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Right then, first things first. If you’re a big Belle and Sebastian fan, then this will probably be your favourite book of all time. The Celestial Café is, for all intents and purposes, a massive excerpt from Stuart Murdoch’s diary. As a pretty obsessive music fan, I spend a disproportionate amount of time hunting down and rabidly consuming whatever incoherent ramblings my favourite bands pump out into the blogosphere. Much to my eternal chagrin, it’s never much more than a brief “did tour had lols now we’re breaking up”. But this is a whole book, four years of Murdoch’s (and the band’s) life, and an incredible insight to the mind of one of indie’s most pre-eminent figures. So if you’re a Belle and Sebastian fan, you’re an extremely lucky person, and you really ought to buy it.
For the uninitiated, Belle and Sebastian are a band that have attained an almost legendary status in the indie music community. They’ve made some very good music and critics usually throw their first album, 1996’s Tigermilk, up there with OK Computer and Loveless in Best British Albums of the 90s lists. If you’ve heard any of their songs, it will have been Piazza, New York Catcher on the Juno Soundtrack. They’re also sandwiched between Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce on the most important people to have come out of Scotland list (though I’m more than happy for any Scots to correct me on that!). The Celestial Café, then, is a pretty damn good introduction to the band and their music – it certainly has been for me. The book covers a period that covers countless world-tours, plenty of festivals, and the recording of their (rather good) sixth album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. But is it any good? Well, yes. It’s far from perfect mind, but if you stick with it you’ll find that this is a real gem of a book.
This being a diary, Murdoch covers a great deal of topics. There’s the usual melange of subjects for a book of this kind: religion, sex, relationships, politics, globalisation and family are all discussed. It’s interesting to get a rock star’s perspective on all of these, though his viewpoints aren’t particularly novel. The War in Iraq was all about oil, you say? The Town Council are being slightly irksome? The big companies are, like, they’re ruining everything man! The observations quickly become fairly inane and it’s not helped by the smattering of completely irrelevant anecdotes that make an attempt at being funny but fall flat on their faces. We’re treated to riveting tales about how Murdoch popped into Boots before it closed, and learn the crucial details of a time his Internet connection wouldn’t work. Couldn’t get a dialing tone, he says – how very 2002! It’s not particularly gripping stuff and it wears thin extraordinarily quickly. I appreciate that this is a diary, and that these sort of inconsequential asides are to expected, but the first part of the book seems to be composed completely of this sort of thing. It makes the opening a really tough read, and it might even put Belle and Sebastian fans off, never mind the laymen. There’s also an annoying amount of jarring non-sequiturs, which very nearly made me put the book down out of sheer exasperation. Murdoch’s phantom girlfriends phase in and out of the book, and his switch to the religious way of life is never really fully explained. The religious aspects are, to put it bluntly, just a tad annoying, since they rob his often very interesting points about God and religion of any real context. Yet, for a band that have recently released an album called Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, the lack of any real context or content on that matter is a real shame.
Fortunately, it seems like Murdoch also realises this and quickly moves on to the more interesting topics that he’s more qualified to talk about. It’s not often that a book like this will cover questions like what does indie mean and can video games be art but Murdoch makes frequently interesting observations on such disparate issues. His comments are by turns funny, witty and occasionally poignant, and really redeem the book after the first 100-or-so pages (I know that sounds like a lot, but really, stick with it!). The reader is treated to a smorgasbord of very funny anecdotes, most of which relate to life on tour, but plenty of the Glasgow-related stories are interesting, too. This is mainly because of the weird juxtaposition of the tales of rock n’ roll excess – like when the whole band drink themselves into glorious oblivion at the Mercury Awards show – with the perfectly sedate Glasgow stories – buying super soft slippers as to not disturb the new flatmates downstairs. It’s later on in the book when these seemingly innocuous bits and pieces work well, as the story gets more dynamic and Murdoch gets into his stride as a writer. In fact, seeing the progression and the change over the course of a few years is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Philosophies, ideas and musical tastes all change, but (after the initial lull) it’s always top-notch stuff. There’s something here for everyone; sure, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it more if you are a fan of the guy’s musical career, but the themes that Murdoch writes about are so universal that anyone can enjoy reading his insights.
I already feel like I’ve been a bit too harsh here – this is a very good book. The first 25% of the book is a bit of a let down, but it can be forgiven in light of the remaining 75% of sheer loveliness, regardless of how much Belle and Sebastian mean to you. And anyway, the book’s best feature is simply how human it is. People like Murdoch are revered the world over, so it’s refreshing to see that he’s a very down to Earth fellow, someone who still enjoys a weekly kick-about and a cup of tea. Yet he’s aware of his own position in life and that’s what makes his take on it all so interesting, at least for the majority of the time. After all, this isn’t a heart wrenching tome of the sex and drugs rock and roll life – for the most part, anyway. It’s a book about reality from a very unique angle, and one which I heartily recommend.