A new novel by Ben Greenman, published by Melville House
Rock-and-roll fiction tends to take easy outs, playing up the obvious excesses of the lifestyle so that we get big splashy works resembling tell-all accounts like Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods or Peter Brown and Stephen Gaines’ The Love You Make. Groupies queue up, bottles are smashed, TVs are tossed, and it’s Satyricon, 1960s-style.
Ben Greenman, though, has hit upon something far more dexterous with Please Step Back, which features a protagonist—the protean Rock Foxx—who has fused rock’s free-styling id-component with a poet’s soul. The two halves wear away at each other, and Foxx’s saga becomes less a march on the Billboard charts than a quiet, personal quest for lucidity—in his marriage, his music, his past, and his quotidian thoughts as he tries to decode everything from the motives of bandmates to the very source of songs.
He’s a funkster, set in the black musical culture of the iconic genre-blenders, musicians like James Brown, Sly Stone, and post-In a Silent Way Miles Davis. In short, a hoodoo artist. Greenman’s prose renders Foxx the personification of a walking, scamming, ever-playing record collection, a patois of rhyming couplets and jerking syncopations. There’s a coming-of-age quality to the novel—Foxx does indeed take the journey from unknown to cover-boy—but this is a frail heroism, if it’s heroism at all. Drama originates not in Foxx’s rock and roll conquests, but rather from his marriage, a union that Greenman dissects with the careful, shot-by-shot imagery—and context setting—of a Godard film.
Bands are roiled with creative difference, people get on the junk, and opportunities are missed (Foxx’s band ditches Woodstock—a clever fictional tweak of history), but it’s the dissolution of relationships and what that reveals about one’s own failings that’ll do you in. Foxx’s music starts to navigate away from soul and funk over the course of the book, and soon it’s loaded up with the blues, albeit a rocking, Fillmore-friendly blues. Lyrics and references tap the back catalogues of Little Walter, Memphis Minnie, and Slim Harpo. Identities—and archetypes—blur, and meaning begins to emanate from states of relative confusion, as if a song had emerged from what had been a noodling, band practice jam. Like when Foxx quotes Shakespeare to his wife:
“You ever heard of him? Tall cat, good with a knife. I think he’s from Denver.”
“You’re a strange person,” she said.
“Please,” he said. “Mercurial.”
And that he is. He’s also almost Macbethian by the end; everything’s blown up on him, and now the forest is marching on the castle. It’s at this point that Greenman introduces an inspector tandem that could have strayed from a Flann O’Brien novel, with absurdity now pressed into service to help Foxx find his meaning. His explorations—and attempted extrapolations—become ritualistic, like an endgame that cycles over and over again, or a series of encores played to an empty room.
Colin Fleming writes for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Criterion, and many other publications. His fiction appears in Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, TriQuarterly, and The Republic of Letters.