George Pelecanos digs into serious subject matter for his work, which includes penning crime novels and Emmy Award-winning contributions to the TV series The Wire. His musical inspirations, however, range from a carefree single from the ‘70s to the soundtrack for an epic spaghetti Western. He also includes an anthem from “the best rock band in America” and a politically conscious artist he calls his hero. George’s most recent novel is The Way Home.
For More: Hachette Book Group
1. Lou Reed - Coney Island Baby
2. Curtis Mayfield - We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue
3. The Isley Brothers - Summer Breeze
4. Ennio Morricone - Once Upon a Time in the West
5. Drive-By Truckers - Outfit
Mario Cotto: Hi this is Mario Cotto from KCRW and I'm here with bestselling crime novelist George Pelecanos. He's the author of 16 novels set in the DC area and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on HBO's critically beloved TV series The Wire. He's here today to share some samples of some of the music that inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. How you doing George?
George Pelecanos: I'm doing great.
MC: And it looks like we've got a little Lou Reed in this set.
GP: Yes, Lou Reed, one of my favorites. This is from my favorite Lou album, Coney Island Baby. It's a record that came out when I was in high school. This is sort of an unusual album for Lou. It's a very emotional and personal record. The title track from this record starts out with a long spoken introduction and Lou starts off saying, ‘You know, when I was a young man in high school, believe it or not, I wanted to play football for the coach…’ And then he goes on to -- in the body of the song he says ‘remember that the city is a funny place, something like a circus or a sewer. And just remember that different people have peculiar tastes, and the glory of love just might come through."
When I was a teenager this song gave me the message that it's alright to be different. And it doesn't matter if, if you're a jock or you're not a jock or if you're straight or you're gay, or you're under pressure to get good grades, or your parents are mad at you because you're not getting good grades -- everybody kind of goes through this sort of confusion at that age. And it inspired me to just keep doing what I was doing at the time and not worry about it. This is Lou Reed's best album and this is the most beautiful song.
Song: Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby”
MC: Now Lou Reed is not only just an awesome rock song writer, but as far as the lyrics are concerned, was his lyricism one of your inspirations to become a writer as well?
GP: Yeah, it's very literary. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I knew that it was different than a lot of the rock music that I was listening to. And he talks about Rimbaud and all of these people, and it's actually made me go look at people like that. And he was a mysterious guy. I mean, back then you didn't have the internet. The way you found out about what rock stars were about was you waited for the magazine to come out every few months and then you tried to go see them in concert. It was a big deal. He was a guy that was real important in my life and, basically, his message to me, whether he meant it or not, was ‘art is adventure,’ you know, and get out there and experience as much as you can.
MC: Well, it looks like you've got another pretty amazing lyricist here. It's Curtis Mayfield.
GP: Yes. Curtis Mayfield is my hero. In the 60's and early 70's, he was singing about things that people didn't want him to sing about – primarily racial issues, Vietnam War, social inequality. And he came from a place of non-violence and spirituality. That's real important. There are many, many Curtis songs that I could have chosen. The one that I chose is as relevant today as it was 38 years ago, it's called “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.” It's from the album Curtis. It's the one with him sitting there in that lemon-yellow suit. The very beginning of the song says ‘we the people who are darker than blue, are we gonna stand around this town and let what others say come true?’ And at the end there are those moral lines ‘pardon me brother, while you stand in your glory, I hope you don't mind if I tell the whole story.’
What I really love about Curtis Is that he always told the truth.
Song: Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”
MC: I'm Mario Cotto and I'm here with writer George Pelecanos on KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Do you listen to music while you write?
GP: I do, yeah. It actually…it bleeds into the track of my selection because I listen to a lot of soundtracks - movie soundtracks - when I write. And I also listen to some electric jazz by people like Miles Davis and so on, but mainly soundtracks. And what it does is it allows me to pace my scenes and it fires up my imagination. And the way that these soundtracks inspire me is they make me want to write books. Because I'm seeing - when I hear this kind of music -- I'm seeing a lot of images in my head, and stories unfold.
So, the one I chose is Once Upon a Time In The West, the main theme by Ennio Morricone, my favorite composer. A good film score is the perfect marriage of music and image and when this scene comes on in the film, this is when Claudia Cardinale gets off the train and enters the town of Sweetwater and the camera kind of cranes up and, as it does, revealing the town, the music sort of just gets glorious, and it kind of explodes onto the screen.
Song: Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West
MC: Up next, we've got some music from the Isley Brothers.
GP: You know, you asked me about songs that inspire me. If inspiration means happiness, then this is the one that I would choose. I always get up when I hear this song. There's a few songs like it -- Al Green's “Call Me,” the Allman Brothers “Blue Sky” -- that just make you happy. And that's inspiration.
Now this is also a cover of a pretty weak song by Seals and Crofts, and they made it transcendent. A lot of it has to do with the instrumentation. I was just told that this is one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history. The secret weapon in that band was always the cousin Chris Jasper, and you can hear his keyboards in this one. But, the most famous thing about it is Ernie Isley's guitar solo at the end and it's for the ages. A lot of people don't remember that Hendrix played with the Isley Brothers in the early to mid 60's. And Ernie was definitely keeping an eye on what Jimmy was doing.
Song: Isley Brother’s “Summer Breeze”
MC: Looks like you've got some Drive-By Truckers here?
GP: The song I chose is called “Outfit,” and in the song a father is talking to his kid and giving his kid advice, and he's telling him not to get too big for his britches, basically, and not to forget where he came from. And I think that's pretty good advice, you know. I'm somebody - like, I'm out on the road right now, I still call home, I call my mom every night, I call my family. And it's something that everybody should sort of remember.
Some of the lyrics, there's this one refrain where he says ‘have fun and stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday, don't tell 'em you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away.’ I just love that and when you see these guys in concert, the whole audience is singing along to this particular song. Drive-By Truckers, in my opinion, are currently the best rock band in America and this is their anthem.
Song: Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit:
MC: George, thank you so much for joining us here on KCRW.com today.
GP: My pleasure.
MC: For a complete track listing, to find these songs online go to KCRW.com/GuestDJProject
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]