Ben Greenman has a new novel, Please Step Back, from Melville House, about the rise and fall of Robert Franklin, aka Rock Foxx, a Sly Stone-like star of the 60s and 70s. We spoke to him about books and music.
The L Magazine: You've been writing about R&B, soul and funk music from this era for many years, for the New Yorker and elsewhere; for Please Step Back, did you find you were at home enough in that world to tell a story from it, or were there resources you used to shore up your familiarity?
Ben Greenman: As a kid, I read everything I could about this era: magazine articles from the time, books, liner notes. I was pretty hungry for it and for the artists associated with it. Sly Stone, of course, but also Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, War, P-Funk. All of it. When this specific project started, I wasn't sure how biographical it would be and how fictional, so I relied heavily on research. As soon as it took a turn into fiction, though, I closed off that avenue and focused on writing characters and scenes. Most of what's left is accurate, or as accurate as it needs to be. There aren't people with cell phones in the studio, for example.
The L: I also wanted to ask you about the book's language. The dialogue, naturally, is very tuned to the slang of the era, and to Foxx's unique patter — but the close third-person narration, too, channels the musicality of Foxx's speech. Was it a stretch to get to, and stay in, that voice, or did you find — as a fan of the music; as something of a lyricist (or librettist) yourself — that its rhythms came naturally?
BG: I thought from the start that Foxx would speak as a character, even in his own life. He's an entertainer. His sense of language, and of the energy that it emits, informs the rest of the book. It wouldn't have made sense to deal with it with Jamesian language, say. Weirdly, in my mind, I kept coming back to Conrad — Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Janis, because there's an almost hallucinatory intensity in his work. But part of it is what you say — when you're writing about a musician and entertainer who has a sustained patter in his own life, you have to be willing to let that find its way into the book.
The L: Since you mention Conrad, I should ask: are there other touchstones that found their way into the book?
BG: Henry James is a touchstone for thinking about how to write about how people think, and how mercurial a state of mind can be, but this book is written very differently than James — I wanted it to move like a genre novel. That's the big touchstone, honestly, which is one of the reasons I'm so glad that George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley generously gave me blurbs for the book.
The L: I imagine that the most fun thing about writing a book like Please Step Back would be making up all the band names and song and album titles (and the album art, and the stage costumes, and on and on...). What is the appeal, do you think, of this train-set toying with the details of history?
BG: I call it "punking history," and I've always done it. In other books of mine, like Superbad, it was even more explicit, because that was a high-concept humor book. Since this is a straightforward novel and a fairly traditional story, it was subtler, but yes, I made fake album covers and fake song titles and fake reviews. And of course it's fun.
It's like an exercise in pitch in text. You make something up and then you see if it sounds right.
The L: Speaking of sound, I wanted to ask you whether you relied on any ears other than your own during this project.
BG: Not really. My wife read pieces of it all along, and since she's not a writer, I wanted to make sure that this book moved at a speed that would please a run-of-the-mill (but of course very smart and sensitive) reader of books.
The L: Since you mention being conscious of the pacing, I wonder about the challenges that arise in trying to streamline a book (especially one that, I imagine given your interest in the subject, could have been a lot longer)? How'd you keep it tight? Will there be a rerelease with Japan Bonus Tracks tacked on to the end?
BG: The thing about a book is that it has to follow its own internal logic. It's the ultimate album, to mix metaphors irretrievably. So there aren't some extra singles floating around. On the other hand,maybe we could invent the idea of the bonus chapter: it would be a hidden bonus chapter, though — dozens of blank pages after the end, then a little lagniappe.
The L: Anytime a writer depicts the creative process, he's opening himself up to questions about his own process. So I'm curious: how much of your own creative life, as a writer, were you able to draw on in your depiction of Foxx's process?
BG: Oh, lots. It's a very autobiographical character in many ways —- how he balances his home life and his creative life, the difficulties of collaboration, the way work can be both funny and serious.
The L: Throughout the book, we see this process, Foxx's struggle to give form to his ideas. He seems like a visionary, albeit one still in awe of Miles Davis and James Brown. Toward the end of the book, though, we also get a sense of his historical-footnote status, so I wonder: is there a critical component to Please Step Back, an argument for the genius of bright-burning fadeouts like Sly Stone?
BG: You mean is there an argument for this kind of fast-burning star over the stars who persist through phases and changes, like Miles and James Brown? Not really. I think both are good. There is a division between the two kinds of stars, though, and the different ways that they articulate their connection with the world around them. As for genius, it's a funny word.
The L: It is — that's what I'm curious about. Did you think you were writing a book about a genius?
BG: Yes. He is a genius. I mean, I think the artists that I'm talking about, the real-world analogues, are also geniuses. Everyone says it about Ray Charles, because that's his brand, but I'd point at Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye. What do you think genius means? I think it has something to do with the ability to get close to the core of an idea without burning yourself up. It's an old story in myth and an old story in culture. Many geniuses slip over the line and then they're gone in a flash.
The L: I guess I'd have a tough time improving on your definition — especially in terms of Foxx, who stands as "close to the core" as Miles or James, but can't stay there for nearly as long. I wonder, though, if it'd be possible to write a book about a genius with longevity — I can think of many visionaries in literature, but none who live their whole life close to the core, without burning up — that just seems beyond everyday experience in the way that the brush with greatness doesn't. (And our living examples of the long-lived genius are, perhaps inevitably, obscure or blasé about it, like Dylan is.)
BG: It would be possible to write a book like that, I'm sure. There are biographies that track people who have participated in genius for a longer stretch, whether in arts or the sciences or in other ways. But it would probably be a longer book. In our present-day economy, I capped myself at three hundred pages. Save the trees.
The L: For much of the book, Foxx's perspective is balanced by alternating chapters from the viewpoint of his wife, Betty. It seems to me that she provides for the reader the same grounding, pragmatic perspective ultimately missing from Foxx's Icarus-like trajectory. At what point in the process did you decide you needed the Betty chapters?
BG:Very early. Originally the book was even more of a duet, and Betty receded a bit because if she dominates, it's a different kind of book. But I love Betty. He doesn't always see how important she is for his sanity.
The L: Throughout the book, you offer snatches of lyrics, and describe the arrangements and melodies of Foxx's songs in detail. When you're writing about imaginary songs, what do you hear?
BG: I heard the full songs, but I am not a musician, and it turns out that the songs I heard were not necessarily the songs that came to be. Toward the end of the novel, I contacted the funk star Swamp Dogg, who had a number of critically beloved records in the early 70s, including "Total Destruction To Your Mind," and asked him if he'd like to take one song, the title song, and turn it into a real thing. He leapt at the chance, and we made the song. That was a mind-punching experience, to hear Swamp Dogg singing the song I made by imagining what people like him would be singing.
The L: There's a lot of sex and drugs, often simultaneously, in Please Step Back. Are these scenes more fun to imagine, or is there more pressure to get it right?
BG: Probably a little of both. They're probably less fun on the page than they are in real life.