The Book

Praise for "Off the Record"

“Mocking the Music Biz”
By Kevin Oliver
Columbia (SC) Free Times, 10/10-16/01

Many interesting books have been written about the seedier side of the music business, from Frederic Dannen’s “Hit Men” to Fred Goodman’s revealing “Mansion on the Hill.” “Off The Record” takes those tell-alls a step further and details a fictional tale of the spectacular rise and fall of the Tommy Aguilar Band (TAB) from raleigh, N.C. The story of this so-called “Space-age rockabilly” band should manage to thoroughly entertain the average reader while rewarding more avid music fans with plenty of thinly veiled references to actual persons, both living and dead.

Menconi’s day job as the music writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and freelance contributor to Spin, Billboard, No Depression and more ensures that he is dead-on in his depiction of both the band and the scene around them. Tommy AGuilar is portrayed as the volatile result of an equation that includes both Kurt Cobain and Ryan Adams (ex-Whiskeytown), with conflicting desires, unpredictable behavior, a dangerous gun fetish, and some unpleasant drug use to offset the fact that he’s a musical genius, natural performer and brilliant pop songwriter.

His bandmates are stereotypes in comparison. There is Ray, the gung-ho veteran drummer who keeps a spare alternator in the band van “just in case” and exults in banging his kit as hard as he possibly can, and Michelle, the nice girl raised on classical music who figures that playing rock and roll is a lot more fun. Menconi includes enough details about the relationships, both musical and personal, between band members that you’d swear he had to have been in a band himself at some point instead of just listening to musicians gripe for the past decade.

The supporting cast is rich and full of characters. Bob Porter is the well-meaning local club owner who goes into debt helping the band get started in the recording studio and on the road. Gus DeGrande is the rich, power-hungry bigwig promoter who sees the band as his next business move. Ken Morrison is the local music critic who sees the talent and potential in the band while using them to further his own career.

All of these point toward a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags-again tale, a novelization of the standard “Behind The Music” story line. But Menconi isn’t satisfied with something that simplistic. He takes the band’s rise to fame and twists it up with DeGrande’s midlife crisis, attempting to create a suspense or mystery novel with music-scene avarice as the catalyst.

The book gets off to a good start, especially the scenes that set up the unpredictability of Tommy Aguilar. He pulls out a gun during an early interview with Morrison, plays sexual Russian roulette with an old girlfriend, and develops a nasty heroin habit along the way. He’s a vividly drawn character, and the scenes that explore his conflicting feelings about success are some of the strongest in the book.

DeGrande plays the villain throughout, first sabotaging the band to steal them away from Porter, and then stealing them blind on paper once they sign away their lives to him. Menconi again uses his extensive knowledge of industry gossip and lore to weave realistic yet unbelievable details into the plot.

The only place where the author’s aim is less than true, in fact, is in the details pertaining to the “suspense” or “mystery” aspect of the book. A true mystery writer would have left a lot more for the reader to figure out, where Menconi practically announces the plot twists as if he’s on stage with a microphone in a nearly empty bar. Since this is less a mystery than it is an astutly amusing take on the increasingly sordid business of making popular music, that shortcoming will make little difference to most readers.

-- Kevin Oliver


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