John Hodgman’s songs for Ragnarok, the end of days

John Hodgman’s songs for Ragnarok, the end of days

In I Made You A Mixtapewe ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: As a purveyor of expertise, information, and knowledge, John Hodgman is a little obsessed with the details—and rightfully so. Over the course of his last three books, which are being re-released as the Complete World Knowledge box set, he’s listed thousands of hobo names, purveyors of doom, and totally fake world facts. That kind of minutiae in print and on The Daily Show has built Hodgman a fan base, and as it turns out, other people’s investment in the small stuff turns Hodgman into a fan, too. He’s drawn to songs with a tightly crafted story or a bit of thought behind them. At least that’s what The A.V. Club found out when we asked the author and bon vivant to make us a mixtape. He chose the topic—“Ragnarok songs, or songs to keep in your survival bunker to listen to over and over as the dogstorm passes and the blood-wave recedes”—but as his picks suggest, maybe the songs chose him. 

They Might Be Giants, “Yeah, The Deranged Millionaire”
John Hodgman: These are all songs I listened to pretty obsessively as I wrote my most recent, and probably final book of Complete World Knowledge, which deals quite a bit with the endings of things, primarily the end of the world. 

“Deranged Millionaire” was the song that was written by They Might Be Giants based on a character I developed for a series of videos that we had done together in 2004, long before I had ever been on TV, at a time when I was mainly a writer for magazines and websites, and therefore didn’t imagine I would ever be a deranged thousandaire, never mind a deranged millionaire. And when [John] Flansburgh wrote that song and put it out on a podcast, it was truly one of the most delightfully weird things to ever happen. I had always been such a huge They Might Be Giants fan, and it just began to hint at the surreality that my life was beginning to take on when I very unexpectedly started to go on television. 

By the time I began writing this third book, I began to think about the ends of things. I was thinking about the end of the Apple campaign. I had just turned 40, so I was beginning what arguably would be the last half or maybe last tenth of my life, depending on how lucky I am. Also, it sort of reawakened my fascination with post-apocalyptic movies and television and novels. 

As I was thinking about it, I realized, in many ways, I had become a deranged millionaire. I certainly was financially more self-sufficient than I ever had been in a way I never imaged could happen. A huge part of my career had come to an end, leaving me with time on my hands. I had grown a weird mustache, and now, like a kind of Howard Hughes type figure, I had time to sit around and contemplate paranoidly the end of the world. So that song became emblematic of this new and sort of epilogical adventure of writing this book. 

People forget how outcast They Might Be Giants can be. They have a reputation for writing really deft, funny, clever melodies, and they also make a lot of music for kids, which is terrific, but when you see them in concert, they can rock the house. And I just love hearing those strings at the beginning of that song, and all of the sudden Flansburgh’s crazy voice screaming my name. Who wouldn’t love that?

AVC: Do you listen to music when you’re actually writing, or just when you’re getting in the mood for writing?

JH: I do listen to it while I’m writing, and many of the songs on this list were not only songs that inspired me to think about topics of the book directly, but also indirectly were just somewhat in my ears over and over. 

When I listen to music—I don’t particularly do it for fun all that much. It’s not a big part of my life, and I’m not really on top of what’s happening in the world of music in the way I was when I was a teenager. Instead, I’ll discover an artist through some indirect way, and if it clicks with me, I’ll just listen to it over and over and over again. Either the work of a particular artist, or just a few songs by a particular artist. And I really tune into mood as much as lyrics. 

For a long time, I would write without music, because I thought it was distracting until I appreciated that it actually unlocks a certain unconscious productivity vault in my mind. The down side is that I often don’t understand the lyrics at all, and I often don’t remember the names of the songs. In fact, I had to look up a lot of the names of the songs I wanted to recommend. To me, it was just like, “Let’s put that one on,” or in a mix of apocalypse songs that put me in the mood to write about the things we dare not face.

