Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July/August 2013

Nick Hornby
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  • The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I—Roger Shattuck
  • Passing—Nella Larsen
  • Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941—Lynne Olson
  • How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like—Paul Bloom


  • A Natural Woman—Carole King
  • Bedsit Disco Queen—Tracey Thorn
  • Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece—Ashley Kahn
  • The Garrick Year—Margaret Drabble
  • The Summer of Naked Swim Parties—Jessica Anya Blau

Carole King and Tracey Thorn are both singer-songwriters. They have never done anything else for a living, because they haven’t needed to: they were both teenagers when their careers in music began to take off. They are both mothers, and they have both had children with the cowriters of some of their most famous songs. They have both been politically active. And yet it seems to me that Carole King has written an autobiography, whereas Tracey Thorn has written a memoir. Can that be right? Is this even a useful distinction to make?

The most helpful attempt to distinguish between the two that I have come across appeared in the Guardian ten years ago, and was written by the wise and thoughtful British writer Ian Jack, the former editor of Granta. (Jack is Scottish, so he probably hates being called British. There is a lot of artfully disguised malice in this column.) “An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment,” Jack argued. “All kinds of people, more or less famous, can write them or be helped to write them: footballers, politicians, newsreaders. Deeds, fame and an interesting life are not necessary ingredients of the memoir.” My first book, then, is a textbook definition of a memoir: nobody had ever heard of me, and I had achieved nothing, when I decided to write it. I now see that it should be required reading for every writing course, although I suppose you could argue that it would be enough if the teacher merely waved it around in front of the students. “Look at this idiot! He’d done bugger all, and he wrote a book about himself! Memoir!”

The memoir’s ambition, Jack continues, “is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be”—oh dear—“about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as ‘literary,’ and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks—the tricks of the novel, of fiction—because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

In other words, the writer of an autobiography is writing for fans, whereas the writer of a memoir has to create them. Tracey Thorn has fans, thousands of them, through her band Everything But the Girl, but one of the themes of her book is the essential oddness of this condition, and one of its tones is an attractive, occasionally pained quizzicality. She clearly doesn’t feel famous enough to be writing an autobiography, so what she does instead is create a rich and interesting plot out of personal experience. So there’s this girl, and she loves her music, and she starts to make it, but she wants other things, too: a university education, children, a relationship, a life that doesn’t turn her into some kind of monster… Underpinning the book is the idea that this girl is really not unlike you and me, except this weird stuff happens to her: she and her boyfriend start selling out large concert halls, and this house DJ remixes one of their songs and it sells millions of copies around the world, and George Michael winds down his car window and shouts at her when she’s standing at the school gates waiting to pick up her kid.

This last story is entirely indicative of the book’s sensibility, and of Thorn’s self-awareness. A pop-star auto-­
biographer might not have noticed anything in the George Michael moment, because there’s nothing remarkable about another member of the Famous Club saying hello; Thorn, however, clearly shriveled up inside a little, as her struggle to offer her family a life untainted by celebrity is momentarily blocked. It’s a very winning book, not least because Thorn, who recorded the B-side of an Everything But the Girl single on the day she sat her seventeenth-century literature paper, can write, too. And the survival of her relationship with Ben Watt, the other half of EBTG, through college, pop-stardom, parenthood, and life-threatening illness, is an extraordinary achievement worth a book to itself.

It goes without saying that Carole King is entitled to write an autobiography rather than a memoir. She wrote, mostly with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (so obviously a song about losing your virginity, now that she points it out) and “The Locomotion” and “Crying in the Rain” and “It Might as Well Rain Until September” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Up on the Roof” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “One Fine Day” and “I’m Into Something Good” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Natural Woman” before she was twenty-five years old. Her solo album Tapestry was in the record collection of every single English-speaking woman born between 1940 and 1970. The album appeared in the top 40 of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. She is the most successful female songwriter in pop-music history, with 118 appearances on the Billboard top 100. You probably hear one of her songs—almost certainly “You’ve Got a Friend”—once a week. She can write whatever kind of book she likes.

If you have the remotest interest in pop culture, then there are passages in A Natural Woman that make you wonder why you ever bother reading anything other than music autobiographies, and… Actually, even I can see that this is super-hyperbolic. If you have a deep, passionate, obsessive interest in the history of pop culture, then there are passages in A Natural Woman that will remind you how happy you are made by music autobiographies, when you admire the artist concerned and she has a story to tell. King describes the craft of arrangement, and the period when she was recording Tapestry next door to the studio where Joni Mitchell was recording Blue, and how James Taylor’s thoughtfulness and support eased her path to becoming a solo performer. There are terrific showbiz stories, too: Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records winding down his car window and shouting to a passing Goffin and King that he needs “a really big hit for Aretha… How about writing a song called ‘Natural Woman’?” They drive home to New Jersey, write it, deliver a demo the next day. The music stories are pretty much all in the first half of the book. The second half is more about her life as an environmental campaigner and her commitment to self-sufficiency in rural Idaho.

There are some odd omissions in A Natural Woman. One of the few things I knew about King before reading it was that she inspired Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol,” written when she was seventeen, but this isn’t deemed worthy of a mention. If I had inspired Neil Sedaka to write “Oh! Nick,” I’d have written an entire book about it, and it wouldn’t have been a literary memoir, either: I’d surely be entitled to graduate straight to autobiography. What did Neil do wrong? Another lacuna is more complicated. In 1962, Goffin and King wrote the Crystals’ notorious 1962 hit “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss).” The song is usually regarded as a high-camp low point in feminist history, but it apparently came about after a conversation with Little Eva, the couple’s babysitter, who was beaten by her boyfriend and tried to pass the beating off as an expression of love. The song isn’t mentioned in the book. Years later, King would marry a man who beat her; like so many women, she knew that he was an abuser and married him anyway. I’m guessing that King is now embarrassed by the song—it’s hard to imagine she has simply forgotten—but the contradictions and ironies are rich, and surely worth mining.

My recent and—to me, at least—startling interest in jazz, prompted a few months back by Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’s great book about New York City music, shows no signs of abating. I have been trying to abate it, believe me, but so far, no luck: I have been listening to Cannonball Adderley, J. J. Johnson, Carl Perkins (the pianist, not the rock-and-roll singer), Freddie Redd, Serge Chaloff, Hampton Hawes, and lots of Miles Davis that is neither Kind of Blue nor Sketches of Spain.
I don’t know what’s going on—with me, or in the music, half the time. Ashley Kahn’s book was the one most frequently recommended to me by my jazzy friends, all two of them, and I read it with admiration, pleasure, and, occasionally, more concentration than I need to use on most music books: Kind of Blue marked a significant shift in jazz history, toward modal playing, and jazzmen went scurrying after new and exotic scales. “I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords,” said Davis in 1958. “There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them. Classical composers have been writing this way for years, but jazz musicians seldom have.” Tempos slowed and solos lengthened as a result, and, as jazz writer Lewis Porter noted, “Davis’s new music would stay on the same scale for as long as sixteen measures at a time.”

See, I could have gotten away with that. I could have added a sentence—“Kahn provides an authoritative and accessible guide through this cultural upheaval, and his book is riveting”—and moved on, and you’d have thought, Huh, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Book reviewers pull that shit all the time. All you’ve got to do is pull a couple of sentences out of the book, rephrase them, and keep a straight face. But because I am not reviewing Kind of Blue in the conventional sense, I can say, instead, “Heeeeelp! What the fuck! I didn’t study music at school, and I spent half my life listening to the Ramones, and I’m way out of my depth!” In the end, it didn’t really matter.
I can hear the difference between Kind of Blue and the stuff Miles was playing earlier in the decade, and in any case, Kahn’s book is about a lot of other things, too—the band, Davis’s career, the record company, the studio, the sessions. I listened to the album several times when I was reading the book, and began to hear things I never would have managed to hear before: I could appreciate why Davis replaced pianist Bill Evans with  the bluesier Wynton Kelly on “Freddie Freeloader,” for example, and the different playing styles of sax players Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane.  Does any of that matter? Of course not. But understanding a little more about how art is made always makes me feel good. There are fantastic photographs, and Kahn writes with discipline and a great deal of care. And—yes—he provides an authoritative and accessible guide through this cultural upheaval. Plus, his book is riveting.

