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I'm undergoing something of a voluntary social experiment this week: I've been left Upstate without the family car (but with the family cat!), meaning that if you can read this page I've succeeded in packing the laptop into a backpack and cycling the four miles into town and my local Broadband connection. Obviously such a ride is hardly going to break my back, though given the nature of the bike in question and the hills en route, it's likely I won't be trying it too often this week and will instead do as I'm meant to – get on with my commissioned writing.

We came up here Saturday, accompanied by Campbell's best friend and father (who recalls seeing Rude Boy at the cinema in New Orleans on release, which is more than I can claim), and had the kind of perfect short holiday weekend you usually only dream about. We were helped by the weather: the temperature was ideal and the sky crystal clear Saturday evening when we took the kids for a game of Crazy Golf prior to the firework display. The beautifully situated course, which doubles up as a driving range, go kart course (ice rink in winter), fishing lake and restaurant, was smart enough to set up bar and a barbeque outside to make the most of its investment in gunpowder. But they weren't out to rip us off, serving up pints of Sam Adams and Saranac for a patriotically cheap $3.

I noted that the bar's third tap beer, the very English Bass, was kept indoors. This may just have been coincidence given the occasion, just as the DJ may have been playing deliberately ironic when he introduced the fireworks with 'Born In The USA'; I don't want to assume the worst of him any more than I think the worst of the bar for keeping an English beer indoors for Independence celebrations. But that Bruce Springsteen anthem has been frequently misinterpreted over the years as a shamelessly optimistic patriotic song when in fact it is nothing of the sort. That doesn't make it any less relevant for Independence , it just requires of listeners to understand the singer's struggle with his country, and maybe compare it with their own.

July 4 itself we spent at our favorite upstate family kid spot: Zoom Flume, a low-key water park that brings out the kid in every adult. I usually slide down the Anaconda and plunge down Wild River to the sound of the local oldies radio station blaring from the camp's speakers, like I'm living in someone else's time warp. So it was a rare treat that Woodstock station WDST came in for the day to host water balloon tossing contests for the kid and, perhaps inadvertently, to play predominantly British music. Late on Friday night, I had played The Jam's 'A Town Called Malice' at Step On because a) it's my party and b) I figured there were people there that could and would, like myself, relate to it. I had not expected, barely 36 hours later, to be spending American Independence Day in the far-flung hills of upstate New York, at a water park surrounded by more fat Americans than I'm usually comfortable with, listening to the same exact ultra-English recording blaring from a radio station's loudspeakers next to the hot dog and pizza stands.

Nor did it make much more sense to hear The Psychedelic Furs ('See My Way'), Elvis Costello ('Watching The Detectives') or New Order ('The Perfect Kiss'). I might have felt seriously disoriented by this – there were maybe only a dozen people in the park knew those songs from Springsteen and we three adults formed a quarter of that contingent - but for the fact I'd brought with me Nick Hornby's Songbook. As I write below, Hornby is as English as they come and yet an ardent enthusiast of America and its musicians, and in Songbook, the High Fidelity/Fever Pitch/About A Boy author justifies his love of pop music by leaping off from 31 selected song titles. And so, in between getting myself soaked on the rides, interrupted by the kids, and worrying about my newly cropped scalp getting scorched by the surprisingly fierce sun, I read Hornby's delightful ruminations and listened, with equal excitement, as WDST switched to precisely the type of American bands we want to hear on Independence Day: The Pixies, Talking Heads and Morphine.

The combination – sun, water, words, music – was such that, after our own meat-free barbeque Sunday night, I sat up reading the rest of the Hornby book, while listening to three Bruce Springsteen albums in a row, searching out The Boss's ultimate Independence Day Anthem (the song 'Independence Day' – because Bruce was bound to have written a song called 'Independence Day' - does not count, being as it is about a break-up, but the same album's title track 'The River' is an intensely emotive all-American story on par with 'Glory Days' and 'My Hometown'; any of those three will do.) The whole process reached a perfect moment of serendipity when I found myself listening to 'Thunder Road' while reading Nick Hornby writing about that same song, from his thoroughly English perspective. It was, for an Anglo-American like me, the ideal Independence Day.

