Good Reading : November 2007
reading life Meet the author who started the Children’s Laureate scheme: Michael Morpurgo Alan Gold talks to Ken Follett about his long-awaited sequel to The Pillars of the Earth Graphic novels: the Next Big Thing? Great holiday reading! ORDER YOUR COPY NOW! NEXT ISSUE on sale 5 December This month’s extract from NICK HORNBY’s column ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’, which appears in American magazine the Believer, features a biography of the Band. The jour ney that led me to Across the Great Divide:The Band and America by Barney Hoskyns began a couple of years ago, when I was just about to walk out of a music club. We’d gone to see the support act, but the headliners had this amazing young guitar player called James Walbour ne, an unearthly cross between James Burton, Peter Green and Richard Thompson;Walbour ne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart and smack the gob, all at the same time. We still walked out of the club, because we really wanted a pizza, and pizza always beats art, but I was deter mined to track him down and make sure that I hadn’t been imagining it all. I’ve seen him a few times since – when he’s not playing with the Per nice Brothers or Son Volt or Tift Merritt, he’s been appearing with his own band in a pub not far from me – and he’s recently taken to playing a cover of the Band’s ‘Ain’t No More Cane’, a song off The Basement Tapes. So then I had afitontheBand–I have pretty much listened to every single track on the box set that came out last year – and then I noticed that I had an unread 1993 biography on my shelves. Before long I was being taken from Stratford, Ontario, to the Mississippi Delta and on to Los Angeles. In one crucial way, writing about the Band is difficult: Greil Marcus got there first, in his book Mystery Train, and Marcus’s essay is still the best piece of rock criticism I have ever read. (There are thirty-seven separate index entries for Greil Marcus in Across the Great Divide, and yet Hoskyns still feels it necessary to get sniffy about a couple of factual errors that Marcus made in his writings.You’d have hoped that Hoskyns could have been more forgiving, seeing as how his own book would have been a lot shorter without Marcus’s help.) And yet there’s something irresistible about the story too, because it’s the story of white rock and roll. Here’s Robbie Robertson, aged sixteen, getting on a train and heading down to the American South from Canada, to play R&B covers with Ronnie Hawkins’s Hawks; Robertson’s pilgrimage from white Sleepytown to the birthplace of the blues was the one that millions of teenage guitarists made, in their heads at least, at the beginning of the sixties. (It may even still go on. I would imagine that James Walbourne has made exactly the same trip, and maybe not even symbolically. He lives in Muswell Hill, North London, which is sort of like Canada.) And here’s Robbie Robertson, in his early thirties, bombed out of his head on cocaine, living with Martin Scorsese in a house on Mulholland Drive that had blackout covers on the windows so that the residents no longer knew or cared whether it was day or night.That, in a nutshell, is what happened to our music between the early sixties and the mid-seventies: the geographical shift, the decadence, and the obliviousness to the outside world. Thank heaven for punk. And Abba. Nick Hornby’s collected essays from the Believer, September 2003–June 2006, were published as The Complete Polysyllabic Spree: The Diary of an Occasionally Exasperated But Ever Hopeful Reader in October 2006 by Penguin/Viking, rrp $35.00.
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