Musicians and writers choose their favourite book about music

Elvis as a young man, the size of Mick Jagger’s genitalia, Kristin Hersh’s miracle year, Berlioz in love … As festivalgoers crowd the stages at Glastonbury, Brian Eno, Beck, Lavinia Greenlaw, James Wood and a host of other stars select their favourite books about rock, pop, jazz and classical

Viv Albertine

As Serious as Your Life: John Coltrane and Beyond by Valerie Wilmer (1977)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis (1999)

Val Wilmer was an ordinary English white girl born in the 1940s, who fell in love with jazz and wrote about it professionally from the age of 17. This book was written in 1977 and I read it in 1978 when I was a punk, a self-taught musician and a rare female in the music industry – it saved me from giving up. Even though the jazz musicians Wilmer wrote about were mostly male, their approach to music making, their passion and their activism resonated with me and showed me a way to move forward musically with the Slits. Even more striking were Wilmer’s descriptions of the disparity between men and women in all areas of the music industry.

Angela Davis’s book analyses and contextualises the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. She documents the impact of the blues on American culture and the part these artists played in the beginnings of feminism during the decades after slavery. The subjects of the songs – domestic violence, prison, multiple relationships, homosexuality – were taboo in middle-class society at the time. This is how passionate, important and political music used to be.

Nicky Wire

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus (1989)

Some people say that a record or a film changed their life. In my case, it was this book, back in 1990. My hardback copy has a Biro inscription in it: “To Nick love Richey, James and Sean, 28th September 1990”. We’d all read a review in the NME and knew immediately that it was exactly the kind of thing we’d been searching for. Something to link music, art, culture and protest; an alternative history that segued those seemingly disparate elements into one text. It persuaded us that we could attempt to create art that just might deeply resonate with people in the way that the book had resonated with us.

The Manic Street Preachers have taken so much from it; we even stole the title for a compilation album. You can hear echoes of it in our early lyrics where we tried to shoehorn the ideals of The Communist Manifesto and thoughts on Lettrism and the vorticists into three-minute songs. It’s a pretty impossible ambition but it seemed slightly more achievable after reading that book. Without resorting completely to cliche, it’s the band’s Holy Bible; our cultural equivalent of the Good Book, if we have one. It’s the one book I will always turn to for inspiration.


Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999), both written by Peter Guralnick

Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis is one of the best written accounts of a musician’s life. It carefully takes the myth of Elvis and puts it into human terms, giving you a sense of the shock of the new. From childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi through his years in Memphis, Hollywood and Las Vegas, the book puts you in the room with Elvis and his family, friends and collaborators. In the early years you are struck by the genuine innocence and good-naturedness he personified – an accessible small-town boy. Fans would line up outside his mother’s kitchen and he would come out to spend time with them after finishing the family dinner. You can see a kid trying to navigate an unformed world, a world we now know as the modern music business. He was self-aware, though, and brought a new vulnerability and disregard to performing.

The first book ends with his mother’s death and his induction into the army, in many ways the beginning of his descent into drugs and isolation. In Hollywood he becomes commodified and put under a kind of artistic house arrest. It is frustrating to read how often his intentions and creative ideas were thwarted. His music had become carefully controlled and the way he had made his great early music was undermined. Later, in the 70s, you get accounts of him gatecrashing the White House and demanding to be made an FBI agent on the spot (Richard Nixon’s henchmen agreed) or starting his Tennessee Karate Institute with outlandish personalised karate uniforms. Though it is impossible for a book to sum up a life, especially one on the scale of Elvis’s, Guralnick’s accounts are ultimately about the impossibility of coming through your wildest dreams unscathed. But it’s more than a cautionary tale: it’s a document of the ways Elvis embodied the childlike and the primal and turned it into a kind of freedom.

