I was a musician long before I was a writer, having learned from my mother how to play folk guitar when I was eight. I worked my slow, little fingers around chords to songs like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Cockles and Muscles.” A few years later, I moved to classical guitar having fallen in love with the works of a Paraguayan composer named Agustín Barrios. And don’t tell anyone, but I might just be a dynamite singer when I’m alone in my car.
Music isn’t just a personal passion, it’s a living and ever-mutating part of me. So it’s not surprising that music stitched itself into passages of In Light of Recent Events (shorthand ILORE). The songs that appear in the book felt like natural parts of the story—I can’t even say I consciously chose them so much as they just felt like they needed to be there. But there were also songs that lent their influence behind the scenes without making it onto the page. I’ve collected them all here in a literary playlist with author notes. Give a listen on Spotify or Apple Music.
- Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads
In the opening chapter, Pooter hijacks a conversation between him and Audrey when he recognizes that the rhythm of the copy machine, set to continuous print, matches the galloping beat of David Byrne’s classic, Road to Nowhere, a painful irony for these two characters who, it soon becomes clear, are squandering their young lives in an unsatisfying, uninspiring corporate setting.
I confess, this idea came straight out of my personal experience having discovered that exact rhythm in our old washing machine. It was shortly after my daughter was born, and I was a sleep-deprived mess rocking a crying baby in my arms, dancing and singing along like a crazy person while my husband watched on in bemused horror.
- Sail Away Ladies (Live Version) – Odetta
The night Dan accompanies Audrey to Starbucks for their second fateful encounter, a song by folk-blues legend and civil rights activist, Odetta, is playing through the coffeeshop’s speakers. It sparks a conversation that leads Dan and Audrey to realize that they had attended the same music festival a few years prior.
Though this recording of “Sail Away Ladies” is not from a bootleg of that concert, it is a live performance from 1985 and probably reflects what Audrey would have heard if her memory of that day hadn’t been “warped from too much weed and beer and sun.”
- Love Will Keep Us Together – Captain and Tenille
Like many of us with long-ago CD collections, Audrey keeps hers alphabetized. So when she goes to retrieve the Clearwater Festival bootleg from the shelf, it’s housed between Captain and Tenille and Color Me Badd. Choosing between “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “I Wanna Sex You Up” for this playlist came down to a coin toss. Sorry, Badd boys.
- Tracy Hardman’s Cheek – Scott Reynolds
“Tracy Hardman’s Cheek” wasn’t released until 2008 by Scott Reynolds, singer-songwriter and former vocalist for the punk band All, so it is not referenced in the book. But I do refer to a line from the song—“Rain that smells like dirt and driveways”—in a flashback scene that was loosely inspired by it.
The scene is when 12-year-old Audrey is forced by her siblings to sleep at the neighbor’s house because they’re hosting a party while their parents are away. As she leaves the house, Audrey describes the scene after a summer rain, “With the storm clouds gone, the setting sun still had enough heat to cause steam to rise off the asphalt like breathing, and there was a sharp, salty smell in the air, like dirt and driveways.” It’s a sight and smell I recall vividly, having grown up on a dead-end street that was home to a lot of paved driveways.
But more nostalgic than that was how this song brought back a flood of memories of my pre-teen friends and me in the early 80s, spending our allowance money on Bonne Bell lip balms and Kissing Potions in flavors like Bubble Gum, Cotton Candy, Strawberry and Cherry. When Reynolds sings that Tracy Hardman, his first crush, “smelled so much like candy”, I know exactly what he means.
- Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
There was simply no way to write a 1980s high school party scene in New Jersey without including The Boss’ classic ballad. And if you can only quote two lines of the song to avoid getting sued by Mr. Springsteen for copyright infringement, it’s kind of a no-brainer which lines to choose:
Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines…
- Damn This Traffic Jam – James Taylor
In the New Year’s Eve scene, Pooter plays DJ and disses Audrey’s abundance of James Taylor CDs to which Julie Lee responds, “I used to get stoned all the time listening to James Taylor in my dorm.” The particular choice of Taylor’s jazzy, a capella “Traffic Jam” on the playlist is a nod to Audrey and Julie’s first encounter, when they nearly collided cars during the commute on their first day of work together.
- Doreen – Old 97’s
Also in the New Year’s Eve scene, Pooter refers to a song by the Old 97’s whose “mix of bluegrass and fast punk managed to pull off a country song set in Queens.” Beyond that great juxtaposition, I love the story of this song, its central character Doreen, and the winking stretch-of-a-rhyme in this line:
We galloped through the boroughs
like a pair of horny thoroughbreds
- 24 Caprices, Op. 1: No. 24 in A Minor – Niccolò Paganini
During the night Pooter and Daisy spend together, Pooter muses that “if kissing were a musical form, it would be theme and variation, and that he’d never again hear the Paganini Caprice in the same way.” The Caprice he is imagining consists of a theme, eleven variations and a finale. To appreciate the piece’s nuance, complexity, and yes, romance, it seemed best to let this virtuoso recording by Itzhak Perlman demonstrate what Pooter means.
- Buzzcocks – Ever Fall in Love with Someone You Shouldn’t’ve Fallen in Love With
As far as I know, there is no such band as The Cock Asians but if there were, they would have sounded a lot like the Buzzcocks. Simple, tight, pop punk. And of course, this particular song’s sentiment could resonate with any of the lead characters in the book.
- The Llama – Rose Polenzani
If ILORE ever becomes a movie (hello, Netflix…), “The Llama” will be playing behind the rolling credits. It was a song that won my heart many years ago from the very first verse:
To ride on a
Black winged Llama over desert
In the chill of night
Wasn’t my idea.
Clearly, Polenzani had other things in mind, but I imagined the lyrics making perfect sense for Audrey and the metaphorical way she is carried away by the strange and magical creature that is Jamie. Add to that, the simplicity of the instrumentation and the child-like, wistful vocals that capture those strange moments when you feel like a fully-grown adult and a child in the same breath.
The Llama is a song that, in my mind, takes Audrey’s story, tucks it in, and puts it to bed.
I’ve made the In Light of Recent Events playlist public, so if you’re a fan of the book and have your own song associations with the period or the story, I invite your additions. No Spotify account? No problem. Contact me with your suggestions and I’ll add them—even better if you’re willing to share your thoughts or memories associated with the song. It would be super fun to see this playlist take on a collaborative musical life of its own.