Nick at night

While I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook, the English writer’s book of short essays on 31 pop songs that mean a lot to him (reissued in paperback this month with five new essays not in the hardback edition), mostly what I wanted to do was call him up and ask him out to a nice quiet bar. I know that’s a cliché, but it seems like a quiet bar is something he could really use.

Hornby seems companionable, unpretentious and emotionally open; he’s unflaggingly interesting about pop music; I like his intellectual insecurity; and he seems like the understanding older brother of the protagonists of two of his novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, guys with whom I have an uncomfortably close affinity. Yes, a little corner bar, maybe with an old jukebox playing low, stuffed with songs we both like by Van Morrison, Patti Smith, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Aimee Mann and Paul Westerberg. A little night out … the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

There’s a disarming clarity about some of Hornby’s observations that make them seem almost platonic, as if you recall them from somewhere, carved into a piece of granite (or, better, etched into your own cortex). Take him saying that the guitar “chord, the simplest building block for even the tritest, silliest chart song, is a beautiful, perfect, mysterious thing, and when an ill-read, uneducated, uncultured, emotionally illiterate boor puts a couple of them together, he has every chance of creating something wonderful and powerful.”

Don’t you want to have a drink with this guy? If you just read the table of contents, it looks like the essays are about songs—little rock-critic celebrations that take you through a composition’s music and lyrics and explain why the song is great. But, thankfully, there’s little explication des lyriques or any of those clichéd descriptions of sound (“pounding” drums, “rock steady” bass, “wailing” guitars, etc.) that clutter rock criticism. Instead, he tends to use songs as opportunities to talk about something bigger: Thus, his essay on Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” is about the indisposable joys of disposable pop. The one on Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” is about how, as one gets older, one doesn’t need rock to shock him anymore: “I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m 44, and it has got quite scary enough—I don’t need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency.” And a piece on Mark Mulcahy’s little-known “Hey, Self Defeater” turns into the kind of heartfelt defense of independent record stores you might expect from the author of High Fidelity.

Feeling drinking-buddy close to Hornby’s sensibility as I do, though, makes me feel privy to some of his weaknesses, some of which rise right out of his strengths. His geniality sometimes makes him a little lazy (Jackson Browne’s “best songs are simply beautiful, and beauty is a rare commodity”). And his laudable hatred of snobs—the literary ones who won’t give rock the time of day, or rock snobs who won’t admit to liking Furtado—sometimes gets the better of him, so his very unpretentiousness makes him look philistine.

In his essay on Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which is Hornby’s most beloved song (“there’s no real competition”), he writes that “very occasionally, songs and books and films and pictures express who you are, perfectly.” What he connects to in that song, I think—besides the galloping passion, the devotion to rock tradition and the lyricism—is a sense of anxiety that, as Hornby admits, makes Springsteen uncertain about his position as an artist at all. Hornby’s style, his sweet modesty of address, is always asserting smart, wonderful things while practically apologizing for taking up your time. “You don’t need to apologize,” I want to tell him. “Let me pour you another round.”