“Rock ‘n’ roll realizes that its songs function within life itself more than any previous art historically ever has.”
—Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, 1970
“Everything connects/and that ain’t nowhere.”
—New York Dolls, “Vietnamese Baby,” 1973
True to the hall-of-mirrors ethos of the series itself, there are numerous ways one could choose to write about the use of pop music in The Leftovers. I have chosen seven songs from Season 2 which take the core of Richard Meltzer’s idea as gospel. All the tracks I’ve listed here exist within the drama itself—I’ve not included music edited in to provide external commentary.
For sure, there are some great uses of the drop-in technique in The Leftovers as well: “Figure Eights” by Max Roach and Buddy Rich in “Off-Ramp;” Barbara & the Browns’ “Great Big Thing” in “Lens.” I would even include Iris Dement’s theme song, “Let the Mystery Be,” in this particular grouping as it calibrated perfectly to both the wide-open spirit of the new locale as well as to the stunning visuals that accompany it. There’s the making of a good list in there, no doubt, but the songs that resonated most with me were those embedded in the drama; songs whose choruses and verses and harmonies and beats (hell, sometimes even lyrics) functioned as invisible supporting actors.
My list is ordered not by personal preference but by the order in which each song appeared in the show. I welcome anyone reading this to use the comments section to list and/or discuss their own favorites. I would love to hear your thoughts.
“Where is My Mind?” the Pixies (1988) and Maxence Cyrin (2013), various Season 2 episodes
Lacerating late-80s post-punk guitar squall, clearly cherished by Kevin Garvey who blares it excruciatingly loud in at least two episodes. Most effectively in episode 2, “A Matter of Geography,” in which the song accompanies his a) pummeling of an uncooperative washing machine; b) retrieval of a dead body; and c) maniacal drive down a stretch of highway so he can attract the attention of a cop and tell them about said body stashed in the bed of his truck. The exhumed one is Patti Levin, the root cause that steers Kevin towards music like the Pixies in the first place.
Though it falls outside the boundaries of internal usage, I would be remiss not to mention the recurring dialogue in Season 2 between the Pixies version of “Where is My Mind?” and its photonegative cover by Maxence Cyrin, a French classical pianist with a bent for performing instrumental versions of alt-rock classics. Cyrin, quite prettily, poses the same question as the Pixies but from the other side of the asylum wall. Which is to say after your mind has already flown the coop and all that’s left is a bunch of pretty colors swirling about.
“Never Gonna Give You Up,” Patti Levin (originally Rick Astley, 1987), from “Orange Sticker”
Musically speaking, Patti is a big-haired ‘80s girl. In Season 1’s “Gladys,” she communicates something resembling pleasure (albeit a tight-lipped, G.R.-approved version) when she stumbles upon Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List” on the car radio. Her funereal finger taps on the steering wheel speak volumes about her innate taste for pop junk while raising some disturbing questions: What kiss? What list?! Later in the episode she encounters, again on the car radio, “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers.
Each is but a warmup for Posthumous Patti’s Season 2 “Rickroll,” as she serenades Kevin with words that are torture to his ears: Never. Gonna. Give. You. Up. Downplayed for impact, and mercifully brief, the execution of this scene is perfect. “You know the rules, and so do I” is terrifying enough; over-dramatizing it with a leering, hellbent-for-trouble Patti would just spoil the mood. (Dean Stockwell miming Roy Orbison in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet this is decidedly not, even if in its peculiar psychopathology, it might emerge from a similar impulse.)
“Let Your Love Flow,” Bellamy Brothers (1976), from “No Room at the Inn”
If Patti is The Leftovers resident Madonnabe—all ‘80s, all the time—Reverend Matt Jamison is the show’s K-Televangelist, as evidenced by a well-placed mid-70s hit in each of the show’s Matt-centric episodes. In Season 1’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” Matt goes on a vehicular-spiritual rampage as Captain & Tennille soothe (or exacerbate?) his frayed nerves with their 1975 hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
In “No Room at the Inn,” the Bellamys’ durable chart-topper is repeated like a mantra. It starts off innocently enough, with Matt firing up the song on his boombox as he tends to his comatose wife Mary: Emptying her urine bag, preparing her food, carting her to church (a cutaway to the congregation as the chorus kicks in is a sublime piece of editing). Sunshine skies, mountain streams, bird on a wing—no super-seventies good-vibes cliché is left unturned here, and the scene expertly fuses Goofy Greatness and spiritual uplift, much like the song itself.
