What exactly is a rock-n-roll novel? It isn’t necessarily a novel about musicians, or a novel for which rock music provides a backdrop — though there have been novels that have fallen into each of these categories. Nor is it necessarily a book by a rock musician: the narrator of Joe Pernice’s recent It Feels So Good When I Stop may play music, but its role in the novel is ultimately less about his creative endeavors and more about music’s parallels to his romantic life.
The best rock music has an urgency to it. Some of the most interesting incorporates its stylistic ancestors, at times overtly, at others subtly. Rock music is a place where history overlaps; where questions of race, gender, and sexuality can be asked; where politics can be explored. In recent years, Jonathan Lethem dissected the web of relationships within an LA band in his You Don’t Love Me Yet, while Ben Greenman balanced social turmoil with a self-destructive protagonist in Please Step Back. Rock music situated those stories within a larger context: one that’s familiar and can still inspire both admiration and derision, depending on who’s listening.
What follows is a selection of six rock-n-roll novels that feature rock stars and wedding bands, local scenes and world tours, and inspiration both creative and personal — a primer of what the rock novel can address.
Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street
Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel about a reclusive rock star named Bucky Wunderlick has much of what you might expect, given the author and subject: musings on the nature of celebrity and the overlap of art and commerce; surreal political declarations; ominous entities hovering over the proceedings. The novel intersperses Wunderlick’s account of his own self-imposed retreat to an apartment in a then-threatening East Village with lyrics and interviews, creating a fractured setting from which conspiracies emerge. DeLillo’s concept of the pop musician as corporate head anticipates everything from celebrity club appearances to Jeff Mangum’s periodic guest stints with affiliated bands to Jay-Z’s time as CEO of Def Jam.
Tony O’Neill, Down and Out on Murder Mile
The daily life of a working, touring musician is far from glamorous. Novelist and poet Tony O’Neill has spent time playing in the likes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Kenickie, and this, his second novel, is informed by a ground-level view of the experiences of a moderately successful band. Its musician narrator travels from Los Angeles to London, struggling with his own addictions. While self-destruction forms the spine of the novel, O’Neill’s narrative provides a brutally realistic take on the music industry, and the rhythms of his prose are hard to shake.
Rick Moody, Garden State
Northern New Jersey is fertile ground for notable novels about bands: close enough to New York to be local, yet at times worlds apart from a cultural perspective. Rick Moody’s Garden State delves into the dysfunctional world of a rock band based in Haledon: drugs and awkward relationships (romantic and familial) abound. Its second sentence speaks volumes about the sort of music we’re going to encounter: “First of April and Alice the rhythm guitarist for Critical Ma$$ was idle, killing time at her mother’s house as she had killed it in high school and after.”
Tom Perrotta, The Wishbones
Tom Perrotta’s novel The Wishbones is also set in the New Jersey suburbs, and subverts rock-novel expectations along the way. This isn’t a story of musicians at their creative peak or The Next Big Thing, but instead focuses on Dave Raymond, the guitarist in a wedding band. Not entirely at home in the suburbs due to his music, but equally uncomfortable around artists in the city, Dave’s tension makes for a compelling read: the unacknowledged pains of being middlebrow.
Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned
The phrase “rock & roll novel” suggests that musicians are generally the focal point. By contrast, Joe Meno’s 2004 Hairstyles of the Damned explores the effect that music can have on someone’s personal evolution. Hairstyles of the Damned is structured as a sort of conversion narrative, as Brian, its Chicago-based protagonist, moves from a fondness towards heavy metal to a love of punk rock. In the process, a political awareness is born.
Blake Nelson, Girl
Andrea Marr, the narrator of Blake Nelson’s 1994 Girl, dwells on the fringes of Portland’s indie rock scene. Girl follows her through most of high school, paralleling her search for an identity with the evolution of a band formed by her classmates. Much like Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned, Nelson uses his setting to touch on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, never losing sight of music’s appeal, but also remaining honest about its limitations for inspiration.