[2 September 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
His kids get a kick out of their iPod shuffles, but Ben Greenman fondly remembers the old days, when as a 10-year-old music lover he’d spend his time rummaging for treasures through the funk bins at local music stores.
“In 1979, it was difficult to be collector, with no Internet or downloading,” recalls Greenman, now an editor at The New Yorker. “You couldn’t listen to the music beforehand, so you bought a lot of bad records because the guy on the cover looked cool.”
His passion for music turned out to be useful. His latest novel, the riveting “Please Step Back” (Melville House, $16.95), tells the story of Robert Franklin, a nervy Boston kid whose love for music drives him to become Rock Foxx, a genre-busting musician and songwriter during the turbulent 1960s, when music could shift cultural perspectives. The story follows Foxx’s multiracial band through good times and bad, his marriage to the complex but understanding Betty (an intriguing character in her own right), through glorious stardom to the inevitable sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll downward spiral.
Greenman, also the author of “Superbad,” “Superworse” and “A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both,” wrote Foxx’s lyrics and recorded the band’s biggest hit with cult funk legend Swamp Dog (you can hear it at pleasestepback.com). To him, making an album is a lot like writing a novel.
“People from Curtis Mayfield to Marvin Gaye, as soul musicians working with the album format, were in my mind writing novels ... They had time to pause and draw a scene and think about characters. Something like the ‘Superfly’ soundtrack was as influential in a way as a lot of novels, in the mood it sustains and that kind of thing.”
Q: How’d you get interested in this style of music?
A: I listened to music my parents had: The Supremes, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Then I started to listen to a lot more soul beyond Motown ... When I was 10 I got Sly and the Family Stone’s greatest hits album, and I played it hundreds of times, and obsessed isn’t too strong a word for how I felt. I was trying to figure out the songs, how they worked. They seemed weird and idiosyncratic in terms of structure.
Q: So why did you write a novel instead of nonfiction?
A: I thought for awhile about a biography of Sly Stone. But it turned out I was a pretty poor biographer. I ran into two problems. First, if I couldn’t find out the answer, I just made it up. That was my instinct rather than to keep digging ... The second thing was I started to feel protective of Sly Stone. When I found unflattering information about him — and believe me, there is plenty — I didn’t want anyone to know. That was a pretty significant obstacle. It was telling me that when you have an emotional connection, and you want to think more about someone, turn the story into fiction.
Q: How did you separate fact from fiction in “Please Step Back”?
A: It became over the years another sort of novel, about a fictional character. For example, Marvin Gaye had two interesting marriages, one to a woman 17 years older than him. He left her for someone 17 years younger. He was obsessed with relationships and making music about them, and that also became part of the story. And it’s autobiographical in some ways. There’s always been a weird balance I’ve had, as a journalist with day jobs and also doing fiction writing. In the last 10 years I’ve had a wife and kids, and I have to balance those things ... The product is selfless, but the process of creative work is intensely selfish. This part is all me: I go into a room and write, and if people bother me I get mad at them.
Q: Did you get any grief for being a white writer writing from an African-American perspective?
A: I thought there would be more about the race issue. One thing that was funny I think was in a Baltimore weekly paper. The reviewer was writing about Leonard Pitts, because he has a book out about a soul singer, and the guy spent 200 words ripping me! As in, ‘This book is good compared to this other crappy book by a white New York smarty pants.’ But crossing the race barrier, to me it wasn’t a problem. I connected with this person in real life as an artist more strongly than with any other music artist ... You could be a 35-year-old woman who connected with Matisse. That’s the whole point of art.
Q: Do you think music will ever have such cultural resonance again?
A: It has the power, but I don’t think it is doing that ... The way things have been divided and redivided is different. You don’t have a situation where we have cultural spokespeople on that level. When Walter Cronkite died, I forget the exact number, but I heard his newscasts were seen by something like 40 million people. Some ridiculous number. Katie Couric is more in the 4 million-viewer range. It’s not her fault ... You don’t have situations anymore where single institutions or a small group of institutions command those kinds of eyeballs. If the thing you’re obsessed with is French Canadian hip-hop, you can find that and listen to that and participate in message boards about that.
Q: Rock Foxx and his band skipped Woodstock. Would you have gone, had you been old enough?
A: I’m a nonjoiner. I probably wouldn’t have gone and then regretted it.