Soundtrack to the Armageddon

With The Stand, Stephen King wrote a love-letter to 20th century music.

Image part of the Creative Commons, courtesy of  Max Pixel .

Image part of the Creative Commons, courtesy of Max Pixel.

Right before Christmas I finished The Stand, Stephen King’s epic tale of the End Times (happy holidays!).

King’s longest book at 1,152 pages (this was the “Complete and Uncut Edition,” now the only version for sale), The Stand is a lot of things: The story of the end of the world. The ultimate face-off between goodness and evil, the forces of light vs. the devil incarnate. A sprawling tale of dazed, horrified survivors floundering through the wreckage of a fallen world, each implicated in a battle of supernatural powers they cannot comprehend.

But woven through this “dark chest of wonders” from the master of horror is something less scary, though just as intensely felt. And the novel’s very first words — snippets of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, Blue Öyster Cult, and Country Joe and the Fish — give it away.


What Would Be Lost?

Imagine you’re setting out to create a story about the apocalypse. You pick the means, the setting, the characters who will experience it, the chilling details that make it real. There are endless dystopian directions you can steer things.

In A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (a severely under-appreciated novel), we follow a nascent civilization rising up after our present one destroyed itself with a nuclear holocaust and violent revolution.

In One Second After by William R. Forstchen, an EMP attack cripples North America’s infrastructure and sets off a horrific collapse of society.

In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the cause of annihilation is never revealed, making the aftermath that much more chilling.

In The Stand (spoiler alert), human carelessness allows a superflu virus to escape a biowarfare research facility in California that kills 99% of the world’s population (and not only humans) in three weeks.

All of these present perfect, open canvases primed for any number of horrific episodes you can conjure. King gamely provides countless such scenes of terrifying ordeals of the sick and the “lucky” survivors alike, including a whole chapter of deathly vignettes showing people succumbing in ways terrible and trivial after the plague.

But King uses another subtly ingenious device to accentuate the unimaginable loss such a cataclysm would entail. Creating stark relief to all the devastation, he weaves in some of the beauty the world has lost, selecting a universal expression of it that’s still very much a part of his characters’ (and of course, his readers’) lives — music.


That Sweet Soul Music

I started to notice that something significant was happening at around page 35. Already at this point, the reader has been hit with a dozen references to popular music.

Furthermore, one of the novel’s major characters is a professional musician on the cusp of superstardom, his breakthrough hit getting major airplay all over the country just as Captain Trips hits (“Captain Trips” being the nickname for the superflu in the story).

I decided to start tracking each musical reference, keeping a note to myself in my phone of each one I found from then on.

By the end of The Stand, I’d noted over 130 specific references to songs, artists, lyrics, or some combination thereof. That’s more than one for every 10 pages of the novel, in an 1,152-page doorstopper of a book. There can be no mistake that The Stand’s impressive range and frequency of musical allusions are very deliberate, an element given careful attention by King.

Around halfway through it struck me that, in what many consider his magnum opus (King fans will never stop ranking their favorites, but the sheer ambition and scope of this novel is unmistakable), Stephen King had written a love-letter to 20th Century American music. Hidden in plain sight within its pages is a thoughtful, loving mixtape dedicated to our precarious world. I can’t think of any novel with anything close to a comparable amount of specific allusions to songs and musicians.

It was in the late ’80s that King restored his originally published work to its full length, adding back more than 400 pages that had been cut by his publisher for cost. As he restored it to his original vision, he reportedly updated many cultural references. As such, collectively, the litany of musical references comprise their own historic document representing a sweeping variety of genres, right from Civil War folk ballads to ragtime to folksy Gospel hymns all the way to monster pop hits that still get airplay today (not to mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon).

And it is indeed American music that he focuses on. This makes sense, since while the plague hits the entire world, King’s story takes place completely within the mainland U.S. In the music he references, there are exceptions to that American qualifier — bands like The Who, the Stones, and the Beatles, and a few composers like Debussy and Beethoven, for example. But these are exceptions. Anyway, music from the Classical repertoire is simply in the cultural ether, and rock ‘n’ roll  has American roots (King does name-check its progenitors, from old Gospel songs to Son House to Chuck Berry).

Because the plague hits in 1990 in the updated version, which is also when the uncut edition was released, there are no musical references from after the late ’80s. That means this mixtape will feel incomplete to today’s ears as a testament to the full history of American music, leaving out a whole era when new forms blossomed, like hip hop and electronic music. I don’t think there was a single punk reference, either. But one older woman does make a disparaging remark about kids today and their insufferable “screaming” rap music — I chose 1986’s “It’s Tricky” by Run DMC to honor that reference.

Oh, that’s the other thing. The reason I made a note of every reference was to track them down and create a Spotify playlist of them all.

The end result isn’t perfect and required some subjective judgment. Sometimes only an artist’s name is mentioned, necessitating choosing a representative song from their catalogue. Sometimes only a snippet of a song’s lyrics are mentioned, so I did my best to track down the most accurate version King intended. Sometimes a referenced song had been recorded many times, leaving countless options to choose from. Sometimes specific recordings King mentions are currently unavailable on Spotify, so I chose another artist’s rendition. Sometimes no version of the song was available at all.

There have even been a couple covers recorded of one of the protagonist’s fictional hit song within the story. So I added that too.


For the Fans

If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you were either in a home filled with Stephen King books or you missed out. My favorite book of his will always be the collection of novellas Different Seasons, which I read in junior high. Misery is right up there too. I’m a fan.

I also think we might be taking King for granted, mostly because he’s our contemporary. He’s recognized as a master storyteller of towering imagination and staggering output, yet he deserves more esteem as an artist.

But in addition to loving his writing and the stories and characters he’s given the world, like everybody else, I love music. He clearly does too, and knows that you do as well. In fact a Google search shows that there are plenty of fans out there interested in his musical references, not only in The Stand but in other works too.

The wealth of musical references in his great novel are worth pondering, and listening to. These particular allusions offer a glimpse into the mind of a fascinating writer. (Did he hear some of this music while writing this story? I wonder.) 

While that window into his thinking is itself cool enough, it goes beyond that. With The Stand, Stephen King studiously curated a jukebox for us containing some of the best our culture has created, a microcosm of the Library of Congress’s stacks of written and recorded music worth saving.

And it’s good to appreciate what we still have — for as long as we do, and can.

P.S.: A brief Stephen King anecdote for you. My in-laws happened to see him at Ebenezer’s in Maine (“The World’s Best Beer Bar” — with the best lobster roll to match). Some fan approached his table and asked for a selfie. And Stephen King just stared at him. Didn’t say a word. That story makes me love him that much more.

Part 2 has the full list of musical references in The Stand. Did I miss any? Let me know!

If you’d like to check out the playlist for The Stand, I put it on Spotify.


Posted on January 6, 2019