Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life by Nick Coleman, Jonathan Cape 2018
“Yeah, but he’s a terrible singer.”
And then they always intone a nasally ‘how does it feeeeel?’ just in case I don’t know that song or haven’t recognized that Dylan doesn’t sing like Sarah Vaughan.
If you’re a Dylan fan, you know this scenario. It’s so predictable that it barely registers. I’m never sure what to say, other than the obvious: Compared to whom? Bob is always singled out for something fairly unexceptional in rock and roll. It’s as though everyone in popular music has a great voice except Bob. Sure they do…
I’m listening to Mazzy Star’s first album right now as I write because I was listening to the Cowboy Junkies this morning. I was listening to Townes when I thought of the Cowboy Junkies. Townes, Margo, Hope. None of them are brilliant singers in any technical sense but then, what does that mean? I love their voices and would listen to all of them sing the phone book before I would waste 10 seconds listening to a lot of people who are considered ‘great’ singers. So would you!
My son is that age where he is appalled by other people’s bad taste and lack of knowledge about music. Some kid in his class has never heard of Hendrix and prefers some rap star anyway! Another thinks Ariana Grande is better than Janis! My message to him is to respect others’ taste in music. If it brings them joy, it’s okay. I’m stating the obvious but your taste in music is simply that: your taste in music. You might have some authority because you’ve heard a lot of stuff but the fact is that music either moves you or it doesn’t. There isn’t a scale by which we can measure a rock and roll band’s aesthetic value. The Stooges are great but they are not objectively better than The Monkees (I want to qualify that sentence so badly that my teeth are aching. I can’t stand The Monkees).
Musical taste is personal. So what? Well, In Nick Coleman’s Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life, he suggests our response to the voice might be the most personal of all our tastes. This intriguing new book is a meditation on singers and singing. His contention is that we can be objective about instrumental music to an extent but voices are too embedded in our consciousness to be anything but a zero sum game. We like them or we don’t. When we were babies we heard voices. We didn’t understand the words but we got very good at hearing what they were expressing. Love, frustration, humor, concern, and anger were all conveyed to us initially through the sound of a voice. Thus our response is primal. If people had only played tenor saxophones to us from birth we might feel the same way about woodwinds. Not a bad idea!
The book is built around a series of categories that form the chapters. One or two singers might be the main exemplars of something like ‘Accent’ (Mick Jagger and John Lennon) but Coleman uses a broad range of examples to illustrate his point. At the end of each chapter, there is a section called ‘Grace Notes’ where he looks at specific songs that have this quality (Waterloo Sunset for ‘Accent’) Some of the other categories are ‘Identification’, ‘Soul’, and ‘Croon’. Ronnie Spector, Wilson Pickett, and, interestingly, Gregory Isaacs respectively get a lot of attention in those chapters.
Because singing and our response to singers is demonstrably close to our hearts, the book is personal. Coleman makes it clear that he is speaking from a particular context (East Anglia) and as someone of a certain age. At 58, he is part of that little group that slips between the boomers and GenX. He came of age listening to prog and had his mind blown by punk. His story about hearing Anarchy in the UK for the first time is funny. His story about a friend having a panic attack listening to Joy Division’s Closer (Anguish) is harrowing. The 80s did little for him although he adores Hounds of Love (Croon). Coleman is a thoughtful listener with a vast knowledge of popular music. I always judge a music book by how many times I stopped reading to listen to something. It took me a long time to get through this one.
The real power of Voices, however, is in Coleman’s enviable ability to describe the sonic quality of the voice in music. He digs deep into the implications of the performance and finds hidden elements in a wide range of songs, both familiar and obscure. In the ‘Sophistication’ section he draws out something akin to restlessness in Joni Mitchell’s Song for Sharon. I have to say that the discussion of Joni’s work here struck me as far more insightful than anything in the most recent biography. Marvin Gaye’s voice is explored under the banner of ‘Vulnerability’ with his singular Here My Dear album as an example. Coleman compares this strange record to Rogier Van der Weyden’s 15th century masterpiece, The Descent from the Cross. The painting (see below) uses a frame to call attention to its own limitations: the cosmic dimensions of the event defeats its human and artistic capacity. Coleman sees Here My Dear in a similar light. Gaye’s voice suggests that there is simply too much to express. That is, according to Coleman, the very definition of vulnerability.
Things get very interesting indeed in the final chapter on Rapture and Psalms. Van Morrison’s career is compared to Bede’s reluctant singer, Caedmon, the singer who nonetheless finds his voice and his song. Coleman hears something of this rapture on the Moondance album, in particular. A discussion of the Psalms is followed by a consideration of ‘voices in the wilderness’ and the rather surprising example of John Lydon and PIL’s Metal Box. Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey album is also covered here. Bob Dylan makes an appearance in the Grace Notes section of Rapture and Psalms. Coleman doesn’t bother too much with Dylan (or Neil Young, intriguingly) in this book but it makes sense that the laureate would turn up in this section. I thought something from Slow Train Coming might be covered but Coleman talks about No More Auction Block and Blind Willie McTell, two songs that are probably not familiar to the sort of person who does lame imitations of Bob but are well worth hearing!
Clearly, I enjoyed Voices but I have one serious bone to pick with it. Here it is: Steve Marriott is a better singer than Paul Rodgers, Long John Baldry, Tom Jones, Phil May, Roger Daltrey and all the other British singers mentioned in this section. Marriott is a locomotive among Mini Coopers here. No one in rock and roll even comes close. Coleman, however, reduces him to someone who was okay in the sixties but really sucked in Humble Pie. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to believe that Rod Stewart was some kind of soul god. Dude, please.
You see! It always gets personal with voices. If you think Coltrane is overrated, we can talk. If you think Billie Holiday is overrated, I’m outta here. This is a fascinating book that will force you into entrenched positions like mine on Marriott but also demand that you think a bit about them. It is also a book that tries to understand what it is about music and humans. Yes, he drifts into a brief discussion of brain chemistry; the new black for books about anything at all, but fortunately concludes that it doesn’t really answer any questions about music.
The epilogue to this book is terribly sad. If you’ve read his previous book, The Train in the Night, you know that he has essentially gone deaf, a cruel fate for a music critic and someone with Coleman’s obvious passion. There is some good news, mixed with some setbacks here. I was particularly moved by the section where he recovers some of his hearing and devours as much music as he can in case it doesn’t last. A reminder for all of us perhaps that there are a lot of songs to get through in this life. Music, as Coleman rightly points out, is a complicated pleasure and it’s one that we should never take for granted.
With that in mind, who are your favourite singers and why? For the Coleman challenge, pick a particular song and try to describe the sound of the voice itself. Not easy!
Teasers: The best defense of Mick Jagger’s voice you will ever read. John Lennon’s loathing of his own voice – plus the truly primal scream of his Twist and Shout. Also, Frankie Miller, a truly underrated voice.
Also discussed in the book, of course! Roy Orbison:
Tom who? Rod who? Steve Marriott in The Small Faces: