Readers will inevitably associate Nik Worth, one of the central characters in Dana Spiotta’s third novel, with a number of left of the dial musicians — Robert Pollard, Jandek, Alex Chilton, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston — but after interviewing Dana Spiotta a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been particularly drawn to The Byrds’ 1967 single “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”
“The price you paid for your riches and fame/ was it all a strange game?/ You’re a little insane/ The money, the fame, the public acclaim/ Don’t forget what you are:/ you’re a rock ‘n’ roll star!” That’s the song’s breezy, scathing and deliciously ironic final verse, which both simultaneously pandered to listeners and DJs with breezy hooks and harmonies and eviscerated the music industry. With “So You Want to Be a Rock n Roll Star” The Byrds’ set their sights on the Monkees (then the most popular band in America) and, as Bruce Eder writes, “every cliche of the business was assembled into its lyrics, and beneath the pleasant harmonizing by the band members was bitterness over the Byrds’ declining commercial fortunes.”
Like “So You Want to Be a Rock n Roll Star,” Stone Arabia is absolutely obsessed with rock cliches. As Matt Orenstein points out in his superb review of the novel, The Chronicles — a fictionalized autobiography of fan letters, scathing reviews, and obituaries for former band members Nik has written and maintained since the 1970s- -is “a masterful satire of music fandom and the DIY ethic [that] reads like fan fiction, with clichés dutifully cribbed from The LA Times, Creem, and Rolling Stone.” The Chronicles are a way for Nik to order and manage his life — it should be added his commercial fortunes are far worse than The Byrds’ — and the cliches they contain are those that govern rock authenticity: the sudden appearance of a guitar and its immediate transformation into an object of obsession, drug and alcohol abuse, motorcycle crashes, retreats to Zen monasteries.
If The Chronicles dominated Stone Arabia, the novel would be like a version of “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” without the final verse: a satisfying, kitschy pop song. Instead, Spiotta links it to disparate narratives — the relationship between Nik and his sister Denise; Denise’s fear that she’s losing her memory; Denise’s obsession with stories that dominate the 24 hour news cycle; and her boyfriend’s obsession with Thomas Kinkade — and raises crucial questions with enigmatic answers: What does it mean to grow up? How do we measure artistic success? How are technology, interconnectivity, and 24 hour news affecting the way we understand ourselves? What is authenticity, anyway?
That last question is, in my opinion, the most important in the novel, as it ties the novel’s discordant threads into a complex and moving pattern. Kinkade’s landscapes, the shrill, hyped-up reporting of a tragedy on cable news, our unreliable memories, Nik’s Chronicles: Each provides a narrative that converts “real experience” into something that simultaneously signals authenticity and transforms it into kitsch. We use these narratives in order to “identify and fulfill the needs and desires of [their] target audience,” to borrow a description of Kinkade’s work.
But I’m getting abstract — it’s important to remember that, while Spiotta never panders, Stone Arabia is as satisfying as a pop song. I spoke with Dana Spiotta about analog home recordings, authenticity, and why Wings is an underappreciated band.*
While I was getting ready to interview you this morning I was listening to Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait.
That’s an underrated album.
Yeah! I heard that a lot of the songs were demos that Bob Johnston just overdubbed bass and drums on. It’s got that silly “Fuck you Paul Simon, I’m Bob Dylan” cover of The Boxer on it.
That’s great. It’s also one of those records that people don’t talk about or like, so it becomes sort of like a secret record.
It’s a weird record, and one that made me think of Nik: you have to wonder whether or not Dylan is just having a laugh and intentionally confounding his audience. It doesn’t fit in with any of the Dylans that people want: protest Dylan, hipster Dylan, country Dylan, whatever.
Right. I have to do a playlist for Largehearted Boy, so I’ve been thinking about some of the same things.
What are you going to put on it?
