I have this habit where whenever I have to respond to some kind of theme in some way, I invariably begin by having some line from some song jump into my head. It's involuntary, and it's probably the result of having spent my entire life plugged into headphones or sat in front of a pair of speakers and a turntable or CD player. I'm not complaining you understand, I'm just making the point. So it was that when I found out the theme for this years Art exam I immediately began to sing Bowie's 'Changes' to myself, and in fact this was the spark for me finally picking up those records, as mentioned elsewhere. I suppose you could be quite worried hearing that; I mean, you might expect an Art teacher to think of some visual artist first (and no, I don't count Bowie as a visual artist) but oh no… there I was with 'ch ch ch changes…' going through my head, unable to focus on anything except how long it had been since I'd listened to Hunky Dory with my mate Chris and laughed about throwing homework on the fire. So when Kim asked for a sneak preview to the theme I said 'David Bowie, 1971', and I thought that was a pretty good clue. I did an Alta Vista search myself with just that information. The first result was just a page with the track listing for Hunky Dory and I thought to myself it would be easy as sin to figure the theme from that, but then again maybe some people really would think that 'Queen Bitch' would make a great theme for an Art exam. They'd probably be right, too.
So it was the same when someone asked me to take an assembly about 'weak and strong'. The first thing that went through my head was that line in Hurrah!'s 'Hip Hip'. Maybe you know the one: "look so weak and feel so strong that we get laughed at. These days in grey go on and on with these vultures on my back. I can't seem to get worried about it, I get high just thinking about it." 'Hip Hip' closes with the refrain of "Are You Scared To Get Happy" which of course gave title to the mythic fanzine, and the 'ba ba ba-ba ba' bit gave the associated Sha-La-La flexi label it's catalogue numbering code. Useless facts… I'm an endless source of them.
There's another line in 'Hip Hip' that goes "put down your pills, stop dreaming about it. Pick up your thrills and shout about it." I always liked that line. I'm not against drugs, as some people sometimes think, as I'm sure I have said before and shall no doubt say again in the future. It's just that I find most drugs to be aesthetically unappealing, most drugs make the wrong kinds of associations and connections, and those are personal things, but then what is life if not personal? But I liked that line because it seemed to be so full of energy and positive action, and it always seemed to me that people with drugs spent all their time telling each other their drug stories, and you know that's always going to be boring. But maybe I just never met enough people who took a lot of drugs.
When my friend Abigail was in St Petersberg seven years ago, she sent me a book. It was a strange book for anyone to be sending me because it was called Muscle and it was the 'confessions of an unlikely bodybuilder'. It was a strange book for anyone to be sending me because I was into reading Herman Hesse and Baudilaire and 'strong man sex appeal' was the last thing on my mind. Nevertheless I read it and I was glad that I did because Muscle is one of the great books about the futility of both the abuse of chemicals in the search for physical perfection, the futility of that search itself and of the fragility of the masculine psyche. It's also very funny.
Not very funny in the slightest is Joel Lane's novel From Blue To Black which leaves me feeling ever more certain that a decent novel that uses the music industry as it's basis is nigh on impossible to write. This one is certainly nigh on impossible to read, despite the start of some chapters being peppered with Felt lyrics. I feel certain that Lawrence would cringe at his lyrics being placed in such a horribly traditional rock and roll context, but that's not really for me to judge. What is for me to judge is that it's a dreadful mistake to place those words in a context alongside Kingmaker lyrics. And I'm not even going to waste my time explaining why.