AVC: For a list of apocalyptic songs, your picks aren’t really downers.

JH: The reason for that is because I am not a teenager. Death metal and goth music and death fetishism in music only appeals to people who believe they are immortal. I am not a teenager; I know that I am mortal. I feel the profound doubt that I think most humans—even those who profess faith—feel that after death there may be nothing. Therefore my apocalypse songs are the ones that don’t revel in that, but sort of help me provide some comfort and solace. When I’m sitting in my Park Slope survival brownstone listening to the city fall around me and the world succumb to the blood-wave, I don’t need to listen to any death metal. I’d rather listen to Cynthia Hopkins singing about resisting the tide. 

Cynthia Hopkins, “Resist The Tide”
AVC: Why that song? You played it with her at one of your book-release parties.

JH: This is how I, as an older person with not a lot of time or inclination to go to clubs and rock shows, and also someone who is adept—as you may know from my career—at weaseling my way into things I love, like They Might Be Giants or Battlestar Galactica or The Daily Show. Once I discover an artist, I tend to try to weasel my way onstage with them somehow, or I meet them. With John Roderick and John Darnielle, I knew their music to some degree before, but I met them from doing fundraisers for McSweeney’s and 826 or what-have-you. 

Cynthia is someone I discovered because of children’s music. She used to perform and record with Dan Zanes. I have human children, and there was one particular song she had written that she and Dan Zanes performed called “Surrounded By Friendship,” and I was so taken with it. It’s just a very simple duet with her playing accordion. 

It’s told from the point of view of a child wandering through the woods. Later, I learned the child she modeled it off was essentially a feral child who had no human contact. There’s always some darkness to her work. But it’s a very sweet song where a child wanders through the woods and says, “The trees are my friends, the sun is my friend, the breeze is my friend, the birds are my friends.” And it sounds very touchy-feely until you appreciate, “Yeah, they’re her only friends. She has no one else to talk to.” And the line that gets me every time both for its incredible sweetness and simple hilarity is, “The birds are my friends. They chirp and they warble. They remind me to feel cheerful even when their wings are wet with rain.” 

Cynthia’s music became very important to me right when I first started writing these books. And then I had the pleasure and the gracious and utter surprise of being invited to perform with her very early on, when I did my first book reading, well before it was published. Jonathan Ames invited me to do something on a show he was curating, and he coincidentally—after I had been listening to her music constantly—invited Cynthia as well.

That night, at that first reading I ever gave from my first book, Cynthia played the song “Resist The Tide,” which is a song about beginnings and baptism and death and endings, and also electricity, just because, you know, throw that in there as well. It really is a song that has provided a lot of solace for me, in that there is a hopelessness to the song, but it outlines a way to be hopeful. 

In the song, things fall apart. Everything tends to decay, and it takes a lot of work to combine atoms in a way such that they resist the lure of the darkness that lurks around the edges of every day. And that so utterly describes the feeling I have when I contemplate mortality, or think, “There is a darkness that lurks around every day, no matter how happy it is.” Unless you are lucky enough to have such profound faith that you know you are going someplace better when you die, there is a darkness that colors the corners of even the brightest days. If you contemplate it, you will fall apart. So that song is about not falling apart in the contemplation of the hard things we have to contemplate, resisting that tide and not going under with it. It is a weird form of solace, in that it makes no promises that there’s something better beyond what we see here in front of us, but it encourages you to grab hold of what is in front of you very firmly and not let go. 

The Long Winters, “The Commander Thinks Aloud” 
JH: That is an utterly devastating song. 

John Roderick is effectively The Long Winters, and he and I met at an event at the Beacon Theater about six years ago. It was a fundraiser for 826NYC, which is [part of] Dave Eggers’ nationwide network of tutoring centers, and we were there with Jonathan Coulton, my old friend. The other performers were David Byrne and Sufjan Stevens, so we felt like the only humans surrounded by weird sparkly elves who are all speaking their own weird musical language of moonlight and gossamer. We all felt like these three ugly dudes, so we bonded. 

