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Nick Hornby’s Songbook

August 29, 2013 by Reader's Connection



I wrote a whiny post, a couple weeks ago, about the difficulty of visiting the sites that Earl Conn wrote about in his My Indiana books.

It’s much easier to catch up with Nick Hornby, by listening to the songs he wrote about in his essay collection Songbook.

I’ve listened to 10 songs, now, out of 31. Not sure at what point I’ll have a passing grade, but Hornby is fun.



purple_eighths3Here he is on the song “Frontier Psychiatrist” by the Australian group the Avalanches, from their Since I Left You album. The song, and the whole album, involves a lot of samplings–bits taken from other recordings or movies or wherever.

I once presumed that nothing good–nothing great, anyway–could come out of the mixing and matching and scratching and cutting and pasting, and this was true while the approach of the cutters and pasters remained essentially plagiaristic . . . But now the cutters and pasters have upped the ante. The Avalanches use so many samples to create something so indisputably their own that to accuse them of plagiarism is pointless: you may as well make the same case against a writer whose books contain words that other writers have used before . . . finally, the true genius that is fandom has been recognized.

green_quarterI lost the use of my right ear a few years back, and suffer from echolocation problems. Washing dishes in the kitchen while first listening to  “Frontier Psychiatrist,” I was startled at one point when I thought a housebreaker was standing behind me, yelling. Loved the song, though.

The Avalanches are apparently responsible for the YouTube version of “Frontier Psychiatrist.”

Offering you this video may be a disservice. When I listen to the song, now, I’m going to see those guys playing tubas. Hornby praises the Avalanches  for finding “a rhyme in two unconnected lines of dialogue,” and I think that’s great, too, but now whenever I hear those lines (He was white as a sheet/And he also made false teeth) I’m going to see . . . well, what you saw, if you foolishly started the movie.

I don’t know if any of the Avalanches actually appear in this staging. I don’t recognize any of the manic guys who appear live in this other clip.




Hornby doesn’t have much use for classical music:

I never respond to Mozart or Haydn as music, merely as something that makes the room smell temporarily different, like a scented candle . . .

And this gives him concern about the song he wants played at his funeral, Van Morrison’s “Caravan” from Van’s live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now. (It isn’t available from the library, but I, like Mr. Hornby, have listened to this rendition countless times. You can suggest that we purchase it if you like).

The only thing that worries me about having ‘Caravan’ played at my funeral is that string section. Will people think I’m making some concession to classical music when they hear it? Will they say to themselves, ‘What a shame he lost the courage of his convictions right at the end there, just like everybody else?’ I wouldn’t want them to think that.


I think this is funny but idiotic. Allow me to explain by jumping to another of Hornby’s raves.


I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory.

An example of what gets Hornby going theologically is Rufus Wainright’s version of “One Man Guy” on the Poses album.

For me, He comes in at the beginning of the second verse, just when Rufus and his sister Martha begin to harmonize . . . Does God come in because Martha and Rufus are singing so beautifully together–does He hear it from afar and think, “Hey, that’s My kind of music, and I’m going to see what’s going on?” Or does He enable them to sing together–does He spot what they’re pitching for and help them along the way?

This image will become really huge if you click on it.Doesn’t work for me. I liked the song, didn’t experience the visitation. I’m with Aldous Huxley, who has a character in his novel Point Counter Point go over the top about Beethoven’s quartet in A minor.

You can’t understand anything until you have heard it,” Spandrell declares. “It proves all kinds of things—God, the soul, goodness—unescapably. It’s the only real proof that exists; the only one, because Beethoven was the only man who could get his knowledge over into expression.”

There, now. Scented candles, indeed. Harrumph.

It should be clear by now that Hornby says some things with which you’ll disagree; but as I say, he’s fun, and his tastes in popular music are rambunctious.



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