Fake bands and musicians abound in literature. Sometimes they help a writer create a sense of verisimilitude in an otherwise foreign setting, for example, the characters in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange listen to invented bands (The Heaven Seventeen, Johnny Zhivago, Googly Gogol), as well as recognizable names like Beethoven, thereby making the picture of a dystopian future more complete. But there’s another reason for creating fictional musicians. Through the use of such characters, a novelist can to bring an entire era to life, and to explore the many facets of any given period. What follows is an entirely subjective list of some of my favourite musical characters; characters which I think help to define their era:
Charlie Hero in The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi.
The scene is ‘70s Tory England, a time of racial conflict and suburban boredom, but also, for Kureishi’s characters, a time of energy and transformation. When Charlie first appears he’s a Bowie obsessed fop, a mediocre musician desperately looking for a way out of suburbia. The arrival of punk is his chance, and he unhesitatingly ditches his old band and long hair to join in, eventually ending up in New York a bona fide rock star. Kureishi drew on his own adolescence in Bromley for much of the novel, and another local lad, Billy Idol, acted as a model for Charlie. (Idol was a suburban follower of punk, and member of the Bromley Contingent. He went on to take part in the Second British Invasion, which saw a host of punk-flavoured pop acts selling their Englishness to America.)
The Castillo Brothers in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.
Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel follows two Cuban brothers who ride the wave of Latin music that engulfed New York in the ‘50s. There’s the eldest, Cesar, a macho, passionate singer with an unquenchable thirst for women, and his little brother, Nestor, a frail melancholic, who writes endless versions of the same song, ”Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” a lament for a lost love back home. The sweat and glamour of the New York clubs is intercut with the brother’s attempt to break into the white world of television, with the help of a real life Latino hero, Desiderio Arnaz.
Robert Frobisher & Vyvyan Ayrs in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Like Hijuelos, Mitchell offers us not one, but two, fictional musicians. The first, Robert Frobisher, is a louche, bi-sexual debt-dodger, who travels to Belgium with a view to exploiting the second, Vyvan Ayrs, a famous composer and syphilitic recluse. Although Frobisher’s character was inspired by Eric Fenby, an amanuensis to the great composer Frederick Delius, his voice owes more to the writings of Christopher Isherwood, the preeminent chronicler of the decadent underworld that existed between the wars in Europe. Mitchell also gives us two fictional pieces of music; firstly a symphony called “Eternal Recurrences”, which Ayrs hears in a dream, and secondly Frobisher’s own “Cloud Sextet”, a six-part composition which mirrors the puzzle-like structure of the novel itself.
Pretty much anything by Tom Pynchon
No article about fictional musicians would be complete without a quick word on Thomas Pynchon. Almost every one of his books makes passing references to a host of fictional bands, from Sick Dick and the Volkswagens in The Crying of Lot 49, to Eddie Enrico and his Hong Kong Hotshots in Vineland. Not only that, Pynchon habitually pens lyrics to non-existent songs. Gravity’s Rainbow, his award-winning magnum opus, contains upwards of a hundred fake songs, including “The Penis He Thought Was His Own,” “Loonies on Leave!”, and “Puke-a- hook-a-look-i Island.”
Sing along classics every one. If only they had a tune.