From High Fidelity to Heathcliff, the novelist presents the novels that epitomise teen spirit
Audience members at a 1963 Beatles concert.
Tiffany Murray’s first novel Happy Accidents was shortlisted for the Bollinger/Wodehouse prize for comic writing. Diamond Star Halo, her second, was published earlier this month. She studied at UEA, and has taught creative writing there and elsewhere. She lives in the Welsh Marches.
“What is a ‘rock’n’roll novel’? Rock’n’roll – from Robert Johnson to Jack White – is a coming-of-age sound that allows us to find ourselves, and maybe others. Writing about it is complex, with clichés lying in wait at every turn. I love these novels because they attempt to capture threshold, anarchic times where anything might happen; that, to me is rock’n’roll. Remember Marlon Brando in The Wild One? ‘What are you rebelling against, Johnny?’ ‘What have got?’ Well, there’s a lot of that in these narratives.
“As with some of these stories, my own novel Diamond Star Halo isn’t written from the point of view of the rock star, rather from that of an observer, Halo Llewelyn. After all, rock’n’roll is a spectacle – of beauty, truth, all of that – and it’s one you want to drink in.”
1. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Robert Johnson arrives on The Spokane Indian Reservation, “with nothing more than the suit he wore and the guitar slung over his back”. Misfit and storyteller, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, wants to set Johnson’s guitar on fire and smoke some salmon over it (on the Spokane Rez, they’re salmon people). The guitar has different ideas. This guitar talks, sings the blues, and tells Thomas, “Y’all need to play songs for your people…Y’all need the music.” And so Thomas, Victor, Junior, and Chess and Checkers Warm Water become the band Coyote Springs. I love everything Alexie does. This is a blues plunge into the magical real, and the all-too-real, of modern Native American life.
2. The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
“The Labour Party doesn’t have soul. Fianna fuckin’ Fail doesn’t have soul. The Workers’ Party ain’t got soul … The people o’ Dublin, Our people, remember, need soul. We’ve got soul.” So says Jimmy Rabbitte, with the help of Joey The Lips Fagan. Jimmy knows his music. Jimmy knows his preaching, too, and when the Commitments are formed, for one sparkling drip of time, history is made. A brilliant debut from Doyle back in 1987, (and a brilliant film from Alan Parker, too).
3. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Self-confessed “arsehole” and record-shop owner, Rob, shares his life of lists – girlfriends, break-ups, dream jobs, variously documented favourite songs – and tells us, “In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn … but nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot … That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.”
4. Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
“In endland, far from the tropics of fame,” rock star Bucky Wunderlick, holes himself up in a bleak apartment on Great Jones St, NYC, after a final tour where he can tell his star is fading because “boys and girls … were less murderous in their love of me”. Bucky’s intense, crazed narrative voice conveys both the gloriousness and the plain weirdness of fame. With an insert from Bucky’s conglomerate management, Transparanoia, entitled “Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit, ‘The Bucky Wunderlick Story’, told in news items, lyrics and dysfunctional interviews”, the myth of the dead or disappeared rock star and the hovering subjects of money, drugs, terrorist groups, and possibly Bob Dylan, all hum through a 1973 novel that is not showing its age.
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
OK, bear with me here, but to me – or perhaps the teen-me – the ultimate rock star was Heathcliff. He’s flinty, elemental, feral, beautiful, violent, mad, gothic, and so very, very rock n’ roll. I picture Jack White, although Jack is perhaps too nice. Brontë’s narrative structure – with the two outsiders, Lockwood and Nelly, telling the story – gives it the air of an exposé: the common man and woman, watching, reporting. You could call it a 19th century Almost Famous. This is why Wuthering Heights haunts Diamond Star Halo.
6. Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
It’s 1958 in London – specifically the shabby west London “Napoli” where our narrator lives – and “youth culture” is taking its first swaggering steps. There’s sparkling modernity in the new language MacInnes indulges, too. “So I went out of the Dubious to catch the summer evening breeze. The night was glorious … The air was sweet as a cool bath, the stars were peeping noisily beyond the their neons, and the citizens of the Queendom, in their jeans and separates, were floating down the Shaftesbury avenue canals, like gondolas.”
7. Popular Music by Mikael Niemi
Swedish author Niemi proves there was rock’n’roll life in his country long before Abba. The narrator, Matti, will charm you as he dreams of becoming a rock star in Pajala, his ice-bound village, in the 1960s. The first time he hears Elvis he’s “petrified”. The first time he listens to the Beatles with friend Niila, there’s “CRASH! A thunderclap. A powder keg exploded and blew up the room……we splattered down on the floor in tiny damp heaps…Rock’n’roll music…Beatles.”
8. Owen Noone and Marauder by Douglas Cowie
An open-mic evening in a bar in Peoria, Illinois, a young boy watches Owen Noone play an impromptu rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine”. That young man soon becomes the Marauder, Owen’s musical sidekick. This is an on-the-road novel, and as we follow their story we imagine what American folk-punk might sound like (“Yankee Doodle” and “The Wild Mizzourye” are some of the tracks, pilfered from Alan Lomax’s collection of American Folk Songs). So genuinely rock’n’roll that French band Deskaya have released an eponymous song.
9. The Ossians by Doug Johnstone
Connor Alexander is lead singer of the Ossians, a Scottish band made up of his twin sister Kate, girlfriend Hannah, and best mate Danny. Connor loves gin, and more, “I’m the troubled artists, amn’t I? The old Cobain syndrome, nobody understands my torment and all that pish.” Named after a third-century Scots Gaelic poet, with a record called The St Andrew’s Day EP, the Ossians embark on a tour of the Highlands and dive into the underbelly of modern Scotland. As Connor tells a journalist, “it’s not as simple as ‘It’s shite being Scottish’… it’s both shite and great being Scottish, often simultaneously.”
10. Groupie by Jenny Fabian and Johnny Byrne
My father said this was the book at the end of 60s. I see his point. It’s not exactly fiction, but what is? The groupie, Katie, a thinly veiled Fabian, was encouraged by Byrne to “write it just as you want and I’ll help you with it”. There’s plenty of sex and drugs to go with the rock’n’roll, and there’s great slang (“plating” in particular sounds very odd for what it describes). Ultimately Katie is the most interesting thing in the book. The boys, the rock stars, are rather one-dimensional, bless them. I suppose that might be the point.