by Erin Brophy
Wine and Dine is a recurring column about the books we love and the music that goes with them. In this column, writers pick a favorite book or essay that has significant personal relevance, and then craft a playlist to “pair” with it. Like wine pairings, but with fanmixes. You get it. 🍷
My childhood was full of fantasy novels. I gobbled them up at an alarming rate, some sort of street-urchin brain let loose on a feast to gorge itself on world-building, linguistics, swordfights, and true love. Reading was an escape, and one for a long time I thought was only possible through fantasy books. Animorphs was a big favorite, because who doesn’t love the idea of being able to shapeshift into a collected store of animals and fight aliens who implant themselves in your loved ones?! I was hooked, early on. I also didn’t have teachers who realized just how quickly I was reading, moving through things. My fifth grade teacher was the first one who tested me for reading aptitude, and introduced me to realistic fiction, told me that there were a lot more books out there than what I had been limiting myself to, and introduced me to Julie of the Wolves, Quest for a Maid, Ann Rinaldi. She showed me there was a whole world out there that blurred the lines between nonfiction and fiction still rooted in our world, but made sure to give me topics that were just fantastic enough that I remained interested.
I transferred schools in 6th grade. I made it through that first year awkward, stumbling, hiding inside each new Harry Potter release; I discovered Redwall and The DragonRiders of Pern. Hiding inside that fantasy world was a way for me to feel like I fit in. I was positive, absolute,, that I would never find that sort of connection to realistic characters. They were just a little too real, and the realness of the world I was facing and the awkwardness of navigating puberty and a new school (with fourteen children in my grade, in a school where the students began as 3-year-olds and moved up together) was too much for me to attempt to handle more reality.
In 7th grade, my English teacher broke us up, again, into reading groups tested by “aptitude”. I was in a group of three students, but I’d already read all of the book options she was letting us choose from on the “difficult” side of the room. So she put me in a group of my own, reading books she chose for me and presenting my analysis and thoughts alone. It was nice, during that year, having someone I could talk to. I was eating lunch alone, writing weird poetry during recess as I fumbled into becoming a person, and the girl who was becoming my best friend was a grade below me–we hardly saw each other during school. It was a difficult year, and when I told Mrs. Papador about the frustrations, she gave me The Outsiders the next day, and told me it was my next assignment. I eyed the book with some distaste, flipping through it to see the page count and raising one eyebrow when I saw it wasn’t even 200 pages long, and I remember she squeezed my shoulder and told me to just “give it a chance”.
I won’t lie – I picked up the book expecting to hate it. But the edition I was given had a picture of tough-looking boys on the front, looking at the camera with a combination of weariness and defiance, and that, if nothing else, was interesting. I began reading that night after dinner, and instead of just reading the chapters assigned – I was notorious already for reading ahead – I finished the entire book. Once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. Even though I was sitting decades ahead of the setting, in a house nothing like the Curtis household, with almost nothing in common with these boys on the surface, I felt the similarities rise.
I read through the bullying Ponyboy endured, the fear of never really knowing when the Socs might attack next, who they might go over, the shame they felt (and tried not to feel) for being Greasers, on the wrong side of the tracks. I heard the affection and amusement in his brothers’ voices when he talked about books, about dreams. Saw the struggle Darry was going through as a boy (I hesitate to say “man” even though he was the only one legally an adult among them–for all purposes, Darry is still a boy, bewildered and fighting through an upheaval in his life to keep things they way he thinks they should be, forced to be an adult long before his time, a boy in a man’s body) trying to provide for his family and still give them some semblance of normalcy in the strange world that was their lives. I saw Sodapop described as “high on life” and realized that wasn’t a bad thing to be, that enthusiasm for the little things wasn’t terrible, wasn’t strange. I saw Johnnycake, shy and hunched in on himself, saw the way they protected him and looked out for him, and felt hopeful. I watched Dallas Winston with wide eyes, unsure of this sullen boy who was mean to girls and his gang-family alike, who sacrificed his own life at the end because living without Johnny, the one pure thing in his life, wasn’t a life he wanted to live.
I saw Cherry stumble and struggle to bloom behind the skirts and sweaters and cheerleader’s outfit, heard the desperation crafted in simple sentences about how she needed, wanted, so much more. About how she hated the life they were living. I realized that maybe, just maybe, the kids who teased me might want that, as well. I cried when Johnny killed the Soc. I giggled my way through the despair of Johnny and Pony having to cut their hair, gripped the book so hard I bent it when Johnny ended up not being okay after the fire, in the hospital. Laughed again, a little more weak, when Soda lamented the loss of Pony’s hair. I didn’t realize then that there was more being mourned than hair, but also innocence – some part of his youth, the trust Pony seemed to have in the world despite its shortcomings.
