So You’re Picking Up Tracy K. Smith From the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures 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!
This week your passenger is uber-talented Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy. K. Smith. As a musical base for this particular list I’m using Smith’s most recent volume of work Life on Mars (and, to a lesser extent, her preceding book Duende) along with a recent opportunity I took to see her read. We can definitely work with this.
Life on Mars is an incredibly worthwhile and nuanced work that bears multiple readings, but for dashboard DJing purposes I’m going to boil it down to a handful of convenient (and woefully inadequate) terms. Namely: loss, hope, outer space, social justice & David Bowie. Definitely David Bowie.
Here we go:
1. Joy Division – Disorder
Insanely reductive genre cohabitation allows us to refer to both this song and Bowie’s output between The Man Who Sold The World and Lodger as “70s British Rock”, so at a trivial level there’s that. More importantly this is a jumpy and impassioned tune that it’s impossible to sit still through — perfect energy music. There’s also the appreciation of the cosmos held in common by Smith and Joy Division, as evidenced by the band’s choice to usean image of a pulsar’s radio waves for their album cover. If, against all reason, the song is a bust, you can always have a nice chat about the recent internet hoax involving Bowie supposedly having done a cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart with New Order in the 80s (if only!). P.S. Try not to let the fact that the lyrics reference cars crashing get to you.
2. Janet Jackson – Alright
Crank it. Totally appropriate for either barreling along the freeway unimpeded with the windows down or seat-dancing in an effort to forget your troubles while crawling through rush hour apocalypse. Off Rhythm Nation 1814, undoubtedly the most socially conscious new jack swing album ever recorded, a fact that you can use for cover should anyone question you playing this (at least that’s what I always do…)
3. Madvillain – Shadows of Tomorrow
Much respect to Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, & Mae Jemison, pioneers all. But Sun Ra is the patron saint of African-American space travel. The cryptic, space-obsessed jazz visionary & peace prophet is heavily sampled here musing about time and the harsher realities of our earthly existence. This, layered over an insistent beat while Madlib and his alter-ego Quasimoto trade verses, is the perfect cruising jam to shake out any possible jet lag cobwebs.
4. Parliament – Presence of a Brain
Toggle the cruise control, lean the seat back and let this one take you where it will. The title alone is flattering to any passenger and particularly accurate here. Aside from that, who can disagree with George Clinton? You just don’t argue with a man whose hair has been 83% yarn for three decades.
5. Camaron De La Isla – Al Verte Las Flores Lloran
If you name one of your poetry collections Duende I’m going assume that you’re a fan of, or at least quite amenable to, flamenco music. Even if that’s not the cause it won’t make much of a difference because anyone possessing a beating heart can’t help but get caught up in this tune. The guitar is fierce (RIP Paco De Lucia) and though I personally can only catch bits of what Don Camaron is singing about, there’s no doubt that the manmeans it. Roll down the windows for this one, you’ll need the extra room for the air castanets.
6. Africa HiTech – Light The Way
We’re going to keep going on the Sun Ra/outer space mother ship with this 2011 single. Africa HiTech here uses a much shorter Sun Ra sample and accomplishes the notable feat of crafting an incredibly hopeful and light-filled track from a song titled The Sky is a Sea of Darkness When There is No Sun. Your soul will smile. It was neck and neck between this and another AHt cut from one of their EPs, The Sound of Tomorrow, which is equally appropriate for this drive. If you’re feeling hesitant I say either include both or use this one for the AM and that track for nighttime.
7. Brian Eno – Baby’s On Fire
Most of the Bowie music directly referenced in Life on Mars either just precedes or postdates his full-tilt shiny boots glam phase, but I feel good about dropping this gem here. Truth be told, I first heard it watching the Velvet Goldmine DVD in high school, there with vocals by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This version preserves the entire legendary guitar solo and, you know, ISN’T voiced by the guy playing Dracula on NBC.
8. Warpaint – Ashes To Ashes
Bowie gets covered a lot. After all the stuff Seu Jorge did for the Life Aquatic soundtrack, and Vanilla Ice’s vivid interpolation of his collaboration with Queen, this is probably my favorite instance of that happening. If you hit traffic while it’s playing you simply won’t mind.
9. The Band – Don’t Do It (2000 Cahoots Outtake Version)
Alternate Take, a poem about art helping to make art, is dedicated to Levon Helm. That, and this song’s intrinsic awesomeness, mean it has to be here. Originally a Marvin Gaye track (courtesy of Motown titans Holland-Dozier-Holland) this was recorded by The Band for the 1972 live release Rock of Ages. I like this shorter/chunkier version from the 2000 re-release of Cahoots more though. (Note: This cut is definitely necessary in the unlikely event that you have to go off-road and cut through an untamed patch of Arkansas back road to make it to dinner).
10. Osvaldo Golijov – Balada/Quiero Arrancarme Los Ojos
I only ever heard this because my library is in the same town as the composer’s house. Modern day opera, steeped in flamenco, presenting the last days of Lorca. Beautiful music. I suggest playing these 2 tracks in sequence (the 1st is very brief). Chills are possible. [Note: The CD is readily available but individual tracks of this are a bit elusive streaming-wise. The above link isn’t for these tracks specifically, but it gives a solid taste.]
11. Cliff Martinez – Will She Come Back
Loss and hope and faith in space? I don’t think we can have this conversation unless you’ve watched Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris. It’s the best romance flick I’ve ever seen that also happens to take place in a space station orbiting an alien world that reads & incarnates people’s dreams. Oh man, the whole soundtrack is pretty stunning, but this piece in particular…man. Deep space! Longing! George Clooney! Polish speculative fiction legends! The discussions you can have based on this track alone make it a must-play. Keep in mind though: this is NOT a high-energy tune.
12. David Bowie – Subterraneans
Bowie (as lyricist, inspiration, & public figure) weaves in and out of Life on Mars in ways that are as sorrowful as the demise of his centuries-old vampire inamorato in that movie The Hunger and as joyful as the “Magic Dance” sequence in Labyrinth (if you ignore Jareth’s bulge). When it comes to Bowie classics that you might include on a driving playlist you could curate a whole boxed set if you wanted, but here I’m going with something much more reserved (mournful?) than say Golden Years or Moonage Daydream. The last track on Low, this mostly instrumental cut works best as a closer for when you’re just pulling up to the terminal for the drop-off journey. Not quite “sad”, but definitely final, it provides the perfect sense of an ending.
Like I said, no guarantees, but I think you’re on good footing here. Drive safe and play it loud.