My memory is John [Roderick] played that song, “The Commander Thinks Aloud,” that night. But that is a perfect example of a song I heard and enjoyed literally for years before I even took the time to tune into what it was about, and what it is about directly is the shuttle Challenger exploding. I have never heard a piece as harrowing and as sincere, given that John Roderick did not actually survive the Challenger disaster. It is purely speculative, but it’s a work that feels so authentic and authentically harrowing from the point of view of someone who knows that their life is over very soon.

The Mountain Goats, “Lovecraft In Brooklyn”
AVC: Do you, as a writer, find yourself drawn to more literary songs? These are two guys, John Roderick and John Darnielle, who write pretty wordy songs.

JH: I like story-songs a lot, even though clearly I don’t listen to the stories very closely.

I recently did a project with John Roderick and we needed a musical cue, sort of a theme song for this imitation talk show we were mounting in the hotel. And I said, “Oh, it should be your song ‘It’ll Be A Breeze,’” which is from his album When I Pretend To Fall. I’m like, “That’s a light song. It’s got a nice tune to it, and it feels like we’re putting a show together, and I like the idea that it’ll be a breeze,” because one thing we absolutely knew about this particular project was that it was not at all a breeze. And John Roderick was like, “Well, okay, we could do that song, but you know it’s about a woman in a coma, don’t you?” And I thought, “I’ve heard that song 1 million times, and I did not know that. Well, let’s just focus on ‘it’ll be a breeze.’ That’s a nice part that doesn’t necessarily seem to be about a coma.” 

You know, John writes lyrics that are appropriately indirect. When I say “Commander” is directly inspired by Challenger, that doesn’t mean it can only be understood in that context. I think someone who is not an astronaut would take a lot from that song.

But with Darnielle, he writes short stories that have their own mysteries and ambiguities that are not lyrically indirect. They are very, very precise. Most of the time you know who the character is, you know what’s going on. 

John Darnielle loves death metal. I do not think that is because he is a teenager at heart who believes he is immortal. He has an appreciation for that kind of darkness. And I could have equally have put a song from them on the list called “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” which is about two teenagers who form a death-metal band. Their lyrics and pentagram-strewn lyric sheets are discovered by their high-school guidance counselors. One of them is sent away to a reform school, and that’s basically the whole story. But the chorus is John Darnielle singing “Hail Satan” over and over again, and it was one of the bravest and most exhilarating lyrics to hear—particularly when it’s sung live—to hear several hundred hipster white people chanting “Hail Satan” with that completely characteristic John Darnielle-ian exuberance. The guy who thinks about the darkest things in the most exuberant way possible, and in that moment of “Hail Satan,” that is a chant of support for the young people in the story, and for young people who are misunderstood everywhere. It is a chant for a disregard of authority, and it is a lament for people who are punished for dreaming their dreams. It’s just an amazing moment, and no matter how smart and hipstery you think you are, there is something utterly transgressive in standing in a theater and screaming “Hail Satan” that is a break from most people’s daily reality, and that is delightful. So John does look into those dark places and live those dark places, and he does not fall apart. If anything, he exuberantly celebrates survival of those dark moments, and that obviously provides solace as well.

“Lovecraft In Brooklyn,” I chose just because it’s a great song. Additionally, I was in the midst of writing this book which—in my fake-fact, fictional version of apocalypse, a big thing that happens is that the 700 ancient and unspeakable gods return from outer space and from beneath the waves to re-take the planet, which is obviously a H.P. Lovecraft allusion—and by “allusion,” I mean rip-off—and it was just one of those days when I was listening to music as I was writing. I’m like, “I’ve heard this song 50 times now. It’s a pretty good song. I wonder what it’s called,” and I saw that it was called “Lovecraft In Brooklyn.” I was in Brooklyn at the time, and I do not suggest that I am Lovecraft, but certainly there is that flash of weird coincidence and connection that sort of made that song very central to my writing from then on. 

