Caught by the River

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track

Ian Preece | 9th November 2019

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, the first book from celebrated music critic Ian Penman in 20 years, was published in the summer by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Ian Preece reviews.

I had a dream the other night that I’d opened a record shop. It was actually more of a kiosk, with an iron grille for a window, situated in the old off-sales bit of a redbrick pub somewhere near a housing estate/in a park in (I think) south London. Footfall, as they say, was not at a premium. In this dream state it wasn’t clear how the shaky business venture had got off the ground – I was just busy fretting over a request from a local artist to display her artwork (what? And block out my already hard-to-glimpse wall of neatly arranged Augustus Pablo and Ellen Arkbro sleeves?). 

Similarly, these days, it’s doubtful anyone will head into their end-of-school-days meeting with the careers officer and say they fancy a life working as a music writer. But I’m of a generation where sometimes it feels like I spend as much time reading music writers as actually listening to records. There is (or rather was) the kitchen-sink beauty of Garry Mulholland; the fantastic sweep of Ben Thompson’s 78-word parenthetical clauses; David Sheppard’s wistful, spot-on musings on Brian Eno, ambient, Berlin, piano music and outer space; Robin Turner of this parish on what he’s listening to as Bristol, Swindon and Reading flash past the train window; Kitty Empire on Sunday; Jennifer Kelly and Bill Meyer on Dusted; Elizabeth Vincentelli; Brian Case; Sukhdev Sandhu; Simon Goddard; historical perspectives refracted through the thoughtful, erudite books and vast universes of Simon Reynolds, David Stubbs, Rob Young and Richard King; Richard Williams on soul and jazz I still don’t know enough about; a double page of Tony Herrington on Herbie Hancock; the good ears of John Mulvey, Jon Dale; Val Wilmer, David Toop, Emily Bick, Neil Kulkarni, Derek Walmsley and plenty more in The Wire

Ian Penman had a glorious Indian summer writing for The Wire and Uncut, but he usually gets lumped in with Paul Morley – largely because they both had a penchant for Foucault, Derrida and French film as well as Kid Creole and the Coconuts, in the process opening up plenty of young minds to new worlds via the pages of the NME. (What were people saying they wanted instead? A clever-dick facetious caption on the road to Loaded?) ‘The mistake that all too many too-literal critics still make is to keep “music” and “theory” separate. “Theory” is still what the critic cooks up – later – out of the “raw” matter of the Song. But dub unsettles that whole scheme,’ wrote Penman, in a piece on Tricky included in his last collection of works – somehow a quarter of a century ago now – Vital Signs. Dub, Tricky, tricky border crossings, white and black, black and white (I Look All White But My Dad was Black – Pete Townshend’s line from ‘Substitute’ was going to be the original title of It Gets Me Home); dissolving genres and boundaries and consciousness; shadowy, liminal wastelands; canny works; in-between worlds; and, given the number of unstable childhood homes in these tales – and those winding tracks that get you back there in the end (Penman has landed on ‘a lovely description of spinning vinyl’ in the line from W.H. Auden’s ‘Walks’ for the title of the book) – perhaps some kind of search for home: all this is in Ian Penman’s back yard. I guess it’s no wonder there’s a lot of traffic through his cat-flap (and that he nearly gave it all up in the all-conquering age of the press release to become a cat therapist). Great taste is just the start (of life swimming against the tide).

