J. D. Salinger's most famous novel, Catcher in the Rye, turns 51 years old today. In case you've forgotten -- because modern television will do that to memory -- the book is all about a whiny, privileged kid name Holden Caulfield who struggles for meaning in post-WWII America. He eventually ends up in a loony bin, and his story is loudly heralded as a controversial classic of literature.
Personally? I don't get it, but growing up in East Houston doesn't really prepare you to identify with the existential crises of kids that have to wear ties to school and don't fall asleep at night to the sound of gunfire. Plenty of other, smarter people with degrees and stuff say it's fantastic, and boy howdy do folks love to call it a bad influence.
Even today, it's still regularly makes the list of most challenged books because of its bad language, drinking, and promiscuity. Honestly, it's less shocking than Stranger in a Strange Land or the Handmaid's Tale, both of which my high school English teacher assigned me to read.
You can't deny its place in American cultural history, and more than a few songs have been inspired by the book... as well as more unpleasant things.
Green Day, "Who Wrote Holden Caufield?": I'll let Billie Joe Armstrong himself tell this one, since Catcher in the Rye is his favorite book...
"It's a song about forgetting what you're going to say," he says. "It's trying to get motivated to do something because your elders tell you, you have to get motivated. So then you get frustrated and you think that you should do something but you end up doing nothing. But then you enjoy it."
Armstrong always identified with Caufield's outcast and lost nature, a theme that has been the staple of Green Day songs throughout their career. Disaffected is both Salinger's and Armstrong's calling card.
Rollerskate Skinny, "Miss Leader": Rollerskate Skinny managed to be a very influential Irish band in the '90s with only two albums before they called it quits, and are usually paired with My Bloody Valentine in terms of popularity. Lead guitarist Ger Griffin, now working under the moniker of Super Electric, has said that a third album is still lying around waiting to be released, but there's little chance that the band will ever reunite.
The name of the group is a quote from Catcher, "She's quite skinny, like me, but nice skinny, rollerskate skinny."
Nothingface, "Machinations": Of course, while there is a whole subset of people that feel a connection to Holden Caufield and forward the cause of angsty art, there is that... other demographic: The one that seems to take the book as a ticket to Crazytown with no stops on the way.
Nothingface sums up the madness of folks like John Hinckley and Robert John Bardo, both famous murderers and fans of Catcher, perfectly in this ode to violent mental illness.
Cabins, "Catcher in the Rye": Hinckley and Bardo... but there was one I left out of the list, isn't there? Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon and presented Catcher as his statement as to why. Cabins guitarist and singer Leroy Bressington composed this song inspired by Chapman's deed for their album Bright Victory. Bressington said of the work...
"Yeah, it's not actually about the book, I mean I love the book. But the guy who killed John Lennon was reading Catcher in the Rye, and thought it was about him and part of him. I guess it's about people thinking something's about them when it's not. It's kind of like 2010's 'You're So Vain.'"
John Lennon, "Imagine": Why did Chapman shoot Lennon in spite of being a big Beatles fan? Well, the short answer is of course because he's bugshit crazy, but even crazy people have a kind of logic.
In the case of Chapman, it's because he felt that Lennon was a dangerous phony that was leading children astray. "Imagine" was a particular sore point. He felt that Lennon saying "Imagine no possessions" while being a multi-millionaire was blatant and cruel hypocrisy.
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At his parole hearing in 2000, Chapman appeared to have come to grips with his own mental illness and the wrongness of his actions. "I feel that I see John Lennon now not as a celebrity," he said. "I did then. I saw him as a cardboard cutout on an album cover. I was very young and stupid, and you get caught up in the media and the records and the music."
He continued: "And now I've come to grips with the fact that John Lennon was a person. This has nothing to do with being a Beatle or a celebrity or famous."