It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track by Ian Penman
After Karen reviewed this book last autumn (here) I just had to get hold of a copy – one of Fitzcarraldo’s white for non-fiction titles. I love great music journalism, and this collection of essays about a wide range of musicians is some of the best, (having previously appeared in the LRB and City Journal). Ian Penman started his career at the NME in 1977, but I was never an aficionado of the music press back then, so these were my first encounters with his writing. It didn’t disappoint.
The book’s 168 pages of text contain an introduction followed by eight essays. All but one are on focused on a single artist or band, and most of them contain elements of book reviews as Penman looks at biographies/memoirs published at the time of writing. The intro begins with his explanation of the curious title of his book, which is taken from a poem by WH Auden. That instantly sets the reader up for a broad sweep behind the essays that takes in literary and cultural references far and wide, highbrow and lowbrow, but never purely for effect.
He begins by looking at the world of ‘Mod’ from its origins through its continuing revivals, and he’s not very complimentary to its bastions, describing Paul Weller as ‘its peacock-suited John Major’ after the author of the book under review called the Mod revival ‘dad rock’. Considering the manufactured Blur v. Oasis contest which wasn’t Mod at all but included in the review book, Penman shows a lovely turn of phrase about the latter band:
Noel Gallagher has a tiny bit more claim to Mod bona fides, although Oasis’s boilerplate music – where the Flintstone rock ethic rules supreme, to a point just short of prophylaxis – seems about as far from the original cosmopolitan dream of Mod as it’s possible to get.
Fascinating pieces on James Brown and Charlie Parker follow, full of similar analysis and comment. Then we arrive in the world of Francis Albert Sinatra. Penman gives us a rather different kind of potted history, always reaching slightly further into his subject’s mind:
Even into late middle age, even for his closest buddies, carousing with Sinatra was a serious three-line whip; beg off early, fall asleep, order a coffee instead of Jack Daniel’s, and you risked expulsion, exile, the Antarctica of his disaffection. He could not abide the ends of days: it was one thing he had no control over.
From Sinatra to Elvis, and again Penman is excellent at comparing and contrasting the different sides to his protagonist’s personality. Elvis’s good manners versus his seeming carnality, both aided by his sheer good looks. ‘Rough trade for everyone, ‘ as Penman comments!
Onwards through John Fahey (who I confess I know little about) to Steely Dan, and a review of Donald Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters (which I reviewed here). Penman, as he has demonstrated right from the start of this book is a huge jazz fan and a very knowledgeable one, like Fagen who, with Walter Becker, created one of the most literate of jazzy, hip, rock bands there has ever been. Penman likes Fagen’s book, particular the tour diaries that form the second half, and he revels in Fagen’s sense of humour – something that the Dan tended to keep hidden, although it’s there!
Penman finishes with a portrait of Prince, another performer absolutely full of contradictions. Penman compares the different era Prince personae and musical styles, contrasting them with their peers; I loved this comment:
If too many soulful love songs, whatever their merits, are essentially Jack Vettriano, then 1980s Prince was Paul Klee.
Penman’s lively metaphors are many and varied, always enriching his words and explaining his point of view to his audience. You don’t have to be a music lover to appreciate his writing, but naturally it helps. I wish Penman’s previous book of collected journalism was still in print, Vital Signs: Music Movies and Other Manias was published in 1998 – it’s taken over twenty years for this, his second, to reach us. It shows the esteem that Penman is held in, for secondhand copies of Vital Signs are selling for upwards of £55. Thank you to Fitzcarraldo for publishing this collection. (10/10)
Ian Penman, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track (Fitzcarraldo, 2019) posh paperback.