Rock Writing and Sports Writing: Aesthetics vs. Athletics

Some little while ago, many years before I became embroiled in teaching the culture of popular music to college undergraduates, I was a journalist. I was a staff writer on a number of local and regional titles, where there were chances galore to test my abilities at this and that. Within days, someone had handed me the rock column; within months I was appointed the duties as the newspaper’s soccer correspondent.

For those unfamiliar with the sprawling nature of English football, I should explain that there is barely a corner of the land that doesn’t have a professional team. In fact, 92 clubs compete from the Scottish border to the tips of the south coast, and the city where I began my journalistic career, Chester, was no exception to this principle in the late 1970s.

While there is a powerful Premiership — the peak of the pyramid and home to the superpowers like Manchester United and Arsenal — the three divisions below feature a cavalcade of the once-mighty-now-fallen, plus a host of modest teams with limited aspirations whose principal aim is to survive the annual round of poor results, declining attendances and financial crisis. Every few seasons, by the law of averages, these minor outfits from far flung places — Hartlepool and Torquay, Wrexham and Luton — have a half-decent sequence and challenge for promotion or enjoy a surprise run in one of the various knock-out cup competitions. But the over-riding pattern is one of stumbling and staggering towards, at best, stasis.

For a couple of years I travelled week in, week out, witnessing Chester City’s matches, home and away, and then finding a few dozen paragraphs to describe the thrills and spills of late equalisers, disputed penalties, and controversial bookings, but, more usually, left to intone a mantra of groans and moans prompted by sub-standard performances on churned-up, mid-winter pitches on freezing evenings in the middle of nowhere. I was never the only witness, either. There is not a team in Britain (Scotland has its own leagues), which does not carry with it a hard-core support. Sometimes thousands but invariably hundreds travel to these events that may be hundreds of miles and hours away from home.

If soccer spectating is no longer the only mass male obsession (cars and computer games, shopping malls and mobile phones have seen to that) it remains a focus of undying enthusiasm for an un-reformed minority. So my reports were not only read by local citizens, but also scrutinised by the tribal fanatics who never missed a game.

Following that trail for a season or two was an experience, not always fun, but definitely an experience, and, after maybe a hundred reports, I was quite happy to hand the baton to someone else and take away a few memories of sporting life in the lower reaches. Shortly down the line I’d be writing about rock gigs rather more often, another exercise that might have seemed close to nirvana to the outsider but which frequently turned out to have a different set of irritations associated with it: like infernal late-night waits in run-down dives for bands you had no desire to see!

These matters came to my mind recently when I interviewed Richard Williams, the rock journalist turned sports writer, for the website Rock Critics. Described as “Britain’s best pop critic” by leading rock academic Simon Frith, Williams spent around a decade and a half at the cutting edge of pop commentary. He was editor of the inkie weekly Melody Maker and an Artist & Repertoire scout with Island Records, among other roles, before turning, 10 years ago, to full-time sports reporting.

Today he is the chief sports writer with the leading UK daily The Guardian. He travels the globe, checking out everything from Formula One to the Olympics, as well as covering the key events in the national sporting calendar and, while I was most interested in his time as a respected rock commentator, it was fascinating to get his insights into the transition between one media form and another.

In fact, it seems that his current incarnation feels to him like the perfect job. “It’s what I should have been doing all my life”, he now says. But it was most intriguing to hear him describe the rigors of rock writing compared to the pleasures of sports reporting. He felt, when he hung up his pop pen, that he’d almost run out of words to meaningfully apply to music.

After years and years of churning out virtually a novella a week(he reckons that Melody Maker had him producing 20,000 words for each edition), Williams feels he was almost written out by the experience. The abstractions of music were gripping in their way but often frustratingly nebulous to pin down in prose. Not that Williams hadn’t achieved the aim with great insight: he’d just run out of new ways of communicating the colour of the blues or the tone of a jazz solo in mere black and white print.

Sport, though, is its own self-contained drama. A start, a middle, a finish; anticipation, action, gratification; preview, contest, result. Sport, at the end of the day, is about numbers, about statistics, about concrete methods of measurement. Along the way there are the poetic elements — devotion and emotion, anguish and joy, hope and fear — but eventually the athlete is judged by a precise performance profile: goals, runs, times, distance. And I think ultimately, for me as a writer, I found that certainty, that inevitability, too mundane.

Don’t get me wrong. Sport remains a great passion of mine. I follow its Disney World distractions like billions of others even though every league, every division, every match, is a fantasy construct. The clashes between this club and that team occur in their own realm, a product of human (usually Victorian) imagination rather than of any authentic reality. Only our social conditioning, only our fevered reading of reports in the media, convince us that sports means anything at all.

Music, on the other hand, for all its abstract qualities, for all its amorphous intangibility, for all its ineffable ambiguity, does retain a core mystery that cannot just be reduced to statistical tables no matter how hard the industry tries to tell us that the charts count. Unlike sport, too, music is as old as mankind. Its creation wasn’t the result of a sudden need for leisure pleasures to fill the downtime of the newly established factory classes.

Instead, music comes to us after a journey of some hundreds and thousands of years; it remains a medium of the spirit, the inner self, a mystical portal, as slippery to pin down as the idea of the psyche or the soul. To distil and frame its meanings and messages journalistically remains the greatest of challenges. Richard Williams, one of the finest exponents of that craft, has found a new métier, but for me the test, the siren-like lure of penning words about music retains a quixotic attraction. Sports writing can only ever be a runner up.