Songbook, by Nick Hornby, or, Why I Stopped Worrying and Loved the Song.
“You could, if you were perverse, argue that you’ll never hear England by listening to English pop music. The Beatles and the Stones were, in their formative years, American cover bands that sang with American accents; the Sex Pistols were The Stooges with bad teeth and a canny manager, and Bowie was an art-school version of Jackson Browne until he saw the New York Dolls.”
So begins Nick Hornby’s chapter on why England’s national anthem should change (shouldn’t they all?) from “God Save the Queen” to Ian Dury & The Blockheads “Reasons to be Cheerful.” And he lays down astute reasoning behind his wry suggestions.
In Hornby’s personal survey on music, “Songbook,” he ponders many ideas, among them how many Dylan discs are really enough. Apparently five is all you need even though he amassed 20+ discs and collections as we all did. And he’s right; he’s right about so many songs and artists and pop movements that you can’t help but stop and cue up Youtube. You’ll even cue up “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne just to see if Hornby’s post-40s sensibilities align with your growth from The Ramones to songs with meaning.
Often they do. Hornby’s re-examined musical history is right on. “I can’t afford to be a pop snob any more, and if there is a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it.” In the case of Hornby’s re-assessment of Browne and the “delicate Californian flowers” and his cross reference to Mojo Magazine’s top 100 Greatest Punk Singles as proof that sometimes we get some music at certain times in our lives and sometimes we’re just not attuned to other efforts is spot on. He’s right, there really isn’t 100 great punk singles, most are simply awful, but he does recognize it’s moments in life that we hold dear. And then it’s time to move on.
Hornby’s Songbook isn’t clear-cutting nostalgia. He appreciates greatness and what moves us. “What must it have been like, to listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1966, aged nineteen or twenty?” Hornby asks. “I heard “Anarchy in the UK” in 1976, aged nineteen, but the enormous power those records had then has mostly been lost now.” Songs got faster, louder, and shorter, so they lost the shock. Dylan, being Dylan, we mine it deeper, because it was meant to be mined. Or so we thought, and that may be why we get exhausted by the serious artists, Dylan, Zeppelin, Springsteen, until the fun is gone. As Hornby points out, “Like a Rolling Stone,” still sounds perfect. It just doesn’t sound fresh anymore.”
Songbook starts with an assessment of Springsteen and a mention of Dave Eggers’ theory that we play songs over and over because we have to ‘solve’ them. That may be true, but we still love the evanescence of what moves us.
Then Hornby ends Songbook with a look at Patti Smith. “One of the things you can’t help but love about Smith is her relentless and incurable bohemianism, her assuaged thirst for everything connected to art and books and music. In this one evening she named-checked Virginia Woolf and Tom Verlaine, William Blake and Jerry Garcia, Graham Greene and William Burroughs.” While Springsteen worries about being The Boss, and as perfect as he can be, and he can be absolutely perfect, witness his song “The Rising” in response to 9/11, Smith on the other hand “seems blissfully untroubled about her status as an artist: she just is one, and it requires no further contemplation on her part.”
Hornby wrote that after seeing a transformative Patti Smith performance, and I’m convinced, as he was that night, that great artists, those that make us feel the music and art and writing channeled through them, make us all better human beings.