Book Review: Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

Categories: Culture, Review
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Melville House Books

I used to spend a lot of time and money purchasing slick vinyl re-issues of "forgotten" or "lost" eras in American music: albums with titles like New Orleans Funk, Vol. 1: The Original Sound of Funk, 1960-1975 and Miami Sound: Rare Funk and Soul from Miami, Florida 1967-1974.

Listening to the artists, who were usually minorities signed to small, regional labels, it was sometimes hard to figure out why they never made it. Bad luck? Lack of ambition? The wrong look? Racism? Even still, why did some artists hit it big while others remained regional phenomenons? Why James Brown but not Eddie Bo? Why Aretha Franklin and not Bessie Griffin? The '60s and '70s were such a fruitful time for American music that we're still discovering bands no one has heard of that were perhaps way ahead of their time (and therefore unsuccessful) -- I'm referring specifically to the Detroit, Michigan rock band Death, whose seven-song LP was widely released for the first time by Drag City records just this year, despite the fact that the band broke up in 1976. (The master tapes were, of course, "lost" in someone's attic.)

So to write the biography of a never-before-heard-of '60s rock star, one needn't resort to fiction. In fact, if one counts liner notes as a genre of literature, Ben Greenman was standing on the shoulders of giants when he composed his newest novel, Please Step Back, the untold story of Rock Foxx, a rock star who never was but certainly could have been.

What's admirable about Greenman's roman à treble clef is how seamlessly Foxx fits into history, and by the end, one has to almost work to return to a world in which he doesn't exist. Equal parts Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Gil-Scott Herron, Foxx is a light-skinned black guy who makes an historically early transition from soul to rock, and whose mixed-race, mixed-gender band predates the Family Stone and other similar conglomerates. Unlike the Eddie Bos and Helene Smiths of the world, though, Foxx makes it big. Billboard #1 big. Limos, cocaine, tour bus, groupies, wild sex parties big. And in the process of portraying a star, Greenman dares to tackle a number of narrative clichés associated with rock 'n' roll narratives, not the least of which is the "fast rise-slow decline due to drug addiction."

Greenman has been on the fast track himself since his days as a Miami New Times staffer in the early '90s; his daytime gig is at the New Yorker, and I have to wonder if he was able to pull a young factchecker or two aside to help him with the research for Please Step Back. In a word, it's thorough. Greenman knows his dates, tours, and obscure lyrics down pat, the last of which he channels through the mouth of Foxx, who, when he's not quoting himself, is constantly spitting out the songs of his idols/rivals.

In fact, the entire prose style Greenman adopts in the book sounds like the glossolalia of someone taught English via iTunes -- full of simple rhymes, reversals, and that hep cat habit of responding to questions in couplets ("Are you in it?" "To Win it") -- an affectation that begins as off-putting but slowly morphs into something affectionate as Foxx rounds the top of the mountain and starts heading down the other side.

And it is the other side that makes the book worth reading, manifested in the person of Betty, Foxx's girl and the second protagonist (equal to or greater than Foxx) of the book. The two meet -- where else? -- backstage, but Betty is no groupie. The two get married and have a kid and, despite Foxx's habit of "what happens on tour stays on tour," are blissfully happy for a while, with Betty holding down the side of the fort that most of us can relate to. And this is a cliché, too, the good-hearted woman who could save the hero if he'd just go home to her.

What saves Please Step Back, though, and Rock Foxx, too, is that Greenman avoids tacking sweeping claims of über-meaning onto his narrative, remaining content just to tell a story that feels realistic. And like the guy in the Memorex ad, you won't notice the difference.

My question now is: When does the movie come out? And who plays Foxx? (And don't say Will Smith -- he's too old.)

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