I wanted to be very specific. I’m thinking of mostly doing things that were home recordings, or recorded all by yourself on a 4-track. So anything from McCartney to Jandek — the whole gamut, but sticking to pre-Pro Tools. Just the guy in the basement sort of thing. Anything pre-2000 would work. Some of the people that you mentioned in [a roundtable discussion about Stone Arabia at Reluctant Habits] were a lot of the people I had been thinking about, like Roky Erickson.
By 2004, when Stone Arabia is set, the aging rocker had become pretty ordinary; The Stones, Dylan, and McCartney are still doing it in their 60s. But both the 60s guys — and for that matter, the punks — idealized youth.
Being middle-aged is hard no matter what decisions you make. You’re not young anymore, and you’re facing your death and your parents’ death and the decay of the body. If he had been a successful musician, he would have faced that as well. Which is why [Denise] says that ‘The life in The Chronicles wasn’t all that different from the real life, ironically.” We all end up in the same place: you, by yourself, at the end.
Maybe that’s another way of coming to terms with not having achieved that kind of success: it gives him a way to play with the idea of those things, to ask, What if I had those things? Otherwise you end up bitter. And one thing I think Nik is not, is bitter. [He doesn’t think], If only this had happened my life would have been so different. That’s a terrible thing to be thinking when you’re 50. I think part of what the book is interested in is how anyone copes with aging and reconciling what you thought you’d be with what you end up being.
You don’t want to sell out when you’re 17. That’s the whole authenticity idea — this punk rock idea, which was also the 60s idea, too. You’re trying to find what it means to be authentic. And no matter how many quote marks you put around that word, that’s still something a young person contends with.
Pete Townshend’s “I hope I die before I get old” becomes Kurt Cobain’s “I hope I die before I’m Pete Townshend.”
Yeah, exactly! That impulse, which is a great impulse, is one of the things that rock is about: you want to be authentic. I think that’s why it’s so hard to be an aging rocker. Aging is all about concession: concession to the body, concession to other people. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good – you should have to make accommodations for other people and have responsibilities and all that – but how far do you stray from where you thought you would be? And what does that feel like? How do you reconcile that? [Nik’s] trying to keep his sanity in some ways.
How does Denise factor into that?
A lot of people see Nik as making Denise support him, but it’s not really like that. He doesn’t ask her for money; she gives him money. It’s a mutual thing. Denise gets a lot out of the relationship, [but] she’s at a breaking point [and] can’t really help him. But that’s new. The book starts when things are different from what they’ve been for the last 20 years. This is the crisis year when things change. The book starts when they’ve just reached that point. I think if you went back 10 years [Denise] wouldn’t have minded [supporting him], but things got difficult, [between her aging and her mother’s illness].
One of the things that makes it difficult is our culture. Our culture is intolerant of people who have eccentricities or secret lives or don’t want to make it in the conventional way. It’s very difficult. [If Nik had] money no one would mind that he was eccentric. He would just be doing his thing. It would be a great hobby!
If he wants to drink himself to death and take all the drugs, it’s his body. Of course, that’s not quite true because people love you and there are consequences, hard decisions. That’s really what growing up is about — is realizing that there are consequences. You really aren’t just you. That’s hard for Nik.
It’s also difficult because there are consequences he can’t control. On one hand, The Chronicles are a means of controlling reality, of creating narratives that order our lives; on the other, the novel seems to be really interested in the inherent inauthenticity of narrative — it’s all an artifice.
Yeah, exactly. Writing a novel is a seduction, a game, making you believe something that isn’t true. There’s a lot of artifice throughout all of it. Is his artifice any worse than anybody else’s?
I thought it was really interesting that so many of the artists I connected with Nik — Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson — were mentally ill.
I think it’s just because those are the people who end up having to record in their basement because they have no alternatives! There’s no big record company that wants to record them. So either albums that were either recorded by one person – like that Robyn Hitchcock album, I Often Dream of Trains – or things that sound that way. Like Guided by Voices – lo-fi classics.
In terms of mentally sound (or somewhat sound) artists, I connected Nik’s music with Robert Pollard, Jandek, and post-Big Star Alex Chilton.
