||Rock'n Rolling in Yorkville
by Ian McGillis
Canada has always been sadly lacking in its own rock'n roll mythology. One could theorize all day about the reasons for this¨we produced mostly folkies, most of our best left the country early, many a potential hero went unrecorded for lack of infrastructure. Nonetheless, the raw material is out there for the digging. (The excellent early chapters of John Einarson's recent Randy Bachman biography, detailing the hyperactive Winnipeg beat scene of the early 1960s, are a good case in point.) Listen, if you can get your hands on one, get a copy of the Ugly Ducklings' "Gaslight" from 1966.
All but lost to history, it's a garage/psych/soul stomper every bit as good as anything coming out of London or L.A. at the time. Ray Robertson may or may not be one of that 45's privileged owners, but he has made the inspired move of using the scene that nurtured the Ducklings and many another prophet without honour¨Toronto's Yorkville in the mid-60s¨as the primary backdrop for his new novel. And he doesn't stop there: as novelists have every right to do, he takes a big liberty, transplanting into that scene one Thomas Graham, a figure based very closely on Gram Parsons, the southern trust-fund kid who died at 26 after years of dedicated self-destruction but managed, before so doing, to hijack the Byrds and all but single-handedly invent country rock. That's a lot of mythology for one novel, but Robertson mostly pulls it off. Moody Food, riotous and tender, funny and sad, is as good an elegy for the counterculture as we've seen.
It may as well be confessed that, for this reviewer, a significant part of Moody Food's appeal lay in the opportunity to play the party game of spotting real-life equivalents to the author's fictions. Thomas Graham forms a band called the Duckhead Secret Society; the name recalls both Parsons's embryonic International Submarine Band and The Ducks, an unrecorded sideline band of Neil Young's. Bill Hansen, college dropout/bookstore clerk/layabout through whose eyes most of this story is told, has never drummed in his life but is asked to be the Duckheads' drummer for reasons of shared sensibility; Michael Clarke had barely played the drums when he was asked to join the Byrds for similar reasons. Bill's girlfriend and fellow band member is named Christine; "Christine's Tune" is one of several deathless songs on the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin, Parsons's finest hour. The Duckheads recruit an older pedal steel player; the Burritos had an older pedal steel player, Sneakey Pete Kleinow. The band gets around in a hearse; Neil Young owned a series of hearses, one of them immortalized in "Long May You Run". An unannounced rooftop concert recalls the Beatles' last semi-public performance. The list goes on.
The point of all this? Simply to make clear that here is a writer steeped in his subject matter yet unafraid to play around with its sacred cows. The point is important because so many novelists trying to write about rock¨even luminaries like Elmore Leonard and Don DeLillo¨have just plain gotten it wrong, approaching it with it air of faint condescension at best, dismissive sensationalism at worst. Robertson, though an infant at the time of which he writes, brings the best combination of qualities to the job¨he's a true believer without illusions who exposes the flaws but never shortchanges the fun.
So, do you need an honorary Ph.d. to appreciate Moody Food? Of course not. Robertson knows that all the period accuracy in the world is no good without compelling characters and a timeless theme. In the relationship between Thomas and Bill¨the former utterly beholden to his muse, firmly in the long line of destructive, charismatic genius assholes, the latter a work-in-progress who's happy, in his own words, "never having to go to the barber anymore and hearing some good tunes and getting high once in a while"¨Robertson presents an apt symbol of the times that's never obviously "symbolic". The band's odyssey from Toronto to California and back again provides a canvas for the counterculture's rapid rise and fall while remaining believable as the real adventures of a real band. To his great credit, Robertson resists any temptation to derail the story from the tragic track it's clearly on, to engage in any feel-good "we came through it all okay" revisionism. Anyone waiting for Bill to act like any kind of conventional hero, or for Thomas to pull himself back from the abyss he's headed for from the start, will wait in vain.
Complaints? Well, Christine, the idealistic folksinger and grassroots activist pulled into the Duckhead circus against her better judgement, feels a bit like a cutout, placed in the story to provide a more conventionally positive contrast to the recklessness of Thomas and Bill. And the occasional sketchy flashbacks to Thomas's troubled upbringing should have been either fleshed out or, alternatively, abandoned altogether¨his essence is best conveyed through Bill's through-the-past-darkly lens.
These are mere quibbles, though, steamrollered by this novel's many strengths. Robertson is very good on the self-justifying gymnastics of the drug addict's mind¨"Browse through the history books and they all say the same thing: every lasting society is founded on shared illusions," says Bill to explain staying stoned all the time¨and on the role drugs played both feeding and wrecking the hippie dream. The novel is crammed with delicious period-capturing setpieces, like the one involving deranged dealers who can't stop listening to "Eleanor Rigby".
A certain breed of rock buff, of whom one suspects Ray Robertson to be a member, loves to play "What if?" What if, for example, Brian Wilson really had completed Smile, the would-be meisterwerk on which the DuckheadsÚ Moody Food album is based? What if it really had seen legitimate release and knocked Sgt. Pepper into a cocked hat? The question "What if someone were to write a Sixties rock novel worthy of its subject?" need no longer be asked.
The Canadian content? Icing on a very rich cake.˛
Ian McGillis's first novel, A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry, is published this fall by Porcupine's Quill.