With each successive spin, however, the track takes on an obsessive, near-deranged texture—Reverend Groundhog’s personal rinse-and-repeat, akin to that of Jarden’s overworn wedding gown and goat-slaying ritualists. (For what it’s worth, the goat slayer himself has a brief walk-on in this scene.)
“Stay,” Rihanna feat. Mikky Ekko (2013), from “Lens”
This elegantly produced chart ballad is maybe the best contemporary version of a very familiar pop theme, and one that’s clearly made to order for those ignored in the Sudden Departure: Please don’t abandon me. Here it functions as a soundtrack within a soundtrack, synced to the slideshow commemorating Evie and the other missing girls. The sequence should be beyond mawkish, and perhaps it’s meant to play that way, but the music quickly cuts that curse to shreds as a terrible pall of emptiness spreads across the faces of those in attendance. I see and hear this scene as a critical moment in the season, the moment when it finally starts to dawn on the citizens of Jarden: Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is.
“The Promise,” Sturgill Simpson (2014), from “Ten Thirteen”
Tommy (in pursuit of answers from Meg) and Meg (in pursuit of God-knows-what from God-knows-who), arrive at a dimly-lit, near-deserted bar in Texas. After downing some shooters and exchanging verbal clues which seemingly lead nowhere, they end up on the dance floor, swaying to a deep-voiced, sinuous country cover of an ‘80s new wave hit (a Top 40 hit in 1988 by When in Rome).
One analysis of the scene I came across suggested it was all about Meg playing Tommy for a dupe, but I don’t know—like Rihanna’s “Stay,” something in the music here, and in the hypnotically murky atmosphere, infects both of them. For a brief moment, you wonder just what “the promise” is, who is making it and where it will lead. Lyrical exegeses will get you nowhere with this one; words in the song do indeed exist but are barely decipherable in this setting, and the scene plays better because of it. This is “ambient” music in its truest form—music that wears its environment, and which in turn is worn by listeners.
“Magic,” Olivia Newton-John (1980), from “I Live Here Now”
Meg’s second pop moment in the episode and Olivia’s second in the series. In episode 4, “Orange Sticker,” we heard a morose cover version by Lo-Fang of “You’re the One That I Want,” ONJ’s 1978 duet with John Travolta from Grease. Never having seen the movie Xanadu, from which “Magic” sprung, I can’t comment on any possible meta-connections at play.
Though I was never a big fan of “Magic” (not a hater, it was always just sort of there for me), as it’s used in episode 9 it is inexplicably riveting— the most trance-like car radio sequence in the entire series. The image of Meg—who, like Patti with her Hall & Oates, only half-acknowledges the song’s crisp ‘80s beat—brings to mind some haunting words of on-air poetry spoken by country DJ Dusty Bob in the series pilot episode: “Let’s go teardrop hunting.” That Meg’s interpretation of what such words might mean would almost certainly be in contradiction to what Dusty Bob thinks he meant doesn’t negate the comparison at all. It strengthens it.
“Homeward Bound,” Chief Kevin Garvey (originally performed by Simon & Garfunkel, 1966)
Simon & Garfunkel provided the credit closer to “Lens” with “I Am a Rock,” the first time I’ve ever experienced that song (or maybe anything by S&G) as funny, given that it was used to punctuate not one, but two, rocks tossed through windows. A more interesting duality to ponder, though, is how “Homeward Bound” works as an answer to “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Dead Patti had her Rickroll place in the netherworld; it’s only fair that half-dead Kevin gets his moment in the purgatorial spotlight, too.
Feeling to me a little bit like Bill Murray performing karaoke Roxy Music (“More Than This”) in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Chief Garvey’s performance is a singing-into-and-then-past-the-void masterwork, locating emotions in the song no one—not even Kevin—knew were there. It’s an overwhelming moment, with a mild suggestion of Dorothy in its final frame, when Kevin shuts his eyes and wishes his way back to reality: There’s no place like home.
Worthy of at least a footnote to Kevin’s Simon & Garfunkel tribute is the karaoke-in-purgatory pop song wheel, a literal life-or-death challenge to audience members. For the record, the wheel includes: “Homeward Bound,” Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and—zing!— George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.”