Absolutely. That’s right on the money. I can’t really do the Skip Spence thing anymore because I did that so much in Eat the Document. So I’m not allowed to talk about that, or Smile, or all those other people.
Oar is one of those records I can listen to over and over and over.
That’s one of my favorite records.
Did you hear the Beck/Wilco cover album?
Yeah, I liked that record. I liked the tribute album too. I even like Robert Plant’s song.
I don’t know what happened to me 18 months ago, but all of a sudden I started to really, really like Zeppelin and Wings — two bands I absolutely hated as a teenager.
Yeah, what’s wrong with you? What happened that you’re defending Wings?
I love Wings!
I do too, but it’s not very popular.
I came to Wings via McCartney and Ram. I was surprised how much of their music — particularly the early records — reminded me of the lo-fi and indie pop albums I listen to now. I love All Things Must Pass, for instance, but it sounds of its time to me.
You really think so? Rick Moody thinks that’s the greatest Beatles solo album.
I think he’s right, but there aren’t any records that have come out since I’ve really been listening to music — in the last 10 years or so — where I’m like, “Oh yeah, this reminds me a lot of “Wah Wah” or something.” Wild Life and McCartney II are also of their time, but they feel more relevant to me in 2011.
They get bigger and more bombastic as they go, but what I love about McCartney, Ram, Wild Life – all the way through the 70s — is the sense of them as albums, as a mood. Especially in McCartney, you start out with these fragments of songs – there’s all this wonderful, connective stuff. You’re on a journey and you’re in that mood and it feels like a very specific time and space and you’re there. That’s the best thing an album can be, I think.
And they’re just so much fun. There’s none of the self-seriousness that you get in a Lennon record.
He doesn’t take himself as seriously as Lennon. Well, he does in a way. He definitely becomes aware of how he’s seen. What’s really interesting is that musically he really was a radical, innovative genius and it gets lost because he writes these lighter, lyrical – and I don’t think his lyrics are bad – but they’re not as introspective. He does a lot more narrative songs. He’s not so interested in the deep, expressionist soul in lyrics.
It’s interesting that all of those Beatles solo records were so nostalgic: Lennon & Harrison working with Phil Spector; John Lennon recording Chuck Berry songs.
That’s what they all wanted, to go back to their roots. It’s interesting that John was so interested in processing his own voice. John, who’s the “authentic guy,” right? He wanted all that processing all the time. It’s funny, isn’t it? Paul McCartney is more stripped down in a lot of ways.
Who are some of the other analog, 4-track people you were thinking about when you were writing the novel?
There are so many interesting people in that category, it’s almost endless. What I found with this book too, is that there are so many people who do home recording and have done it or have not stopped doing it as a hobby or just as a very passionate thing that they don’t make money from. It’s definitely true that now, with technology, you’re going to see more and more of that. A lot of people have said to me, “Oh, that’s exactly like my boyfriend,” or “that’s exactly like my dad,” or “like me.”
Well, not exactly. Nik is an exaggerated version. The Chronicles part is a little more unusual, but keeping going, even if you’re not making it, is not unusual. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in why [someone would do that], what that feels like 25 years down the road. It’s one thing if someone’s your age, to say ‘No matter what, I’m not going to stop writing novels, or I’m not going to stop painting. I’m going to keep going. It doesn’t matter if everyone else isn’t interested.’ But 25 years from now, who really keeps doing it? And what does that feel like for you and for people around you?
When Ada, Denise’s daughter, interviews Nik for the documentary she’s making, she asks if he owns his apartment. Nik responds by saying “I don’t want to take part in the ownership society.” And yet, with The Chronicles, Nik has taken complete control of his art and its reception, its audience. He’s very much participating in the “ownership society,” just not in terms of commerce.
He wants to be in complete control. There’s something sort of deeply antisocial about that. I kind of relate to that, because the novelistic impulse is very similar. That’s why it’s hard for me to be on Facebook or something, because I don’t control it — it controls me! And I feel impinged upon for the first time.
