Books

Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

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.


Please Step Back

Publisher: Melville House
ISBN: 9781933633701
Author: Ben Greenman
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Length: 254 pages
US publication date: 2009-04
Amazon

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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