Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney's Books, 2002)
Nick Hornby has made no bones about it. He loves his music! His first novel, High Fidelity, captured the imagination of a generation of readers who, like his hero, continued to re-sort their record collection according to their own agenda. Not alphabetical, but rather according to who played on it, or where it was recorded, or by quirks and emotions expressed by the singer which corresponded to the narrator's feelings on any given day. He loves football too. Not the NFL but "footie," what we call soccer in North America, but the rest of the world recognizes as football. Fever Pitch explained that obsession. About A Boy had its share of both, as well as a wonderful sense of humor about life in general. How to Be Good continued to speak to modern man (and woman) about living and being in this crazy world. But you always get the sense from Hornby's characters, whatever book they derive from, that life is just that little bit better if you happen to be listening to Richard Thompson while you're living it. I whole-heartedly agree!
Songbook is not a novel, neither is it a biographical reminiscence a la Fever Pitch. It is, rather, an easy-paced stroll through thirty-one songs that Mr. Hornby happens to like. In fact in England the book is called 31 Songs. Why does he like the songs? What's he looking for in pop music? Well, it depends. He's a right opinionated bloke. In the chapter dealing with Van Morrison's "Caravan," he writes,
"...music, like colour, or a cloud, is neither intelligent or unintelligent -- it just is. The chord, the simplest building-block for even the tritest, silliest chart song, is a beautiful, perfect, mysterious thing, and when an ill-read, uneducated, uncultured, emotionally illiterate boor puts a couple of them together, he has every chance of creating something wonderful and powerful. I don't want to read inane books, but books are built from words, our only instrument of thought; all I ask of music is that it sounds good."
Is he describing Van Morrison in this passage? No, not necessarily, but he is saying that the key to good music is how it sounds, no matter who makes it or who plays it. I agree with him completely.
The songs Hornby chooses are not the songs I might have chosen, (and believe me I'm going to do this exercise just for fun) but such is his passion that he made me reconsider several artists whom I had ignored for their entire careers. Part of his ability to affect this change is his own willingness to do the same thing. He chooses Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky" and describes his original feelings for Browne contrasted to his new, adult understanding of an important body of work:
"He [Browne] would have been wasted on me at the time, though; I wouldn't have understood. I'm not referring to the lyrics, which, after all, are hardly opaque (my late-70s singer-songwriter, Elvis Costello, made me work much harder at my practical criticism); I'm referring to the soul. And that's where being older helps, because just as I was mistrustful of any melody that didn't come wrapped in a heavy-metal riff when I was fourteen, I was at twenty-one able to distinguish between soft-rock that expressed pain, and soft-rock that expressed a smug-stoner's content with his wife, his dog, and his record company advance. There are so many bits in Jackson Browne's music that I don't think I could have responded to as a young man, because their delicacy and fragility I would have mistaken for blandness."
I know just what he's talking about. When he (Hornby) responds to "David Lindley's hymnal, soulful guitar solo" he is describing a phenomenon that I know quite well.
So, am I responding positively to Songbook because Hornby has chosen pieces that mirror my own selections? Absolutely not. He picks Teenage Fanclub, and Nelly Furtado, Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco, Paul Westerberg, Suicide, and... the Bible! Apart from a track on a compilation disc, none of these artists appear in my CD/record collection. Led Zeppelin, Springsteen, the Beatles, Dylan, Rod Stewart, and Richard and Linda Thompson all appear as well, and they have homes on my shelves and in my player. Some of these artists I have never heard of -- The Velvelettes and Royksopp, for instance -- but so convincing are Hornby's arguments that I am researching them while you are reading this!
One fascinating chapter is devoted to Badly Drawn Boy's "A Minor Incident," which Damon Gough (the Badly Drawn Boy in question) composed for the film version of Hornby's About a Boy. He talks about the exercise of writing a book, of seeing it turned into a film, over which the writer has little or no control. He describes his son's autism, and its impact on their family life. He also gives credit to Gough for creating this sympathetic, "dazzling, serendipitous spark" which managed to precisely capture so much for father, writer, and on-looker Hornby. When he writes about Danny, his son, Hornby loses the hip attitude, and becomes a dad. It's quite moving.
Songbook is like that. It is filled with attitude, and opinion, and yet there are elemental truths conveyed about why we listen to music, what it means to us, as fans, as critics, or simply as people going through life with the radio on. McSweeney's Books have created a lovely volume. Artisitcally designed to resemble a school notebook, the book is filled with whimsical little drawings by Canadian artist Marcel Dzama representing each musician or song. Extra value is added by the inclusion of a CD which contains eleven of the songs Hornby discusses. The beauty of the selections is that they are not the better-known tunes, but rather the songs that somehow managed to miss my ear. So I get to listen to Teenage Fanclub and Mark Mulcahy while I read about them. A portion of the cost of each book will be donated to TreeHouse Trust and 826 Valencia, charities supported by Mr. Hornby. So here is an opportunity to pick up some new music, get a book that will both entertain and instruct, and support a good cause all in one fell swoop. Songbook by Nick Hornby, top of the charts!