My new favorite noir author

  • The Singer

Among other things, Cathi Unsworth’s novel The Singer does for the British punk rock scene what Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss did for the formative years of American rock and roll: uses a fleeting moment in pop history, described with great knowledge and appreciation for the excitement it generated, as the foundation for a gripping page turner. Ellison’s story was a study of how celebrity enabled a run-of-the-mill creep to turn himself into a genuine monster, albeit one with undeniable talent; the protagonist, a morally conflicted PR man, must decide how long he wants to wallow in his personal gutter before he is stained beyond redemption. Unsworth’s tale revolves around an even more monstrous punk rock singer, Vincent Smith, whose brief fame as leader of a group called Blood Truth ended in a cloud of violence and personal tragedy; the protagonist, a U.K. journalist trying to learn what happened to Smith decades after the fact, stands to lose a great deal more than his soul, though he doesn’t realize until too late.

All three of Unsworth’s novels to date offer very evocative descriptions of London in very specific places and periods. Her debut, The Not Knowing, centers on the Camden Town murder of a Tarantino-style filmmaker in the Nineties. Her third, Bad Penny Blues, takes off from an unsolved series of gruesomely violent murders in Ladbroke Grove between 1959 and 1965 that U.K. tabloids dubbed the “Jack the Stripper” case. And The Singer shows the punk-rock scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties moving away from its initial energy and enthusiasm. Unsworth’s background as a music journalist for Sounds and Melody Maker is put to good use here — you get the fannish thrill of seeing Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones cranking up onstage, even as the dark momentum of the story warns that something worse is waiting in the wings.

Unsworth introduces Vince Smith at a Sex Pistols gig, from the time when their infamy forced them to tour as the Spots, or Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly. Fledgling guitarist Stevie Mullin sees him with blood trickling down his face. (“I kissed Sid Vicious’s bass,” the eyes now rapturous. “Trouble was, fucker kissed me back!”) When Smith tries out for Stevie’s band, Unsworth’s description of the rehearsal captures the thrill of a group coming together in a way I haven’t seen since Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments:

From the moment they’d assembled in the garage, on Stevie’s orders later that afternoon, it was as if Vince had taken over, assumed the gig was his before he’d even sung a note. Worse still, Stevie didn’t even seem to have noticed.

Instead he was boasting to his new friend about how they’d taught themselves a few cover versions over the summer — “Anarchy,” “New Rose” by The Damned and Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble.” Vince decided instantly that demolishing Dave Vanian would be the best way of demonstrating his skill.

Doesn’t want to measure himself up against Johnny, thought Lynton, tuning up his bass. Kevin was so nervous it had taken him forever to set up his kit, crashing around all fingers and thumbs, dropped cymbals left, right and centre. Lynton had helped him in the end, then sullenly wired up their only vocal mic, while Vince and Stevie jawed on about the gig last night, oblivious to their discomfort.

“All right, you ready?” Stevie slung his guitar around his neck.

“Yeah,” Kevin’s voice came out high and shrill, making Vince snigger.

Lynton just nodded. I’ll show that freak, he thought. Bet he knows nothing about music.

“New Rose” had an explosive intro anyhow, drums, bass and guitar all crashing in together, and the moment the three of them got going it was like a shower of sparks went up. Stevie nailed that subverted rockabilly riff the way a surfer catches a wave. Kevin drummed faster than he’d ever managed before, drummed like his life depended on it. Lynton felt hairs standing up on the back of his neck as his fingers flew up the fretboard, finding the notes as if of their own volition.

Then Vince grabbed hold of the mic, swung it backwards and let rip a deep, almost yowling voice. That it wasn’t entirely pleasant on the ear wasn’t the point. From the moment his fingers touched the mic, Vince Smith looked like a star. He moved that microphone back and forth with a louche magnificence, like a hellbound punk Gene Vincent, already caught in the spotlight’s glare. It didn’t seem like he knew most of the words, or maybe he was just making up couplets that amused him more. But there was an aura about him that was electrifying. You couldn’t stop staring at him.

Jesus, thought Lynton, that freak is showing me. And then he had to smile as his heart filled up with the rush — the four corners had touched and the magic had come forth. They actually sounded like a band.

That three minutes was the best noise they had yet to make together. When it was over, they stared at each other, almost shocked by what they’d done.

“Oooh ‘eck.” A flushed Stevie looked round at his bright-eyed companions. “Was that really us? Shall we do that one again and prove it?”

Unsworth cites James Ellroy and David Peace as huge influences on her work, and while I can see the connection with Ellroy, I think she outdoes him in a number of crucial ways. Her fourth novel, Weirdo, has just been published, and I want to get to it as soon as I finish Bad Penny Blues.  

It’s nice to see Unsworth giving props to The Damned, a first-generation English punk band that never quite escaped the combined shadows of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Though they blazed some trails (first British punks to score a legitimate album release, first to tour the U.S.) they were often dismissed as clowns. The singer, Dave Vanian, went in for a Count Dracula look, while bassist Captain Sensible frequently took to the stage in a ballet tutu, or nothing more than his birthday suit. Original guitarist Brian James had his broody Keith Richard/ Mick Jones look down cold, and Rat Scabies was a relentlessly pushy drummer in the Paul Cook mold.    

(Back when, if somebody asked me to define the difference between punk and New Wave, I’d refer him to “Idiot Box,” a tune off the Damned’s Music for Pleasure, inspired by their brief, unsatisfactory time with Tom Verlaine as a would-be producer. Any subtlety involved in the title, a play on the name of Verlaine’s band, Television, was abandoned with the lyrics: “Tom Verlaine, you may be art/ But you sure ain’t rock and roll . . . supersonic, oh come back soon/ Cos all we got is a Marquee Moon.” And while Brian James was nowhere near Verlaine’s class as a guitarist, he managed a pretty amusing piss-take on the maestro’s “Marquee Moon” solo toward the end.)

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