Character on Loan, From the Man Sly Stone
The grooves on the record called the ‘60s have worn so thin it’s hard to believe there’s hardly any new music worth hearing. Peace, love, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, Vietnam, MLK, JFK blown away—what more could anybody have to say about this most worked over and mythologized era in American pop history?
Ben Greenman tries to reinvigorate the ‘60s with Please Step Back, his new novel about a young man named Robert Fox who reinvents himself as flamboyant rock/funk superstar Rock Foxx in San Francisco. Greenman injects freshness by narrating the events strictly from the point of view of Robert (and later his wife Betty), giving the story the immediacy of lives that don’t know the shape and symbols with which they will be later marked. But, while he explores the limitations of the ambitions of the ‘60s and their tragedies, Greenman is too often stymied by these limitations and the stereotypical arc of Icarus that is frequently evoked for Robert’s rise and fall.
Rock Foxx is most strongly based on Sly Stone. In 1966, at the age of 22, Robert drives from Boston to San Francisco with his friend Tony, a white guitarist who gives Robert a kind of shaggy prep boy stability. They soak up the Haight-Ashbury culture and fool around with a few groups before forming the Foxxes a free-wheeling mixed race ensemble anchored by Robert’s cousin Lucas, a heavy-set bass player with a religious streak. They hit the charts with inspirational peace/love anthems like “We All Need a Place in the Sun” and “Make It Better”, and open for the Rolling Stones. They take harder drugs and hang out with harder people. Rock holes up in the studio crafting a fractured, underappreciated masterpiece called Wreckered and then the band gradually dissolves and Robert falls apart.
In the first part of the book, charting the rise of the Foxxes, Greenman has a lot of fun recreating the era. A Rolling Stones roadie tries to pick up the band’s back-up singer. Robert meets a dapper, croaking Miles Davis. Real-life influences for this quasi-fictional world are sprinkled throughout. Lucas goes solo as a cross between Barry White and Bobby Womack. In the ‘70s a protégé of Foxx’s morphs into a version of George Clinton. Robert rhapsodizes on his favorite radio singles and Greenman’s writing attains a slangy pop bounce. “He was 22, like a gun, and he was out dayhawking for college girls in Harvard Square.” It’s like a beach read for music geeks.
But there’s a remove during this portion. Events happen too fast, characters like Tony come through slowly or not at all. Issues like racism are tangentially touched upon. The world is a sketch.
I wasn’t sure how much of this was deliberate. Robert is a stranger to himself and the appropriation of the mask of Rock is a further remove. He speaks in rhymes that come to be less of a character trait than an affected crutch. “Had your fill, Emmett Till?” In press conferences Robert masters the Beatles-style art of charming the media with clever ripostes that don’t mean much of anything. “’How about drugs?’ she said. ‘Help yourself.’” The book is broken up into “sides”, which could indicate further fracturing or an accumulating whole.
Robert is in denial of his worsening drug addictions and the fraying relationships with his band mates, wife Betty, and baby son Dewey. Robert’s music touches on the issues of his time—race, war, drugs—but never sustains a serious examination. There is kind of an immaturity to this that seems to indict the popular counterculture of the late ‘60s: great music, no practical solutions to the issues they raise, and a love of mindless hedonism that leads to implosion.
When the book turns to a more individual portrait of Robert in the early ‘70s, it suffers from these shallow foundations.
Part of the problem is the increasing role of drugs, which have a flattening effect on the narrative. It’s maddening to see addiction for the way it turns a person into the one-dimensional cliché familiar from a hundred After School Specials and Behind the Musics. It’s a tragedy, but it’s one of slow atrophy and as fiction it’s not very dynamic, particularly in the latter stages leading towards death.
Greenman attempts to counter the druggy limitations of Robert’s point of view by switching back and forth to that of his wife Betty, who takes Dewey and moves in with her mother in Chicago, leading a fairly “normal” life. She limits her communication with Robert and attempts to sever the relationship entirely but always falls back in love with him through his music. Since the reader cannot hear his music, it’s hard to be convinced. Robert is a self-centered, incapable, and almost totally absent father and husband. He is very charming when he first woos Betty, but this charm is temporary and it’s frustratingly unclear why the intelligent and likeable Betty retains a certain amount of loyalty to Robert.
Betty and her mother have a way of cutting through the bullshit in Robert’s world. At a party scene: “’This’, Lucas said to Betty, ‘is Sodom.’ ‘This,’ Betty said adjusting her wig, ‘doesn’t bother me.’” Her mother, correctly assuming that Robert is a “doper” says, “With a man like that, Betty, you got two choices. You can stay or you can go”. These are refreshingly frank, sensible voices. But the effect is to further reduce our empathy for Robert and to reduce his and the band member’s troubles to familiar issues of addiction, stunted growth, and denial.
The novel opens with a traumatizing event from Robert’s childhood, when he sees his cousin Dre accidentally hit by a car and the top of his scalp is removed. Robert appears also to suffer some brain damage from the event. On the day of the funeral he takes solace in hearing the Orioles “Walking by the River” on the radio. Later he tries to replay the song in his head to recreate something essential but intangible. Greenman writes, “Finally he stopped trying with his mind and started trying with his mouth. ‘Walking by the river,’ he sang, ‘feeling all alone. I don’t have a single thing to call my very own.’ And suddenly, he did”.
Music is Robert’s only outlet that feels “true” to who he might be. Fittingly, the lyrics, the only way we can truly “read” Robert’s music, give us the most complicated view of Robert’s interior self and Greenman is very good with them in capturing character, intellect, setting, the conventions of subgenres, and the specific but universally applicable requirements of a good pop song.
“Light up, firefly/ America first / The best of the best / Meets the best of the worst.”
“It’s true/ Who follows depends on who is leading/ It’s you/ Holding up the gun while I am bleeding”
Greenman acknowledges that there are limitations to artistic creation and what it can do for you. Please Step Back is about a decade that declared itself a revolution. It is an American story of reinvention and how this can fracture the self in a way that can be difficult to put back together and how the act of reinvention can be a betrayal of an essential self. At times Greenman’s story is tragic and moving, but because he never digs deep enough to give us a sense of what Robert’s essential self is, we never know how much Robert and his family might be losing.