Literature In Lyrics: The Catcher In The Rye

by Amanda Flinner

In our Literature In Lyrics series, we look at how famous books have inspired songwriters and worked their way into song lyrics. Here, it's The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger.

After Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980, police arrived at the scene to find the killer reading a copy of J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, The Catcher In The Rye. Chapman identified with the book's teenage anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, an outcast who expressed his hatred for "phony" people. In Chapman's mind, the ex-Beatle was the phoniest of them all, and he was doing the world a favor by getting rid of him. When Caulfield thumbed his nose at society's expectations he inspired a legion of real-life social misfits. Some, like Chapman, turned into killers, but many turned into rock stars and channeled their angst into songs instead of violence.
Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, The King and I and The Catcher in the Rye

- "We Didn't Start The Fire" by Billy Joel

The Catcher In The Rye is one of many cultural touchstones Billy Joel rattles off in his rapid-fire song "We Didn't Start The Fire." And with good reason - J.D. Salinger's novel has ignited several infernos since its publication in 1951.

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old misanthrope who tells us his life story after being expelled from prep school. Caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, Holden doesn't know where he fits in and resents people who do. To him, they're a bunch of "phonies" who sacrifice their individuality to impress others. The book became popular among teenagers who could identify with Holden's feelings of alienation. Some of them grew up to be musicians...

There's a boy who fogs his world and now he's getting lazy
There's no motivation and frustration makes him crazy
He makes a plan to take a stand but always ends up sitting
Someone help him up or he is gonna end up quitting

- "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?" by Green Day

At first, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong hated The Catcher In The Rye as a matter of principle. He was still in high school and resented being told what to read. But once he understood the appeal of the novel's anti-hero as a kind of punk-rock figure who bucked society's expectations, he changed his mind and the book became a favorite. On the band's 1991 Kerplunk track "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?," Armstrong likens Holden to a stoner outcast. He has potential, but without anyone to help him he's doomed to fail.

When Holden flunks most of his classes, his history teacher gives him some advice about life: It's all a game, and you have to play by the rules if you want to win. Holden doesn't buy it. If life is a game, he thinks, then it's rigged against people like him.

We are not your kind of people
You seem kind of phony
Everything's a lie

- "Not Your Kind Of People" by Garbage
When the alt-rock band Garbage first hit big in the mid-'90s, lead singer Shirley Manson thought she finally made it to the cool table, only to realize she still felt like an outsider. She still felt that way in 2012 when the band released the album Not Your Kind Of People, but now she was proud of her misfit status. She wrote the lyrics to the title track while re-reading The Catcher In The Rye and finding a kindred spirit in its protagonist.

"I just really identified with Holden Caulfield," she said. "He's always calling people out for being phonies... his senses are out picking who he wants to be surrounded by and I think that's how we feel as a band... we saw so much phoniness and inauthenticity around us and it bugs us."

Like Holden Caulfield, I tell myself
There's got to be a better way
Then I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling
Dream of brighter days

- "Get It Right" by The Offspring

Instead of going home and facing his parents' wrath after his expulsion, Holden heads to New York City to mull over his problems. He tries to meet up with old friends, but his jaded attitude sours his attempts. The only sense of happiness he can muster is from his childhood memories of visiting the Museum of Natural History.

Dexter Holland, the lead singer/songwriter of the punk-rock band The Offspring, can relate to Holden's struggle on "Get It Right," from the 1992 album Ignition. Like Salinger's sullen teen, he senses there's a less-traveled path to happiness but he can't seem to find it. For now, he can only "dream of brighter days."

So with tears in his eye
He gonna catch 'em in the rye

- "So Long" by Everlast

During his New York City jaunt, Holden mishears a boy singing a line from Robert Burns' coming-of-age poem "Comin' Thro The Rye." Thinking the key line is "if a body catch a body" rather than "if a body meet a body," he fantasizes about children frolicking in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff. As the "Catcher In The Rye," Holden swoops in and saves them from certain death – the death that occurs when they grow up and lose their innocence.

