Being something of a frustrated musician myself, Will Hodgkinson's Song Man: A Melodic Adventure, Or, My Single-Minded Approach to Songwriting is, for me, the sort of book that comes with an undeniable built-in appeal. For an armchair rock star, you can almost picture yourself here as the pages of Hodgkinson's experiences in learning first to write, and then record his very own song unfold.
Song Man is the sequel to Hodgkinson's earlier book Guitar Man, which is the author's personal account of learning to play the guitar. Having recently decided — at a similarly late stage in life — to pick up the instrument myself (I'm still trying to master the dreaded F chord), I found numerous parallels to my own experience in Hodgkinson's funny, if occasionally bittersweet account.
Song Man finds the author himself mastering the instrument by now (well, more or less anyway). So here, Hodgkinson sets out to take things to their next logical step by actually writing his own song. To do so, he soon sets out on a quest to enlist the help of the experts themselves, as he seeks out the assistance of several songwriters to mentor him.
He finds the first of these — a burnt-out and failed but talented songwriter named Lawrence — in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It seems Lawrence was once a member of two promising but failed bands — Felt and Denim — who, according to the author, influenced latter day bands like Blur. Hodgkinson finds Lawrence living alone, both penniless and friendless, fighting his various demons and addictions – but still clinging to the songwriter's dream of writing that million dollar hit.
Hodgkinson's account of the meeting is both funny and sad at the same time. You can't help but feel a little bit for Lawrence as he ponders the idea of writing a hit for the American Christian music market, even though he doesn't believe in God. The funny part comes as Hodgkinson plays his own songs for Lawrence.
At this point, Hodgkinson's idea is to record his song "Mystery Fox," written using his own songwriting device of finding words that rhyme with the names of animals. Although the author himself can't sing a lick, his master plan is to record the song with his wife — whom he quite humorously sees as Nico to his own Lou Reed — on vocals.
Lawrence reacts with uncontrollable laughter, asking Hodgkinson "would you play that?" for everyone from Ray Davies to Elton John. So far at least, our hero just can't seem to catch a break.
In another meeting, Hodgkinson seeks out the advice of Bob Stanley of electro-popsters Saint Etienne, figuring that he might benefit from the "non-musician's" approach to songwriting. He instead ends up going through three bottles of wine with Stanley, awakening the next day wrapped in a towel and the cleaning lady recovering the wine bottles from the previous night.
Hodgkinson's journey eventually leads to encounters with a series of successful musicians and songwriters ranging from Chan "Cat Power" Marshall to personal heroes like Davies, Keith Richards, and Love's Arthur Lee.
At 290 pages, Song Man is an easy, breezy read that is as often as humorous as it is bittersweet. Hodgkinson writes in a funny, self-deprecating style that nonetheless reveals the author's true love for the art of music, and the craft involved in creating it. The book is also notable for its numerous cultural references to various musical icons, with Hodgkinson's reflections on the loss of his heroes such as Lee and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett being particularly moving.
For frustrated musicians, songwriters, armchair rock stars — indeed, for anyone who has ever played air guitar in their underwear in front of the mirror — this book is for you.