Jonathan Lethem

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Critically-acclaimed author and former MacArthur fellow Jonathan Lethem looks for a certain dynamism in his music, from life-affirming pop and inventive covers to distinctive harmonies. He’ll be appearing as part of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which starts this weekend.

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Track List:

1. Smiling Faces - East of Underground

2. Isolation - Marianne Faithfull

3. Gun Has No Trigger - Dirty Projectors

4. I Love This Life - The Blue Nile

5. Did You Give The World Some Love Today, Baby - Doris


EJL: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I am here with critically-acclaimed author and former MacArthur fellow, Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has penned novels, essays, comics and has even done some music writing, so we’re curious to hear about some of the songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Jonathan thanks so much for joining us.

JL: Thanks so much for having me.

EJL: Well, what’s the first track you have for us?

JL: A song called “Smiling Faces”, which is a cover by a group called “East of Underground”. They’re a kind of mysterious lost band. They were made up of American service members stationed in Germany in the 70’s and they won an Army talent contest. The prize for which, I guess, was that they got to tour around and so they spent their duty as a kind of army band and they also got a session in a recording studio and made this army record which wasn’t obviously very widely distributed and there are very few copies that ever really even circulated. So, for a long time it was sort of a fetish and I think, you know, vinyl, original vinyl, of East of Underground’s record goes for thousands of dollars now because there’s only a scattering, because it’s like one of those, you know, postage stamps with a plane flying upside down or something.  Their album was all covers of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield and other hits of the day, but with a very distinctive, eerie, harmony-falsetto, really, really arrestingly funky drumming and they’re just great to listen to. 

EJL: Would you describe yourself as a vinyl fetishist?

JL: I own a lot of really crapped out records which I sometimes play and they sound great to me. So that’s a fetish. I’m not like a collector with anything extraordinary that would impress, you know, a real high end hoarder. But I’ve got some great stuff and I’ve got, you know, some of my mother’s old like mono Beatles’ records and things that if they were in terrific shape would be regarded as pretty valuable, but they’ve been played to death. 

EJL: Well here it is, East of Underground with “Smiling Faces”

Song: “Smiling Faces” by East of Underground

EJL: That was East of Underground with “Smiling Faces”, as selected by our guest Jonathan Lethem. Well, what’s the next track you got for us?

JL: We often think about someone kind of over taking the original version or overwriting it. But if you know the original really, really well, then listening to the cover, it’s almost like this kind of double value. Your brain is hearing the original and responding to your feelings and your memories about the original along with the new version, so it’s sort of, you get both at once. 

This John Lennon track, “Isolation” from his early, I guess it was 1970, solo record, this is a song that I loved as a teenager and I played endlessly.  I mean I really, really memorized it. And much, much later, I came across this terrific cover by Marianne Faithfull. Here, Marianne Faithfull’s band starts out a bit louder. But she’s still got the voice to take it to a whole other place once she gets to the chorus.

For me, it was a great sulky, teenage song in some way -- you know, me against the world. I mean technically John Lennon’s lyric says “Just a boy and a little girl”. So it’s him and Yoko Ono against the world. I didn’t even have the little girl, it was just me and the isolation when I was young. 

But, I always laugh when I hear this song because, for the longest time, despite my close attention to it, I believed that the lyric, “A victim of the insane” was actually, “victim of the insects”. So for me it had a, also a kind of science fiction element to it. It was a very, very moody, emotional song and then it had this very striking moment where the humans were pitted against the insects and I thought, “Oh that’s really great”. You know, I wondered what movie John Lennon had been watching. 

Song: “Isolation” by Marianne Faithfull  

EJL: That was the John Lennon song “Isolation” as performed by Marianne Faithfull and selected by our guest, Jonathan Lethem. What’s the next track you got for us? 

JL: This is a song that I’ve been crazy about just lately. They’re very fashionable now and I’m curious about them. I’ve heard some of the other songs and not gotten a lot of traction with them. It’s the Dirty Projectors. But this one single, it just seems epical to me. I mean, completely brilliant and riveting and I can’t stop listening to it and right now it totally overshadows any inquiry I might make into whether or not the Dirty Projectors are a band that I’m going to get cozy with. And maybe I will. 

