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Comedian and “This American Life” contributor Mike Birbiglia indulges us with some painfully honest and funny stories -- and the songs that go with them -- as part of his Guest DJ set. He also discusses Bob Dylan’s oft-ignored comedic value and displays a soft spot for indie rock. Mike recently released a book called Sleepwalk With Me.
For More: http://www.birbigs.com
1. Bob Dylan: Talking World War III Blues
2. Led Zeppelin: Stairway To Heaven
3. Bush: Glycerine
4. Sufjan Stevens: Decatur, Or, Round Of Aplause For Your Stepmother!
5. Death Cab For Cutie: I Will Follow You Into The Dark
Dan Wilcox: Hey, this is Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I’m sitting here with comedian Mike Birbiglia. He is a regular contributor to This American Life and recently wrote his first book, “Sleepwalk With Me.” Today, we are going to be talking about songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s guest DJ project. Mike, how are you?
Mike Birbiglia: I’m feeling great. How are you doing?
DW: I am doing very well thank you. So why don’t you tell us what you’ve got for us today.
MB: This song doesn’t get played that much and I love it. It’s called “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and it’s off of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, which is - at the risk of alienating many Bob Dylan fans - is my favorite Bob Dylan album. People really get angry when you start identifying which specific Bob Dylan albums you like, more than others.
Bob Dylan is often credited with being a great poet, a great musician, great lyricist – but he’s rarely equated with comedy, and I’ve always thought that his lyrics are so witty, and I’ve always considered him a comedian, he’s always been an inspiration to me. And this song, I think, is very funny.
Song: Bob Dylan -- “Talkin’ World War III Blues”
The thing that Dylan does so well – and this is what I’m drawn to in music, and movies, and plays – is that, I feel like the comedy, and the drama, and the emotion is actually all kind of packed into one resonant truthful peace, and that it’s all in there.
And this is kind of a guiding principle when I was writing “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories” is, I would try to go to the most painful thing that happened in my life and find the comedy in it. When I was 19, I had a malignant tumor in my bladder and that’s not that funny, but the funny part is that I’m a hypochondriac and I think that the funniest thing that can happen to a hypochondriac is that you get cancer, because it confirms every fear you’ve ever had in your entire life. You’re like ‘See, I told you! Remember last week when I was overtired and I thought I had rickets? I was probably right about that, too!’ You know, “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is like about the world ending, about kind of a complete oblivion and destruction, and it’s funny!
DW: [laughter] My God!
That was “Talkin’ World War III Blues” from the great Bob Dylan. I’m sitting here with comedian Mike Birbiglia, and what’s next on your list of songs to share with us?
MB: I had a – I told this story on “This American Life” – I had an intense fear of having my first kiss. We were like in 7th and 8th and 9th grade - I remember just being like, ‘People we know are making out with other people we know? But, how?!’
It just seemed like this alien ritual, you know. I was terrified by it. And then we would have these boy-girl parties and dances and at the end of every dance they’d play “Stairway to Heaven” and that would be either when the nuns came in to kind of separate people from making out or it would be when people started, like at house parties, and it’s such an awkward slow-dance song in a way ‘cause it’s so long, it’s eight minutes…
DW: And then it kind of jams out at the end of it, so…
MB: Yeah, exactly, I think that’s the make-out part, when it kicks in to the hard drums and the electric guitar about five and a half in, it’s like, ‘it’s time.’
Song: Led Zeppelin - “Stairway to Heaven”
MB: There was kind of a make out club and the non-make out club, and I was in the non-make out club, and I was like ‘I want to be in the make out club’ because it was lonely! We were losing good people by the day! My friend – they played “Stairway to Heaven” – and I saw him making out with this girl Michelle, and I was like, I lost another friend.
DW: [laughter] So sad!
MB: And it was so sad! And then, sure enough, I lost my mouth virginity in 9th grade, and I had my first kiss to “Stairway to Heaven”.
