Book review: How Does It Feel? by Mark Kermode
How Does It Feel? - Mark Kermode
Before he became a famous film critic for television and radio, Mark Kermode enjoyed - or persevered with - a budding but never quite blooming career as a rock star. How Does It Feel? is Kermode's memoir of a little known underground music scene of almost-ran bands from the 80s and 90s, a book that the publisher describes as 'self-deprecating' and anyone who has listened to Mark Kermode, knows that he doesn't take himself too seriously. The impression he gives of himself in his memoir however is of an attention-seeking individual with enough nerve and gumption to bluff his way through whatever barriers are traditionally placed in the way of a struggling musician, particularly one with no discernible talent or originality.
Harsh words, and that might sound unfair, but Mark Kermode would be the first person to admit it, and indeed he does, at least in as far as his attempts go to be a famous musician adored by the masses. As a film critic, his credentials, encyclopedic knowledge and his passionate love for the medium stand for themselves, even if I rarely find myself in agreement with his views and tastes, other than in his delightfully withering take-downs of derivative trash and misjudged cinematic efforts. Well in How Does IT Feel? Mark Kermode very honestly turns those same explosive critical guns against his own misjudgements and derivative trash, and the results are often just as amusing. And even more so when he turns them against a few genuinely self-important celebs he encountered along the way who shall remain unnamed, even if - in true Kermode fashion - their identities are barely disguised.
As for Mark Kermode's shortcomings as a musician, well, I only have his own word to take for that, but to be fair he's far from the only one to bluff his way along and some have gotten a lot further in the music industry without ever being found out. Unlike others however Mark Kermode - as you might imagine - is not someone wracked with too many doubts or insecurities, despite his protests to the contrary. He gleefully describes his stints in numerous dodgy bands, improvising sets, improvising on a self-built guitar, embarrassing himself in front of millions, and noting the less than welcoming reception his efforts often met. Beset by technical problems, personality conflicts and 'artistic differences' as well as lack of musical proficiency, Kermode nonetheless seems to enjoy every moment, undaunted by failure and abuse, enjoying those minor successes, as long as he is the centre of attention.
There's something likeable about that attitude, at least when it's described with such frankness and, yes, self-deprecation (which is just another way of seeking attention), particularly when it is delivered in Kermode's usual hyper-passionate manner. Reading Kermode's prose, you can't help but hear it being read in his voice, and delivered that way it is of course highly entertaining. Even though the stories are a bit 'ancedotey' and the book is filled with references to an obscure niche music scene of university and pub bands, to skiffle, rockabilly and bluegrass, with songs and musicians that you've mostly never heard of, Kermode does have a way of connecting with a certain youthful enthusiasm that music brings that has never left him, and that I suspect many others will at least recognise that sentiment.
It's the same kind of love and enthusiasm that Kermode brings to his film criticism, and here writing about his early musical career he also displays a similar encyclopedic knowledge of every band he ever played in, every member of their ever-changing line-ups, every song he's played from his early teens and every chord sequence of every song. It helps perhaps that the scene was well-documented, presumably by the anorak-side of Kermode himself, with recordings of early sessions and gigs still preserved on reel-to-reel demos, cassette tape and one actual vinyl release, but thankfully these have been rarely unleashed on the wider public. Success or failure however is best measured in personal terms, and despite having to continue struggling against adversity and over-confidence, Kermode's on-going playing and recording side-line with The Dodge Brothers has been a rewarding experience that has brought a modest measure acclaim and opportunities, if not quite the mainstream rock superstar status he may once have craved.
How Does It Feel? by Mark Kermode is published by W&N on 20th September 2018