31 Songs by Nick HornbyWednesday 09 Apr 2003
Why 31 songs? Why not 14 or 21 or 331/3? That's a question though for the people who saw far too much of themselves in Hornby's 'High Fidelity' and you don't have to be a music obsessive to enjoy this book. Nor do you have to know every one of the number he's picked to write about. It's a cultured selection (see below), but Hornby is no music snob and his aim is just to try to explain why he loves these songs. He's also honest enough to admit early on that, "if I could write music, I'd never have bothered with books" - a confession that sums up the appeal of what follows.
Everyone's got '31 Songs' in them, they just don't know it, couldn't write about them or wouldn't want to share them with others, anyway. It's a book that could be seen as way to measure someone's expanding musical taste - from Zep's 'Heartbreaker' in Hornby's teens to Ben Folds Five's 'Smoke' during the break-up of his marriage - but it's more about growing up around songs than through them. Along the way, he works in topics as diverse as national identity, whether it's ok to walk out of a gig early, the tracks you should and shouldn't lose your virginity to (he wanted Santana but ended up with a Rod Stewart record) and why you should support little shops when buying records. You could read it all in once sitting or dip in and out as if the chapters were articles (three originally were) or postings on a website. Regulation issue for media studies classes it's not (praise be) but Hornby's low-key enthusiasm is always easy to hum along to.
Just like someone doing you a compilation tape, you'll have your favourite 'tracks' here, but the two most touching appear in Hornby's setlist to be the weakest. When you see that he has chosen Badly Drawn Boy's 'A Minor Incident' from the movie adaptation of his book 'About A Boy', you may feel the smug detector going into the red. But the dose of humility you get after reading why is life-affirming. For Hornby, the song articulates feelings for his autistic son ("You always were the one to make us stand out in a crowd/ Though every once in a while your head was in a cloud/ There's nothing you could ever do to let me down") and how the song took on a meaning for him that wasn't in his own work. Similarly, Gregory Isaacs' version of 'Puff the Magic Dragon' isn't a nostalgia fest about his own childhood but rather the importance that music is playing in his son's and how a father's hopes can be re-adjusted but still burn bright.
As for your own, you'll come away from this book happier than when you picked it up. It ends abruptly (he says he wanted to go out on a high) yet you can't hold that against Hornby because the whole thing speaks from desire rather than design. It's personal but never pompous and you get the feeling that no matter how much you like what he's written, he'd be just as pleased if you hunted down one of these songs, spent time with it and ended up loving it the way he does.
'Tracklisting:' Teenage Fanclub: You're Love is the Place Where I Come From – Bruce Springsteen: Thunder Road – Nelly Furtado: I'm Like a Bird – Led Zeppelin: Heartbreaker – Rufus Wainwright: One Man Guy – Santana: Samba Pa Ti – Rod Stewart: Mama You Been on My Mind – Bob Dylan: Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window – The Beatles: Rain – Ani DiFranco: You Had Time – Aimee Mann: I've Had It – Paul Westerberg: Born for Me – Suicide: Frankie Teardrop – Teenage Fanclub: Ain't That Enough – J Geils Band: First I Look at the Purse – Ben Folds Five: Smoke – Badly Drawn Boy: A Minor Incident – The Bible: Glorybound – Van Morrison: Caravan – Butch Hancock and Marce LaCouture: So I'll Run – Gregory Isaacs: Puff the Magic Dragon – Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3 – Richard and Linda Thompson: The Calvary Cross – Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky – Mark Mulcahy: Hey Self-Defeater – The Velvettes: Needle in a Haystack – OV Wright: Let's Straighten it Out – Royksopp: Royksopp's Night Out – Avalanches: Frontier Psychiatrist – Soul Wax: No Fun/Push It – Patti Smith Group: Pissing in a River