And it was provocative enough that as I read the book, I formed a review in my head. And last night, given that I have no Internet or TV to keep me otherwise distracted – words and music are all I need - I dashed it off as follows. Actually, it's less a review of a Book about Music than an excuse to Write about Music and Writing. I never believed all that Dancing About Architecture crap anyway...

SONGBOOK by NICK HORNBY (Riverhead Books, 2003, 199 pages.)
(USA Amazon link; UK Amazon link)

I would have returned Songbook to the Library on its due date, unread, along with Nick Hornby's last novel How To Be Good, which I found unreadable. Fortunately, I couldn't find Songbook at the crucial moment, and ended up taking it upstate with me, instead, over the July 4 weekend. Within 24 hours, I'd read it – or at least all that I wanted to read of it, for now. (Part of Songbook's appeal, as with a good compilation album, is that you can dip in and out of it as you desire. Given how hard it is to treat a novel or biography likewise, I took full advantage of this luxury.) But anyway - and I hope my first use of brackets didn't cause too much confusion - I found Songbook to offer similar meaning-of-life revelations as did Hornby's other memoir, the wonderful and influential Fever Pitch from a decade earlier. Songbook is a joy, and for all the right reasons.

Countering my expectations – the thing that had prevented me reading it over two previous library extensions (that and my immense dislike of How To Be Good's opening chapter which, as stated in the June Hitlist, read like a bad parody of Nick Hornby – and if Hornby is allowed hyphens within ellipses, and ellipses within the hyphens-within-ellipses to tell asides, go off on tangents and otherwise fill up his word count, then I think I should be allowed the same) - Songbook is not a compendium of Hornby's favorite songs, not even his own High Fidelity-like list of the 31 Most Important Singles or suchlike.

(And if I were Nick Hornby, I would use this opportunity to burst into parentheses – and then include a hyphen – and embark on a soliloquy about the music media's curious fascination with lists ever since High Fidelity became a best-seller, and focus on recent polls such as that for the Best British Albums, and whether that should mean the Most British Albums, and then take up several paragraphs pondering the difference while simultaneously decrying the sheer senselessness of trying to place songs in an order of greatness. But this is a web site, not a book, so I can just hyper-link you to my observations on that particular topic. Sometimes I wish Hornby could do the same thing.)

Rather, and assuming that you're still with me – and that I don't digress too much further – Songbook is an argument in defence of the pop song itself as a thing of beauty and worthy of reverence. You and I might find such a concept unnecessary, but Hornby spent part of the last few years as pop correspondent to the New Yorker, which is a little like being the kosher correspondent to the Islamic News, i.e. anathema to the paper's very essence. His newfound frustration with these elitists fuels his justification for pure pop and, having grown up in a classical music environment that treated pop with similar class-oriented disdain, I applaud him for that.

Here then, is Hornby on those New Yorker/Granta intellectuals looking down their noses at contemporary pop:

"Do you really deny yourselves the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo)" – and you can see what I mean here by Hornby and his predilection for parentheses – "because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don't know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I'll bet you're fun at parties."

Here is Hornby on rock critics:

"They do possibly the safest job there is to do. Indeed, as most of them get their CDs sent to them through the post, CDs they then listen to on their home stereo before filing their reviews by e-mail – they do not even run the risk of being knocked down by a bus."

(True enough. But those of us who started out in this capacity by spending our limited pocket money on 45rpm singles, then on producing fanzines, and then on going to gigs at venues on the other side of London that often wouldn't let us in because we were too young, only to get crushed by people far bigger than us when we won that argument, and then to miss the last bus at the end of the gig, and finally get mugged on the three-mile walk through South London from the nearest point that any Night Bus intersected with our suburban communities – and who still went out again the next night to repeat the whole experience - can afford to feel excluded from Hornby's humorous venom.)

Here's Hornby on how Ian Dury's 'Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3' is "uniquely English," even though the song's list "consists of a great many things that are not English," and why it should become a National Anthem. (Hornby refrains from commenting on the obvious post-modern irony of him, the High Fidelity author, including a song about lists in his own list of essays about songs.)

