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The Rock Novel - have there been any good ones?

PostPosted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 11:04 pm
by howard male
Writing what is essentially a rock novel and trying to avoid all the clichés is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. In a post Spinal Tap world the very idea of not finding pouting men in platform boots laughable, is laughable in itself. So the first thing I did when I began this arduous task was to go back to some of the novels that had attempted to get it right, and see where they had come unstuck.

So, here are a few that spring to mind:

Don Delillo - loved Underworld, but Great Jones Street is stagnant and opaque. And then you go and call your rock star, Bucky Wunderlick! What was he thinking? And then there's the dreadful over-literate fake song lyrics (opens the book at random):

Tell me tell me tell me
Time weather seasons
Story tell
Lesson give
Maiden words to learn.


Then there's Iain Banks who also chose a Street to name his rock novel after: Espedair Street. I didn't mind it when I first read it 15 years ago, but found it irritating and unconvincing on a recent return visit, and couldn't much further than 30 pages in.

Jonathan Coe effort The Dwarves of Death (that's the name of the band) has its moments but there's still something missing.

Louise Wener didn't do too badly with Goodnight Steve McQueen, but then she was the lead singer of Sleeper and that background experience certainly helped. But, in the end, this effort was marred by over sentimentality and unconvincing attempts at laddish humour.

My theory is that readers only want to read about rock stars if they're real rock stars that they happen to be fascinated by. Fictional pop stars are usually little more than cartoon characters going through the motions of the real musicians they are vaguely based on. A long-haired, ill-mannered drug addict is not someone you want to spend a great deal of time in the virtual company of, unless you loved their first three albums.

Sometimes fictional pop stars are convincing in movies, but often only if they are played by real pop stars - so that the audience can tell themselves they are watching the downfall of David Essex, not Jim Maclain, when they get drawn in to That'll Be the Day and Stardust.

Also, none of the books I've mentioned tackle what is really exciting about pop culture. It's not the bands or musicians themselves, it's the thrill we felt as teenagers in awe of the bands and musicians. The real drama isn't in the back of the tour bus with the bored-shitless band, it's in the suburban home where the excited teenager is, for the first time, carefully sliding his or her favourite band's latest 45 from its flimsy sleeve. The writer needs to spend more time with the wide-eyed fan, than the dead-eyed rock star, to give a truer sense of why pop music is such an important part of our lives.

My rock star, Zachary B, functions is a kind of black hole at the centre of things, around which the more interesting satellites of my (and his) supporting cast revolve.

And as I tidy up my third or fourth draft (hard to be more precise as editing has been an on-going process) my rock novel had ended up receding to become just one strand (taking up, say, 40% of the book) in order to make way for the bigger picture and the bigger themes. Perhaps this is my subconcious acceptence of failure; I am gradually acknowledging that it is in fact impossible to write a decent rock novel that is 100% rock.

Anyway, if any of you lot can point me in the direction of a good or even average rock novel I'll one-click order it immediately from Amazon.

I've learnt an awful lot about what not to do from the books mentioned above, but it might still be useful to read something where the writer's got it at least half right.

PostPosted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 11:45 pm
by Adam Blake
My favourite journalist, Nik Cohn, had a go at a couple of rock novels in the late 60s and early 70s. The first of these, "I Am Still The Greatest Says Johnny Angelo" was reprinted not long ago but doesn't stand up very well. The second, "King Death", is better but has never been reprinted to my knowledge. Both pretty obviously based on drug addled fantasies of Elvis Presley, they're worth a read if you can find them because they are so highly stylised and fantastical.

Mick Farren wrote an abominable sci-fi rock novel called "The Texts Of Festival" - equally drug-addled but nowhere near as well written. Unintentionally hilarious if you can find it.

Philip Norman wrote a set of rock short stories called "Wild Thing" - some of which are very good.

But the best rock novel of all is, of course, "Groupie" by Jenny Fabian.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 12:26 pm
by Ted
Milk,Sulphate and Alby Starvation by Martin Millar has some very funny writing about rubbish punk gigs in Brixton in the early eighties. I'm not sure it counts as a rock novel though, even though several of its central characters are musicians. Its also rather severely let down by not having much of a plot.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 1:40 pm
by Ian M
Kevin Sampson used to manage The Farm before becoming a writer. His book Powder is about a rock band, had mixed reviews. An American author Alan Arit wrote a book called The Carpet Frogs (great name for an indie band!) which had great reviews, though I don't know if it was published here, I looked out for it, but never saw it.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 2:08 pm
by Ian M
Oh yes, almost forgot Iain Banks, Espedair Street, if you like his style.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 4:02 pm
by howard male
Ian wrote -

Oh yes, almost forgot Iain Banks, Espedair Street, if you like his style.


