School of Rock

While I read Nick Hornby's Songbook, the English writer's book of short essays on 31 pop songs that mean a lot to him (reissued in paperback this month with five new essays not in the hardback edition), mostly what I wanted to do was call him up and ask him out to a nice quiet bar. I know that's a clich, but it seems like a quiet bar is something he could really use. (What am I saying? So could I.) Hornby seems companionable and unpretentious and emotionally open, and he's unflaggingly interesting about pop music, and I like his intellectual insecurity, plus he seems like the understanding older brother of the protagonists of two of his novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, guys with whom I have an uncomfortably close affinity. With other guy writers of (more or less) my generation, it's not the same. If I met Dave Eggers, I'd want to go to the Burning Man Festival with him. With Jonathan Franzen, I'd want to sit up all night in a New York high-rise, drink good single-malt scotch, and argue about books and women. With Rick Moody, I'd just want to argue, period. With Steve Erickson, have him please explain Arc D'X to me. Michael Chabon, go to a fancy restaurant and figure out where he got his sense of grace so I could go home and copy him. David Foster Wallace, just sit him down and try to keep him from exploding.

But with Hornby—as with someone like filmmaker Cameron Crowe, whose sensibility I kept thinking of while I read Songbook—a little corner bar, maybe with an old jukebox playing low, stuffed with songs we both like by Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Aimee Mann and Paul Westerberg. A little night out . . . the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

There's a disarming clarity about some of Hornby's observations that make them seem almost platonic, as if you recall them from somewhere, carved into a piece of granite (or, better, etched into your own cortex). Take him saying that the guitar “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.” Or his comparison of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith: “It is not hard to detect in Springsteen's work or in interviews with him an anxiety about how he earns a living, a constant questioning. Can I represent people while at the same time standing in front of them? . . . Smith, meanwhile, clearly doesn't give much of a shit. . . . She seems blissfully untroubled about her status as an artist: she just is one, and it requires no farther contemplation on her part.” Or this, on pop's ubiquity in the marketplace: “Such is pop music's current tyranny that it must be almost impossible for kids to think that major artists are speaking directly and intimately to them—how is that possible, when those same artists are speaking to everyone who buys peppermint foot lotion or eats at Pizza Hut?” Or his touching meditation on his severely handicapped son Danny's love for music, which ends with this: “If it's true that [listening to] music does . . . serve as a form of self-expression even to those who can express ourselves tolerably well in speech or in writing, how much more vital is it going to be for him, who has so few other outlets? That's why I love the relationship with music he has already because it's how I know he has something in him that he wants others to articulate. In fact, thinking about it now, it's why I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part, and Danny's got it, too, of course, he has: you could argue that he's simply dispensed with all the earthbound, rubbishy bits.”

Don't you want to have a drink with this guy? If you just read the table of contents, it looks like the essays are about songs, little rock-critic celebrations that take you through a composition's music and lyrics and explain why it's great. But, thankfully, there's little explication des lyriques or any of those clichd descriptions of sound (“pounding” drums, “rock steady” bass, “wailing” guitars, etc.) that clutter rock criticism. Instead, he tends to use songs as opportunities to talk about something bigger: thus his essay on Nelly Furtado's “I'm Like a Bird” is about the indisposable joys of disposable pop. The one on Suicide's “Frankie Teardrop” is about how as one gets older, one doesn't need rock to shock you anymore: “I need no convincing that life is scary. I'm 44, and it has got quite scary enough—I don't need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency.” And a piece on Mark Mulcahy's little-known “Hey, Self Defeater” turns into the kind of heartfelt defense of independent record stores you might expect from the author of High Fidelity.

Feeling drinking-buddy close to Hornby's sensibility as I do, though, makes me feel privy to some of his weaknesses, some of which rise right out of his strengths. His geniality sometimes makes him a little lazy (Jackson Browne's “best songs are simply beautiful, and beauty is a rare commodity”). And his laudable hatred of snobs—the literary ones who won't give rock the time of day, or rock snobs who won't admit to liking Nelly Furtado—sometimes gets the better of him, so his very unpretentiousness makes him look philistine. “I dislike [classical music] (or, at least, I'm unaffected by it) because it sounds churchy, and because, to my ears at least, it can't deal with the smaller feelings that constitute a day and a week and a life, and because there are no backing vocals or bass lines or guitar solos, and because a lot of people who profess to like it actually don't really like any music . . . at all, and because it does not possess the ability to make me feel.”

I hardly know what to make of this silly sort of generalizing, except to say it's the kind of defense mechanism an English writer of decidedly modest upbringing is likely to have living in a literary world populated by Oxford and Cambridge types. What Hornby, the man who championed the mix tape (as personal expression, as gift) for an entire generation, needs is for somebody to make him a classical mix tape: if he can get past his churlish distaste for classical poseurs, there's a world of unchurchy feeling, small and very, very large, waiting for him.

In his essay on Springsteen's “Thunder Road,” which is Hornby's most beloved song (“There's no real competition”), he writes that “very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly.” What he connects to in that song, I think—besides the galloping passion, the devotion to rock tradition, the lyricism—is what I quoted earlier, that sense of anxiety that Hornby noted: Springsteen's uncertainty about his position as an artist at all. Hornby's style, his sweet modesty of address, is always asserting smart, wonderful things while practically apologizing for taking up your time. He doesn't need to apologize, I want to tell him. Let me pour you another round.

Songbook by Nick Hornby; Riverhead Books. Paperback, 160 pages, $18.

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