In Everlast's 1999 song "So Long," the rapper tells the story of a bullied boy who finally snaps and guns down his classmates. The exact lyric is debated – Is he "gonna catch 'em in the rye," meaning cutting his tormentors down in their youth, or is he "readin' Catcher in The Rye," and relating to Holden's feelings of alienation? Both interpretations fit with the outcome of the song, so take your pick.

You were the instrument
You were the one
How a body took a body
And gave that boy a gun

- "Catcher In The Rye" by Guns N' Roses

Since the novel's release in 1951, The Catcher In The Rye has often been banned from school curriculums because of Holden's salty language and push for rebellion. It's even been accused of being a part of an "overall communist plot" to brainwash young minds. But the biggest controversy surrounds its frequent association with violence. While Holden does entertain fantasies about shooting his perceived enemies, he doesn't act on them. The same can't be said for some of the novel's more disturbed fans.

Police found a copy of the book in John Hinckley Jr.'s room after his 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and Robert John Bardo had the book in his pocket when he murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989. One of the most notorious examples is Mark David Chapman, who bought the novel the day he shot and killed John Lennon in 1980. He inscribed his copy with, "To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement," and even read an excerpt from The Catcher In The Rye at his sentencing.

When writing the Chinese Democracy cut "Catcher In The Rye," GNR frontman Axl Rose was thinking about Holden Caulfield Syndrome and "what was or could possibly be in the book that obviously certain vulnerable people have seemed to become so passionate about and resort to outrageous public attempts or acts of violence."

Rose explained the outro, quoted above, refers to Lennon's murder and is an indictment of Salinger for writing the "utter garbage" that is The Catcher In The Rye.

Don't ever tell anyone anything
Or else you'll wind up missing everybody
Don't ever tell anyone anything

- "If You Really Want To Hear About It" by The Ataris

Lennon's killer may have called himself Holden Caulfield, but Holden Caulfield was no Mark David Chapman – he doesn't kill anyone, at least. At the end of the novel, the angst-ridden teen has an emotional breakthrough as he watches his little sister on a carousel. He ends up in an institution, where he gets help from a psychoanalyst and makes plans to return to school in the fall. Against his better judgment, he starts to miss the people he left behind.

Throughout the novel, Holden increasingly isolated himself as a defense mechanism; if he didn't let anyone too close, he couldn't get hurt.

The Ataris followed the same strategy on their 2001 track "If You Really Want To Hear About It..." (named for the opening line in the book). The closing lyrics echo Holden's final statement: "Don't ever tell anyone anything or else you'll wind up missing everybody." In other words, you can't be sad about something ending if you refuse to care about it in the first place.

Previous entry: Lolita

February 21, 2020
More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Fred from New Orleans, LaHolden was an asshole; that was his thing. But aren't most angst ridden teens assholes? The kid was just a normal teen who didn't know how to express himself. He didn't have a proper mentor or role model. Touchy feely displays between father and son were not acceptable in the 50's, something Holden probably needed since he felt alienated. There's a little bit of Holden in all of us. Many rock stars/musicians/pop stars spent time in mental institutions; Steven Tyler, James Taylor, Robbie Williams... Holden would have been a successful lyricist!
    I loved the book, and I'm glad I had to read it in high school (the 80's).
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Richie Wise (Kiss producer, Dust)Songwriter Interviews

Richie talks about producing the first two Kiss albums, recording "Brother Louie," and the newfound appreciation of his rock band, Dust.

Steely DanFact or Fiction

Did they really trade their guitarist to The Doobie Brothers? Are they named after something naughty? And what's up with the band name?

Rush: Album by Album - A Conversation With Martin PopoffSong Writing

A talk with Martin Popoff about his latest book on Rush and how he assessed the thousands of albums he reviewed.

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music SceneSong Writing

With $50 and a glue stick, Bruce Pavitt created Sub Pop, a fanzine-turned-label that gave the world Nirvana and grunge. He explains how motivated individuals can shift culture.

Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"They're Playing My Song

"How much does it cost? I'll buy it?" Another songwriter told Jonathan to change these lyrics. Good thing he ignored this advice.

Grateful Dead CharactersMusic Quiz

Many unusual folks appear in Grateful Dead songs. Can you identify them?