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It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently with lovely Fitzcarraldo Editions books; and indeed I amassed several from their back catalogue in a recent flash sale they held, which are sitting prettily on my TBR. However, I was very excited to hear about one recently published volume from the publisher, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy. You might think it’s perhaps not an obvious title for me to read (or you might, given my eclectic taste and grasshopper mind!) So first off, I should really nail my colours to the mast where this book is concerned and give a little background.

Back in my teens/early twenties, I had another coping mechanism alongside books, and that was (and still is, to a certain extent) music. I grew up through Glam and then Punk and then into the 1980s and all the amazing Post-Punk stuff. However, my taste stretches backwards and forwards from those points and can take in anything from Shostakovich to Billie Holiday to Wire to the Manics to my current and recently discovered favourites, Public Service Broadcasting. I followed the music press religiously back in the day, and New Musical Express in its heyday was an amazing publication with some incredible writers on board. The cream of these were the dynamic duo of Ian Penman and Paul Morley, both of whom I still count amongst my favourite authors. They took music journalism off into esoteric and often surreal directions, producing some work that was inventive, unusual, occasionally impenetrable but always entertaining. Since then, I’ve read pretty much every book Morley has put out, but Penman has been more elusive. There was a collection of journalism a couple of decades back (which I have) and he’s continued to write for various publications, including the London Review of Books and City Journal. “It Gets Me Home…” brings together a selection of pieces originally published there, and makes for the most marvellous and stimulation collection.

There’s a clue here to how it is that a lot of supposedly lightweight easy listening, far from being merely diverting kitsch, can contain a whole world of stronger, darker currents. How often it feels, as Apollinaire said of De Quincey, like a ‘sweet and chaste and poisoned glass’.

“It Gets Me Home…” contains eight substantial pieces, each focusing on a different musician or musical culture; ostensibly perhaps they could be regarded as reviews of music books, but they’re really so much more than that as Penman takes those works as jumping off points to consider the life, music and legacy of some of the greats. There’s James Brown, a pioneering and yet complex man; Elvis, about whom you would think there was nothing left to say (but you’d be wrong); jazzman Charlie Parker and crooner Sinatra; and the late Prince, as well as others. These are not subjects that I would, necessarily, read about; but in Penman’s able hands, each essay becomes a stellar piece of reading and writing, and the book is just fascinating.

In Charlie Parker’s 1940s heyday jazz was one of the few spaces where black performers might carve out a life of relative artistic freedom, mostly on their own terms.

As I read through the book, it struck me that Penman has a rare ability to really capture and put into words the effect that music has on us. Our response (or at least mine) is so often a visceral, emotional one that it can be hard to pin down how and why music affects human beings so powerfully. In particular, the twentieth century saw such a massive increase in the influence of popular music owing to modern recording methods, radio and TV and the ability of everyone to have the music they loved in their own homes to listen to whenever they wanted. Penman is particularly astute on the changes that had to be made in the presentation of music when it moved from being seen live in concert or dance halls to being recorded.

For the music business the switch from live music to recorded in the 1950s was as much of a revolution as Hollywood’s changeover from silent cinema to the talkies.

What shines throughout the book is the sheer quality of Penman’s writing; I marked any number of pithy truths and ‘yes’ moments, too many to probably quote here, and his breadth of knowledge allows him to take a wider intellectual view. His essay on the Mod phenomenon is particularly fascinating, recognising as he does the cultural forces involved which many other commentators don’t; and he sensibly decries the modern trend of any kind of musical revival as being entirely sterile when taken away from the context in which it originally developed. He’s spot-on in his discussion of the difference between the lovers of Trad jazz and modernist jazz, commenting that “mods backed the darker horse of existentialism”. Running through the book is Penman’s love of jazz, and haunting the narrative is the discreet presence of the great Billie Holiday, who Penman acknowledges in his introduction should have been central to it; excitingly, he hints that decades of his writing about her may make it into a book and THAT would be wonderful!

Even if you’ve loved this music for half a lifetime, you can find the algebraic lingo of jazz theory about as clarifying as a book of logarithms baked in mud.

The title of this book is drawn from an Auden poem (not a song lyric, as you might expect) and as the blurb suggests, music can be a crucial support when all around is madness (and certainly the world seems very like that nowadays). It can give a sense of belonging; it can speak to our souls; for many it can be a lifeline. As Penman says in his introduction, “When all else fails, when our compass is broken, there is one thing some of us have come to rely on: music really can give us a sense of something like home.”

A Pair of Penmans

I’ve often perceived a snobbery about writing on the subject of popular music, but “It Gets Me Home…” smashes that prejudice with the insights it gives, with the social commentary Penman weaves seamlessly into his essays and with his deep understanding of just how profoundly music is essential to human beings. He’s an extremely erudite man, though never showy, and as he references everyone from the Bauhaus through Camus and Adorno to Anita Brookner, this never feels gratuitous, simply highly relevant and necessary to his exploration of the cultural significance of music. Even if you think you don’t like the artists covered or writings about music, I would recommend you read this marvellous selection of pieces; Ian Penman was one of the first writers I read who made me realise that you could push the cultural boundaries and that it was a good thing to do so – and he’s still doing it! 😀

 

Summer’s End…

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To be honest, I’m not exactly sure which months constitute summer nowadays in our damaged climate; but I always consider the end of that season to be the time when I go back to work after the long mid-year break, and despite having to do that, I am fond of autumn… I generally try to fit in more reading during August while I don’t have the daily distraction of the paying job, traditionally including at least one chunkster, and I’m pleased that this year was no different.

For once, I actually made (modest!) reading plans and actually stuck to them! Admittedly, I was pretty sure I wanted to read the books in question, and they fitted in with a couple of reading challenges. So in the spirit of Andy Miller (!) here is an image of what I read during August (and bear in mind that there still may be reviews to follow as I’m always a bit behind):

I was particularly pleased (as I made fairly obvious!) to read Victor Serge’s Notebooks – strongly tipped for my read of the year. But there wasn’t really a dud amongst them; even the one that made me pause a bit (“The Marquise of O-“) was strange and interesting, and very cleverly written. And I was really happy about getting back to reading so many women writers, especially Women in Translation; this is a wonderful initiative, set up and championed by Meytal Radzinski, and I hope to keep taking part.

So – onward into September and autumn. Do I have plans? Maybe – above are some possibles…  I’m continuing to make a dent in the review pile (all of which are books I actually *want* to read); and I have amassed quite a selection of non-fiction works I hope to get to soon-ish as well (including all the pretty Fitzcarraldo editions which may have made their way into the house after their recent sale – here they are…)

Plus there’s an awful lot of classic crime lurking and any number of charity shop finds, as well as some interesting Russians from Glagoslav. I’m not going to make any specific plans, however, because with work pressures I want to leave myself as free as possible to follow the reading muse. I’m currently in the middle of the wonderful book below by Ian Penman from Fitzcarraldo Editions, but after that who knows? Watch this space!! 😀

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