James Wood

Hallo Sausages: The Lyrics of Ian Dury, edited by Jemima Dury (2012)

When I want to cheer myself up, I think of Ian Dury – the best lyricist in English music, who fused music hall and funk, the first Cockney rapper. The music is always there and the music is very good, but it’s easy to miss the joyous flow of words when you’re listening to it. That’s where Hallo Sausages: The Lyrics of Ian Dury, edited by his daughter, is sublimely useful. Along with great photographs and a tender memoir, it collects the words for all the songs. So you can actually read “Reasons to Be Cheerful (Part Three)”, and get all the brilliant internal rhymes: “Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy / Being rather silly and porridge oats.” There’s that great exercise in admiration and mockery, “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards” – people like Einstein and Van Gogh – with its running refrain: “Probably got help from their mum who had help from her mum.” And everyone’s favourite, “Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick” (“Two fat persons, click, click, click”). Who couldn’t love a songwriter who has a song called “Plaistow Patricia”?

Actually, my favourite Dury song is not cheerful, but terribly sad, “You’ll See Glimpses”, which takes the form of a letter written by someone who has been locked up because his mind doesn’t work properly. This letter is utopian: the inmate lists everything he would do to sort out “the problems of the world”. It ends: “This has been got out by a friend.” Go and listen to it – Dury doesn’t sing but reads the words, jauntily. Yet it’s profoundly sad, and seems to me as great a work of art as any novel or short story of the last 40 years.

Kim Gordon

I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres (1987)

Pamela Des Barres became known as “Queen of the Groupies”, and when I first read I’m With the Band, I found it really inspiring. I thought, well, if she can write a book, I can. She didn’t go to college or study writing; she just did it through sheer will and gumption. And it is really entertaining. I was struck by the fact that she’s somebody who didn’t feel like she had to achieve anything. Or, maybe she did, and that’s why she wrote the book. But it’s so the opposite of me: I feel like I have to work and produce things in order to feel good about myself. She’s one of those people who really didn’t. She felt good about sleeping with somebody who did something. And I know that sounds really regressive, but I think she had a great sense of self. It’s one of my favourite music books. And it’s a point of view on the music world you don’t often hear: a woman’s point of view.

Tim Burgess

Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford (1999)

There’s probably nothing more flattering for a group of artists than to be dubbed “wreckers of civilisation” by an old guard Tory MP. That’s what happened in 1976 when the rightwing dinosaur Nicholas Fairbairn coined the phrase with reference to Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson, the group otherwise known as COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle.

I instantly fell in love with the band on first hearing their album 20 Jazz Funk Greats. They were, and maybe still are, the band that gets the most polarised reaction when I play their records – as the book makes clear, they got under the skin of almost everyone, causing either outrage or infatuation. What they were doing still sounds cutting-edge now, but in 1976, it was enough for people to call for them to be jailed, deported or banned from public performance. The book stands as a blueprint for what bands need to do to shake up the landscape.

Barney Hoskyns

Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (2010)

Life is much more than a ghosted rock autobiography. Keith Richards is a voracious reader, and in James Fox he hired no mere pop hack but a proper journo and author. The result has the feel of a yarn, told in the authentic argot of a rock’n’roll “lifer” who never sold his soul to anything except perhaps the devil that haunted Robert Johnson.

Richards should have been dead years ago. Instead, he lived long enough to turn rock and rhythm and blues into dark, dangerous art, the introverted Id to Jagger’s ingratiating Ego. (Who could resist the image of Keef writing “Gimme Shelter” in a Mayfair flat while Anita Pallenberg got naked with Mick for Performance?) Life quickly became infamous for its gratuitously cruel mockery of Mick’s genitalia, but you have to love the way Richards never watches his words. Then again, he can afford not to be circumspect, knowing Jagger ultimately needs him more than he needs Jagger.

Sukhdev Sandhu

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (1999)

Dyer’s book is a collection of twilight essays, improvised riffs and biographical portraits of the likes of Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell – jazz artists whose lives have been endlessly narrated. But the author, drifting between fiction, photographic criticism and cultural history, makes them new again – vivid, raw, romantic. “The music he played felt abandoned by him,” he says of Chet Baker. Of heroin-addicted saxophonist Art Pepper, back at the age of 52 for yet another comeback show: “He plays through a swamp of pain that leaves him clutching the horn like a crutch.”

Louise Wener

Lost in Music by Giles Smith (1995)
Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett (2008

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so goes the famous quote. Reading about it is even worse. I have friends with shelves full of music biographies: 400-page tomes detailing everything Paul McCartney ate for breakfast in the years 1966-69; whole chapters on a single Dylan lyric. Everything is scrutinised to death: the literary equivalent of collectors who pin butterflies under glass.

