So You’re Picking Up Philip K. Dick from the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
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 novelist, short-story writer, philosopher, and hyper-prolific sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick whose explorations of identity, reality, perception, drug culture, conspiracies, faith, & post-hippie NoCal culture have resonated for decades after his death with a deep and loyal fandom, literary canonization, and multiple blockbuster film adaptations. Gulp. Here’s to an incredible journey.
1. Peace Orchestra – Who Am I The only answer that most of Dick’s protagonists are able to give to the titular question of this track at the end of his works is Hell if I know. Good thing you won’t have to worry about anything as heady as that as you jump onto the freeway at midnight as this curls out of the stereo making you feel at least 120% cooler about yourselves than you actually are…it’s just got that kind of power. Bonus points for being featured throughout the Animatrix, an underappreciated part of a modern classic film universe that I speculate Dick would’ve been enthralled by.
2. Dr. Octagon – Blue Flowers Revisited Dick was a noted devotee of classical music and his death in 1982 came well before hip-hop had become a national force. That said, if he’d lived long enough I can pretty easily see Kool Keith (aka Dr. Octagon aka Black Elvis aka Dr. Dooom) being his favorite M.C. It’s not everyday you’re going to find a lyrical genius who appreciates science fiction, psychological dissociation, conspiracy theories, and the artistic employment of paranoia as much as you do. Blue Flowers Revisited gets the nod not only for being the perfect track for creeping through the hyper-neon streets of a near future dystopian metropolis, but also because the title never fails to make me think of Mors Ontologica, the sky colored source of A Scanner Darkly’s Substance D.
3. Liars – A Visit From Drum Thick dread that you can’t quite place or reconcile: from Joe Chip’s suspicions about his thanatological status in Ubik to Bob Arctor’s fear over his receding identity in A Scanner Darkly this is a psychological territory that Dick mined throughout his career. With this track the Liars more or less made the soundtrack to it.
4. The Velvet Underground – The Black Angel’s Death Song In an extreme surface sense The Velvet Underground (New York, heroin) are the musical anthesis of much of Dick’s (Cali, speed/psychedelics) writing. Definitely not with this song. They were definitely on the same wavelength here. The cascading vocal delivery, the hovering presence of a fundamentally unknowable extra-human force, the way you enjoy it even though it kind of terrifies you. Oh yes. The perfect way to ride out into the night with alongside one of the most talented Americans to ever put pen to paper.
5. The Big Pink – Sweet Dreams Too many pop/rock/indie covers of hip-hop/ R&B songs exist purely because of irony. They’re often as catchy as the originals but it’s often impossible to shake the smirking “isn’t it crazy that we’re playing mandolins while belting out the lyrics to a nightclub banger?!” sentiment lurking underneath. This isn’t one of those songs. The Big Pink plays this Beyonce hit totally straight, adding a creepy melancholy that will have you questioning the nature of perception & reality along with the best of Dick’s protagonists. Caution: Dick will likely be inclined to write 100 pages of exegesis connecting the group’s name to the dazzling “pink beam of light” that twice visited him to impart mystical knowledge.
6. The Flaming Lips – In The Morning of the Magicians You can pretty easily (lazily?) spin The Flaming Lips as the perfect contemporary group for Philip K. Dick enthusiasts. After all, they make albums about androids, robots, psychedelics, religious mysticism, & sci-fi in general. But include this here first & foremost because it’s an ideal wee hours cruising song, hell, your passenger may even be asleep after picking him up from a red eye flight. If not, think he’d agree that there’s no better way to greet the dawn than with a song referencing a left-field classic on occultism & conspiracy theories.
7. Burkhard Dallwitz – A New Life It’s only two minutes long and it’s the music played on the main menu screen of the Truman Show DVD so it’s possible I’ve heard this more than maybe any other track ever recorded. Personal bias aside, this one makes the list for the possibility/gravitas/metamorphosis it hints at, never beating you over the head. Probably put this one on repeat and loop it 3-4 times for the full effect. Those strings in the last half…something is on the horizon, let’s just hope it’s good.
8. Panda Bear – I’m Not Usually when I acknowledge the possibility that reality as we know it is an accident of perception & that my firmly held conviction of selfhood is quite probably a total sham it’s an…unsettling experience. This song works miracles by making that thought acceptable…if not downright pleasant. You’re going to have to do your best to maintain control of the vehicle instead of easing into a meditative trance of acceptance at 70 mph. Good luck.
9. Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me This one’s a risk given Dick’s well noted surveillance paranoia (though at least some of that was based on legitimate threats). But in the end I think he’ll end up enjoying some of the finest that 1980s mainstream novelty pop had to offer. Would this have gotten released if Rockwell wasn’t Motown founder Berry Gordy’s son? Quite possibly. Would it have featured Michael Jackson doing the chorus in the weirdest/awesomest uncredited vocal performance of the decade? DEFINITELY NOT. You pretty much owe it to history to do a duet w/ Philip…full blast.
10. Disco Inferno – Starbound: All Burnt Out & Nowhere To Go “By now the epoch of drug-taking had ended, and everyone had begun casting about for a new obsession.” These words from Valis capture much of the feel of Dick’s later Northern California-bound, theologically oriented later work where various characters still hungover from the sixties had to deal with the deterioration of their bodies, minds, & realities. This is post-rock those people can get with.
11. F*** Buttons – Okay, Let’s Talk About Magic Play this at your own risk. You might just end up finding yourself swelling with a fierce, if undefinable, sense of noble purpose. Once the drums come in you’ll be ready for amission…whatever it might be. I’ve never been so hyped listening to distortion, use the force wisely.
12. Sufjan Stevens – Impossible Soul Buckle Up, this is going to be more than a bit epic. 25 minutes of tape effects, autotune, self-reproach, a children’s chorus, and spiritual affirmation across what could’ve easily been 5-7 distinct songs jam-packed into a single/magisterial stunner. I’m down. One of the more blatantly faith-affirming releases on the indie scene in a while. I think Philip K. would appreciate that, he definitely appreciated the essence of faith when he wrote “Faith is strange. It has to do, by definition, with things you can’t prove.” That never once stopped him from obsessing over it.