Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life

Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life

by Nick Coleman


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"Voices isn't just illuminating and thought-provoking and clever; it is exciting." —Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments

A personal exploration of what singing means and how it works, Voices is a book about our deepest, most telling relationships with music. Nick Coleman examines the act of singing not as a performance, but as a close, difficult moment of hopeful connection. What does it do to us, emotionally and psychologically, to listen hard and habitually to somebody else’s singing? Why is human song so essential to our lives? The book asks many other questions, too: Why did Jagger and Lennon sing like that (and not like this)? Billie, Janis, Amy: must the voices of anguish always dissolve into spectacle? What makes us turn again and again to a singing human voice?

The history of postwar popular music is often told sociologically or in terms of musicological influence and innovation in style. Voices offers a different, intimate perspective. In ten discrete but cohering essays, Coleman tackles the arc of that history as an emotional experience with real psychological consequences. He writes about the voices that have affected the ways he feels about and understands the world—from Aretha Franklin to Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye to David Bowie. Ultimately, Voices is the story of what it is to listen and be moved—what it is to feel emotion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640091153
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Following a brief spell as a stringer at NME in the mid-1980s, NICK COLEMAN was music editor of Time Out for seven years, then arts and features editor at the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. He has also written on music for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, New Statesman, Intelligent Life, GQ, and The Wire. He is the author of The Train in the Night, which was short-listed for the 2012 Wellcome Book Prize.

Read an Excerpt


Patti Smith is crammed on to a balcony in a stately ballroom in Stockholm with a small orchestra.

She's up there on behalf of Bob Dylan to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature, and she is going to sing his famous song 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' to the accompaniment of small guitar, lap steel and strings. She is dressed in a black tuxedo and planted like an Easter Island statue.

The audience is composed of the great and the good of Swedish culture and the Swedish royal family, who are all done up in formal fig, bibs and tuckers, gowns and jewellery, stoles and tiaras. And medals. They are arrayed formally, as for a state portrait. Smith has no medals though her white shirt beneath the oversized tuxedo is nicely ironed. Her steel-coloured hair is long and heavy and parted severely in the middle. She is like Albrecht Dürer, who did not do state portraiture. She is also faintly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

The introduction is strummed artlessly on two chords. Smith sings. The sound she and the guitarist make is as severe as her hairstyle and so is the intent of the words she sings. Yet she is singing beautifully with total involvement, her rich, twangy contralto, with its flattened vowels and its inclination to yodel, driving hard and straight into the language, as if the song had been written this year, the year of all hateful years, 2016.

All is suspense.

But then, after a couple of minutes, Smith appears for a moment to be overwhelmed. She stops singing. She gulps. 'I'm so sorry,' she says, blanching. She tries to carry on… 'Unh…' But it won't come. She apologises again and looks up in appeal to the conductor standing above her left shoulder. 'I'm sorry. Could we start that section . . .—I apologise.' She looks out into the audience. They are frozen in their places. 'I'm so nervous.' She forces an agonised smile.

There is sustained, kindly applause from the audience. You can almost hear the jewellery rattling. And soon enough she goes again with renewed resolve until, a minute or two later, she dries once more, and again looks up at the conductor with the mute appeal of a frightened child. The conductor, out of shot, presumably makes encouraging faces because Smith, suddenly somehow heartened, hooks quickly back into the song and then seems to grow, to expand in her place and to move her hands a little and then her shoulders and then to pace, striding on the spot, no longer an Easter Island statue but a living, breathing, marching embodiment of the hipster-symbolist song lyric she is singing, all about the doom of the world and the love that may save it. She reaches the end of the song in a sea of strings.

It is impossible to watch without tears.

It is also as great a passage of singing as you are ever likely to hear, if singing is to you not about the observance of musical correctitude and extravagant display and signalled passion and technical virtuosity, but about the inhabitation of the moment up to and including the moment when the moment bursts.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Hearing voices

The horsemen in the box: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley with Led Zeppelin, Suzi Quatro, Patti Smith

Boys and girls and girl groups: The Ronettes, The Marvelettes and the Shangri Las with The Four Pennies, Bananarama, TLC

Vulnerable: Marvin Gaye and Roy Orbison with Aretha Franklin, the Ramones and Mary Margaret O'Hara

Class acts: John Lennon and Mick Jagger with The Kinks, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kirsty MacColl, The Smiths

The urge for going: Joni Mitchell with Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, Steely Dan

What is soul?: Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Joe Cocker, Paul Rodgers, Elkie Brooks, Terry Reid, Jess Roden, Frankie Miller and Rod Stewart with Dexy's Midnight Runners, Kiki Dee, Bonnie Raitt, Tedeschi Trucks Band

Croon: Iggy Pop, Gregory Isaacs, Kate Bush, Luther Vandross and Frank Sinatra with George Jones, The Carpenters, Prince

So, what?: Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley with Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, John Surman

The spectacle of anguish: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Ian Curtis with Chris Bell, Amy Winehouse

Psalms and raptures: Van Morrison, Burning Spear, Alex Harvey and John Lydon with Bob Dylan

Epilogue: Harvest



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