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To peg Ben Greenman as a mere rock critic does him a great disservice. His résumé—New Yorker writer/editor, author of such McSweeney’s-anointed experimental-lit missives as 2001’s Superbad (no relation), composer of improbably hilarious celebrity-themed musicals (seek out the one about Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump)—befits a Renaissance Man for a goofier, twee-er, self-aware-er renaissance. Please Step Back aims to hunt bigger game than Rosie, Britney, or O.J. But it’s also got an encyclopedic audiophile’s heart, the sort of house-party guest who ignores you entirely and spends hours poring over your record collection instead.
Our fictional protagonist is flamboyant superstar Rock Foxx, who rises to power in late-’60s San Francisco with a relentlessly funky, cheerily provocative, multiracial, mixed-gender rock-soul band/family/sociopolitical movement that slowly dissolves in an acidic swamp of disillusion, debauchery, and drug abuse, just like the ’60s dream itself. (Let’s hope Sly Stone finds this amusing, if he finds it at all.) Foxx is a vivid character, his speech a torrent of puns and double entendres that grate only occasionally (“Not a hard crack to nut,” etc.); he is particularly fond of the “[Action], [Nickname that rhymes with action]” construction, e.g., “Stay skinny, Memphis Minnie” or “Sing back what you heard, baby bird.” But the musician ultimately bows to and is overwhelmed by the music itself—as his tragicomic arc plays out, dozens of period-specific hits (the Orioles’ “Walking by the River,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Eddie Holman’s “It’s All in the Game”) are cited, artist and title, like Biblical verses, saying what these people can’t say, feeling what they can’t feel.
Foxx and his crew (wildman drummer, intimidating bassist, guitarist in love with backup singer, etc.) react to world events (the M.L.K. assassination most vividly) without ever sinking to Forrest Gump levels of revisionist-history absurdity; though we get a few cheeky cameos (Miles Davis: “Nice set”), Greenman resists the urge to plop the band onstage at Woodstock and so forth. He offers no Grand Statements, no Definitive Answers. Which makes for a so-so novel, but a fantastic set of liner notes. Like Mingering Mike, the D.C. teenager who pumped 50-odd homemade album covers into the flea-market circuit, constructing an entire and entirely imaginary soul-superstar universe with himself at the center, Greenman fearlessly traces Rock Foxx’s career-spanning oeuvre, lyric sheets, album art, record-label squabbles, and all. (Please Step Back takes its title from Foxx’s climactic song, which now actually exists as an MP3 thanks to real-life cult singer Swamp Dogg, who put music to Greenman’s lyrics and also serves to make “Rock Foxx” sound way more plausible as a character name.) Deep in the band’s faux-Riot paranoid-funk phase, the wildman drummer “reaches for a wretched high note” and sings: “I’m going away soon/I’m going straight to the moon/I’ll get there sooner or later/Then I’ll take a shit in a crater.”
This soundtrack, both real and imagined, ultimately has more character than the actual characters, more drama than the actual plot. Foxx falls in love with Betty, who works in a medical library, and triggers a cute, sexy courtship conducted almost entirely over the phone; he calls her up, plays a record or two (Kind of Blue and whatnot), hangs up. But from there, there’s nowhere to go but where all these stories seem to go: They have a kid, and move into a mansion way too big for them, where he becomes even more distant, ensconced in his home recording studio, a doting but oft-absent father and unreliable husband. Later, at the height of their estrangement, they communicate entirely through his own records. Retreating to her mother’s place back in Chicago, she plays each one solemnly, the line “She held the sleeve up to the light and looked through the spindle-hole” repeated like a mantra, a prayer.
Such vinyl-worship pervades the book: One character’s deathbed scene is described: “like a volume knob turned down to zero on a song you wanted to hear the rest of.” Foxx fades away rather than burns out: Please Step Back gets steadily more sordid, more choked by sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ hermetic isolation, before finally just evaporating. Which is true to life, to both Foxx’s obvious analogues and their era as a whole: There’s no grand catharsis, no mega-villain (besides the junkman) who turns the Summer of Love to deadening winter. It just happens—the wave just breaks, and rolls back. Greenman has a fantastic wit he suppresses too often here; throwaway moments like Foxx escaping a house fire by tossing a bust of Ray Charles through a window will have to do. Please Step Back‘s narrative has flashes of that verve and insight, but it’s the simple songs it sings that truly resonate. Even when—especially when—they’re not real.