I’ve bought lots of music books over the years and really enjoyed just two of them. The first is Lost in Music by Giles Smith. Rock biographies are often worthy and self-aggrandising but this is brilliantly funny and self-deprecating. It’s a homage to pop-fandom: the story of a suburban music obsessive who signs a record deal but never makes it. Giles’s band, the Cleaners from Venus, are forever looking in from the margins. In many ways it’s the real story of music. Too much is written about pop success: failure is often more interesting.

The second book is Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett of the American band, Eels. Essentially, it’s a misery memoir: rock biography by way of Lars von Trier. Everett’s family is the definition of dysfunctional; from his distant physicist father to the death of both his mother and his troubled sister. As a musician, Everett battles corporate rock to the point of self-destruction. It’s sometimes hard to read. But the writing is beautiful and, ultimately, it’s a paean to the curative power of music.

Stephen Witt

The Tao of Wu by the RZA (2009)

The lurid symbology of Wu-Tang Clan is demystified – sort of – in this delirious book, a narrative biography with detours into Afrocentric pop culture analysis (“Dragon Ball Z represents the journey of the black man in America”) and Islamic numerology (“9 and 7 is 16, and 1 and 6 is 7.”) The RZA grew up poor, sleeping on a boxing mat with his family, and criminal life beckoned. After beating an attempted murder charge, he shifted focus to musical production, combining eastern esoterica and Five-Percent Nation of Islam doctrine – along with a sprinkling of angel dust – to forge the Wu-Tang myth. Soon, many of NYC’s best unsigned rappers were among his “disciples”. The book portrays Clan members as bright kids from tough environments, at once both nerds and gangsters, who used the adolescent vocabulary of chess, comic books and kung fu to interpret the adult world of drug-dealing and violence.

Rupert Thomson

Paradoxical Undressing by Kristin Hersh (2011)

Kristin Hersh is no ordinary musician, and her mind is unlike any other. In her memoir, Paradoxical Undressing, she captures what it’s like to be young and starting out, but this is a grazed reality, the top layer of skin stripped clean away. The book is based on a diary she kept when she was 18, which is, as she says, “the age when no one takes care of you”. It was a year when everything happened. She moved her band, Throwing Muses, from Providence, Rhode Island, to Boston. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, then bipolar. She was offered her first recording contract, with 4AD. She discovered she was pregnant. And she became unlikely friends with faded Hollywood movie star, Betty Hutton. “Betty sings about starlight and champagne,” Hersh writes. “I sing about dead rabbits and blow jobs.” Though Hutton was unpredictable and fragile (“Time is like a hurricane to her – a big, fast mess, sweeping her away”) she was also full of generosity, compassion and advice. “You have to leave things out to tell a story,” she once told Hersh. And Hersh listened. This female Kurt Cobain – he was a fan of her work – has forged her own brave path, often against enormous odds. And she writes better sentences than most writers do.

Alexis Petridis

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley (2013)

There is something faintly off-putting about this book’s subtitle. We live in a world where the obsession with music’s past threatens to overwhelm its present, where the only music magazines that sell in any quantity deal in heritage rock, where virtually the only TV coverage of music comes via retrospective documentaries: the story of modern pop has been told and retold until it’s been reduced to a series of tired anecdotes and over-familiar landmarks. But Yeah Yeah Yeah’s brilliance lies in the personal, idiosyncratic route Bob Stanley takes through the past: for him, the modern pop era begins not with Elvis or “Rock Around the Clock”, but the release of Johnnie Ray’s 1954 album Live at the London Palladium, the first time a screaming teenage audience had been heard on record in the UK. He devotes more space to 1970 one-hit wonders Edison Lighthouse than to Led Zeppelin, delivers a withering verdict on some surprising sacred cows – Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Steely Dan – and is great at unearthing a forgotten quote that challenges what you might call the authorised version of events: at the height of the 1967’s Summer of Love, he finds the Who’s Pete Townshend not boggling at the new frontiers mapped out by psychedelia, but grumpily complaining that “people aren’t jiving in the listening boxes in record shops any more like we did to a Cliff Richard ‘newie’”.

