The Book

Praise for "Off the Record"

Durham Herald-Sun (Sept. 24, 2000)
By Philip Van Vleck

“Off the Record.” By David Menconi. iUniverse; paperback; $19.95. 420 pages. ISBN# 0-595-13330-4.

“Almost everybody who writes for newspapers or magazines thinks they have a book in them,” David Menconi observed, in talking about his novel “Off the Record.” In Menconi’s case, however, the book is no longer a potential thing; it’s out here. It’s alive.

Menconi, the staff rock critic for Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper, has written a thoroughly readable novel about the rise and demise of a Raleigh-based rock group called the Tommy Aguilar Band (usually referred to by the acronym TAB).

“I actually tried to write a book in college,” Menconi said. “You know, the typical, hideous, coming-of-age thing. My mother has a copy, and I hope nobody else ever sees it. I wrote the same crappy book that everyone tries to write when they’re 21, and then it took me a long time after that to work up to writing a real novel.”

Adhering to the time-worn dictum that a writer should write about what he or she knows, Menconi takes us into the netherworld known as the music business, where nothing is as the record label publicists tell us and the really choice information is always “off the record,” i.e., not for publication.

“In covering music you hear all this weird stuff off the record,” he observed. “It’s whispered like rumors, but as often as not it’s what’s really happening. You can’t go putting it a newspaper, however, without violating various journalistic creedos, and also without enraging people and making it impossible to work with them.”

All of that accumulated information — the low-down on rock acts that never sees the light of day — has found a home in Menconi’s tale of a rock trio’s journey down the highway to hell.

The author prefaces TAB’s 15 minutes of fame by recounting their rise from obscurity. Discovered playing in a Raleigh club called Each by the club owner, Bob Porter, we follow Porter’s valiant attempt to turn TAB into something resembling a touring rock act. Menconi provides a vivid description of life on the road and the frustrations born of that experience: no money, bad food, bad transportation, playing the same songs repeatedly, playing gigs where seven people show up (if you count the sound tech, the club owner and his girlfriend).

The band appears ready to bottom-out when regional concert promoter and all-around low-life Gus DeGrande decides to snatch TAB from Porter and transform them into the first act on his record label. Menconi admitted that DeGrande is something of a caricature, but for all his larger-then-life faults, he bears more than passing resemblance to individuals like Bill Graham. There’s more of truth than there is lie in Gus DeGrande.

TAB’s 15 minutes is at hand. Bandleader Tommy Aguilar’s response, to a variety of stimuli, is to provoke an epic conflagration at a huge Las Vegas outdoor concert. The band’s career is incinerated in the blink of any eye and Aguilar, who has become a complete needle freak, gets his hands on some heroin that’s really way too good to survive.

The devil’s in the details, as they say, and Menconi’s attention to those details is unfailing. The author knows what he’s writing about in Off the Record”; it’s one of the major reasons why the novel is so believable. Whether he’s taking us through the paces as TAB blasts its way through a live set, or letting us in on some of the lesser-known (fraudulent) practices common among record label wise guys and concert promoters, Menconi has a handle on what’s happening onstage and what’s happening backstage, and that’s intriguing stuff. He knows what most rock fans can only surmise. His book is an entrée to a world a lot of people think they would like to join. Aspiring rock musicians should read this novel like a text book.

The other reason why “Off the Record” is such a fine read is that Menconi writes with proficiency. The book is a page-turner. He has constructed a scenario that holds our attention and he has created characters who win our sympathy (or inspire our displeasure). Menconi’s musicians are especially well-drawn.

The character who gives his name to the Tommy Aguilar Band is a human firestorm as cursed as he is blessed. He embodies everything alluring about the anarchy and creativity of rock music. He’s the myth of rock ’n’ roll and the truth about the myth. Tommy is, of course, a guitarist — the ultimate prima donna of rock — as well as singer, songwriter and substance abuser. His creative genius sets the band on course, and the instability that fuels that genius eats him alive and takes his bandmates with him.

Michelle Rubin is TAB’s bass player. A refugee from the well-respected music program at North Texas State University, she’s a cellist who’s slumming as a rock bassist. The best musician in the band, she’s Menconi’s normal character (or the closest he comes to depicting a normal person). She’s a stand-in for all the rock musicians who are in it for the music and too smart to lean on dope and booze. She does reveal her frailty, however. As TAB hits it big, Michelle’s so turned off that she develops a talk-to-the-hand attitude that prevents her from reversing the tragic course of events, or at least trying.

TAB’s drummer is a hard hitter named Ray Roby. A journeyman player, he’s solid behind his kit, but he’s also easily seduced by the promise of big gigs and major-label deals. Ray’s an opportunist with a loose grip on ethics and morality who looks the other way as Tommy descends from flake to junkie flake.

Journalist Ken Morrison — rock critic for the fictional “Raleigh Daily News” — is the writer who witnesses the entire enchilada. He introduces TAB to the world at large, snaring national bylines in the process. He also evinces a willingness to ignore every danger signal regarding Aguilar’s behavior, though ultimately, with the help of Bob Porter, he redeems himself. To say that Morrison looses his objectivity during his TAB coverage is putting it mildly.

Readers may be tempted to assume that Morrison is Menconi. Hardly. Morrison does know what the author knows about the music biz, however, and despite his penchant for self-promotion, Morrison’s view of “the industry” is appropriately cynical.

Menconi most surely comprehends the dilemma in which he places his journalist character. “Covering a local music scene involves walking a pretty fine line,” he noted. “You need to remain cordial enough with everyone that they’ll return your phone calls, for instance — and I’ve certainly gone through interludes with various people in the scene who wouldn’t return my calls. On the other hand, you can’t get too chummy with bands. And it’s tempting, the idea of hanging out with bands, especially if they’re good and you like them. It’s very seductive. And if you hang around with them you get to see what’s really going on. But there’s usually a price to be paid for that at some point, and that’s not good.”

In “Off the Record,” everyone pays severe dues. They all learn, the hard way, that rock ‘n’ roll fame has a distinctly Darwinian angle to it.


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