BY FRED MILLS
While billed as “a false memoir,” The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings (published by the book wing of Britain’s Cadiz Music) contains nary a bum note. Oh sure, author Dan Stuart, who steered proto-Americana rockers Green On Red throughout the college rock years and into the early alternative rock era until the band dissolved in a haze of drugs and diminishing artistic returns in the early ‘90s, does take frequent literary liberties throughout this often-provocative, sometimes-harrowing, consistently-entertaining 150-page volume. Practically everyone, from bandmembers to roadies to girlfriends to record company folks, is given a nom du rawk; for example, Stuart becomes the titular Marlowe Billings, his Green On Red cohort Chuck Prophet is “Billy” (no license there: GoR fans often referred to the guitar-slinging Prophet as “Billy the Kid”), and Memphis producer Jim Dickinson becomes “Bubba,” appropriately enough for the Southern sonic savant. Certain timelines and events get compressed or altered, presumably in the interest of narrative efficiency or poetic license; the sections featuring the aforementioned Bubba might appear to be detailing a recording session, but in fact Dickinson worked with GoR over the course of two albums, while the ’86 Farm Aid the band performed at is fancifully described here as “Cowboy Longhair’s festival to save the narwhals or something.”
None of that is off-putting, however. In fact, for a reader already familiar with the general Green On Red history, and certainly for fans who know the entire good/bad/ugly of that story (I fall into the latter category – for proof, go HERE to read my BLURT feature on the band), his “false memoir” aspect of the book is key to its appeal, rock fandom-wise. I mean, who needs another tired tale about a band that forms, catches a popularity wave, and rides it until the inevitable crash and damaged dissolution arrives, including the equally inevitable collateral damage that accrues in its wake? That’s 99.9% of rock groups anyway. So what Stuart has done is latched onto a means of making the story fresh, narrating from a matter-of-fact, unsentimental 1st person perspective (as any good memoir or autobiography must be narrated) and lending the yarn a kind of noir-ish sheen—that’s clear at the outset, with the hard-boiled moniker he gives himself—and following it through to his ultimate “deliverance,” in this case a serious drug addiction, precious few friends left, and a trip to a psychiatric facility.
Billings/Stuart provides some fascinating snapshots of the late ‘70s punk scene in Tucson, where he grew up and eventually formed The Serfers, later rechristened Green On Red when the band moved to L.A. to seek fame and fortune. (Intriguingly, Tucson landmarks such as local clubs and music gear shop the Chicago Store retain their real names for the book. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of actual archival snapshots included, many of them photos of the bandmembers.) Soon enough, the group’s star begins to rise as they record an album for the “Trash” label—that would be Slash Records—and then graduate to a succession of larger, better funded ones. Touring is initially a whirlwind of chaotic fun, at least until fissures emerge among the personalities to take their collective toll upon the band, which finally splits up, leaving Billings and Billy to work with hired hands. But by the time the concluding pages draw near, music has taken a distant back seat to drugs, the pair sometimes reduced to scoring dubious-quality dope from squirrelly street junkies. Billings is strung out at his own wedding; Billy overdoses in a hotel room and has to be slapped back to consciousness by Billings. Somehow they still manage to land record deals, record albums, and tour, but like with any good crime novel, you sense that these characters are on their own personal highways to hell.
Danny Stuart once told me, either during a phone conversation or down at the record store in Tucson where I worked during the ‘90s, that he was “not a recovering anything.” In the context of his then-recent history he meant that he didn’t necessarily subscribe to the 12-step philosophy, that he viewed himself as simply haven beaten his drug addiction while still taking full ownership of his weaknesses and all the shitty things he’d done over the years. More recently, in the foreword to Marlowe Billings he admits that he’s “not a particularly nice person,” adding, of the book, “There is no real plot because I refuse to put a false arc on these events in order to make it all digestible to middlebrow sludge. If you’re fine with all that then read on, friend, read on. If not, put the book down and pick up some other post-punk tale of sin and redemption. You’ll find none of that here, I promise.” (Emphasis Stuart’s.)
That’s for sure. It’s no coincidence that Keith Richards’ recent memoir was judged so entertaining by fans and critics: in refusing to give in to his own temptation for revisionist history, Richards came across as candid and honest, a tell-it-like-it-really-was kinda guy. Likewise, by steering clear of those sin/redemption clichés that mark most celebrity “survival” stories, Stuart has done the rock-lit world a favor. His warts-and-all (some would say, “syringe-and-all”) style of storytelling may seem excessively grim and depressing, but hey, sorry to break the news to ya kids, but rock ‘n’ roll is populated by a lot of losers, misfits, egomaniacs and outright sociopaths who’ve committed far worse crimes against kith and kin than Stuart. So next time you read one of those survival yarns in which the artist emerges from rehab at the end of the book and, having seen the light and the error of his/her ways, pledges to go out and make the world a better place, squint at it with a big side order of salt ‘cos they’re just reciting from a script and trust me, you’ve seen this movie before.
I’ll take a dose of deliverance over a routine redemption any day.