Happy Leap Day! Today is the official launch of the Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guide for Jennifer Egan’s rock ‘n’ roll novel A Visit From the Goon Squad which, serendipitously, is a book that focuses on the fear of passing time. What better way to celebrate this day that comes once every four years than by checking out the guide?
For another perspective on the book, we recently spoke with Toronto-based musician and author Jonathan Campbell, whose non-fiction book Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll was released last fall by Earnshaw Books. For Part One of Campbell’s interview about his own book, check out our blog post from last week.
Bookclub-in-a-Box: Since you’re so involved in the music scene, we’re curious about your perspective on Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit From the Goon Squad and her vision of the music industry. How true-to-life are Egan’s characters, such as Bennie, the aging record producer, and musicians like Scotty and Bosco, in terms of the people you have become acquainted with?
Jonathan Campbell: While I’ve worked with a lot of musicians from around the world, most of the musicians I know personally are in China. There are definitely the Scotty types, who really aren’t meant to do much beyond play music, and I don’t mean that in a negative way: They are wired in a way that leaves things outside of making and performing music awkward. I certainly have seen that desire for stardom in people that either never had it or may have achieved a level of it, as in Egan’s character Bosco — though, of course, not to the same extent as the character in the book, and that definitely rings true.
I think those character types are deeply related, though the true capital-S Scottys of the world could care less about who’s listening or watching. I’ve certainly seen bands come and go like Bosco’s band did, but as a fan, rather than as an industry insider. It frustrates me because I want the bands to continue to succeed, but also because of the state of the business, wherein there seems to always need to be something newer to come along.
What’s interesting in the China context — which is where I have most of my industry experience — is that there hasn’t been enough time for there to really be these types of characters in the same way: The first rock star, Cui Jian, was thrust on the scene in 1986. He’s still a rock star, and the biggest one. He’s only barely been on the scene for long enough to have come and gone. He’s the oldest guy around, really, and he was born in 1961! There are really only a handful of behind-the-scenes guys that are older than him. Plus, the “industry” — “scene” is probably a better word for it — only got going in the mid-nineties. So it’ll be a while before something like this can occur in the Chinese context. (Which gives me an idea…)
During the decades that Egan describes (spanning from the 1970s to the 2020s), we see how music has become more digitized. But in the end, Bennie Salazar opts to put on a concert with Scotty, a simple, old-school musician who plays with an amplifier as his only electronic connection. Do you see a future backlash to the current state of increased digital enhancement?
As someone who worked on and behind the stage, and has seen his share of live music, I do identify with the idea of a live performance. I also feel Bennie’s pain over the digitization of music and what that has done to the recording. I see the point that music has been devalued by the digital evolution of things, and I hope this brings bands to the realization that live shows are of paramount importance.
I’m not sure, though, that a backlash would necessarily lead to simply an acoustic revolution. There are many very happening and vibrant acoustic scenes (old-time, bluegrass, folk) that may only have been noticed in a mainstream way in recent years, but I wouldn’t only chalk it up to digital evolution. I think this is natural and keeps occurring throughout the times, whether it’s the renaissance in local crafts, handmade books, or locavore eating. I think all of these things are outgrowths of modernity — the fact that borders are less and less relevant, that access to materials is no longer in the hands of the few, and that with mass-production, there is more of a desire to personalize. Music is the same, I think.
What I really like is Egan’s idea that toddlers come to be the most important consumers of music, because it really does speak to our current cultural situation, where there isn’t a lot of critical thinking going into the consumption of music. Even though tracks cost money, the fact that you can pick and choose any song with a mouse click really devalues music, in a way that is incredibly disrespectful of the process behind and power of great music. I’m not saying that iTunes is evil necessarily, but the way that we go about interacting with music has taken a bad turn.
One of the characters, Lincoln, is fascinated by the brief pauses found within many songs. Is there a deliberate choice made in music as to the length of these pauses? What function do they serve? How did you feel about reading that section in her book?
I liked that section a lot, though I wish I knew all of the songs she mentioned rather than only a few of them. There’s a lot that could be said about the neuroscience of listening to music, and I know all that plays into the effect that a great pause has on us. The fact that it was a PowerPoint presentation in the novel spoke to the characteristics of the character in question, so it was more than just a gimmick. The idea that it sounds like everything’s over, but then it’s not, obviously appeals to a kid that’s going through difficulties, and she basically spelled that right out.
I’m sure that the musicians in question thought long and hard about those pauses in terms of the timing of them, rather than any meaning that might be sucked out of them. The obvious — and, more importantly, natural — pause length is rhythmically related to the song, so generally, it’s a count of 2 or 4, since most pop/rock is in 4/4 time. Anything beyond a simple count of a bar or two is a very obvious choice made by the musicians.
You can catch Jonathan Campbell at his book launch on March 24, from 2 p.m.–4 p.m. at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. W., Toronto).