Song: “Gun Has No Trigger” by Dirty Projectors

JL: It’s pretty obvious I like songs with a lot of dynamics, right? There’s this incredible build here. The backing singers are performing this kind of cool bed of harmony under the rather strained male vocalist in the foreground. And when you’re not noticing their very cool, calm backdrop, suddenly, urgently. comes into the foreground, becomes a kind of scream and I just love the way the song escalates and it’s as though these background singers are pushing the front vocal, pushing the lyric, and saying, you know,  “Pay more attention” or “Work harder”. So there’s just a drama to the way these voices interact in the song that I can’t get over. 

Song: “Gun Has No Trigger” by: Dirty Projectors

EJL: That was Dirty Projectors with “Gun Has No Trigger” as selected by our guest, Jonathan Lethem. Well, what’s the next track you got for us?

JL: I actually picked some songs that I don’t know a lot about. All I know is that I love them. The Blue Nile are a total mystery to me. I, actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a second track by them. They’re a band, I’ve, you know I did a little due diligence so I wouldn’t be an idiot on this show. They’re from Glasgow and they were sort of not musicians, one was an economics student and one was getting his degree in literary scholarship and they formed a band. Of course the end of the 70s was a great time for people who weren’t musicians to be forming bands. And they were a trio without a drummer and they just sort of blurted out this song, which they released on their own label and I guess it worked. 

All I know really is that there is this song, “I Love This Life” and to me, it’s just so essential. It’s one of those songs that seems to come from eternity, even the way it has a fade in and the lyric is very vague but very emotional. It’s the kind of song, you know, you’d want played at your funeral, not to be morbid. But it just seems to capture some kind of sense of self possession, where you feel that all the world’s with you and that you’ve grasped, you know, what you’re here for. You know, I almost don’t want to know more. I almost know too much, having gone now to Wikipedia. I never really need necessarily to know whether I would like The Blue Nile’s other music or not. This song is just so essential to me. 

EJL: A shot out of the blue from The Blue Nile, “I Love This Life”.

Song: “I Love This Life” by: The Blue Nile

EJL: That was “I Love This Life” as performed by The Blue Nile and selected by our guest Jonathan Lethem. What’s the last track you got for us?

JL: Another one hit, for me, wonder. This singer’s name is Doris. I guess her full name was Doris Svensson. She’s Swedish. She’s from Gothenburg and she made this record in 1970 in Stockholm with a bunch of aspiring Swedish pop musicians. It’s a song, that I got to know because my friend Matthew Spector put it on a mix CD for me of songs to help welcome my first son, my eldest son, into the world and so I associate the song very strongly with that moment and with the other songs that were on the mix.

It’s kind of a comical song in its stridency, but it’s also very beautiful and very powerful and the message is, it’s like one of these ‘what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding’ kind of messages. It’s just a very large, optimistic, utopian claim.

EJL: I think it’s actually even used often as an Earth Day anthem. 

JL: Oh that’s good, I didn’t know that. But it makes sense. And again, here’s another song with dynamics, it kind of sneaks up on you. Doris is sultry and the thing sounds kind of lounge-y for a while and then suddenly she’s belting. She’s really like almost, like a Shirley Bassey, kind of belter at the end and I also love the coercive quality of the lyric, it’s like, “You’ve got to love the one you love and the whole damn world as well” and it’s like, “Well if you say so Doris. OK. I’m gonna love ‘em all”. 

EJL: Well here it is, Doris with “Did You Give the World Some Love Today, Baby?”

Song: “Did You Give the World Some Love Today, Baby?” by Doris

EJL: That was Swedish singer Doris with “Did You Give the World Some Love Today, Baby?” as selected by our guest Jonathan Lethem. What is the connection between music and writing? Is there something musical about the process of writing?

JL: I’m constantly talking about how what matters is what you hear in the writing and according to that definition, since I’m a horrendous un-talent -- a total, definitive non-talent as a musician -- writing is as close as I’m gonna get, you know? Writing with my ear, writing something that’s got rhythm underlying the words and that’s got some kind of quality if you read it out loud, that’s me reaching for something musical in life. But I find music inspiring and intimidating because it’s elusive to me, it’s something I can’t get to myself.

EJL: Well, Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us on 

JL: You bet, thanks a lot. 

EJL: For a complete track listing and to find these songs online go to and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.