Monday, June 7, 2010

It's not personal, it's just bizness....

This is disappointing. 4 its 1st 2/3rd's, John Eskow's SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING (1980) is a solid, involving, very-well-written rock&roll novel, as good in its Dtail & Dscription of life in an up&coming R&B/bar band as the 1st 5 chapters of Jesse Sublett's ROCK CRITIC MURDERS.
But w/ the unXpected, un4shadowed murder of Ollie the Roadie -- who's bn protecting the band since pg. 1 of the book -- Eskow loses control of the story & never regains it. The last 3rd spirals down in2 cliches & plotlessness, & tho there's a bittersweet 1-nite reunion scene at the Nd, it's not enuf. Nothing has NE payoff.
Which is 2 bad, Bcos Eskow was on2 a very good thing.
Singer/lyricist Jimmy Caine & brilliant but ever-more-shaky lead guitarist Alan Landreaux head-up NYC bar band Cakewalk, who score a break & start attracting record-co attn just when they thot their ride was over. An oddball Col. Tom Parker-wannabe named Harry Seely offers 2 manage them & guarantees them a record contract within a yr. It happens even faster.
The early chapters, showing Cakewalk in their element, playing in smoky bars & dives around the NYC area, R by far the best part of the book. Eskow has a good eye 4 Dtail, moves his story along w/o straining, & has a way of closing off a good scene w/ a telling line of Dscription or dialogue.
Caine, Landreaux & wisecracking drummer Mikey Martelli R real, believable characters w/ their own odd quirks, bigger than the story they Nd up trapped in. Bassist Paul Baker is a quiet cipher, basically the same at the Nd of the book as he was at the Bginning. The women the band members get close 2 R fully-realized people w/ their own drives & goals, 2.
It's only at the mgmt & record-co Nd that things get a little unreal. Seely is clear as a "type," but he doesn't come across as a real person -- 2 many odd, stagey hangups that don't Cm real. & record-co Bad Guy Wayne Harmon is just a big shadowy-evil presence, clearly in the book Bcos the story needed a Bad Guy.
The story follows Cakewalk thru their last few NYC shows, thru their sessions 2 record their 1st album, & thru their 1st nationwide tour -- during which things go weird & Landreaux is eventually 4ced out of the band 4 what Cms like stupid reasons.
Landreaux goes steadily more nuts. Meanwhile, Caine holds Cakewalk 2gether, & the band records a 2nd, more-commercial album. But the band's growing success doesn't make Caine happy.
Landreaux Nds up heading another band, playing 1-nite gigs until sometime in the future when he won't B able 2 do it NEmore. Caine loses his soul reaching 4 fame & $$$. The only happy people at the Nd of the book R Martelli & his wife Carla, who have made enuf $$$ 2 live comfortably, settle down & raise a family.
& the murder-conspiracy plot that develops in the last 1/2 of the book doesn't help. Seely Nds up w/ a trashed career when 2 people R killed thru the conspiracy, & Harmon -- the Bad Guy -- Gets Away With It. But 4 WHAT? 2 protect a stash of world-class bootleg recordings -- that nothing's ever done with? Nothing has NE payoff.
MayB Eskow didn't have a big, dramatic, fireworks-filled way 2 Nd his novel. But the disappointment Xpressed by mosta the characters & the brief reunion at the very Nd Rn't enuf, either. MayB Real Life turns out this way when U discover yr career wasn't worth the effort U put in2 it, but a successful novel requires something more, something bigger. Thru the final 3rd of the book it's obvious Eskow didn't have it. & I can't figure out what he was aiming 4.
If U liked the portrait of bar-band life shown in Sublett's ROCK CRITIC MURDERS, there's a lot more of it here. The 1st 2/3rd's of the book is well worth tracking down.


rastronomicals said...

Think I can recommend another piece of rock and roll fiction--if I haven't already. Been going through my comments to make sure I hadn't mentioned it here before, and I didn't find anything, but apologies if I've indeed mentioned this before.

The book would be Espedair Street by Iain Banks--the same Iain M Banks who writes all the thousand-page space operas, except he publishes without the middle M initial when it's straight fiction and not sci fi.

Basically Espedair Street is a look at the life of a Scottish songwriter. Joins a band--think Fleetwood Mac--and plays bass for 'em, but his real talent is his songwriting. The band (VERY talented instrumentalists themselves, though they rely almost exclusively on our hero's songwriting) becomes rather famous, and then some accidents happen. Our songwriting bassplayer then becomes a recluse, the novel (split between reminiscences and the now) being the a recount of the events that force him to finally emerge.

Towards the end, Banks begins flailing at some easy targets, and if that kind of thing bothers you, you'll have to forgive a little bit, but it's a book that is easy to forgive.

Also, the happy ending might seem a little forced to some, but y'know, a little good luck for our character didn't seem so very out of place to me.

Never been in a rock and roll band, never been rich, never been Scottish, never been a recluse, so my praise may not mean much, but despite the fact it's not perfect, Espedair Street rang very true for me, and I recommend it.

tad said...

Thanx, R. Sounds like ESPEDAIR STREET would B just my kinda thing & I'm gonna havta track it down. I've bn wanting 2 read some of Iain Banks' work since yr last recommendation....
Also, supposedly Don DiLillo has a rock&roll novel starring a sorta Bowie-like character -- the book's called GREAT JONES STREET, & I've never even Cn a copy....
Thanx 4 the recommendation. -- TAD.