There’s no denying that the Decemberists are the reigning royal family of the lit-rock realm. A recent study by the firm of Howe/Dewey/Dewitt estimated that at least 60 percent of all graduate literary theses written over the last decade have been completed with the well-read Portland band’s albums playing in the background for intellectual inspiration. (Okay, not really.) But not only are singer/songwriter Colin Meloy and company adept at tossing off odes to authors (“Song for Myla Goldberg”) and stuffing their repertoire with as many literary allusions as possible (“Billy Liar,” for instance, references not only the 1959 Keith Waterhouse novel of the same name, but also Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood) — even when the Decemberists aren’t directly referencing a particular book, the lion’s share of their polysyllabic pop sounds like its begging for adaptation to the printed page. Out this week is the band’s brand new live album, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, which documents their 2011 world tour and offers ample reminders of their status as the biggest lions on the library steps, but let’s take the record release as an opportunity to remember those who cleared the path for The Decemberists’ laudable, lit-rocking ways.
1. The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs”
Listening to the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album today, one might conceivably get through the first half without quite comprehending why they were such notorious enfants terrible in their day — even the drug-connection tune “I’m Waiting for the Man” isn’t luridly graphic — if not for “Venus in Furs.” The band, whose very name came from a sensationalistic book about sexual experimentation, gave rock n’ roll its first full-on dose of S&M with this track inspired by the 1870 novel of the same title by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Yes, he’s the guy masochism was named after). Leo’s book is brought to leather-and-chains life in Lou Reed’s tune about an imperious, fur-adorned mistress and her eager servant.
2. The Cure,“Killing an Arab”
It’s not as though the Cure wouldn’t have been rock’s poster boys for existentialism even if they hadn’t recorded “Killing an Arab” early in their career, but the 1978 homage to Albert Camus’ The Stranger certainly didn’t hurt the band’s favored status among the anorak set. Well before Robert Smith starting applying his makeup with a trowel and teasing his hair to airplane-threatening heights as a god of Goth, the Cure eternally endeared themselves to black-clad, alienated punters by putting the murder scene from the classic 1942 novel to an intense, herky-jerky post-punk groove.
3. Kate Bush,“Wuthering Heights”
“Out on the wily, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green,” no, it’s not a quote from some Decemberists outtake, it’s the opening line of British art-rock heroine Kate Bush’s first single. Every girls who came of age with Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights suddenly had her own anthem to sing along with while imagining herself posed dramatically in a long white gown before a pair of French doors. The 1978 song that established Bush’s career is an encapsulation of the tumultuous relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in the “other” Bronte sister’s gothic-romance classic, even quoting from the original text at a couple of points. Pat Benatar covered the song a couple of years later, but unsurprisingly it didn’t translate to the American arena-rock idiom with as much aplomb.
4. The Smiths, “Cemetry Gates”
What “Sweet Home Alabama” is to Southern rock, “Cemetry Gates” is to lit rock. Before Colin Meloy even started shaving, the Smiths were the original grad-school alt-rock darlings, and “Cemetry Gates,” from their 1986 masterpiece The Queen Is Dead, was perhaps the band’s ultimate bookstore bopper. Not only is it centered on a literary battle where “Keats and Yeats are on your side” and “Wilde is on mine,” it casually tosses off an allusion to Shakespeare’s Richard III, and takes a writer of “prose and poems” to task for plagiarism. And for extra black-trenchcoat appeal, the whole thing takes place in a graveyard.
5. Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad
The Boss had long since proven himself to be the John Steinbeck of rock n’ roll by the time he got around to taking it literally with his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. The record opens with the title song, making direct reference to Steinbeck’s 1939 dust-bowl drama, The Grapes of Wrath, and expands the idea over each successive track. But Springsteen’s ode to the working man remains the lowest-charting record of his post-Born to Run career, probably because it not only lacked the visceral kick of 2012’s similarly themed Wrecking Ball, but it made the stark, serial-killer folk balladry of 1982’s Nebraska sound like Cyndi Lauper by comparison.