As a general rule, people are slightly embarrassed by who they were as teenagers. For most of us, it was an awkward period of our lives. What we wore, read, and listened to reflected that. For instance, I was obsessed with The Doors for about three years. Something about Jim Morrison’s nihilistic smoldering really got to me. I not only memorized lyrics, I learned to play songs on the piano. In the liner notes to some greatest hit album, the book On The Road was mentioned, and thus began my adult reading experience. Hey, clichés are clichés for a reason, sorry.
And yet, even though I found this book through this music, they seemed opposed to me in some way. The sappy sentimentalism of On The Road just didn’t jive with the mincing aggression of The Doors. And it wouldn’t be until my senior year in high school that I would find the right sonic pairing for the novel in Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. Both are about young people searching America for Love and some other mystical thing that doesn’t really seem to have a name. They are both spiritual in their own ways. And even though On The Road is a book that exalts jazz in its pages, it just seems to fit with Born To Run.
I’m not sure that every book necessarily has a corresponding modern music recording that parallels its mood or intent, but maybe some do. Here are a few that jumped to mind:
Crash by J.G. Ballard and Low by David Bowie
It’s not just the track “Always Crashing In The Same Car,” but the entire album that’s suffused with a weirdly erotic hypermodernism. The perfect companion to J.G. Ballard’s psychologically dark novel about people who find sexual release in car crashes. Sure, some of the songs might be a bit upbeat, but in the context of the novel, they’re more ironic and eerily cheerful than anything.
White Noise by Don DeLillo and Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division
Both of these works are haunting. Both are strange and cynical cries from people who feel trapped in a nameless postmodern prison. Minimalist where they need to be, and rich in mood and apocalyptic innuendo, these two works were made for each other. Also, they’re both really, really cool.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Illmatic by Nas
If either of these works had subtitles, it might read: Witness To The Revolution. Both are about nobodies, born in turbulent times, who through their intelligence, skill, and cunning, rise to power, and grow through the pain they experience in their ascensions. Both Cromwell and Nas are clear-eyed realists. They’re survivors. They are clever enough to understand how to successfully pursue power, and wise enough to not trust in it entirely.