"If Tony Blair has any guts, he should explain to the Queen that, because none of us cares about her anymore, the old anthem is no longer applicable, and that Dury's tune will henceforth be used at all sporting events and state ceremonies. Just imagine: Before each England international, David Beckham sings, "Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly, Good Golly Miss Molly and goats," while the rest of the team chants, "Why don't you get back into bed?""

And here he is on what he learned by walking out of "Led Zeppelin's show at Earl's Court during John Paul Jones's interminable keyboard extravaganza":


But it's not all drole observations on intellectuals and ineffectual footballers and interminable keyboard extravaganzas. One of the things that made reading Songbook on the Fourth of July so much fun is that Hornby is as English as they come and yet an ardent enthusiast of America. He doesn't waste time in Songbook on petty political prejudices and instead comes out in support of American artists from the predictable (Bruce Springsteen) to the unlikely (Jackson Browne) to the obscure (the former Miracle Legion singer and occasional iJamming! visitor Mark Mulcahy) to the genuinely surprising. Hornby's essay on the song 'First I Look At The Purse' from The J. Geils Band's live album serves as all too accurate reminder of England's shortcomings during the mid-seventies - and America's myriad attractions for a teenager like Hornby, who was lucky enough to visit the States for a few weeks during that period. He finally sees the J. Geils Band live, for himself, in 1979, at Hammersmith Odeon, the night "Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister for the first time." (In which case, I would have been at Kingston Polytechnic, seeing The Homosexuals. You don't forget important historical dates.) He then makes the right connection between Britain's unspoken desire to become America, the eventual reality, and concludes by finding the words I've been searching for as I've found myself trying to excuse The Clash for a certain song:

"We drove back to college just as old Britain was turning into modern Britain – ironically, a dour and tacky version of America, with the McDonald's and the shopping malls, but without the volume or the delirium or the showmanship. ' I'm so bored with the U.S.A.,' The Clash was singing on stage every night around that time, and though we all sang along with them, it wasn't true, not really. We were only bored with our obsession, and that's a different thing entirely."

(The Clash do not show up among Hornby's 31 chosen songs, but they're mentioned in essays on Suicide, Teenage Fanclub, Aimee Mann and Jackson Browne as well as this discussion of America via the J. Geils Band. I don't believe any other act is depicted as exerting such an influence on Hornby's youth.)

For all his generous qualities, Hornby occasionally finds himself guilty of his own accusations. He has an inherent dislike and distrust of hip-hop and house music that is barely more justifiable than his despised snobs' inherent dislike and distrust of hip-hop and house. His inclusion, notably late in the book, of 'Frontier Psychiatrist' by The Avalanches, and the mash-up of 'Push It' and 'No Fun' by 2 Many DJs (one of my own classics, and of whom you can read more about here) seems token, and is poorly explained, lacking an understanding of dance culture. In a chapter on The Velvelettes' 'Needle In A Haystack,' Hornby admits that he's never been a dancer - apart from the period he attended Wendy May's Loco-Motion nights at The Forum in the 1980's (and there's a flashback, all the way to Hunter) – and it shows in his writing.

And in praising Aimee Mann's 'I've Had It,' Hornby notes that songs that criticize the music biz lead down the slippery slope to songs about "room service and concession stands." Yet, Hornby uses much of Songbook to write about, and indeed complain about, the trials and tribulations of being a successful writer. How he never expected it, doesn't know how to deal with it, barely wants a part of it. To which, of course, we're tempted to scream, Then Give Away Your Money!

But therein lies part of the reason he set about writing Songbook. As you read through his short, though not always concise essays – it's those hyphens (and the brackets) that get in the way – you learn that Hornby's son is autistic, that the early, undiagnosed difficulties caused an already fractious personal relationship with the boy's mother to disintegrate further, and that at age eight Danny has still to speak properly; if you're ever been a parent, you'll instantly weep for him, and if you haven't, you'll still feel the pull of pity. You'll understand that Hornby finds salvation from his parental problems in music, and catharsis in his ability to write about it. Which is why you'll enjoy his chapter on Gregory Isaac's 'Puff The Magic Dragon' - even as you will probably decide, like me, you never want to hear the song - because of the way the author describes his gradual, gentle struggle to turn his speechless boy onto one of life's greatest gifts: music.