I read the entire book in one sitting and left feeling both heavier and lighter–heavier because my heart was tense, it ached for the boys in this story; lighter because I wasn’t alone. Somehow, inexplicably, those boys from a faraway time and place, different from my own and yet so similar, had managed to work under my skin and teach me, at 13, that I wasn’t alone. That I wouldn’t always be alone. That it was okay to be weird and different even if things didn’t always turn out the way I thought they would. It was surprising to me, at the time, because so much of what I was escaping into was fantasy. I never thought that there would be a realistic fiction book that could help me escape, that could actually make me feel more accepted than the fantasy did. I didn’t understand that I could be weird and different in the real world, the world where everything is gritty and rough, and still find people who were like me. The appeal of fantasy was I could pretend that I was different in ways that were amazing–magical, even. Realistic fiction didn’t show me many characters like myself, until The Outsiders.
It gave me a different way of looking at the world, a different idea of what fiction could be, and I wanted to read it again and again and again. I did, over the next few weeks, as I talked about it with my teacher and wrote my book report on it, and I kept re-reading it over the course of the year. She gave me more realistic fiction, stories with similar themes of being stuck on the outside, having different opinions, being watched. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, A Little Princess, That Was Then This Is Now. I read everything of S. E. Hinton’s I could get my hands on, but I always went back to The Outsiders in the end.
When I first made this playlist, iPods weren’t even around yet and I didn’t have my own computer. We had one family computer, in the living room, that was still connected to the Internet via an ethernet port that was shared with the home phone line. Spending hours online just to illegally download music wasn’t something I had the luxury of as a 13-year-old. So I did it the old-fashioned way.
That original tape has since been lost to time, but being the slightly over-organized child that I was, I made a list of the songs. Over the years, while I’ve re-read the book, I’ve made and edited the playlist again multiple times. On each new computer, on each new iPod, some variation of it shows up. I hear a new song and add it to the playlist on my iPod, but not my computer, or vice versa, I delete songs upon listening to the playlist again and realizing I’m nuts for thinking that particular song fits perfectly, and so on.
There isn’t really any order these songs stay in, either–sometimes I listen to it all the way through, but for the most part I hit shuffle, or manually re-order them to fit my mood about the book at the time. Obviously, some of these are newer songs, added later in life as I matured and my feelings about the book matured. Some are things 13-year-old Erin put on here in a fit of puberty and angst and trying to make A Statement with the music she was playing. Some are on here simply because one lyric stood out to me and I have far too much of an emotional connection to music once it gets stuck with me. Taking it out because “it’s only one lyric” seems almost like a betrayal to these characters who helped me through so many moments in my childhood and into adulthood.
Sometimes the book is easy to get through again, whipping through it in one sitting and feeling more centered and calm having read it, having gone on the journey again–it’s a cleansing of sorts, in a way, a catharsis I wasn’t aware I needed. Sometimes it’s harder, because that catharsis isn’t something I want even though I want the comfort of my favorite book. Sometimes the trauma these young men are dealing with hits me a little too close to home, makes feeling my own emotions uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s just a book, sometimes it’s more than that. This playlist works the same way–sometimes it’s just songs in a random order, and sometimes it’s what I need to play to help work through whatever emotions I’m having.
It seems like just a jumble of songs, yes, and sometimes I think it’s the least thought-through playlist I’ve ever made, simply because I’m constantly tweaking it, and have been over the last 15 years. Then I realize that, no, it’s the one that changes with me, with my experiences as I read, it’s actually the most coherent playlist I’ve ever made because I realize that it changes and grows with me, just like my understanding of these characters. Some of these songs are character-specific, some are book-specific, and some just evoke the emotions I feel or have felt in the past while reading it. It’s a strange mix, but it really is my favorite playlist I’ve ever made, changes and all.
1. Back Into Your System–Saliva
I’ve been gone away, but I’m back again
Back with all my friends and I’ve been floating away on a silver cloud
Lined with all of my wildest dreams.
This is the one I always listen to first when I’m about to re-start this book, because the lyrics perfectly describe the adventure of reading it–the characters really have a way of just working themselves back into my senses as though they’d never really left, winding into thoughts and emotions as though that’s where they’re supposed to be.
