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This is the second part of Katherine Montalto’s look at some of rock and roll’s most pervasive characters, and the literature that inspired them. For part one, click here.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Endico

Philosophy at an Execution – The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger is the story of Meursault, a French colonist living in Algiers. Meursault is an emotionally detached and innately passive man who concludes that the recent death of his mother has not changed his life at all. He quickly returns to his life after her funeral as if nothing has happened. He starts an affair with a former co-worker, Marie, he writes a break-up letter for his neighbor Raymond to help him get revenge on a Moorish girlfriend suspected of infidelity, and he goes to the beach where he kills an Arab man because of the heat and glare of the sun.  The focus of Meursault’s trial is that he showed little or no remorse at his mother’s recent funeral, indicating that he is a criminal at heart. Meursault is confused by this train of logic and repeatedly insists that he loved his mother like everybody else, but like all normal people he had also more or less desired the death of those he loved, at some time or another.

The Stranger was published in 1942, an extraordinarily dark time. The world was in the throws of WWII and most people had lost hope in trying to find meaning in the chaos that had become their lives. Amidst this political turmoil the book became an immediate success. Even now, over 70 years later, the anti-hero Meursault resonates with the individual who is trying to find meaning in the face of indifference. And who is trying to face the indifferences of the world more than The Cure, the so called “gurus of gloom?” In December 1978 The Cure released their debut single, “Killing an Arab,” on the Small Wonder label and controversy has followed the song ever since. According to frontman Robert Smith the song is, “a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in The Stranger by Albert Camus.” The song’s provocative title led to accusations of racism and the band has since included a disclaimer on all releases stating that the song “decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence.” American DJs further pushed the controversy when they played the song to advance anti-Arab sentiments. The band has since changed the title and lyrics to “Kissing an Arab.”

The lyrics of “Killing an Arab” narrate the pivotal scene of the book, the moment when Meursault stumbles across an Arab man at high noon on the beach, a man who just a few hours before Meursault had had a brief altercation with. The Arab man is sitting, knife in hand, in the shade on a large rock. A shaded area Meursault desperately wants for himself. The heat and glare of the sun on the Arab’s blade become too much for him and he takes the gun from his pocket (the one he took from Raymond to keep him from doing anything too rash) and shoots him once, killing him, before firing four more shots into the Arab’s lifeless body. The Stranger is a short read, less than 200 pages, and though it’s one of the most famous French novels of the 20th century it isn’t necessarily an easy read. Some readers criticize it for the randomness of the events that take place in the story. In looking beyond the existential philosophy and into the life of Meursault, it’s really just a story about a man who refused to conform to the ideals of humanity that were being pressed upon him, something most of us can relate to.

The Armless Legless Wonder of the Twentieth Century! – Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun has had renewed relevance with every American war. Many U.S. soldiers found the book in Army libraries.  Metallica guitarist James Hetfield became one of those to discover the book long after its publication.  Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich wrote “One” in November of 1987.

Trumbo made his directorial debut with the film version of his tumultuous novel. The movie received harsh reviews, quickly fading from memory.  It was so forgotten that Metallica purchased the rights to the movie to use generous clips from it for the song’s 1989 music video. “One” is a mainstay of Metallica’s live shows as a fan favorite and one of the band’s biggest hits to date. It was their first Top 40 single, peaking at #35 on the Billboard Hot 100. “One” was also the band’s first video, featuring dialogue and several scenes from the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. Metallica received their first two Grammy nominations for the album …And Justice For All and the single “One” in 1989. They preformed “One” live at the award show and won the Grammy for the single but lost the Best Rock Album award in a huge upset to Jethro Tull. [Editor’s Note: Say What???]

Johnny Got His Gun is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t a gung-ho American kind of war novel. In fact, it’s not so much about the actual war itself, but rather the terrible, isolated aftermath. It’s the kind of story that can bring its readers to tears, on more than one occasion. It is not a book about politics, it is not about communism or democracy or fighting for honor. It’s about the human cost of war.

All photos other than the first courtesy of amazon.com

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