Ben Greenman's 'Please Step Back': On the Death of the Rock Star, Sly Stone and 'Message Songs'
Few sentences capture writer Ben Greenman's curious perspective better than the opening scene-setter from his first book, Superbad: "They were a family of squirrels, and they were reeling." It's a little surprise, and you can't help but want to read on. Immediately the reader is transported to the base of an oak tree, is sitting amongst the "forest caps and flowers" as five little creatures try to cope with a loss after a particularly violent thunderstorm. "Squirrel death is no less real than any other death," writes Greenman, a writer and editor at the New Yorker, therefore introducing to literature the untapped wellspring of rodent-based narrative fiction.
It's all a put-on, of course. Maybe. Superbad, published in 2001 by McSweeney's (and no relation to the film, which came out six years after the book, and prompted Greenman to write a hilarious open letter to Seth Rogan and co.), is mostly a humor book. Greenman calls it a "variety show." "Reeling" is sandwiched within by a great piece called "Blurbs," a series of fictional book-jacket raves about "Blurbs" ("In the traditional humor piece, society is satirized with the help of plot, or characters. 'Blurbs' throws that all away, bravely, and what it finds is something much more precious: a purity of comic conception that holds a mirror up to the entire human race," writes the Hartford Courant), and a more standard but equally surprising short story called "Hart Hurts His Hand."
Peppered throughout are a series of writings that Greenman's perhaps best known for, his fictional "musicals," which reference current events.
Here's a brief excerpt from "Palin! The Musical," which appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency last year as the world was learning Sarah Palin's backstory:
We need to make the country work
For ordinary folk.
Direct reform must be the norm,
And ... Oops, my water broke.
(SARAH PALIN flies home to Alaska to have the baby.)
We'll call him Trig.
It means "strength" in Norse.
We'll care for him, raise him,
And love him, of course.
(The paperback version of Superbad is called Superworse, and is an expanded and updated "remix" of its predecessor.)
Greenman followed Superbad with a more traditional, but no less entertaining, book of short stories called A Circle is a Balloon and a Compass Both. A mere glance at the chapter titles offers a hint at the author's style: "Keep Your Eye on the Bishop" opens with the magnificent open lines, "From Capistrano the swallows come. To Capistrano they return. I'm sure there is a joke in there;" another, "My Decorous Pornography," circumvents the sex writing by subbing in one-letter euphemisms where vulgar words would appear, which somehow makes the whole thing even nastier; and the masterful "Oh Lord! Why Not?" is told from the point of view of a pop star. In fact, at the New Yorker, Greenman plays foil to staff pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones; where the latter is prone to making grand declarations on current trends, the former writes about more traditional forms of American music -- country, blues and rock & roll.
Which brings us to Greenman's first novel, Please Step Back, also about a musician, in this case someone near to Greenman's, and Los Angeles', heart, Sly Stone. The book tells of the rise and fall of Rock Foxx, a funk star who arrived in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s. Greenman states up front that Foxx is a stand-in for Sly Stone, and it's this acknowledgment that opens up a whole series creative doors for Greenman. The writer places his protagonist in the same room with, for example, the Rolling Stones during an early 70s tour, guides him on a journey through late 1960s Los Angeles (Foxx and his girl go to a party on Figueroa at one point, and Jane Fonda and Richard Burton are there), and traces the path that the Stone stand-in takes as funk begets the freakier sounds of P-Funk (a would-be George Clinton is a character, as well). Like the writer's earlier experiments, Please Step Back cracks open a genre, in this case the rock bio, and reinvents it as something uniquely Greenman-esque. It's a fantastic read.
The first book I read of yours was Superbad, and I read it over and over again.
If you know Superbad, that's a great place to start, because I was at the bookstore yesterday, and this guy - it's funny, there are these people who are McSweeney's obsessives and Superbad obsessives. And he was standing about twenty feet back from the signing table, this guy, with his arms folded, and then this little kid brings Superbad up to me. And I said, 'Yes?' And he said, 'Sign this." I said, 'Please?' He said, 'Sign this, please.' I said, are you reading it? And he says, 'No, my dad wants it.' The guy was standing back there, and he'd sent his kid. So that book ... And it's funny to have Dave' Eggers' quote on this book, because he was so instrumental with Superbad, that book was such a weird thing. It's almost not even a book. It's half book, half variety show/comedy show. and this is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but much more conventional.
Do you know the Mavericks, the country rock band? [Greenman's wife] Gail is friends with Robert Reynolds, who's in the band, and she sent it to him, and he said he loves it, it's weird to him, it's creepy, it brings back all these memories of fame and stardom. And then Rhett Miller, from the Old 97s, we actually became friends through my last book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both, and he was reading it on the tour bus. There's one story that's a fake pornographic story ["My Decorous Pornography"] and they were reading it to each other on the bus, and he sent me an email and we became friendly. And there were two groups I wanted to not mock me: musicians and African American writers. [Walter Mosley blurbs of Please Step Back on its front cover: "Light-stepping and hard-hitting, Greenman gets it right from the power of the beat to the devastation when the silence takes over."]
This book started a long time ago because I wanted to write a biography of Sly. In about '90 or '92, I thought about a biography, because he's someone I've always been interested in, since I was a kid. I started researching it, looking at microfiche in the University of Miami library, and I got into it and realized pretty quickly that I'm a shitty biographer in two directions. There are things that I wanted to know that I couldn't know. As a biographer, then, you have to really be a good researcher, or you have to let it go. And, also, there are things I wanted to hide to respect the character that a biographer would have to disclose. When you do a biography, you have to deal with the person as they were, and I didn't like that.
