The Music or the Misery

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(Pictured: John Cusack in High Fidelity.)

Although I haven’t watched it in years, High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies. There’s a 2003 entry in my journal written shortly after I finished the book on which it is based. I copied great swaths of text from the book that seemed to be relevant to my life at the time. Thirteen years later, I find that they still are.

I have just finished reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the story of Rob, a man in his mid 30s who owns a failing record shop in London and is trying to figure out his relationships with women in general and one woman in particular. Rob and his music-freak employees like to make endless compilation tapes and opinionated lists, such as the Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have to Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution—Simple Minds, Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams, U2, and Genesis. (“Barry wanted to shoot the Beatles, but I pointed out that someone had already done it”—the book’s funniest single line.) So I knew going in that I would feel a bit of a kinship with Rob. But some of the lines Hornby puts in Rob’s mouth contain more truth than I had expected.

About Charlie, fourth on his chronological list of Five Most Memorable Split-Ups (fourth chronologically, but hands-down number one in terms of emotional devastation), Rob says:

I had kind of hoped that my adulthood would be long and meaty and instructive, but it all took place in those two years; sometimes it seems as though everything and everyone that have happened to me since were just minor distractions. Some people never got over the sixties, or the war, or the night their band opened for the Rolling Stones at the Marquee, and spend the rest of their days walking backwards; I never really got over Charlie. That was when the important stuff, the stuff that defines me, went on.

And in the next paragraph, after listing some of his favorite songs, which include “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, “Call Me” by Aretha Franklin, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by anybody, “Love Hurts,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” and “She’s Gone”:

[S]ome of these songs I have listened to around once a week, on average (three hundred times in the first month, every now and then thereafter), since I was sixteen or nineteen or twenty-one. How can that not leave you bruised somewhere? How can that not turn you into the sort of person liable to break into little bits when your first love goes all wrong? What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. . . .

And later on, wondering if he wants to be like a customer at the shop, who seems, unlike him, to be “a grown-up man in a grown-up job”:

But I find myself worrying away at that stuff about pop music again, whether I like it because I’m unhappy, or whether I’m unhappy because I like it. It would help me to know whether this guy has ever taken it seriously, whether he has ever sat surrounded by thousands and thousands of songs about . . . about . . . (say it man, say it) . . . well, about love. I would guess that he hasn’t. I would also guess that Prince Philip hasn’t, and the guy at the Bank of England hasn’t; nor has David Owen or Oliver North or Katie Adie or loads of other famous people that I should be able to name, probably, but can’t, because they never played for Booker T. and the MGs. . . . 

So they might have the jump on me when it comes to accepted notions of seriousness (although as everyone knows, Al Green Explores Your Mind is as serious as life gets), but I should have the edge on them when it comes to matters of the heart. . . . I’ve spent nearly thirty years listening to people singing about broken hearts, and has it helped me any? Has it fuck.

. . . Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content; we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship. Maybe Al Green is directly responsible for more than I ever realized.

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