Review

Songbook

by Nick Hornby



My initial impression of Nick Hornby's SONGBOOK was that it was
going to be the equivalent of a bowl of Kix cereal --- pleasant
enough to digest, but ultimately a bowl of air. How wrong I
was.

Hornby's book consists of chapters named after 31 different
rock/pop tunes that in turn comprise one of his mixtapes, and five
additional essays regarding different aspects of popular music. A
"mixtape" (or mix CD) is a compilation of songs from disparate
sources and is put together at the whim of the listener. Mixtapes
can vary wildly from listener to listener, or even within the tape
itself. Hornby's tape consists of an obscure 35-year-old Bob Dylan
song, a 40-year-old Beatles tune, a recent Ani DiFranco track, and
a cutting edge sample by The Avalanches. I initially thought that
each chapter would accordingly be an essay about the particular
tune the chapter was named for, and thus would be of limited
interest, for a limited time. But no … Hornby goes into far
weightier matters, with a light but definitive touch.

Hornby and I are (roughly) the same age and grew up in an era when
music was more than entertainment. The music, and the people who
made it, meant something to us. Now on the downside of middle age,
we both still listen to current music, with the understanding that
a pop song does not have to be necessarily weighty or momentous; it
need be nothing more than what it is supposed to be, which is
entertainment. And sometimes it's not even that. When Hornby
describes hearing the fourth track --- a skit rather than a song
--- entitled "Bizarre" on the D-12 disc Devil's Night, and
describes it as "...the single most dispiriting moment of (his)
professional life so far this Millennium," I know exactly what he's
talking about.

Hornby is extremely insightful. He notes that since Elvis, the job
of pop music has been to challenge the mores of an older
generation. If we consider ourselves hipper or more tolerant than
our parents, it's a mistake (in his words) or a conceit (in mine).
I remember, 33 years ago, sitting in a concert hall watching Alice
Cooper stage his own hanging and wondering not if someone would top
this theatrically, but how. The question made me uneasy then, the
answer more so now. Hornby indeed finds the loud guitar rock of
Staind (sic) and Linkin Park welcome by comparison. He also
discusses how one used to have to work to hear songs by the Beatles
and such, whereas now the music has been co-opted for jeans
commercials (and, indeed, as I write this, "Rock 'n' Roll" by Led
Zeppelin is playing as the soundtrack for a ... Cadillac
commercial).

But Hornby doesn't merely deal with music as a commodity. He
discusses, without angst or self-pity, his concern for providing
for his son Danny, a child with significant medical needs (the
account of how Danny Hornby disses Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives
and Sevens
is worth the price of admission all by itself). He
agonizes over his choice of "Caravan" by Van Morrison as the song
of choice for his funeral (and it's a good choice, making my own
selection of "I Want You" by Bob Dylan seem trite by comparison).
Along the way he discusses the breakup of his marriage in a brief
but heartfelt way, speaking in generalities but telling the reader
--- a stranger --- everything one would need, or certainly would
want, to know.

And if, per chance, you'd like to shine up that CD collection of
yours a bit, you could do far worse than read SONGBOOK as a guide
to do just that. An essay entitled "The Entertainers" initially had
me howling as Hornby discussed the reasons why no one ever, ever
listens to all of a CD boxed set. This gave way, however, to a
serious discussion regarding the music of Los Lobos. Hornby isn't
quite as persuasive with his essay concerning Nick Cave and the Bad
Seeds. But that's the beauty of the music --- you're probably not
going to like all of it. With SONGBOOK, however, you're sure to
like most of it.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Songbook
by Nick Hornby

  • Publication Date: October 7, 2003
  • Genres: Current Affairs, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 1573223565
  • ISBN-13: 9781573223560