Susan Orlean is a long time staff writer for The New Yorker and a bestselling author of eight books including The Orchid Thief, which inspired the award-winning movie, Adaptation. From her early attraction to the Grateful Dead to the kinship she feels with The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and a master guitarist from Congo, her song picks are diverse and deeply personal. Susan currently co-hosts a weekly podcast called Cry Babies on the WolfPop network.
For More: http://www.susanorlean.com/
- The Grateful Dead - "Box of Rain"
- The Shaggs - "Philosophy of the World"
- Franco - "Attention Na Sida"
- The Clash - "Police & Thieves"
- The Pretenders - "Kid"
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I am here with Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker and a bestselling author of eight books including The Orchid Thief, which inspired the Spike Jonze movie, Adaptation. Today, we’re here to talk about some of the songs that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Susan, thank you so much for coming on down.
Susan Orlean: I am so happy to be here.
EJL: So what’s the first song you’ve got for us?
SO: The first pick is "Box of Rain" by The Grateful Dead. This song was very meaningful to me because actually the album American Beauty was the first record I ever bought. So this marked the moment in my life where I took, I believe it was $3.99 -- this makes me sound unbelievably old, but records were very cheap -- and I walked down to the corner. And this was a big moment for me to buy this first album.
EJL: I would say The Grateful Dead as a first album purchase, that’s pretty progressive.
SO: Yeah, I think I was like 12. I mean, this is a beautiful album. People who think of The Grateful Dead and don’t know their music don’t realize how much of it is very melodic, very much out of an American roots sound.
I also then launched what became a fairly steady diet of Grateful Dead concerts, which formed much of my youth -- going to Dead concerts because, as anyone knows, they played constantly. And I was living in the Midwest. They played a lot in Cleveland, they played a lot in Michigan, where I was in college, and I saw them many, many times. And it was really the music of my youth.
Song: The Grateful Dead – “Box of Rain”
EJL: That was The Grateful Dead with “Box of Rain”, selected by our guest, a proud Dead Head, Susan Orlean. What’s the next song you’ve got for us?
SO: The next one may come as a little bit of a jarring departure from the rather beautiful harmonics of “Box of Rain”, but this is called “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs.
There’s a little backstory here that I feel like anyone who hasn’t heard The Shaggs needs to know, which is that The Shaggs were a group of sisters, living in rural New Hampshire.
They had no musical talent and frankly no interest in music, but their father became obsessed with the idea that they would have a rock band and that they would basically replicate The Beatles' success. So, he took them out of school, held them more or less captive and had them play music.
Part of the reason this is meaningful to me was that I wrote a story about The Shaggs. I profiled them. They really struck me in some way that was very distinctive because, when I first heard the music I thought, “This is the worst music I have ever heard in my life.” And I would say this is how most people react (laughs).
In the course of working on the story and spending time with these women, I listened to the music a lot. Slowly, it went from being the worst music I had ever heard to being weirdly, hypnotically mesmerizing. And I started playing it all the time.
The song means a lot to me because it reminds me of working on this piece about them. And it reminds me of that very malleable fact of taste of what something strikes you as the first time you are exposed to it versus later on after you’ve learned about it and absorbed it. And they really changed for me because of that.
EJL: Well here it is, The Shaggs with “Philosophy of the World.”
Song: The Shaggs – “Philosophy of the World”
EJL: That was The Shaggs with “Philosophy of the World”, as selected by our guest, Susan Orlean, as part of the KCRW Guest DJ Project. What’s the next track you’ve got for us?
SO: The next track is called "Attention Na Sida" by Franco.
The translation of that title is “Attention AIDS.”
Franco was a master guitar player. Such a master in fact that there was a point when the Congolese government forbid him to play because they believed that he was hypnotizing people with his guitar.
A lot of his music, these love songs, they were the typical material of any pop music, but he also wrote a lot of political music. And, in this case, this was a public health announcement that was basically explaining to people that AIDS, which was then flaring in Congo, how you had to be careful.
When I first was introduced to African music my world changed. I listened to the usual folk, rock and I didn’t know anything about music in other parts of the world. I happened to hang around in a record store in Portland, Oregon, where I was living at the time.
It was a small record store that specialized in African-American music, but the owner happened to have a few African records and he basically turned me on to this music and it blew my mind.
And, for the next decade, I couldn’t get enough of it and Franco was my hero. I dreamed that someday I would see him perform in concert and I started doing a little research: Does he ever travel? Will I ever get to hear him? Only to learn that he had actually died himself of AIDS, shortly after the song was released, so it was so full of poignancy. There is almost no song of his that I wouldn’t have been able to pick to put on this list, but this one in particular has real resonance.
Song: Franco – “Attention Na Sida”
EJL: What’s the next song you’ve got for us?
SO: My next pick is "Police & Thieves" by The Clash. This was tough because I have so many Clash songs that are so near and dear to me.
When I was living in Portland after college and first heard punk music that was coming out of the UK, it was like nothing I had ever heard. The Clash in particular really connected for me and I have to admit, I think I was a little bit in love with Joe Strummer.
EJL: As a writer, how does music work with your own writing?
SO: The qualities that I try to find in writing and in my own writing are exactly what I’m drawn to in this music. There is something that is both very plain, very familiar, drawing out of tradition that we all recognize and then shot through with a kind of energy and passion that makes it distinctive. And if I could ever write a sentence that captured that quality, I would feel that I had done something pretty special.
Song: The Clash – “Police & Thieves”
EJL: What’s the last track you’ve got for us?
SO: The last track was tough. I spent a lot of time going back and forth because I love music. It’s always been the most important art form to me in my day-to-day life.
I finally settled on a band that has special meaning to me, The Pretenders, because Chrissie Hynde is from the Cleveland area, as I am. She represented to me a woman who could manage this life as a rock star, but still very much be a woman of her own sort of definition: beautiful, powerful, but also very feminine.
She just blew my mind and I think because she was from Ohio, I thought we had something special going on. We were kind of cut of the same cloth, in my fantasies. In this case, I chose the song "Kid," which was particularly meaningful because you don’t hear a lot of people singing about their children in rock music and doing it in a way that is both great musically and very touching without being sentimental. There are a million great Pretenders songs, but this one really sort of captures everything they mean to me.
Song: The Pretenders – “Kid”
EL: Susan, thank you so much for sharing your picks with us.
SO: It was my pleasure. Thank you.