I’m as big a reader as I am a music-listener. I have worked for a book company for thirty years, and for years before that in libraries, at the same time performing music as often as I could. Downtime has almost always involved reading or listening to music. Quite often, I’m reading about music, despite Martin Mull’s awkward but oft-quoted assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Sure, it helps to have heard the music being referred to in an essay or review or blog post, but it’s nice to think that a reader may be encouraged to explore unfamiliar music further. And sharing thoughts on music with others who’ve reacted to the same music in their own way is one of the best ways I know of to waste time.
But what, then, of songs about books? That would seem to be an even worse idea than books about songs, but there have been some great songs about books, and I would like to do a little architectural dancing about a few of my favorites.
“I Could Write a Book” This is one of the many gems in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart catalogue. The song was written for the 1940 show Pal Joey, and was notably covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her Rodgers & Hart “songbook album.”
Richard Rodgers wrote numerous gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, sidestepping the demands of imperious producers and temperamental stars. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. It truly is incredible that Rodgers (and, yes, his brilliant, besotted lyricist Lorenz Hart) created so many songs that have endured.
“Marian the Librarian” It took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and his mentor, Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser, urged him on.
Robert Preston, as Music Man (and con man) Harold Hill, falls for the town librarian, played on Broadway in 1957 by Barbara Cook (who won a Tony for her performance) and in the hit ’62 movie by Shirley Jones, later the matriarch of The Partridge Family. Hill pitches woo by singing “Ma-a-a-arian, Madame Libra-a-a-arian,” proving once again that book people have an irresistible allure.
“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” I remember hearing this almost overpowering song on the radio when it came out in 1962. It blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“”Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled.
It’s one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write, and one of the few without the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it sits right up there with his best.
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” Sting was reflecting on his pre-rockstar days as a teacher when he wrote “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which became a #10 US hit in 1980. He was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, referring specifically to “that book by Nabokov” in the song’s lyrics. Sting insists that, although he was attracted to some of his young students back in the day, this song of a teacher’s affair with a pupil was not autobiographical.
The single’s B-side, “Friends,” written by Police guitarist Andy Summers, was reportedly inspired by another book, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
“Wuthering Heights” Another English pop singer wrote a song based on Emily Bronte’s only novel. “Wuthering Heights” was Kate Bush’s debut single and went all the way to #1 in England—although it didn’t do so well in the US. I prefer the version by The Puppini Sisters, a three-part close-harmony group. They’re from England, too, but they modeled themselves on The Andrews Sisters and my own favorites, The Boswell Sisters. They give Catherine and Heathcliff’s story a little swingy bounce, which, I think, is what it’s always needed.
“1984” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired many songwriters. David Bowie’s “1984” came out a decade before the year in question, while Spirit’s got in fifteen years ahead. Bowie wrote “1984” and other songs, including “Big Brother,” for a never-produced musical based on the book. Stevie Wonder had written and recorded his own “Big Brother” in 1972. Many other pop songs of that era, of course, covered themes of government surveillance and power over the masses. And the hits just keep on comin’.
“Book of Love” Last but not least is this doo-wop ditty by The Monotones. I missed it when it came out in 1957, but it became a favorite when it was included in the movie American Graffiti. Great group name, but The Monotones were not monotonous at all.
Honorable Mentions: Love’s “My Little Red Book” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Duke Ellington’s “My Little Brown Book” (written by Billy Strayhorn); “Every Day I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; Dylan’s original or The Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages”
Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: There are a couple of diary songs that I got enough of quick. Bread’s “Diary,” with its twist ending, was clever, but in a Hallmark Hall of Fame way. The Moody Blues’ “Dear Diary” is one I skipped back when I was playing the album it’s on. Ray Thomas’s vocals were never up to the standard of Hayward or Lodge, and the Leslie effects are annoying.