Penman and Morley are both such great writers because their canvases are so wide, and because it’s all rooted in their concern for real life and real people. That’s. Where. Music. Comes. From. The irony is, because of all the film and critical theory, the light dusting of psychoanalysis and their getting tied up with the very stuff of writing and language itself, both have been dismissed in geezery, Loaded-up London media circles as opaque and aloof and only really interested in Roland Barthes. I once spoke up for Morley’s writing in an acquisitions meeting at a publisher I used to work for; I can only really remember the proposed autobiography of Tube union firebrand Bob Crow going down worse (a different project I brought to the table). Morley’s book about his dad’s suicide, Nothing, is as moving and devastating and planted in real life as it comes. Penman, too, is often brought up short by something he hears over the speaker in a supermarket, and never loses sight of who might be listening to the records, the ‘Friday night catharsis’. In his opening piece on Mod life, he looks into the swirl of 1950s sub-cultural influences: ‘the squeaky corridor of Englishness’ that was Trad; ‘Trads followed Acker Bilk, Mods worshipped Thelonious Monk . . . Trad reactionaries and Mod wideboys? Doubtless it was never quite so cut and dried.’ He riffs on the ‘tension between wanting to be unique but needing to belong’ and beautifully nails how, in the stifling bread-and-butter Britain of ropey sitcoms and John Dunn on Radio 2, ‘you didn’t have a ready-made language for certain unruly feelings – music like this could really melt the inherited chip of ice in the heart.’ ‘Music like this’ is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue– ‘a specifically modern achievement, the players unafraid of the deafening silence at the edge of their sound.’ (Which is something you don’t sense with Parklife.)

In a terrific, expansive and deeply funny/sad long-form piece championing the ‘sublime ballast’ of mid-period Scott Walker MOR (the middle of the road being ‘a rather dangerous place to stand’; sadly not included here but in No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker) Penman riffs on the characters resident in a London block of flats, the subjects of Walker’s underrated Til the Band Comes in, wrestling with ‘the real fabric of life – its big disappointments and small rewards. Not so much “let’s spend the night together” as “let’s spend the rest of our lives together”’. Limbering up for a full exposition of ‘easy listening’ Scott, Penman flashes back to his own childhood Sunday mornings, ‘sunlight through the lace curtains, smell of furniture polish and the pale grey box my dad’s records were kept in’, and speculates that both his dad and his dad’s work mates liked such a crooner as Matt Monro because Monro was a former bus conductor ‘now living a life gloriously and indefinably hung between the factory floor and the stars’. You work like a dog all week; certain songs get sunk deep in people’s hearts. ‘You get tired of hearing police sirens and bottles smash, and you don’t want it on a Saturday night from an aisle seat too.’ There’s no clock without hands to stop time passing, like in Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Pleasingly, these kind of work/life/music/life-passing themes glow through It Takes Me Home, This Curving Track. Be it James Brown’s work ethic, Mods’ devotion to Blue Note covers and deeper shades of continental existentialism, dark currents in (un)easy listening, Frank Sinatra as ‘the poet laureate of new global leisure’, or Bill Evans, who looked ‘at times like an algebra professor who’d walked onto the wrong stage’. 

Cynthia Rose, in the book A Hidden Landscape Once a Week, described her time in the music press in terms of the NME turning ‘curiosity into a reflex. Virtual facts and screens of text just can’t compete with the randomness and detail of life.’ That feels in the lineage of This Curving Track. Ian Penman was writing about his heroes, interviewing the likes of Dennis Bovell, John Fahey and Tom Waits when he was just 19 – for a national publication! (I’ll pause for thought before ranting on again about the media’s obsession with youth.) Of course, when Penman is writing about Tricky, say, it’s not just about Maxinquaye: in the same piece he manages to nail the problem with Greil Marcus (great writer but just a bit too obsessed with Essential Logic and the Mekons); probes the essence of dub; and establishes just how being ‘political’ or ‘revolutionary’ involves, really, a new language: so there’s a roll-call of John Martyn, early Roxy Music, Robert Wyatt, Eno, AR Kane, PiL, Sun Ra, Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Tim Buckley, and other dub-wise boundary-dissolving pioneers. The Clash, the Pop Group, the Rolling Stones? No, not really. On picking up It Takes Me Home, This Curving Track I’m not gonna lie: there was just a flickering, floating dust mote of disappointment when I scanned the contents list. James Brown, Prince, Elvis, Sinatra – why all the grand dames/big names? Charlie Parker, John Fahey, Donald Fagen are all present too – great. But where’s the Tindersticks? Burial? Dedekind Cut? Catherine Christer Hennix? Harry Bertoia? P.J. Harvey? Glen Brown? Tom Waits? Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou? He did John Fahey before, so why not Augustus Pablo again? But, stupidly, I was forgetting: like with the Tricky piece, the wide-angled lens picks everyone up. Bill Evans, Miles, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Dean Martin, Norman Mailer, the Beats, Camus, Stanley Booth’s Rythm Oil, Tom Dowd and many more threads are woven through the chapters. Just a few pages in he’s already referenced Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’, Alain Delon in Le Samouraï and Jonathon Green’s ‘flawless’ Days in the Life (too true a quote; a favourite film; a book I’ve been meaning to read in full for years now). He also has a neat line to explain the contents list and any omissions – ‘the reviewer–essayist is more often than not a kind of literary cabby, waiting to be hailed and told where to go.’ 

