Love and Death in the American Rock ’n’ Roll Novel (04/12/19)

Talk delivered at MoPOP Pop Conference, April 12, 2019, as part of the “Death Narratives and Undead Mythologies” panel.

“Love and Death in the American Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel”—with thanks to Leslie Fiedler. There are scores of books I or anyone else could be talking about, but I’m going to look at just a few.

The first is David Helton, King Jude (1971).

Unless he’s he same David Helton who wrote a book on gardening or the same David Helton who wrote a book on middle-management this David Helton seems to have written no other books. I haven’t found out anything about him.

This is a serious novel about a Texas guitar player named Jude who comes to New York and all but watches from a distance as stardom steals his soul. The ending is a kind of template, a comeback show after disaster, near-death: the return of a pop hero no one ever expected to see again. There’s a second template, the artist versus the crowd. And then a third: the artist devoured by the crowd.

He barely has a voice left; he wants to start by reading a poem, but he’s pushed back by the sound of a hall full of pre-teen girls.

“No one, even if he were standing next to Jude, could have heard his whisperings over the screaming of the girls. Jude himself couldn’t hear Jude. ‘Stop,’ he whisper-shouted in the middle of the poem. ‘I’ve only got one lung, for God’s sake. One lung. I can’t scream… It’s not a bad poem, please. It was the first one I ever wrote, you see. I was out in a mesquite tree near my home town of Lumley, Texas, and I was reading a book by a woman Virginia Woolf and she inspired me to write this poem. It goes like this if you’d like to hear it.’ The screams, if possible, increased. Jude had to stop them. He knew they’d like him and his playing and his poetry if only they could hear him, if he’d only be able to do something about the screaming. Something for them, yes, so they could hear the poetry and the good music. And somehow Jude was in the orchestra pit, and then into the front row, swinging the guitar at all the screaming. Putting it out for them. Knocking screaming mouths with the guitar, his eyes not quite adjusting to the darkness enough to see what the girls were taking out of their purses. Screaming and screaming and screaming. Blades slicing here and there, and the fight against the screaming was actually rather shot, as one creaky, lop-shouldered, one-lunged man with a guitar is not much match for hundreds of healthy young girls with little pen knives.”

You realize the girls didn’t bring knives there to kill him, exactly. They wanted just a little piece of him as a souvenir, like people at racist lynchings.

Just last year there was Jeff Jackson, with Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel, two sides to the story, back to back in reverse, like the original publication of William Burroughs’s Junky backed on the reverse with Narcotic Agent—only this time it’s “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City.”

I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to have done the last anything. It’s like telling everyone else to shut up. It’s someone who’d much rather be present when the funeral happened rather than the birth. The premise here is that people—gangs, individuals, maybe even bands—are running all over the country, seemingly independently, as if they’ve all caught the same disease or received the same command from the same god, and all following the same script: massacring bands onstage.

Apparently, with almost everyone under thirty in America in a band, almost every band is terrible. “‘The killers wanted the music to matter again,’” says one character. “‘They wanted to purify it.’” This is not convincing, even if the scenes of carnage, all presented plainly, without pumped up adjectives and gory effects, are so awful they’re hard to read. But you end up thinking you’ve read a novel the author wrote to put himself on the map.

There are two books, both from the mid-eighties, that I really want to talk about. I read them when they came out and they’ve always stayed with me. I didn’t re-read them until this year—but mainly because I didn’t have to. I remembered almost everything about them.

James Robert Baker 1947-97, Fuel-Injected Dreams, 1986

Baker was born in Long Beach. He grew up in Southern California. As a teenager he spent all the time he could in gay clubs. His family kicked him out—he escaped from them. He got into the drug world; he became an alcoholic. He went to UCLA Film School—he directed Mouse Klub Konfidential, where a Mousketeer becomes a gay pornographer, 1976.

He published five novels in his lifetime—

Adrenaline as James Dillinger (1985)

Boy Wonder (1988)

Tim and Pete (1993)—a fictional manifesto for political assassination as a way to fight AIDS. That book, and the interviews he gave backing it up, got him all but read out of society. No one would publish him. There was one more novel while he was alive, Right Wing, which came out on the internet. He killed himself in 1997.

Fuel-Injected Dreams was listed on the jacket as Baker’s “first novel”—since his real first novel, Adrenaline, with gay characters in a gay milieu, was published under a pseudonym.

