My mates have gone - and I take it personally

Johannes Ra
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The Independent Culture
HOW THOUGHTLESS it was of Rick Danko and Joseph Heller to check out at this particular moment. As if time were not bearing down heavily enough, with Christmas and the great calendrical blip to be negotiated, they have absented themselves just when we needed them most.

By "we", of course, I mean "I". It is a bad and cruel time of year for death, for drawn curtains and lowered voices, while "Jingle Bells" plays in the street outside, and I realise that it may seem frivolous and self- indulgent to grieve the loss of two men I had never met. But they were part of my gang. It's a small gang, getting smaller all the time, and I take defections personally.

It seems just possible that one or two readers may not know who Rick Danko was. He played the bass, the guitar and the fiddle, and wrote and sang songs in a group called The Band. Others better qualified than me can no doubt explain how an unlikely collection of Canadian musicians emerged from the late Sixties to produce three albums that, containing an eccentric conflation of the traditional and the new, threw up songs that, weirdly and uniquely, presented a late 20th- century take on America's past. I simply remember the impact it had on me.

At first, when I heard Music for the Big Pink, it sounded odd. It was a time when productions were becoming slick and sophisticated, yet this sounded as if it were the result of a group of musicians sitting about, having fun, and, in the process, mysteriously producing songs unlike anything that had been written before. They might have been playing next door. They were my friends.

That's how you get into my gang. You write songs or novels which connect so immediately that somehow they seem to have come from within. You write the words and music - it is embarrassing but unavoidable to admit - that express my own untapped potential. You write what I would have written if only I had had more time, been braver, or been born somewhere else, or as someone else.

All this, I know, may sound crazy and uncomfortably close to the teenager who feels her life being sung by Robbie Williams, the God-botherer whose inner convictions are expressed by Cliff, even the thousands of people who sensed that the pain of Princess Diana was essentially their pain, made purer and more glamorous. Yet it is undeniable that the best art, for me, is not that from which I stand back in awe and admiration. It has to be personal.

Something Happened was personal. One of the few people in the world who had not loved Catch-22, I took Heller's second novel with me on holiday with my young family to Cornwall and this long, strange, agonised domestic tragedy, telling the story of an ordinary, screwed-up American, cast a spell on me.

A few other novels have had a similar effect - Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, Amis's Money, Roth's The Counterlife and Sabbath's Theater, Updike's Rabbit books - but, partly because it takes me back to the time when I first read it, Something Happened has remained near the top of the heap. Since then, when I have read interviews with Heller, I have felt as if I were catching up with the news of a friend.

But death has already removed Rick and Joe from my gang. They have moved on to a higher shelf - the one for classics. They are no longer out there, struggling on my behalf, writing the work and living the life I might have had.

Can you wonder that I am annoyed? Leaving, they have taken with them a small but significant part of my past.