In “late June 1981” Roland Baines, the main character in Lessons, Ian McEwan’s new novel, attends a Bob Dylan concert at Earls Court in London, no doubt one of the five he played there between June 26 and July 1. I was at one of them, too, and though I can’t remember which night, I can recall the show, so McEwan has got it right. He might even have been there too, aged 33 and taking notes.  

        “Before the concert began Roland became aware of two long rows of Jesus Army people sitting in front of him,” he writes in Lessons. “He had not come to hear about Jesus and it was not looking good when Dylan opened with ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’. Do you? Do I? Roland kept wondering. The Jesus heads were nodding in time. It got worse with the next number, ‘I Believe In You’. Then abruptly it was better. Dylan called up old songs, joyous, bitter, some with a nasal tone of wounded sarcasm. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’. Where the old melody lines were once beautiful, he snatched at them, he tossed them away until only the harmonic progressions remained.”

        If he had got there on time Roland would also have watched the pink-robed gospel group that preceded Dylan and remained on stage offering choral support throughout his set, but McEwan fails to mention this. Nevertheless, this is further, maybe even conclusive, evidence to support my theory that this most illustrious of our contemporary novelists is really a frustrated rock writer. 

        Anyone familiar with McEwan’s novels will know that those set in the late 20th century and beyond contain copious references to music, mostly rock. Various characters in the books I have read are fans of a particular act or play an instrument, attend concerts, collect records or run shops that sell vinyl. In most cases the allusions to music are simply an adjunct to the main story, just added colour, but in Lessons, which I finished this week, music of various genres plays a central role in the story.

        Roland Baines is a pianist, a child prodigy assumed by his first teacher to be on the road to a brilliant career on the classical stage. Along the way he is side-tracked by sex and jazz, and winds up playing tasteful standards, show tunes and light classical pieces Liberace-style on a grand piano in a swanky hotel while its well-heeled customers wine and dine. When an old friend, a Velvets fan he hasn’t seen in years, shows up he sneaks in a few bars of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, and when he needs a pseudonym he opts for Theo Monk. 

        All of this reminds me that in the spring of 2010 I joined a queue of McEwan fans in Hatchards bookshop on Piccadilly, my mission to obtain a personally signed copy of the author’s latest novel Solar. Bearing in mind my theory as outlined above, then in its primal stages, when it came to my turn to get a book signed I decided to offer the great man my business card and tell him that if ever he needed any help with his research into an aspect of rock music I’d be happy to oblige. 

        In truth I felt some of McEwan’s references to rock in his books were a bit stilted but I thought it best not to mention this. Indeed, fans wanting books signed by famous authors at events like this are generally sycophantic in the extreme and, after a selfie, hustled along quickly as there are many more behind them in the queue, and McEwan would clearly have been unprepared for an impudent upstart suggesting ways in which his work might be improved. Still, he took my card, on the back of which I’d written the name and URL of this blog. It seemed to me that he understood what I was saying but the conversation was very brief. 

        I am still waiting to hear from him but it gives me pleasure to report that Ian McEwan has certainly upped his rock game in Lessons which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because Roland shares many of my political views. Also, to a certain extent the novel is based on episodes in his McEwans own life, so maybe he was at that Dylan concert alongside me. 

1 comment:

John said...

Have you read any of Ian Rankin’s books? His Inspector Rebus is a huge music fan (as is the author), mainly rock, lots of Stones, a bit of jazz in the earlier books - and there are references galore to songs and albums.