“The truth is always off the record.”
That’s the central conceit of this novel by Raleigh News & Observer rock critic David Menconi. As a rock writer for more than 15 years, Menconi knows where more than a few bodies (as well as promising careers) are buried. But rather than write another “tell all” inside-the-industry book and name names, Menconi dishes the dirt with this fictional account of the rise and fall of a Nirvana-like band called TAB (the Tommy Aguilar Band.)
His characters include the brilliant but flawed musician who can’t reconcile his ambition against his desire to stay “punk,” the well-intentioned club owner who tries to manage the band, the ruthless concert promoter who wants to exploit the group, and a sleazy, compromised rock critic who tags along for the ride.
If you know enough about the music business, you’ll not only recognize the main players (mostly as composites of several famous people), but also many of the anecdotes that Menconi sprinkles throughout the narrative for color (like the time Inger Lorre of the Nymphs urinated on an executive’s desk at Geffen, or Jim DeRogatis’ infamous pan of Hootie & The Blowfish that was quashed by Rolling Stone’s Jan Wenner).
Menconi doesn’t stop there, though. He fictionalizes an entire rock universe, so that Rolling Stone becomes “Rock Slide Magazine,” Spin turns into “Bounce,” and the major label that signs TAB is called Polydorf Records.
Name games aside, Menconi has constructed a compelling story and provides one hell of a page turner, as we follow TAB’s progression from a struggling indie rock band to major label superstars.
Besides being a talented storyteller, Menconi nails his subject. Even laymen with little understanding of the industry’s machinations will enjoy his descriptions of everything from the drudgery of no-budget DIY touring to the insidious process of turning major-label dross into manufactured gold.
Along the way, Menconi enlivens the narrative with tales of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and corruption, some of which ring true, and some of which push dramatic license to the limit (including psychotic groupies, drug-dealing hitmen, and especially the Grand Guignol denouement when TAB ultimately self-destructs.).
For my money, Menconi would have done better by ending "Off The Record" when Tommy Aguilar’s story comes to its tragic conclusion.
Instead, he turns the last 100 pages of the book into an Elmore Leonard-styled detective story that stretches whatever credibility he’s established with his characters in order to tie up the loose ends and even the score.
Menconi should have known better. There’s no justice in the music industry and the bad guys win all the time. That’s the truth, and it’s never been off the record. – Jim Testa