Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rubber Soul by Greg Kihn

If you're my age (and the coming reference is the only hint you're getting), you are probably familiar with Greg Kihn. Turn on your local BOB or JACK "we play anything" radio station and chances are the song Jeopardy is in rotation, sandwiched between Taco's Putting on the Ritz and that horrid Will.I.Am/Britney earworm. Greg Kihn co-wrote and performed Jeopardy, which was a huge song in its day. Constant MTV airing huge, Weird Al parody huge. If you haven't given Kihn a thought since 1984, no need to worry. He's apparently still kicking and writing in another arena.

Kihn's latest effort, Rubber Soul (AMZ), follows the adventures of a Liverpudlian entrepreneur as his life intersects periodically with those of several hometown friends striving to launch careers in music. I have read quite a few Beatle-inspired novels, and reviewed some Beatles fiction here in the past - I find stories like these go either away in terms of quality. I hesitate to call such works glorified fan fiction, since the Beatles themselves are basically historical figures now, and it wouldn't be fair to lump these books as fanfics when other writers bring true to life people into fiction and dodge the stigma. That said, some stories I have read seem to lack the polish that carries the characters out of fandom into something serious. In the case of Rubber Soul, I found a concept that interested me -- a look at the early Beatles through the eyes of a friend -- despite the rough patches.

Bobby Dingle helps his father run his antiques shop in Liverpool. Like other teenagers in the port town, he's fascinated by American rock and roll, and through the right contacts is able to snare prized 45s before anyone else in town (What's a 45? It's like an MP3, but different. Google it.). His love for American rhythm and blues and rock solidifies a friendship with a young John Lennon, and soon Bobby's position as the band's Forrest Gump is secured. Throughout the story - from encounters in Hamburg, Bobby's later adopted home of Baltimore, and London - Bobby peppers little influences like Easter eggs for John to find and integrate into the Beatles' success. If you're a fan, you'll spot them on sight.

As the reader gets a lesson in early rock and roll - with names of the Fabs' musical idols sounded off in a constant roll call - dark shadows cast occasional palls over the action. Bobby's thug half-brothers, Mick and Clive, cause trouble for the band, while fatal events in Hamburg have a lasting impact. Rubber Soul covers the period from the late 50s to the Beatles' nightmarish experience in Manila, in 1966. I've read more than my share of Beatle bios, too, and while Kihn doesn't specify actual dates throughout the story he appears to present an accurate timeline of events. That one scene where John dupes Bobby into trying LSD? I confirmed the date John tried it for the first time (it's a fairly famous story, mind you), just to make certain. A casual music fan may gloss over particulars, but a Beatleologist can nit-pick. Given that the pace of Rubber Soul runs rather swiftly, one may accept that Kihn properly placed the fixed points in Beatles history within his fiction. Curiously, though, this story omits the "bigger than Jesus" controversy altogether.

So, accuracy aside, is the story any good? Firstly, I commend any author willing to fictionalize people who existed. I did find overall dialogue stiff at times - in some parts it didn't feel natural, more like a recital of facts. I did like that the story focused more on Bobby as he connected with a variety of supporting players - the fictional Clovis, for example, came off more colorful as the rest, which would make sense given the author could write the character more freely.

Rubber Soul should please Beatles fans, and fans of early rock and roll. You'll find it's more than another version of an oft-told history, but a view of a changing time as youthful innocence morphs into moments of cynicism and turbulence. Ending with the events in The Philippines seems to cut the story short, but it doesn't make the ride there any less thrilling.

An ARC of this book was provided via NetGalley by the publisher.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

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