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
"[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
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.