You like songs that suggest that you are not alone in the world.  Writing a book is a very lonely process, and a lot of the time, you don’t know that it’s worth it, and you wonder whether you’re simply mad to try to force your junk onto the rest of the world, and when your junk is a ridiculous list of 700 Lovecraftian-inspired ancient and unspeakable gods, you doubly worry that maybe you’re wasting everybody’s time. But the solace that you hear in a song is often, “You’re not alone.” “You’re not alone in heartbreak,” “You’re not alone in fear,” “You’re not alone in your love of Satan,” or whatever, but to hear that song in that moment, to know I was not alone in my fascination with Lovecraftian ancient and unspeakable gods, and that there was some humorous art to be made out of it, was very, very comforting.

Tune-Yards, “You Yes You”
JH: That is a song of utter, utter comfort and utter exuberance. She is someone I’ve discovered only recently.

The privilege of being a very famous and very minor television personality who has access to a network of musicians who are frequently guilted by Dave Eggers into playing benefits is that I get to meet the musicians long before I hear their music, and then I can go see their shows without having to wait in line and do things teenagers are good at, but I’m not very good at. But Merrill Garbus—who is basically Tune-Yards in the same way John Darnielle is Mountain Goats and John Roderick is Long Winters—is someone I discovered the other way I discover hot, popular music: by listening to public radio. There was some report on Soundcheck on WNYC here in New York sort of just talking about what they had seen at SXSW, and I can’t even remember who the journalist was, but they said Merrill is the real deal. I went and searched for her, and the first thing I saw was a YouTube video of a song she has called “Fiya,” and I was totally, utterly blown out of my seat. Not just because of the power of her presence, but the uniqueness of her style, and her unapologetic enthusiasm. Not just in general, but particularly for the sort of African-inflected singing that a lot of people would shy away from out of political correctness.

And it doesn’t matter that she did her dues and spent a lot of time traveling and training in Africa; the only thing that matters is that she is great. But it is true that she did do those things. What she is doing is what every artist is doing, really, which is sampling. You sample the style, or a mood, or a tone, or a thought, and you put it into a collage. And while I love listening to Merrill, watching her assemble these songs, these intense polyrhythms on her looping device—I don’t even know what it’s called—she starts creating these intricate polyrhythms on just one or two little drums, until it becomes this huge sound, and that’s before she even starts singing. 

For a moment you think, “Oh, this is just phony-baloney electronic music of some kind,” and then all of the sudden, this profoundly human voice comes out and just circles the room like the ghost at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, just melting people’s faces off. It’s just one of the most incredible things, and one of those true gifts that you feel you receive when you discover an artist who makes you think, “Yeah, I totally get and love this.”

“You Yes You” is the one after listening to “The Commander Thinks Aloud,” where you have that song that brings me about as close to the feeling of solemnity of imminent mortality as I might feel until it actually happens, and “You Yes You” just kind of pulls me out of that soul-hole, a little bit.

Megafaun, “The Longest Day,” “Carolina Days”

JH: Megafaun, I discovered through Darnielle, because they were opening for him last year, so they’re attached to a moment in real life as well. A time that I went down to Richmond, Virginia to see an old, old friend who I hadn’t seen in years, to take him to see The Mountain Goats play, because I had just introduced them to him. It was a point of reconnection for an old friend, and a very special time. Not only because I got to see an amazing show, and not only because I’m Star-Friender No. 1 and was able to work my way backstage, but also because backstage at the National Theater in Richmond, Virginia, they don’t only have craft services, they also have a six-person hot tub. Just in case you ever want to go see a show there, that’s something you should know.