Perhaps because I knew I was writing in the music issue of the Believer, music seemed to jump out at me from the pages of the two novels I read this month. There’s always music in novels somewhere, right? Even if, in the case of Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, it’s there only to illustrate yet another moment of awkwardness and misunderstanding between Emma, the unhappy narrator, and one of the hopeless, self-absorbed men in her life. (He makes her listen to Wagner, a composer she can’t stand.)
I am writing something set in the 1960s, so every now and again I read something, or a part of something, that may or may not help me with mores and language and food and shoes, but The Garrick Year wasn’t as much use as I’d wanted—Drabble’s precise, educated, middle-class bohemians never seem to lapse into any kind of vernacular. They hardly even use contractions. The novel, however, was really a surprise to me. It’s fresh, acidic, and wonderfully morose in a way that feels very particular to England. I’m not saying that Americans wouldn’t get it, but I am saying that you don’t get a lot of it in your literature.

Emma is married to David, an ambitious, pretentious Welsh actor with an eye for the ladies, and if Margaret Drabble were to tell you that she’d never heard of Richard Burton when she wrote it, I wouldn’t believe her if I were you. David is offered a prestigious season in Hereford, right on the edge of his country of birth, and drags his family off with him for a few months. Emma, bored, starts a tepid affair with David’s director; I had never understood before that the quality of desultoriness can provide such rich opportunities for comedy. “Oh, God, this is really rather frightful, have we really got to go through with all this?” Emma says despairingly to Wyndham after their first date. “Yes, I think we should, don’t you?” says Wyndham. “Cheer up, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be, there are always a few consolations, you know.” That’s it! That’s what it’s like, having sex in England! And of course Wyndham is right. It never is as bad as you think it’s going to be.

The music in Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is a lot sunnier than Wagner: Wild Cherry, Frampton Comes Alive, a presumably fictitious but nicely named band called House of Honey. Blau has a natural advantage in that her book is set in California in 1976, rather than in Hereford in the early 1960s; the sun is out, and none of the characters are uncomfortable in or about their skin. That, indeed, is part of the problem for fourteen-year-old Jamie, whose parents and their friends spend the entire time wandering around with nothing on, much to Jamie’s intense discomfort. I read The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Blau’s first novel, because I loved her new book The Wonder Bread Summer so much. I loved this one, too. Blau is a properly funny writer, with a gift for the kind of dialogue that spirals out of the control of everyone involved in the conversation, and though the territory here is more familiar, the voice is quick, bright and charming.

Before I go, I want to confess something. It’s been troubling me, these last few paragraphs, and I need to come clean: Tracey Thorn quotes me in her book. I didn’t want you to read it and think, Ha! No wonder he likes it! I was enjoying it before I came across my surprisingly pertinent words. I would argue that her readiness to quote other authors just confirmed her status as a memoirist of distinction. Hey. Here’s an idea. Everyone offers classes in memoir-writing, but nobody offers any tuition in autobiography. It’s surely a good way for colleges to make money, given that you more or less have to have money to enroll in the class. And it would be fun for the teachers, too, looking at their students and seeing, I don’t know, Jon Bon Jovi, Kathie Lee Gifford, Susan Boyle, and Gordon Ramsay listening to each other’s work and offering advice. But I suppose the moment you start teaching autobiography, then the autobiographers become memoirists, almost by definition, because then there would be craft involved. Forget it. Keep autobiography unschooled. That’s a T-shirt slogan, right there, that someone can have for nothing.

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