Reading at Full Volume: Seven Books That Feature Rock Music
Matthew Norman Recommends Roddy Doyle, Dawnie Walton, Nick Hornby, and More
I’ve been working on a theory about novelists lately: most of us wish we were rock stars. I’m basing this on a few things, like, for example, who wouldn’t want to be a rock star? Also, with all our anonymity, social anxiety disorders, and how we tend to be at our best while wearing sweatpants alone in quiet rooms, it makes sense that rock stars would have some appeal. After all, they’ve got the cool outfits, the literal spotlight…people know their names. Mostly, though, my theory is founded on the fact that we keep writing about them.
My latest novel Charm City Rocks features several fictional rock stars, most notably Margot Hammer, who is the former powerhouse drummer of the long-broken-up, all-female rock band Burnt Flowers. After an impromptu performance in Baltimore goes viral, Margot is thrust back into musical relevance, and drama ensues. Never in my writing career has a character’s backstory been more different than my own. Also, never in my writing career has a character been easier and more fun to write.
I’m not going to claim the words flowed, because in my experience words don’t really do that. But when I sat down to write the first Margot chapter, I realized that I already knew who Margot was, what her music meant to her, and exactly how she felt about being world famous for hitting things with sticks. That’s because I’ve been doing research about rock stars via daydreaming since I saw MTV for the first time when I was ten and thought, Wow, I wish I could do that.
Below is a literary playlist—ahem—of some of my favorite novels that feature musicians and the seductive lure of rock stardom. Most were published recently, but, like some aging crooner who’s trying to sell something new, I threw in a couple classics to round out the set. Have a look and let me know what you think. And if audiobooks are your thing, I recommend turning the volume up as loud as it’ll go and telling your neighbors to go straight to hell.
Jessica Anya Blau, Mary Jane
Set in Baltimore in the ’70s, this 300-page joy machine is the story of a 14-year-old girl, Mary Jane, who’s working as a summer nanny for a psychiatrist who lives in her neighborhood. Shortly after being hired, Mary Jane learns that her boss, Dr. Cone, has cleared his summer schedule to focus exclusively on one very important patient, a handsome rock star/heroin addict named Jimmy Bendinger.
What makes this book so wonderful is the magic trick that Jessica Anya Blau pulls off as she gives us a coming-of-age novel full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that somehow manages to feel sweet, heartwarming, and even downright wholesome.
Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & the Six
Obviously, Daisy Jones & the Six belongs here. It’s a terrific rock novel, it was made into an addictive series on Amazon Prime, and it even led to a kickass real album. (Seriously, download it.)
I’d be failing you and myself, however, if I didn’t dig a little deeper and mention the character Mick Riva. A first-rate fictional rock star, Riva strums in and out of a bunch of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novels: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Malibu Rising, the aforementioned Daisy Jones & the Six (briefly), and Carrie Soto Is Back (even more briefly).
Curtis Sittenfeld, Romantic Comedy
This one features a musician who’s technically more popstar than rock star, but I’m including it anyway for two reasons: 1.) I’m in charge, and 2.) it’s a fantastic book. Sparks fly immediately when Sally Milz, a comedy writer for an SNL-like sketch show called The Night Owls, meets a dreamy singer-songwriter named Noah Brewster. In a lesser writer’s hands ROMANTIC COMEDY could be like a million other…well, romantic comedies. But Curtis Sittenfeld’s talent pushes beyond the confines of genre and gives us a powerful book that has important things to say about double standards and gender dynamics.
Allison Larkin, The People We Keep
So much Rock Lit chronicles the careers of musicians who’ve either made it or made it and lost it. In The People We Keep we meet a musician who hasn’t made it and who, frankly, maybe never will. Allison Larkin gives us April Sawicki, a neglected teenage runaway who busks and gigs her way across the country in a stolen car.
If you’re like me, you’ll love April, the songs she writes during her journey, and the makeshift family she strings together along the way.
Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
You know those bands who drop a debut album that’s basically perfect and blows everyone away? That’s this. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is a fictional oral history of an iconic interracial rock duo from the ’70s. By structuring the book like a piece of longform journalist, Dawnie Walton creates the perfect vehicle for searing modern-day social commentary.
And because the characters get to speak for themselves, they feel so vivid and so real that you’ll find yourself wishing you could look them up on YouTube and watch their performances again and again.
Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
This list wouldn’t be complete without Nick Hornby, because as far as I’m concerned—and again, I’m in charge here—Nick Hornby is a rock star, and Juliet, Naked is a freaking delight. It features a reclusive, Dylan-like singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe, a Tucker Crowe superfan named Duncan, and Duncan’s jilted partner, Annie. Things get interesting quickly when Annie begins an email relationship with Tucker, and they get even more interesting when Tucker and Annie meet in real life.
Smart, funny, and full of music, this is Hornby at his best.
Roddy Doyle, The Commitments
If Rock Lit has a founding member, The Commitments is it. It’s the literary equivalent of one of those simple, catchy, seemingly effortless Ramones songs from the ’70s that has no business being as awesome as it is. I’m guessing it’s about 90 percent dialogue (much of it swearing), it’s barely long enough to even be called a novel, and Roddy Doyle can’t be bothered to provide any backstory whatsoever.
But none of that shite matters, because the book just works, and you root for this foul-mouthed band of misfits from page one.
Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman is available via Dell.