I’m reading my first rock autobiography of the year and I start wishing I could write fiction as raw and truthful and powerful as a Bruce Springsteen song, that would last as long in the head and the heart, and I stick one of Big Brother’s cast-off tapes in the cassette player in the kitchen and Thunder Road kicks in and my heart soars and I’m twelve again and buying a second-hand Born To Run LP to play on Sister Number One’s hand-me-down record player, and I’m nineteen and clinging to Born in the USA when my peers are telling me it’s not cool, and I’m thirty-five and BB’s handing over the Springsteen tapes he’s replaced on CD and I’m rediscovering that feeling of gritty bluesy rock n roll, and I want to phone BB and tell him how glad I am that he let me rifle through his record collection, and how much joy and catharsis all that music has brought me over the years, a liferaft and a battle cry and a manifesto. But I can’t, because I’m British and reserved, and what is more I’m a gruff northerner. Nevertheless… Nevertheless.
Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.
I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.
Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.
I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.
There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.
I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.
I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.
All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.
How many times have you contributed to an author, artist or musician’s coffers when you’ve had the (legitimate) alternative of downloading for free? I’m guilty of neglecting the digital tip jar myself, I’ll download a book (usually a pdf) because it’s free (might as well) but I’ll wait and see if it was any good before I part with any money (after all, anyone can supply any quality of writing for free as a pdf). A couple of years later I haven’t got round to reading it, or if I have I can’t remember where it came from so whether or not I rated it, the author hasn’t got anything from me. It would take a more dedicated person than me to go back and pay in a separate transaction from downloading the book (album, etc) anyway. Given all this, I can hardly complain at the lack of funds flowing through my own tip jar (the biscuit and biro fund, accessible where you can download my novel, my SF collection or The Little Book of Northern Women).
For a while, a few years ago, both Wasted Years and The Little Book of Northern Women were for sale on Amazon, and people took a chance and paid real money for them (thank you, if you were one of those adventurous souls). I took them off Amazon because I’m not comfortable with their dominance and, longterm user of open source software that I am (and having now read PostCapitalism by Paul Mason I appreciate that I’m apparently prefiguring the transition to a post-capitalist society) it made more sense somehow to make them freely available under a Creative Commons licence and ask people to chip in if they’d enjoyed it, then do the same for everything else I wanted to get out there. Think of it a little like crowdfunding: everyone who contributes only pays a small amount they’ll hardly notice, but it adds up across all the contributors so that the author, musicians or whoever (in this case me, and OneMonkey who does most of the proofreading, formatting etc and designed the cover for Cracks in the Foundations) gets a reasonable amount of money. The trouble is, as mentioned earlier, not that many people do it (even me).
I completely get that if you only have a small amount of money to spend on books I can’t compete with the new Stephen King or JK Rowling, just like some local band with their first album out can’t compete with Iron Maiden. I also understand that even with good intentions (like me) people don’t go back to donate once they’ve read the book or listened to the album. And I’d rather know loads of people were reading my stuff (and, I hope, enjoying it) than put off the potential readers that can’t afford to take a chance. But digital tip jars don’t seem to be the answer. Given that all writers, artists and musicians need to eat even if they’re not household names, does anyone know how we make this kind of deal work?
I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).
It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.
I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.
Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.
Having not read a rock biography for years, so far this year I’ve read two: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’ve admired Chrissie Hynde for many years and she was influencing my style by my late teens, whereas it took years for Morrissey to grow on me, and apart from an attempt to emulate his quiff at one point, I’m not sure he’s been a direct influence on me. It was interesting to pick up Reckless in the week that David Bowie died and find he’s one of the first people mentioned, and also interesting to note the crossover of adulation for Bowie and the New York Dolls (neither of whom I’ve ever been particularly enthused by) in both books. Hynde and Morrissey also make cameo appearances in each other’s memoirs. However, they’re really quite different affairs despite the pair of them being famous vegetarians whose bands began in the same country within a couple of years of each other.
