I've just come back from a week's holiday with the family (which is why Stan stepped in to my slot so kindly and ably last week - thanks Stan!). The sort of holiday where the kids are entertained and the adults are just happy someone else is entertaining the kids, line up the daiquiris and try to read a book without too many interruptions. I took a few thrillers with me, but when the time came none of them appealed. So I pottered off to the hotel library and browsed the books there instead, all paperbacks left by previous guests. Of course it featured no books by messrs Black, Gage, Hallinan, Siger, Sigurdadottir, Stanley or Waddell because who in their right minds would leave one of those beauties behind? But it was mainly mysteries and thrillers and, as I said, I really wasn't in the mood.
One book stood out. It was a memoir. Bringing It All Back Home. The author, Ian Clayton, was a name I was vaguely aware of, as a presenter on Yorkshire TV, my home county. The blurb spoke of the writer's personal music odyssey, how music has shaped and soundtracked his life. Popular music is a passion of mine, probably the most enduring one in my life. People have come and gone but my love of a good tune has been a constant. A fellow Tyke who likes music? What's not to like? I signed it out.
A day later I finished it, spent and bewildered and crestfallen. Not just because of that empty feeling that engulfs you when you finish a great book (for which there should be a word - I bet the Germans have one). But for the heartwrenching, gut-churning afterword that had me spilling hot tears on the page and my wife wondering if I had finally cracked and gone mad.
It's the best book about music I've read but it's about music in the same way that The Tender Bar is about drinking (it ranks up there with Moehringer's book for me, which is about as high praise I can give a memoir). Yes, there's a fair bit of music in there, and the way it punctuates, enriches and gives meaning to the lives of those of us who love it. But the book is about so much more. It's a torrent of yarns about growing up, leaving it all behind and then coming all the way back again, about Northern working class life, the musicality of West Yorkshire dialect, the death of community, the importance of place. There's a cast of brilliantly drawn characters, from ghost mining towns of West Yorkshire to the Mississippi Delta, not least Arthur Millard, who carries the nickname 'Sooner', because he'd sooner drink beer than water. Clayton is honest about his love of eccentric old men with tales to tell, and how he missed the dance music craze because he was too busy playing dominoes in the taprooms of pubs. Most of all it's about memory, the things you keep, and the things you were never meant to lose.
Most books about popular music approach it from a dry, intellectual perspective, all dressed up in Sunday best prose, as if the writer realises much of the population think grown ups writing about pop songs is a bit daft, and try to give their obsession a veneer of respectability. Clayton does no such thing and offers no apologies. When the greatest opening line of any song in history is 'Awopbabablumopawopbamboom', Clayton realises such brow-furrowing seriousness is ludicrous. Instead he concentrates on the thrall great music holds us in, the spell it weaves, and how certain songs get scratched into your soul. They become as much a part of you as any other memory. I'm not as fetishistic as Clayton. I don't collect old vinyl LPs and treat them with the reverence some afford a religious relic, or store and keep them in alphabetical order. I simply buy and consume vast amounts of music in any form and love listening to it. But wherever I go, music goes too. My three memories of last week's holiday would be my kids laughing faces, Clayton's book and how I was reminded what an utterly fabulous album Marquee Moon by Television is (only £4.99 on ITunes kids!). All three will stay with me to the day I die. It's that sort of thing Bringing It All Back Home is about.
Then there's that horrible denouement. Two days after he handed in the manuscript to the book, Clayton's daughter, Billie Holiday, who comes through in the book as a warm and tender little girl, died in a canoeing accident. The author was at the helm. The sort of tragedy every parent dreads, which made the broad holiday smiles and innocent, pealing laughter of my own kids even more poignant. The afterword, exquisitely told, may just be one of the best pieces of writing I have read about loss. I can hear Clayton's voice now, in true Yorkshire style, shrugging off the complement ('Come off it, old cock! Stop bletherin'') but it's true. At least in my humble opinion. I was devastated when I closed the book, in every possible sense.
I was going to write about next week's Royal Wedding, but then wondered why I'd want to waste perfectly decent bandwith on that non-event when I could extol the virtues of a brilliant read. Which is why we're here, isn't it?
It's a great book. And, all the better, being a Tyke, I nivver had to pay nowt.*
Dan - Friday
*Translates as, 'It cost me nothing'.... Only jesting. The first thing I did when I got back was buy a copy.