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Five songs inspired by Kurt Vonnegut

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“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no cause, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvellous moments seen all at one time.” – Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

So it goes. How can an anti-war book be life-affirming while still holding true to the horrors that it condemns? It is a difficult question for mere mortals, but God-like Kurt Vonnegut achieves it with aplomb by involving aliens of all things. By invoking the surreal he captures the true senselessness of war, which for some reason is a message that still needs stating. However, beyond his whimsical approach and every other element he joyous clusters into his kaleidoscopic novels, the effect he has, above all, is to have you break from reading to proclaim, ‘He’s put in print the thoughts I didn’t even know I was already thinking!’

Such is the effect of the UK syllabus set out by stuffy government dullards many people have been put off fiction in the printed form forever. With 14-year olds forced to consider how their skateboarding days are somehow similar to the life of 1930’s ranch-hands or pour over poetry from pleasant tweed-clad laureates about geraniums and cleaners watching Tele after work. However, in the US, Slaughterhouse-Five offers up a beguiling mix of prose and philosophy that has enamoured many future artists from the get-go and formed a cornerstone of cultural education that surely lingers somewhere in the welter of influence forevermore. 

The novel begins, “All of this happened, more or less,” and for our author it near enough did. Kurt Vonnegut served in WWII and was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the allied firebombing. Weeks earlier German forces had marched him through Dresden, the most beautiful and civilised city he had ever seen, to a Slaughterhouse. When he emerged after the most destructive firebombing in history, the beautiful city of Dresden was gone. This is not so much his detailed account, rather his trademark mirthful philosophical musing on war, life and how things can so easily get so f–ked up. And it’s all experienced through the bumbling veteran Billy Pilgrim – a man who slips through time. 

Though ostensibly an anti-war novel, it is more so a message about the ‘impermanence of life’ and ‘how this very moment is as real as the next’. The minuscule concession of all tragedies is that they bore out a message for the future and if war teaches us anything it’s that surely all life is to be cherished, as Vonnegut puts it, “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.”

As his uncle once told him, when things are going swimmingly, you’d do well to pause, realise your windfall and exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ Although sometimes Vonnegut can seem curmudgeonly as he holds society over the coals, this inherent joie de vivre always saves his discerning from cynicism and ultimately his works are a triumphant celebration of our dogged and damned existence. 

This paradoxically clear yet kooky view of the world was propagated in simple prose, and as filmmaker Bob Weide puts it: “What high school kid isn’t gonna gobble [that] up!” With that in mind, Vonnegut’s novels would become central texts within the counterculture movement. He looked at the world in the most colourful way possible without losing sight of what was black and white, and as such, he made it clear to contemporaries that political discourse did not simply belong to those in ties.

As a testimony of this, we have picked out five tracks inspired by the writer below. From the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia who even bought the film adaptation rights to The Sirens of Titan to Nick Lowe’s nod to his catchphrase. So it goes. 

Five songs inspired by Kurt Vonnegut:

‘So It Goes’ – Nick Lowe

Only Kurt Vonnegut could decree his own outlook with three simple words that have gone down in history and contain the depth of a literary tome all on their own. There is a madness to the world that is perfectly realised in Slaughterhouse-Five where just about every absurdity that unfurls throughout is followed by the pointed utterance of “So it goes”.

Nick Lowe’s literary music outlook lifted this motif for a cracking little solo debut single from back in 1976. With jangly guitars propping up a bopping melody, the wherewithal of the song is in the whimsical lyrics that capture the wherefores of Vonnegut’s classic novel in style

‘Blue Monday’ – New Order

Throughout his postmodernist masterpiece Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut plays with the form of a novel like a literary Godhead. One of the elements he doles out at will is a slew of his own sketches. One such illustration reads: “Goodbye Blue Monday.” 

When New Order’s Stephen Morris was reading this, he thought it was a great title for a song and the futurist approach of the book encouraged New Order to journey towards a pioneering technological approach for the track. 

‘The Last Man On Earth’ – Wolf Alice

It is a measure of Vonnegut’s work that he continues to influence emerging acts even today. As Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell explained of their 2021 track: “I had written the line ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God’ in my notes. But then I thought: ‘Uh, your peculiar travel suggestion isn’t a dancing lesson from God, it’s just a travel suggestion! Why does everything need to mean something more.”

The quote itself is from Vonnegut’s novel Cats Cradle and it captures one of the many notes of wisdom from the fictional deity Bokonon. Said with a wry smile, the song carries the same sense of playful profundity that makes Vonnegut’s meaningless meanderings so damn meaningful.

‘Kurt Vonnegut’ – Born Ruffians

It doesn’t get much clearer than naming a song after the writer himself. Canadian indie rockers Born Ruffians offered up an honourable title to the writer with their 2008 single from their Red, Yellow & Blue record. 

The song references Vonnegut’s Cats Cradle philosophical poem on the head-scratching human condition, as he writes: “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why? ‘ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.” 

‘Uncle John’s Band’ – Grateful Dead

In truth, the Grateful Dead were such big fans of Kurt Vonnegut that he undoubtedly inspired many of their songs. However, ‘Uncle John’s Band’ sports one very clear link that proves handy to work another of his most brilliant quotes into this piece. In the track, the protagonist doesn’t care about much, but there is one thing he must know: “What I want to know, is are you kind?”

That line set it up nicely to close things with Vonnegut’s message to the world: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

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