Twenty Flight Rock
The Summer Rock Roundup
Off the RecordA Novel
by David Menconi
Writers Club Press, 413 pp. $19.95 (paper)
In the "About the Author" section of his first novel, author and music critic Menconi assures readers that he is "not the Ken Morrison character depicted herein" but that he has "met [him] a time or two." However, my former college mate does acknowledge within the book's pages his perceptions of this "Morrison" character, for instance, "Ken could hold his liquor and liked music almost as much as gossip. He wrote passably well, with knowledge that was broad but not deep. Put him in any situation and he could usually write his way out of it, and even convince most people he knew what he was talking about." There follows quite a bit more about Ken's "cushy regimen" and how much he enjoyed perks such as the notion that "drinking on the job was a requirement" and that "he just had to stay sober enough to hold a pen." Further, most of Ken's adventures early in the book involve meeting up with characters who seem awfully familiar to anyone who's spent a reasonable amount of time in Austin's nightclubs over the past decade or so.
Despite the leading excerpts above, "Ken Morrison" is a tightly assembled composite of many people in the "rock journalism" profession. With Morrison and the novel's other major characters -- a clubowner and the members of the Tommy Aguilar Band (who are so many people at once that no one has a prayer of suing) -- Menconi manages to take potshots at damn near every featured player and real or rumored event in the underbelly of Austin and national music. In fact, Menconi keeps things so real during the 400 pages of music industry intrigue, band rise-and-fall, and insider chuckles that the little blips of "who's he referring to here?" are mere icing to be licked off quickly as the reader rushes to return to the story. Off the Record is alternately horrifying in its realistic take on how young people can be destroyed by the star-making machine and funny as hell in its wordplay and inside take on how it works.
And Menconi is smart enough to know that in today's pop-culture-obsessed world, most people who are likely to read this book will be "inside" enough to get most of it. Menconi only truly missteps when he gets unnecessarily bigger-than-life, as with promoter/villain Gus DeGrande and a thankfully brief shoot-'em-up ending. He at least manages to foreshadow the more unreal events, which is more than most writers would bother to do, but the book is so enjoyable in the depth of its characters, despite their composite natures, that it seems a shame that the few elements of "whodunnit" get tacked onto their lives here. With so much of the story a natural epic, it's the only element of the book that is merely, as the word on the cover states, "novel."