Stanley has a way of tackling well-worn topics – not least the Beatles – from unlikely angles, and of talking about artists you’ve never heard of with a contagious enthusiasm that makes hearing them seem like a matter of urgency. Best of all, he makes you laugh out loud while getting directly to the heart of the matter. The lugubrious late 70s output of Pink Floyd sounds like music made by people “who hated being themselves”. The punk-era Elvis Costello sang “like he was standing in a fridge”, and the experience of listening to novelty ska revivalists Bad Manners is “like being on a waltzer when you’ve had three pints and desperately need the toilet”. If you’ve ever heard them, you’ll know exactly what he means.

Brian Eno

Folk Song Style and Culture by Alan Lomax (1965)

Alan Lomax’s father, John Lomax, “discovered” Lead Belly and many other blues musicians, and made black American music something that people respected and imitated. Alan spent a lifetime taking his research further afield, recording in remote corners of the globe. In so doing, he began to notice relationships between how people sang and what their societies were like. He noticed, for example, that polyphonic choral singing flourished in matriarchal societies, which also cherished purity of vocal tone. Male-dominated societies (pearl fishermen, native Americans), on the other hand, valued strong, harsh, single voices – individualistic narrative voices. Lomax also noticed that the more levels of social hierarchy a society exhibited, the more intervals (notes) in the musical scale they used (think of Indian singing versus pygmy singing).

I don’t know whether or not the methods of statistical analysis that underpin the book are sound, and to be honest I don’t really care. For me, it is a most provocative work in that it isolates a lot of the things that singers do in such a way that you can start thinking about them and pondering how they came to evolve and what use can be made of them. It makes you think about music in an entirely different way.

Johnny Marr

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage (1991)

This is the ultimate account of the punk rock movement in the UK. When I first started to read it I wondered how the writer would be able to divorce his subjectivity from the big picture, but it’s precisely this aspect that makes the book so good. It manages to tell the story of a fascinating cultural explosion in vivid detail and places the events in social context while at the same time making it seem a personal discovery. The combination of the events, historical facts and the authoritative skill in the writing makes it not just academically brilliant but a book about people whose story changed everything.

Philip Hensher

Memoirs by Hector Berlioz (1870)

The temperament of a composer is an unusual one. He needs to be outgoing, to engage with performers, impresarios and audiences. But he must spend long hours in solitary contemplation, reflection and withdrawal, considering individual notes and sounds. You don’t write an opera by jamming with your mates in a garage. There’s no better reflection of this rare and fascinating temperament than Hector Berlioz’s wonderful Memoirs.

Berlioz wrote much of the Memoirs in a foul mood, and they have both an irresistible buoyancy and absurdity, and often return, lovingly, to the bastards who have done Berlioz down over the years. Berlioz was born into an energetic, patchy, philistine musical environment, and some of the best stories in the book are about his single-handed attempts to restore standards. As a student, he shouted from the audience in protest when the Paris Opera decided that what Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride needed were some nice cymbal clashes. Later on, the fates of some of his greatest works were placed in the hands of his enemies; at the first performance of the Requiem, the conductor chose the worst possible moment to put his baton down, mid-movement, and take a pinch of snuff.

The detailed, disgruntled account of his professional life is part of it, but the magic, I think, of the Memoirs is also in his absurd, ardent accounts of falling in love – with Harriet Smithson, an actor in Shakespeare, or, most entrancingly, a girl called Estelle when he was a mere boy. She wore pink shoes; he could hardly breathe. And then, 50 years later, their paths cross again, and she hasn’t changed, in Berlioz’s eyes, one bit. “I have some pity for unreasonable children,” Estelle writes, with amusement, to her now elderly suitor. It’s an unforgettably wry and impassioned epilogue to an infuriating, petty, sublime, entrancing book; the greatest of all musicians’ memoirs.

