Monday, January 14, 2013

The Drummer

Anthony Neil Smith
The Drummer

Self-published ebook, 2011
(originally published in 2006)

Back in the Eighties, I played drums for a heavy metal band called Savage Night. Todd was the lead singer. We had one platinum album, a bundle of decent videos on MTV, and several years of successful touring. The money rolled in, the chicks wanted us bad, and near the end, radio spun our power ballad all day and night.
We found out we were broke on a tour of Japan. The record company dropped us—grunge was conquering our space—and we owed millions to tour promoters. After a decent show in Tokyo, the four of us sat in a sushi restaurant and tossed around possibilities. Todd thought we should add a keyboard player and do another album more pop than metal to pay off our debts and make us maybe superstars, the way Aerosmith morphed from bluesy bar band to kid-friendly Top 40.

After a decade and a half after his group collapsed the drummer Merle Johnson (it is not his real name) is drinking beer in one New Orleans’s bar. To avoid persecution from the IRS, Merle (then Cal Christopher, though this is not his real name, as well) had staged his own death, burning his house. Transferred all savings to bogus accounts, Merle straightened himself a new identity and settled in New Orleans, make a living as a sound engineer and living in a former funeral home. Merle started a new life from scratch, and the last thing he needs now is that his past reached him, forcing back into hiding. But Todd Delacroix, the band’s frontman, has tracked Merle and started to blackmail him, threatening to reveal the drummer’s whereabouts, if Merle does not agree to participate in a group’s reunion. Merle has almost killed Todd, but the next day Todd is found dead in a hotel room, or rather, Merle himself finds his ex-bandmate still alive after the overdose, but deliberately calling for ambulance too late. And instead of running from the police, the press, and the IRS, Merle remains in the city, wanting to find out how he was found and who faked Todd’s suicide.

The novel at the time was dubbed as heavy metal noir, and in general it is almost accurate designation. How many crimes (especially murders) take place in a musical environment, except for gang-related shootings among rappers and sacrifices in black metal? I doubt that many, the more interesting it was to learn about the behind the heavy metal scenes. Anthony Neil Smith, it should be noted, leans more on noir, rather than on heavy metal. Book protagonist Merle lacks stupid nostalgia: the long hair, snotty ballads in a metal frame, groupies, drugs before and after performances. Merle really leaves the past in the fire of his house, and not just pretending. He now listens to electronic music, does not indulge in drugs, loves (platonically) pious woman, and would not exchange his present to the past, no matter how successful it may seem. Smith does not allow his character annoying whinings about how everything used to be good, but now everything is bad.

Despite the fact that the novel is full of memories of the hero’s past (so we know the background of Merle) the protagonist doesn’t has time for whinings. All the book he is on the run, if not hiding, he is attacking, and his every action, it seems, only worsens the situation. And the protagonist has no much choice: death, prison or a disclosure, which, for him, is worse than death.

This grim story is peppered with charming descriptions of New Orleans:

«The first thing I did in town was to find Bourbon Street and hit as many bars along the way as I could manage in a few hours. My first Hurricane-a sweet drink full of rum-hit me harder than those drunks in England. Tried the tourist drinks at the frat bars, the vampire bars, the jazz clubs, the strip clubs. Washed them down with watery beer. The music was killing me with goodness, the bar bands more talented playing cover sets than most of the high profile LA people I'd worked with back in the day. Fusion guitarists with gritty blues in their veins, bleeding on the strings. The singers straining through a cloud of cigarette smoke and touching my frozen kernel of a soul. I cried. Couldn't help it.

When I asked for the finest restaurant in the city, a sax player pointed me towards the streetcar, told me not to get off until I reached Commander's Palace, smack dab in the middle of the Garden District. So I did. Stumbled past an ancient cemetery until I found the front door of an elegant turquoise house, the name of the restaurant hanging above me. The captain asked if I had a reservation. I pulled a wad of hundred-dollar bills from my pocket and said, "What I don't spend on food will get passed around as tips, comprende?"

Seven courses. My first creole dishes-oh Jesus the sauces, the crawfish, the shrimp, the rich spicy aroma. Three bottles of wine. Bananas Foster for dessert. I had never been happier at the dinner table. I wanted to puke ».

The Drummer is loud, fast and unforgettable.

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