Simon Sweetman The Death of Music Journalism The Cuba Press, 2020
Music was such a booster shot in 2020. So many occasions where I had an album on constant replay or, when all else failed, music provided the escape hatch, the hammock swing, the blue skies and the goosebump skin. This Christmas eight of us went on a music loop picking favourite tracks in turn as we played a Norse throwing game outside. It was music warmth and chill and delight.
To begin 2021 talking about poetry that has music as its spark plugs, its honeyed fuel, seems perfect (goodness knows where this car talk came from, maybe because my car died yesterday, and I live miles from anywhere). Simon Sweetman’s The Death of Music Journalism is so good; so full of music life and verve and fascinations. I read it on the last day of 2020 and finished it on the first day of 2021. A bridge-between-years book. A book of poems that takes you behind the scenes in the life and musings of a music critic; in the scenes, between the scenes – you take your pick. It is funny and moving and immensely diverting. You get nostalgia and you get riveting anecdotes. You get family and you get confessions. I reckon you have to read the whole thing in one or two sittings because it works so well as a complete package.
The Death of Music Journalism is another one of those poetry books where I either want to sit in a cafe and discuss it with you and use music as our own personal hooks, or go to a poetry gig where Simon reads a good chunk of the poems. Safe bets that this would be a very cool occasion. Some of us will be taken back to the times we played Lou Reed, Prince, Talking Heads or Bob Dylan. Remember when. Remember how. Remember who.
In the longish opening poem, ‘Simon Sweetman, this is your life’, the speaker (well let’s say Simon) has to sell CDs to pay the flat electricity bill so he can keep playing CDS, and then later when he is a father he sells LPs, which gets him wondering how it will work for a streaming generation.
I thought you had to have it all, every
album – the good and the bad. The terrible,
the silly, the magical, the miserable.
And then a guy in a shop told me that
a collection was like a garden, it would
only bloom after a good prune.
I am thinking I have rarely pruned my album or CD collections.
Part of the magic of Simon’s poems is in the shifting notes, like he’s putting a new album on the turntable. In one poem we are reading about his connection with a Sam Hunt poetry performance (and a shared love of Lou Reed). Simon later gets to be Sam’s opening act, swap poems and drink wine together. There is an underlying story of fanship but it is all in the telling. The story twists include crosswords and cross words, Wordsworth, and Sam avoiding the fans and showing Simon his son’s photo, and Simon with his signed book lost but the coveted snapshot still looked at, stepping up to be a poet too.
A year after taking this photograph of
Sam shaking the poems from his shoulders
I was his opening act. Nervously I read a
poem about how ‘history’ and ‘opinion’
were both seven-letter words, but only
one fits correctly into the crossword- and
this was inspired by the cross words
me and my wife had been having
as she focused on completing
the newspaper puzzle, and I
became Sermon Sweetman –
going on about how Elvis really
was the best, the greatest, the first, the one.
from ‘I took a photo of Sam Hunt in Upper Hutt / 20 years ago’
Simon highlights his favourite album (Prince’s Batman soundtrack), a favourite Bob Dylan album, the time he saw two Simon & Garfunkel concerts in a row, had a dreadful phone interview with Mark Knopfler, mused on antipathy towards the Beatles, and how great the Beatles are, on getting nervous before talking about a book with Kim Hill, or the time his bad review of a Robbie Williams concert went viral and got Robbie tweeting and apologising and putting it in his biography. It’s poetry as story, as music anecdote, as free-flowing lyric. Feels like this is performance gold.
But The Death of Music Journalism also goes behind the family scenes – usually with a music hook. His mother, father, grandparents, wife and son make appearances, sometimes centre stage, often reached by way of particular music. I especially love the layered and somewhat moving ‘Father and Son’. Music binds a relationship, it can carry multiple messages that alter depending upon the listener. The dad plays Cat Stevens constantly. The son says he likes ‘Father and Son.’ The dad looks for the hidden message. The son no longer likes ‘Father and Son’. Families, hey.
The 13-year-old Me struggled
to convince him it was just a
good song. And in the process of
doing that I fell instantly out of
love with it. Never to have
any interest in it ever again.
The curse being I would play in
a covers band on and off for
about three years – that song
was part of the nightly repertoire.
My mum told me that
the reason I got out of the
car and Dad stayed in the
car that night was because
he sat and listened to
the song three times to
try to understand what he
thought was being said
This is poetry that will divert you on so many levels: get you trawling through your own music archives, your memory banks, and simply loving the behind-the-scenes tour. Stories unfold unpredictably, relationships will move you, acerbic comments satisfy. With this book and with music, I toast the year to come. Glorious!
Simon Sweetman is a blogger, reviewer, podcaster, and author of On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics. The Death of Music Journalism is his first poetry collection. Simon has been writing poems since he was first listening to bands on his Walkman, but then began sharing them via social media and open mic nights. Word got around and he was a sleeper hit at LitCrawl’s Lit-Sync For Your Life and the 2020 Variety for Fierys. He blogs at Off the Tracks, and lives in Wellington with his wife, Katy, and his son, Oscar.
The Cuba Press page
Simon talks with Jesse Mulligan @RNZAfternoons
Poetry Shelf audio: Simon reads from Death of Music Journalism