Reporter's Notebook

The Best Songs Based on Art and Literature
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An ongoing collection of songs that transform, emulate, or shed new light on other works of art—from stories and poems to paintings and sculptures. Send your own recommendation to hello@theatlantic.com and please tell us a little bit about why you’ve chosen it.

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Track of the Day: ‘Rain King’ by Counting Crows

Confession: I’ve never read one of Saul Bellow’s novels. (If you’ve got a strong case to make for which one I should start with, feel free to send me a note.) But I’ve been taught by enough people who love him to recognize his monumental place in American literature. Christopher Hitchens wrote about that influence in our November 2007 issue:

At Bellow’s memorial meeting ... the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. ... Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian Mc­Ewan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal. ...

Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.

On that note, my colleague Emma has written a piece today about the complex history of Jewish identity in America, at a time when the self-described alt-right movement has given anti-Semitism an ugly new presence in public discourse. Read it here (and let us know if you have a related personal experience to share).

But speaking, as Hitchens does, of singing and transcendence and the translation of art into other forms and languages, I remember being thrilled to discover during a high-school AP English class that one of the Counting Crows songs I’d been listening to on repeat was titled after one of Bellow’s novels: Henderson the Rain King. The song’s narrator is scared, trapped, frustrated, and overlooked, and seems to invoke Henderson as a figure who represents many of those feelings:

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Henderson is waiting for the sun
Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends ...

There’s a vision of freedom, though, in the wistful opening lines: “When I think of heaven ... I think of flying.”

Back to Hitchens on Bellow, Henderson, and flight:

A reader recommends “a rather obscure track”:

David Safran is somewhat known in Chicago as both a singer-songwriter and essayist, but he never really caught on beyond our city. Neither did his song—“Adult Things” was self-released in 2009 to not much buzz. However, it feels like a right suggestion since it wasn’t just inspired by Eugene Field, the children’s poet, but written directly at Field’s graveside. Safran wrote an essay in 2011 about “Adult Things.” He mentioned,

The 19th century writer, Eugene Field, is buried—reinterred—in a small, shoddy cloister garden at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. Once or twice a month, I would travel to Holy Comforter. The parish secretary informed me I was the first Eugene Field visitor in 17 years. I admired his writing, I wasn’t overenthusiastic, but we were both locked away on the North Shore, and I needed a dead literary neighbor.

While there’s an October 2016 Track of the Day based on a Field poem, Safran’s song doesn’t emphasize Field’s poetry but his failures as a local artist—a failure Safran seems to connect with. Though “Adult Things” deals specifically, and explicitly, with relationships (one bold couplet: “Nothing like sex to ruin / a sense of intimacy”), the song ends with its singer staring down at Field’s snow-covered grave, a “work that won’t endure,” realizing he’s aging fast and needs to find, or steal, some lyrics.

Like his song, Safran ended his “Adult Things” essay with this bit about posterity:

Time bowdlerizes everyone, especially Chicago artists. … Yet this gaunt, top-hatted, largely forgotten writer cannot fully disappear into oblivion while parks and elementary schools are still being named after him; while you can still find Love-Songs of Childhood at your library’s book sale; while youngish singer-songwriters still visit his grave: a soft, narrow spot wherein one can stand, or collapse, placidly.

Chicago artists, by the way, were the inspiration for this series—our first literary song was David Nagler’s interpretation of the Carl Sandburg poem “Chicago.” But if you’re looking (listening?) for music about a specific place—a beloved city, say, or a poet’s graveside—we’ve collected some reader recommendations here.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

This is the song I have stuck in my head after reading David Sims’s review of The Founder—a new biopic about Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who manipulated a small California burger joint away from its two founders and into the McDonalds fast-food empire. The film, unfortunately, misses the mark in David’s estimation:

The film had the chance to subvert the typical bootstrap tale of American triumph, but instead it plays right into that easy narrative, trying to celebrate his business acumen without skirting past his darker misdeeds. The Founder ends up feeling extremely wishy-washy, unable to scrub the nastiness of Kroc’s success but also incapable of confronting it. … The Founder is the fast-food dinner of biopics—20 minutes after you eat it, you’re already hungry again.

Which is a shame, since Kroc’s story could be fascinating with different treatment. Take “Boom, Like That,” the Mark Knopfler single that reportedly served as inspiration for the movie (also the first place I heard about Kroc). From the lyrics:

We’ll make a little business history, now
Or my name’s not Kroc—call me Ray
Like “crocodile,” but not spelled that way, now
It’s dog-eat-dog, rat-eat-rat
Kroc-style. Boom, like that.

According to Knopfler, that chorus is based on quotes attributed to Kroc, and the words are unsettling—simultaneously casual and callous. If Kroc’s problem as the hero of The Founder is his blandness—played by Michael Keaton, he’s “a man whose business canny is impossible to dismiss, but who otherwise is a bit of a blank slate, perhaps befitting a champion of mediocrity”—that blandness is also what makes him fascinating: In Knopfler’s portrayal, he’s a guy who sets out to “drown” his competition and does it, shaking hands and smiling all the while.

Pair that with a slow-and-steady, recursive, persistently catchy melody and you get a song that captures Kroc’s story, and perhaps some aspects of the fast-food industry itself—deceptively simple, and yet pervasive, and ultimately haunting.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)