John Harris

Shout! The True Story of the Beatles by Philip Norman (1981)
Tune In by Mark Lewisohn (2013)
Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald (1995)

Rock may be entering its seventh decade, but serious literature on the subject is really only around half that age – and, as with the music, the Beatles were involved right at the start. Philip Norman’s Shout! The True Story of The Beatles was published in 1981, predating comparable works on Bob Dylan and the Stones, and appearing long before John, Paul, George and Ringo became postmodern gods (easy to forget, but even after Lennon’s murder in 1980, they remained a marginal part of the culture for another 15 years). In later editions, Norman toned down some of the writing in an apparent fit of misplaced bashfulness, so seek out an original, forgive him his anti-McCartney bias and luxuriate particularly in its treatment of Liverpool, Hamburg and 3 Savile Row, the West End townhouse where the group’s hippy faux-empire Apple rose and then rotted.

Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In is the first of a trilogy titled All These Years, whose next instalment may (or may not) appear next year. Here, the story up until the release of “Love Me Do” in 1962 is told in Proustian detail, and because it’s them, it quickly proves addictive. Even better, Lewisohn knows how to elaborate on simple facts. Try this: in a mere footnote, he calculates that the time spent onstage on their first two trips to Hamburg totalled 918 hours: “the equivalent of 612 90-minute shows… in just 27 weeks.” This probably made them the most experienced rock’n’roll group on the planet, even before the world had heard of them.

The best Beatles book – if not the greatest ever volume about rock itself – is probably the late Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head. It was and is peerless: an expert account of their artistic progress told song-by-song, mixing musicology (“Eleanor Rigby” is based on “a plain E dorian melody over what amounts to two chords”), a keen grasp of their career’s underlying plotlines, and completely brilliant prose. If you want to be instantly convinced, go straight to the five pages on Lennon’s “I Am The Walrus”: “a damn-you-England tirade that blasts education, art, culture, law, order, class, religion and even sense itself.” Lennon, writes MacDonald, “never rose to this stunning level again.” Neither, arguably, did writing about popular music.

Polly Samson

Madcap by Tim Willis (2002)

Madcap is a look at the mind behind Syd Barrett’s songs rather than the usual riffing on a charismatic genius, an acid casualty with a talent for whimsy and Mandrax melting into his perm. Barrett’s writing is given serious consideration: for example, a line such as “The Madcap laughed at the man on the border / Hey, ho, Huff the Talbot” emerges as not some sort of nonsense about a grumpy fish but a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Lord Talbot. The song “Lucifer Sam” is a nod to Christopher Smart’s poem Jubilate, “Dark Globe” is pinched from Tolkien, there’s Lear, Belloc and Joyce, all the typical influences of a well-read 21-year-old of that time. Willis makes a convincing case for synaesthesia in Barrett’s ability to write for the mind’s eye as well as the ear.

The book, though short, is also a finely tuned evocation of a period and an incredibly poignant story of mental breakdown. The afterword, written following Barrett’s death in 2006, is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read: Willis picks among the paintings and writing and shonky DIY efforts that were left behind in Barrett’s suburban house and finds little evidence to support his previous conclusion that the singer had found some sort of Thoreau-esque order and purpose during his years of self-imposed isolation.

Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip

Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, edited by Alan Licht (2012)

This is a series of interviews with Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The book is so well researched and thorough because Licht knows and has been involved with Will since the early days. He and Will guide the reader through the career and records of a wonderfully idiosyncratic, wild and free musician and songwriter whom I love more and more each time I listen to him. His songs, and his approach to music making and recording, is so fascinating to me and this book brings more to the experience of listening to his records with its rich detail about who did what and how it all happened, something that is often deliberately missing from Oldham’s record sleeves.

Richard Williams

Raise Up Off Me by Hampton Hawes and Don Asher (1974)

Hampton Hawes was a jazz pianist who enjoyed a brief flare of popularity in the mid-1950s: hard-swinging, technically scintillating, with a deep feeling for the blues. Oscar Peterson learned a lot from him. Born in Los Angeles in 1928, the son of a Presbysterian preacher, Hawes was 19, already playing with the best in the clubs of Central Avenue and on his way to an important career – mothered, on a visit to New York, by Billie Holiday – when Charlie Parker passed him his first joint.

