We can easily forget that our bodies are not on our side. Not only are they not on our side, they are poised and ready to frustrate us. When they go wrong (and they are always tending in that direction) we realize that we don’t really know ourselves, that our bodies, which are supposed to be all we are, have their own plans.
Of the many ways our bodies can turn against us, we’re lucky if we only get the minor ones – at least until the final, not so minor one. Like many people who spent much of their adolescence with tiny speakers jammed into their ears, I live with mild tinnitus. Everyday existence is so noisy that I rarely have to think about the constant static in the background, but it’s still liable to throw me into self-pity if I think about it for long. My eyes are in bad shape too; without glasses I can’t read anything, and I struggle sometimes even with them on. And they’re getting worse. Now that I think about it, my back has started to ache a bit lately, perhaps because I never grew out of the teenage slouch, and my teeth are getting more sensitive, like they’re turning into transparent jelly. The complaints multiply for as long as I’m able to think about them. Life, as an old Greek philosopher probably said at some point, is a navigation through limits.
But it could be worse. Nick Coleman, a long-time music journalist in the UK, was made aware of his body’s terrible capriciousness when one of his ears stopped working. It left a dull blankness for a while, and then a building cacophony of tinnitus in both ears so severe that balance and concentration became almost impossible. “I’d spend the day with pillows wrapped around my head to keep sound out, while, on the inside, my head felt ready to explode with pressure, as if my brains were pushing like a slowly inflating balloon against the inner surface of my skull.” To get to sleep he knocked himself out with Temazepam, only to stir awake a couple of hours later, his head roaring: “Every night between one and four I’d awaken to the pitch-black vision that I was sealed up in the hold of a ship and the ship was going down.”
Scraping chair legs or crumpled paper bags, as amplified through his distorted ear canals, became instruments of torture. Music, his lifelong obsession, had turned into a painful, one-dimensional blast. When he watched some Led Zeppelin concert footage he was almost physically battered by it; Jimmy Page’s guitar had become an “incoherent storm of detuned noise.” His body had stopped picking up the signals of the sounds he used to love. “Music is just music,” he writes. “It doesn’t change. People change. But I haven’t changed. My body has.”
The medical profession was not quick to understand his condition, but eventually he was diagnosed with sudden neurosensory hearing loss, which, if you’ll excuse the phrase, is even worse than it sounds. Unable even to walk without vomiting, his life became a test of endurance. The minutest bodily movement was cataclysmic. As long as his eyes were open he felt sick and dizzy. Going to a party was like climbing a mountain under heavy gunfire. Things were so unbearable that one day, on his knees and with his chin resting on a desk so he wouldn’t lose balance, he found himself Googling “assisted suicide.”
Taunted by the “monument” of his record collection, Coleman missed music even as he craved silence. But superstar neurologist Oliver Sacks told him that the “depth” and “spaciousness” which he’d lost could be regained through imagination and memory. “One might expect,” said Sacks, “that such a power, whilst not available (or less available) voluntarily, could occur spontaneously by association with emotion, a memory.”
The narrative of The Train in the Night takes the form of these pulses of memory. Coleman delves into his childhood in search of the musical thread, from his experience as the trombonist for the Holiday Orchestra, to buying his first LP and then playing it for his father (the record is Razamanaz by the rock band Nazareth, and his father is not overly impressed), to forming his own short-lived band, Lost Cause. For Coleman music is a biography of its listener, as distinct and individual as a fingerprint. His record collection – which for him “might well be the single most concentrated mass of beauty in the world” – is the “narratable” version of himself. “It’s the version of me I’d like other people to know.”
Especially good is the evocation of his teenage years, when he was developing his taste in music. For Coleman taste was the “principle agony” of his adolescence. He remembers the first seven albums he bought as though he’s recalling old lovers – if love for other people was as resilient as love for inert vinyl: “I can call up the desire and the sensation of meeting those desires more readily than I can call up memories of first sex.” It helps that his First Seven is not too embarrassing – it includes the Stones, Lou Reed, and (early) Genesis – and reflects a discernment few people have when young (my first album? Metallica’s Reload).
For people who were not alive in the ‘70s, the cultural landscape as portrayed by Coleman will seem either Arcadian or restrictive, depending on how much you’ve embraced recent developments in production and consumption. He touches on the changes wrought by digital distribution and illegal file sharing, but only briefly, and the abiding problem with this book is how fitfully it leaps from topic to topic, sometimes leaving interesting thoughts undeveloped, while elaborating at length on purely local details, such as the modernization of the city of Cambridge. There’s an impatient choppiness to it which means you probably won’t be bored, but you might be unsatisfied. This is doubly true if you’re not the kind of person whose hands and eyes twitch in the presence of someone else’s record collection.
Mostly, though, The Train in the Night is a memoir executed with considerable style and grit. Coleman is more than proficient at translating music to words, usually with the aid of pop-magazine hyperbole. When he describes listening to T-Rex on the radio it sounds almost as good as T-Rex does: “like a god out of the machine, Marc Bolan would descend on pillows of distortion to rock me in my bedroom casing like a baby in his arms.” The Ramones are “a single muscle flexing against a single bone. A reflex not a rock band.” His analysis of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” takes up five pages, but I would have been content with twenty more.
There is inevitably something life-denying about a fan’s addiction to any art form, and Coleman only partially hides from this dilemma. For him music is a shield, a by-product of hypersensitivity, a symptom of loneliness, and the only way to make sense of life. “I think music was the laboratory in which I learned to contain and then examine emotion,” he writes. This line of thought is followed to its bleakest conclusion: that his obsession was an escape from, rather than a refinement of, reality. But he stops before things can become utterly hopeless. Instead, burdened with what could have been a ruinous impediment, he reaffirms his love of music. It’s just that the damage to his hearing has made it accessible through “pain and exultation” rather than joy and pleasure – pain because of the buzzing mesh through which the melodies must travel; exultation because he can hear anything at all. This may seem like a bitter consolation, but it’s enough to build on. The worst has happened and yet something remains. He hasn’t changed. His body has.