And you'd have to be heartless not to be touched by Hornby's essay on Badly Drawn Boy's 'A Minor Incident.' The song was written for the soundtrack of About A Boy, Nick Hornby's own novel for which the author received a seven-figure sum of sterling cash in exchange for the film rights. This may suggest that the essay is the ultimate in vanity writing, until Hornby explains himself. Firstly, the Hollywood offer came just as Hornby, finally earning good money after years of struggle, had learned his son was autistic, at which he realised that "I was going to have to find enough (money) to make sure that my son was secure, not just for the duration of my life, but for the duration of his, and that extra thirty or forty years was hard to contemplate."

(I want to believe that even in post-Thatcher, Blair-ite Britain, autistic children without wealthy parents are not merely thrown on the streets after their parents pass away, but let us allow Hornby his concern without cynicism.)

Secondly, he wanted Badly Drawn Boy to write and record the soundtrack, but never thought the filmmakers would go for it and knows better than to get involved in the filmmaking part of filmmaking. To his evident delight and surprise, directors Chris and Paul Weitz went ahead and appointed BDB of their own volition. ("Could it really be that the music in my head was the same as the music in theirs?") And third, Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, then wrote the song 'A Minor Incident' which, while based on About A Boy's narrator Marcus, seemed tailor-made for Hornby's own son Danny. Hornby quotes the lines, explains the connection, and closes out as follows.

"That's where the excitement lies: in the magical coincidences and transferences of creativity. I write a book that isn't about my kid, and then someone comes along and writes a beautiful song based on an episode in my book that turns out to mean something much more personal to me than my book ever did." And then this clincher: "And I won't say that this sort of thing is worth more than all the Hollywood money in the world, because I'm a pragmatist, and that Hollywood money has given Danny a trust fund that will hopefully see him through those terrifying thirty or forty years. But it's worth an awful lot, something money can't buy, and it makes me want to keep writing and collaborating, in the hope that something I write will strike this kind of dazzling, serendipitous spark off someone again."

That distinction is crucial. Hornby recognizes that music does not supercede our need to exist in the modern world with a modicum of material comfort, but that it offers comfort on an entirely different plane, one in which money does not operate. So, at times, do his words.

Does that mean you should buy Songbook? Well, that depends on either how much more wealthy you wish to make Hornby or how desperately you need these words of wisdom to be permanently at hand. If I had somewhere between $1.50 and £2.50 for everyone I've met who told me that they thought my Keith Moon biography was indispensable – and that they borrowed it from the library – then, well, I would at least have received my share of royalties from those people. And given that Hornby spends too much of Songbook reminding us of his own good fortune, I don't see why I shouldn't recommend you borrow his book from the library too. After all, Songbook is largely a defense of pop music as an ephemeral medium, to the extent it is all but an invitation to go online and download. (He credits several artists with turning him on to other artists, and if his book encourages readers to seek out songs by Nelly Furtado and Santana – by whatever means available – before plunging further and buying whole albums by those artists, then I don't see how anyone is any the worse off for the process.) Borrowing his book seems a suitably appropriate way of reading it, of diving in over the course of a few weeks, just as you do with a current radio hit, then letting go, with the added advantage of knowing that the process is perfectly legal.

Then again, you may just decide that, like the best pop music, you simply can't live without, in which case, Nick Hornby will be a few pennies wealthier, and you, my friends, will also be that much further enriched.

