"Music has been just as important to me as literature," writes Simon Armitage. "I may own more poems than I do songs, but the songs have given me at least as much pleasure, if not more."
It's a sad fact that many modern writers would rather have been rock stars. It seems like a craven capitulation to populism, and who can think with anything but depression of the electric guitars that apparently lurk in the houses of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, or of Salman Rushdie's flirtation with Bono? Or of those "gigs" where a supposedly hip writer reads bits from his work, which he will probably call his "stuff", interspersed with the playing of some of his favourite records, which he will probably call "tunes", and which are chosen to reveal his endearing eclecticism? (Recorded music, however bad, always trumps prose read aloud.)
In Gig, Simon Armitage parades the rock- music tastes of any early-middle-aged northern iconoclast. He saw the light when punk came along, and immediately stopped buying Tangerine Dream records. He revered John Peel; he rates The Fall, Morrissey, Echo and the Bunnymen. The book describes itself as a memoir of gig-going, but music often disappears for pages at a time to make room for jumbled if amusing accounts of the life of a poet, particularly the public performance aspect, these detours being justified by the fact that both poetry readings and rock concerts are called "gigs". There are also reflections on Armitage's more direct involvement with music and musicians, of which there's been a good deal. He has interviewed rock stars, and won an Ivor Novello Award for the lyrics he gave convicts to sing in a documentary called Feltham Sings.
As a writer of prose, Armitage is certainly not afraid to dent the mystique that attaches to him as one of our leading poets. In Gig, as in the fiction he has written, he adopts a matey, blokeish style, and there is the occasional suspicion that he's slumming it. That Ivor Novello Award he calls a "gong". A country house is "a country pile". (I do wish people would stop calling country houses country piles.) He can't get a ticket for an Arctic Monkeys gig "for love nor money". He refers to "my mate Slug, the world's coolest dancer", and there's too much knockabout exaggeration in the comedy: a bully confronts the young Armitage on a bus, only to slope away "dragging his knuckles".
But much of the writing also reveals the fineness of the poet. As a young man, he has one of those basic Aiwa cassette players. It looks like "a toy piano". He goes on a poetry tour to New Zealand and finds that Wellington is "a kind of mini-city . . . all gathered around the bay, like furniture around a TV". He is a better rock reviewer than most rock reviewers. The supercharged music of Stiff Little Fingers seems to be made of "ricochets and reflections". Morrissey, somewhat heavier than in his Smiths days, looks like "a shire horse standing on its back legs". During a Dylan gig, Armitage keeps looking at the wizened bard's feet: "He was hopping from one to another, like someone with shin splints or a circulatory problem. It was only towards the end of the evening that I realised he was dancing."
Armitage's accounts of meeting his idols are compelling. Encountering the terrifyingly misanthropic leader of The Fall, Mark E Smith, he gushes, "I really like your stuff." "Got a light, cock?" Smith responds. He meets Stephen Fellows, lead singer of the Comsat Angels. "'You were in my favourite band,' I blurted out. 'We're still going,' he said."
The best chapter is one of the unmusical ones. It concerns a poetry reading in "a Portakabin in a car park". Armitage is introduced as "the name on everyone's lips: Simon Armriding". Later, "an old man at the front falls asleep and farts during a poem about death/suffering/pity etc". Also particularly enjoyable are the interventions of the poet's droll, pipe-smoking father, who on Friday nights in Armitage's boyhood would glue mutton-chop facial hair to the side of his face and go off to sing with a barbershop quartet called the Victorians at a hotel in Ashton-under-Lyne.
At an event attended by his parents, Armitage realises the poem he is about to read contains an expletive. "There's a word in this poem I've never said in front of my mother before," he says. "Would it be 'thank you'?" mutters his father. Towards the end of the book, he describes how he and a friend belatedly attempt to fulfil their adolescent fantasies by forming a band. They cast about for a name, settling eventually - and fairly excruciatingly - on the Scaremongers. But Armitage Sr's suggestion is telling: "How about Midlife Crisis?"
Andrew Martin's next book in his Jim Stringer Victorian railway detective series is "Death on a Branch Line", to be published by Faber & Faber in June