'Please Step Back' and the art of fictional pop
At its best, rock-n-roll in fiction brings music’s visceral immediacy to the page. Upon finishing Ben Greenman's novel "Please Step Back," I wanted to hear the band it describes: a groundbreaking group active in the late 1960s and early 1970s whose polymath approach to music brought together elements of rock, funk, soul and R&B, anticipating genres and subgenres yet to be created. The band is the Foxxes and they are, regrettably, entirely fictional.
It’s to Greenman's credit that the Foxxes feel fleshed out and entirely credible: Nothing about the group’s music or creative process seems out of step with its (theoretical) contemporaries, and the novel’s later moments, in which Rock Foxx, the group’s founder, struggles with solo recordings, feel equally accurate. One of these late-period songs gives the novel its title; it's been recorded by Swamp Dogg and can be downloaded from the book's website.
Greenman's rock-star protagonist was inspired by Sly and the Family Stone: the overall arc of the band and certain details, including album artwork and Foxx's use of a child's voice, all echo Sly. A rival group, Anchor, seems equally connected to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.
That said, Greenman is not taking history and simply changing the names: "Please Step Back" deviates from that history in significant ways to make stinging points about romantic relationships, addiction and the artist’s state of mind.
Just as Greenman interweaves his fiction with real rock-n-rollers, other writers have tried a similar route: Lester Bangs' short story "Maggie May" is a bleakly comic tale that may feature a young Rod Stewart (though a disclaimer argues otherwise). The stories in Dave Reidy's collection "Captive Audience," out in June, feature cameo appearances by R.E.M. and the Chamber Strings. Camden Joy’s 2000 novel "Boy Island" takes this even further, placing a character named for the author on the road as the drummer for David Lowery (Cracker) during the first Gulf War; fictionalized versions of Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman take center stage as Joy critiques musical authenticity, masculinity and politics.
Fiction and musical reality collide in "It Feels So Good When I Stop," the first novel by musician Joe Pernice, in which the protagonist halfheartedly forms a band called the Young Accuser. Pernice’s most recent album, a soundtrack to his novel, closes with "Black Smoke (No Pope)," credited to the Young Accuser. A single version of the same song, with appropriately retro packaging (the novel is set in the mid-1990s), has been released by the Pernice Brothers' old label, Sub Pop. And author Jonathan Lethem suggested that bands record the songs in his 2007 novel "You Don’t Love Me Yet"; his website features links to several.
When the music of a novel remains entirely imagined, it can have even more power. The title story of Annie Proulx's collection "Heart Songs and Other Stories," documents a musician's obsession with the elusive, unknowable qualities of a musical family's songs. The mysteries of this music draw him closer: his inability to learn the origins of it, and the family's unwillingness to tell him more or seek any sort of commercial success, lead to his undoing.
Although these songs occupy a space removed from us, pop's inherent immediacy helps pull us in. In "Please Step Back," the songs and styles are recognizable and familiar, making for a compelling listening experience that exists only on the page. And these fictional musicians play songs we can't help but imagine at their best. In much the same way that great music criticism can prompt the reader to seek out the album or artist covered, writing about fictional bands can leave us both exhausted and regretting that the space these artists occupy is not the one in which we live.
-- Tobias Carroll
Tobias Carroll writes about music and books and blogs at the Scowl.
Photo: Musician Sly Stone, right, with record executive Clive Davis in the 1970s. Credit: Stephen Paley