Please Step Back

January 01, 1970

 (Melville House)

 

www.mhpbooks.com

 

BY JAKE CLINE

 

It should be so easy to live the life of a rock star: You
get invited to all the best parties, women on every continent want to sleep
with you, money is regularly dumped into your bank account by the ton and you
can dress like a colorblind space alien and still look cool. Why then, do so
many otherwise gifted people continue to screw up what has to be the best job
in the world?

 

By now, the answers to that question – drug addiction; sexual
mischief; misspent riches; unstable, titanic egos – have become as clichéd as
most rock stars themselves. And no matter how many books or movies attempt to
dramatize these tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess, the story rarely changes: A
musician rises. A musician falls. And if he doesn’t die young and leave a good-looking
corpse, the musician grows old and rises again.

 

The familiarity of this story both works for and against Ben
Greenman in his new novel, Please Step
Back
, which charts the ascent and decline of a 1960s soul-rock icon who
calls himself Rock Foxx. Born Robert Franklin in Boston, Foxx is a gifted musician and
songwriter who breathes in the electric, anxious air of the decade and breathes
out music of universal appeal and wild ambition. “For me, a group of people is
a problem, not a solution,” Foxx explains to a bandmate after hearing Curtis
Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” at a party. “The only thing that works to fix it
is music. I know that it’s what will unbar the doors.”

 

As an African-American fronting a multiracial band at the
height of the Civil Rights Era, Foxx is determined to unbar stereotypes and
prejudices with an uncompromising vision and a wicked, daring irreverence. He
wants to call his first album A Place in the Sun and feature on its cover
“the white band members standing in the shade, the black ones in the sunlight.”
The obvious and presumably intentional Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone parallels don’t
hinder Greenman’s presentation of Foxx as a cultural fire-starter; the author
deftly weaves Foxx’s story in with that of his ’60s peers, many of whom he
views as competition for artistic dominance. (In one clever passage, Foxx turns
down an invitation to play Woodstock
because he “was so far ahead, so high above, so great beyond.”)

 

Greenman, an editor at The
New Yorker
and the author of four previous books, is also wise not to let
his novel turn into a soul version of Forrest
Gump
.  The pivotal moments of the
1960s – the King and Kennedy assassinations, the escalation of the war in Vietnam
– all make cameos in Please Step Back,
but Greenman doesn’t attempt to mine these events for new insights or
profundities. There’s little ore left in that ground, anyway. Instead, the injustices
of the decade only fuel Foxx’s anger, which in turn sparks his music and feeds
his success. That success, of course, leads to Foxx’s eventual unraveling, as
the songs stop coming and the drugs grow more powerful.

 

The central problem with Please
Step Back
, however, is not the predictable arc of the plot or the
well-excavated terrain, but with the characterization of Foxx himself. Prone to
talking in riddles and puns – “I’m the voice of a regeneration,” “No time for
games, Skip James” – Foxx often comes across as a cartoon version of a rock
star, a species that needs no animated embellishment.  Even though Greenman takes pains to reveal
Foxx’s inner life – “you’re goddamn right I’m confused. That’s what helps me
see so clearly,” Foxx says – the character doesn’t engender much sympathy.  Foxx is an easy person to like, but caring
about him is another matter.

 

Greenman is more successful in his portrait of Foxx’s wife,
a levelheaded, Chicago-born beauty named Betty Cobham. If Foxx is a meteor,
Betty is the Earth, and when her husband crashes into her, he leaves not a
crater but a dent, so strong is her resolve and her desire to live a real life
with a man for whom reality is only a memory. Betty becomes the true soul of Please Step Back, and when Greenman lets
you feel what she’s feeling, hurt when she’s hurting, a standard story becomes a
refreshingly original one.

 

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