Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tony Bailie's "The Lost Chord": Book Review

Phil Lynott's swagger combined with Rory Gallagher's blues: while Gino Morgan's story's filed under fiction, it reads like fact. Not a novel so much as one of those rock-star biographies penned not by the star, but by one who knew him or her back when. And now, when the money's low and the fame's dimmed for the groupie, the sidekick, or in this case the rhythm guitarist, it's time to cash in what memories can be resurrected from the drug-addled informant. This novel reads as if such a true-- taken with the proverbial grains of coke-- story of life on the road with one more famous than one's self, often penned by a ghostwriter if not written entirely by a journalist or a hack, out of the taped transcripts and the press kit clippings and the bleary pub crawls.

An Irish journalist, Bailie provides an intriguing framework for this milieu. Manus Brennan alternates, as the novel begins, his current fate, literally washed-up on the shore, looking for wrack to light the fire that keeps his boozy body warm. He had joined Duil, a hard-rock Irish band who reminds me of Thin Lizzy's hard rock with a dash of Horslips' progressive folk. Seven years after the band's dissolution, Manus begins to narrate his tale, blended with his reply to what the few who bother with asking him anything really want to know: where's Gino?

This attendant status, Manus admits, makes him "a second-rate guitarist in a first-rate rock band." Nobody cares much about him, actually. Anyone interviewing him wants to know what he knew about Gino, six-foot-five, swarthy, sexy, and shapeshifting. While eager biographers already have published books on what might have happened to Gino-- who at the peak of debauchery vanished on tour in Germany-- the mystery of his disappearance fuels only improbable rumors that remain uncorroborated.

Into this miasma, Martina Lucas, a Californian with an "expensive" accent (as a less-affluent native of the Golden State myself I'm still pondering this adjective), enters Manus' aimless existence. His wife's left him, he's practically a recluse, and any music he tries to make with a band after Gino comes with an inevitable tag: "Manus Brennan (ex-Duil) on lead guitar." Even when he tries to establish his own talent, he's only hired for his past brush with fame, in the figure of Gino. Gino's fate fuels gossip among fans and tabloids. Martina's own interest in Manus appears only another manipulation of the servant who once waited on the fabled lord.

Speculation draws Manus towards Martina, who in turn seeks to use Manus to draw out the other members of Duil. She's keen on promoting her own tale to peddle to the press about Gino. Perhaps Martina's scamming the band, as her appearance's timed with Duil releasing old tapes and passing them off with their manager's connivance as Gino's contributions mailed in after his vanishing act seven years before. The mythmaking process enchants not only fans but the press and Duil's other members, who silently collude in their own desperate attempts to pay their debts and live off of their only meal ticket, Gino, after he goes missing. If he's not there, his mystique must do. Bills need to be paid. Complicating this state of Duil's predicament after Gino left them with their creditors calling, Martina suspects that Gino arranged his own departure, and that his junkie chic comedown was more a pose than an affliction. Her theory of monastic intrigue impels a doubting Manus to follow. He wonders if her search will be better substantiated than the earlier reports purporting to solve Gino's fate.

Bailie explores the experiences of a type of protagonist little attended to in fiction. Adding to its interest, the novel enters a place once and long relegated to the margins of British popular music. There's no overt time period to betray the immediacy of the action, but Bailie, by keeping the plot clean of any real-life band comparisons, wisely allows us to think of this quest occurring within a time less linked to a particular trend or era, pixellating magnification capabilities aside.

The island's rock scene itself gains little overt attention, although the clash of Irish trad with arena power provides quite an appealing subplot. It's an Irish novel more in its matter-of-fact presentation of traditional musicians, brief snatches of scenery, or the passing observation.
"The evening is heavy with rain as we leave the sodium lit distortion of Belfast behind us and climb up to where the city peters out in the foothills of the Black Mountain. Bundles of houses appear now and again, separate from the suburban sprawl but with no real identity of their own. The road I drive is narrow and twisting and made dangerous by the floods of rain that pound it." (171)
The precision of the detail, sparely given, echoes Bailie's poetry. He's a local, who gives us what we need, and moves on.

A non-Irish writer would have likely ladled in more garish color. Mercifully free of whimsy, light on the emotions, and efficiently paced, the story moves with more direction if as much economy as its feckless teller. We get the backstory of Gino and his bandmates through the straightforward, more serviceable than striking prose style that fits its speaker, an observant but not unconvincingly eloquent man down on his luck whose only way back into fortune is his link to his former semi-celebrity days.

I'm not sure if this was Bailie's intention, but reading this I found a tonal harmony. Parts of Manus' narrative fall into that rather stolid evocation of one who recollects in tranquility one's barnburning days. Less as a prime mover and more as a rolling stone, Manus found himself with an offer he could not refuse. He joined Duil when they were already famous, and he after a concert of theirs.

The dutiful details emerge parallel here in fiction to how many rock-star stories are told in fact. It blurs and bores a bit at times, as Manus seeks to align his wavering existence against the energy of the magnetic personality, Gino. Manus was recruited by him at 19; now 33, he already feels as if he'll be living in the past, the few years with Gino will be Manus' only success in the decades to come. This verisimilitude makes sense. Manus lacks the charisma of the lead singer. It's always Gino's tale the hearer wants; Manus must endure as a means to this end.

The supporting character to the star never grabs, of course, the spotlight. Yet, Bailie's oblique strategy allows us to witness fame at this slight but persistent remove. Gnosticism, the appeal of the resurrected hero, and the veneration of idols all enter this book lightly, but offer a thoughtful gloss on the rock-star milieu that perceives its legends emerging, if we entered another dark age, via oral transmission. Two thousand years from now, what saints might elicit our prayers? We invent deities no less than the early Christians, seeking to recover the light that Sufis, rabbis, and lamas saw. This meditated perspective, at a half-turn from one who first worshiped the band as a fan before joining Duil, gives us a Gino less mundane than Manus witnessed in his first incarnation. "His gaunt craggy face could twist into the grimaces of a thousand agonies before settling into the smile of benign sainthood." (15)

Therefore, in Gino's after-life or half-life as attested to by those who were his eyewitness apostles and those who report on the messiah second-hand, the novel gently shifts gears into in an energy more mysterious. Perhaps Gino's appeal lay not only in his riffs or his songs, but in his aura? How, exactly, can one explain a celebrity's charisma-- perhaps in the root meaning of that word? In this evangelical register, unlike its earlier emulation of the many rock-star biographies written by others who knew so-and-so, "loyal acolyte" Manus' tale betters so many half-awed, half-jaded accounts of gods made flesh on stage. Duil, which is a word never defined (perhaps as this home-grown novel comes from Belfast's Lagan Press), means "desire," that strong lure that pulls you along. You may not realize you're hooked.

Available directly from: The Lagan Press, Belfast
. Posted belatedly to British Amazon 11-8-09 and cross-posted 6-6-08 to "Blogtrotter".

No comments: