Author: Christopher Ward
Publisher: Dundurn Press
The premise for Dead Brilliant by Christopher Ward is in many ways dead brilliant, but it meanders on with too many characters and comes up with too many contrived coincidences, and ends up losing steam.
Roc Molotov is a rock star whose best album may find no takers, even as his greatest rocking days are behind him. Once the toast of the rock world, he finds that music alone is not enough any longer; the star making machinery of record companies now requires gimmicks to push record sales up.
With age catching up with him, the 38-year-old Roc finds his appeal slipping away. Every day, he finds himself sliding lower in the rock n’ roll food chain. His former band mates have split away and formed a band called the Cocktails, and Uncle Strange, his oldest friend and manager, has the temerity to suggest that he serve as the opening act on their maiden tour. To make matters worse, the Cocktails release an album a week before Roc can, and it hits Number 1 on the charts, riding on his reputation.
When the recording label shows scant interest in his record, Uncle Strange assets that desperate times call for desperate measures. He convinces Roc to agree to fake his death on MTV, adding that the move would give Roc much-needed publicity for his current album, besides the freedom to work on his music without any commercial interference. Uncle Strange would then release a whole body of music “posthumously”.
Since his love life with his on-off girlfriend Bobbie is going downhill and his estranged daughter, Emma, won’t acknowledge him, he agrees to the crazy scheme.
Soon it is a marketplace as his mom and Uncle Strange begin to cash in on his dead fame. Uncle Strange wants Roc to write a song to launch the career of his girlfriend, and Roc learns how difficult it is to stay dead when you’re not. Amid this crazy turn of events, Emma begins to grieve her father’s death.
Pretty soon, Roc allows his loneliness to get the better of his caution. And Uncle Strange, finding Roc unwilling to accept his suggestions or to act upon his bidding, begins to think it would be better if Roc were really dead, particularly when Emma, the heir, refuses to let him touch the profits.
Christopher Ward is Canada’s original MuchMusic VJ, the man who wrote Black Velvet, among other hits which have been recorded by such music legends as Diana Ross, and hit machines as The Backstreet Boys and many others. Ward brings to his novel a sarcastic eye born of years in the business and of knowing the music industry and its types inside out.
Reading the novel gives us an idea of all that goes on in the business to which he has devoted many years. This is fiction built on a foundation of a heavy dose of reality.
The book deliberately critiques the sort of people that, in the author’s words, let their hype buttons do the speaking for them, or, because they are in the music business, believe that they must copulate till their member falls off out of sheer exhaustion.
This is a business in which the fame and fortune run out eventually while the one-hit wonders find themselves on shows like “Where are they now?”
A business where the music is drowned out by the accompaniment of tours, groupies, the recording labels, stories of abuse etc.
Reading the description of the recording company, one gets an idea of how the music industry must have been, when music, not gimmickry, held centrestage.
The satire is unmistakable as when the author’s voice describes Uncle Strange’s hotel room as a mixture of “incense and pretence,” and the occupant’s carefully crafted identity.
The characters are well etched, particularly the two male leads. Uncle Strange is the consummate manager, pulling strings, placating egos, thinking up ruses to get the band going. He has the uncanny ability to sound sincere on demand.
Roc is the only character that does not stay true to type. For him, it is the music above all other considerations and he longs for a real relationship.
Unfortunately, the women in this story, Bobbie, the girlfriend; Tabatha, Roc’s ex-wife; Marie, the girlfriend of Uncle Strange; Julia, Marie’s best friend, all, except Emma, come across as flaky. Bobbie is better than the rest, but with her phone sex job, she doesn’t rise much higher than the others.
The cover is brilliant. It depicts both the outline of a coffin with the neck of the guitar that you notice when you stare hard, as also an icon of a face with the eyes closed and the tongue popping out.
The author succeeds in keeping the speech patterns true to the characters, and creates a world where friendships are fleeting but they could also last decades.
Ultimately, Dead Brilliant is a happy story, and tells you much about the nature of the music business. Not only is fame ephemeral but anyone can become famous and enjoy their 15 minutes, or less, of fame.
(I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)