- Rockstar is born not a rockstar, but to a dismal family of chicken farmers or garbage pickers or libertarians.
- Rockstar buys guitar and struggles. Suspiciously, Rockstar is surrounded by naysayers recommending more lucrative careers in livestock breeding or politics.
- Rockstar gets really freakin’ good in a suspiciously short amount of time. Rockstar wins lots of fans. Naysayers turn to yaysayers.
- Rockstar meets drugs. Drugs meet rockstar. It’s a match made in heaven until it’s not anymore. Suddenly, the simple life of trash picking seems like a step up from this gutter.
- Suspiciously, Rockstar finds redemption in the form of a woman, an estranged child, or Ron Paul.
This story arc is so easy. That ease is why there are a million rock ‘n’ roll novels. It’s also why there are tons of forgettable rock novels.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of bands and once, even, toured with a group. I sold their t-shirts up and down the West Coast. In that time I learned touring rock bands are mostly boring. I also learned the above story arc is never the case. Thirdly, I learned rock bands love cigarettes. Who knew?
My point is, most interesting music stories are never tied up with a neat, redemptive bow on the final page. If this were true, Keith Richards would be passing out Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets a dozen times over. Good rock ‘n’ roll fiction avoids said arc like the rest of us avoid cutting in front of Axl Rose at the buffet.
When I began writing my novel, Broken Piano for President, six years ago, I managed to avoid the above cliché. Looking back, it’s all thanks to noise bands.
I was, at the time, a rock critic with Willamette Week in Portland, OR. I mostly covered weird, avant-garde, noisy music. After getting the scoop from outsider musicians and artists, I knew the standard rock book arc was about as realistic as a chicken farmer still owning enough fingers to even play a guitar.
Broken Piano for President is a comedy about the world’s worst rock band, productive alcoholism, hamburgers more addictive than crystal meth and conspiracy theories involving cosmonauts. What those countless interviews taught me was that the element making a noise band so exciting is the same thing that makes a rock book exciting: the element of surprise. Both take known formulas and torque them until something memorable and wonderful comes out.
Here’s a list of rock novels that got it right and avoided chicken farmerdom:
Great Jones Street by Don Delillo.
This is my favorite rock book. Supposedly based on Dylan’s frequent slips from the spotlight, Delillo’s Bucky Wunderlick is a mega-star-cum-NYC-Squatter just looking for some peace and quiet. However, it’s not going to happen as hangers-on, managers, and a commune selling a super drug all tug at Bucky’s jacket fringes. Like most of Delillo’s work, it nails America’s invasive culture perfectly without soaking the specifics in highlighter pen.
In addition, this is Delillo’s most solid pre-White Noise book.
I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo by Nick Cohn.
I’m always surprised so few people know about I Am Still The Greatest… One of the earliest entries in the rock novel canon, Cohn’s Johnny Angelo rises from the muck to ridiculous, cult-like heights. This 1968 book finds little to no redemption in seeking out one’s artistic vision. It only offers trouble and pain and wonderfully black humor.
Even more incredible is the fact that Cohn, who’s gone on to a stellar career as a rock critic, was 19 when he wrote it. Supposedly, Angelo was based on the destructive Texan/Brit pop star, PJ Proby. Though, the darkness of the novel seems like it’s what could’ve happened if Scott Walker set his sights on conquering the teen pop market instead of singing tunes so dark they make Ingmar Bergman films feel like Kindergarten Cop.
Spider Kiss by Harlan Ellison.
After an exhausting couple seconds on Google, I’ve determined this is the original rock novel. Written in 1961, Ellison’s (best known for his sci-fi work and general assholery) story follows the typical phoenix flight of Stag Preston to roots rock stardom. Based heavily on Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, the book eclipses those troubled singers’ tar blackest moments and rapidly unravels into a horrific mess.
It’s tough to tell if Ellison loved or hated rock music at the time of this book. It somersaults our innocent vision of the bobby socks era into its own special circle of Hell. While you know it’ll end badly, it’s impossible to stop reading Spider Kiss.
