Undercover: Rock Novel Stalls at Puberty (11/13/80)

Why is the rock novel like the boxing novel? Because both have only one plot: rise and fall. The best of the early rock novels, Harlan Ellison‘s Spider Kiss, ended with the Elvis-style hero back in a dingy honky-tonk; such Sixties refinements as David Helton‘s King Jude and Maxine Fabe‘s Death Rock climaxed with murder/ritual devouring of the star. Nik Cohn‘s rather amazing I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo reached Armageddon with the primal rocker leading a suicidal revolt—his career had hit its limit, so what else was left? Even Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer, a hilarious revision of the Beatles’ story, buried the Fab Four with a disastrous comeback (second billed to Peter Frampton, who didn’t last until the book’s publication date). Philip Roth‘s lonely quote of “Earth Angel” in Letting Go may well carry heavier weight than all the rock novels put together—back in 1962, Roth understood that the way popular music shapes lives, blesses and curses them, is not always a matter of melodrama.

But rock novelists seem inevitably drawn to pop-cult ready-mades. Last year’s Jambeaux, by Laurence Gonzales, was pretty much the same old story: bedrock Texas band connects with L.A big cheese, makes big time, fragments under pressure; bass player ODs, leader packs it in. The book was notable for its conflation of rock and Vietnam, and for passages so funny, sleazy, and exciting no hand-me-down plot could snuff them. John Eskow‘s Smokestack Lightning (Delacorte, 310 pp., $10.95) may not be formally much inferior to Janbeaux, and yet I found it deeply unsatisfying; as I read it, and remembered Jambeaux turning around the same basic cliché, even that book began to lose its clout.

Smokestack Lightning is the tale of a New York City band, Cakewalk, bucking disco and punk with R&B-bred hard rock, playing five sets a night in nowhere bars, trying to sneak originals through the requests. Pushing thirty, the Cakewalkers, led by singer Jimmy Caine and guitarist Alan Landreaux, are tapped by a hotshot manager named Seely, who puts them on the road to fame. But there is one loose end to be snipped off… In other words, Smokestack Lightning is jerked along by a dazzlingly unlikely murder plot, the guts of which are revealed at the outset (on the cover flap!), though the ascribed motive seems so paltry, and the machinations so indirect, the reader keeps waiting for the truth—which never arrives. Ultimately, Caine follows the orders of the behind-the-scenes industry heavy and kicks Landreaux out of the band. His reward is riches and fame, the price—his soul.

None of this is remotely believable: not Caine’s transformation from honest rocker to craven flunky, and not the ruling assumption that bands make it to the top only because someone has decided they should. It’s a shame, because there are a score of memorable bits in the book. Seely’s bizarre shrine to Colonel Parker, Cakewalk opening for an English supergroup to jeers and cherry bombs; groupies grubbing for ten cubic centimeters of sperm; or this line about the boredom of the road: “Sex dope, and the weather paled quickly as topics; by Alabama they were into prenatal memories.” But the apparent tough-mindedness of the writing is rooted in a sentimentality that leads irrevocably to one version or another of the rise-and-fall plot “How,” wonders Caine as he watches the English supergroup pull the strings of a lobotomized audience with props and smoke bombs, “did a music conceived as pure rebellion become another form of suppression?” A true answer has to sidestep the question, because rock & roll was conceived precisely as impure rebellion; the question might be more aptly put, “How did music conceived as laissez-faire capitalism become another form of oligopoly capitalism?”

Any rock novel hung on the purity-corruption dichotomy has to turn to rise-and-fall for its resolution, because a novel conceived so sentimentally requires a sentimental moral rebalancing: the star must suffer for his glory, not by paying his dues, but after the fact. Well, rock & roll is full of good material along that line, but does such a view really tell us much about Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols? Does it tell us much about the people who listen? If rock really has only one story to tell, maybe it’s time for would-be rock novelists to find another subject; if it has more, it’s time for them to start thinking about what those stories might be.


The Rock Music Source Book, by Bob Macken, Peter Fornatale and Bill Ayres (Anchor, 600 pp., $9.95 paperback). Hey, kids, here’s what you’ve always wanted: the ultimate rock nonbook! Countless tunes are chopped up into such important categories as “Ecology” “Old Age” and of course “Life,” which are themselves incomprehensibly subdivided into mini-categories of “Classic,” “Definitive” and “Reference.” I mean, get into “Loneliness”: isn’t it great that Bob, Peter and Bill have put together twelve versions of “Eleanor Rigby,” including the historic treatments by Rare Earth and Teagarden and Van Winkle? Just what you need for that last-minute term paper! But what about the Ides of March’s “Symphony for Eleanor” on their unforgettable Vehicle LP? Gotcha there, boys!

Rolling Stone, November 13, 1980

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