Every American town is littered with the nicotine-stained remains of bands that didn’t make it. Atlanta has its share, as does Athens, Macon, Savannah and anywhere else large enough to have pawn shops, garages and the weird kids that gravitate to both. You’ve seen the detritus — a high-school math teacher with a Fugazi tattoo on her wrist, the bank teller who finger taps in perfect time to the Muzak in the air, the janitor singing so sweetly as he makes his rounds, the lawn man who edges your sidewalk in his Pylon T-shirt. Maybe you’re that lawn man.
Atlanta author Peter McDade’s “The Weight of Sound” chronicles the rise, fall and aftermath of Monkeyhole, a fictional indie band that didn’t make it. It is a topic with which McDade, a drummer who played in the bands Uncle Green and 3 Lb. Thrill in the ’80s and ’90s, is familiar.
Monkeyhole started in Athens, ambled to Boston, toured a lot, got modest radio attention and a major-label deal, and petered out after releasing one good record. It lives on in the memories of fans and in used-CD bins. The band roughly follows the trajectory of Television, the legendary New York band that made the classic (but poorly selling) “Marquee Moon” in 1977, and then essentially disappeared. Indeed, a verse from “Marquee Moon” is an epigraph in the novel.
As with Television’s Tom Verlaine, Monkeyhole’s frontman is an enigma, starting with his assumed name. He goes by Spider but he’s actually David Ebster. By the time he’s 6 years old, David has shrugged off that name. An argument with his dad captures the moment:
“Want my own name. D.J.”
As he said the new name, the boy smiled so peacefully, so beautifully, that Alan just nodded. “OK, D.J.” Another phase, he told himself. And besides, it wasn’t like the name changed — it was just the initials for his given name.
The changes kept coming, though. In the first week of first grade he declared that D.J. was a “little boy’s name,” and he would now go by George, for his favorite Beatle. A few weeks later he said it wasn’t right to “steal” George’s name. He would be Stephen (with a “ph,” not a “v”).
By high school, David has settled on Spider and, for the rest of the novel, no one calls him anything else. Later on, he changes it again (“Spider Webb”), reinventing himself as a country artist with a hit single called “(A Dream Made of) Ice Cream,” a song title that serves well as a metaphor for all rock-star aspirations.
Each chapter moves chronologically through Spider’s life but is told from a different person’s perspective: Spider’s bandmates, a girlfriend, a tour manager, a record executive, various fans. This could have felt jumpy and disconcerting, but McDade compels us so expertly with these characters that we’re quickly immersed in their voices and concerns. All these characters feel fully formed, solid and idiosyncratic — except for Spider. He drifts through his own novel, propelled by his music.
But what, exactly, is that music? McDade portrays Monkeyhole’s interpersonal dynamics so well, with a sardonic, melancholy voice that captures ever-shifting friendships, romances and arguments, that one wishes he extended his attention to its sound. Monkeyhole seems like a melding of 1980s/1990s alternative icons — R.E.M., the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Buffalo Tom — but are indistinguishable from them.
Even when Spider eventually becomes famous, we don’t know much except that he’s making country music. But is he country like George Strait, or like Jason Isbell, or like early Taylor Swift? Perhaps not knowing is the point. Toward the novel’s end, Spider Webb is interviewed by the editor of a Pitchfork-like website:
“Did you expect moving to a more country sound would work so well?”
Spider takes a slow sip of coffee. He needs to pay particular attention to the way these words will look online — his switch from indie rock to country can’t be denied, even if you call it “Americana” instead. “(A Dream Made of) Ice Cream” featured pedal steel, a mournful tone and an all-American metaphor, served up at a mid-tempo pace; the whole product was consciously country, as was the name change to “Spider Webb.” Country stations were the ones that broke the song, the ones that made Top 40 eventually possible for Spider in a way the rock world never had. He’s always been careful to make sure the switch doesn’t come across as overly strategic, though, and that’s even more important with the follow-up record. The biggest challenge they’ll have is fighting the idea that Spider Webb is a carpetbagger, not “real country.”
Of course, no one is “real country” anymore. Country music is the new home for American pop, which had drifted away — or been pushed away — from rock and R&B, so the singers wore cowboy hats and spoke with slight drawls.
But you couldn’t say that out loud.
Spider keeps things opaque, and so does the novel with regard to him. Though Spider and Monkeyhole are stand-ins for the struggling rocker archetype, I still wanted a better sense of the world they inhabited. What bands were around them? Who did they borrow equipment from? Who made their fliers? The real 1980s/1990s alternative underground scenes were communities that sustained musicians, who usually didn’t make enough money to get by otherwise. Neither Monkeyhole nor Spider, though, seem to belong to a precisely rendered scene.
As a result, Spider becomes a bundle of individualist rock-star cliches more than he is a complex character. There, I think, is McDade’s true weight of sound — that the pursuing of rock stardom so often means flattening the soul and an isolation from the world. Spider might have been better off as a lawn man.
‘The Weight of Sound’
by Peter McDade
220 pages, $17.99