DW: That was “Stairway to Heaven”. Of course, from Led Zeppelin; here on KCRWcom, sitting here with Mike Birbiglia. What’s the next one you got for us?
MB: My whole book is “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories” and I find that trend in my life, is that things that are painful eventually, with time, become funny. When I was in high school, I had my first girlfriend, and the only problem was that she had another boyfriend.
DW: That’s a problem.
MB: And she told me that they were in the process of breaking up but that, eventually, I would be the first boyfriend. And I believed this lie, and went along with it. Eventually she invited me to meet her parents and I drove my mom’s Volvo station wagon to her parents’ house and I remember listening to the song “Glycerine” by Bush.
The lyrics didn’t match up with anything that was going on, but I kind of morphed them for my own purposes. That week, the song “Glycerine” was about a guy driving to meet his girlfriend’s parents.
Song: Bush – “Glycerine”
MB: And I met her parents. This day took a strange turn when her other boyfriend came over to the house, and I didn’t even realize that that was who it was, but it was slowly dawning on me. Then he suggested that we go hang out at his house and I met his parents. And it’s very strange meeting your girlfriend’s boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Part of you is angry, for obvious reasons, but then part of you still wants to make a good impression; you’re like ‘Maybe if this goes really well, she’ll come around to me,’ but, you know, that was kind of the nail in the coffin. I knew that this was her life, and I was like her secret life, like Maury Povich, and I drove home and I listened to the song “Glycerine” because it was playing so often on the radio at that time, and this time it had a whole new meaning.
DW: Alright, that was “glycerin”…or “Glycerine”, depending on how you want to look at it, from the band Bush. Sitting here with comedian Mike Birbiglia, what’s next on your song picks here?
MB: Who knows how to pronounce this? “Sufjan Stevens”?
DW: I believe that’s correct.
MB: So the song is called “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
I bought this DMC conversion van, and then we painted it as a joke – my brother Joe and I – black, with a red stripe on the side, like the A-Team van, so we could remain undercover from the law. We always thought that was a funny thing about the A-Team - if you’re on the run from the law, you might want to go easy on the gold chains and feathers.
MB: Maybe take the red stripe off the van. Just a couple ideas.
So we made the A-Team van, black with a red stripe on the side, and in celebration of the book coming out, we painted it like the bookmobile – it’s turquoise and white, and it says “Mike Birbiglia’s bookmobile” on the side – anyway, after this great gig at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, driving to Indiana and being on a highway, and it’s late at night, and it’s me and a few comedians who would open up the show and our tour manager, and we’re listening to this song, “Decatur.” And we’re in Illinois and we’re on tour, which is a fun thing to do, and it was just one of those moments where you’re like, ‘I’m having a good time. Right now. So rarely happens.
Song: Sufjan Stevens: “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
DW: Alright, that was a song from Sufjan Stevens, called “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” Sitting here with Mike Birbiglia as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ project. What else do you have to share with us?
MB: We’ll end on a song that I think is just beautiful, and I find it to be so touching, and sometimes it makes me well up just listening to it. It’s a Death Cab for Cutie song, called “I Will Follow You into the Dark”.
My friend Henry Phillips, who’s a musician and a comedian, introduced me to this song; he goes “You have to listen to this song!”
It’s kind of an atheist love song -- and I talked about this on “This American Life”, on this episode called “Return to the Scene of the Crime” -- I never wanted to get married because I don’t really believe in the idea of marriage, but, in the end, I got married because – the last line of my one-man show is “Jenny and I went to City Hall and got married” – and I didn’t believe in the idea of marriage and I still don’t, but I believe in her, and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.
Song: Death Cab For Cutie – “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”
DW: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” from Death Cab for Cutie. This is one of the picks from our guest comedian Mike Birbiglia. Thank you so much for coming on here.
MB: This is awesome, man. I love this.
DW: For a complete track listing and to find these songs online, go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject.