If the title of Ed Vulliamy’s most recent book caught your interest, then perhaps you arrived at the text thinking it might have something, anything to do with the perpetually enduring saga of the Smiths. Well, I’m sad to report there are almost zero words about the Smiths. Take heart, though, a few pages into Vulliamy’s Louder Than Bombs: A Life with Music, War, and Peace, his natural storytelling ability — the kind that made him a decorated war correspondent for both The Guardian and The Observer — takes over.
The ultra-textured, extra-personal narrative he weaves together, dual parts memoir and reportage, is a series of resoundingly deep and intellectual observations from a writer and music lover’s front-row seat to much of history. One could do worse than arrive here while searching online for the Smiths.
If the book’s title is the bait, then the hook–that part that demands your full emotional involvement–is laid as early as the introduction, “Overture”. It’s a scene where the three disparate nouns from the book’s subtitle–music, war, peace–arrive in fluid succession as Vulliamy recalls his 39th birthday in Sarajevo. The previous day Vulliamy reported on a massacre where citizens waited in line for drinking water. He decided a reprieve was needed. So, for his birthday, he attended a performance of Haydn’s String Trio in the city’s National Theatre. Even in the midst of such a serene performance, the terrible sounds of war could be heard outside:
But as the music played the shelling continued–ever nearer the theatre. Until at one point…one mortar crashed so close it caused a shudder that made the walls shake sufficiently to knock the viola player’s music stand over, felling his score. An awkward silence descended over the 150 listeners. The trio stopped, unsure how to proceed…Then the first violinist, Dzevad Sabaganic, made a simple, split-second–but in its way momentous–decision: he waited for the stand and score to be picked up and reconstituted, raised his bow, then called the number of the rudely interrupted bar. The trio played on. (2)
From this “Overture” Vulliamy sets up two alternating ideas that he returns to: he’s seen war and recognizes the damage it can cause — damage that often takes many forms across many countries and many generations — but the thread of music is a healing force. It helps us understand and process war as omnipresent. In other words, wherever music exists, there exists war and vice versa.
The following 16 chapters of visceral prose and personal recollections occasionally meander but always return to intangible healing. Vulliamy takes readers from the sights at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to war-torn areas of the Middle East, stopping along the way to capture Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and drop in on B.B. King in his Mississippi hometown to talk blues in one of King’s last recorded interviews. Indeed, history and music buffs alike will find something to appreciate in Vulliamy’s vivid scenes.
He’s especially adept at capturing the feel of a moment or an event. Any concertgoer who’s waited for stage lights to illuminate the darkness can easily identify with it. Vulliamy is a passionate fan of classical music, extolling the history of Shostakovich and declaring that “if there is one classical composer whose work speaks louder at this time of writing, 2017, than ever, is it Verdi.” (97)
Plenty of chapters and vignettes (7″s, he calls them, a nod to their brevity) dive deep into the ripple-effect of classical works and their composers. Several chapters set scenes in faraway locales such as Bosnia and Free Derry, Ireland; others cover artists such as B.B. King, John Cale, and Led Zeppelin. No matter the subject, Vulliamy’s passion is contagious. Vulliamy, at times, gets wrapped up in historical details, but keep in mind this is his life story. It’s not a messy story, but it is long and expansive.
As a term, “war” is fluid throughout Louder Than Bombs. War is personal and also a shared experience between comrades, friends, and family. War invokes visceral reactions, similar to visceral reactions to music and, on rare occasions, to peace. It’s difficult to incorporate peace as thoroughly into Vulliamy’s text, however, namely because peace and music aren’t as potent a mixture.
Vulliamy is sharp with observations that will make your head spin. In one of several chapters on Shostakovich, for example, Vulliamy observes the composer’s music defies “compartmentalization”, suggesting instead that his work is “Like Hendrix, it is ‘transgression’–that’s the point. It is about the world of power, fear and violence, but also about vernacular intimacies and ironies; it is about both the severe and the quotidian.” (67)
In lesser hands, comparing Shostakovich and Hendrix would be folly. Louder Than Bombs is a hefty read with loads of historical and cultural detail, geographical data, and stunning portraits of people experiencing life-affirming or life-changing events. As a guide, I can’t think of anyone better than Vulliamy to lead us across the joyous wastelands of war, peace, and music.