JUNE 28-JULY 4: The Streets/Dizzee Rascal/I Am X/Funkstorung live, Wine, Football and festivals,
JUNE 21-27: Lollapalooza, Morrissey, Deadwood, London Calling, Stone Roses, Euro 2004,
JUNE 14-20: Fast Food and Cheap Oil, Party Prospects, More Clash, Radio Indie Pop
JUNE 7-13: MP3s vs AIFF, Step on, June Hitlist, The Clash,
MAY 31-JUNE 6: Benzos/The Hong Kong/Home Video live, Tribute Bands, Lester Bangs, Glad All Over
MAY 24-30: The Clash, Fear Of A Black Planet, Marvin Gaye, Sandy Bull, Richard Pryor, Stoop Sale LPs, Michael Moore, Nat Hentoff
MAY 17-23: 5th Ave Street Fair, James, Surefire/The Go Station live, Crystal Palace
MAY 10-16: Radio 4 live, John Entwistle, Jeff Mills, Wine notes, Joy Division covers
APR 26-MAY 9: Twenty Twos, Morningwood, French Kicks, Ambulance Ltd all live, More Than Nets, Mod, Turning 40
APR 19-25: 5 Boroughs Rock, The Number 3 Bus, Orbital split, MC5 reform
APR 6-19: British Press Cuttings, More Than Nets, Art Rockers and Brit Packers
MAR 29-APRIL 5: The Rapture/BRMC/Stellastarr* live, The Chinese Beatles, Freddie Adu
MAR 22-28: Singapore Sling live, Kerry on a Snowboard, Pricks on Clits, Eddie Izzard, Who's Two
MAR 15-21: TV On The Radio live, Tracking Terror, Bloomberg's Education Bloc, The Homosexuals,
MAR 8-14: The Undertones live, Winemakers Week, Madrid Bombings, Just In Jest
MAR 1-7: Rhone-gazing, Pop Culture Quiz answers, Who's Hindsight, March Hitlist
FEB 16-29: Lad Lit, American Primaries, New York novels, Candi Staton, the Pop Culture Quiz, World Musics In Context
FEB 9-15: Grammy gripes, Spacemen 3, Replacements, Touching The Void, Moon myths, Voice Jazz & Pop Poll
FEB 2-FEB 8: Suicide Girls in the flesh, Johnny Rotten's a Celebrity...So's Jodie Marsh
JAN 26-FEB 1: Starsailor/Stellastarr*/Ambulance live, Tiswas, Wine Watch, Politics Watch
JAN 19-25: Brooklyn Nets? LCD Soundsystem, Iowa Primary, The Melody, TV On The Radio
JAN 12-18: The Unicorns live, New York w(h)ines, Sex In The City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, S.U.V. Safety, Bands Reunited
JAN 5-11: Tony's Top 10s of 2003, Howard Dean and his credits, Mick Middles and Mark E. Smith, Mick Jones and Don Letts,

