Stride Magazine -

  31 SONGS by Nick Hornby
(195pp £12.99 Penguin/Viking Press)
One thing is definitely true: there are people who have music on, like when theyíre fixing the car, or hoovering, or getting drunk at a wedding reception and want to hear ďSpirit in the SkyĒ or ďI Canít Get You Out Of My HeadĒ a few times, and then there are people who love music. Really love it. Not only canít live without it, but for whom itís kind of fixed certain things in their lives, defined certain moments, and sublimely explained life. Itís not that ďThe Birdy SongĒ will always remind you of that holiday on the Isle of Wight, but that ďStrawberry Fields ForeverĒ was how a part of your head was then, and still is, and nothing you could ever say could ever say it better.

And these two sets of people are not necessarily the same people.

And in something like the same way, there are people who listen to a song and say that maybe that wasnít the best version of it theyíve ever heard, and perhaps the bass player was feeling a bit low that day, but it was produced by Zelig Butterman, and his work with The Pope Fuckers is the benchmark by which all things are measured, and hey, letís all sit around and have a party (if you have a window). And some of these are people for whom music is the art that saves their lives, and describes their lives, and fuck ≠ they kind of think their lives wouldíve been okay if theyíd been able to write songs and play guitar and sing and rock andÖ..

Alright, this last attempt at a sentence is me describing myself, sort of, but what the hell. Let me put it like this: Iíve recently (because of circumstances too painful to recount) pulled my drastically reduced collection of vinyl out of an attic and, after the purchase of a new stylus, played a couple of records that Iíve not heard for some time. Tyrannosaurus Rexís A Beard Of Stars
is not the best record ever made, but itís still wonderful. Iíve never been particularly bothered about or lived in fear of dworns, and you can bet that a druidís spear is never handy when you want one. But something about that record hits the spot, and it hit it 33 years ago and much to my surprise the spot was still there waiting to be hit a couple of weeks ago. And Eclectionís one and only LP, called Eclection ≠ well, itís about thirty years since I last played that, and Iíve been playing it over and over for the last couple of weeks. Okay, some of the lyrics are dodgy (though not as dodgy as some of Marc Bolanís) and it has 1968 written all over it (I was still at school when I bought it, and Iíve only ever met one other person who had this record) but still, thereís a spot ≠ possibly not exactly the same spot as the other one I mentioned - and it hits it.

And this is sort of the point of Nick Hornbyís 31 Songs. Itís a book not about 31 songs, but about the principle behind what these particular songs do for him. At one point, Hornby invokes Walter Paterís ďAll art constantly aspires towards the condition of musicĒ and says that if heíd been able to write music heíd never have bothered with books -- I know exactly what he means.

Hornbyís book isnít about the 31 songs he hangs it around. Itís not even about what those songs mean to him. Itís about what our own 31 (or 23, or 17, or 192) songs are for us, and why, and how. Itís almost about the almost impossible to explain. It reaches out to try and articulate that point about songs where they just absolutely touch us ≠ and itís intelligent enough, too, to realise that sometimes that touching lasts for ever, and sometimes only for a matter of weeks, and both versions are priceless. For me, for example, thereís a point in the electric guitar finale of ďElemental ChildĒ on A Beard Of Stars where what will turn out to be the final, hanging note makes its first appearance, and itís sounded repeatedly deep in the mix until finally thatís all there is, and the recordís gone. And every time I hear that noteís arrival all I listen to from that point is that note, repeated over and over until itís there, reverberating, the last note of the last song Ö. Iíd love to be able to explain it better.

Then thereís the instrumental break in the middle of Del Shannonís So Long Baby (well, the whole record, really) and I still think that when I was eight and heard that, I wanted to be alive, because something inside that few moments of noise was what it meant to be alive, but I was too young to understand that it had as much pain in it as pleasure. But when I hear it now, it still does the same mad stuff to me. How to explain that noises like this have spoken aspects of life to me, and made things so clear? (And how to explain, still, that I continue to mess up? Perhaps the two things are inextricably linked.)

Then much later, only about three years ago, The Dirty Three showed up with Lullaby For Christie, and I want it played at my funeral, because my heart moves along with every note, and it seems stupid to even attempt to say exactly why.

Pop music (or, as Hornby says, anything thatís in rock, pop, soul, trashy whatever) isnít necessarily ďseriousĒ, it just is. And while most of itís easy, disposable, manufactured, dim, derivative, out for a buck, that doesnít preclude either (a) an accidental moment of music apparently touched by the hand of God or (b) something you hate and despise meaning the world to me. This is ďjust artĒ, with or without a capital letter, and lots of daft stuff is said and written about it, but in the end if you are a music lover (that is, someone for whom music actually makes clear to you what things are, even if you are always forgetting) then you thank your God for it.

It doesnít matter what Hornbyís 31 songs are. I only know a few of them, but I understood every word he had to say about them. Transcendent moments that flicker for a few seconds, songs heís played over and over for decades, a song he canít stop playing now but wonít want to hear next monthÖÖ I hadnít even heard of a couple of the bands or singers. It didnít even matter that Iíd seen the movie About A Boy and it hadnít made me want to read anything by Nick Hornby. It didnít matter that he doesnít mention The Incredible String Band, Eclection, or S. F. Sorrow. It didnít matter that our tastes only seem to overlap occasionally (Teenage Fanclub get two mentions, which is good, but Iíve never really cared about Bruce Springsteen, to be honest). And it didnít matter finally that, actually, he didnít tell me anything I didnít already know about how I feel about music. Sometimes itís good to be told what you know, just like itís good to read a book you normally wouldnít have gone near, and come away pleased that you did.

         © Martin Stannard 2003