I was on live radio, strangely, for the first time the other day and listening to it later was painful — not just because my voice is nasally and high-pitched and awkward, but because I couldn’t edit it.
That’s why I feel horrible about this! On the other hand, the counter to that is that there is an interactive element to making things and that is a compelling part to it. You do want to hear a back and forth. I think that Nik has that with Denise. It’s a lot more interactive than most audience-artist relationships. She also has this longing for connection. I think art is an avenue where that’s possible. That’s where the book ends. But I think it’s also fraught and doomed, just in the way that people are.
The Breaking Events chapters, in which Denise watches cable news and tracks stories on the internet, show how narrative — even journalistic non-fiction — inevitably hightens or diminishes reality.
I think you’re right. One of the ways that they’re connected is that Nik is organizing the world; he’s the lord of his manor. Denise is not doing that to the extent that she is, except for when she’s doing her Counter Chronicles. So she’s got this information coming in and it’s weighing on her and her response to it is overwhelming.
If you have a structure to look at something, rather than just chaotic noise, you’re going to have a different relationship to it. This is the way that we retain our humanity in the face of overwhelming information and pain and suffering and commerce.
And anonymity and mortality. You have to have some way to answer back, some sort of construction. Nik does this in a very specific, weird – his way. I think one of the reasons Denise responds to his work is that there’s a certain sensibility that controls it. There’s no sensibility that controls the stuff she sees on the news. Commerce is essentially what organizes it. No wonder it makes you feel horrible! It’s inherently exploitative! It doesn’t appear that way, but that’s what it’s there for. It forces you to exploit yourself in a way.
That exploitation is weirdly instinctive, even attractive.
And addictive. It appeals to your basest, most sensationalistic instincts.
At one point, Ada tells Nik he could take his world, the entire Chronicles, onto the internet or create an iPad app. Why doesn’t he? Why no Pro Tools on the Largehearted Boy playlist?
One of the things I’m interested in is technology – this is true of all of the books. I’m very skeptical, even while I’m a user. I feel this kind of ambivalence, which is not really to say that I don’t feel strongly. I just feel multiple ways about it. I feel both that it’s great and that it has problems, in terms of your being a human. I tend to be attracted to characters who are suspicious of technology. I think that’s reflective of my own doubts – and Denise’s doubts about it as well. She’s submerged in it and it’s overwhelming to her. I think she finds Nik’s resistance appealing. Just like she finds the Stone Arabia people, the Amish’s resistance appealing too.
Why no Pro Tools? I do have a nostalgia for outdated technology, which has to do with not knowing where we are now. We can’t understand the technology until we’ve lived with it for a while. I understand what vinyl records have done. And the novel is an outdated technology! But that’s what makes it subversive.
I bought a record player a few months ago and have steadily accumulated a record collection. I do think that the sound is better, but I always wonder if I’m just falling into a particular cliche.
I also make fun of that – when people start fetishizing the object. You picked up on this thing [in the roundtable discussion] about how there are a lot of rock n roll tropes in The Chronicles. I’m glad you picked up on it [in the roundtable discussion]. I was reading a lot of Creem magazine – everything from Lester Bangs to early Griel Marcus to Robert Hilburn – and thinking about what [Nik’s] language for rock n roll would be and what his reference points would be. That was one of the fun things about The Chronicles, but also the challenging things: making it seem like it would come out of this person who was born in this place, at this time, someone who’s doing it for himself, who can indulge himself. It has to be self-indulgent, but it can’t be so self-indulgent, so hermetic, so full of self-reference that it would be boring to read or hard to read. Like anything in a novel it’s an illusion, a seduction. It’s going to create an experience of The Chronicles in your mind.
To get back to why it doesn’t have an iPad app: I really wanted to control it. I really wanted it to be a novel, that’s the short answer. I didn’t want to throw the balance off. It could have been this playful, fun thing – the whole novel could have been The Chronicles – and you could have just been trying to figure out what reality was the whole time. But that wasn’t my ambition. I had fun doing it and I contemplated the extra stuff – putting it on my website so people could look through it and all that – and I thought ‘No, if it’s not there I don’t want anybody to see it!’
