View from the East: Learning from Nick Hornby


Greg Sandow

Nick Hornby‘s Songbook is the most satisfying book on music I’ve read in a long time. Hornby has an advantage, of course, over most music writers, because he’s a real writer, the kind non-music people read, and in fact a novelist (though it’s not really relevant here, two of his books have been made into familiar movies, High Fidelity and About a Boy). Hornby has an easy way with words—the right ones—that I envy; my students in the music criticism class I’m teaching this fall at Juilliard just loved his stuff:

Paul Westerberg, everybody’s favorite coulda-been-contender, is no pianist, but his solo on “Born for Me” is just lovely—maybe because he’s the singer-songwriter, and knows what his song feels like to him, and therefore what it should feel like to us. “Born for Me” is a ragged ballad, with a Waitsian lonely loser’s lyric and affectingly heartsick tune; the solo is basically played with one finger, and initially at least consists of three notes, but it sounds great to me—not in a punky, do-it-yourself way (although frankly you could, once you’ve heard it), but in a strangely, intensely musical way. A better pianist would have wrecked the moment, filled in the gaps, failed to recognize how the time has exerted a spell over the right listener; somebody with little talent and absolutely no ear would simply have chosen the wrong three notes. Just as you know intuitively when the simplest and crudest brushstrokes have been made by a proper artist, I can never listen to the solo without thinking that it’s played by a born musician—not a virtuoso, not even someone who could make a living as a pianist in a cocktail lounge, just a man who thinks and feels and loves and speaks in music.

That’s writing. (And thinking, and feeling.) You could say that Hornby’s goals are modest: He writes about pop music, and what he likes aren’t albums, or deep social theories, but simply songs, mostly (now that he’s in his mid-forties) by singer-songwriters who don’t make the pop charts. He even defends his modest taste, arguing that pop music is good partly because it is disposable: “Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music’s maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse.” Standard high-art masterpieces like the “Moonlight Sonata,” he impishly suggests, are “empty” by now—”we’ve sucked ‘em dry!”

And, fine, we can argue back—though this is a bigger subject than I have space for, in a digression from what’s going to be my main point—that great art is deeply nourishing (though I think Hornby’s objecting, really, to middle-brow artiness, not to art). But he has an answer for that, too: How often do pop fans really listen to acknowledged pop masterpieces like Pet Sounds or Blonde on Blonde? Not very often, but “if you’re going to stick rigorously to the Greater Scheme diet, then it’s Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds—and Moby Dick and Don Quixote—for you, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

That’s one of the sharpest indictments I’ve ever seen of the mainstream classical music world. And in fact—though I’m digressing again—Hornby does say some intriguing things about classical music, one of which is worth quoting. What, he asks (being himself English), is truly English music? Not some of the famous English rock acts, he thinks, because their music was too strongly American. But

you’ll never hear England by listening to Elgar or Vaughn Williams, either: too much has happened since then. Where’s the lager-fueled violence? Where’s the lip, or the self-deprecation, or the lethargy, or the irreverence? Where are the jokes? Where’s the curry? You may not want to think about any of that when you lie back and think of England, but it’s all undeniably there, and if you’re English, the odds are that you’ll eat a curry more often than you see an ascending lark.

For anyone who’s shocked that violence, rather than larks, should find its way into art—or that reality, rather than ideals, should be what artists aim for (but does anybody like that read NewMusicBox?)—Hornby has terrific examples of nonviolent songs (Richard Thompson‘s “Calvary Cross,” Ian Dury‘s “Reasons to be Cheerful“) that sound like England to him. He’s also got thoughts on why “only works of art that are ‘edgy,’ or ‘scary,’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in any way noteworthy,” which translate eerily into the old modernist notion that only complicated new music can be good.

My reason for writing here about Hornby, though, comes from something else. He talks, like many people in classical music—and above all in new music—about how small the audience is for most of what he likes. One group he likes, The Bible, split, after a couple of albums, to (as he puts it) “the sorrow of thousands.” But he doesn’t deplore that lack of mass sorrow as much as some of us in new music deplore our own lack of an audience. And that, I think, is because of something he takes completely for granted, so much, in fact, that he doesn’t need to mention it—there is an audience for the music he loves, which moreover swims in a wider pop sea, full of people who know what Hornby’s talking about even if they don’t like the same music he does.

We can sense that on nearly every page of his book. When he says he loved loud hard rock when he was young—and especially the J. Geils Band—who doesn’t know what he means? I downloaded one of his old favorites, which I hadn’t heard for years, J. Geils’ “First I Look at the Purse” (I got it from the new, legal Napster, by the way; in this column I’ve supported what the world calls “piracy,” but I’ll pay 99 cents for downloads that turn out to be reliable) and giggled: It brought me right back to the mid-’60s middle America where Hornby himself, visiting the U.S. as a kid, first heard it.

