What do Loudon Wainwright, The Cure, and Elvis Costello have in common? They all served as inspiration to Joshua Henkin when he was writing The World Without You! Check out the playlist he put together for the novel that Gary Shteyngart calls “[w]itty, poignant, and heartfelt.”
“Bad Reputation” and “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl,” Freedy Johnston. I’ve always been a Freedy Johnston guy, and it’s hard for me to think of a song that’s at once so melodic and also really gets the adrenaline going the way “Bad Reputation” does. A few years ago, when I was struggling with an early draft of The World Without You, there seemed to be some Freedy Johnston synchronicity—his new single “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl” got talked up by New York Magazine in “The Approval Matrix,” and then I saw that he was playing with John Wesley Harding at Maxwell’s out in Hoboken. So my wife and I took the PATH train out to see the show, and it was great, and soon things got better with my novel.
“Motel Matches,” “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected Number 4,” “Radio Sweetheart,” and “Big Sister’s Clothes,” Elvis Costello. In case you can’t tell, I’m a huge Elvis fan. I chose these four songs almost at random (well, not quite), and I could have chosen almost any other four. It’s weird, because Elvis is a punster, and I’m very much not a punster, but what works in a song is often quite different from what works in fiction. I remember hearing Elvis play an amazing rendition of “Radio Sweetheart” at the Greek Theater in Berkeley when I was in my early twenties. “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected Number 4” is not a particularly well-known song of his—it’s the last track on the underrated Mighty Like a Rose album—but it’s a beautiful ballad, and my wife and I danced to it at our wedding. “Big Sister’s Clothes” is mentioned in The World Without You when Noelle muses on how she loved to borrow her sisters’ clothes. I don’t have a big sister and I’m not a sister myself, but I understand the urge: whenever we go to visit my wife’s sister, my wife is always going through her sister’s closets looking for things to wear.
“Senses Working Overtime,” XTC. Not much to say about this song other than that I like it. It came on the radio the other week when my car, for its part, was working overtime—I was stuck in construction at one in the morning on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway on the way back from a reading in Northampton. That’s the thing about New York. The worst time to drive is after midnight, because that’s when the construction crews come out. Traffic at one in the morning on the BQE makes rush hour look like a cakewalk.
“Out on the Weekend,” Neil Young. I’ve always been a big Neil Young fan. I remember going to see him play with Nicolette Larson at the Hudson River pier one summer when I was home from college. It poured the whole show, everyone was drenched, but I still think of it as one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. I discovered “Out on the Weekend” when one of the guitar players in Harvard Square started to sing it when I walked by one afternoon. It’s not one of Young’s best-known songs, but it’s my favorite.
“Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen. You can’t grow up in the 1970s on Riverside Drive with your living room facing New Jersey (my first novel, after all, was called Swimming Across the Hudson) and not be a Springsteen fan. “Thunder Road” is my favorite of his songs, and I especially like the much slower acoustic version played on his live recording. And who can forget lines like these: “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away” and “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right,” which Julia Roberts, of all people, said was the song lyric that described her most accurately.
“Things We Said Today,” the Beatles. Not much to say about this other than how many people born in 1964 don’t end up being Beatles fans? I was reminded a few months ago that this is my favorite song of theirs when a friend of my daughter’s played it on the violin in the school talent show. [Ed. note: This song is not available on Spotify.]
“Friday I’m in Love,” The Cure. I love The Cure, and this is one song that whenever I hear it I can’t get it out of my brain. It played one day while I was writing The World Without You, and I ended up humming it, to my fellow café-dwellers’ chagrin, throughout the composition of a chapter.
“Daughter,” Loudon Wainwright. This song is played, predictably, at too many Bat Mitzvahs, but I still like it, and it seems appropriate for The World Without You, a novel, in part, about daughters and daughters-in-law. I heard the song not long before I wrote the scene between Thisbe and Noelle when they go skinny-dipping.
“Choice in the Matter,” Aimee Mann. I loved Aimee Mann when she was in ‘Til Tuesday, and I still love her. “Choice in the Matter” is about a woman who goes over to the house of the guy she’s dating and he won’t press the play button on the phone machine, which is blinking, and so she decides to leave. Seventeen years after its release, the song feels dated (who has phone machines anymore?), and I’m reminded of a conversation I often have with my graduate students about the problems cell phones pose for fiction (fiction is in part about the frustration of desires, and cell phones are about the fulfillment of desires—everyone can be reached instantly), but that doesn’t make the song any less dear to me.
“This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody),” Talking Heads. As far as I can recall, this is the closest the Talking Heads ever came to a love song. I remember going to hear them in some college hockey rink outside Boston in 1984, and the lights blew out and we stayed there for two hours in the dark until the power came back on, and when it did, this is what they played.