC is another band that has been present for my entire creative life. Year after year, summertime does not arrive for me until I put Skylarking on the turntable. It's the one record I don't bother re-shelving until it gets cold out again. For this playlist, I chose "Greenman" from the Apple Venus Volume 1 record because like "Sheela-Na-Gig" is speaks to Europe's pre-Christian traditions, which are important to this novel. A Green Man is a humanoid figure made from branches and foliage and probably has connections to springtime or the exact kind of renewal that Welter may or may not find on Jura.
"On A Day Like This" – Elbow
"Drinking in the morning sun / Blinking in the morning sun / Shaking off a heavy one / Heavy like a loaded gun." I only discovered Elbow recently, when my friends Nikki and Noah dragged me to a concert, but like all recent converts my devotion is steadfast, thorough and unquestioned. Their lyrics are incredibly smart and the music is grandiose without grandstanding or being pretentious. When I think of the scene at the Barnhill estate where Welter takes refuge, in which a live-in guest arrives, this song is what I hear. "Throw those curtains wide / One day like this a year would see me right."
Andrew Ervin and Burning Down George Orwell's House links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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guest book reviews
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)