But the three guys in Megafaun were just so incredibly sweet. And then onstage, you hear these three yetis singing the most beautiful harmonies. And they do something in concert which is just utterly captivating: They’re in the middle of the song, and then they put their instruments down and try walking through the theater singing in harmony, and effectively it is a religious-revival maneuver. It’s totally captivating, and it feels like they are giving you some kind of testimony to some light inside themselves that you want. 

We played together when I did some comedy in their current home state of North Carolina last year, and we talked about a lot of things. We talked a lot about Anthony Braxton and Star Wars. I was too cowardly to ask them what they thought about God, because I think they might have some real answers that I might not have cared for. I could be misreading them, but there is a lot of testimony music in what they’re doing. But those two songs, I picked because I think of the many pretty songs that they make, “The Longest Day” is utterly the prettiest. And I think, again, it is a song of consolation in that days are short and getting shorter. When you have that rare experience of a day feeling very long, and it happens from time to time, it’s a real… I am a non-religious person, but it feels like a kind of blessing.

And then “Carolina Days” just rocks. I was feeling like there’s a lot of mopey music on this thing. I do enjoy a rock song from time to time, and that is just a good, thriving, Southern rock song.

AVC: Those guys seem like they have to be making the music, that there’s no other option for them.

JH: I think I agree with you, but I also think that when you see an artist and you get the impression that they don’t have to be making the music, why would you bother seeing that person ever again? That unfortunately is sort of what separates me from a lot of contemporary popular music, and sadly, it’s what disaffected me about rap. 

In the ’80s and ’90s, I was really interested in, moved by, exhilarated by, and troubled by rap in all the ways a white person from Brookline, Massachusetts should be. That was music that was making trouble, and it was interesting and provocative trouble. And then it was also trouble that made even parts of my body move rhythmically in something approximating dance. And then rap music stopped being troublemaking music and started becoming super-popular music. 

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In a weird conspiracy among producers, the record industry, and rappers for a period of time in the ’90s and into the ’00s, music really reduced the acceptable subject matter to its basest form. Which was always the basest form of pop music: Young people doing it with each other, and also power fantasy. So by the time I was in my 30s, I had no more fantasies of power, and fewer fantasies of doing it, and so that music no longer spoke to me. And of the popular rappers, I no longer felt that sense of utter urgency, that, “I have to be making this music, you have to hear what I have to say.” Instead, the music almost became explicitly about, “You have to give me your money.” It’s one thing to say that the music becomes commercial, but it is another thing when music becomes solely about commerce. Even simple texts of a lot of rap songs are, “I am going to get paid. You are the one who is going to pay me. Let’s complete this commercial transaction right now.”

I’m sure a lot of your readers will say I’m incredibly small-minded and I don’t get it and everything else, or that I’m missing people. And the truth is, of course I am probably missing tremendous artists and tremendous artistry. Once I turned from that path, I missed a lot of moments in that world of music that I probably would regret having missed if I knew what I was missing. But again, to me, it was more of the sense that there was a callousness that made it less fun and interesting and telling to me.

Now, I do think that’s changing as underground rap like Odd Future and Earl Sweatshirt and Jean Grae are getting out into the world, and I’m finding myself re-energized to explore that world, because it is something I miss from when I was younger. And part of the reason that it’s hard for me to engage with rap music is that I don’t understand, “What is the album this song is from?” I don’t know what a mixtape is in a world without tapes anymore. How is that different from an EP? There are so many different terms, and this is not just for rap, but for all music. I had a few high-worn ideas of how music was consumed and distributed, and all of that is meaningless now in a world of constant remixing, rolling releases, dropping singles at different times. It’s something I’m having to teach myself to engage with properly.

Jean Grae, “Kill Screen”
JH: So this song, “Kill Screen,” is from a forthcoming album and is available, as far as I can tell, only as a video. I discovered it at the top of her Twitter feed late one evening, probably the second or third time Jean Grae and I had got into a conversation on Twitter. I had heard her, of all places, on public radio as well. I heard her talking as well as rapping, and just thought, “She is really smart and really cool, and I like what she has to say.” And so I found her on Twitter and discovered that she followed me, and so we sort of talked, and she’s the sweetest person in the world. 