Most of these pieces are expanded book reviews (or just the originals with an occasional updated footnote), often from the London Review of Books. You soon begin to wince and fear for the too-straight biographer or hack crunching out the well worn ‘facts’ or tropes, cobbling together a tome someone in the marketing department thought was a good idea. That’s not to say he’s a malicious reviewer – just, you know, life’s too short to fuck about in the shallows with packaged product. Penman himself would make a fine biographer – he’s a courageous writer, unafraid to swim in deep water or upset not only the folk he’s reviewing but also loyal fans of musicians who might think he’s taking liberties putting himself into the shoes or consciousness of a Prince or a Scott Walker. But in all this sifting of biographical material these portraits thrum all the more vividly for such attempts to get behind the mask, speculative or not. James Brown, ‘the one’: a fucking nightmare to work for or be around. Elvis: the simple ‘yes sir, no maam’ boy from Tupelo, Mississippi – and behind that, behind the triple-locked door and mirrored halls of Graceland, the prescription-drug meltdown and lonely death. The jazz smarts and quieter records of Frank Sinatra, the older-than-you’d-expect heartthrob ripped from Hoboken, New Jersey, adrift in a starry Hollywood or uneasy with a ‘largely middle-class, faux-genteel WASP-ish media [who were] never going to take this working-class, Italian Catholic, faux wiseguy at his own estimation’. Prince – the only time I flagged slightly in the book was while the Elvis descent, painkillers and all, seemed to be playing out again (but then I only ever bought one Prince record: the double A-side ‘1999’/‘Little Red Corvette’ in something like 1984; that gene must be missing in me). More importantly there’s what feels a spot-on analysis of the long arc of the Minneapolis one’s recorded output: ‘Once, Prince had danced between identities: now [90s onwards] it sounded like he was clinging to the side of an icy mountain in a force-ten gale, using his brand-name as a crampon’ – ‘pro-forma’ black funk replaced genre-bending psychedelic soul. One thing Penman does time and again is overthrow received notions of the apex: shining the lamp on Scott Walker’s 1969-to-1972 output rather than Scott 4or The Drift (‘the sound of a nervous breakdown isn’t always going to be flailing and screaming and dark poetry’); it’s not Sign o’ the Times but ParadeA Man Alone and Watertown not Songs for Swingin’ Lovers or In the Wee Small Hours; ‘Blue Moon’ and Elvis at Stax– mid-1970s sessions rather than The Sun Sessions; and as for James Brown, ‘the one’ (with his ‘pimped-up parentheses’), his music is ‘profoundly anti-mystification: with a bit of practice, any listener can hear the rig under its highway grind’. All that screamin’, cussin’ and hollerin’ and the het-up ‘Sex Machine’ – but wasn’t it ‘Cross the Tracks’, ‘I Believe in Miracles’, Bobby Byrd’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ and Fred Wesley and the JB’s that blew your head at Wendy May’s Locomotion/packed the dancefloor at the Basin, the Boilerhouse and the Mambo Inn in Loughborough Junction? ‘Produced by James Brown’, but Penman gives Fred Wesley his due. I can read these counterflows/more thoughtful takes for ever. 

