Sunday, April 21, 2013
It’s hard to watch our rock stars get old, because that means that we, too, are older. We’d like to remember Paul as the cute Beatle, Mick before all the wrinkles, and Gregg with his original liver. At least we can take comfort in the fact that they’re all still out there rocking, living the rock n’ roll lifestyle, earning millions. But what about the middle-of-the-road guys, the ones who didn’t sustain that level of success? Whatever became of them? Well, they’re still there, you just have to look. WEST OF BABYLON, Ted Heller’s fourth novel, takes a look at one of these types of bands, the fictitious Long Island-based The Furious Overfalls.
The Furious Overfalls consist of founder and singer/guitarist Danny, skirt-chasing lead guitarist Jules, the OCD-afflicted bassist Howie, and clueless drummer Joey. The four musicians are now playing small clubs for little money, selling CDs by hand for ten bucks, and doubling up in crappy hotel rooms. The glory days of road crews, fancy hotels, and air travel are now just a memory. And health insurance, what’s that? When drummer Joey gets sick, the band faces a crossroads they’ve been avoiding for a while: continue as a band or finally pack it in. But first they embark on one final national tour. Can they bring Joey back alive, as Danny promises Joey’s wife? And even if they do, what then? This is the only life they’ve even known.
The novel covers the arc of the band from their beginning up to the present day. The reader is plopped into their world, where we meet the myriad supporting cast of groupies, hangers-on, and producers, and where we experience the high and the lows of an aging group of musicians on the road for over 30 years. And don’t forget the music—which I could practically hear, it was described so well. Additionally, the dynamics between the four (very different) personalities is handled deftly, and what each member is thinking about life as they push toward sixty. One scene that will stick with me for a long time is when Jules is walking alone around Manhattan the night before Thanksgiving, desperate to find someone to hang out with. But he can't connect with anyone from the old days—because those days are long gone; the people are long gone. This is a turning point for Jules, as he begins to see that the guys in the band need each other more than they’d realized.
Heller is one on my favorite authors, and he continues to surprise me with how well he tackles varied subjects. His first novel, SLAB RAT (Scribner, 2001) satirized the world of magazine publishing; his second, FUNNYMEN (Scribner 2003) took on the world of Catskills comedy; and POCKET KINGS (Algonquin Books, 2012) addressed the current state of book publishing (along with online addiction). With BABYLON he takes on the music industry. It is not a comedy/satire like his other novels (though it does have its comedic moments); what it is, is a poignant look at friendship, family responsibilities, and growing old. And, of course, rock n’ roll (if you couldn’t tell from the Clash-flavored cover).
I was truly sad to see the novel end, as I had gotten attached to the characters. The only thing missing from this rock n’ roll novel is an actual soundtrack. I guess I’ll have to wait for the movie.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Sunday, December 23, 2012
The lead character in Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is Taz Chavis, recovering coke head and ex-con, who, while still in jail, is drawn to the idea of thru-hiking the nearly 2,200 mile length of the AT. Not only will it help him shake his drug habit--and the temptation of drugs that city life will offer--but it will cleanse his soul, allow him change into the man he wants to be. At least, that is the idea.
Once out of jail (and after tying up some loose ends), he hits the trail, out of shape but determined to change his life. Taz tells us, "For a moment I feel like an outsider, like I'm trespassing on hallowed ground, but hiking the AT is my dream and I'm not about to leave it anytime soon."
He befriends two other hikers who are trying to escape their own troubles: Richard, an alcoholic Blackfoot Indian who wants to avoid a lifetime working in his family business; and Simone, a woman with a "dark secret" who--even though she believes people can't change who they are--gives it one last shot to prove that she is wrong (or right) about this notion (and herself).
There are several chapters that involve side characters, people not hiking the Appalachian Trail, but who live close enough that they too feel its effect, its pull, its temptation to walk off into the woods and leave your troubles behind. But do you really leave them behind, or do they come with you, packed in your backpack with your water and GORP? This is the question that Taz and Richard and Simone will soon have answered.
T.J. Forrester's writing is clean, crisp, and cuts right through to the (sometimes black) heart of his characters. Take the journey with them--just stay away from the edge!
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Here is the new song "Cut Me Some Slack" from Paul McCartney and the guys from Nirvana—Dave Grohl (drums), Krist Novoselic (Bass), Pat Smear (Guitar), as performed at the 121212 Sandy benefit concert. Paul sings and plays some sick lead guitar. The studio version of the song is now on sale on ITunes, and is part of the soundtrack for Sound City – Real to Reel: Music from and Inspired by Sound City, a film by Grohl.