I checked out this song “Kill Screen,” and it is amazing. I don’t even know if you can call it a song, because it’s the video and it’s the song. She wrote, directed, and shot every frame of it. Embedded every frame of it with Easter eggs—single-frame secret messages, stuff that directly speaks to my conspiracy-theory brain—that would guide you to a secret website if you decoded the whole thing. Plus, it’s just a hot song, and she is incredibly talented as a lyricist and rapper, drawing together—with incredible verbal dexterity—cultural references from vastly disparate areas of culture from videogames to movies and interweaving them with her own personal life. That was what I liked about rap to begin with, and here is this person who is just taking it to a level that is utterly exhilarating to me, and I just adore her. She’s funny as shit, too.

David Rees, “I Hate You Heaven”
JH: David Rees is a friend and a genius, and I don’t know which to put first, because he is equally someone I enjoy spending time with and someone I am constantly challenged and inspired by. David is probably best known as the creator of—initially a webcomic—a comic in Rolling Stone called Get Your War On that used the most mundane and boring office-related clip art to have two characters in an office environment discussing the global war on terror, usually using a lot of swear words. It was a primal expression of rage directly after 9/11, contending to burn through the Bush administration. I think it offered solace and release for a lot of frustrations and sadness that people were feeling during that time.

I actually had known David from before then, because he had been doing other clip-art cartoons. Before he was doing office-themed clip-art cartoons, he would get clip art of karate men fighting, like the kind you would see in flyers for karate schools, and he would put them in conversation with each other in a hilarious, pure-comedy way for My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable. One of those books was self-published by my friend Jay—the friend who moved to Richmond that I hadn’t seen in so long—so it’s all… culture is folklore: You pass it along among friends. 

So David Rees, he does a million things beautifully. He was a clip-art cartoonist for a long time. You may know he recently remodeled himself as an artisanal pencil sharpener, and author of a manual on that topic called How To Sharpen Pencils, which is a quantum experiment, but at the same time utterly absurd, but utterly serious. He’s an extremely talented comedian and a profoundly moral dude that I love talking about stuff with, and a very talented musician and songwriter. 

When I first got to know him, and this is sort of an unfair one, because when I first got to know him in 2000, he had a band with some friends called The Skeleton Killers, who I think released one EP. I don’t know whether you would call it a mixtape now or what. Whatever it was, they released something, and then he released a three-song CD that, as far as I can tell, he handed out only among friends. So this song, “Heaven,” is from the David Rees solo EP that I don’t think is available anywhere.

My friend Jay—whom I went to go see The Mountain Goats with—used to live in Boston. I knew him from there because that’s where I grew up. Jay gave me David’s first book when I was in Boston because my mom was dying, and it provided tremendous solace. It was the funniest fucking thing that I had ever encountered, and it was self-published out of nowhere and I just needed… I thought about how some artists just need to make the art. When I encounter it, it touches me in such a profound way. 

Anyway, they don’t call me Star-Friender No. 1 for nothing. I absolutely need to insinuate myself into that person’s life. And so I reached out to David and we met and became friends. I was very grateful for the work that he created in that karate-fighting comic. We got to know each other better; I had moved back to New York after my mom passed away, and he moved to New York as well. Then September 11 happened, and at that time, I was hosting a variety show at a bar called Galapagos. It still exists, though in a different location, and we had one scheduled, probably four weeks after September 11, and like everyone, we were just trying to figure out what happens now. “Do we still have art? Does that still happen? Or do we just feel bad all the time and stare into space? What are we capable of doing? What is appropriate to do? And more, what are we even capable of doing in that landscape after 9/11, particularly in New York City?”