And Penman is so spot on because he’s interested in tone and texture, ‘sound, sonics, tone’ – not technique. It’s what I’ve always listened to music for: sound. Not a dissection of the lyricist’s intended message. It’s probably because space is limited but there’s been a kind of creeping reductive shorthand in a lot of music writing lately: a liberal sprinkling of half-tones, quarter-tones and microtonal overtones; chromatics, diatonics and pentatonics. If you’re in the slow lane, it’s a struggle. An album review can read more like an account of a chemistry experiment from the lab than any needle-on-the-record dopamine rush flooding the neural system/memory banks. Penman walks you through what John Fahey does with his hands that is different – ‘for first-time listeners, it may sound like two guitarists playing at once in judicious harmony, a modest instrument made glancingly symphonic’ – but welded to that he establishes the essence of Fahey and wrestles with how such beautiful, wistful ‘beguiling melancholy . . . pastoral uncanny’ can emerge from such a troubled soul. As he puts it elsewhere: ‘If you’re going to flag the uncommon flair of Charlie Parker’s playing via talk of chromatic scales and variant chords, you’d best find a way of doing so that doesn’t wash the polydipsic chaos of the man out of the picture entirely.’ Super-ace badass Chicago trumpeter Jaimie Branch, who’s done time on the wrong side of the tracks, would concur: ‘Fuck your technique. Sound first.’

John Doran of the Quietus (another wellspring) wrote that It Gets Me Home ‘has given me great pleasure and caused me great dismay (as it should do nearly anyone who attempts to write about music)’. I’m glad I finished my book on independent record labels this summer before picking it up. I re-read the Scott Walker piece in full (seven years on) after I’d written a fair bit of this review – a flushed, sinking feeling doesn’t begin to nail it. ‘Lightness of touch’, ‘fabric of real life’, touchstones I seem to weave into every last thought – they’re all in there. Even stylistic things like the declarative ‘no’ at the end of a sentence. Full stops. For emphasis. Oh god. Like all the greats – Kelman, Lawrence, Carver, Goodis, Toews, O’Connor, Johnson (D), Baker (Nicholson & J.A.), Dyer, Torra – what Penman does brilliantly is freeze the moment on the page then fill it with life; he writes like you think, like you speak. 

So this is all one long blow, really, to say Ian Penman just writes beautifully. I was taking advantage of a friend’s season ticket at Arsenal last year as Mesut Ozil danced across the six-yard box, playing a couple of one-twos and beautiful feints in front of us. ‘It’s like he plays with oven gloves on his feet,’ remarked a bloke from behind. There’s nothing in his writing to suggest it was Ian Penman sitting a few rows back, but that’s just the kind of flawless observation he’s been applying to the ineffable in music for a lifetime now. (His legs might have gone but Penman is Ray Wilkins at QPR, a Pirlo or a Nigel Clough, the playmaker of old opening up defences with a precise, beautifully cushioned ball – and an occasional haughty shrug.) I love the description of ‘the original hipster’ Charlie Parker as one of the first ‘deepwater jazz players’ to receive widespread acclaim – and the line that’s been quoted in a few reviews, Parker’s ‘unearthly sonic signatures woven from everyday air; flurries of notes like Rimbaud’s million gold birds set free’. You find yourself sluicing through Donald Fagen’s world of hip, the ‘inbetween worlds’ of Henry Mancini (‘French horns, vibraphone, electric guitar and…a lot of empty space’) and the ‘roughed-up textures’ of Ray Charles (‘hobbled by racism, blindness and addiction’): ‘Shelves of books are devoted to unearthing the fugitive “meaning” of pretty song lyrics, yet often it’s some forgotten scrap of melody that cracks us apart; an old sitcom theme from decades ago can deep-six us more effectively than most big-name, chart-topping tracks.’ When I first read ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ I went straight out and bought Til the Band Comes in and couldn’t stop playing ‘Thanks for Chicago, Mr James’ for about a year (if anyone’s crazy enough to ask me to DJ these days they’ll get the effortlessly sublime ‘Thanks for Chicago, Mr James’ and ‘The Lights of Cincinnati’ too at some point during the afternoon). Next stop will likely be Pretzel Logic or Frank Sinatra’s Watertown. Like James Brown, but in a different way, I’d always dismissed Sinatra as too bold and brassy and showtime for me – all, as Penman puts it, ‘razor-blade hat brim and cheesy “Hey now!” persona’. Time to think again: ‘When today’s stars try to pull off an imitation of old-style song craft they may get the surface details right, but they completely miss the centre of gravity, or sense of connective purpose,’ writes Penman. ‘They can’t locate Sinatra’s lightness of touch, or his deep seriousness. They can’t “do” Sinatra because the latter didn’t “do” easy, imitable exaggerations. His tone was toned right down; his slow-burn intensity came from somewhere deep inside. Even in his own era, when most MOR acts would usually opt to open out a song, inflate the hook, make everything big and brassy, Sinatra would take the mood down a notch, hypnotizing the song’s back brain with hints of smoke, perfume, shoreline air. Sinatra held the melody like a Fabergé egg he was turning in his palm, assessing it from every angle, seeing how light dipped or flared in different positions, exploring the weave of word and melody. None of this can be applied like spray tan.’ 

Charlie Parker was so adrift by the end he rode the subway late at night rather than be indoors; Prince and Elvis built their castles, but it’s hard to feel at home when you’re so alone. James Brown’s childhood hardly fostered fond memories of home. Frank Sinatra’s birthplace in Hoboken, New Jersey, is now a vacant lot (or at least it was a few years ago. Next door a functional basement room opens onto the street, Italian men of a certain age with slicked-back hair, all wearing white shirts and black trousers, are seated round a table playing cards. You can’t even smell the coffee in the air any more from the now-closed-down Maxwell plant). Ian Penman himself had a sort of rootless upbringing, in Norfolk but also on RAF bases around the world, living at one point by the Mediterranean, harvesting ‘a different air. But one day it ends, and you are back on the estate, back to holidays in Blackpool and Yarmouth.’ Scott Engel’s dad dragged the family all over the world as an oil executive. Penman riffed in that piece on the LP being ‘somewhere a mood might be floated and sustained’, and that’s good for this book too – blue moods, vinyl spinning on the turntable, light through the window. In ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ he wrote of music becoming his own ‘permanent floating home town’. I guess you can build a home of sorts out of weaving together a bunch of beautiful sentences too. Hampton Hawes wrote in Raise Up off Me that when it comes to making music, everything is connected: ‘The way you get up in the morning, smell the leaves, have your juice or something funny like a jelly sandwich and a malt, scratch a dog’s head, say hello to some kids, drive your car, go to the can, feel the sun – that’s where imagination and soul come from.’ Ian Penman’s from this side of the street. 

I was getting het up about the Guardian 100 Best Books of the Century (So Far) the other day. I know that’s the idea behind such lists, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireA Visit from the Goon Squad at number 24, the highest-placed book with any kind of link to music? – c’mon. (Bob Dylan must be chuffed with Chronicles at number 95; the only ‘music book’.) It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track was only published in August, but it should have come in anywhere between numbers 1 and, say, 3.

In Penman spirit, some records listened to while reading It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track at home: Ekin Fil, Heavy (Vaagner); Alefa Madagascar: Salegy, Soukous & Soul from the Red Island, 1974–1984 (Strut); Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia); Scott Walker, Til the Band Comes in (Philips); Loscil, Equivalents (kranky); Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 4 (Spotlite); Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu 1974–1990 (Analog Africa).


It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track is out now and available here, priced £12.99.

Ian Preece’s Listening to the Wind, Encounters with 21stCentury Independent Record Labels will be published next spring by Omnibus.