In his Guest DJ set, Playwright Jon Robin Baitz highlights one of the best songwriters of all time, a boundary-pushing artist and a track that represents the “holy trinity of American culture.” He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his semi-autobiographical play A Fair Country and Other Desert Cities, which is currently running at the Mark Taper Forum.
1. Sail On, Sailor - The Beach Boys
2. Mack The Knife - Marianne Faithful
3. Backwater - Brian Eno
4. Hearts and Bones - Paul Simon
5. Girl From the North Country - Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell from The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show
Raul Campos: Hey, this is Raul Campos from KCRW and I’m here with playwright, Jon Robin Baitz. He was the Pulitzer Prize finalist for the Other Desert Cities and his semi-autobiographical play A Fair Country. Today we’re here to talk about music that has inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Robbie welcome. Thank you so much for coming through.
Jon Robin Baitz: I’m completely honored. It’s my favorite place in the world.
Raul Campos: So we’re going to talk music. Let’s just get right into it, a tune from The Beach Boys.
Jon Robin Baitz: Yeah, this is “Sail on, Sailor”. What I love so much about it is there’s a weird personal connection. When I was a kid. and this album came out, I was living in Durban, South Africa and two of the musicians on it are from Durban. They are Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin. And I was just like 12years old, but my brother was 18 or so, and a musician, and he befriended their families. So I was surrounded by this weird LA, Durban magical connection and “Sail On” evoked a missing LA for me, water, The Beach Boys and a kind of slightly druggie, broken period that I related to even as an early teenager, a California that I miss all the time.
Song: Beach Boys --"Sail On, Sailor"
Raul Campos: That was “Sail on, Sailor” right here at KCRW.com. Our guest DJ is Jon Robin Baitz. Robbie if I may, yes?
Jon Robin Baitz: Robbie is perfect.
Raul Campos: Awesome. So we’re just we heard something from The Beach Boys, from the Holland album, but we’re going to switch it over to something very bluesy and this version of “Mack the Knife”. Talk to us about it.
Jon Robin Baitz: You know Weimar, Germany the period in Germany between the end of the First World War and the rise of Adolf Hitler, is an incredibly fecund period musically, artistically, the Bauhaus architecturally, the German expressionist painters. And “Mack the Knife”, it’s a story about a rapist, a murderer, a thief, actually. It’s from Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and Marianne Faithful reclaims the song as a true barstool sorrow.
If you think about Weimar, Germany and the corruption and the debauchery and the absolute changing of the world in that period the song, as handled by her, makes sense. And I love it.
Song: Marianne Faithful -- “Mack the Knife”
Raul Campos: Beautiful rendition of “Mack the Knife” done by Marianne Faithful. So what is this new track we are going to get into?
Jon Robin Baitz: Brian Eno, a song called “Backwater”. I was living in LA. I had just came back from South Africa, 18 year old boy. The culture made no sense and I was a wreck, so I befriended other wrecks and one of them was this wonderful girl Jenny Livingston who went on to be a really great filmmaker who made a documentary called Paris is Burning.
We used to drive around in her beat up old Volvo going to Fatburger and listening to “Backwater” by Brian Eno. I think this song reminds me of old army fatigues and torn t-shirts and wearing Vans and driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, smoking too much and sobbing about my nascent but upcoming homosexuality emerging full blown. Not that the song is about that.
Raul Campos: Right.
Jon Robin Baitz: But still it just seemed chaos, confusion and rage, with a really great beat.
Song: Brian Eno -- “Backwater”
Jon Robin Baitz: It’s a perfect LA driving song and you know the way David Hockney is always re-inventing himself, always making new art and new styles, always finding new things and symbolically Eno represented to me the notion of the artist as a rigorous character who pushes the boundaries and makes new things and doesn’t get stuck in a style.
Raul Campos: Brian Eno with “Backwater”. Our guest DJ is Jon Robin Baitz. So we’re gonna switch it up a little bit, not quite as driving but one of the best song writers on the planet.
Jon Robin Baitz: I could not agree more. We’re talking about Paul Simon and we’re talking about a polarizing album, Hearts and Bones, 1983. I’m going to go out on a limb and I’m going to say that post World War II, American culture, he is the greatest songwriter, song for song. This is storytelling of a particular kind; its elevation is to a kind of great literature. The song reflects the course of a love affair and how it ends and Paul, I don’t know he just, he feels to me just as an important a poet as E.E. Cummings, as Wallace Stevens.
Song: Paul Simon -- “Hearts and Bones”
Jon Robin Baitz: All of us have one love in life that killed us, that really killed us and we’ll never get over, one way or the other. We might have better relationships, we might have longer relationships, we might have deeper ones, but there’s a primary relationship, I believe, which isn’t so much about love as it is about seeing one another, as it is about being seen and I think the song is about being seen, which to me is the most important thing in love, being seen and not being able to be together.
Raul Campos: That was “Hearts and Bones” by Paul Simon, such a beautiful, beautiful tune. Our guest DJ is Mr. Jon Robin Baitz. What’s your last song?
Jon Robin Baitz: It’s Johnny Cash from The Johnny Cash TV show with Joni Mitchell singing “Girl from the North Country”. You put together Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash and you have a holy trinity of American culture. Sometimes I think Dylan’s songs are better served by people other than Bob Dylan. You can hear those songs sometimes in a way you can’t with Dylan. The voice is a brand and there’s something about three different elements of a counter culture. Cash and Joni, they represent different things and they come from different places but their united in this great musicality and they come together under the auspices of this great, great song and the arrangement of it is so moving, just musically, that it almost feels like “Amazing Grace” or something. It’s church; it’s the best kind of church.
Song: Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell -- “Girl from the North Country”
Raul Campos: That was “Girl from North Country” Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell doing this gorgeous rendition of the Bob Dylan tune and Robbie thank you so much for coming through.
Jon Robin Baitz: Literally the most fun I’ve had in 5,000 years.
Raul Campos: Wow, you look great for five thousand. Laughs. That was our guest DJ Jon Robin Baitz right here at KCRW.com and for complete track listing and to find these songs online go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.