Thomas Pynchon & Pop Music
by Jason Gubbels | October 1, 2013
The release of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon is always cause for celebration, and in Bleeding Edge, a sprawling tale of 9/11-era New York, the most reclusive author in American lit has found a subject perfectly aligned with his irrepressible high/low brand of paranoia. Since the publication of his first novel in 1963 (V, chronicling the dreamlike exploits of Benny Profane and Pig Bodine), Pynchon has practically defined literary postmodernism. A formidable intellect, he grapples with world-historical subjects (from the Holocaust to entropy) even while delighting in dirty rhymes and a nonstop barrage of pop culture references.
It's little surprise that his (mostly male) fan base tends toward the obsessive, poring over each paragraph for embedded obscurities and parallel meanings. And since few major American authors reference the world of popular music as often and as effortlessly as Thomas Pynchon, many of these fans are musicians themselves, and over the past half-century, they've hardly shied away from dropping Pynchon references into their own work.
So in the spirit of obsessive paranoia, we've assembled a wide-ranging playlist touching upon Pynchon's musical universe, from performers and songs explicitly featured in his fiction to the bands who have slipped Pynchon characters into their own narratives. You'll hear musicians familiar to any close reader of his novels: Thelonious Monk (Against the Day opened with an epigraph from the jazz pianist -- "It's always night or we wouldn't need light"), Sarah Vaughan (her thoughts on spring were quoted within short story "Entropy"), The Edsels (one of many car-themed outfits perhaps inspiring the creation of fake band Sick Dick and the Volkswagens), and Joni Mitchell (press copies of Gravity's Rainbow included lyrics from "Cactus Tree"). You'll also hear artists Pynchon has made reference to outside his fiction, from Spike Jones to Roky Erickson (when The John Larroquette Show asked Pynchon for permission to stage a fake "guest appearance," Pynchon's stipulations included that the faux Pynchon wear a Roky T-shirt).
The second half highlights Pynchon fans, from old roommates/best friends (Richard Farina) to prog rock suites referencing Pig Bodine (Soft Machine's "Pig," taken from the V-derived "Esther's Nose Job"). You'll hear Gerald Casale of Devo trying to emulate Pynchon's poetic parodies, Warren Zevon "thinkin' about entropy," Mark Knopfler singing of Mason & Dixon, Pere Ubu waving hi to Flip and Flop. Laurie Anderson makes an appearance, too -- she once requested Pynchon's permission to turn Gravity's Rainbow into an opera. Some just name-drop as shamelessly as the master himself, from bands like Benny Profane and Yoyodyne to song titles like Yo La Tengo's "The Crying of Lot G." There's even a selection from an extended classical composition titled Pynchon Cycle. And since it wouldn't be Pynchon-esque without some kazoos, we've got Dion and Jim Kweskin buzzing away, plus three tracks from the kazoo-crazy Mound City Blue Blowers. Just don't go looking for any cuts by Tyrone Slothrop's band The Fool, because they don't exist. Even paranoid obsessives need to eventually face facts.