Now there’s DJ Scott Cochrane and his high school girlfriend Cheryl, who disappears after a mass rape on the beach after graduation.

There’s Dennis Contrelle, the legendary record producer who, it turns out, rescues Cheryl, changes her name, marries her, makes her his first great star before she dies in an accident with him driving—though it’s all covered up, and as far as anyone knows she disappeared, as if she never was.

There’s Sharlene, the singer Contrelle develops to replace Cheryl—to take her place, molding her to look like her, sound like her. Then it’s all over. No one hears a word from her, locked up in Contrelle’s mansion. No one hears from him—when the book starts he hasn’t made a record in almost 20 years.

There’s wonderfully hyped-up prose, lots of fast driving, lots of sex, with the menace and suspense only developing as the mysteries of the previous twenty years begin to dissolve into facts. Here’s Cochrane on the air, ten minutes into a hysterical speed rap, reading all his fan mail, from “Republicans, Democrats, Syrians,” something from a Nancy on White House stationary—

“And the very next card is a group photo of a bunch of the gals out at Frontera. ‘Just don’t play anything from The White Album,’ it says. Then: ‘P.S. Just kidding. It’s cool now.’ Signed ‘Sadie,’ but that’s crossed out and ‘Susan’ is written in a lovely, peaceful hand. Now, who wouldn’t be touched by that?”

–and you really don’t have to know that Frontera was the California prison for women to recognize Sadie and Susan.

The book is hilarious, and it moves incredibly fast. Cochrane makes a snide comment about the long-gone, washed-up Contrelle, Contrelle calls up Cochrane on the air, he wants him to listen to a tape—his comeback, after the age of silence, the paranoia, the anger, the rumors, the armed guards.

“But you listen to this tape and you will know, you will see, why it’s taken me so long,” Contrelle says to Cochrane. “This tape is going to destroy everyone who’s against me. It’s going to bring them to their knees. They’ll be left holding… nothing. It’ll be like the Great Depression. They’ll be jumping out of windows once this music hits the streets. No one will ever want to listen to anything else again.”

I love that: this music is so great, it’s like the Great Depression!

What the novel is about is words, people going off in rants and fantasies, raving, secrets held for twenty years breaking out of them, lines on the order of “Her hot little tract house back bedroom mouth.” Starting on page one Baker revving up his literary Corvette Stingray and seeing how far he can go, if he can take you with him. When Cochrane finally hears the producer’s music of the spheres, Baker takes five pages to describe it—and he convinces you it’s everything the producer claimed for it. You want to hear it, and while you’re reading you almost can. But you want more than almost. You’re in the story. You want to hear this music, you want it released, you don’t want the world to be deprived of it, you can’t bear the thought that Contrelle might take it right back into his studio and listen to it by himself for the rest of his life.

This is a book about Phil Spector published twenty-three years before he went to prison for murder. It’s a parable of his marriage to Ronnie Spector—except in his book the producer has kept Cheryl’s corpse encased in plastic for twenty years so he can have sex with it forever. The climax of the book is straight out of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Contrelle’s house, on the edge of a cliff, is about to break up in a storm. He breaks the shell, wraps Cheryl in a raincoat, and runs for his life as Cochrane watches as the producer holds the mummy of his high school girlfriend in his arms:

“She’s mine,” he said, a the shoulder stitches of her raincoat ripped, and her arm itself broke off at the shoulder, and he fell, still holding the arm.”

Pop music is about obsession, James Robert Baker is saying, and obsession not only worships death, it is death. Nik Cohn was the first to dive all the way into this idea, with his novel King Death in 1975, but against Baker, Cohn, whose writing is based in glamour and mystery, sounds austere. Cold. Distant. As if everything is about somebody else. The readers gets off free. Not with Baker.

Then there is Jim Dodge, and Not Fade Away, from 1987—just a year after Fuel-Injected Dreams. He wrote two other novels, the last in 1990. Then he taught English at Humboldt State College in California for the rest of his professional life. Along with a few hundred other people he lives near Eureka, in Manila, California, which is described as a “census-designated place,” which means that it doesn’t really exist.

Not Fade Away is as funny as Fuel-Injected Dreams—but it’s the kind of humor Mark Twain had in mind when he wrote “How to Tell a Story.”

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous… The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.
“The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.”

