Boys Will Be Men
Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a first novel about the life, loves, and lists of a 35-year-old London record-shop proprietor, is a substantial yet effortless read, as skillful and stimulating as a good album by, oh, a smarter Tom Petty, or a catchier Joan Jett. As you might imagine, such comparisons come all too readily to reviewers who know less about music than Hornby does; I'm sure he was flattered by the guy who compared High Fidelity to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' Greatest Hits, but I doubt he's so vain as to believe it's that good. Smokey was a genius and a visionary, while Hornby is merely a talent. And so, even as I was carried along on the novel's candor and verisimilitude, I kept asking how true it really was. True enough, I decided--but not as true as it might be.
In the wake of 1992's Fever Pitch, by all accounts the finest book ever written about what the world calls football, Hornby is a big enough deal in England to have antagonists, and Simon Frith has already leveled two charges at his novel in these pages. The first, that it's "taken to be the expression of a new sort of rock writing, the male confession," is moot--outsiders are forever demanding that "rock writing" (as the world calls rock criticism) be something else, and at worst Hornby provides an excuse for them to say it again. But the other is a critique of male fandom that's at the heart of the novel's truth, failure, and intrinsic appeal, and it should matter to anyone who cares about rock and roll. Understandably after Fever Pitch, the memoir of a grown man who would cancel his mother's funeral if his team's schedule demanded it, most observers have taken the novel for a second exploration of adolescent obsession run amok, and Frith astutely sees this theme as ominous: "After a decade of being New Men, striving for emotional and sartorial subtlety, it was a great middle-class relief to go back to being boys again." I think the novel is usually a little better than that, however. And insofar as it isn't, it shortchanges rock and roll and the adults who love it.
Hornby's stalking-horse, Rob Fleming--a bright-not-brilliant university dropout whose Championship Vinyl deals "punk, blues, soul, and R&B, a bit of ska, some indie stuff, some sixties pop--everything for the serious record collector, as the ironically old-fashioned writing in the window says"--doesn't have big enough ears to suit me. He sells no "world" although he refers familiarly to Afropop, no country although he plainly knows the stuff; he barely mentions jazz or folk; he can't stand rap or disco or, you'd think, contemporary pop, although he went through a Wham! phase and isn't above sucking in reluctant dancers with Madonna when he DJs. The exceptions say something for him--whatever his limitations, Rob Fleming listens more adventurously than the soul stick-in-the-mud Frith isn't alone in painting him as. But even if Fleming were a pop polymath he'd be stuck in the same developmental cul-de-sac. He'd still be a collector, an overinformed media connoisseur, a snob of the demotic who judges people by what they like rather than what they do. And he'd still be somebody who's spent 25 years savoring songs of love without learning anything useful about it.
Or anyway, that's what Hornby and his English admirers think. When Rob is down on himself he believes that he "got to adolescence and just stopped dead"; when he's feeling feistier he wonders whether a life spent "listening to people singing about broken hearts" doesn't wreck you for anything as bland as contentment. After the lawyer he lives with dumps him, he casts a despairing eye on a clientele of young men carrying large square bags and the two male clerks who are his de facto best friends--one nerdy, one nasty, both victims of acute collectoritis. He comes to doubt that "it is possible to maintain a relationship and a large record collection simultaneously." Recognizing themselves, their buddies, or the boyfriends who dissed their Kate Bush records, reviewers have taken literally stereotypes I enjoy as well-observed parodies. I'd never deny that there are such people. But all but a few of those I've met are more complex than High Fidelity has room for. And loads of folks with large record collections--among over-30s, I'd say they constitute a substantial majority--scarcely fit the stereotype at all.
It's probably true (and also not so bad) that many serious rock and roll fans prescreen potential friends according to taste. But other criteria also come to bear. Sexual preference, obviously--the disco world, a rock subculture even if the schism it embodies seems absolute to all but a few ins and outs, is almost as gay as Rob's is het. But a subtler factor counts for more here--the way congruent romantic structures stick together. Partly this is just social convenience--couples mix more easily with couples, singles with singles. But it's also about character formation. In or out of relationships, swingers feel stifled by committed monogamists, who reciprocate by half-consciously concluding that a roving eye signifies feckless or creepy. And whether they're bedroom athletes or garden-variety lonely people, those disinclined to settle down are drawn for practical and psychological reasons to others whose life experiences reinforce their own.
Without doubt, the shops are full of boys who confuse permanence with stasis and obsess over records so they can hold onto their youth. But they tend to grow up later or sooner, and anyway, there are saner ways to feed an abiding enthusiasm for rock and roll. For practical and psychological reasons, I'm mostly friends with people who are married or something like it, few of them rock critics anymore. And you know what? Most of them care a lot about music--not as single-mindedly as the denizens of Championship Vinyl, and often without paying much heed to the latest and greatest, but actively and independently nonetheless. In part this is because I preselect and proselytize. Music is my life, and why shouldn't I (or Rob Fleming, or Nick Hornby) gravitate toward people I can share it with? But basically it's because rock and roll gathers around it a constellation of values, habits, and beliefs that to somebody of my character formation make for good companionship--among them a disdain for decorum, a fondness for fun, and a pervasive respect for the gifts of the unlettered and the unfledged. These qualities aren't ordinarily associated with maturity, but that doesn't make them incompatible with it--not for my or succeeding generations, anyway. If this be middle-class privilege, which like a lot of good things it is, I'll take it with no guilt admitted and no questions asked.
Unlike Frith, I find Hornby's vision of growing up decent enough for starters--Rob sees how he could make his reconciled lawyer sweetie, who's quite a find even if she can't place Junior Wells's name, a compilation tape of songs she already likes. I mean, Hornby writes about what he writes about, which is a middle class whose privileges are shrinking by the year. But I won't concede the cultural limitations that Frith and Hornby both attribute to the music they both care about. Essentially, the anticollector argument targets aestheticism, and as long as it's applied equally to all aesthetes, I'm down with it. But it never is. Instead the assumption is that divining the mysteries of an art you learned to love at 14 turns you into a permanent adolescent. It can, but it needn't, and anyway, just exactly how old do you think painters and ballet dancers and jazz musicians are when they get hooked? Of course songs of love won't make you a love expert. But anybody who knows many English professors knows that the same goes for Shelley or Gissing or Baudrillard. Shit, I'll take Smokey Robinson over any of them--even though he did his great work when he was younger than Nick Hornby, and didn't stick it out with Claudette to boot.
Top Five Death Songs
(Poor Rob Fleming believes there is no such thing)
Top Five Songs for Bosses Who Gut Content in the Name of "Design"
(Apropos of nothing, natch)
Village Voice, Sept. 19, 1995