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Is It Only Rock and Roll?

June 7, 2008 |  3:48 pm


So I've been thinking a lot lately about a foggy concept that I've dubbed The Great Rock And Roll Novel. It started when I re-read Stanley Booth's "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones."

The book, written and re-written over a period of two decades, details the Stones' arrival in 1969 Los Angeles, following the recording of "Gimme Shelter," after the death of Brian Jones. Writing in the first person, Booth wends his way backwards and forwards in time, corralling images of Keith, Mick and Brian in dingy London bedsits with interviews of their parents and their history as rising rock icons, concluding in the nightmarish Altamont Free Concert (see photo above) where a black audience member, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death, and from which the Stones (and Booth) escaped by helicopter.

To read this book is to know as much about Booth himself, as a twenty-something covering the Rolling Stones--his wife left behind in Memphis, his feelings of dread in the face of agent Allen Klein's legal rigamarole, his inevitable touring infidelities--as it is to go behind the scenes of the traveling sideshow that was their progress through the '60s.

Booth's book, however, is not a novel. It trades on a shared knowledge of one famous rock and roll band and the songs they played. If you're not a fan, chances are you've never even heard of it.

For me, the Great Rock and Roll Novel would be broadly defined as a fictive version of what Stanley Booth accomplished.

It would be a novel that somehow combines a set of fictional characters' experiences and realizations with the experience of what it's like to be a megalithic rock star. It would manage to make sense of a short period of time (say a decade or less) through the vein of a recognizable rock band, while also serving to reveal the narrator (yeah, it would probably have to be first person) as culpable and as self-serving as Jack Burden, the narrator in Robert Penn Warren's "All The King's Men."

"Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings....Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity--hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs."

That's part of the opening paragraph to Don DeLillo's novel "Great Jones Street," which features the absurdly-named Bucky Wunderlick--Bob Dylan in effigy--who grapples with the ensuing paranoia (or is it??) that follows a sudden retreat into isolation at the height of his career. Written in 1973, it is not the first attempt at a rock and roll novel, but it is one of the earliest. Harlan Ellison, to the best of my knowledge, gets the prize with his 1961 novel "Rockabilly" (it was eventually re-named "Spider Kiss").

There's a thoroughly comprehensive list at bookslut.com, compiled and deftly annotated by Michael Schaub, which names the dozens of novels that include the idea or the practice of rock and roll as a backdrop. Among these are Roddy Doyle's "The Commitments," Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," Matt O'Keefe's "You Think You Hear," Jonathan Lethem's "You Don't Love Me Yet" and the hyperkinetic work of Camden Joy--the only writer whose short stories and novels read as if Jorge Luis Borges spent his time listening to Os Mutantes instead of haunting Argentina's libraries.

Recently, there's been "The Angel Riots" by Ibi Kaslik. She takes on the rock novel from the point of view of a female violinist named Jim who plays in a large, multi-instrumental rock band--think Arcade Fire, Do Make Say Think or Broken Social Scene, whose song "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)" name-checks her. Also recently, I was lucky enough to read (in nearly one sitting) The Mountain Goats' lead singer John Darnielle's contribution (he reads tonight at Skylight Books) to the "33 1/3" series, itself a growing Alexandria of rock criticism. Fans of Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" take note: Darnielle's novel (that's what it is) is nothing short of stunning.

Told in journal form, Richard Painter is a high school student admitted to a mental ward in 1985, forced to record his everyday thoughts in a notebook. What starts out as pages of angst-y, obscenity-laced scrawling soon eases into a cathartic attempt to explain his pure and steadfast love for Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality." Over the course of 101 pages, Painter becomes a wholly realistic character as finely tuned as the 1971 metal album he describes song by song, in minute, often hilarious detail.

Richard Painter on the first ten seconds of "Sweet Leaf":

"...you probably noticed that the first sound was a person coughing real loud. He goes like 'C-Cough!' only then it sounds like the record is skipping. But this is a tape and tapes can't skip. And then you notice that the skipping cough starts on the left side of the stereo and moves over to the right side. It makes you feel like the person who is coughing is sort of flying through the air past you...And what did you hear after the coughing? Immediately after with no stopping? That's right Gary the therapist whose brains are probably blown all over the insides of his office right now. You heard a guitar riff that comes from a volcano under the ocean!!"

Sounds gimmicky? Of course. But the book's effect is lasting for anyone who's ever felt at odds with the world, or anyone who ever spent science period drawing arrowed Metallica M's on the front of their class folders.

After all, the Great Rock And Roll Novel, if such a thing could ever exist, would be as much about the fan as the performer.

George Ducker