Crash Chords: Band Paper

Writing about music isn’t quite as awkward as dancing about architecture, but a lot of books sure make it feel that way. If you’re tone deaf or just plain deaf, then let your eyes do the hearing and see what you’re missing by reading through this list of noteworthy prose, background noise is optional.

Cover of the UK edition.

Cover of the UK edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone with even the slightest belief in the legitimacy of their personal musical taste would have tried to inflict it upon helpless friends and family via that trusty weapon of sonic torture – the unsolicited mix tape! Nick Hornby goes one further with Songbook (published in the UK as 31 Songs), a collection of personal essays about his 31 favorite songs. “I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don’t like them as much as I do,” he declares unapologetically. To be honest, if Hornby hadn’t cemented his music-writing cred with High Fidelity, or written so passionately and shamelessly about falling into Last Song Syndrome as easily as the rest of us, then this trifling exercise may have come off as insufferable. But there are deeper undercurrents to all the navel-gazing. While Hornby was working on the book, his young son was diagnosed with autism, and proceeds benefit TreeHouse, a U.K. charity for autistic children.

Shelter, by Marty Asher, is a little book that doesn’t seem to have much going for it. The back cover blurbs name-drop Ellison and Vonnegut, the usual stock fixtures of the 1960s counterculture scene that Generations Y and Z may mostly find irrelevant. Each page contains only a paragraph or two, and most of the text seems to be composed of lyrics from Beatles songs, quoted repeatedly. But there’s much more at work between the lines of this fun, funny, and poignant fable. We read through the ramblings of Billy, an idealistic bumper sticker writer surviving the cold-war era’s paranoia of nuclear Armageddon by obsessing over the music of the Beatles. It’s a charming character study filtered through a heady experimental trip that shakes your views on just what John Lennon was trying to say, whether you’re a fan of the Fab Four or not.

Cover of "The Wrong Boy"

Cover of The Wrong Boy

In Willy Russell‘s The Wrong Boy, we follow the story of star-crossed misfit Raymond Marks, as told through a series of long letters written to his own hero, the cult musician Morrissey, lead singer of indie music gods The Smiths. Raymond’s life was perfectly ordinary, if slightly dysfunctional, until the expose of an innocent little game that he and his school friends played together, undeservedly brands him as a perverted troublemaker. Excerpts from Morrissey’s lyrics weave in and out of the correspondence, setting the tone for the book’s blend of social commentary, comedy, and pathos, much like the actual songs themselves. The narrative is rich with extended gags that you can’t help but laugh out loud to, but it also hits heavily with touching moments that’ll jerk tears from even the hardest punk rocker or Smiths fan (whoever you find more extreme). The Wrong Boy is the real deal, a novel that satisfies completely.

Sting is so “awesome”, he not only does without a last name, but he even manages to make our great editor-in-chief personally request the inclusion of his book in this humble piece. Of course, could we ever expect Sting’s autobiography to be anything less than lyrical? Entitled Broken Music, we get to know Sting as the young Gordon Sumner, and probe into the devastating influence of his artistic but volatile mother. Sting’s writing is open and honest to a fault, only his kinkiest fans may appreciate his digressions into sexual mumbo jumbo. He also relies on a flashback framing device that verges on the disorienting and unevenly spreads out the nuggets of true insight. Fortunately, we also get treated to the inner workings of The Police, and the stories behind the composition of some of his most significant songs. In the end, this memoir serves quite well as an apology, explanation, and confession, demonstrating how Sting tries his best not to sell his fans short, which is way more than you can say for most music icons.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2005

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