Putting it all on the internet could turn a novel that’s preoccupied with kitsch into kitsch.
Exactly. I read so many rock n roll obituaries. It was really fun to write those. It was fun to stick in all those tropes. Obviously you got the Dylan motorcycle.
I loved that. Supposedly, Dylan stopped touring because he either had a motorcycle accident or was addicted to drugs. In The Chronicles Nik stops touring because he got into a motorcycle accident and was addicted to drugs. He gets to do it all!
Yeah! And when he goes to the monastery and has the name that means ‘Silence’…
Leonard Cohen, right?
Yeah! Very good! I was having fun with all that stuff, reading Elvis’s obituary in the New York Times – you know who wrote it? Molly Ivins! Isn’t that funny? Obituaries [have changed] so much. The New York Times especially. They’ve become so much more creative. They used to have much more of a structure. And also, the world’s changed. When Elvis died in 1977, the world was still run by people who didn’t grow up in the 60s. They were older than that. So by the time, say, Kurt Cobain dies, everybody had grown up with rock ‘n’ roll.
In a way, we’ve sort of ghetto-ized our culture. Now the person who writes the obituary has to have some sort of tangible, authentic, supposedly authoritative connection to their subject.
And then they’re just speaking to each other. One of the critiques that I’m interested in is that Nik’s privacy is important to me, it’s part of this question of authenticity because I feel the lack of privacy, the encroachment. We were talking about the internet now and what it feels like to have an online experience – however involved you are in it, you definitely feel an encroachment on your privacy. I do all private browsing on Google right now because I can’t stand having it all geared and ordered for me. That’s my job! That’s my brain’s job! The idea of having all this information is amazing, and as a novelist I think it’s amazing. But as commerce is shaping it, as people are monetizing it — that usually means [losing] your privacy. Obviously, there are many people who think about this and write about it all the time. But for me and my experience as an ordinary person, I find Nik’s privacy very appealing. And you probably have a different relationship to privacy than I do.
I almost can’t remember a time before the internet. One thing that interests and frightens me is that I don’t really think about privacy when I’m on the internet. I’ve never really known anything else. Just click the “accept the terms” button and attempt to control what people think of you on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s another layer of artifice. It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of depth, of course. It doesn’t have to be. There can be great, deep things in it. I think that the sustained attention that the novel has is more important than ever. I really think that it’s a good counter – and this is going to make me sound like an old fogey, which is fine – I do resist turning novels into apps, making them into interactive objects. One of the things that’s nice about is is that it requires sustained focus: it isn’t distractable, it isn’t clickable. Part of us has to be a little bit hungry for that as an alternative. It isn’t that I wouldn’t read on the e-reader – I do – but I just don’t like the whole clickability thing. I want that sustained attention. I’m much more of a reader than a writer: I’ve only written 3 books; I’ve read more than 3 books. That deep focus that exists over time is sort of hard to come by.
Like when I saw Tree of Life: if you watch it at home, you can be interrupted, you can check your messages, you can do whatever. But you go to the theater and it’s this oppressive thing: it’s going to be giant, you’re going to be small, you have to turn off your phone, you’re in the dark. That’s the way I think a novel is, too. I know it’s a pain in the ass to get out of your house, but you’re going to have this experience that you’re not going to have if you were distracted. Maybe a novel is a bit more obnoxious, because you’re asking for more than 2 ½ hours. But my book’s not very long. You could read it in 2 ½ hours!
One of the things that’s appealing about Nik and about vinyl, is that sense of fighting a losing battle.
I think that’s what attracts Denise to the Amish. They lost a long time ago, to the steam engine or something.
They’re losers – they’re on the losing side. I’m definitely all about being on the losing side.
Nik and Denise are marginal in every way. They’re not life’s winners in the conventional sense. They don’t have money; they have debt. They don’t have power. Now they don’t even have youth and beauty anymore. That is always going to be more interesting to me than the winners: loser lit.