There are fine lines between a lot of distinctions these days, many of which involving complex arguments in what is entertainment and what is culture. That is one of the interesting points that seem to come up in Christopher Ward’s novel Dead Brilliant.
On the screen, the members of The Cocktails, dressed as cops, were awkwardly arresting a gaggle of ten-storey-tall nymphets as the chorus of “Stop Before I Start” kicked in. Uncle looked up and appeared to be silently mouthing the words as he nodded along with the song.
“Stop before I start
Look before I leap
Listen to me
Baby can’t you see you gotta . . .”
Here Frankie held his guitar like a chainsaw and played his big lick – “wawawawa” – as the other band members froze in a tableau.
Uncle shrugged. “Catchy”
“So’s herpes,” mumbled Roc. He crossed and recrossed the room , his wiry frame practically twitching, all the while stealing glances at the television. “Uncle Strange, I’ve trusted you since the fifth grade, but right now I’m nervous. The last two albums have tanked, the hair product deal is toast, and now those morons have a #1 record riding on my reputation. Did you remember to check with the lawyers about the rights to the name?”
Ward has written a sweet novel here. The plot deals with Roc Molotov – an aging rock star. Not only is Roc’s fame on the downslide but his band, his girlfriend and his ability to write music seem to be sliding out his grasp. So his best friend and manager Uncle Strange seems to come up with a perfect scheme to bring Roc’s popularity back. Fake his death on MTV. But there seems to be a bit of a bitter truth to this novel about the music scene. Ward – Canada’s original VJ and writer of the hit “Black Velvet” – has maybe documented a bitter truth to the popular music scene.
It was around three thirty when Roc mixed down his new song on his laptop. He’d added a few touches to the basic vocal and guitar part that he’d recorded in a performance straight from the heart. A melody that lifted step by step led to an odd chord that created a perfect rub on the word “strange.” A high harmony in the chorus and little shimmering second guitar part was all it needed. When he had started writing in the afternoon, he hadn’t known where it was going. That’s how it worked with songwriting for Roc; what wasn’t at all clear beyond a tangle of emotion and some indistinct but powerful urge gave way to something coherent in committing it to paper or tape. He had been flat creatively lately, and he felt at peace as he listened to the playback of “Yours Truly.” The opening line sounded like it came from some old country song, but they didn’t have a lock on the naked emotions, did they?
“I remember everything I meant to say . . .”
And the final chorus was as straightforward as anything he’d ever written
“Now I don’t wonder how I feel
Where we’re going or if it’s real
It’s too late to change things now
But I’m going to tell you anyhow
I was yours truly yours truly
Yours truly goodbye.”
The pause before the final “goodbye” seemed kind of melodramatic, but he decided to leave it in. In songwriting terms, it was the right choice.
Ward has written about a craft that has become crass. Celebrity has driven the music industry into a tiresome pulp where people seem more interested in making money than creating something worth listening too. But the story Ward tells isn’t all cynical.
The same sound that she’d heard at the club rolled out of the speakers, but instead of sounding like droning and crashing, it took on a stark beauty as the music rose and fell. The lyrics were buried in the mix of guitars and drums, making it hard to tell what was being said, and the songs evoked a similar feeling as they went by; but at the end, Emma sat very still feeling massaged by the sound. She didn’t speak for a while, not wanting the spell to break. Finally, she turned the chair around and looked at Stick. “Amazing. Your music is beautiful.”
While Dead Brilliant isn’t a deep read, it is certainly an interesting one with strong kernels of truth to it. But it is a must read for all fans of music.