2. Fallen–Sarah McLachlan
Heaven bend to take my hand and lead me through the fire
Be the long awaited answer to a long and painful fight
This song hit particularly close to home as both one to represent the Curtis family, but particularly Daryl. The idea that these three boys, orphaned, led by a brother barely old enough to be responsible for so many but doing their best to take care of each other, was what drew me into the novel in the first place. This song, for me, evokes a deep feeling of trying one’s absolute hardest, of fighting through the hardships life throws at you, of ignoring the looks of those around you as they think you’ve failed somehow. Despite all of this, Darry keeps going, keeps picking them up, keeps soldiering on. It’s a message of hope but also of realizing the world isn’t always as easy as you may have thought it was going to be as a child.
3. Battle Scars–Paradise Fears
This is an anthem for the homesick, for the beaten,
The lost, the broke, the defeated.
A song for the heartsick, for the standbys,
Living life in the shadow of a goodbye.
Battle Scars is a song that was added in the last couple of years, and it’s really hard to find just one lyric that stands out, but the entire song is about fighting even when things seem hopeless, when the rest of the world is pushing down on you and it feels utterly inescapable. This song reminds me the most of Ponyboy, but especially his relationship with Johnny–even at the end, Johnny is encouraging Ponyboy to stay gold, to not give into the hatred and injustices of the world around them and the world they’re growing up in. He encourages Pony to tell Dallas the world is beautiful, he pushes the very essence of the message of this song on him, and to me this is one of the most important songs on this playlist.
4. Cancer–My Chemical Romance
I will not kiss you
‘Cause the hardest part of this
Is leaving you
This song is Johnny, through and through. The moment in the hospital, when they have him laying face-down in a strange contraption to avoid contact with the burns on his back, when Ponyboy can’t stop staring at it because it’s a different kind of horror than the one he lives with on a daily basis, and yet through it, Johnny is trying to remain reassuring, remain positive. There’s just something about this song that makes me think of Johnny trying to stay strong through all that pain for his best friend (and, look, over the years, the older and more aware of how truly gay I am, the more I’ve started to realize Johnny definitely could have been in love with Ponyboy, capital L love, and this song reflects that to me, as well).
5. Iris–Goo Goo Dolls
And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand
Ah, yes, the quintessential emo song on any playlist…..well, ever. I’m pretty sure that at every school dance I ever went to, we all danced over-dramatically to this song, screaming out “yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive” because it made us feel….safe, maybe? Like we could be understood without having to listen to scary metal music that would make our parents worry? Whatever the reason, this song was one of the originals on that playlist, and to me, it signifies Dallas Winston. The first time I read the book, I thought Dally was a little scary, a bully without a heart, but the more I re-read it, the more he became the character I identified with most after Ponyboy. Someone with too many emotions who had seen too many difficult things to be able to keep going and keep up the pretense that he was okay.
6. House of Memories–Panic! at the Disco
And when your fantasies become your legacy
Promise me a place in your house of memories
This is another recent addition, and it also makes me think of the Johnny/Ponyboy relationship, but more than that, it makes me think about Ponyboy and his dream of becoming a writer. That idea that, if he gets out of his town (which I believe he did) and can write down his experiences, everyone he knows is going to be a Polaroid, pressed in the pages of his books, immortalized for the world to read about. This is, to me, almost a musical version of the note Johnny writes him at the very end of the book. I know that can be seen as a bit of a stretch, but I like it.
7. Cigarette Smoke–Cara Salimando
Saved her lucky for last and exhaled a wish
That wisped and whispered, luminous,
It curled, quiet against the night sky, and lingered.
This song reminds me of Cherry–a girl who is wishing and wanting and yearning for so much more, who has insides that don’t match the outside the world needs to see. A girl who just wants to be seen for who she is, but who has to maintain a persona in order to survive in the cutthroat world that is both high school and the separation of Socs and Greasers. A girl who exhales her dreams to the sky and watches them linger above her head, almost formed for a moment before they disappear completely.
8. The Coma Kid–Motion City Soundtrack
Always trying to decipher what it means
Hours wasted in the land of hopes and dreams
This song makes me think of Sodapop Curtis, the other big dreamer in the book–yes, Ponyboy dreams and daydreams and is often scolded for not spending enough time in the “real world”, but Soda has big dreams, too. He’s got ideas of where he wants to go with his girl and what he wants to do with his life. He wants to get married, revel in being in love, but he also has a sense of realism that Pony is missing sometimes, that I think makes his dreams even more fragile. He knows that dropping out of school was the smartest choice, even though not the one that could have been the best for him. He plays it off as though he were just stupid, that school wasn’t going to work for him, but under it all is this sense of hopefulness that maybe one day, things could change. Maybe he could go back, or at least, get married and move forwards. Then he and Sandy break up and that fragile dream-state shatters. He’s just trying to get it right.
