STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Ha-Ha—Jennifer Dawson
  • Poppy Shakespeare—Clare Allan
  • Yo Blair!—Geoffrey Wheatcroft
  • Salmon Fishing in the Yemen—Paul Torday
  • The Myth of the Blitz—Angus Calder
  • This Book Will Save Your Life—A. M. Homes

BOOKS READ:

  • Across the Great Divide: The Band and America—Barney Hoskyns
  • Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall—Anna Funder
  • Yo Blair!—Geoffrey Wheatcroft
  • The Ha-Ha—Jennifer Dawson
  • Coming Through Slaughter—Michael Ondaatje
  • Poppy Shakespeare—Clare Allan

On the face of it, the Stasi and the Band had very little in common. Closer examination, however, reveals the East German secret police force and the brilliant genre-fusing Canadian rock group to be surprisingly…. Oh, forget it. I don’t have to do that stuff in this column—or at least, if I do, nobody has ever told me. It goes without saying that the two wires that led me to the books by Barney Hoskyns and Anna Funder came from different sockets in the soul, and power completely different, you know, electrical/spiritual devices: Stasiland and Across the Great Divide are as different as a hair dryer and a Hoover. Yes. That’s it. I’m the first to admit it when my metaphors don’t work, but I’m pretty sure I pulled that one off. (I wish I’d hated them both. Then I could have said that one sucks, and the other blows. Regrettably, they were pretty good.)

The journey/length of cable that led me to the Hoskyns book began a couple of years ago, when I was just about to walk out of a music club. We’d gone to see the support act, but the headliners had this amazing young guitar player called James Walbourne, an unearthly cross between James Burton, Peter Green, and Richard Thompson; Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time. We still walked out of the club, because we really wanted a pizza, and pizza always beats art, but I was determined to track him down and make sure that I hadn’t been imagining it all. I’ve seen him a few times since—when he’s not playing with the Pernice Brothers or Son Volt or Tift Merritt, he’s been appearing with his own band in a pub not far from me—and he’s recently taken to playing a cover of the Band’s “Ain’t No More Cane,” a song off The Basement Tapes. So then I had a fit on the Band—I have pretty much listened to every single track on the box set that came out last year—and then I noticed that I had an unread 1993 biography on my shelves. Before long I was being taken from Stratford, Ontario, to the Mississippi Delta and on to Los Angeles.

In one crucial way, writing about the Band is difficult: Greil Marcus got there first, in his book Mystery Train, and Marcus’s essay is still the best piece of rock criticism I have ever read. (There are thirty-seven separate index entries for Greil Marcus in Across the Great Divide, and yet Hoskyns still feels it necessary to get sniffy about a couple of factual errors that Marcus made in his writings. You’d have hoped that Hoskyns could have been more forgiving, seeing as how his own book would have been a lot shorter without Marcus’s help.) And yet there’s something irresistible about the story too, because it’s the story of white rock and roll. Here’s Robbie Robertson, aged sixteen, getting on a train and heading down to the American South from Canada, to play R&B covers with Ronnie Hawkins’s Hawks; Robertson’s pilgrimage from white Sleepytown to the birthplace of the blues was the one that millions of teenage guitarists made, in their heads at least, at the beginning of the sixties. (It may even still go on. I would imagine that James Walbourne has made exactly the same trip, and maybe not even symbolically. He lives in Muswell Hill, North London, which is sort of like Canada.) And here’s Robbie Robertson, in his early thirties, bombed out of his head on cocaine, living with Martin Scorsese in a house on Mulholland Drive that had blackout covers on the windows so that the residents no longer knew or cared whether it was day or night. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to our music between the early sixties and the mid-seventies: the geographical shift, the decadence, and the obliviousness to the outside world. Thank heaven for punk. And Abba.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby lives in North London. His new novel for young adults, Slam, will be published in October.


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