Praise for "Off the Record"
Hartford Courant January 07, 2001
Rock Critic Laces Novel With Real-Life References
“Everybody hates rock critics. Even rock critics hate rock critics." So wrote rock critic David Menconi in a 1997 article about the state of rock criticism for the Raleigh News & Observer. "Hating rock critics," he continued, "is perhaps the only acre of common ground between readers and critics."
Rock journalist-turned-film director Cameron Crowe made the largely autobiographical "Almost Famous" last year and discovered how few people in the real world care about lovable rock critics. But how about weasely rock critics? In his first novel, "Off the Record," Menconi uses some of the trees from that theoretical acre of common ground to see if readers hate rock critics enough to follow Ken Morrison of the fictional Raleigh Daily News through battles with an evil concert promoter, weird musicians and his own guilty conscience on board the mystery train of a rising hometown trio called TAB - the Tommy Aguilar Band.
Menconi establishes his professional disloyalty well before his anti-hero swings into action. "The entire business of rock journalism was predicated on conflict of interest. ... Rock criticism sure wasn't brain surgery. ... The music beat ... ranked just south of high school soccer in terms of importance. ... If he had a shred of dignity, [Ken] would lay down his pen and do something honorable for a living.... Ken was filled with embarrassed self-loathing."
In its roughly quarter-century history, rock fiction has managed to make its conceptual way from point A to, well, point A. Generally, it's been the work of music critics ready to shelve the shackles of reporting and criticism and "write what they know" to the limits of their imagination. That usually produces familiar stories - some re-imagining actual events, others using standard dramatic formulae - with remixed details and made-up names to (nudge nudge, wink wink) throw knowledgeable readers onto the scent.
In his contribution to the literature, the rise and fall of an "alternative" band as witnessed by an opportunist writer, Menconi cribs odd bits of actual music-biz lore (journalist Lester Bangs typing onstage with the J. Geils Band; singer Inger Lorre of the Nymphs urinating on a record exec's desk) and the careers of Aerosmith (here called Arrowhead) and Nirvana.
Tommy Aguilar, a front man who shares a few distinguishing characteristics with the late Kurt Cobain, poses for a magazine cover shoot in a T-shirt that reads "Corporate Magazines (Still) Suck!," just as Cobain once did for Rolling Stone. TAB's invented repertoire includes "Go As You Are," not to be confused with Nirvana's "Come As You Are." More creatively, he conflates the legends of several major labels into the awful-sounding Poly Brothers Records, founded by Russian immigrant brothers Adolph and Nehi Polydoroff. (For historical reference, Atlantic Records was founded by Turkish immigrant brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun.)
Besides tweaking real people into fictional characters, Menconi obviously had a high old time concocting bands like Dopplegangbanger, Frag the Lieutenant, Driveby Drowning and the Rampagans. His cheesy examples of hack music journalism, replete with the requisite clichés and high-handed references, are especially rich. But Menconi's real enthusiasm is for TAB, "a space-age rockabilly power trio" so fleshed out that there's a fan site [www.offtherecordbook.com] with downloadable TAB songs. (From one critic to another, the tunes rock in a rough-and-tumble garage vein, but they ain't space-age or rockabilly.)
Despite the abundance of real-world touchstones, "Off the Record" has an imaginative, well-constructed plot with enough sex, guns, drugs, death, greed and treachery for a junior Jackie Collins potboiler. (It is, however, no match for last year's better-known and better-written novel by a rock journalist, "A&R." Bill Flanagan's smartly cynical boardroom comedy goes far enough off the beaten path to introduce a New York record executive to kidney thieves in Brazil!)
"Off the Record" has a few surprises and some strongly drawn characters, like the wicked concert promoter Gus DeGrande and Tommy's band mates, drummer Ray and bassist Michelle. But Menconi has another agenda - his insider's knowledge about the hazards of journalism, the conflicts of fame, the psychology of record production and the machinations of hype.
He can be smartly insightful, noting that a musician "could want to be a star, without seeming like he wanted to be one," that some stars aim to pass the buck for their success as much as their failure, and that groups often make more money selling T-shirts on the road than tickets. But he gets carried away and lectures like an instructor in Rock Biz 101, sharing irrelevant sidebars on "tertiary levels of merchandise" and the "cardinal tenet" of interviewing ("save the potential interview-ending hardballs for last").
For some reason, he's compelled to expound on the historical evolution of A(rtists) & R(epertoire), just as Flanagan does.
Menconi: "...a key A&R task was finding songs for artists to record. ... With the rise of self-contained acts that wrote their most of their own material, A&R became simply talent scouting."
Flanagan: "Everything changed after the Beatles. Musicians became self-contained. ... A&R changed into something else - the people who find the acts and serve as the link between the label and the artist."
(There is, however, one area of conventional wisdom in which the two authors disagree. While Menconi proves the power of the press, Flanagan maintains, "'Nice press' were the famous last words of lost careers.")
Ken Morrison, of course, turns out to be not such a bad guy after all. And rock journalism, for all its flaws and futility, gets a reprieve as well, playing a pivotal role in "Off the Record"'s violent denouement. That means Menconi, who announces in an afterword that "he is not the Ken Morrison character depicted herein - but ... they've met a time or two," can return to his job as a rock critic with head held high. Now if someone would only write a novel about rock critics who write novels ...