Last week, reviewing a book in the Guardian Review, Tibor Fischer credited the famous ‘quip’ that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ to Elvis Costello. I knew this was wrong because I’d first heard the phrase credited to Frank Zappa (who I believe Elvis also credited it to, in an interview with Timothy White), later hearing it attributed to both Thelonious Monk (my favourite candidate, pictured) and Charlie Mingus. I was sitting in a hotel room opposite Exeter Cathedral last Saturday night, half watching a Sigur Ros DVD, so I googled the phrase and came up with an interesting article here that I cited in a short letter detailing some of the many candidates for the quote, including the US comedian Martin Mull. The Guardian published the letter today, but replaced the whole second paragraph with ‘presumably there is no definitive source’ which, while it seems to be true, isn’t what I wrote.
The reason the quote stuck with me, and that people keep using it, is that loads of people who love music but can’t play or sing try to write about their passion. Aged nineteen, I was keen to become a music journalist, writing about my favourite acts, but English Literature turned out to be a better bet. Some of my contemporaries stuck with it, though most drifted into mainstream journalism. Rock music is hard to write about well. I’ve got unread books about Dylan by distinguished professors on the music shelves, and a hardback history of Roxy Music by a former mate that I keep meaning to get round to. Reason being, I’d rather read historical accounts of the careers of musicians I love than I would attempts at academic argument which either ignore the music in favour of lyrics or (more rarely) get lost in terminology that I find hard to follow. There are, however, a few people who write about music superbly. See this blog (currently resting) for some good examples, or read the late Ian MacDonald‘s book about the Beatles to find writing that is full of insight and makes you listen to the songs discussed afresh. Doubtless there are plenty more examples (feel free to use the comments box). Meanwhile, my partner’s a big fan of modern dance, though I’m not keen, but I shall ask her to tell me next time there’s a show on about architecture.