I did mention him above. But this is kind of my point - Banks isn't a bad writer (my personal favourite being The Bridge) but just like DeLillo and Coe (and, I believe, Rushdie, though I've not read his effort) he came horribly unstuck with his rock novel.

You've inadvertently pointed out another rather depressing aspect of the genre, Adam - the misplaced notion that readers want to read about a fictional rock star's drug intake. Again, it's feasible one might want to read about Keith Richards' drug intake, but suddenly, when it's someone you've not invested any prior interest in, it's not a subject that particularly pushes a narrative along.

In this respect it's a bit like sex in a novel- we're no longer teenagers, so we just need to know the act occurred, we don't need to know all the sordid details, it just holds everything else up.

And drugs - just like sex - is a very subjective experience which transcends even the best writer's efforts to describe it. Isn't there even some award in the literary world for 'worst sex scene'? I believe Melvin Bragg won it a few years back.

So, with both sex and drugs out of the Dury equation, that only leaves rock 'n' roll - so, maybe that's another of the problems with making this subject entertaining as fiction?

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 4:13 pm
by Adam Blake
Possibly you got the wrong end of the stick: when I said they were drug-addled what I meant was that the AUTHORS were drug-addled with the resulting books having some unintentionally humourous aspects as a result.

If you've never read "Groupie" you really should, you know... :)

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 4:14 pm
by Jamie Renton
howard male wrote:but just like DeLillo and Coe (and, I believe, Rushdie, though I've not read his effort) he came horribly unstuck with his rock novel.


I started Rushdie's effort,"The Ground Beneath Her Feat" I think it's called, but as with most of his output in the last decade or so, couldn't get beyond the 1st few pages. For me, Rushdie seemed to come unstuck when he started to believe all the people who told him how clever he was (you probably won't agree with me Howard, but I reckon Martin Amis is a victim of the same syndrome). Plus, his view of rock music seemed very dated & pretentious, so I just gave up on it.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 4:42 pm
by howard male
Jamie wrote -

For me, Rushdie seemed to come unstuck when he started to believe all the people who told him how clever he was (you probably won't agree with me Howard, but I reckon Martin Amis is a victim of the same syndrome).


I won't disagree with you, Jamie, because (I admit begrudgingly) you might be on to something there.

Amis still remains for me one of the best writers we have, if you take him on a sentence by sentence basis. I can still reread sentences in his most recent works and think, boy, that's good - wow, that's got some meat and swing to it!

But it's certainly possible that the man might have fared better sticking to his spiky satires rather than tackling head-on the Big Subjects his reputation dictated he should tackle.

Or perhaps we're just dealing with a writer who has temporarily or permanently run out of steam when it comes to creating a compelling narrative? 'Yellow Dogs' certainly still had some great passages and set-pieces in it, but the way it just kind of fizzled out at the end was shameful - as if the publisher had grabbed it from his desperate hands, unfinished - so desperate were they to get back some of that massive advance.

You won't be surprised to learn that I've already digested 'The Second Plane.' You also won't be surprised when I say it's really not at all the work of some monstrous racist. Much of it, in fact, is very even-handed and thoughtful - full of doubts at his own knee-jerk responses, and questioning where we go from here. But what kind of headline would 'Even-handed and thoughtful Amis' have made?

PostPosted: Fri Sep 12, 2008 5:11 pm
by matt m
How about Richard Allen? I've always enjoyed reading his stuff. Pulp, cliched and ridiculous (and knowingly so), there's a volume of "the complete Richard Allen" which includes "Glam" and "Teeny Bopper", where he steps away from his usual milieu (skinheads and street fights) to do his usual daft violence and sex and fights thing in a very Minder-esque London fixated on 70s pop.

PostPosted: Fri Sep 12, 2008 5:16 pm
by matt m
oh and I remember Harlan Miller's "Slow Down, Arthur, Stick to 30" got v. good reviews when it came out. More about fandom than stardom though, by the sounds of it.

PostPosted: Sat Sep 20, 2008 12:01 pm
by howard male
Yes, I quite enjoyed 'Slow Down, Arthur, Stick to 30' (one of Bowie's lines in 'The Man Who Fell To Earth') when I read it a few years ago, but it was actually more about a Bowie fanatic, as I recall, than it being a straight - rock novel, as you yourself point out, Matt. But, as I said earlier in this strand, i think the only way novels in this genre can work, is if the subject is approached tangentially.

However, your description of Richard Allen's work in this area doesn't really tempt me much. Although if I can find a copy of 'teeny bopper' for a penny on Amazon, I may invest in it!

PostPosted: Sat Sep 20, 2008 12:05 pm
by howard male
Just checked, and 'Glam' and 'Teeny Bopper Idol (terrible title!) can be bought in one volume, in tatty old paperback, for £25! So I think I'll give them a miss.