I can't recall when I ever read a good book that revolves around music. Someone once gave me Nick Hornby's High Fidelity but I couldn't stomach it. Kevin said something once about how in that book there's talk of a Goth Fire Engines fan, and for sure I would have stopped reading at that stage. It's a moot point though, because I think I stopped after a page or two. It was that bad. It IS that bad. I can't begin to fathom the appeal, I really can't. But I can fathom the reason that I find the book so appalling, and the key is in that bizarre Fire Engines reference, and it's this; if you have any passion and obsessive knowledge about the subject of an art form (whatever it may be) then you will recoil in a violent manner from any association or connection made which you see as being either historically inaccurate or, much more importantly, goes against the grain of your finely honed aesthetic of relationships. As soon as that happens, you lose the ability to empathise and it all sinks into a mire of picking out evidence of the stupidity of the artist in question. People have said that his book about soccer is better; that he obviously knows his soccer better than his music, and that's fine if you're into soccer but to me is just more evidence of his lack of brain power. And before you start complaining, I'll add that some of my best friends are soccer fans, although I know I'll never figure out why. Why they like soccer I mean, not why they're my friends.
It always strikes me that people who write novels based around music are being torn between the desire to write about the music that they love and have lived their lives with, and the feeling that only by writing it in a novel form will their words be looked on as worthwhile. There is some notion that to write about things in a journalistic manner is less insightful and somehow less intellectual, and clearly that is wrong, because there's as much passion and wit and intelligence and a whole host of themes in, say, Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions, Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop or Matthew Collings' This Is Modern Art as there is in any Irvine Welsh novel. In fact, more, I'd wager.
Which is all perhaps to say that in fact the idea of a music novel is one which is always doomed to failure, and maybe that's as it should be. Maybe Kevin is right when he says that the occasional drop of a musical reference in a Lawrence Block story (Dave Van Ronk, says Kevin, gave Block the title for one of his books - Matt Scudder mystery 6 When The Sacred Ginmill Closes -, and is mentioned briefly in the Scudder short story 'Out The Window') is always preferable to the more concentrated use made by George P Pelecanos, but I'm saying nothing against Pelecanos, because for me he carries it all magnificently and I'll have no arguments thank you very much. But those writers are, I suppose, 'crime' writers and their books allow much more to enter the stage, whereas whenever someone writes a novel about music, the music somehow always manages to come across as one dimensional, empty and ultimately disposable, and as a result it suffuses everything else with the same feeling, and you just don't care about anything at all. Which would be fine if all the music novels were meant as moody existentialist trawls through the psyche, but they aren't, and it isn't.
And why am I wasting my time talking about things that are not worth spending time on? I really don't know. Really I should be telling you how recently I finally gave into Kevin's long term name dropping of Block and picked up some of his books and how really I see his point and believe that his Matt Scudder novels truly are special. I could tell you how reading Eight Million Ways To Die made me dig out my old June Brides records, on the connection that their mini album on Pink was called There Are Eight Million Stories and I never realised where that title came from until now. Or I could tell you how New York street names inevitably crop up and how whenever I see Christopher Street mentioned I think of the Felt song and how today I pulled out The Pictorial Jackson Review from my collection and played it through, ostensibly to hear aforementioned song but also to remind myself how special a record it really is. Not that I'd forgotten. You don't really forget these things, but if you go a time without hearing things, well, they tend to slip. Pictorial Jackson Review is a record of two sides, of course, and a CD reissue will lose all the relevance of the fact; the fact being that side two is filled with two broken hearted end of day Duffy explorations of the dark side whilst side one is eight of Lawrence's finest unashamed Pop songs and is a record I should not let sit unplayed for as long as I have. I should tell you that it was only recently that I came to know who Spook is, (thanks to Momus and his marvellous website) and how it doesn't make the song 'How Spook Got Her Man' any better, per se, but it's probably telling that I find my mind resting easier now I know the facts. Or at least some of the facts. And I should tell you that I wish I knew more about a planned Felt biographical movie that was mooted at the end of the last decade in New York, with the screenplay apparently to be penned by Dale Peck, who wrote the novels Fucking Martin and The Law Of Enclosures, amongst others, and which I intend to read just as soon as I finish the current crop of Scudders.
Which I will never get finished if I don't stop boring you here.
© Alistair Fitchett 2000