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Hornby's lead riffs

Nick Hornby's "31 Songs" (Viking, $30)

book review by Stephen Cummings - The Age, Melbourne, 10 May 2003

Nick Hornby's 31 Songs is a collection of short essays on his favourite songs. It is not an anthology of conventional music criticism but rather a key to how these songs have affected Hornby's life and work. Songs are what excite Hornby.

"Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else," he writes. "When people ask me what music I like, I find it very difficult to reply because they really usually want names of people and I can only give them song titles."

One gets the impression that the songs were chosen not because Hornby considered them classics but because they allow him to comment both on pop music and his evolution.

The books deals with how both music and people can shape and change over time. Hornby, you see, believes that a pop song can illuminate every element of our existence.

In one chapter he describes himself as "someone who has to write books because he can't write songs".

Hornby's first novel, High Fidelity, is about a record geek/music snob, Rob Fleming, who is plugged into popular culture but unable to commit to his girlfriend and make the transition to adulthood. You cannot help but notice that Fleming's and Hornby's tastes are alike.

And one is bound to ask: why 31 songs? Hornby doesn't exactly say, so I guess the number is insignificant.

He makes several propositions; for instance, if we listen repeatedly to a song over a period of time it loses its associations, its first place. "If you love a song, love it enough to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory is rubbed away by use."

He cites novelist Dave Eggers, who has the theory that we listen to songs until we figure them out and presumably achieve some sort of completion. "A three-minute pop song can only withhold its mysteries for so long."

Later, Hornby puts forward the case that much of what one listens to as one gets older is accommodation.

"I have kids, and neighbours, and a partner who could quite happily never hear another blues-metal riff or block-rockin' beat in her life," he says.

Hornby's explanation for choosing each song is laid out in his customary style that blends passion with a nice line in self-deprecating humour. But the thing is, if you don't like the songs or are unfamiliar with them - as I am with about 13 - then his illuminations, no matter how sweetly delivered, are going to be a waste of time.

Another thing; in several chapters, Hornby barely mentions the song or artist that the essay is presumably high-lighting.

One of Hornby's strengths is that he has a way with everyday domestic silliness. He recalls a moment with his mother that we can all recognise. He is watching Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops. His mother asks him, "What does that mean then? Get it on/bang a gong? How long did it take to think of that, do you reckon?" And how the right response - "Two seconds , and it doesn't matter" - came to him too late.

Hornby's all-time favourite turns out to be Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road. He calculates that he has listened to it at least 1500 times, which would be 1497 times too many for me. Hornby notes that Springsteen's songs from this period are about becoming famous or achieving public validation through his music. Thunder Road became a talisman for Hornby when he was struggling to find his own voice as a writer. "Thunder Road was my answer to every rejection I received and every doubt expressed by friends and relatives," he writes.

So what about Bob Dylan? You guessed it; Hornby is not a huge fan, but strangely he admits to owning more CDs by him than any other artist. He believes the extreme devotion shown by Dylan fanatics is somehow anti-music. It is the Teenage Fanclub, Badly Drawn Boy, certain Rod Stewart songs, Ben Folds Five, Aimee Mann, soul music, Van Morrison, the Avalanches and Jackson Browne that Hornby succumbs to when going through a painful divorce.

Hornby writes touchingly about his son, Danny, who is autistic, and his own intense relationship to music. Before Danny can go to sleep he has to listen to music and wanders around the house with a portable cassette player with the volume cranked up. "I find it almost overwhelmingly moving watching him when he does that, my little speechless boy, his head lowered to the speaker, all the better to absorb every note (and who knows? maybe every word) of every song."

If like me you fell under the spell of amplified guitars back when you were a hapless teenage f***-up, you might find Hornby's discourse on music strangely similar to the dialogue you have been running in your own brain for the past 25 years. You might now understand why friends and colleagues meet your ardour with blank looks.

But if you are an admirer of Hornby's fiction, with some interest in music, then this collection of essays might offer astute and unexpected insights.

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