Yet another example: Maybe you always loved Jackson Browne, and didn’t have to wait, like Hornby, till you were 45 and had learned about things like lower back pain and divorce. But still you’ll know why Hornby, at age 19, had a “musical microclimate” (great phrase) that was “way too ferocious to accommodate delicate California flowers; the ubiquity of The Pretender in all the record collections of the girls I met in college confirmed my suspicion that when it came to music, girls didn’t Get It.” Me, I felt just the same way about James Taylor in 1969 or so, when a girl I knew first played him for me.

When Hornby asks what songs are good to hear when we’re having sex, we all can join in the debate, because we’ve got our own lists. (I’d like—quite seriously, now—to see somebody’s new music sex list.) And that brings me to what Hornby says to me about new music. He takes for granted that the songs he likes are good for something. For one thing, they create a community, even if, just as often, they fracture it by pointing out differences. (Describing how he watched “four little Afro-Caribbean girls” singing Nelly Furtado‘s “I’m Like A Bird,” Hornby wistfully observes: “I liked it that we had something in common, temporarily: I felt as though we all lived in the same world.”)

And the songs also mean specific things beyond community. What music sounds like England? (Implying a larger question, what is England?) Why do most songs about politics fall flat? (Grist for Kyle Gann‘s fine politics hyperpiece, last month: Songs that are about complicated things—Canadian court orders, let’s say, or the homosexual age of consent—draw attention to the inherent artificiality of the medium: why is this guy singing?) Why does Aimee Mann‘s “I’ve Had It” sound so beautiful when its subject—one happy gig on a band’s otherwise useless tour—seems so unpromising? What does music really express?

Each of Hornby’s 26 little essays in this book floats in a sea of meaning, expressed and implied, meaning that comes from the music, goes out into the world at large, and comes back to enrich the music even more. And no—to anticipate a common high-art riposte to rock criticism—the meaning doesn’t, not for a moment, lie only in the words. Like all good pop critics, Hornby (as, for God’s sake, his bit about Paul Westerberg’s solo ought to show), takes a pop songs as a complete gestalt, words and music fused together. (I’ll have an example later on, once more about Jackson Browne and divorce.)

His most touching moment, at least for me, is his chapter on Bruce Springsteen‘s “Thunder Road,” the song, Hornby says, that he’s played more than any other. Why does he love it so much? He sees its flaws: It’s “overwrought” it’s “po-faced, in a way that Springsteen himself isn’t, and if the doomed romanticism wasn’t corny in 1975, then it certainly is now.”

But when he first became a writer, Hornby read Anne Tyler‘s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and suddenly knew who he was. It’s like falling in love, he says; you might not choose the best person, and if he’d been choosing writers simply with his brains and taste and will, he can think of plenty (Updike, DeLillo) he’d have favored more than Tyler. Doesn’t matter, though; it was Tyler—even though he didn’t want to be like her, or be like her characters, or even write like her—who showed him what it was to be a writer.

And “Thunder Road” did something like that for him. No, he’s not American, or young (or at least not young any more); he hates cars; he knows how Springsteen is bombastic; and yet the song speaks for him, in part, he frankly says, because (like many Springsteen songs from that period) it’s about becoming famous. But no, better, it’s about getting

some kind of public validation from his art…he knows he has talent to burn, and the proper reward for this, he seems to suggest, would be the financial wherewithal to fulfill it—rather than an interest in celebrity for its own sake.…”Thunder Road” was my answer to every rejection letter I received, and every doubt expressed by my friends and relatives. They lived in towns for losers, I told myself, and I, like Bruce, was pulling out of there to win.

All this tied to specific details in the words and music (like the way, when the song begins Born to Run, “those first few bars, on wheezy harmonica and achingly pretty piano, actually like they refer to something that has already happened before the beginning of the record, something momentous and sad but not destructive of all hope.” But Hornby also loves Springsteen’s later, live, acoustic versions of the song, reimagined “as an exhausted hymn to the past, to lost love and missed opportunities and self-delusion and bad luck and failure.” Pop songs (and pop singers), can learn and grow as we do.

I stopped writing right here, turned off the Bartok Second Piano Concerto, which I’d had playing in the background, to hear those two versions of “Thunder Road”. Surreal experience, first, going from Bartok to Springsteen. Or maybe all too real. Bartok, it hit me in a flash, was a monument, or so his music had struck me. Even an hour ago, when I’d been hearing the First Concerto, so much an earthier piece, so much more surprising, the sound had been like an aural illusion, blink and it’s the rocky earth at night, blink again and it’s that damn monument.

