Monday 24 September 2007

The Singer

Cathi Unsworth

Popular music is, by its very nature, ephemeral. So are its singers. Every rock or pop record that makes it to the charts is a work of three-minute heroes, most doomed to one-hit fame followed by ongoing obscurity. It seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely candidate for being a source of deeper meaning about the human condition. Can anything substantial emerge from it?

At first glance, probably not. A few records may be seen as the dominant cultural weathervanes for their particular decade. But the writer of this novel – a former rock journalist – uses rock music as a background for examining darker aspects of life. In the late 1970s – following the mid-decade punk explosion – some musicians formed a band called Blood Truth. They achieve some success and indulge in plenty of excess. Then the band’s singer, Vincent Smith, goes off with Sylvana, singer for ethereal band Mood Violent. Six months later, she commits suicide, Blood Truth dissolves, Smith disappears. Fast forward to 2001 and no-hoper journalist Eddie Brackness – who thinks that writing the band’s story will make his name and revive his flagging relationship with intellectual live-in girlfriend – sets off to track down the band’s members, including Smith. He finds… well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Unsworth is a practitioner of noir, a form of writing that’s usually employed by crime novelists – old Etonian and former conman the late Derek Raymond has been hailed as its leading British exponent in recent years – who attempt to peel back the carapace of society and find what lurks beneath. It’s a way of examining the age old problem of why human beings do evil things. Unsworth’s discoveries are not comfortable. The members of Blood Truth have variously undergone physical abuse, been raised with a lack of expectations, suffered racism, or are morally empty. The last is the case with Smith: Unsworth brings his spiritual death vividly to life. The singer Sylvana comes from a wealthy background but she’s a poor little American rich girl gone very, very wrong. Noir writing can lend itself to a mere sensationalist piling on of horrors; there’s money in misery: Unsworth carefully avoids this trap. Her times as a rock journalist have enabled her to capture the scuzzy glamour of rock’s backstage and touring life and to give a convincing picture of the relationships between the all-male members of Blood Truth. She also handles with dexterity another difficult area for any writer: sex.

A sex scene involving Smith and a female band manager in an office avoids both shocked reticence and slavering sensationalism. Unsworth also has a good stab at catching the drab ethos of the late 1970s London which was on the cusp of emerging from the rundown of recession, where left and right battle it out intermittently on the streets, and when the threat of serious violence was an ever-present fear and threat at any gig. She’s better, though, at portraying near-contemporary London with its fearless hood rats and gentrification of one-time counter cultural locations like Notting Hill’s Portobello Road. And the neat double-twist at the end shows light – of a sort – penetrating the darkness of the story. Light is an essential feature of noir – without it, the format has no meaning, no reference point against which the horrors it depicts can be contrasted.

Today, when current literary novelists barely scrape into the lists of famous contemporary icons, the literary novel is – arguably – having to struggle to be more than a minority interest. Stories of, say, family breakdown in Hamstead or sexual dysfunction in Crouch End don’t cut the mustard. I suspect crime novels are now more popular among woman than romance: the R-word is out, a casualty of divorce, feminism and cynicism. Meanwhile, with the virtual demise of the rock press – Record Mirror, Sounds and Melody Maker have all died the death – rock sociology may be, well, not on the way out , but its cultural standing could well be severely reduced.

That may be no bad thing – most rock-based cultural commentary is turgid stuff produced by writers who, you feel, have never actually experienced the hedonistic pleasure of dressing up, hitting the dance floor or going with the flow of music. They fail to realise that the sound and feel of the music are its combined message. But rock performers haven’t lost their powerful ability to grab our attention, as the ongoing sagas of Peter Doherty and Amy Winehouse show. With a possible rise in popularity of noir crime writing, the rock novel may provide some backstage passes that give access to all areas. But – as this book shows – but they are places we enter with caution.



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