Reckless is more what you’d expect from a rock biography. Drugs, squalid London squats, trouble with drummers, more drugs (I was actually shocked at the amount and variety, I guess she never struck me as the type). It’s written in a straightforward style that reflects how Chrissie Hynde’s frank persona comes across. We get lots of detail (sometimes maybe a bit more than we’d like) about the wild adventurous life she had even before she was in The Pretenders. She seems to be one of those people who’s on the fringes of history, her friend’s boyfriend was one of the four students shot at the Kent State University anti-war demo in 1970 (which Chrissie Hynde was also at, being a student there at the time), she seemed to meet quite a few big name rockers in Cleveland as a teenager, and she was in a band with 3 members of The Damned just before they left her to become The Damned (I’m not saying these are all comparable events, just trying to highlight the variety). You get a good flavour of the sixties and seventies alternative scene through the pages of Reckless.
Morrissey, on the other hand, though he definitely has trouble with drummers, doesn’t fit any of the other cliches. I picture him in hotel rooms bemoaning the substandard tea and paltry pair of shrink-wrapped custard creams. Not a rock star in the wild sense, and yet when you think about the headlines (tabloid as well as music press), the recognition, the adulation, the size of venues he’s played, it’s clear that he really is in every other sense.
At one point one of his neighbours (and, apparently, friends) was Alan Bennett, and once I’d read that I keep reading the odd line (e.g. no chance of a Rich Tea biscuit so don’t bother asking, when he visits Julie Burchill) in an Alan Bennett voice. I’m left with an urge to write a play in which Alan Bennett and Morrissey sit at a kitchen table with a pot of tea for an hour, playing the characters we think they are in real life.
Meanwhile, the shy, gawky boy is suddenly greying and avuncular and doesn’t know how that happened, and looking back on his life he catalogues the friends and relatives who died too young, from the uncle not much older than the teenage Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl twenty-five years later, and beyond. It is essentially a sad book full of loneliness, but laced with dry wit and flashes of the lyricism he’s always been admired for (by those who admire him). I can’t help but contrast Chrissie Hynde’s middle class upbringing and wasted stint at university with Morrissey’s Manchester-Irish family in and out of each other’s terraced houses, his depressing secondary modern and his stint on the dole. I know which one comes out of these memoirs seeming the more articulate and intelligent.
My dad, despite being the reason I got into both The Pretenders and The Smiths (we didn’t have many cassettes in the car during the 80s and I eventually grew to love most of them. Just not Roxy Music) groaned when I said I was reading Morrissey’s book. “But,” I said, “if you like Morrissey’s lyrics (which most Smiths/Morrissey fans do), and you have a sort of indulgent affection for him and the clangers he seems to drop in interviews (which again, I would say most Smiths/Morrissey fans do) I don’t see how you could help but love it. Unless it’s just that I’m still a pretentious fifteen-year-old at heart.” “Mmm,” said my dad. And really, there’s no answer to that.
After we’d been to see Stuart Maconie at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month, OneMonkey bought me The People’s Songs, which wasn’t the book he’d been talking about but was nevertheless appealing to the bit of me that is forever fifteen and immersed in the Guinness book indie and new wave. Not only is this a lovely piece of music nerdery it’s a social history of Britain since the second world war. In other words right up my street.
Each chapter is named after a popular song. Not necessarily a number one and certainly not all cool (Y Viva Espana anyone?), I hadn’t even heard of all of them. However, the idea was that they were representative of something crucial about modern Britain, from immigration to trade unions, youth subcultures to Mrs Thatcher.
Running chronologically from the 40s to 2012 the songs were by no means evenly spread, with at least two from 1984 for instance and only 50 chapters. Within each chapter though the narrative jumps around to whichever years are appropriate. Some chapters are strongly based on the titular song, others use it simply as a jumping off point.
If you like Stuart Maconie’s style on the radio you’ll enjoy the witty, verbose prose full of interesting but not necessarily relevant asides. I bored OneMonkey to tears with my ‘did you know..?’ after every couple of pages, and I listened to more Smiths songs the last couple of weeks than I have in ages. I even went to spotify and tried some Ewan Macoll which I’m sure Big Brother will be pleased about.