Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.
This month, I’ve decided to feature “Doc” Sportello, the shaggy hero of Thomas Pynchon’s shaggy-dog noir, Inherent Vice, published in 2009. The story unfolds in early-1970’s Los Angeles, where “Doc” makes a marginal living as a private investigator. An unexpected visit from his estranged girlfriend, Shasta, sets Doc off on the marijuana-scented trail of a freewheeling plot involving dopers, musicians, inept lawyers, crooked detectives, a biker gang and an insidious smuggling operation.
Working in an uncharacteristic genre, Pynchon writes stylish, often-hilarious dialogue that stands tall beside his beautifully descriptive and evocative prose. He weaves an impressive spell throughout the book, managing to pull off the formidable trick of not only immersing the reader in this particular world, but also writing sumptuously about a set of surroundings that the characters openly disdain. He also weaves a sly, subtle commentary on the emerging corporate culture of America into what reads on the surface as a very entertaining lark.
Here are some tunes that Doc might have burned a spliff while listening to.
Coffee Cold by Galt MacDermot and his Mid-Manhattan Rhythm Section (1966) At once loose, funky and somber, this piano-driven instrumental cut, featuring the legendary Bernard Purdie on drums, could be the perfect backdrop to Doc whiling away hours in his office, waiting on a case to turn up.
There Is A Mountain by Donovan (1967) This flute and percussion-heavy groover, with its nod to Buddhist philosophy, falls right in line with the circuitous plot. “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”
Alone Again Or by Love (1967) Bright guitars and a Mariachi horn line belie the narrator’s sadness as he pines for an absent lover. “All the times I waited patiently for you/ Then you will do just what you choose to do/ And I will be alone again tonight, my dear”
Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix (1967) Just Jimi doing what Jimi did. While the time-bending, imagery-rich lyrics leave the meaning open to interpretation, the song’s cumulative effect is unshakeable. “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”
*Driftin’ Drifter by Little Milton (1968) This rollicking, mid-tempo Northern Soul cut finds the narrator unmoored—and slightly unhinged—by his lady’s disappearance. “You wouldn’t listen to a fool’s advice/ You played a game and walked out of my life”
It’s You (I Don’t Ever Want To Come Down) by the 13th Floor Elevators (1969) This track, off of the band’s Bull of the Woods album, is a lo-fi, reverb-drenched, psychedelic rock beauty. “Well some they pledge allegiance, while others treasure seek/ And soul wisdom spoken back, each life will be unique”
It’s Time To Break Down by The Supremes (1970) This post-Diana Ross cut blended The Supremes R&B-based sound with some heavier, rock-infused electric guitarwork. And that opening is one for the ages.
Funky Thithee by Shuggie Otis (1970) Only 16 at the time of this track’s release, Shuggie was already his own man, combining blues, rock, funk and R&B with swaggering confidence. This one swings, and swings hard.
Mambo Sun by T-Rex (1971) A trippy, cosmic brand of rock, featuring Marc Bolan’s lovely guitar work. “Beneath the bebop moon, I’m howling like a loon for you/ Beneath the mambo sun, I’ve got to be the one for you”
Rock ‘N’ Roll Stew by Traffic (1971) Ric Grech’s nimble bass line anchors this funky, languid rocker. “’Cause I’m gone, gone, gone…”
* Not available on Spotify