In his novel Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon writes about an author who is writing about writing, both Chabon and the fictional author ignoring the adage discouraging authors from writing about writing. That’s how I feel writing about Nick Hornby writing about music in his collection of essays, Songbook. I don’t know whether I’m critiquing his literary skills or his musical taste. There’s a school of thought that argues writing about music is, as the quote goes, “like dancing about architecture.” But Songbook proves that writing about music is worthwhile when it increases the music’s artistic value.
Sometimes reading about a song can make you see it in an entirely different way. Hornby reinvents each of the 31 songs in Songbook by sharing his unique perspective. The essays are personal glimpses of what each means to him and their place in his life: The way “Thunder Road” evokes a specific time and place like no other song, or how he didn’t understand Jackson Browne until he got middle-aged and divorced. He even lets us in on the fact that he dreamed of losing his virginity to Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti”, but was unfortunate enough to have Rod Stewart playing at the crucial moment.
The best of the essays is a cyclical twist as confusing as Michael Chabon’s book. Hornby wrote About A Boy, which was made into a movie, for which Badly Drawn Boy made the soundtrack, on which one of the tracks is a song called “A Minor Incident”, which, perfectly enough, derives most of its lyrics from Hornby’s book. Confusing as such an essay would seem, Hornby manages to explain how “A Minor Incident” means more to him than the words and lyrics put together by Badly Drawn Boy, and maybe even more than the words did when he originally wrote them in his book.
The song recounts an incident in About A Boy in which a depressed single mother attempts suicide and is found by her only son. The lyrics are taken from the suicide note she leaves. The words are beautifully sad, there is stunning simplicity in the acoustic guitar and harmonica, and it all seems to fit with what both the author and the songwriter are trying to convey in their respective works. Then in the third verse Hornby finds new meaning in his own words.
You always were the one to make us stand out in the crowd
Though every once upon a while your head was in the clouds
There’s nothing you could never do to ever let me down
But remember that I’ll always love you
Hornby’s life now revolves around his autistic son. However, when he wrote About A Boy, the child in the book was not consciously based upon his son. Somehow, though, there in the song, is an explanation of how he loves his son. Being autistic, his son is unable to do so many things. Hornby’s son craves repetition and familiarity, which means, among other things, that he wants to listen to the same song over and over again. Hornby, the great lover and critic of pop music, will never be able to share this passion with his son, much less kick around a soccer ball or have a normal conversation. But in this second-hand interpretation of his own words, he hears what he feels. No matter what his son can’t do, he will always love him.
I liked About A Boy, the novel, almost as much as High Fidelity, and I thought both movies were great. While the About A Boy soundtrack worked great in the movie, it seldom found its way into my CD player. I read Songbook a week ago, and I think I’ve listened to “A Minor Incident” 50 times since then. It now goes on every mix I make. That’s what good writing can do.
Writing about music is as important as writing music. Badly Drawn Boy’s song made Nick Hornby realize he loved his son more than he knew. Nick Hornby’s writing made me fall in love with a song.