Will Hodgkinson is a writer. He is not a musician, but strangely, he has written two books, Guitar Man and Song Man, focusing on his determination to try to disprove that. This current offering is liberally laced with visits to the famous and near-famous, as well as to the unknown, people in the music business
who Will has been fortunate to meet by being such an obvious charmer, and by being a contributor to
Vogue, The Guardian and Mojo. Meanwhile he can still clear the room when he attempts to sing, and his attempts at guitar mastery remind one of those old magazine ads that declared "They laughed when I sat down at the piano" – with less satisfying results.
In Song Man (A Melodic Adventure, or My Single-Minded Approach to Song-writing), Will sets out to prove that anyone, mainly he and his mate Doyle, can write a song good enough to be recorded
- in this case at the famous London studio Toe-Rag. Without the challenge of a definite recording date, he figures he won't make the effort,
so one is set. In preparation, he visits, and writes wisely and well about a great grab-bag of singer-songwriters, such as Chip Taylor, whose one memorable hit, "Wild Thing," made him rich until women and gambling made him throw it all away. In fact, one of the things that seems to connect songwriters in general is their lousy business sense. The most extreme example is a man named Lawrence (powerhouse behind such forgettable groups as Felt and later Denim) who floats through the book, retreating farther from any semblance of normalcy as time goes by. Lawrence is "at the bottom of the career heap but at the top of the God-given talent one" when the author first visits him. Lawrence is obsessive about organizing his record collection, but "his bathroom looked like it hadn't been cleaned since he moved in five years earlier." Later in the book, Lawrence, who is a drug addict and takes Hodgkinson to a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous for background color, will be evicted. His critique of the author's halting forays into song composition boils down to this: "It's not exactly 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', is it?"
The data Hodgkinson collects is contradictory. Some of the notables he visits tell him that a song must have passion, some emphasize structure, yet others stress that detachment is required. Lost love and betrayal are generally agreed-upon solid themes, but what to make of the smashing universal success of "Do,
A Deer" or "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head?"
Deciding that, like Big Pink and other well-known musicians, he only needs a place for inspiration, Hodgkinson and the reluctant Doyle journey to Eigg, often called just plain Egg, a tiny island on the far side of the Hebrides with a population of 67 and a reputation for terrorizing its visitors. There they live for a week in a square stone cottage with a fireplace in the middle of the room and a tiny privy out back. Various women long in the tooth try to seduce them, and they look for inspiration to the famed "singing sands," where they chase the mythological bird they have named "ibid," after the well-known footnote.
Take all this nonsense and mix it with some delectable interviews with the likes of Keith Richards, Burt Jansch, and folk heroine Shirley Collins, and you have still only the merest idea of what it's like to roll around in Hodgkinson's humor-driven, music-savvy mind. To answer the question
- can someone with no talent write a hit single? - you simply must buy the book. This reviewer will not reveal the exciting climax except to say that Hodgkinson's young son, Otto, is a huge fan of his father's music. And that's not a bad thing.