Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six. Hutchinson, 2018
A bit of a departure in today’s post.
Mrs TD and I heard this novel recommended on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read last month (always worth catching the podcast). She read it and urged me to. I hated it – and quite enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure. I’m old enough to remember the seventies era in which it’s set, and secretly quite liked ‘Rumours’ (though I claimed at the time in public to prefer Dylan, Cohen and The Grateful Dead).
I found the last quarter quite moving. It was the most interesting aspect of it that was least interesting: the structure. It’s written as a sort of transcript from a mockumentary about a seventies American rock band, mostly in oral interviews. It veers horribly close to Spinal Tap, without the laughs or irony. Pop and rock music novels generally fail to match the music behind them, or non-fiction accounts, as this Guardian review by Neil Spencer of The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor suggests.
The band is initially The Six; the name is expanded when solo artist Daisy joins them. It seems to be based on a soft-rock outfit like Fleetwood Mac (I believe this genre of music is now known as Yacht Rock). It has the usual rock cliché pairs of rival siblings, struggles for artistic and dynamic control, sexual tensions, and so on. The lead singer and guitarist, Billy, is an autocrat, and makes his bandmates seethe with resentment and frustration as he hogs the limelight and dictates the direction of their career.
It’s got all the usual tropes of such stories of the era: sex, drugs and alcohol addiction, manipulative chancers, mayhem, hedonism and excesses on the road. Their desperation to make hit records and become famous means compromising on their musical values (yes, it’s super pretentious). Inevitably band members fall in and out of love.
Because everything is told in fragments by members of the band, engineers, managers, rock journalists and a few others, the style is highly colloquial and largely monotonous, predictable, and laden with the slang of the era: young women are ‘cool chicks’, as the musicians get rich they buy ‘a pad’ in Laurel Canyon, that kind of thing.
The prose is generally flat and tediously repetitious. Rock stars talking about the ‘rush’ of making a crowd go crazy is interesting mostly for themselves. Hearing it repeated every few pages becomes, like, a drag, man.
The plot development is as predictable as their world tour: the trajectory of such bands has been traced countless times, as in the recent film about Queen. There’s the usual rise from obscure origins to superstardom to disintegration when the band splits.
The lengthy exposition of song lyrics and ‘laying down of tracks’ is laboured and sometimes laughable. Let’s face it, most rock lyrics don’t stand up to much close scrutiny, except for Dylan’s. The lyrics for the band’s breakthrough album ‘Aurora’ (that’s a ringer for ‘Rumours’) – the making of which forms the heart of the novel – are given in full at the end; they’re passable pastiche, but like most lyrics of the time (as Christopher Ricks concedes about Dylan’s), they work best when performed. Seeing them in print exposes their banality.
There are some neat touches, as when a character tells us their version of an event, then the next speaker gives an account that contradicts it completely. An example: Daisy says Billy wrote the song ‘Impossible Woman’ about her. She quotes: “She’s blues dressed up like rock ‘n’ roll/untouchable, she’ll never fold”. (That’s fairly typical of the prosody.)
Then Billy says: ‘I absolutely never told Daisy the song was about her. I wouldn’t have done that because the song wasn’t about her.’
His denial shows his evasion of the truth about his suppressed feelings for her, but that’s about as emotionally deep as the story gets.
In fact most of the band members reveal themselves (unsurprisingly) to be shallow and egotistical – though some of their annoyance with Billy is understandable.
There’s a twist near the end that I hadn’t seen coming, and as I said at the start, the final part of the novel is quite poignant. The love-hate relationship in the triangle involving Daisy, Billy and his faithful, trusting wife Camila is handled pretty well. I also liked the feminist critique of the music industry at that time (probably not much changed, even in the era of #MeToo). Daisy is far more radical and in-your-face than the Stevie Nicks (or Janis Joplin?) types she’s vaguely modelled on.
This aspect is spoilt for me as Daisy is increasingly shown as the stereotypical little-girl-lost, searching-for-love character: the rock chick wildness is all a veneer to cover her, gulp, vulnerability. Not such a feminist after all.
More convincing and rounded is the character of Karen, the band’s keyboard player (Christine McVie? I remember her as a gritty blues singer, Christine Perfect): she deliberately plays down her sexuality, while Daisy flaunts it. I’m not convinced by Daisy’s claims that her skimpy, revealing clothes are a reflection of her feminist confidence. She says of the see-through top she wore for the album cover shoot of their hit album ‘Aurora’:
I dress how I want to dress. I wear what I feel comfortable in. How other people feel about it is not my problem.
Protesting a little too much? Revealing in a different way, she goes on to say that she and Karen disagreed on this. Karen knows the game Daisy plays, and perhaps envies her attitude, while also disapproving of her methods; Karen’s found that relying on her talent as a keyboard player doesn’t get her the recognition she craves. A woman has to compromise her sexuality to do so, and Daisy knows that.
But there’s still that annoying prose and over-familiar storyline.
PS Harriet Gilbert on that radio programme I started with likens Daisy Jones to David Keenan’s 2017 novel This Is Memorial Device, also written in the form of interviews and the like, about a post-punk rock band from a windswept part of Scotland that couldn’t be more different from the sunkissed swimming pools and baked deserts in which Reid’s novel is set. I just looked it up; there’s a link HERE to a Guardian review by Toby Litt. It sounds rather more original and interesting.