In the middle of the journey through War On Sound, a quixotic, grizzled, in recovery, former rock journalist (is there any other?) takes up the unasked-for challenge of a melancholic twentysomething guitar player whom the gods have gifted with the musical acumen of Mozart and prodigious sexual equipment similar to cordwood. The has-been journo says, “Let’s get down to the business of not making anybody money.” As Campbell-like calls to adventure, this one falls short. But such acerbic wit and apathy always harbors a broken heart. For Proust it was his lost youth and innocence, for Christopher Harris it is rock music.
Many a wannabe coroner has stood over the corpus of rock music, its hybrids and genres and sub-subgenres to announce its time of death with the exactitude of an also ran. For music so immediate and so virial as rock, senescence is death. Is rock dead, now? Finally? Rock, like every form of music before it, lives live, on stage and where “two or three gather” in its name. Even so, Harris is hip, he knows the score same as every devotee and poseur alike. The jukebox heroes have aged out. So what? Harris cares little for playing paleontologist and “desert trip” isn’t the hill he wishes to die on. Instead, he asks the same question, the Ur-question, grown-ups have been asking about rock and roll since the blues had that baby: think of the children. Playing in a rock band has become another gig. So what if there’s no money in it, no fame, no Bosch-ian delights. Still beats working, right?
War On Sound follows four millennials let’s call them “kids” in Kid Centrifuge, a four piece rock band who ride the push/pull and eventual slouch into mediocrity that is playing rock music in this day and age. Harris leans, perhaps too heavy at times, on rock and roll postures long since calcified into clichés. Drugs and sex? Check and sexy check. Soulless and seemingly sleazy corporate executives with their eyes firmly fixed on focus groups, what everyone else is doing and monetizing, monetizing, monetizing? Yep. Hangers-on who snap at what few scraps fall from the table of a mid-level rock band with the idiot impulse to “make it?” You betcha’. Tin pot record producers with complexes and fetishes who don’t hear a single? Uh huh. Music nerds and truth tellers with cool names like “Lucius” and “Hoop” who want “the music” to be perfection and need it more than air, water and love? Done and done.
As for the band itself, there’s Kate, the steady as she goes drummer. Kate is the heart of Kid Centrifuge and War On Sound. Her no nonsense and happy-go-lucky nature makes her gullible, yes, and also the most charming and likeable of Harris’s characters. Scott is the book’s striver and the band’s factotum. Songwriter, bass player and professional grip-and-grinner for the Kids, Scott carries the fire of whatever indie rock is/was post-Nevermind and They Want My Soul. Scott expresses Harris’s most romantic and youth-haunted notions about what rock music is when it matters the most. Sebastian, he of the impressive member, is the band’s musical genius and resident drug addict who plays as both mercurial and dull. This is a guy who spends so much time in his own head when it’s time to come down (and come down) from the mountain and explain fire to the fork and spoon operators, it only makes him feel more isolated and resentful of his gifts. Poor Sebastian. And yet, Sebastian proves regardless of sales statistics, marketing plans or what passes on the pop charts, talent will win out, always.
The last (least?) member of the quartet is Amanda, all surface and little soul. She embodies the Platonic ideal of a lead singer in a rock band. Whatever that means. How Harris sets Amanda apart from the other Kids is she wants, whereas Scott, Kate and Sebastian desire and there’s the rub. Amanda’s arc is perhaps War On Sound’s harshest and most honest indictment of rock music’s cultural status circa 2016. She’s good, great even and yet she’s given the go-by. She finishes fourth when the judges only have ribbons for the top three. Too bad because Amanda has agency to burn and the better for her, she knows it. She is the amalgam of her bandmate’s best qualities: Sebastian’s mystery and beauty, Scott’s anxieties and dreams and Kate’s insouciance and stick-to-itiveness. In Amanda, Harris epitomizes the effortlessness of presence so prevalent in rock music. She’s a classic It Girl. Harris uses her as a catalyst to move the Kids (and the plot) along, but otherwise she’s a ghost. Amanda makes it look easy, but as anyone who tries and fails and stops knows, it ain’t easy. Amanda almost figures that out, but, again, falls short. In the cautionary tale Amanda embodies, Harris reminds readers to perceive something as simple—4/4 time, success, love—only complicates matters.
