Blake Lear is one of the great fictional rock music characters. Most rock novels – nay, most novels about artists and creativity in any medium – fail because they cannot compete with reality for invention. I mean, consider Sir Michael Philip Jagger and Keef for starters – absurd, right? Blake (not his real name) gets the bug age 12 with the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, a tennis racket and a mirror. He grows up with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and then he sees Jonathan Richman interviewed by Tony Wilson on So it goes in tears, talking about William Blake’s The lamb. So that’s where the name comes from. This is in the ’80s when he’s still at school, but – fast forward to the serious music making, about which there is little description – I like to imagine shades of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the gates of dawn Syd era songs, but not the drugs (not yet, anyway).
At Cambridge doing EngLit Blake opts to do his dissertation on nonsense poetry:
Blake, to [his tutor’s] frustration, was prepared to stretch the definition of nonsense to the breaking point, happy to include poets and poems from which other minds derived perfect sense.
Blake preferred not to understand them – neither the poets, nor the minds […] Blake laughed at those who extracted deep meaning from Dylan’s lyrics. Agreed, the man was a genius, but only inasmuch as he was the greatest nonsense writer of the late twentieth century.
He viewed all poetry, all literature, through this prism. Auden, Bishop (Elizabeth), Empson, Smith (Alexander) – failed nonsense poets all. They didn’t have the nerve for it. What a waste! Beckett was the honourable exception: even his prose was nonsense poetry. And Joyce had it in him … […] He thought of a name for the dissertation: ‘king Lear. […]
The fateful idea – formally interesting, philosophically unique, academically suicidal – was to write his dissertation about nonsense in the form of nonsense. […] Blake left Cambridge without a degree: the dissertation was, unusually, ruled ‘unmarkable’, thus nullifying other fairly good results across his exams.
All this in the first 20 odd pages. The point about Dylan is expanded upon in a way that some may well have sympathy with. The book holds many nuggets like this, and being (it has been said) a bit of a smartarse myself, I lap it up when capable road manager Mitchell says, of his sometimes heavy dealings with local promoters, “I think of Mamet a lot during these transactions. The pauses. I love them.” Or when the narrator describes Blake’s situation, when he has pretty much disappeared from the scene but is slowly gaining legend status, as being: “like he was a cross between the Waldo and the Thomas Pynchon of Kiddie Rock.”
Ah, Kiddie Rock. We’ll get to that. So, an English band called the Wunderkinds, with and without umlauts, small-time gigging, making a demo, handled by Greg, an experienced English ‘character’ manager, all bonhomie and malapropisms. By a bit of luck (the circumstances of which are laugh aloud funny) the demo cassette finally gets heard by someone (and more importantly his enthusiastic young son), who can do something about it. A major American label takes them on. The shift of gear is neatly summed up in the sentence: “It wasn’t like any meeting Greg had ever attended. It was a business meeting.” The Americans are excited by the concept of the now re-named (for American audiences) Wonderkids being “your child’s first rock band.” Blake’s vision is only briefly compromised by this:
“Yeah, we don’t really see it as kids’ music …” […] “… We see it more as everyone music. We see rock ‘n’ roll as everyone music.”
“YES!” whooped Andy. “It is Everyone Music!” The phrase, in his mouth, sprouted capital letters. “We’re gonna help the kids grow up and we’re gonna turn the parents back into kids again.”
Blake and his brother guitarist move to the US in late 1989. The new management dispenses with the English rhythm section, other more interesting musicians get involved, they tour and record, become successful, and in doing so fall foul of the Parent Music Resource Centre. Things build, the gigs start getting out of hand, Blake is losing it and they come to a spectacular fall. It all ends in court and, for Blake, prison. Time passes and, as seems to happen these days, their importance, their formative influence on a generation of kids, becomes recognised, and there is pressure to reform for an awards show. No more spoilers, but it all gets very interesting and suspenseful again.
Wesley Stace‘s Wonderkid (US: Overlook Press, 2014) is a brilliant music industry satire. Never mind your qualms about the notion of Kiddie Rock, think of it as Wonderkid‘s Lilliput or Brobdingnag. But the book has a lot more going for it than just that. At its centre, of course, there’s Blake’s heroic and ultimately honourable tale, the creative’s path, and how success can scramble it. Then there’s what it feels like being in a band, and especially being on the road in a band – read the plaudits from musicians on the back cover like Peter Buck and Roseanne Cash for how well that is done (click on the picture, then click again if necessary). Here Wonderkid rides the stereotypes with aplomb; as the success builds the healthily New Age rhythm section demand and get their own bus:
Mitchell and I were the intermediate beings, licensed to float freely between Heaven and Hell. The stage was a safe haven – the show was sacrosanct […] but back-stage was a no-man’s-land with endless potential for practical jokes and small indignities.
And then there’s that ‘I’ in the quote above, the narrator’s tale. Speed (that’s his name), living with stifling foster parents, first meets the band in England – literally bumps into Blake – when he’s 14 and a shoplifter on the run from a big record shop’s security man. That quote at the head of this piece, they’re breaking into the cinema Blake works at part-time, hunting for a hidden stash of classic film posters he knows is there (how and why is another story, with some satisfying narrative ripples later). One of the unspoken narrative threads is the power of contingency, how things can happen by chance: the occasion of Speed meeting the band, the ultimate success of the demo tape, various relationships. So Speed grows up with the band, starts off running the merch table, is formally adopted by Blake so he can go with them to America and becomes a permanent member of the entourage, which paves the way for his own subsequent career in the industry. His coming of age and rites of passage are not so much an engaging bonus as integral to the whole enterprise.
I enjoyed reading Wonderkid immensely. It is a profound, intelligent, grounded, principled, and, at times, very funny novel. I think it can live with the very best of the generally blighted sub-genre of the rock novel*. In another life Wesley Stace was US-based English singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding. A Cambridge graduate himself, he’s been performing and making records since 1990. I’d not knowingly heard anything before but Spotify delivered; he is a better novelist than he is a songwriter.
* Seeing as you asked, in no particular order:
- Roddy Doyle: The Commitments
- Don DeLillo: Great Jones Street (an early novel of his, featuring Bucky Wunderlick)
- Jennifer Egan: A visit from the Goon Squad
- Iain Banks: Espedair Street (oft mentioned; must read it one of these days)
Owing to various mentions of Ray and Dave Davies and the Kinks in the text, Wonderkid also features here on Lillabullero on the The Kinks in Literature pages.