There’s no denying it: Powder: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel is the most-true-to-life book ever written about the rock business. Unfortunately, Powder also happens to be the dullest—and I’m talking duller even than anything penned by Greil Marcus—rock book ever.
Even the rave reviews seem to acknowledge that Power is, well, tedious going. One worthy blurb writer—from the Times of London, no less—says, “All young bands should be made to read Powder, if it doesn’t put them off, nothing will.” The operative word in the above sentence is “made”—why anyone would willingly subject himself to this lugubrious and long-winded tale of the rise and fall of an English rock band called the Grams is beyond me.
Numbingly repetitive, fatally overlong at 502 pages, and chockablock with wooden characters, Powder has but one thing going for it: Its author, Kevin Sampson, knows how rock ‘n’ roll—the business end of it, that is—really works. He’s intimately familiar with every last cog, gear, and sprocket of what Joni Mitchell once called the “star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”
Sampson, who has several published mysteries to his credit, gained his real-life rock experience during the E-fueled “Madchester” craze of the early ’90s, when he managed the Farm, a Liverpool band whose fame faded faster than a raver’s Glow Stick. But instead of writing a thinly disguised autobiographical account of that band in those years, Sampson has written a novel about the rise and fall of a Liverpool band, the Grams (“Powder,” “Grams”—there isn’t some kind of far-fetched connection between rock and drugs being made here, is there?), in the here and now.
Contemporaries of the Strokes—who get name-checked in the book, along with Robbie Williams, Radiohead, Spiritualized, Coldplay, and just about every other band to appear on the cover of NME in the past five years—the Grams are a crushingly cliched lot. (Then again, isn’t that what rock ‘n’ roll is all about: the profound human desire to become a cliche?) There’s the ruthlessly ambitious lead singer, Keva McCluskey, whose deepest and profoundest terror lies in the discovery of a gray hair; the dissipated guitarist, James Love, whose bloodstream is a veritable rush-hour pile-up of illegal substances and who likes nothing better than to rut with the disabled; and the drummer and bass player, who—well, who gives a shit about the drummer and bass player, anyway? The Grams’ meteoric rise to stardom is facilitated by a lovable but in-over-his-head manager, Wheezer Finlay; an eccentric small-label owner, Guy de Burret, who decides he’s going to propel the Grams to stardom; and a seemingly endless cast of flunkies, groupies, road managers, talent scouts, agents, promotion people, A&R men, and cutthroat journalists—why, a thinly fictionalized Seymour Stein even shows his face. (Sampson dedicates Powder to “Seymour Stein, Living Legend.” Whether the dedication is sincere or sarcastic, only Sampson knows.)
Unfortunately, Sampson doesn’t so much titillate you with the telling tidbits of the rock industry as smother you in them. Novel, hell—this is a data dump. Ever wonder what a band has to do to get its songs played on the radio in Fargo, N.D.? For that matter, ever wonder how a band knows whether its songs are played on the radio in Fargo, N.D.?
Well, Sampson knows, and by God he’s going to tell you. If you plunk down $15 in anticipation of a fast-paced romp in the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll be mighty disappointed when you run face-first into the following:
Furthermore, if Worldwide needed to remake videos or remix tracks for the American market, it was to be at their own, non-recoupable expense and only after ReHab approval. Similarly, if the band were to embark upon a short promotional tour of no more than five cities, this would be financed by Worldwide separately from the band’s tour fund and would not be recoupable from record sales. It was a healthy deal for Guy, proving Willard’s esteem for the band. He biked the album parts over to Mel, with instructions to catapult Worldwide into production the moment the Heads of Agreement was signed. As a gesture of goodwill, they could go right ahead and begin mastering the album immediately.
Did somebody say keep on rockin’?
Of course, this may be precisely Sampson’s point —to demythologize the process, to show you how Band X, apart from any intrinsic qualities it may possess, reaches the top of the charts, along with what is likely to happen to its soul in the process. But Sampson fails to make his account either interesting or entertaining. In defter hands—those of, say, Tom Wolfe—Sampson’s insider’s dope could have been molded into a scathing satire of a ruthless, self-absorbed industry. Put into the mouth of one of Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe, or one of Martin Amis’ gloriously crass creations, the above dross just maybe could have been transformed into damning entertainment. On the pages of Powder, it just lies there.
As for Sampson’s descriptions of the Grams’ music, they’re not much better. Sampson never gives you the faintest idea what this band might sound like; nor does he much make you regret that fact. He insists that they’re marvelous, but does so in cringe-inducing prose:
This was the bit they’d been waiting for. Beano’s drums kicked in with Tony’s insidious bass and from nowhere, from underneath the blanket of sound, the lazy drag of James’s guitar rose up like a scintillating valkyrie, soaring out above the song, elevating the crowd to a higher place. Keva watched the bulbous guitarist leaning back, eyes closed, shining face slick with sweat, working his spell inside out. He adored him. His posturing, his failings were all a part of this amazing, magical beast and Keva, just then, loved him passionately for all those peculiarities that made him.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure which one scares me more: the scintillating Valkyrie or the bulbous guitarist. I’m just glad I wasn’t there to share the moment.
On top of everything else, Powder seems to have crept out the back door of its publishing house without having ever once been looked at by an editor. Threads are picked up and dropped, characters appear and then inexplicably disappear, minor characters’ psyches are probed for no good reason. At the very least, someone should have persuaded Sampson to either abandon or develop (preferably the former) the strangely unpersuasive subplot involving Guy de Burret’s obsessive search for a crackhead prostitute he wants to rescue, reform, and marry.
That said, I have to admit that around Page 400, I actually found myself wanting to know what the future held for the Grams. It’s hard to develop any lingering affection for these fellows—aside from, surprise, their agog-with-success manager, Wheezer Finlay—because most of them metamorphose into unbearable pricks the moment the band achieves fame, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to stick around in hopes that they’ll get their comeuppance.
It kind of makes you wonder. Here it’s 2002, the year that almost saw a pop star catapulted into space, and mankind has yet to write the great rock ‘n’ roll novel. Hell, mankind has yet to come even close. As for Powder, it lacks the joy and exuberance, and let’s not forget the rage, a truly great work about rock ‘n’ roll demands.
The best I can say about the book is that it was educational. I learned about low royalty participation, secondary markets, station adds, buy-ons. Why, it was almost like being back in school again. And that’s not rock ‘n’ roll. “School’s Out”—that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Class dismissed. CP