David had given me this CD and… I talk about people who have the luck of faith, who feel genuinely faithful. David, though he is a profane person, was raised in faith as a Congregationalist but he was raised on the Bible. He knows it upwards, backwards, downwards, and forwards. Of all the people that I would imagine having at their disposal quotes from Saint Augustine and Biblical Psalms, the guy who wrote Get Your fucking War On is not necessarily the first guess, but it is true.

Of the three songs he did on the CD, there was one that I don’t remember very well, there is one that I recommend called “Heaven,” and the third was a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” back when no one else had ever done that before. And that song “Heaven” was not written in response to 9/11, but could not have been a more perfect lament with regard to 9/11, in the sense of both the incredible solace that belief in Heaven provides, as well as the feeling of utter injustice and profound cheat that Heaven may be. It’s a very raw and very beautiful song that I wish were available, and I think I’ll just have to email it to you so you can put it out there. But that’s what you get when you put out an EP. I don’t need David’s permission. 

I invited him to perform that song [that night], and it did what it had to do, and it did what art always does, which is not just provide comfort in utter darkness—and I would say that the lighting in Galapagos was terrible at that time, so there was an actual literal darkness—but then also to give voice to hard feelings in a way that perhaps he didn’t realize. Also, in the best-case scenario, you’re listening to it among a group of friends—in the most clichéd way possible—but it literally brings people together and then provides this weird double act of both engaging with what you’re feeling, and distracting you from the worst part of what you’re feeling. And I don’t think there’s much art that can do that as well as music, or for that matter, that particular song.

Anton Karas, “The Third Man Theme”

JH: We can skip that one; I was just trying to be interesting.

AVC: Roger Ebert loves that song. He used it as the theme to his solo reviews program.

JH: That’s a song that always makes me happy. How about that? I can say that. Of all the songs out there, that is the one that does it for me every time. And The Third Man is a great movie, an important movie for me for a lot of reasons. The most important one of which is that the hero of the movie is an utter dummy, and it’s important to be reminded of how dumb we are all the time. Even when we always think we are the hero of our particular stories, we’re also dum-dums. 

Ben Gibbard, “Teardrop Windows”
JH: Ben played at the incredibly hard and yet rewarding project that Roderick and I were working on that was not a breeze. He played this song, so that’s a much more recent song for me, because I’ve been hearing it a lot. I’ve been replaying the video of what he captured, and it’s just one of those songs where it’s not one I could speak for a long time about what it means to me, but if you checked back in with me in a year, I would have a lot to say, actually. It’s a new relationship with me and that song.

AVC: Have you heard this whole record, Former Lives? There’s a duet on there with Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love,” and it’s just fantastic.

JH: No I haven’t heard the whole record, but I would love to, and I love Aimee, too. Let’s put that song on the list, too. I trust you, and I’m sure it’s great, and I would pay to have the song on here.

Cynthia Hopkins, “Blow Your Horn”
JH: I think I’ve said everything I need to say about Cynthia. But “Blow Your Horn” is a great song in the vein of Tune-Yards, where it just makes you feel better. It has a lyric in it that cycles through a lot of her songs that I take very seriously, which is, “If you’re not dancing, it’s your own damn fault.” That song almost has kind of a musical-theater quality, where you kind of imagine a teacher talk-singing to a class of students about how to live properly. I hear that song and—I have human children, as you know—as far as I’m concerned, that song provides every good advice for living.

Jonathan Coulton, “Glasses”
AVC: This is one of the straight-up rock songs you were talking about liking earlier.

