Iain Banks's ESPEDAIR STREET (1987) isn't a bad rock&roll novel. It's a pretty solid 250-pg character sketch of a guy who turns his back on the music bizness at the peak of his success, because of the guilt he feels over the deaths of 2 of his friends & fellow band-members. Their deaths were absolutely NOT his fault. But the incidents were triggered by his ideas.
The book is the reminiscences & misadventures of Daniel Weir, better known by his stage-name -- Weird. He's the main songwriter & leader of the Fleetwood-Mac-meets-Yes-style '70s/'80s band Frozen Gold. FG is phenomenally popular -- poppy yet arty, they can cover the musical spectrum without losing their audience. Weird's the mastermind behind it all.
There's some great stuff here -- Weird's 1st time seeing the band play at a local hall, his 1st meeting w/ them -- when they look at his songs & agree to polish them up a bit, & fame & riches follow soon after -- discussions of album projects & tours. Some of this is very vivid & well-done.
But. It's a bit of a jumble. There's a lot of flashbacks, & some of the "present-day" narration seems a little cluttered. There are a lotta loose ends in the reminiscences. For me, there was too much looning about in local pubs or drinking aimlessly inside the fake-church that Weird lives in, looking out over the city of Glasgow.
I can see why that looning around in pubs is in the book -- because what happens in those incidents forces Weird to reveal his true identity & past to the new friends he's found in Glasgow -- who don't realize he was once a world-famous rock star. And that revelation leads Weird on to the steps he must take to reach what he hopes is happiness at end of the book.
But. I don't understand why he feels so guilty. He says he felt guilty as a child, long before his music career. Bad parenting? We meet his mother, she's not so bad, & he tells us his father's a brute, but we never meet him.
This is also the 3rd book I've read in a row where the message is that achieving artistic success doesn't lead anywhere. At the end, Weird's desperate search for peace of mind leads him to an old love & a new instant family.
I can understand the importance of that, of the need for friends & love in your life. But. This embrace of middle-class values is what he'd been trying to get AWAY from since before the start of his music career.
Just once I'd like to read a rock&roll novel in which it's affirmed that artistic success (& the financial comfort that can go with it) DOES lead somewhere -- that creating art can transcend life's more mundane worries. That it DOES lead somewhere good all by itself -- that artistic achievement & success doesn't just open the door to drug abuse & alcoholism & other stupid pointless pursuits. Otherwise, why bother? If drinking & drugs & enough leisure time to truly screw-up your life is all people really want, why does anybody try to do anything creative? There must be easier ways to make a living....
Certainly if I had Weird's money I'd find something better to do with it than drinking too much & sitting in my fake-church, looking out over Glasgow, feeling sorry for myself. (Not the drinking too much part, anyway.)
This is an above-average novel that never gets near what creating MEANS or how those songs that so badly needed to come out ended-up changing Weird's life. Or if they did. He might've gone on the same way even without success. But what did those songs MEAN to him? We never find out.
It's no wonder songwriters have trouble explaining what a song's "about" or where it "came from" -- it HAD to come out. There it is. What more can you say? It's beyond explanation -- you'll havta settle for The Thing Itself. & if it affects you, if it somehow changes your life, that's between You and It.
I held off reviewing this book for a few days, & thought about it instead, trying to get a handle on what dissatisfied me about it. I'm also aware that Rastro, who often comments here, is a fan of ESPEDAIR STREET, & I didn't want to miss or misunderstand anything that he might call me out for.
I think what dissatisfies me is that I always want to know more. I want to think that people with talent would do something WITH it once they've hit the jackpot -- that they wouldn't just piss it away thru drinking & drugging & bed-hopping & shopping.
I'd like to think that songs mean something to their creators -- that they aren't just a means to obtain another high. I'd like to think that a creative person would be true to their muse, that there's a REASON why someone has been given a gift, & that an artist's job is to explore that gift until they can't use it anymore. I don't know of any higher calling.
But artists havta live in the Real World, too.
...OK, so I'm starry-eyed & idealistic. I don't drink or smoke or drug, so I can't relate to any of that. But I can relate to the creating. Very much. & I want to know MORE -- How? Why? What does it mean? Where did it come from? How did expressing this help make sense out of your world?
Or did you just wanna jot down some simple words to go with a catchy tune?
Coming eventually: Don DeLillo's GREAT JONES STREET, Laurence Gonzales's JAMBEAUX, & more music.