Writer Nick Hornby reads and rocks with Marah
June 10, 2005
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
Acclaimed British author Nick Hornby is best known for his high-profile
novels (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and their subsequent movies. But he's
also the author of the lesser-known Songbook, a passionate meditation on
music and the pop songs that have fired his life and imagination. It's a
must-read for anyone who feels music as a nurturing life force.
Now via the essays he wrote for Songbook and a collaboration with the
roots-rock band Marah, Hornby has figured a way to put his passions where
his pen is -- by actually performing with a rock 'n' roll band.
In an opening set Saturday night at Schubas, Hornby will read several of
his music essays; each will be followed by Marah performing a song by the
subject of the essay. It's all a prelude to a full set by Marah, one of
Hornby's favorite bands.
The author also is on a book tour promoting his latest novel, A Long Way
Down, and plans to read essays about Rory Gallagher, Rod Stewart and the
Faces, the Clash and Hi Records, Al Green's former label. A final essay on
Marah will be a reworked version of a piece Hornby wrote about the band,
which a year ago landed in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The essay
that wound up irritating certain people, admits Hornby.
"There was a lot of, 'What's Marah doing on the op-ed page?' and 'What am I
doing on the op-ed page?'" said Hornby, in an interview from New York just
hours before a performance with Marah at the Bowery Ballroom. Nonetheless,
the piece spoke eloquently to Hornby's connection with Marah's frontmen,
brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, and the fierce, straightforward music
Hornby recalls being "completely knocked out" by Marah's first album,
"Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight." As the old saying goes,
it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The Hornby-Marah show was
well-received last year in Germany, the Netherlands and Philadelphia. The
collaboration was born out of "pub talk," said Hornby.
"We wanted to look at the fine line between literature and music; how they
influence each other," said Dave Bielanko. "It just seemed a perfect fit
because his writing is so influenced by music, and we're so influenced by
what we read."
There was some debate over what to perform, but a decision to stay away
from the obvious was unanimous. This meant no Bruce Springsteen, despite
the Boss' obvious influence on the Philadelphia band and Hornby's
declaration in Songbook that "Thunder Road" is a song that "knows how I
feel, and who I am."
"We wanted to go into territory that's not covered much," said Bielanko.
But Marah is only a small portion of the music that inspires Hornby. "I'm
just one of those people who responded to music with great intensity and
passion when I was in my teens, and it's gone on from there," he said.
Now 48, Hornby has never wasted time wondering if he should be listening to
something more age-appropriate -- jazz, classical, opera, folk. Instead, he
continues to nurture his urgent need to discover new music. He raves about
his latest find -- the London band, the Magic Numbers.
"I want things to be fresh. I want to hear a song I haven't heard before. I
want to be able to sing that song to myself," said Hornby. "The great thing
about music is that at the end of the year there are another 25 great songs
to add to your list."
In addition to performing Saturday at Schubas, Nick Hornby will read from
his new novel, A Long Way Down, at 12:30 today at Borders, State and
Randolph, and at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Barnes & Noble stage at the
Printer's Row Book Fair, Dearborn and Polk.
Looking for a breakthrough album
For years, Marah has been referred to as "the best band you're never heard
of." It's a reference Dave and Serge Bielanko have struggled to shake.
They've had big names on their side. Steve Earle recruited them for his
Artemis Records label, where they recorded "Kids in Philly" (2000) and
"Float Away With the Friday Night Gods" (2002). Their distinctive East
Coast rock caught the attention of Bruce Springsteen, who invited them to
sing the old Eddie Floyd hit "Raise Your Hand" with the E Street band in
front of 55,000 fans at Giants Stadium.
But despite these high-profile fans and a devoted grass-roots fan base
around the country, the brothers Bielanko have yet to create that
In recent years, the Bielankos have struggled with a rotating lineup, label
problems, writer's block, too much partying and the usual rock 'n' roll
overload. After a foray into overproduced pop on "Float Away," a move that
confused and alienated some fans, they returned to their old form on last
year's rousing "20,000 Streets Under the Sky."
Dave Bielanko, who's a master at using a banjo as a rock instrument, says
hopes are high for the band's new disc due out in October on the Yep Roc
label. Marah's previous albums were recorded on "broken equipment in a
garage in South Philly." The new work had professional treatment.
"We recorded in a proper New York studio where everything worked, which was
novel for us," said Bielanko, laughing. "There was a definite lived-in feel
captured in the garage recordings but there also was something lost in the
creation. I think we've captured a different sort of spontaneity, a
different sort of interaction with this new work."