Glam Rock Boyfriends, An Imaginary Memoir
For many years, the rock musician in New Zealand was viewed as an outsider: a long-haired, strangely-clothed, promiscuous, drug-taking menace. But somewhere along the line, the conventional citizen began to suspect the musician might be enjoying a few things the rest were missing out on, and nowadays it seems everyone is trying, in some way, to live out a rock star fantasy. The most lurid features of this mythical lifestyle tend to be adopted by those who can actually afford it – stockbrokers, say, or internet entrepreneurs – while suburban dads play weekend guitar and kids take rock lessons at school.
Most of the action in Raewyn Alexander’s Glam Rock Boyfriends happens between the late 1960s and mid-1980s, the period in which the world of the rock musician contrasted most visibly with the drab life of mainstream New Zealand. Subtitled An Imaginary Memoir, the novel carries a disclaimer about any resemblance to persons living or dead being coincidental; nevertheless, real people stray through her pages. Tim Shadbolt is glimpsed addressing a hippie gathering in Albert Park, the band Dragon leaves its brand on the wall of a Hamilton flat, Hello Sailor are spotted in an Auckland bar. Other bands and individuals have fictional names, yet feel too familiar to be wholly invented.
Alexander’s memoirist is Patricia, a young girl from a small suburban town. By her mid-teens she is hanging out with local bands, whose lifestyle offers a seductive alternative to her emotionally repressive and physically threatening home life. Their world is vividly evoked through the young girl’s eyes, its thrills as well as its threats.
A succession of musician boyfriends provides a human timeline of rock history. First comes moody Mark, whose band covers Cream, so we know we’re in the late 60s. A couple of years later, there is guitarist Joe, who starts off in a Hamilton glam band before moving to Auckland and going disco, bringing us to the mid-70s. There is a fling with a bisexual glam-rock frontman. Paxton the punk follows, along with a couple of examples of that eternal archetype, the pub-rock drummer.
The best passages have the resonance of rock songs. An all-night walk in inappropriate footwear around an early-70s Auckland, led by a surly boyfriend and lugging an unwieldy suitcase, is evoked in ankle-aching detail. Fresh subcultures are distilled in tough poetic sentences. Of the arrival of punk, she almost sings: “Fear, rage and raggedy sadness found words.”
Before she has finished school, Patricia has fallen pregnant to the guitarist in a hippie band called Howl. Surrounded by musicians, she becomes their costumier, and even stronger than the musical minutiae are the sartorial details. The fashions of each era are described so vividly you can practically run your fingers over those bright mid-70s satins, or feel the slash of the punk era’s razor-encrusted leathers.
But the memoirist will sometimes shift abruptly from past to present, and the effect can be jarring. She identifies her younger self as a sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, attributed to the teasing, bullying and violence she encountered, first at the hands of her father and brothers, later in the company of some of the musicians, for which she has since undergone various therapies. Yet the writing is more revealing when Alexander takes us inside the world of her young protagonist than when her experiences are viewed in hindsight through the lens of those therapies.
As the story is fundamentally about one woman and her relationships with a number of men, it is appropriate that the male characters are observed in more detail than the female ones. What is surprising is that, in spite of Patricia’s abuses, the men are often portrayed more sympathetically than the women. When Bonnie appears for the first time, 130 pages into the book, she is introduced as “my oldest friend”, yet she disappears as abruptly and colourlessly as she arrives.
More troubling is when Patricia’s mother commits suicide, evidently having suffered some deep distress of her own. Patricia wrestles briefly with a sense of guilt: “Could’ve been kinder, wish I’d learnt it somewhere, earlier. Sorry, sorry, sorry … .” Yet the tragedy is soon overshadowed by inconvenience, as it leads to the brothers’ suggestion that Patricia (now calling herself Athena) should move in with the widowed father. The drama of Athena being bullied here (and, for once, standing her ground) is ultimately given more weight than the great unexplored drama of the mother’s suicide.
The book is divided into two parts. By the start of the second and shorter section, the 20th century is receding, the days of glam-rock boyfriends almost gone. She hooks up with a younger guy who works in a CD store, but he turns out to be a P addict. She leaves town, goes to live alone in a small coastal community, collects ceramics, listens to Bach, does a lot of therapy and arrives at a tenuous truce with her brothers. By the end she has a new boyfriend. This one is not a musician.
Nick Bollinger is a rock columnist for the New Zealand Listener, presents The Sampler on Radio New Zealand National and plays double bass for the Windy City Strugglers.