Book review: The Train in the Night by Nick Coleman
Andrew Mueller hears Nick Coleman's pain
The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss by Nick Coleman (Jonathan Cape)
Nick Coleman begins his memoir with a vivid approximation of a sort of Hell, an environment of unrelenting discordant din, “torquey skeins of sound punctuated every now and then by clanks, zizzes and whistles”. It is, Coleman plausibly reports, unbearable, making him feel “as if my brains were pushing like a slowly inflating balloon against the inner surface of my skull”. But he cannot leave. The cacophonous dungeon to which he is condemned is his own head, which has been abruptly disordered by a random and unfathomable ailment called Sudden Neurosensory Hearing Loss, which has cost Coleman the use of one ear – and, he must be fearing, his sanity. He is now a half-deaf man who craves nothing more than silence. The irony is not lost on him – indeed, one of the many joys of a counter-intuitively invigorating read is that few ironies are.
The affliction that struck Coleman would be horrific for anybody – he candidly admits, indeed, that he reached the point of considering terminally drastic steps to shut off the incessant racket echoing in his cranium. For a music journalist like Coleman, who loves music to a somewhat obsessive degree, to the extent that they make much of their living writing about it, it is an exquisite cruelty. The Train in the Night is a twin-track autobiography, as Coleman chronicles his attempts to reconnect with the music that has nourished and defined him, and tries to understand why he connected so deeply with it in the first place.
Coleman, formerly music editor at Time Out and Arts and Features editor at the Independent, has always done better than most music critics at the absurd, maddening, cloud-caging, mercury-corralling task of writing down what music sounds like, but he excels himself throughout The Train in the Night, as he returns to the milestones of his personal musical journey. Marvin Gaye’s coolly portentous “Heard It Through The Grapevine” “issues into the mind like smoke under a door”. Yes’s “The Gates Of Delirium” is “a deep forest of moving parts, teeming and growing pitilessly, with no way out for the enclosed wanderer, no end in sight”. Stevie Wonder’s astonishing mid-’70s canon “made listeners feel as if they were participating in a discourse which spoke truly of the world and its iniquities, yet offered a resolution to all of that unpleasantness in the intelligent exercise of compassion, gentleness, sensualism and melody.”
Coleman is just as acute – for which read toe-curlingly evocative – when he relates the awkwardnesses and gaucheries of the adolescence soundtracked by the above, and as thoughtful when considering the human psyche’s universal need for music. Hiss essential question is whether he created the vast – and now possibly useless – record collection that dominates his lounge, or whether it created him. His attempt to answer it will cause you to appreciate your favourite music as if you’re hearing it for the first time, or the last.