Still in book reviewing mode…
Novels set in the rock world tend to be pot boilers in the downmarket Jackie Collins mould wherein our hero is a one-dimensional stereotype profligate cocaine-hoovering shagger who gets his comeuppance when the money runs out and his nose drops off, yet is redeemed at the last minute by the love of a good woman, and about as satisfying as half a pint of lemonade shandy. Serious novelists don’t touch rock for fear of getting stuck in the cliché mire, and I can’t blame them, but this book by Mark Hodkinson is an exception. I reviewed it for the Rocks Back Pages blog when it first came out in 2009. BTW, Mark has written for Omnibus Press, most notably his biography of Marianne Faithfull which both of us have god reason to believe the lady herself refers to when writing her own books, not that she’d ever admit to it of course.
In this taut, pacey and authentic rite-of-passage novel, Mark Hodkinson offers an inside look at the unsentimental realities of being in a band, the injustices and the indignities, at the same time recounting the contrasting lives of the one who made it and is hanging on grimly, and his childhood best friend and former band colleague who didn’t. That their lives become intertwined again many years later provides the climax to the book and a twist in its tail.
Barrett is a rock star, or at least was, once the kingpin of a band called Killing Stars who seem not unlike the Clash; punky, idealistic, political, intent at first on not selling out but inevitably coerced into doing so, at least in part, by the machine. He’s now a forty-something alcoholic and whimsically unpredictable, still revered by many, living reluctantly on his past, releasing new albums that don’t sell, and his latest marriage is failing. Carey was a founder member of the band, quitting just before they were signed, unsure of his role and musical ability. He’s now a newspaper reporter on the local paper where he and Barrett grew up, a dismal, unnamed northern town that suffered brutally under Thatcherism. His hopes of becoming a novelist are still alive but fading fast.
What Barrett and Carey have in common are depressing housing estate childhoods, a lack of formal education despite their obvious artistic gifts and an undimmed belief in the heroic struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie. They both loathe tradition, conformity, Top Of The Pops, clubs called Bojangles, anything that smacks of selling out for commercial gain. Where they differ is in ambition. Barrett smoulders with resentment at anything and everyone and this gives him the sense of purpose that takes Killing Stars, with varying personnel, from the backrooms of pubs to arenas, though the period when the group enjoy fame and fortune is left to our imagination, no doubt to avoid cliché. He’s clever too, writes enigmatic lyrics and gives good interviews, and like many of his ilk is an incorrigible womaniser. Carey lacks this drive and is just about content with his lot, occasionally envious of his old friend, especially when he reads about him in NME, but he’s still a thinker and a reader and in his own quiet, diligent and dignified way hasn’t quite given up on his dreams.
The structure of the book, a few paragraphs or a page or two about one, then the same about the other, makes for a fast-paced read, especially in the first half when the rise of Killing Stars during the ’80s with Carey in its ranks, authentically told by an author who clearly knows his way around about the music industry, its pitfall and scams, is set against Barrett’s edgy behaviour as a rapidly unravelling dipso twenty years later. Though there is no discernable interval, in the second half, when Carey is drawn back to Barrett through an opportunity to become his biographer, the pace slackens off as the dialogue between them dwells more on how circumstance has shaped their lives and outlook. It’s the same with real rock biographies – it’s far more fun reading about how they made it than what happened afterwards.
There are some comical set pieces, including a Barrett TV interview that goes horribly wrong a la Pistols-Grundy, and some finely drawn minor characters like the band’s and Barrett’s managers, an NME writer and the editor of the local newspaper. The female characters, chief among them Barrett’s long suffering wife and the key woman in Carey’s life, are less convincing. Had Hodkinson been a writer of Ian McEwan’s ingenuity, he’d have fashioned an ambiguous ending in the manner of Atonement wherein The Last Mad Surge Of Youth might (or might not) be the biography that Carey had been commissioned to write. As it is the ending is one of those where you wish you spotted the clues earlier but didn’t, and the book is all the better for that.
I’m pretty sure that everyone who takes more than a passing interest in the music press and understands the realities of art verses commerce in rock will enjoy this novel as it ticks all the relevant boxes. Highly recommended.