A few years ago I was going through the airport and decided to stop off in Hughes & Hughes to buy a book. At the time I was feeling particularly lazy and decided that whatever book I’d buy would have to have been previously adapted into a film (that I’d seen), so I could read the book but without all that added hard stuff like, needing to concentrate, using my eyes or working my brain.
It might not hurt to mention that I’d just finished exams.
There were several books I had in mind and predictably Hughes & Hughes didn’t stock any of them.
I’m not sure if it was because I had decided to try and find About a Boy or had simply drifted into the ‘H’ section but I somehow stumbled upon Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which I had never heard of but whose cover was practically pockmarked with star-ratings and proclamations of excellence. So I bought it, and read it, and as it turned out, absolutely loved it.
At seventeen I was blown away by Hornby’s ability to use music both as a crutch and a backdrop to describe and develop his main character’s feelings and mental outlook, and all simply by chronicling what music he was listening to. But I sometimes wonder if my age might have been divisive in my love for High Fidelity.
Last week I turned 23. A week or two before that I was in the car with my mum and told her that one of the things I find strangest about being an adult is that music, which I love, isn’t the same now as it was when I was fifteen. As a teenager I loved music. I receded into the lyrics of my favourite songs and often cited lines to explain what I meant or how I felt. But it wasn’t just about the lyrics; it was about the sounds, the pace, the crescendos and harmonies, and how these combined to create an atmosphere that could elucidate my emotions or kick-start feelings of excitement, sadness or anger. I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’ and thinking that the combination of the upbeat tempo and the downright depressing lyrics was magical. At fifteen, my favourite musicians and groups were Neil Young, Elliot Smith, Radiohead, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Beach Boys.
I only read High Fidelity once, and now I worry that the impact it had on me six years ago will be dinned and perhaps undone if I read it again. There’s a line in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous where Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) says, “These girls don’t even know what it is to be a fan. To Truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” I don’t remember High Fidelity hurting but I remember feeling a little like someone had pulled a dusty blanket back to reveal to me my life.
Somewhere between grappling whether or not I’d read High Fidelity again, I’ve read other works by Nick Hornby including About a Boy (which didn’t end with Hugh Grant closing his eyes and singing Killing Me Softly, sadly) as well as downloading samples of most of Hornby’s other books for Kindle (excluding Fever Pitch, because I hate football).
One sample, which I downloaded a few months ago, was Hornby’s 31 Songs, which lists the writer’s favourite tracks and includes, at number 2, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’.
“Sometimes, very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly,” wrote Hornby in 31 Songs.
“It’s a process something like falling in love. You don’t necessarily choose the best person, or the wisest, or the most beautiful, there’s something else going on… So even though I’m not American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognise why so many people find Springsteen bombastic and histrionic… ‘Thunder Road’ somehow manages to speak to me.”
I read this passage months ago, then failed to pay the ten quid to buy the completed book and eventually moved on and read something else. Recently, I was tinkering with my iPhone and trying to work out what music I’d keep, and which would be relegated to a Cloud. I have nearly 50GB of music according to iTunes but my phone holds less than 16GB, meaning that for the most part my phone is just a pop scan of my favourite artists. I had problems however working out how much Springsteen I’d include on the phone; there was a three-CD Best Of compilation, but I also had, in addition to these, seven other Springsteen albums: Born in The USA; Born To Run; Darkness On The Edge of Town; Nebraska; The River; The Wild The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle and We Shall Overcome.
I went with the first two discs of the Best Of collection initially but overtime caught myself downloading some of the others including Darkness on The Edge of Town and Born to Run whilst listening to ‘Rosalita’ on constant repeat.
A while ago I was trying to decide which Radiohead album was my favourite (Kid A) and following my iPod-Bruce dilemma, I started thinking about Hornby’s book and trying to pinpoint my own stand alone Springsteen track.
Bruce Springsteen, unlike Radiohead for example, wouldn’t be my immediate go-to artist in a top 5 list-off. Yet Springsteen, unlike the others, echoes this phenomenal sense of urgency, excitement and desperation that just doesn’t exist amongst the other groups and musicians I love. In the second verse of Streets of Fire for example, Springsteen’s voice sounds almost as though it’s curdling at the bottom of his own throat and bubbling up, coming out as this thick and abrasive bellow,
‘You realise how they tricked you this time, and it’s all lies but I’m strung out on the wire, in these, Streets of fire.’
When I initially started thinking about which track might be my favourite, I leaned towards ‘Jungleland’ and decided that ‘The Promised Land’ would probably be my runner up. Except every time I tried listening to ‘Jungleland’ I immediately grew bored and restless; so, the Rangers had their home-coming and there are shoe-less women sitting on the hood of the dodge but would they ever just hurry up and get to that gut-wrenching howl of ‘Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz, Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be’?
‘Junglelands’ as it turned out didn’t top my list. I feel I’m too old to be excited by gang-like images of ‘kids flashing guitars like switchblades and hustling for the record machine.’ Similarly, it seems I’ve cultivated some kind of attention deficit disorder in my old age. One thing that I will say for ‘Junglelands’ however is that, a little like Neil Young’s ‘There’s A World’, for me there’s an overwhelming sense of familiarity about the track. It’s as if the tune (sort of like the Nokia ringtone) has been permanently hardwired into my genetic makeup.
‘The Promised Land’ didn’t quite make the grade either. I have absolutely no idea why ‘Working all day in my daddy’s garage’ resonated with me as much as a teenager given that (1) my dad’s a solicitor, (2) I (still) can’t drive and (3) we don’t live in New Jersey, but it did. The only lyrics that really grab me from that song are ‘Explode, explode and tear this whole town apart‘ – I love the build up of ‘explode’ (and later ‘Blow away’), and even still feel a little like a King Penguin puffing its chest out when I hear them.
Funnily, the track that I never liked as a teen but which I really enjoy as an adult is ‘Rosalita’ from Springsteen’s 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle. At every level it’s a song I feel I should (still) detest: the lyrics make me wince (“I don’t want to be your son, The only lover I’m ever gonna need’s your soft sweet little girl’s tongue”), it’s folksy in bits and audacious to boot. But I can’t help but smile when Springsteen repeats ‘And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money’ and follows this with his ballsy ‘Because the record company Rosie, just gave me a big advance’.
And there’s nothing to read into or draw from that statement other than that the record company just gave him a big advance.
So there it is, at twenty-three it’s not about big images of guitar wielding street gangs or growing up and needing to escape from New Jersey. Instead my current favourite Springsteen track is about being able to turn around and justifiably give someone the two-fingers.
Music isn’t the same now as it was when I was fifteen. But it’s not redundant either. Not yet anyhow.
A short Springsteen-inspired reading list: