Personal narratives about pop music
The soundtrack to our lives
The German publishing house of Kiepenheuer & Witsch has launched a series of compact paperbacks in which various authors pay tribute to their favourite pop music idols. The music prompts each of them to think back on their lives and, in hindsight, what really counts in life.
Tino Hanekamp was initially supposed to write about Bruce Springsteen, but he hates The Boss, he so proposed doing his teen idol Nick Cave instead. It became an homage by a fan who has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to distance himself from his idol. So Hanekamp, whose high school friends used to call him a “pocket Nick Cave”, clearly takes a biased approach to his role model. And yet he grapples with himself and his idolatry, with his ludicrous hope that meeting the Australian icon face to face will somehow relieve the writer's block he’s been suffering from on his second novel project.
Nick Cave is known for creating an elaborate mystique around his music and his person. Hanekamp answers the eternal question of whether art needs the artist as a man or a myth to achieve its full potential: “You don't need to meet the man. Because everything you need is in his art and his words, and it’s so much more powerful if the man remains a myth onto which we can project our own notions.” So we’re better off not looking too closely at the human being behind the artist, else the artistic effect is liable to go up in smoke.
Music and depressionThe author Sophie Passmann has picked Frank Ocean as her musical companion in every situation – in good times and, especially, in bad. She wants Frank Ocean’s album Blonde to be played at her funeral, all 60 minutes and 8 seconds of it, so they won’t all have to listen to some “Holy Joe preacher”, but will “first be turned off... by this atmospheric autotune”.
Then, citing certain special songs, Passmann writes about the soundtrack to her life and how she sank deeper and deeper into manic depression: “Everything you do in a manic episode does damage that you’re bound to be ashamed of. Either outwardly or inwardly.” In the end, though, things turned out all right for the most part, and Ocean’s music proved a faithful companion on that rocky road. Passmann now thinks about her funeral only as often as “should be OK for a self-centred woman in her mid-twenties”. But one thing remains unchanged: Frank Ocean is to be played at her funeral.
Boy group & punk rockJournalist and author Anja Rützel has written a veritable declaration of love to a famous former boy group. Her ardour for Take That is unguarded, as she confesses at the very outset. She loves Take That – and “not as a pose, not behind the protective armour of irony”. She rails against “patronizing pop fans who never take anything seriously, who can never give their hearts away to what is obviously nonsense – they’re the worst and poorest of people”.
Fortunately, Rützel's essay is not a tedious and uncritical paean to the four boys, who haven’t really been boys since they reunited in 2005. It describes the ups and downs of each of the band members. She cites Gary Barlow, for example, whose abdominal girth swung back and forth with his general states of mind, swelling during depression and slimming back down during a comeback. “I got fat to hide from my failure” was the headline of a story on Barlow in the British daily The Times.
Thees Uhlmann also remembers his youth and the influence of the German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen on his life. Uhlmann, the former singer of the Hamburg indie band Tomte, begins his story with a note he spotted on his high school bulletin board back in 1988: “Who wants to come with us to the Toten Hosen concert in Hamburg? We’re chartering a bus. 10 DM for the ride, DM 19.99 for the ticket! Sign on!” So the 14-year-old schoolboy signed on and experienced his very first rock concert.
And with that trip up to Hamburg, Uhlmann begins his trip down memory lane, recounting his past to the punk rock soundtrack of the Die Toten Hosen. For a young German punk growing up between the eras of Helmut Schmidt and Angela Merkel, this passion was bound to last forever. Though Uhlmann probably doesn't know himself to what extent some of his other penchants are linked to his enthusiasm for the Düsseldorf punk rockers. He prefers “beer in a two-litre PET* bottle to a 1970s lamp”, for example – a fondness no doubt befitting an aging punk.
Music can change your lifeThe next volume in the KiWi-Musikbibliothek (i.e. “Music Library”) is a book by Klaus Modick about Leonard Cohen, in which he explains why women came and went in his life, whereas Cohen always stayed with him. Then Lady Bitch Ray writes about her role model, Madonna. As an audio supplement to these books, the publishers have also created a little website on which you can hear a few songs by the featured musicians and bands.
The four volumes published so far in this series are all worth reading. They’re not biographies of the musicians, but personal stories, thoughts and memories closely connected to the authors’ favourite music. This little series goes to show that music really can change your life.
Tino Hanekamp: Nick Cave
Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2019. 144 S.
Sophie Passmann: Frank Ocean
Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2019. 96 S.
Anja Rützel: Take That
Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2019. 160 S.
Thees Uhlmann: Die Toten Hosen
Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2019. 192 S.