3 Aug 2021

Music influencing well known authors

From Afternoons, 3:07 pm on 3 August 2021

Drop the needle on Diamond Dogs by David Bowie and writer Neil Gaiman is transported to the day he first heard the album as a 13-year-old and decided he wanted a job making things up.

New Statesman deputy editor Tom Gatti asked 50 great writers to share their stories of an album that changed them in his new book, Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them.

The book is part memoir part music writing, spanning the golden age of vinyl and the streaming era, and showing how a single LP can shape a writer's mind.

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Ian Rankin, George Saunders and David Mitchell. Photo: Supplied

One of writers Gatti was pleased to get involved was Clive James, who was terminally ill when Gatti approached him.

“I wrote to Clive in August 2019 and he replied with a one-line email saying; ‘I’m pretty ill, but too flattered to hide.’

“And then turned in this typically bright-eyed, sparkling piece on Duke Ellington and playing this Duke Ellington record to destruction in his family kitchen in the ‘50s.”

Ellington super fan James describes then bumping in to Duke Ellington in Cambridge in the late ‘60s, Gatti says. It was one of the last pieces he wrote before he died later that year.

For Deborah Levy, it was David Bowie who changed her life, he says.

“She wrote about sitting in her bedroom in West Finchley with David Bowie showing her the possibility of life beyond suburbia.”

Levy describes the Ziggy Stardust album as “throwing petrol at the naked flame of teenage longing.”

Marlon James was going through a religious and sexual crisis and Bjork’s album Post helped him accept all the uncertainty involved in that, Gatti says.

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Photo: supplied

For David Mitchell, it was Joni Mitchell’s Blue that changed it all when he was a young man.

“He writes about picking it up the day after his last exam aged 17 and walking home through the hills from the town to the village where he lived and him on the cusp of becoming an adult," Gatti says.

Many of the writers hark back to their teenage years, he says.

“There is something so intense about that time in your life when you’re still working out who you are, or who you want to be and music can just latch on to you in a way that perhaps however much later in life you can still discover and love new records there’s something very intense about that time.”

Crime writer Ian Rankin misquotes Miss Jean Brodie in his piece saying; “Give me an album at a certain age and it’s mine for life.”

“You have this very intense and sometimes quite solitary relationship with music," Gatti says.

“The teenage years are particularly fertile ground for these really strong first loves when it comes to music.”

Daisy Johnson, one of the youngest ever nominees for the Booker Prize, writes a paean to Lizzo.

She says Lizzo’s songs are incantations, spells for better days.

US writer George Saunders was transported by Fragile by Yes, while for Mark Ellen it was the “pure, bubble gum joyful energy” of the B52s.

Gatti believes that the album will endure because it can convey such a breadth and depth of emotions.

“It’s just the enormously enduring nature of this form and that however often we proclaim the album is dead, or dying, it refuses to go away.

“And the incredible ability for it to speak to us in so many different times of life and different moods. It’s just going to be with us in whatever format we are listening to these things in 50 years’ time.”

The book features writing from Ali Smith, Marlon James, Deborah Levy, George Saunders, Bernardine Evaristo, Ian Rankin, Tracey Thorn, Ben Okri, Sarah Perry, Neil Tennant, Rachel Kushner, Clive James, Eimear McBride, Neil Gaiman, Daisy Johnson, David Mitchell, Esi Edugyan, Patricia Lockwood.