So I scrapped that, and then I started writing - do you know Bob Shelton's No Direction Home, that Dylan book? I started writing a fake biography in that style. I got about 150 pages in where I would literally go page by page. 'This page is about Dylan in elementary school. What does is my fake guy's elementary school like?' That was more like Superbad. And my agent at the time correctly said, 'This is a great exercise. When you donate your papers to a library, they'd be happy to take this. But please don't let this be a book.' I mean, there are precedents for a book like that, like Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, which is a fake biography of an eight year old author.
You actually wrote lyrics and made a song in conjunction with this, as well.
I've written for years these fake current events musicals. I've always done that. I know which words rhyme. I have the skill. I can tell when two words rhyme. And how it started mostly is that I would watch the 24-hour news cycle, and I'd watch the news and every network would have their own little take take on whatever scandal, and they'd have these dumb headlines trying to get your attention, and I would start to hear them rhyming. So I thought I could and should write lyrics, and I wrote a lot, probably six albums' worth, and I excerpted them as I went through. And as I was finishing this, I sent Swamp Dogg, who's a cult funk guy from the early 1970s, who was around at the beginning of Sly's career, and a record called Total Destruction to your mind, and another famous cover where he's riding on a giant white rat. He had a new album out a few years ago, and I reviewed it for the New Yorker, and he loved the review. and we started emailing each other. So when I was done with the book, I wrote him and asked if he would turn one of the lyrics into a song, and he did. And that was fun. there were two options for him. Initially I wanted him to do it like it was 1972, and muddy it up, but he wasn't so comfortable with that. He said, 'I'll do it if you want, but I'd rather do it as me covering the song now. I have music that I'm working on, and I use more guitar. And I was like, okay, that's fine. So it's a good backdoor way into writing songs.
Swamp Dogg - Please Step Back (MP3)
(written by Ben Greenman)
After writing parody lyrics for so long, was it hard to write lyrics that had to be perceived as being earnest?
Not really, because the thing about the musicals, is that in a weird way they're very moralistic. They're dopey, and they have punchlines, but they're not unserious as exposes. It's people, and the style that I like from that time, from 1970 to 1972, it's sort of that. The most obvious examples are "What's Going On" or "Superfly." Everybody back then, no one was embarrassed by message songs. They were what you were supposed to do, particularly if you were a black artist and you were working in soul and funk music. In the book, Rock Foxx bumps into this George Clinton-like character, the next generation of funk stars, and he can already see it changing, with pre-disco and parties. It's a little bit more surreal. And the hardest part about writing these Curtis Mayfield-type lyrics is what to leave out. And Sly in particular. He's very very elliptical. There are songs that I still don't understand, and I've listened to them 50,000 times.
The entirety of There's a Riot Going On.
Right. It's clearly about something. And not just the lyrics. The way the rhythms work. They're so idiosyncratic. For example, if you're sitting in a bar - and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one - most of the songs I hear the first thirty seconds, and it settles in the back of my head. Even "Freddie's Dead." It settles, and I know it and can continue talking or whatever. But those songs on There's a Riot Goin' On, I can't not hear it through the whole thing, because it keeps changing. To me it's more demanding, and I wanted the lyrics to be like that. And there's this weird effortlessness to it, like James Brown, it always looked like so much effort went into it. Equally great, but you always knew how much effort he was putting into it.
[Long talk about Neil Young's new box set]
Greenman: One of the reasons why I wanted to write this is to me that era of rock star is gone. So gone. And the guys that not just have the ability to, but the willingness to comment on everything. Somebody, I think it was Time Out New York, asked me why I made him out to be a prophet. But a lot of people were. And that word doesn't mean that they're an oracle. They wanted to keep a little ahead of the curve, and they wanted to absorb everything and make pessimistic or optimistic predictions. I just don't think that people do that anymore. Arthur Lee did it, Dylan did it, Jim Morrison did it, but it was part of what their job was. So much happened between 65 and 75. It's easy to be nostalgic about it, but it's also easy to forget how much happened.
Were there other eras in music that you contemplated wrapping this story around?
The only other time in music for me that maybe would have worked is probably 1980-1981 post-punk. There's a lot of music that I love, but where these things collide, there's only going to be a couple moments. There's more than that, but there are only a few that I understand in a way that I could write about. But Please Step Back came from the couple musicians that I'm most drawn to as people. Clinton a little bit, but maybe for some negative reasons, too, because I think he changed certain things. Prince, there's a book there, but that's too late, and I wasn't interested in Minneapolis. But for me, it was that era, and all the things that happened music, the war, and politics, and other literature and media. There's a scene where he goes to a Dick Cavett like show, and I love that era of panel shows, too, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin. To me, that doesn't happen anymore, either.
There are those classic Sly clips on Mike Douglas.
Yeah, he was on Dick Cavett once, and he was on Mike Douglas. That era, they were having the craziest guests, ranging from holdovers who were active in the 1950s. You might turn it on and find Robert Mitchum. There are exceptions to this, and Letterman when he first started did it a lot, but now it's all fairly youth culture based, unless somebody stays an icon like Clint Eastwood. But no one's going to book him to sit next to Dave Matthews. And that's weird, because it's that conversation, and that collision between things where you get something crazy and weird.
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