When I started playing bass guitar at fourteen, I had it in my head to do something revolutionary with the instrument. I’m sure I was like other kids in the eighties who bought axes and imagined they’d summon their inner Eddie Van Halens to become some kind of wunderkind. The path to this land for me was murky, but the end result—being crowned the Undisputed King of the Bass—was clear. I had only one clue to finding this Valhallic destination, and that was the thirteenth note.
When playing a rock song on bass guitar, we have twelve notes to choose from:
A sharp (which is also called B flat)
C sharp (D flat)
D sharp (E flat)
F sharp (G flat)
G sharp (A flat)
These notes repeat themselves several times in different octaves over the 84 possible fretted positions on my Fender Precision, but every position is one of these twelve notes.
It’s funny to think back to my teens when I played along with a Rush or Led Zeppelin record and would spontaneously slide up to some random note, hoping this would yield an aural destination that Geddy Lee or John Paul Jones had never thought of. These attempts at creativity always fell short of something anyone would want to hear. My poor mom upstairs.
After a while, I moved from playing along with records to writing songs. I still wanted to do something revolutionary with the bass, but I found the quickest way to something palatable for my own stuff was to adhere to tried and true music theory: scales, arpeggios and the like. Using these, I came up with bass parts that helped my songs, and I added my own flare where I could. In the end I concluded there wasn’t much I could do on bass that hadn’t been done before. Still, I never gave up on the idea that I’d one day find that thirteenth note, my singular contribution to rock history.
By the time I was 30, I transferred all my artistic hopes from music to fiction writing. My fifteen years of playing in bands had been riddled with characters riding the highs and lows of the rock life—writing songs, playing concerts, living on the road, experiencing loneliness, business debacles, sex, drugs, both sides of the money coin—so I decided I’d write about rock musicians. Their lives seemed inherently interesting; I couldn’t figure out why every writer my age wasn’t writing about them. Wasn’t rock culture unique to our time and place? Didn’t we love it? Shouldn’t we all be writing what we know and love?
I quickly learned that—High Fidelity aside—few in publishing took rock fiction seriously. It was too bombastic to translate to the page, the lights and sounds of such a life finding the space of a sentence too cramped. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be, “How can I create a fictional character more interesting than David Lee Roth?”
What people forgot is that fiction rarely conveys the bombast of anything. If fiction does one thing well, it relays the interior lives of characters in a way that makes the reader relate strongly to them. Think of your favorite fictional characters. Are they bombastic? Probably not. Mine aren’t.
I believe all rock stars have to be two things: they have to be superhuman—for example, David Lee Roth’s ability to do the jumping splits from the drum podium—and they also have to be “one of the guys.” That is, David Lee Roth’s common-man captivation with the ladies any teenage boy could relate to. In other words, our attraction to our rock heroes comes from their ability to simultaneously be both like ourselves and better than ourselves. They’re everything, and therefore deserve our attention.
For the writer writing about rock musicians, neither of these elements of a rock persona is particularly useful. What’s most useful is what’s going on inside David Lee Roth while he’s acting this way. For example, what about the rumor that David Lee Roth is gay? Years of pretending to be the most lascivious womanizer on the planet when he in fact likes men? If that were true, what would lead him to act the way he acts in public? That’s interior life, and that’s what the discerning writer would take from Roth’s character if using him as a model for a fictional one.
When we quit pretending it’s fiction’s job to convey the bombast of rock characters, we start to get somewhere. To the fiction writer, the bombast is the least interesting thing about these people.
It didn’t take me long to realize rock and fiction could go together wonderfully. If novels and stories need one thing, they need characters who want something. They can want to get married, or chase down a whale, or get in line with the Force. But they can also want a Stratocaster, or to snort up Peru, or to write the best song known to man. The possibilities are endless.
The number of possibilities for rock fiction just went up one as I release my third rock novel Badge on my wife Kel’s and my new publishing company Thirteenth Note. It took decades, but I eventually found the path to my unique contribution to rock culture. Does Badge rock? Of course. But it’s mostly about characters who want things and try to get them, just like stories that have been around for centuries. It seems there’s no escaping tried and true methods in novel writing either. Thankfully, it hasn’t all been done yet.