Preceding the similarly frank autobiographies of Art Pepper and Miles Davis, Hawes’s book has a poetry (and it is his own, rather than his co-writer’s) that theirs lack. The sixth chapter begins with a long and devastatingly brilliant paragraph describing the state of mind of a musical prodigy on the brink of joining Parker and so many others among the growing ranks of heroin users in the postwar years. It ends: “Now at a young and impressionable age you’re standing on the curb and see 17 cats swing by in 17 green Buicks, wouldn’t you start to wonder, what’s with the green Buick?” Later he bumps into Holiday again. She takes a look at him. “You, too, baby?” she says.

Snitched on by his bass player, he was busted on his 30th birthday and sentenced to 10 years. In his fourth year of incarceration he wrote to the new president, John F Kennedy, and began the long process of applying for executive clemency. Miraculously, a letter eventually arrived – “a blur of gothic letters on parchment paper, about 20 ‘whereases’, signed with the Man’s name” – and he was free to resume a career that sparked and sputtered but never quite achieved reignition before it was ended by a fatal stroke in 1977. When it comes to the jazz life, rather than a list of who-influenced-whom, this is the first book to read.

Jon Savage

Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History by Devin McKinney (2003)

Magic Circles is a beautifully written examination of the Beatles’ story – which becomes stranger and stranger as the years pass – and their enduring mythology. This is not a nostalgic exercise: born in 1966, McKinney did not experience the 60s as they happened, but after they were gone. This distance makes the familiar unfamiliar and allows the necessary element of puzzlement and wonder.

Lavinia Greenlaw

Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory by David Toop (2004)

This is a book about music by way of a continual testing of sound and silence. David Toop takes us through his own musical development via 60s art-school rock, 70s improvisation, the sound-work scene and on into the “laptop era”. But he starts with his father’s diary, in which most pages were blank, the only entries being such notes as “A slight breeze”, a phrase that tunes us in to the precision of his focus and the delicacy of his attention. He describes sitting in an anechoic chamber, in which silence is so absolute that you start to hear your internal bodily processes. This compression of the listening experience is followed by the dislocations of laptop composers performing “live”. Optimistic and receptive, Toop sees an astonishing level of “vitality, evolving ingenuity and determination” in the ways in which musicians respond to technology but he also notes what has gone awry.

The challenges of improvisation compel him – what it’s for, when it works and when it really, really doesn’t. He recalls enduring one particularly hellish occasion only to have his students describe it as the best gig ever. He’s also good on the broader history of innovation, setting his time in the anechoic chamber beside the experiments of John Lilly, who took hallucinogens while in an isolation tank in the 1960s. All this is interspersed with fox cries, church bells, Japanese reed pipes, tugboat whistles and electricity-substation hums. You will want to go away and listen to everything Toop describes.

Amit Chaudhuri

“What Is a Classic?” by JM Coetzee (essay, 1993)
“Powerhouse” by Eudora Welty (short story, 1941)

Everyone knows that music is terribly difficult to write about. How to put into words something that emerges from human beings but often makes no direct reference to them? Besides which, art is perfect, or aims towards perfection, and nowhere is the gap between it and the flawed people who produce and love it more evident than in the human relation to music. This knowledge informs JM Coetzee’s essay, “What Is a Classic?”, in which he revisits ideas explored by TS Eliot in an earlier essay of the same name. Coetzee’s first encounter with a classic, he realises, was “one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1955, when I was 15 years old … mooning around our back garden in the suburbs of Cape Town”. Then, from the house next door, he hears music: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen.” What he’d heard was a recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Looking back, Coetzee scrutinises this moment with fascination and scepticism: was he really transformed by the music, or was it the provincial in him that was galvanised by the idea that listening to Bach would transport him physically out of “white South African society and out of what I must have felt … [was] an historical dead end”? He admits that “this is a question of a kind which no one would be deluded to think one could answer about oneself.” But it seems that the most compelling writing captures this doubleness: that music can be sublime, but must only be encountered in the world of compromise and self-doubt.

One story in particular comes to mind: Eudora Welty’s extraordinary “Powerhouse”, which she says she wrote after attending a performance by Fats Waller in Jackson, Mississippi. On one level, Welty’s writing is one of the most successful approximations in English of what a jazz performance and its reverberations might be. The story is narrated by a white listener, but then, into the narrative leaks news of the pianist’s wife, and, subtly, the segregated universe of the American south. “Powerhouse” is jubilant and electrifying, but it also asks the questions that Coetzee asks himself, about the constrictions of society and our improbable longings; about how music changes us, and how we ourselves seek change and justice.