9. Who Knew–P!nk
If someone said three years from now you’d be long gone
I’d stand up and punch them out ‘cause they’re all wrong
This song, I know, is meant to be about love and lost love of a romantic sort, but really, it evokes for me feelings that Darry might have towards their parents. Of course, their parents’ death was an accident, something unpreventable, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a strong feeling of loss, of anger, at being left alone to take care of two boys while still a boy himself. The idea of “you said forever” really hit home with me, because of all of them, Darry gave up the most of his youth to take care of his brothers. He gave up the scholarship, the popularity, the freedom that college would have afforded him–he gave up his entire way out of the hood, away from the wrong side of the tracks, because of these deaths that shaped their lives. It’s a song about missing, yes, but there is an underlying anger there, a frustration that this love that was counted on is now gone.
10. Sabotage–The Beastie Boys
Our backs are now against the wall,
Listen, all of y’all, it’s a sabotage
This song is one here for purely self-indulgent reasons: not only is it honestly my personal “Dallas Winston Theme Song”, it’s also what I hear in my head during the moments when the Socs and Greasers are facing off across that dirty lot, preparing to fight, setting down the rules of the rumble, when Dallas comes running in after his escape from the hospital, when they agree to let Ponyboy fight. It’s a moment of pure triumph for all of them, and this song really just gets me pumped up thinking about these teenagers finally winning something, for even just a brief moment. It’s self-indulgent, pure and simple.
11. Who Said We’re Wack–The Lonely Island
You talkin’ smack? You’re gonna get smacked!
This is another entirely self-indulgent song, but for less plausible reasons than the preceding song–this is literally a song that I was talking about with a friend in college, and I said something along the lines of “okay, but this is probably how, in a cracktastic universe, all the rumbles would break out–someone said we’re wack!? They’re gonna get smacked!” And then I just couldn’t get the correspondence out of my head. And every playlist needs some levity.
12. Hum Hallelujah–Fall Out Boy
A teenage vow in a parking lot:
Till tonight do us part
This song has a lot of personal meaning to me, and it’s one of those that I can’t listen to without becoming slightly emotional. It also is going to have the shortest explanation: this scene, for me, encapsulates Dalls Winston’s suicide by cop at the end of the book. He just can’t live in this world anymore, and he’s tired of being tired and trying to keep going. It’s hard, it’s emotional, it’s brutal, and it’s wrapped up in this song for me.
13. Sputter–The Academy Is…
And with the strength left in me
Walked on while the walls came down
This song really hits me as end-of-the-book Ponyboy. There’s an entire new life he’s part of now, one post-Johnny, post-killing, post-attempt on his life. It’s a strange world that looks just the same as the one he’s lived in his whole life, but with a different tint, with a different heaviness that wasn’t there before. People see him differently, and not for the reasons he’d perhaps hoped. He’s walking through a mess of an aftermath of things that were set in motion by nothing he had anything to do with, really, a world bigger than him, but he’s living in the consequences. He’s trying, every day, to keep going and make it bigger. It’s a hopeful song, under it all, and that’s Ponyboy’s life at the end of the book.
14. Alone Together–Fall Out Boy
I’ll check in tomorrow if I don’t wake up dead
This is the road to ruin, and we’re starting at the end
This is another recent addition, but as soon as I heard this song a few years ago, I added it to the playlist. I didn’t even get all the way through the song before it was in there, but it seems like it’s always belonged here. This is the one song that, to me, perfectly symbolizes this gang of boys trying their hardest to be a family. Almost every line of this song has a meaning for me that corresponds to the book in some way, whether it be to a general moment, a specific character, an actual line of dialogue–there is no shortage to how I can compare this song to this book. It’s a song, to me, about misfits trying their hardest to fit in among a world where they’re already seen as misfits. They’re the outcast’s outcasts, the ones who need a sense of togetherness. They’re not the toughest (or tuffest) gang, but they’re the one that’s bound together the tightest. “I don’t know where you’re going but do you got room for one more troubled soul” is literally this gang of boys.
15. Truce–Twenty One Pilots
The sun will rise and we will try again
I said earlier that Battle Scars was sort of a musical continuation, to me, of the note Johnny wrote Ponyboy that he receives at the end of the book, and Truce also follows that thread. Johnny tells Ponyboy “you still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want”. He’s telling Pony there’s a lot to live for, that he’s going to miss him, and the gang, and that there’s good in the world, he just has to stay alive to see it. This song really sends that message home, to me. The world might not always be what we want, but there’s still good in it, with or without the people you thought could make it that way.
♦About the Author
Erin Brophy is still in love with fantasy, and is working on a collection of short stories about LGBT witches and wizards. She has previously had poetry published as part of the Scholastic Arts and Writing Scholarship, but her greatest accomplishment is teaching her dog to walk on his hind legs.
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