So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is Virginia Woolf author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, an outspoken feminist force in interwar England, and an enduring icon of modernism. Incredibly gifted and deeply troubled she produced some of the greatest literary examinations of the self, consciousness, human communication (and its limits) while continually struggling with her own mental health, all while being a vital member of the legendary literary/artistic circle The Bloomsbury Group. You ready for this?
1. Mulatu Astatke – Yègellé Tezeta (My Own Memory) In her twenties Woolf was one of the participants in theDreadnought Hoax wherein she and other members of the Bloomsbury Group disguised themselves as a royal entourage from the Kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and (via some shockingly simple deception) received a state tour of the capital ship of the Royal Navy. Justified modern discomfort with cultural appropriation & blackface aside…that s#!1 was hilarious. Fitting then to include this lively tune by Ethiopian jazz master Astatke which, even if its title wasn’t a nod to one of Woolf’s favorite literary subjects, was made big in America by inclusion in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, a movie about a road trip to investigate the past. Cue it up!
2. Massive Attack – A Prayer for England Woolf lived the last few months of her life during the height of Germany’s near-nightly bombing raids on southern cities in the UK. She lost her London home in the destruction and at that point in 1941 the Third Reich was at the height of its power, having dominated much of continental Europe. To say things looked grim is beyond understatement. This track, one of the most memorable by late-era Massive Attack (Sinead O’Connor on vox!), captures the sinister potential of the era while still allowing plenty of hope.
3. Bjork – I See Who You Are Iceland’s national treasure never fails to deliver and her 2007 album Volta was no different. The slipperiness of identity, the difficulty of knowing another human being beyond the surface (or even fully comprehending the surface) was a problem that Woolf could never stop returning to. She might as well get a chance to explore it with the aid of some sparkling electronica. I hope your sound system has a solid low end, you’re going to need it because the bass on this one is delicate and heavy.
4. Prince – If I Was Your Girlfriend The pscho-sexual contortions and possibilities that are loaded into this tune bear an essay-length unpacking (at least). That’s something Woolf, author of the gender-blasting Orlandowould appreciate…in addition to the serpentine groove of The Purple One’s late 80s masterpiece. Recorded in the high-pitched sped-up vocal persona that Prince named Camille this would surely have been Orlando’s theme song had R&B and 20th century recording innovations been available in Elizabethan England.
5. Missy Elliott – The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) The sorrow that I feel for the fact that I’ll never actually cruise through late-night London traffic with Ms. Woolf while this pumps out of the stereo is deep and irreconcilable. Still, we must forge on. A lot of characters look out of a lot of windows with a lot of longing and melancholy in her work, she’d feel this one. One of the finest debut singles of the 90s, no question. Plus, what state was Missy Elliot born in??? I’m not even gonna say it…
6. Sophie B. Hawkins – Damn I Wish I was Your Lover I imagine Peter Walsh from Mrs. Dalloway leaned over the steering wheel of his car, weeping, while parked at a deserted Burger King long after the drive-thru has closed, lamenting Clarissa’s decades-old rejection once again. No good for him, them’s the breaks. But you and Virginia can have a grand old time singing along to this anthem as you ease on down the road!
7. Leo Delibes – The Flower Duet Right up there with Vivaldi’s Spring and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata this tune has probably never failed to make it on to a Time-Life-esque 50 Most Beloved Songs in classical music compilations. So yes, not a highly original pick, but there’s a reason for that enduring popularity: This song is what angels do Pilates to. It also brings Vita Sackville-West (Woolf’s dear friend and sometimes lover) to mind. Among many other things she was a renowned gardener, so the floral theme is apropos, and then there’s that whole Catherine Deneuve / Susan Sarandon scene in The Hunger that this appeared in… This one’s a lock.
8. Interpol – The Lighthouse With their debut album, Turn On The Bright Lights Interpol fed the fires of more high school drama club angst than had been known since Robert Smith bought his first tube of eyeliner. It was a magnificent and towering achievement. Two albums later found them exploring the same melancholy with a more subdued contribution from the rhythm section in this song, which (intentionally or not) references the title of one Woolf classic in its own and another in its plaintive chorus “Let the waves have their way now…” Crying in a darkened bedroom after chess club…re-live the glory!
9. U.S. Girls – The Island Song Considering this song’s instrumental would fit right in on the Drive soundtrack this is a solid car playlist pick. With the vocals it’s something even more special: a track about yearning and loneliness that packs and equally forceful “Fine, I don’t need you…get the hell out” vibe. You’ve got to appreciate that.
10. Kate Bush –Wuthering Heights A song by a precocious and wildly talented English artist about the magnum opus of another precocious and wildly talented English artist appearing on a playlist for the listening pleasure of a precocious & wildly talented English artist. Well, you can justify this song’s presence with that particular Russian doll of reasoning if you’d like. Me? I just really dig the idea of warbling “Heathcliff! It’s me Cathy, Come home!” off-key at max volume through the moonroof alongside modernism’s greatest novelist (suck it James Joyce!)…
11. Radiohead – How to Disappear Completely A pensive meditation on the self and the difficulty of genuine human connection with references to water and hints of an impending departure. I debated whether to include this one, but most car rides with a good and thoughtful companion end up with stretches where you both embrace the silence and let your minds go where they will. This one’s for Rhoda in The Waves.
12. The Waterboys – This is The Sea 2004: I sit down in a movie theater to watch the surfing documentary Riding Giants with no more knowledge of the sport than repeated childhood viewings of Point Break & Airborne. I walk out with a profound respect for the history & challenge of wave riding (plus a more markedly spiritual reverence for Point Break). Part of that was definitely due to the pitch-perfect crescendo this song provides right at the end of the movie. A catalog of intense personal struggle that ultimately embraces hope through an extended water metaphor about transitioning from a river to a sea. I’ll just leave this here.