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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, January 25th, 2003


 

Songbook

by Nick Hornby

A review by Dave Weich

Midway through Songbook, Nick Hornby riffs on the topic of what song should be played at his funeral. The live version of Van Morrison's classic "Caravan" from It's Too Late to Stop Now is the one he chooses, but not without reservations. After all, the string section might give mourners the impression that he'd gone classical in those final, fearful, repentant moments when death stared him in the face. "Will people think I'm making some concession to classical music when they hear it?" he wonders. And what about the bit where Van introduces the band? "Is that too weird?" Hornby asks. "Can people really file out of my funeral listening to a list of names of people they (and I) don't know?"

"[Songbook] isn't music criticism," he explains later in the chapter. And it isn't quite. Except, of course, when it is:

The delirious violin solo in the middle of Mary Margaret O'Hara's extraordinary "Body's in Trouble" hiccups and swoons as if it's on the verge of the kind of fainting fit that young nineteenth-century women were supposed to have experienced in Florence: you don't get too many attacks of aesthetic ecstasy on your average pop-folk album, but this one nearly overwhelms the song.
Or:
I fundamentally, profoundly disagree with anyone who equates musical complication and intelligence with superiority.
But that's all just flesh on the bone. At its core, Songbook is music as memoir, soundtrack as story. In High Fidelity, Hornby's narrator compared making a compilation tape to letter writing: "There's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again," Rob admits. Hours of work, in other words, because to Rob the songs he shares with friends represent the truest expression of his being.

Without the obfuscation of a fictional persona between author and reader, Songbook is Nick Hornby's mix, deconstructed and vigorously defended. Then made real: the attractive hardcover package includes a free CD that contains eleven of the songs discussed in the book. So when Hornby describes the tremendous impact of hearing a song on the soundtrack of About A Boy ("I write a book that isn't about my kid, and then someone writes a beautiful song based on an episode in my book that turns out to mean something much more personal to me than my book ever did"), you can cue up track #7 and listen to Badly Drawn Boy's "A Minor Incident" for yourself.

In its succession of twenty-six chapters, Songbook offers the story of an unabashed, lifelong fan of pop music, a smart British kid raised on punk and confection who as he ages manages to unearth gems from almost every pop style in between. But age he does. The young boy who once decided "Samba Pa Ti," an instrumental by Santana, would be playing when he lost his virginity ("if not on the stereo, then in my head," he clarifies) is now the New Yorker's popular music critic. Hard-earned life experience gives significant weight to his otherwise entertaining digressions. Meanwhile, Hornby's loyalty to the three-and-a-half minute pop structure bears no corresponding responsibility to defend songs he once had use for. Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop" ("ten-and-a-half minutes of genuinely terrifying industrial noise") he can't stomach listening to again, even to write the chapter.

I need no convincing that life is scary. I'm forty-four, and it has got quite scary enough already — I don't need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency. Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability [autism], and I don't know what the future holds for him. And, of course, at any moment there is the possibility that some lunatic will fly a plane into my house, or a nuclear power plant....So let me find complacency and safety where I can, and please forgive me if I don’t want to hear "Frankie Teardrop" right now.
Likewise, some of the artists that performed his old favorites have failed to keep him interested with their more recent work.
It's hard to imagine now, but loving Rod Stewart in 1973 was the equivalent of loving Oasis in 1994, or the Stone Roses in 1989 — in other words, though it didn't make you the coolest kid in your class, it was certainly nothing to be ashamed of....Within a few years, there was plenty to be ashamed of: Britt Ekland, for example. And several other interchangeably blonde women who weren't Britt Ekland but may as well have been. And "D'Ya Think I'm Sexy." And "Ole Ola," 1978 Scotland World Cup song (the chorus of which went, "Ole ole, ole ola/We're going to bring the World Cup back from over thar"). And his obsession with L.A., and the champagne and straw boaters on album sleeves, and the drawing on the cover of Atlantic Crossing, and the Faces' live album...
And so on.

Against the odds, a handful of singles have managed to retain their magic. A longtime Springsteen fan, Hornby estimates that he's played "Thunder Road" 1,500 times since the original version appeared on Born to Run in 1975. "I've loved this song for a quarter century now," he marvels. But why should "Thunder Road" matter to him when other, arguably better songs have grown tired and stale with age? "It's weird to me," he admits. "It's a process something like falling in love. You don't necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest, or the most beautiful; there's something else going on."

Somewhere in that inexpressible power of seduction lies Songbook's enduring charm: Hornby blushing time and again, recalling late into the night for us these songs he's fallen for through the years. If some relationships proved only as lasting as schoolyard crushes, the connections felt no less heartfelt at the time. Tastes change, sensibilities evolve, but he goes on swooning, still.


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