Geoff Dyer

Essays on Music by Theodor Adorno (2002)

My reading of serious books about serious music is seriously compromised by the way that I can’t understand any musical theory. Any mentions of D major or C minor are meaningless to me. At the same time, I can’t bear the kind of metaphorical overload you get in the famous – famously silly – evocation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in EM Forster’s Howards End: “first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing” etc. But certain brilliant things are also quite accessible: Barthes’s essay “Loving Schumann”, the passages on music in Milan Kundera, or the lecture on Beethoven’s final piano sonata in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. They build a bridge between the technical and the experiential so that we can hear the music in the writing.

The Faustus lecture is pretty much a transcription of stuff Mann learned from his musical adviser on the book, Theodor Adorno. Whenever I came across a passage by Adorno on music – like the bit from In Search of Wagner where he writes that “it is not for nothing that the newly soulful tone of the violin counts among the great innovations of the age of Descartes” – it seemed to open up the music and allow the world in.

Adorno’s own selection of his writings on music, Quasi Una Fantasia, was published in English 1992 but the treasure-house doors did not properly open for another 10 years. Edited by Richard Leppert, Adorno’s “Essays on Music” (University of California Press) is a masterpiece of scholarly publishing. Extended pieces “On the Contemporary Relationship of Philosophy and Music” and “On the Problem of Musical Analysis” are included along with brief but provocative considerations of Mahler and Beethoven. Given the extent of its influence it’s a shock to discover that “Late Style in Beethoven” – with its inversion of the standard view that Beethoven escaped from the clutches of form into a realm of uninhibited subjectivity – is a mere four pages long.

Actually, four pages at a time is about all one can take of Adorno so it’s good that Leppert provides high-quality editorial support. Still, I can’t pretend to understand all of it and I disagree with some of it (the famously misguided essay “Jazz” is here). But even then, as Stokely Carmichael said when Martin Luther King invited him to hear him preach in 1967, after they had parted ways politically, I still like to tap my feet to it. It’s a book I’ll be consulting for as long as I’ve got eyes to read and ears to hear.

Jonathan Coe

I Am a Composer by Arthur Honegger (1951)

This was a lucky find in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop back in the early 1980s. Published 30 years before that, it was intended, somewhat bizarrely, as part of a series introducing French readers to the nuts and bolts of various different métiersI Am a Teacher, I Am a Train Driver, that sort of thing. But it has, unsurprisingly, outlasted the other entries, and takes the form of an exercise in dialogue between a composer and his disciple (Bernard Gavoty) along the lines of Stravinsky’s dialogues with Robert Craft.

People who feel they know enough about this sort of thing to pronounce on it tell me that Honegger is a “minor” composer: he barely figures, for instance, in the current bible of 20th-century music, Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise. But he has been a major presence in my life for decades, and besides his great symphonies and oratorios, I also like the pessimism of his outlook. This quotation from 1951 remains, for me, a shockingly prescient account of what would happen to music in the next half-century: “Noise benumbs our ears,” Honegger wrote, “and I truly believe that a few years from now we shall detect no differences except between large intervals. We shall lose sight of the semitone, and arrive at no longer perceiving anything but the third, then the fourth, finally the fifth. Rhythmic shock increasingly plays the predominant role and no longer the sensual delight in melody. At the rate at which we are going, before the end of the century we shall have a very scanty and barbaric music, combining a rudimentary melody with brutally stressed rhythms – marvellously suited to the ears of the music lovers of the year 2000!”

Compiled with the assistance of Faber Social’s Lee Brackstone.


Viv Albertine, Beck, Tim Burgess, Amit Chaudhuri, Jonathan Coe, Geoff Dyer, Brian Eno, Kim Gordon, Lavinia Greenlaw, John Harris, Philip Hensher, Barney Hoskyns, Johnny Marr, Alexis Petridis, Polly Samson, Sukhdev Sandhu, Jon Savage, Alexis Taylor, Rupert Thomson, Louise Wener, Richard Williams, Nicky Wire, Stephen Witt, James Wood

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