Springsteen, and not only by comparison, was wind in my face. The first “Thunder Road” brought me right back to my own past, even if, as a New York City kid, I didn’t have a car, or any girl named Mary dancing like a lost and hopeful vision on her front porch. And then Thunder Road II made me feel glad to be older. In the first version, Springsteen lives what he’s singing about, the girl, the car waiting on the street, the promise, just maybe, to outrun the losers in the town. In the second version, he savors the memory, but now he also knows what it all means. “You ain’t a beauty,” he sings, “but, yeah, you’re all right.” In version I, that’s OK, a touch of reality that helps give the dream real wings. In version II, he just about smiles when he sings it. Not only is it true, what he’s saying, but it’s a very good thing. Hey, he ought to know—he married a model once, and it didn’t work out.

Back to version I, and this time, completely taken by surprise, I just about wept for my own lost youth, all the things I never had, never would have, even though I’ve never been happier than I am now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the cars and porches in the world. Version II again, and I was very happy to be me, though the cost of growing older is pretty plain, too. “The door is open, but the ride ain’t free,” Springsteen warns the girl, and in version I it’s an astonishing quick thunderbolt, a recognition I’m willing to bet Springsteen didn’t have when he did the things the song talks about, though he’d earned it, just barely, maybe, by the time he wrote the song. In version II it’s one of many lines given extra weight by the years in his voice; he knows how true the words are.

But there’s a difference between the two versions that isn’t quite as tangible, though in many ways more telling. It’s the way that two key lines are validated. “Well, I got this guitar,” Springsteen sings, “and I learned how to make it talk,” and you believe it, because suddenly there’s something new and insistent in the music (on a piano, actually, which might look odd when you read it, but makes no difference; anyone who hears the song and thinks that moment ought to feature the guitar probably thinks Barry Bonds should be a stockbroker).

Then, later, “It’s a town for the losers, and we’re pulling out of here to win,” and once again you believe it, because Springsteen’s voice just soars. Cut now to version II, much quieter, the focus now mostly on Springsteen’s voice, no need to underline any moment more than any other, because, for one thing, we all know the song by now. So it’s the audience (this is a live performance) that supplies the validation. They burst out cheering at both these places, and only in these places—because they know the words are (and were) true.

I miss things like this in classical music and discussions like this in classical music criticism, even alternative classical music criticism. What do we all talk about, in our own little Jersey town? Musical details, things we like or don’t like about the music, coupled to vague references to feelings (vague because they’re hopelessly general and ripped from any real-world context: I say I like something partly because it’s “delicate,” but what does delicacy mean to me, where will I ever go with it, and who’s my delicate or not so delicate Mary on the porch?). Sometimes we rise to something like Hornby’s evocative praise of Paul Westerburg, a passage which, from Hornby’s side of this divide, is as purely musical as his comments ever get.

And yes, I know it’s easier to write about what pop music means, because the songs have lyrics, and because even the music has a meaning everybody knows. But then maybe our music doesn’t seem to have much meaning only because we don’t say, or mostly don’t say, what its meaning might be. When we’re not talking about musical details, we’re talking (endlessly, I fear) about style—what kind of music something is, as compared to other kinds that either support it, or make war on it. We’re preoccupied with style wars, or with celebrating their end, or their growing irrelevance, take your choice.

And so we never really show what our music means to us, except in the limiting and by now tired context of a composer’s life—”I’m glad I’m free to write this way, because the old ways were so limiting.” We’re not likely to say our own experience in life has helped us musically, as Hornby does, when he talks about Jackson Browne:

You have to have lived a little, I think, to be able to recognize the depth of feeling that has shaped…these songs, and if “Late for the Sky” is perfect accompaniment to a divorce, it’s not just because its regretful lyrics fit; it’s because divorce peels away yet another layer of skin (who knew we had so many, or that their removal caused such discomfort?), and thus allows us to hear things, chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, properly.

We classical (or alternative classical) music critics almost never talk—and this is so unspokenly obvious that it’s almost a shock to state it plainly—about our own experience in life. Won’t that lead readers to conclude that we don’t have any lives, or at least that we don’t have lives worth talking about—and, of course, that the music we write about can’t have much connection to the lives anybody else might lead?

Which then might help explain why our music doesn’t have enough of an audience. I know, I know—it’s more complicated than that; our music also isn’t known enough. But these things feed on each other. Because our music isn’t known enough, it doesn’t have much meaning that anyone could name. So we don’t talk about its meaning—and don’t help to make the music better known.

If we could write (in our own ways, of course) more like Hornby—and why don’t we try?—we might take a step out of this box.