Chapter And Verse: Books On Music

Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy edited by Alan Licht... Neil Young: A Life In Pictures by Colin Irwin... Sci-fi writer Christopher Priest... The Kindle recommendation...

Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy edited by Alan Licht, out now in paperback (Faber & Faber, £15.99)
Neil Young: A Life In Pictures by Colin Irwin, out now in hardback (Carlton, £19.99)

"Books about music don’t sell.” It’s an old adage in the publishing trade and something I got tired of hearing when I was touting my second novel, The Ossians, about an indie band. As it happens, that novel got published and did sell, so nyah-nyah to the adage. 

It seems Faber & Faber isn’t listening to that line either, as the independent publisher has knocked together a fantastic list of contemporary music titles. Recent hits have included work by Jarvis Cocker, Manic Street Preachers and How Soon Is Now? by Richard King, a fantastic history of indie music. 

In the pipeline is the definitive biography of Prince written by novelist Matt Thorne, as well as great titles on The Pogues and Led Zeppelin.

Out this week we have Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy edited by Alan Licht. The accompanying press release promises this is the first in a series of books on musicians in their own words. It’s an incredibly readable and insightful book-length interview with the American leftfield folk-country musician, conducted by Licht, a lifelong friend and fellow musician.

If you don’t know Oldham’s work, either as Palace Brothers or under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy monicker, you really should, and I promise that this book will have you sifting through the comprehensive discography and scuttling to iTunes. 

Oldham is not an obvious subject for the start of a series, as he can often seem reluctant in regular newspaper interviews. But freed of time and space constraints, and speaking to someone he’s known his whole life, the end result is a genuinely exciting piece of music writing, taking in much more than just Oldham’s own experiences.

For an artist below the mainstream radar, Oldham has more than his fair share of showbiz stories, from acting alongside James Earl Jones to hanging out with Johnny Cash. 

For me, one of the most interesting things was Oldham’s early musical life, which was a million miles away from the quiet, macabre Americana of recent albums - hanging out with noisecore bands and even being asked to join seminal post-rock outfit Slint as a singer. 

It is a fantastic read, and I can’t wait to find out who else Faber has in mind for the series. And given that my novels are currently published by the same imprint, you can be sure I’ll have the inside track, which I’ll pass on, naturally.

It’s worth noting that all these music books were commissioned and written before Faber recently recruited Jarvis Cocker as a commissioning editor. Lord only knows what musical wonders he’s going to bring to the table, but I look forward to finding out.

Someone who was a big influence on Will Oldham is Neil Young, and if the same goes for you, then Neil Young: A Life in Pictures by Colin Irwin is a must. A sumptuous, glossy, coffee-table book, it covers six decades of the leftfield musical icon, and has a well-balanced narrative examining the man’s life and influence running through it. 

The pictures are well chosen and the whole thing leaves you with a warm glow about the man’s longevity, especially considering his lifelong anti-establishment stance. 

And another thing…
Sci-fi writer Christopher Priest has chucked a wobbly on his blog, ripping into the entire shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award and also, bizarrely, crime writer Mark Billingham. Priest wasn’t nominated. Read his blog post here:

For The Kindle - and free!
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 
(1605 and 1615)
Properly titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, this is a wonderful example of Golden Age literature from Spain. It’s the characterisation that captivates: the redoubtable Alonso Quijano, who has read one too many tales of derring-do and now seeks to be questing knight errant Don Quixote, together with his long-suffering but wiser sidekick Sancho Panza. This is very much a forerunner of today’s buddy movie, complete with scrapes and japes. Sometimes the language requires effort, but it is amply rewarded to penetrate a story regularly voted one of the best ever written.