Hamish Hamilton £12.99
I Play the Drums in a Band Called okay, By Toby Litt
Excess all areas? Not when you're a member of a minor Canadian rock band
Sunday 23 March 2008
"If you want to know what it feels like to be a man, try spending 25 years in a band, and then you'll be like a brother to me, and I'll be a brother to you," sang the delightfully obscure Californians The Tyde on their barely known classic "Blood Brothers". Toby Litt's ninth book (taking him up to "I" in his self-imposed alphabetic series: let's hope he's got a 26-book deal, eh?) attempts to expand upon that hard-learned lesson. Unfortunately, it lacks the elegant concision of a decent three-minute song.
Forget the Great American Novel; the Convincing Rock Novel is far more problematic. The challenge has already perplexed such heavyweights as a young DeLillo and a way too old Rushdie. Attempting to reconcile Elvis Presley and a distant caste system looks downright dull next to tales of drugged-up derring-do and touring madness. Litt has the wit to aim low, expanding several previously published short stories about a resolutely unheroic Canadian indie rock band called okay (yep, lower case and italicised), into an entire novel (or career's) worth.
They seem to be three parts REM but with a priapic junkie up front. They have stupid medical nicknames (Syph, Mono, Crab, Clap) that might have spared a punk rock band a DHSS investigation back in Thatcher's Britain, and they "sound like the Velvet Underground on quarter-speed". Not exactly stadium fodder then, even if they claim kinship with "the four great archetypal bands: The Beatles, The Band, The Velvets, The Stooges". (also the four easiest bands for tyros to emulate; no Who or Hendrix technical challenges for okay). One likes drugs and sex, one likes booze, one likes fishing and the other is drummer Clap, Brian to his parents. He narrates.
Litt has previously confessed that his own rock dreams receded with his hairline, but even as an attempt to write them into existence this falls flat. It's like finding yourself on holiday with only one book, a biography of someone you've never heard of and care little about. Even potentially absurdist touches such as a partial discography throw up few decent jokes (though "Songs of Defeat AKA Country Album" sounds horribly plausible, and "Vancouver Drug-Hoover" surely rocked hard). The odd tour story rings true, such as a blackly comic run-in with the Moscow Mafiya or the rest of the band voting not to search for their missing frontman. The drummer's memories of blanking a friendly librarian and (unconvincingly) cultivating an interest in classical music are far less interesting.
There is a tone that runs through most popular entertainers' confessionals, a rueful horror at seeing one's alleged exploits recounted in cold print rather than retold at the hotel bar. But this author has eschewed this entertaining, probably mendacious approach in favour of these casually dim reminiscences. Clap has very little to confess to, save a case of late-onset Buddhism and the realisation that he really really loves his kids. Perhaps Litt intends it as a jokeless satire on the elevation of the mediocre to the ranks of the wealthy, but who wants to read about a smaller than life rock star?
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