PONDERING: Can Rock Stars Be Romance Heroes?Friday, July 20, 2012 13:00
I love writing about rock stars. Music means a lot to me and I’ve seen many of them, been close to people in the music business from time to time. So they’re naturals for me to write about. Years ago I wrote a story about a rock star and the woman he got pregnant. I sent it to Harlequin Presents. They liked it, they said, but they didn’t do rock star heroes. They weren’t alpha enough.
My first response was, “Are you kidding me?” Never seen Elvis, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger or Dave Grohl in action? Never seen the strutting alphas of rock, the men who would turn and fight back if the stage was invaded? The axe men, the hard men, the ones who travel night after night in a tiny, freezing camper van, determined to make a success of their lives?
There are stories there, folks. Lots of them. I heard a lot in my misspent youth and I heard a lot more later. So many, I couldn’t leave them alone.
My first venture into the rock star genre was the Pure Wildfire series. I made the heroes of each book firebirds, except for the first, and he was the phoenix. I put them in the paranormal world I’d already created with Department 57, and off I went.
The first book was published by a small publisher as non-erotic, but I knew if I had the courage to write the erotic scenes they’d be better, so when I resold that book and the rest of the series to Ellora’s Cave, I had my chance. They took the books as non-erotic and would have published them in the non-erotic line, but I tried writing an extra, hotter sex scene and found out that it really helped, both for the story and the characters.
And, really, rock stars do have a lot of sex. It’s delivered to them on a plate, sometimes literally, so it’s a setting that screams out for sexy treatment.
I’ve spent a lot of time watching rock bands, and doing the research for this series was some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done. I’ve seen Madness rocking out an audience made up grandparents, children, rockers, pop fans and everyone being one. I’ve seen Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and loved them all.
The Pure Wildfire series was a huge success, but I didn’t want to rush into doing another one too soon, not until I had a story to tell. Pure Wildfire was about a band struggling with a dual identity, and fighting the agents sent by a sinister organization to target and murder them. I made the band four members, a classic rock setup, and my main inspiration was the Mighty Zep. I didn’t take the personalities, but I saw them as a great, hard-rocking band. These days we have Metallica and the Foo Fighters. That kind of band. It started as a four-piece, but I love upfront guitars, so the first book, Sunfire, was about how Corinne turned from a classical guitarist to a rocker, when she fell in love with Aidan, the phoenix (there can be only one!)
Rock bands with female members have always been there. The Slits, Girlschool, and even The Bangles (I know, marginal rock, but still…) and others, together with female members of bands like Tina in Talking Heads and Gillian in New Order.
Okay, so I’m talking about a lot of British bands here. The rock community is probably more international than most. Many bands can traverse the Atlantic and are as successful on both sides, something else I love. There are a few exceptions, like Elbow, a band that is an arena band in Europe, multi-award winning but only plays theatres and clubs in the US. Brace yourselves for Elbow, folks, or it might be that I just adore the poetic romance of their songs. Mirrorball is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in years and it makes me cry. It encapsulates young love like few other songs.
One thing to remember when writing the rock star hero is that music is what they are, what they do. It’s their life. Some commercially successful bands do game the system, it’s true, but the ones who last, and the ones who write the most interesting material are the ones who are musicians first, public figures and stars second. I have read a few rock star books where the hero treats his profession almost like a hobby or a job. They just don’t think like that. All the sex, drugs and everything else might be part of the world and can distract a musician so he forgets what he is, but unless the drugs and drink get to them first, they are musicians.
My new series, Nightstar, is more about the band who experiments and puts electronics into what they do. I unashamedly based this on three main sources, and one of them is Radiohead. After they released OK Computer, they could have spent the rest of their career writing rock songs about loss and despair. The world, as Frankie Goes To Hollywood put it, was their oyster. But no, they didn’t want that. They released the spacey, electronic Kid A, and still became one of the biggest arena bands in the world. They’re currently on a world tour, and they sold out most venues in the first hour the tickets went on sale. And yes, I have a couple of tickets! Woo hoo!
Nightstar isn’t just one band, though. I also mainlined Massive Attack (remember the theme to House in the US, Teardrop? That’s Massive Attack) and Nine Inch Nails whose stage shows are mind-blowing. And not just the sound, either. I wanted the dedication of Thom Yorke, the fury and stage presence of Trent Reznor, and the togetherness of Massive Attack, with the weird sexiness of Robert del Naja (or is that just me?)
I listen to a lot of music when I write. Not just rock, but old jazz tracks, classical, and reggae. Music means a lot to me. If the lyrics are nonsensical, then something about the music will give me an idea or a mood.
These heroes and heroines (sometimes my rock stars are females) need counterparts to match them – people who can rival the music in their hearts. It takes someone special to do that. And the other person needs to be strong and independently minded enough to demand a part of their partner’s heart. They have to be strong in themselves.
And then I realized that the most important moments, the parts I love most are when the band rips aside everything to reveal their inner selves. And they do it onstage. It’s rare, but when an audience sees it, they respond. It’s an immensely brave thing to do. It’s baring your soul for everyone to see, as Led Zeppelin used to when they played Since I’ve Been Loving You, or Frank Sinatra singing One For My Baby, or Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit.
The band that does it on a regular basis these days is Radiohead. Take this performance of 2+2=5 (a song written after the George W. Bush “hanging chad” election). Fury, despair, and desperation are all there, and they don’t hide it or polish it out, as some bands might do. That’s what I love, not a band that dresses perfectly and “blocks out” all their dance moves. They’re fun, but they don’t touch the heart. And doing that in front of thousands of people is incredibly brave.
So what’s your favorite example of someone baring the soul, drawing an audience in to an inner life, and creating something unforgettable?
An e-copy of In the Mood is up for grabs!