What books are on your nightstand?
I bought two books in Los Angeles recently. The first is Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte,” a reworking of “Don Quixote” set in modern-day America. It’s had really fantastic reviews. The other is by the musician Ben Folds, whom I love, and it’s called “A Dream About Lightning Bugs,” a kind of memoir. I haven’t started either of them yet, but they’re on my nightstand, waiting, alongside a lot of photography catalogs I’m going through in search of stuff to buy.
Describe your ideal reading experience.
That would probably be on holiday, at our house in Nice — we spend every summer there. Lying on my bed in the air-conditioned fabulousness. Or, if it’s not too hot, sitting outside on the terrace. I tend to gravitate toward nonfiction: biographies, memoirs, autobiographies.
Which writers working today do you admire the most?
I was going to say Toni Morrison, but obviously she just died. Antonia Fraser and Simon Sebag Montefiore, both historical biographers. Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette is magnificent. I love the details she digs out. And Simon Sebag Montefiore is just a brilliant writer. His book on the Romanovs is incredible. Every time he has a book out, I always rush to get it.
Have any books influenced your artistic development as a songwriter or musician?
No! Not at all.
What is your favourite memoir by a musician?
Arthur Rubinstein, the classical pianist, has two volumes of memoirs, “My Young Years” and “My Many Years,” which are unbelievably detailed and just filled with amazing stories from a time when the world was rapidly changing: from the late 19th century, across two world wars, to the 1970s. His memory is incredible — he can remember the name of a girl he touched up in Uruguay in 1918. I think the thing I love about him, apart from the fact that he was one of the most wonderful musicians of all time, is his lust for life. And his lust in general: Classical musicians behave even worse than pop musicians sometimes. The other memoir I loved was Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am.” He’s incredibly intelligent, really interesting, never short of an opinion, very thoughtful about his own work.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading and which do you avoid?
There isn’t a great deal of modern poetry that floats my boat, although I love Philip Larkin and John Cooper Clarke. For me, the greatest modern poets were lyricists — Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I love diaries. People like Cecil Beaton and Kenneth Williams, people that make me laugh out loud. They’re not necessarily writing to be published, so they don’t care what they write and I find that fantastic — there’s no holds barred, full of opinions about whether they like or hate people, it’s really refreshing. And they appeal to the fact that British people are really nosy.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“The Vagina Monologues.” It’s very entertaining and beautifully written.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift and the most inappropriate book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When I was a young kid, I loved English comics, so the best book I got as a gift was “The Beano Annual,” every Christmas. The Beano was a real delight every year. It was a huge part of British childhood in the 1950s — Eric Clapton’s reading one on the cover of an early Bluesbreakers album. Conversely, the most disappointing book I ever got came from some far-off auntie, who’d clearly heard of my love of comics and got me “The Bunty Annual.” Bunty was a comic for girls — it was full of comic strips about boarding schools and aspiring ballerinas. I just thought: Why has she bought me this? Doesn’t she know what sex I am? How distant a relation is this woman?
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine and who is your favourite villain or antihero?
Because I loved Charles Dickens so much when I was a kid, I’d say my favourite hero was David Copperfield. And as for antiheroes, either Dracula or the Vampire Lestat. I wouldn’t mind being a vampire myself.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I was a voracious reader, I was almost as obsessed with reading as I was with music and football. I read a lot of classics — “Moby-Dick,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Robert Louis Stevenson. “Moby-Dick” was quite terrifying; it really caused my imagination to run riot. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was incredible — slavery and racism were really strong topics for a kid in ’50s Britain to be reading about. All those classics, I bought them all leather-bound from a book club when I was a teenager and I still have those copies. I often go back and read them — I read “Moby-Dick” not so long ago. It’s still completely amazing.
You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Charles Dickens, obviously. Margaret Atwood — I’d love to sit down with her. The first time I read “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I immediately thought, “I’d like to meet the person who wrote this.” She’s a brilliant writer and I love her values. And then someone who would completely throw the party into chaos, someone incredibly opinionated and waspish, like Dirk Bogarde.
What book do you plan to read next?
I think I might reread “D.V.,” by Diana Vreeland. It’s one of the campest books I’ve ever read in my life, and I’m fairly certain that you should take quite a lot of the anecdotes in it with a pinch of salt — you do spend your time reading it with one eyebrow raised, muttering, “Yeah, right” — but it’s incredibly entertaining. Every time I see a paperback copy of it, I buy it in order to give it to someone as a gift. I’ve bought it many, many times.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
It’s the same as with music: I’m drawn to melancholy in books. And the way a good author describes people — that’s my favorite thing about Dickens, the incredible way he depicts other human beings. That’s true of nonfiction too. Something like “The Moon’s a Balloon,” David Niven’s memoir, he describes other people so well that you feel like you were there when he encountered them, like an onlooker. I think that’s the secret of great writing.
What’s the best book about music you’ve ever read?
Pete Townshend sent me a book by Joe Boyd, called “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s.” He’s an American who was involved with the blues scene and the folk revival in the early ’60s, then came to London and made his name as a producer during the Summer Of Love: He produced the first Pink Floyd single, then went on to work with Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. I knew him a little when I was starting out — just before I became famous, I got some session work singing Nick Drake’s songs for a demo tape, which Joe thought he could use to interest other artists in covering them. “White Bicycles” is a brilliant book. He’s got a really interesting view of London in the ’60s, because he was an outsider who ended up in the thick of the whole hippie movement. His writing really brings that era alive.
How do you organise your books?
Very well! I’m very meticulous about things like that. I have a huge library of books on art and photography, kept in the gallery at my home in Windsor, all cataloged and detailed so I can have what I want at my fingertips. They’re very well arranged. I hate seeing things lying on the floor in a horrible state. I’m a very organised bloke.