Gary Benchley, Rock Star by Paul Ford is niche fiction at its finest. It is a book about indie rock/the new hipster-ism written from an insider’s perspective. What to call it? Alterna-fiction? The book is filled with so many insider indie rock references, that the official web site contains a glossary, just so you poseurs can keep up.
I first read about this book on Neal Pollack’s blog. Neil says the book may “stand as the most accurate document of New York City’s hipster era”. What I didn’t catch in Neil’s post – and only found out about after reading the book – is that a version of the book was serialized on The Morning News web site – those same cats hosting the Tournament of Books. Their version portrayed Gary Benchley as a real person blogging about getting started as an indie rocker in Brooklyn. A lot of humorless fans were apparently pissed off when the “hoax” was revealed. The good news was Paul Ford got a book deal out of it.
The novel tells the story of Albany, NY-escapee Gary Benchley following every young hipsters vision of arriving in New York City with nothing but a guitar and a dream. After a few missteps involving cash flow, Gary finds himself in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hipster HQ, temping for a “branding” firm in The City. Not very rockin’. Step by step, Gary builds his band. His electronics-nerd boss becomes the keyboard player. He “racial profiles” candidates to find a cool black guy bassist. To round out the band, all that’s needed, Gary realizes, is a hot chick drummer. To ensure that that the Wanted: Hot Chick Drummer fliers wouldn’t be perceived as sexist, Gary reassures with the disclaimer, “All hot chick drummers will be considered”. The band develops its signature sound, prog rock mixed with electronica and driven by erratic, pounding drums. I wish they were real to hear what they would have sounded like.
The story follows the arc of the band as they try to build a following in Williamsburg, tour the country with a semi-famous (but not really) opening act, and land the elusive record deal. The book also examines the twenty-something world of Williamsburg. That world can be hilarious, like when Gary checks on the status of his relationship by reading his girlfriend’s blog. It can sound vaguely familiar, like when the 22-year olds are finding themselves in places of business with ludicrous rules and seemingly pointless objectives – instead of rockin’. And it can be shockingly pathetic, like when Gary realizes the lengths that he will go to make his dream a reality – and he still ends up temping at a branding company. The injustice.
There’s lots to identify with here if music has ever played a significant role in your life. I have loaned my copy to Shaft, since he is the driver on our weekly trips to the best indie-rock record shop in the ATL backed up by the best burgers in town served in a bar with a giant skull for an entrance. If you don’t agonize for months over your annual year-end compilation CD, its artwork, and how DRM is making it harder ever year to perform this thankless public service for your friends, then this book may not be for you.
Speaking of the rock music, the author thanks Steve Burns in the end notes for taking him on the road in New Mexico to live the indie rock tour experience. If you have kids, you know Steve Burns. He’s the original “Steve” from Blue’s Clues. Now he’s an indie rocker. This switcheroo works both ways, apparently. Former alt-country, cow-punk, indie rocker Jason of Jason & The Scorchers is now Farmer Jason, a children’s song entertainer. I’m not sure what it all means, but it seems to be good news for an aging indie-rock enthusiast (I can’t call myself a hipster – I’m not cool enough). New York Magazine says this is all part of a slacker parenting movement that marks the end of the generation gap. Only half of the questions on Page 1 of the article apply directly to me, but I am not a New Yorker ($200 for jeans? Not in these parts). Example relevant question:
(since when is it normal for a thirty-something parent to… ) — (d) stay out till 4 A.M. because he just can’t miss the latest New Pornographers show, because who knows when Neko Case will decide to stop touring with them, and everyone knows she’s the heart of the band;
Yeah, that rings true, and fellow-blogger Shaft, father of two, was standing next to me. A dad at my daughter’s pre-school was telling me that the highlight of his family leave was the father-son Clash time. They’d listen to London Calling each day in its entirety. His son was between nine months old and twelve months old at the time. He was 35. Lest I cast any stones, I caught myself singing Summertime Rolls by Jane’s Addiction to my daughter tonight at dinner time. Beats the heck out of Raffi. For some reason she lets me pick out the songs on the XM radio near her play area – it’s B-I-N-G-O 24/7 in the car.
Anyway, the New York Magazine article included author Neal Pollock as one of the highlighted alterna-dads. Neal has a book coming out soon called, oddly enough, Alternadad, which I am eagerly awaiting. Here are Neal’s “main tenets of alternaparenting“:
General skepticism (but not total rejection) of mainstream corporate parenting culture, encouraging creativity and imagination above all else, and, like the New York article hammers home, an unwillingness of the parents to completely put their own youth behind them. But it doesn’t neglect the basics, either. Any decent parent of any aesthetic needs to provide their kids with food, clothing, shelter, discipline, and love. It’s just that this generation of parents has added “sharing your DVD collection” to that list of essentials. I have trouble seeing how that’s a bad thing.
Since my wife and I still talk about what we want to be when we grow up, I think that we have nailed at least one of the tenets. You may remember Neal’s blog mentioned near the top of this rambling post as my inspiration for reading Gary Benchley, Rock Star. Life is a circle.