Will Gompertz on Daisy Jones & The Six which Reese Witherspoon's making into TV ★★★☆☆
The problem for any novelist choosing rock'n'roll as a subject for a book is how to make their fiction stranger - and more compelling - than the truth.
What can they say or reveal that hasn't been said and revealed in half-a-century of tell-all sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll memoirs, from Stephen Davis's snorts-and-all biography of Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the Gods, to Keith Richards' magnificent memoir, Life?
It is not an easy task.
Don DeLillo did a good job in 1973 with Great Jones Street, and John Niven's dark satire Kill Your Friends is a terrific take-down of the music business. And there's Roddy Doyle's The Commitments and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.
But they represent the occasional one-hit wonder in a literary genre piled high with non-charting flops.
The American author Taylor Jenkins Reid is the latest writer to enter the unforgiving mosh-pit that is pop fiction with her Flower-Power era novel Daisy Jones & The Six.
The story starts in the mid-60s when Daisy Jones is a 14-year-old only child living with her distant but wealthy parents in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles. She decides to make her own fun, which involves hanging out in clubs on Sunset Strip, taking drugs, and having lots of sex.
Meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Billy Dunne and his brother Graham form a teenage band with three other local lads. They do okay, hire a keyboard player called Karen, become The Six and move to LA, where in due course, they hook up with the naturally gifted but constantly strung-out Miss Jones.
The book is written as an oral history with each band member and associate (managers, partners, producers etc) giving their side of the story with recollections that often differ:
Graham: "Billy was always in charge, you know? Billy wrote the lyrics, Billy composed and arranged all of the songs. If Billy goes to rehab the tour is over. If Billy is ready to go back to the studio, we all have to report for duty. He ran the show."
Billy: "We were all a team."
It reads like you're watching one of those low-budget TV documentaries where a bunch of people of whom you've largely never heard, recollect a culturally important past event in which they were involved. It doesn't make for the best telly, and nor does it make irresistible reading… for the first 80 pages.
Thereafter, as you are drawn further and further into the bell-bottomed, drug-addled, band-on-a-verge-of-a-breakthrough world of Daisy Jones & The Six, it's like their first album: a real grower.
So much so, in fact, there will be occasions when you find yourself unconsciously reaching for a mobile device to hear one of the band's songs.
That is a mark of how effective Taylor Jenkins Reid's structural device is most of the time, although there are moments when the documentary realism falters and the novel slips into a slightly trite 1970s pastiche. But those moments are as rare as Daisy & The Six turning in a duff performance as they make their way from wannabes to chart-topping superstars.
It is a much-told fable, of course, which is saved from being a hackneyed re-hash by the quality of the writing.
The characters are well drawn, idiosyncratic, and believable. Their actions and opinions make sense. That authenticity extends to the passages in which the songs are written, which not only ring true in terms of the creative process but also in the lyrics, which genuinely capture the Fleetwood Mac vibe, the band appears to be based upon.
There is one other aspect to this novel that takes it away from the cheesy end of the market and gives it a life beyond another faux rock doc with a dim drummer. At its heart Daisy Jones & The Six is a well observed, sensitively told love story. Not a simple tale of lost and found or found and lost. But a messier exploration of what love is, what it costs, and how a life lived without it, looks.
Admittedly, it is not a great literary masterpiece, but it is a great read.
And given the way it has been written, which feels more like a script than a novel, it is no surprise that Reese Witherspoon bought the rights and was subsequently commissioned by Amazon to turn it into a TV series complete with soundtrack.
I, for one, will be watching.
Some recent reviews by Will
- Captain Marvel starring Oscar-winning Brie Larson ★★★☆☆
- All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam ★★★★★
- Only Fools and Horses The Musical ★★☆☆☆