As much as Harris wants to go full Dylan (Thomas) and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” he’s also like (Bob) Dylan, a song-and-dance man who wants to play and entertain. And so War On Sound contains continent-spanning van rides, conversational digressions, namechecks of Spinal Tap, Almost Famous and High Fidelity, poorly advertised shows in high school gymnasiums and greasy clubs, late night meals lit by bad fluorescents and the predominant tension that blossoms when all of the above occur with the same goddamn people, fights, the highs and lows of making music and the stakes of what it means, really means, to create. Harris pays his dues with these de rigueur set pieces like touring, recording and the love and theft of having those songs rejected before being corporatized and commodified. He writes with an almost episodic flair while trusting his readers to follow from stops in western Massachusetts, Austin (natch), Port-au-Prince, L.A. and finally Amsterdam, where the dream of Kid Centrifuge dies so a new leaner and less naïve band, with a better name, The Buggy Whips, learns to crash land and still walk away. War On Sound reads as an in-the-trenches perspective from a rock soldier, a green recruit, with a veteran’s hindsight, who knows where the bodies are buried. It’s a survivor’s tale, not about rock music, but life.
For all the joy and verve Harris derives from a story about being in a rock band when such an endeavor is the furthest thing from the zeitgeist, War On Sound is slow to start as Harris assembles his musicians. At times in these early chapters he tries too hard to be relevant to someone under the age of thirty—Sebastian self-medicates with speed, Kate falls in with a Christian cult, Amanda is a serial online dater and Scott, well, he’s a ball of teenage ennui that’s migrated into his twenties. It’s a safe guess to say the book’s predominant demographic remembers holding up a Bic lighter at concerts instead of a cell phone. So the Kid’s failures and foibles, character-building as they are, overreach. So goes rock. And another thing— apologies to all the non-curmudgeons out there— but reading a string of text messages in a book or seeing someone text on screen is as tedious and unnecessary as saying, out loud, “I really want to hear that one Richard Marx song, no, the other one.” A sign o’ the times, sure, but enough.
Except for these short dips into each band members pre-Kid Centrifuge lives, War On Sound plays as an anti-rock and roll bildungsroman, more Dickensian than celebratory rock bio. If only because the lights were turned out long ago, tastes (and the taste makers) have moved on. The power of rock is triumphant, but its soul is tragic. War On Sound is more than a rock record, it’s a novel, literature, plain and simple. All of it feels bona fide and fresh. Harris writes with the windmill dynamism of Townsend while also being a windmill-tilter of the first order—it’s a risky thing, a holy thing, to write a book nowadays let alone a book about rock music ten years gone. In the parlance of our times, a book about twenty-somethings playing rock music is so antithetical, so fantastical to whatever “the kids” download or the EDM that permeates clubs and music festivals they frequent. Someone should put it in a song or a whole album. Except who still buys albums, not vinyl reissues, but like new albums? So tragic. So rock.
Harris has a penchant for the pause, an élan for the ellipse. He uses this device, “…”, a lot, as either a deferment to tamp down rage in the course of conversations or as a polite invite from listener to interlocutor to, please, go on. Once noted, these caesuras can’t be unseen. Perhaps these sphinxlike moments speak to and for Harris more than as a literary fetish. Capital-R Rock music used to be a crowded room. Once one group stepped off stage there was always another and another and another to take its place. That room has gotten smaller, most of de-(band)camped and the crowds have grown thinner. Perhaps this fallow period in rock music is a necessity, part of the continuum? Do I hear comeback? No. Gross. It was the corporate nature, however profitable, that brought us to this place of rest, this pause. Democracy is messy and it takes time to sort things out, a lot of time.
Harris wears the cool detachment, the pessimism, of rock out loud and out front—it’s only rock and roll—to hide a bandaged heart and protect his optimism. Christopher Harris is an optimist. The ellipses in War on Sound don’t ring with indifference, they’re what comes next whatever may come … oh, the movie never ends // It goes on and on and on, and on …
War On Sound is available at waronsoundbook.com and is published by Asphalt House.