JH: It is a rock song, but it is a rock song that is that very rare thing: It’s a middle-aged rock song. That is one where I absolutely listen to the lyrics, because I always listen very closely to the lyrics of Jonathan Coulton songs, because I’ve known Jonathan Coulton since we were both 18 years old—and I love him, and he is my best friend and close collaborator—and so I’m basically looking for references to me in all of his songs, because I figure, what else could he be writing about? But again, that is a song from his new album which is much more rock-inflected overall, and to me, it is astonishing that that is not a No. 1 hit single, because that song is so hot with that opening, that massive sort of rock-opera opening into that really tight, crisp guitar hook. Just the sound of his voice is so hot on that song that you would think it’s a song to drive 100 miles an hour to. Only then, when you dig into the lyrics, you realize that you are driving 100 miles an hour to a song about a guy who has kids and realizes that he is getting older and he is not very attractive and neither is his wife, but they still love each other. And you’re now driving 100 miles an hour in a minivan. I want to go listen to that song again.

Harvey Danger, “Cream And Bastards Rise”
JH: Sean Nelson is such a smart songwriter. The ferociousness of his voice, which itself is sort of high and angelic, is often overlooked, and “Cream And Bastards Rise”—for a band whose work is almost criminally overlooked at this point—that is one of the most ferocious and beautifully insidious and true songs about how you think you’re the hero of the story just like Holly Martins and The Third Man, but you are a dummy. 

I can’t believe it. I did bring it around back to The Third Man. So, Holly Martins in The Third Man thinks he is the hero in the story: He is going back to Austria to discover the killer of his good friend, Orson Welles’ character [Harry Lime]. What you discover is that he’s a total dupe. Orson Welles isn’t dead, but his best friend is actually a horrible smuggler of tainted penicillin and an underworld criminal, and every sort of good impulse Holly Martins has, has been done in, while everyone around him in Austria has been rolling their eyes, almost audibly, at what a dumb idealist he is.

And at the end of the movie, he still thinks he’s going to get the girl. And in the last scene of the movie—look, it’s been out for 50 years, all right? Spoiler alert: The last scene of the movie is him after a funeral, and there’s the female who had been his best friend’s girlfriend who he thinks he has a chance with. He’s standing in the middle of the road as she walks toward him, and it is clear that every moment, every step she takes, both Holly Martins and you the viewer, because you are seeing a movie, think that she is going to stop and walk with him, together down the road where they'll become man and wife, because that's what happens in movies. Holly Martins, by the way, is the author of pulp Western adventure stories, so he represents standard movie-writing clichés, right? And so she walks, and it’s this long, long walk down this road toward the camera, then she walks by him and does not look at him, and she walks out of frame, and he is entirely by himself. Cue the music. It’s fantastic, because the very last frame of the movie is Holly Martins being kicked in his balls, appropriately. 

Also in that movie, there’s a moment where he confronts his best friend, Orson Welles, and Orson Welles takes him on a Ferris wheel, and basically lays out for Holly Martins what a dum-dum he’s been, and how that all progress is achieved through conflict and strife and people getting over on one another. And you look at Switzerland, which has enjoyed however many centuries of neutrality and peace and serenity, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. And that is what the song “Cream And Bastards Rise” is all about. It is an Orson Welles character saying to the Holly Martins character, “You think you’re pretty special, but you are never going to make it,” and sometimes it’s good to listen to that song and think that you are the Orson Welles, and sometimes it’s better to listen to that song and realize you’re the Holly Martins.

Wilco, “The Late Greats”
AVC: “The Late Greats” is a good last song to have on this list, because it’s about underappreciated art and the struggle for recognition. 

JH: You just made the theme for me, thank you. 

That song is an older song by them. I listened to it constantly when I was writing my first book, so this one’s not so much about apocalypse as it is about my exhilaration in hearing them making up all these fake, legendary bands and songs. Was this song written by Jorge Luis Borges? The idea of a song about underappreciated bands and singers and stuff is great, but unless there really is a band called The Late Greats, I love that it’s just this lovely, beautiful, fake history of forgotten music.

AVC: It’s right up your alley.

JH: It totally is close to me. I love all their music, but that’s just also a rocking song. I love songs that rock from time to time, you know?

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