Times have changed greatly from the now innocent-seeming frenzy of '60s and '70s rock journalism, when Lisa Robinson was revealing naughty tidbits about the Rolling Stones' underwear, slumming-it-rich-kid rock photographer Linda Eastman snagged a Beatle and critics like Jon Landau (Springsteen co-producer and manager) insinuated themselves into the careers of their subjects.
Or maybe it just seemed innocent, as later tell-all books by roadies, confidantes and ex-lovers reveal. Back when Zep's Robert Plant yelled out "I am a golden god," there was no doubt he felt like a Viking chieftain entering Valhalla, rather than a trouser-snake sportin' rocker with a taste for teenage groupie puss. For more glimpses of behind-the-scenes mayhem, check out "The 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock" in the latest issue of Spin; you'd be hard pressed to create a more lurid list of debaucheries and hedonistic shenanigans.
It is that "if you only knew the half of it" approach which characterizes Off the Record, a rock 'n' roll roman a clef by The News & Observer critic David Menconi. In his first novel, Menconi tackles everything from greedy scum-sucking promoters to management-funded drug procurers as he follows the rise and fall of a Nirvana-esque power trio, the Tommy Aguilar Band (TAB).
The Aguilar character is a composite: You'll see glimpses of local rockers Dexter Romweber and Ryan Adams, as well as obvious references to Kurt Cobain. Add a touch of Jerry Lee Lewis (the character likes to shoot his gun) and the devil-blessed pairing of rockabilly and rock (think Billy Zoom and Joe Doe) and you get the picture. As the novel unfolds, TAB are used, abused, destroyed and ultimately deified in that peculiar way America has of granting its dead rock icons insights and motivations far beyond their initial meanings or aspirations.
Set in Raleigh, Off the Record has a noirish feel--there's foul play aplenty--but Menconi's reportorial writing style and faultless ear for the rock vernacular keeps the dialogue believable. The novel unfolds largely through the eyes of fictional rock critic Ken Morrison, a jaded writer who tries to ride the band's coattails to the top. Ultimately, he encounters the same sell-out dilemmas faced by the band as he trades his integrity for a position as an "insider." Menconi pulls no punches with the character.
"It's weird to write about somebody who does what you do," he says. "He [Morrison] does a lot of cowardly, self-serving shit--he's burned out and in need of something to get excited about again, and he's so convinced that this band [TAB] is going to be it that he's willing to do anything."
While the story is an anti-fable of sorts, the situations are real--Menconi's inspiration was a famous industry tale concerning a '70s rocker who'd been bumped off by his manager. "Virtually everything that's happened in this book has happened somewhere," he says, adding that he envisioned the novel as sort of the "music biz equivalent" of the pro-football expose North Dallas Forty, in that the reader is taken into a specific world and shown the "behind the scenes, gritty stuff."
In line with the recent Courtney Love Napster pro-artist speech (shamelessly pirated from an earlier Steve Albini article), the book clearly depicts the artist's dilemma--the obvious conflict between populist success and purity of vision. As TAB hits the big time, Menconi provides an inside look at the business side of the music industry: the royalty splits, recoupable expenses and money-siphoning accounting practices that keep the big bucks from trickling down to the band.
"I think the book lays out pretty well how a band can sell a ton of records and still not make a penny," Menconi says. "The tagline in my book explains why musicians are like infantrymen. They're the first to die and the last to get paid."
A professional critic since '85, the San Antonio native spent his formative rock years in Denver, attending mega-shows at Red Rocks and devouring music magazines (the golden era of Cream, Hit Parade and the like). He went back to his home state to get his masters in journalism at University of Texas at Austin. Obviously you can't major in rock, but Menconi's thesis, prophetically, concerned rock and the media as he examined the "discovery" and demolition of the Armadillo World Headquarters, a '70s concert hall where people like Willie and Waylon played "outlaw" country for crowds of hippies.
After a gig doing features and rock criticism back in Boulder, Menconi joined The N&O in '91, in time to witness the area's "new Seattle" media circus. He also got an inside peek at the big leagues--arena rock with all the trimmings--when he checked out local band Cry of Love's opening tour for Aerosmith. ("Arrowhead" is the name given the band of drugged-out old farts on the arena comeback trail.) If you've ever seen the limos full of strip-club babes pull into Walnut Creek/Alltel Pavilion, a scenario Menconi neatly works into the book, you'll know how dead-on his observations are.
A stint with an agent and a batch of refusals ("there's not a character in here we can see Kevin Costner playing," Menconi deadpans), led the critic to go with e-publisher iUniverse.com, an online "print-on-demand" company that requires no huge initial investment by the author/publisher. Local bookstores the Regulator, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and area Barnes & Nobles will also stock the book, and Menconi be doing a series of readings later this month. Marketing-wise, Menconi has created a Blair Witch-style Web site (www.OffTheRecordBook.com), which features faux character bios and a TAB discography, with TAB's sound clips "realized" by local rocker Kenny Roby.
Six years in the making (Menconi wrote late-night after returning from the clubs), the book is a nuts-and-bolts dissection of how the industry works, a real eye-opener to anyone who hasn't had a record deal.
"It's a jaundiced view of the rock-critic profession," admits Menconi, who cut his teeth digesting the works of Marsh, Christgau, Lester Bangs and other legendary gonzo critics/journalists. "Those guys considered themselves rock stars," he says. "I don't know if there is anybody with that kind of power now." And for every critic who thinks he's a star, there's 100 bands that want his head on a platter. Non-industry folks may find the view of the music biz over-the-top and appalling, but for anyone who has "lived the dream" ("livin' the dream" or "L.T.D." is the ironic term used by many rockers to describe such glamorous situations as dead vans, empty clubs and microwave burrito dinners), you've already got your own "off the record" anecdotes.