Though Dodge worked as a gambler, an apple picker, and a carpet layer, he also went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and he would have read Twain’s dictum there if not before. That’s the line Dodge throws out and then, over the course of 291 frenetic pages that sometimes suspend themselves in reveries, follows to the end.

In San Francisco, in 1965, a young ex-trucker named George Gastin is hanging on to what’s left of the Beat scene, wishing he were a poet, working for a North Beach gangster who pays him to smash up cars so their owners can collect on inflated insurance policies. Then his life begins to fall apart. The love of his life leaves him. Some people he meets give him LSD, and he begins to fray like the sleeves of an old coat. His boss gives him a never-driven, bright red 1959 Cadillac Eldorado a client wants wrecked—and for the first time, overwhelmed by the beauty of the car, Gastin hesitates. In the glove compartment he finds a letter from the original owner, a woman named Harriet Gildner who died three years before.

“Dear Mr. Bopper,” it begins. “I am a 57-year-old virgin. I’ve never had sex with a man because none has ever moved me.” But the man the letter is addressed to moved her. One night, dialing for a classical station, a woman named Harriet Gildner heard “Chantilly Lace” and she glimpsed a life she’d never seen before.

“And there you were,” she writes of chancing on KYA instead of KDFC. “And there you were: ‘Hellooo baybeeee, this is the Big Bopper.’ And I was moved. Men that have made sexual advances toward me in the past have always made it seem such an awkward, harrowing pursuit. When I hear the playfulness in your voice, the happy, loose lechery, I knew. 

“I want you to understand this car is a gift, yours without strings or conditions. It is a gift to acknowledge your music, the desire that spins the planets, and the power it portends. So it is very much a gift to the possibilities of friendship, communion, and love. You owe me nothing. I can afford it because I’m ridiculously wealthy.

“If you’re ever in San Francisco, please give me a call or drop by my house. I would very much like to meet you.”

But the letter is dated February 1, 1959, two days before the plane crash that killed the Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson of Beaumont, Texas, along with Buddy Holly of Lubbock, Texas, and Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, along with the pilot of the private plane they’d hired to take them to the next show in Fargo, North Dakota, along with Roger Peterson, the pilot, who was only 22.

Gastin decides to take the car where it belongs—to the Big Bopper’s grave—and set it on fire there, hoping that will keep his boss from having him killed. But there are people following him and he changes course and decides to go to the site of the plane crash instead. The life of the book is in the people he meets along the way, the hitch-hikers he picks up, all of whom seem, around the edges, like ghosts, or as if they’re already part dead, road spirits, the kind of people you see when you’ve been driving for 24 hours straight. They all keep company with Harriet Gildner—a mad scientist testing theories that would later turn up in Jacques Attali’s Noise and who leaves a jukebox with every record ever made in the Cadillac’s back seat. There’s a young mother so beaten down by life she’s barely there—reading about her, you almost squint to see her, cup your ear to hear her. There’s the world’s greatest traveling salesman, and the 97-year-old woman who owns the land where the plane went down and won’t tell George Gastin where it happened—he’ll have to dowse for it himself.

What drives the book is at once the instinct of a would-be artist to honor other artists, to honor death, and the suspicion that he’d fated to lose himself in this company, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and everyone he meets in his quest—to become a road spirit, a phantom, like a song half-heard at 3 AM in the middle of the Nevada desert, where you catch half a line and a swirl of rhythm and you know both that you’ll never hear it again and that not a year of your life will pass that you don’t think about it. By the end George Gastin has turned into Harriet Gildner, chancing on a song her whole life had told her she was never meant to hear, devoting his life to keeping her promise. We first encounter him twenty years later, when he’s become a road spirit, a tow-truck version of the Lone Ranger, perfect for an author who in his seventies lives in a place that’s not quite real.

So here the premise is death—the idea that rock ‘n’ roll as it first emerged was too perfect to last, and that if it took the sacrifice of three young lives to keep it pure, that was how the game had to be played. There are a lot of other things you could say the book is about, but that’s all I want to say about it. Every other lesson I can pull out of the book is sentimental. Dodge is having fun, and so is the reader.


One thought on “Love and Death in the American Rock ’n’ Roll Novel (04/12/19)

  1. I’m sure this is not the norm, but I’ve always been more drawn to Greil’s book recommendations than those of his music, though we do share many music passions. The Baker and Dodge books have been added to my list.

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