The Anomolies by Joey Goebel.
Picture it: a Wes Anderson movie about rock bands set in rural Kentucky. Goebel’s debut contains a wild cast of characters comprising the band, The Anomalies, including wheelchaired Satanists, geriatrics, little girls and Iraqi soldiers. What makes this book work is the heart with which Goebel draws them.
While it follows the above rock arc pretty close, you get the sense that Goebel owns that map and simply splices it to his liking.
Artificial Light by James Greer.
Easily one of the weirdest and most challenging rock books ever written. Greer, who was also the bassist for lo-fi rock gods Guided by Voices, crafts a dense story around mid-90s Dayton, OH. Indie rock geeks will rejoice in spotting the references to Guided by Voices’ inebriated singer Bob Pollard, alt-rock goddesses the Breeders, Brainiac and Swearing at Motorists—all bands that helped Dayton look like the new Seattle for a flicker of time. (I went to college in Dayton then, so I am one of those geeks.)
The story is told through the eyes of a librarian wading through the diaries of a Kurt Cobain-esque recluse who returned to his hometown, Dayton. Within, is the story of the singer, the strange lives of the Wright Brothers, and, maybe, the meaning of life.
Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack.
Okay, wait, Artificial Light isn’t the weirdest rock novel. Well, maybe, considering Haunted Hillbilly is a country music novel. But you can’t have rock without Hank Williams, who is the surreal protagonist of McCormack’s wild ride. Here, we get a traditional up from nothing biopic arc, but retold with Seuss-like lyricism meeting brutal minimalism, all set in a 1950s Nashville plagued by a homoerotic vampire.
Nothing else reads like a Derek McCormack book. They rarely stack above 150 pages, but always manage to push boundaries thought impossible by raw words, queerness and even vampiric good taste. See his cartoonish old-timey music/funhouse novel The Show That Smells for further proof.
Never Mind the Pollacks by Neal Pollack
Probably the funniest rock novel ever written. Pollack lampoons pop music history and rock criticism by placing a character named “Neal Pollack” at the forefront of every major music movement known to man. Never Mind is a Zelig for record collectors and McSweeney’s subscribers.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Come for the promise of Robert Pollard-like reclusive genius, stay for the soberingly articulate mediation on middle age and death. Stone Arabia centers around The Chronicles—a 30-year project by the main character’s brother to record albums, make fake band histories and even white his own record reviews. Arabia proves light on The Chronicles’ compelling potential rabbit hole of musical fun, and gets heavy with thoughts on mortality. Somehow, it all works. Thanks, likely, in part to Spiotta’s sharp prose.
The Gospel Singer by Harry Crews.
Again, not, technically, a rock novel. But, it’s about gospel. And you can’t get R&B without gospel. And rock would need Viagra without R&B.
Crews’ brutally weird South is at its finest in his debut. While everyone in the book is beyond emotional or societal repair, The Gospel Singer says a lot about the nature of celebrity. The musicians we worship aren’t the people we think they are. But we feed off their magic all the same.
It’s like saying you only think Bono spends his free time driving solar-powered cars and rescuing African villagers. If you don’t assume he also manages to snooze in Tahitian hammocks and pilot diesel-guzzling yachts, I have a Rolex to sell you.
But still, we need a Bono. And the folks of Crews’ Enigma, GA need The Gospel Singer. No matter what depths he sinks to.
Life by Keith Richards.
If this book is 100% nonfiction I will shave my eyebrows and smoke them. (I’m pretty sure Keith did the same on page 363). Two things are clear throughout this killer memoir: 1.) Richards has lived an insanely interesting life; 2.) Like most great oral storytellers, he is bullshitting the details to make a good yarn.
I’m okay with that, because the voice in this book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Drug-tastic acrobatics, palling around with Jamaican warlords, Keith’s taste in nautical literature—it’s all there. Oh, also, he managed to write a bazillion amazing songs and dishes on their creation as casually as you and I brewing morning coffee.