DEC 22-JAN 4: Blind Boys of Alabama live, Joe Strummer, Year-End Lists, Finding Nemo, The Return of The King
DEC 15-21: Placebo live, Park Slope, Angels In America, Saddam's capture
DEC 8-14: The Rapture live, Guardian readers change lightbulbs, Keep iJamming! Thriving
DEC 1-7: Cabaret Laws, Ready Brek, Kinky Friedman, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Jonathan Lethem, Julie Burchill, Blizzard running
NOV 17-30: Lost In Music, Lost In Translation, Neil Boland, Political Polls, Press Clips, Australian Whines
NOV 10-16: Ben E. King live, Hedonism readings, A***nal, Charts on Fire
NOV 3-9: Brother Bear, Oneida, P. Diddy, Steve Kember, Guy Fawkes, Iraq, the Marathon
OCT 27-NOV 2: CMJ Music Marathon report, NYC Running Marathon preview, Prey For Rock'n'Roll, Yellow Dog, Gen Wesley Clark, Halloween
OCT 20-26: Television Personalities, defending New York rockers, Bill Drummond Is Read
OCT 6-19: LCD Soundsystem live, Renewable Brooklyn review, Blind Acceptance is a sign...
SEP29-OCT 5: New York w(h)ines parts 1 and 2, Bruce Springsteen at Shea Stadium.
SEP 22-28: Atlantic Antic, Pacifists for War: General Wesley Clark and the Democratic Debate, Danny Tenaglia, Running Wild, Steppenwolf
SEP 15-21: Radio 4/DJ Vadim live, Manhattan Mondaze, Circle of Light, Renewable Brooklyn
SEP 8-14: Central Park Film Festival, Roger (Daltrey) and me, September 11 Revisited, The Raveonettes/Stellastarr* live, Recording Idiots of America,
SEP1-7: Film Festivities, Party Monster, Keith Moon RIP
AUG 25-31: Punk Planet, Carlsonics, Copyright Protection, Cline Zinfandel, BRMC
AUG 18-24: Black Out Blame Game, John Shuttleworth, British Music mags, Greg Palast, The Thrills live.
AUG 11-17: The New York blackout, Restaurant reviews, The Media as Watchdog, What I Bought On My Holidays
AUG 4-10: Step On again, Shaun W. Ryder, Jack magazine, the BBC, the Weather, Detroit Cobras, football and Rock'n'Roll
JULY 28-AUG 3: De La Guarda, The Rapture, Radio 4, Stellastarr*, Jodie Marsh, A Tale of Two Lions, Hedonism launch photos,
JULY 14-27: Manchester Move Memories, Hedonism is Here, Holiday postcard
JULY 7-13: Chuck Jackson live, Step On, Beverley Beat, British Way of Life
JUNE30-JULY6: David Beckham, Geoffrey Armes, Happy Mondays, Step On at Royale
JUNE 23-29: Ceasars/The Realistics live, weddings and anniversaries, Cabaret laws.
JUNE 9-23: Hell W10, The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, Nada Surf live, Field Day debacle
JUNE 2-8: Six Feet Under - Over, Field Day, Siren Fest, Crouching Tigher Hidden Cigarette
MAY 19-JUNE 1: Ian McCulloch live, New York's financial woes, Six Feet Under, Hedonism, Tommy Guerrero.
MAY 5-18: Live reviews of The Rapture, De La Soul, Carlsonics, Laptop, The Libertines, Echoboy, The Greenhornes; observations on Chris Coco/The Blue Room, The Apple Music Store, Alan Freed, Phil Spector, The Matrix Reloaded, Rare Earth, Tinnitus and Royale!
APRIL 28-MAY 4: Flaming Lips, Madonna, Bill Maher, The Dixie Chicks, the war
APRIL 21-27: Rotary Connection, War(n) Out, Cocaine Talk
APRIL 14-20: Belated London Musings on Death Disco and CPFC.
APRIL 7-13: London Musings: Madness, Inspiral Carpets, the Affair, the Palace, the Jam
MARCH 31-APRIL 6: Music be the spice of life, London Calling: Ten Observations from the Old Country
MARCH 24-30: Six Feet Under, Peaches/Elefant live, MP Frees and Busted Boy Bands
MARCH 17-23: Röyksopp live, Transmission, Worn-Out War Talk
MARCH 10-16: Live reviews: Stratford 4, Flaming Sideburns, Joe Jackson Band, Linkin Park. Why I Oppose The War (For Now).
MARCH 3-9: The Pursuit of Happiness, Weekend Players, U.S. Bombs, Al Farooq, A New Pessimism, Brooklyn Half Marathon
FEBRUARY 24-MARCH2: Orange Park, Ali G-Saddam Hussein-Dan Rather-Bill Maher-Jon Stewart TV reviews, Stellastarr*, James Murphy, The Station nightclub fire, the Grammys
FEBRUARY 17-23: Village Voice Poll, Singles Club, Smoke and Fire
FEBRUARY 3-16: Snug, The Face, Pink, Supergrass live, Keith Moon, Phil Spector, Gore Vidal
JANUARY 27-FEBRUARY 2: Communist Chic, Spiritland, Daddy You're A Hero, Keith Moon, State of the Union, CPFC and more on Iraq
JANUARY 20-26: Divisions of Laura Lee, Burning Brides, Words On War, Child Abuse of a Different Kind, Losing My Edge
JANUARY 13-19: Pete Townshend, Pee Wee Herman, South Park and more Pete Townshend
JANUARY 6-12: Interpol in concert, Tony Fletcher's Top 10 Albums and Singles of 2002, More on Joe Strummer and The Clash, Fever Pitch and Bend It Like Beckham.
DECEMBER 31 2002 -JAN 5 2003: A tribute to Joe Strummer, Radio 4 live on New Year's Eve

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