In this next installment of our ongoing series focused on music and literature, Morgan Holzer turns her ear towards music inspired by biographies. This SBC Playlist includes songs inspired by biographies, autobiographies, and roman à clef novels. Listen here on Spotify.
Book: Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda - F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre
Song: Bigger Than Love - Ben Gibbard (with Aimee Mann)
Stranded in Asheville failing to fix a broken head
You're in California doing the work of lesser men
Ben Gibbard was inspired by the book of correspondence Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. "Bigger Than Love" tracks the pair from courtship until the end, when he was a screenwriter in Los Angeles and she was in an Asheville mental facility. Gibbard told NPR “There are moments that I took from some of those letters, like they had fought and broke the bathroom door—these very jarring images where, even if you don't have any other context for why they were fighting, why the bathroom door is broken, you can still see the two of them. You can see this event happening. I found it really moving."
Book: Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
Song: Sahara - Eddie From Ohio
Into the Yukon he would go
In search of a higher truth
Sahara tells the story of Into the Wild’s Chris McAndless, who survived over 100 days in the wilderness of Alaska before perishing, reportedly of starvation. McAndless’s story is sympathetic—though he is generally seen as a polarizing figure—Sahara clearly romanticizes his journey.
Book: The Diary of Virginia Woolf - Virginia Woolf
Song: Virginia Woolf - Indigo Girls
They published your diary and that's how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
It's no surprise that the Indigo Girls dedicated an entire song to Virgina Woolf—her novel A Room of One’s Own is an icon of feminist literature. However it is interesting that they specifically call out her diaries, as Woolf’s personal journals and letters reveal not only a deeply troubled and haunted woman, but a racist, elitist, and homophobic one as well. I’d always loved how the song had such a positive pseudo-quote of hers: ”each life has its place;” but with a greater understanding of Woolf’s opinions, this sentiment is worth a second thought.
Book: An Assassin’s Diary - Arthur Bremer
Song: Family Snapshot - Peter Gabriel
The streets are lined with camera crews
Everywhere he goes is news
Arthur Bremer’s diary was published following his conviction for the attempted assassination of George Wallace. Along with memories of JFK’s death, Peter Gabriel used this book as a basis for his song Family Snapshot. He recognized it as “really nasty book, but you do get a sense of the person who is writing it. Bremer was obsessed with the idea of fame.” Gabriel wasn’t the only one to take notice—Bremer’s diary was also partially the inspiration for Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.
Book: A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
Song: Mrs. Hemingway - Mary Chapin Carpenter
Sometimes I look at old pictures
And smile at how happy we were
Carpenter had wanted to write a song about Hadley Richardson Hemingway since reading about her in college. She said, “I was always fascinated by her… In A Moveable Feast he looks back to his life in Paris with Hadley, before the fame, the money, and the corruption if you will, and he always seemed to indicate that that's when he did his best work." Hadley receives a more favorable treatment in the restored edition, which includes a number of unfinished, never-before-published stories from this time.
Book: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
Song: Caged Bird - Alicia Keys
Right now I feel like a bird
Caged without a key
The first in a seven-volume series, Maya Angelou’s early-years autobiography is also her most highly acclaimed. Her books and poems inspired countless other artists, including Alicia Keys, however she in turn borrowed the caged bird metaphor from a poem she admired: "Sympathy," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Book: All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque
Song: All Quiet on the Western Front - Elton John
It's gone all quiet on the Western Front, male angels sigh
Ghosts float in a flooded trench as Germany dies
Remarque was careful to point out that he wrote this novel based on his own experiences fighting for Germany in WWI, and did not want to further a political agenda, stating in the preface that the book “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." In contrast to its inspiration, Elton John’s song was written as an anti-war ballad. This book also had a profound effect on the songwriting of Bob Dylan.
Book: Our Lady of the Flowers - Jean Genet
Song: The Garret - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I am so alien, a prisoner in skin
Genet’s autobiographical debut novel about the Parisian underworld was highly influential amongst musicians and beat poets, largely due to its lyrical style, use of slang, and depictions of homosexuality in an era where that was still quite taboo. Genet’s work influenced multiple songs by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—frontman Kip Berman said it gave him “that feeling of being alien in your own body, or having an internal reality that is at odds with what you are seen to be.”
Book: The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Song: Bell Jar - The Bangles
She writes the note that will excuse her from this world
It's complicated living in a bell jar
The Bangles’ Debbi Peterson said that this song was reminiscent of part of Plath’s story as the lyrics evolved out of a discussion of the novel between her and her sister Vicki. Vicki later said she “stole” the title for their song Bell Jar because it “was such a brilliant image [Plath] used to describe that feeling.”
Book: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
Song: Holland, 1945 - Neutral Milk Hotel
But now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
I have listened to this album more times than I could count, and yet I never put together that much of this song directly speaks to the story of Anne Frank. The song’s upbeat nature is misleading—the chorus points directly to abandoning everyday life in order to stay alive in hiding. Frank’s ultimate demise in 1945, mere weeks before the liberation of the camps, is laid out in the opening lines.