There are plenty of things I like in Gerry LaFemina’s novel “Clamor,” which is the story of a 39-year-old punk rocker going home for his father’s funeral. But it’s one of those books that I like just as much for what’s not in it. More on that presently.
When I was reading it, I found myself remembering a question that a black friend of mine once asked me more than a decade ago. Why don’t white people respect older musicians?
I told her that I don’t think that’s true. These days, older musicians such as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello are regarded more as revered elder statesmen than creaky relics. But I could see where she was coming from.
In thinking of the musicians that white people are into, she was probably thinking of rock stars. (And for the time being, I’m not going to go into the oversimplified but certainly not meritless assertion that white people simply appropriated rock music from black people. That’s a big can of worms.) And the template for rock stars was forged, with some overlap in adjacent decades, in the youth-obsessed 1960s.
I remember a time not so long ago (By my standards. I’m no spring chicken myself.) when the mere act of getting older was considered a kind of failing on the part of rock musicians.
Back in 1989 when the Rolling Stones were on their Steel Wheels tour, a lot of my peers were making dismissive cracks about “Steel Wheelchairs.” As if the fact that the Stones were in their 40s — their freakin 40s! — meant they were far too old and decrepit to continue their careers, and it was pathetic of them to even try. I can’t see anybody harboring that attitude toward a painter or a writer. Or a classical musician, for that matter.
If the prohibition on aging applied to the rock stars of the Rolling Stones’ generation, it must apply doubly to punk rockers — members of a brash, angry movement formed largely as a reaction against the mellow complacency of aging hippies.
But given time’s stubborn refusal to remain motionless, that raises an obvious question. What are rock musicians supposed to do in lieu of aging?
An embarrassingly large portion of rock fandom still clings to the asinine notion that there’s something romantic about dying at a young age, usually as a result of substance abuse. Understandably, rock musicians have proven reluctant to indulge that perspective via mass suicide.
These days, when rock music is hardly synonymous with youth anymore, aging rock musicians aren’t dismissed quite as readily. Still, they face remnants of that attitude. And it plays out in the instant self-parody of the VH1 Behind the Music story arc. Youthful success, drug-fueled burnout and subsequent irrelevance, ending with a redemptive “comeback” in the form of a slot on the state fair circuit.
All of that overlooks one crucial fact. Rock musicians are human beings, not walking tropes. Plenty of them just go about their business, practicing their art and refusing to conform to the clichés attached to their profession.
Johnny Malice, the protagonist of LaFemina’s novel, is one of them. He comes home to Queens for the funeral of his estranged father, a police detective who never accepted his lifestyle. And he tries to reconnect with his family, including a brother who also condemns Johnny’s lifestyle while subconsciously envying it.
Remember what I was saying back in the second sentence about liking the book for what’s NOT in it? OK, here’s a partial list of what doesn’t happen:
– Johnny doesn’t struggle with addiction because the years of drug-and-alcohol-soaked hedonism on the punk circuit have fried his brain.
– Johnny doesn’t have a tearful confrontation with an estranged daughter, who at some point ends up yelling: “You were never there for me!”
– Johnny doesn’t have a shouting match with a bandmate because one of them sold out and it used to be about the MUSIC, man!
– Johnny just generally doesn’t behave life a pretentious, self-indulgent douchebag (but it’s OK to act that way because he’s such a brilliant, tormented, artistic soul and the flame that burns twice as bright blah blah blah … )
Nope. After decades as the lead singer of a punk band, Johnny is doing … well, just fine.
Sure, he’s got regrets and tragedies in his past. (Here’s a spoiler, kids: Nobody makes it to 40 entirely unscathed.) He’s sad about his estrangement from his brother and his father.
But Johnny himself is satisfied with the path he’s taken. He’s been successful. He has a surrogate family in his bandmates, who are good, supportive people. Johnny’s a good guy himself.
He’s a human being, in other words. Not a walking series of rock star clichés. The other characters in the book ring equally true.
The whole novel has a wonderfully textured, lived-in feel as Johnny alternates between ruminations on his life leading up to this point, and the routine of going through his father’s funeral. You can practically see the neighborhood, and the people.
Plenty of times, LaFemina seems to be closing in on one of the expected beats, the easy clichés, and then his characters veer away to do something more subtle and human.
It’s a book that consistently defies expectations by being more complex and thoughtful than you might have expected. Kind of like its protagonist. And kind of life punk rock in general.