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BOOK REVIEW

Humorous stories of a band on the wane

By Clea Simon
January 12, 2009
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Except for a brief period in the 1970s when eye makeup and thrift-store glitter were the rage, rock 'n' roll has never been about glamour. It's a gritty, populist art form, and debut author Michael Shilling gets at its funkiest - perhaps, filthiest - roots in his over-the-top humorous novel "Rock Bottom."

Two parts "Spinal Tap," one part Chekhov, the book focuses on the last day of what will probably be the last tour for an absolutely awful band, the Blood Orphans. Condemned as racist by Spin magazine, the Blood Orphans are about to be dropped by their label. Even before hearing the news, the band is disintegrating as the four very different members war with each other over issues ranging from the musical to the sexual.

From the opening scenes when the band members start their day, most of them camping out in an unheated Amsterdam apartment furnished primarily with undersized children's belongings, things go from bad to worse. Bassist Bobby's eczema has made his hands unusable, impairing his already limited musical ability. Drummer Darlo, son of a porn king, finds his funds tied up as his father is arrested back in Los Angeles, and wimpy guitarist Adam, with his ridiculous Fu Manchu mustache, resigns himself to continued bullying. The one-time Christian singer Shane has at least found a warmer bunk, waking in the bed of a nubile teen. But even manager Joey's usual morning cocaine can't take the edge off what she knows is going to be a terrible day. As Shilling alternates between these self-involved characters' tortured first-person story lines, we learn how the Blood Orphans came to be in such straits, and why things are likely to get worse.

But if nothing else, rock 'n' roll is a story of reinvention. Just as the music recycles riffs, so too a fresh start is always possible at the next gig. And even if the band has started a riot in normally laid-back Sweden, even if it has been lambasted for lyrics so offensive as to be ridiculous, even if several of the members routinely fantasize about maiming each other, the Blood Orphans have one more show to play. There'll be one more set of "the stomp and hue and cry of the power-poppermost of the hard-hitting rockermost," as Joey announces from the stage of the nearly empty club. As the five characters make their way through the foreign city - seeking love, food, drugs, sex, and the Van Gogh museum - they may yet straighten out the mess of their lives.

Shilling both understands and overstates the cockeyed rock world. Writing about the boredom of touring, and the adoration given to anyone who plays music on a stage, he gets the rhythms as well as the ridiculous logic of the road, as his characters' distinctive voices mix hyperbole with pop culture references into their own particular narcissistic brews. At times, the author pushes rock 'n' roll's limits: A song about sex with a legless woman, for example, really does sound more like a "Spinal Tap" rip-off. But underneath the broad humor, Shilling also recognizes the humanity of his characters. They create out of their personal pain. Just because their art is of dubious value doesn't mean that their stories aren't valid. And between the laughs he lets some recognition shine in. Filthy, covered in sores and disgrace, the Blood Orphans almost earn our - and each other's - respect. Beer in hand, they will, we sense, rock on.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).

ROCK BOTTOM
By Michael Shilling
Back Bay Books, 384 pp., $14.99

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