It’s a rare thing indeed when a devout bookworm such as myself can pick up a book and instantly be riveted by the words and stories that spring forth from an author therein; I’m speaking of the sort of book that holds you under a peculiar spell and will not let go. As the ending draws inevitably closer, I usually find myself actually reading slower and savoring every little word and nuance of the writer’s journey, whether fictional or not. Elizabeth Kostova wove such a spell in her beyond brilliant debut novel, The Historian. Ditto Bob Greene’s Once Upon a Town and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice; much to my surprise, so too does the 2019 Richard Williams memoir, A Curry with John Peel.
Richard Williams puts a finite button on his memoir: Nine months of his life are under the self-reflecting microscope in a story that spans from the summer of 1980 to the spring of 1981. This wasn’t just the season of Billy Joel’s It’ Still Rock and Roll to Me or Emotional Rescue by the Rolling Stones. For Richard this was the time of musical enrapture with the uber-anthology LP South Specific which featured classic jams from the likes of The Nice Boys, Renaldo and the Loaf and The Frames. Just how enraptured did Williams (who served as radio station manager for the Southampton University radio station in ’80) become with this particular album? Enough so that he hit upon the idea to attempt to unleash a Southampton version of the classic vinyl disc. Starting the book off with a brilliant bit of a time jump into his future (1981), Williams then expertly travels back to the relatively near past of 1980 to take us on a journey where he goes through the fits and the struggles of attempting to produce a sort of bookend album to South Specific that he calls City Walls. Like the source of its inspiration, City Walls featured a bevy of indie bands from Southampton. Did I mention that the story has a button of nine months on it? The time compression works to Williams’ advantage, providing a nice bit of underlying tension for the reader who senses that Williams and his lofty and admirable goal of producing this album is on a clock that is constantly ticking down. The ticking down of said clock also accentuates the fleetingness of youth and reading A Curry with John Peel I straight away got the sense of a coming of age story akin to The Commitments or Almost Famous. Curry is structured differently than those two examples, yet it brilliantly captures the spirit of those cinematic pillars of our youth and naivety and does so with a sense of humor that will catch you laughing out loud, even as you fight back tears.
The quest for the album ultimately leads Williams and his gang of buddies to the legendary John Peel at the launch party for City Walls (um, slight SPOILER: Williams was able to get his dream album produced). For those not in the know, John Peel was a legendary English disc jockey, journalist and music producer: think Alan Freed meets Lester Bangs meets Phil Spector, to put a slightly Americanized spin on this icon of music. The meeting between the author and Peel is reminiscent of the Richard Dreyfuss meeting with Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti and just as poignant and bittersweet. If it seems as if ye olde reviewer is dropping a ton of film references and juxtaposing them with this wonderful little book then that’s probably because as I was reading it I could quite easily envision Richard Williams and his merry band of pals as they stumbled about attempting to get City Walls finished and in stores in cinematic vision and it’s not a stretch to think that this work would translate quite well to screen (paging Cameron Crowe!). The budding record producer’s lack of full understanding in just how exactly the business worked actually played in his favor and it almost feels as if Williams could not help but at least fail up, even as he stumbled from one near catastrophe to another.
A Curry with John Peel: The City Walls Story is a must-read for anyone who has ever held a dream so intense that they’ve been transformed by its intensity. This was one of the best books of 2019.