Sunday, April 11, 2010

Evening's Empire

For something so integral to our culture, rock and roll music has inspired relative few significant works of art. Literary heavyweights Don DeLillo and Salman Rushdie have written great rock novels that haven’t found significant audiences, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous are critically adored movies that have not moves beyond the status of ‘cult classics.’ Long time Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair writer Bill Flanagan’s new novel Evening’s Empire is the latest attempt at creating literature out of rock and roll mythology.

Jack Flynn is a junior associate at a conservative, white-shoe London firm who takes the Ravons, a second-tier blues-rock band in swinging mid-60’s London, on as a client at the request of his firm’s senior partners, who know nothing about rock music but who want to stay in the good graces of an elderly theater impresario whose son manages them. Flynn’s legal training and savvy business instinct soon win over Emerson Cutler, the band’s heartthrob of a lead singer, and before long, the band ends up firing their manager and replacing them with Flynn. Its a predictable, but effective device - as the band’s manager, Flynn can be in on every conversation, can comment on the band as a somewhat neutral observer, and can have off-the-record conversations with individual members outside of the others’ earshot.

Flanagan has an insider’s knowledge of rock music, gathered during a career of covering bands on the road, but at times, the narrative seems structured so as to allow Flanagan an opportunity to show it off. The band goes on tour to America, becomes more successful, moves to a farm in the north of England to get back to nature, before moving to southern California in the 1970’s, New York during the CBGB era, and gets rejuvenated by MTV before ending up in rehab in the late 1980s. Would it surprise you to know that, following the success of Graceland, Emerson takes Jack to Africa to reconnect to the roots of blues music, and that the band, in the wake of a well-received reunion at Live 8, embarks on a lucrative farewell tour, before getting out of music because today‘s performers have no soul? Of course not. Just about every major ‘scene’ in the past forty-five years of rock mythology is covered, and though it may be difficult to believe that a single band’s career could span so much geographic and stylistic ground, Flanagan leavens his narrative with enough wit and telling detail to reward the suspension of our disbelief.

This, however, is also the novel's biggest failing. Though a couple of the supporting characters are memorable, the main characters, particularly Jack and Emerson, move from trend to trend so much that they never really seem to develop distinct personalities. It seems odd that any one musician would have quite as many different experiences as Emerson; furthermore, it would be rare indeed for somebody to be able to change their musical styles so often without losing their fan base.

About a week ago, I described this novel to a friend by saying that it reads like a British Almost Famous. I meant it to be merely descriptive, but, the more I think about it, the more that sounds like a recommendation. Let it be. Evening’s Empire is a solid beach or airport novel for rock fans - well written and insightful without being particularly demanding.


Night Writer said...

I bet you'd like Duncan McLean's "Lone Star Swing" book. McLean is a Scottish writer who won an opportunity to visit the U.S. and decided that he wanted to retrace the career of a band he had becomes obsessed with from afar: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a country (or Texas) swing band from the 1950s and originators of a distinct sound. How a Scots kid got hooked on Texas swing is curious enough, but McLean's writing is a damn fine mix of historical homage and half-bewildered observations of the people and culture he encountered in Texas. Kind of a Bill Bryson with a brogue.

It's a breezy read, but there were times when I was slowed down because I was laughing so hard I had to wipe my eyes.

Wade Garrett said...

"Bill Bryson with a brogue" sounds just about like my idea of the perfect book. Thanks for the recommendation!