Books: Return to Fender

Robert Sandall nods along with the virtuoso riffs of a surreal comedy; Flesh Guitar by Geoff Nicholson Gollancz, pounds 9.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fun as it is to visit, the mock-apocalyptical world Geoff Nicholson maps out in Flesh Guitar is not easy to get in focus, particularly if your grasp of rock history and mythology isn't as sharp as it used to be. Imagine Mojo magazine edited by the Surrealists and you conjure something of its weird and wildly esoteric humour, but little of its literary craft. Compare it to Thomas Pynchon's comic ramble through 1960s counterculture, The Crying Of Lot 49, and you lose some of its manic flippancy.

Nicholson's heroine, Jenny Slade, is an electric guitarist blessed with unearthly powers of creativity and an even more unearthly capacity to skip through time and space interrogating and advising legendary male guitarists, usually at the point of their death. Her story is told chiefly through the eyes of an obsessive fan, Bob Arnold, whose ponderous reports in the Journal Of Sladean Studies offer a drily humorous supplement to the ludicrous shenanigans elsewhere. According to Bob, a character who makes Nick Hornby's High Fidelity crew look like bantamweights, "life is like a guitar solo. It's loud, shapeless and it goes on too long."

Like Bob, Nicholson himself enjoys having his cake and eating it: Flesh Guitar revels in ambivalence towards its subject. Is the electric guitar an instrument of transcendent importance or adolescent fixation? Are the so-called great rock musicians untutored geniuses or losers who got lucky? Nicholson records an open verdict. Never has such a weight of rock hagiography and trivia been so lovingly assembled, then swathed in irony and in-jokes.

Most of the laughs here come at the expense of famous blokes with large reputations and low IQs. Jenny, it is suggested, has been the uncredited muse of many and has saved several from berkish errors. Typical of the blackly humorous style of the book is her meeting with Kurt Cobain, at the end of which the godfather of grunge blows his head off.

The two discuss what lines from a Neil Young song Kurt should use in his suicide note. Kurt rather dimly fancies "I've been a miner for a heart of gold - and I'm gettin' old", but Jenny persuades him to go for something tougher from Rust Never Sleeps. Jimi Hendrix is likewise given some gentle teasing about sexism: "It's a Seventies concept, Jimi, but not one that you're going to have to worry about." To which Hendrix replies "Well, thank God for that," then chokes to death. Jenny teaching Frank Zappa how to be cynical is another beautifully executed gag, as is her encounter with the fictional avant-garde charlatan Tom Scorn.

Some of Nicholson's jokes are funnier than others. The last chapter of the book, "Trashed Choirs", amuses itself with the hoary old rock journalistic cliche about "cathedrals of sound", a line which, if you don't get it, makes the accompanying Pseuds Corner prose hard to follow. For the most part though, Flesh Guitar carries its cargo lightly and confirms Nicholson's stature as a comic novelist with a loud and distinctive voice.

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