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Netty’s with the band. Maybe just not this one …

January 6, 2012

Ah, rock bios. Love ‘em. Got bookshelves packed to the rafters full of ‘em. From venerable scribe-of-the-‘60s Phillip Norman’s Shout, the definitive tome on the Fab Four, to Motley Crue’s warts-and-all-and-then-some The Dirt, the ultimate guide to rock-pig decadence and debauchery … they all have one thing in common, and one thing that keeps the reader coming back for more. It’s that hoary old chestnut: fact is stranger than fiction; the whole you-couldn’t-make-this-shit-up-if-you-tried.

And that, in a nutshell, dear reader, is where Toby Litt’s I Play Drums in a Band Called okay (yes, that’s lower case AND italics) falls down. I don’t know Litt’s background when it comes to music. Is he a musician? Did he ever play in a band? Or is he just a fan? It’s hard to tell on the evidence presented here; the pendulum could easily swing either way. But I couldn’t help thinking, at the conclusion of okay, why anyone would construct a fictional band and write a book about it. I mean, why bother when there’s so much flippin’ fantastic non-fiction out there on just about every band that ever rocked a stage in the modern era?

This is my first encounter with Litt; Andy’s too. I recall at the end of 2010, putting together our 2011 list, that I wanted Chuck Palahniuk on there, while Andy was championing Litt – and this particular book – on the recommendation of a particularly well-read mate of his (hi Chris!). I felt at the time – and still do, especially now that I have since become acquainted with Chuck’s work – that one would cancel out the other. Hence, Litt got the nod, and Palahniuk was put aside for another day (as it turned out, both Andy and I ended up reviewing Chuck’s latest, Damned, separately, in other forums late last year).

But, yeah, maybe okay isn’t the best place to start with Litt. Published in 2008, it’s Litt’s ninth book (there have since been two more) and, interestingly enough, he has been working his way through the alphabet title-wise. Hailed as one of England’s best young writers when he first emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s, in his mid-20s, I can’t help but wonder if we might have been better served reading one of those earlier, critically acclaimed books (typically for me, a copy of Litt’s second novel Beatniks has been languishing, unread, on my shelves for just about as long as it has been out. Might have to dig it out to see if I like it better than okay).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate okay – not by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t dislike it, either. It’s just that it’s – well, it’s okay (no pun intended. Honestly). Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s just – okay. Sometimes it comes across more as a series of vignettes containing the same characters, which might have something to do with the fact that eight of these 26 chapters (Litt calls them “episodes”) appeared in various anthologies and magazines as early as six years prior to the publication of okay. And possibly this explains why, occasionally, these chapters appear to work better as standalone pieces. As he kept returning to these characters time and again, it was probably only logical that Litt would decide to turn their stories into a full-length LP or two, rather than keep the output to just a few, choice singles. But then again, as in real life, very few bands know when they need to stop, as opposed to keeping on plugging away, doing those same old songs night after night.

There’s a very melancholy air that pervades this book, as you might expect from a fortysomething man looking back at his life with the band of which he has been part since he was a teenager. okay, we learn, is a “mid-level” indie quartet from Canada, comprising the narrator Clap (drums), Syph (vocals), Mono (bass) and Crab (guitar), with an output of a dozen albums recorded over a 25-year career (an “incomplete” discography is helpfully provided at the back of the book). Clap retells the band’s history – the usual array of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll anecdotes – in a vaguely chronological order. The band breaks up, then makes up; there’s plenty of destruction and disintegration, disease and death. Sometimes it rings true, sometimes it seems forced; a lot of times it is just clichéd. And it is not helped by a tad too much wistful meandering along the way.

I mean, maybe if you’d never read even one of those aforementioned multitudes of rock bios; if you’d never loved and lived for the songs, and the bands. Me, I’ve spent pretty much my entire life immersed – and mired – in music; perhaps that is why I’m all just a bit “meh” about a fictional book about a fictional rock band. After all, if you can’t hear the music in your head as you’re reading the words, it’s all a bit of a moot point, innit?

So, in the same spirit, if this was a music review I’d be giving okay (the book and the band) two and a half stars (Andy said three; I initially agreed, but have decided to downgrade on further reflection). But I am going to give its author the benefit of the doubt. So, then, where is that copy of Beatniks? Oh, here it is, squeezed into a shelf next to Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (I absolutely swear I did not make that up. It really, truly was! As I said before, fact is always stranger than fiction … )

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