When we were young
And nobody got older
They toughest kid in the street
Could always be bought over
And the first time that you loved
You had all your love to give
At least that’s what you said.
Whipping Boy, ‘When We Were Young’
Looking back on Whipping Boy’s landmark second album Heartworm in 2015 (writes Andy Wood), the Irish Times described the song as being a song of ‘inebriating nostalgia’ and that feels like a pretty accurate way of how it was taken to be at the time of its release as a single in 1995. The same could be said of a few of the reviews of Ben Vendetta’s two novels, Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (2015) which look back to the British music scene of the mid 1980s and mid 1990s respectively. One review of Wivenhoe Park stated that ‘If birds, booze and Bunnymen are your thing, as they are mine, then dust off your Sisters of Mercy LPs, squeeze into your Meat Is Murder t-shirt and enjoy the ride.’ However, both novels are so much more that a Loaded style romp of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with cooler music.
Whipping Boy’s lyrics are about coming of age, growing up and the complexities of doing so. Initially the song may seem to be a simple dichotomy between the innocence of youth crashing up against the complexities of growing up but the pay-off is in the line ‘At least that’s what you said.’ Faced with the realities of growing up we tend to look back at our childhoods and formative years through rose-tinted glasses. Growing up in the 1980s and discovering music, literature, films and stuff for myself was an exciting, heady time but it was also a completely scary thing. I often felt so out on a limb, so full of anger, passion and a terrifying mixture of certainty and confusion. I still feel these things but I no longer feel that everyone should agree with me all the time or that the world should come around to my worldview. Also, these things have changed to certain degrees. I love some of the music I loved at the time, other stuff I can’t be bothered with. I like looking back at things or revising my opinions but I don’t do rose-tinted spectacles.
Both Wivenhoe Park and Heartworm avoid rose-tinted spectacles. Certainly they celebrate the music, the friendships, and the freedom of escaping your small hometown but they also deal with pain, loss and the struggle to find your own identity. Both novels are beautifully written, passionate and evocative. They can be funny and dark and highlight the complexities of life. How to hold onto your dreams but not end up as a static, unchanging human being. I’ve come to understand the power of being able to look backwards and forwards. I accept that our teenage years and tastes do hugely affect us but would hate to be stuck in them, frozen in a halcyon past, never growing or changing but moaning that nothing was as good as it was back in the day.
I was drawn to Ben Vendetta’s writing through the title of the second novel. Whipping Boy’s Heartworm, for me, is one of the most wonderful records that I’ve ever heard. It’s full of gorgeous, heartbreaking songs, a lyrical darkness combined with some breathtakingly beautiful music and empowering songs. Released by Sony in the midst of Britpop it sold 80,000 copies worldwide and saw the band dropped by their label. Britpop seemed to close a lot of doors for more ‘difficult’ or ‘complex’ bands though that is possibly a slightly simplistic reading of things. However, it did seem to be the case that if you were not a band who were aiming for football chant status and constantly proclaiming that you wished to be ‘bigger than The Beatles’ then there was only a small space on the fringes left for you.
That space on the margins is where much of Wivenhoe Park is set. The novel follows its protagonist Drew as he moves away from his small-town near Michigan to a University town near London. Drew passionately loves music and dreams of being a music journalist. Merging fiction with real people and events can often fall flat on its face but Ben Vendetta pulls this off with some aplomb. The description of small gigs in dingy venues is spot-on. Describing a Primal Scream / Meat Whiplash gig he describes the venue as being ‘dank and depressing with just a small stage in back, but there’s a lot of energy in the air.’ A lot of these gigs took place in the backrooms or basements of pubs, often hastily appropriated as venues where dreamers and schemers would play their earliest shows. Certainly, that’s one of my experiences of promoting early shows where established venues wouldn’t give you the time of day or made unreasonable demands. I also remember the shock of visiting London and going to venues I’d imagined to be amazing. After all, I’d seen their names in the gig listings of the music weeklies and in reviews. The Camden Falcon, Dublin Castle. Dingy and dank is a pretty accurate description. Possibly even a little kind.
Wivenhoe Park has the music at its center but also in Drew, it has a likeable narrator. Drew feels very real. He is cool and uncool at the same time, struggling to find his way but never losing sight of the sheer joy of the music, of making friends and falling in love. As an American in England, despite being a committed Anglophile, Drew is perfectly placed as an outsider-insider to view life in the often tribal and divided place that the U.K. was and still is.
There’s a warmth and charm to the book and also a darkness. Drew’s attempts at relationships are complicated by an ex-girlfriend back home, who has a kind of hold on him and while he starts to write and find himself his relationships are clumsy and messy, often painfully so.
Heartworm picks up with Drew again in the mid 1990s. The narrator has acquired a fair bit of baggage over the last decade including an estranged and seriously troubled ex-wife. Now writing about music for a living, on the surface, he seems to have everything he aimed for but life has a habit of being less simple than it seems. Heartworm is darker than its predecessor but no less enjoyable. A growing sense of failure pervades the novel, of having let those closest to you down and, by default, having let yourself down, of finding yourself in a rut and trying to dig yourself out of it. Yet Drew still retains the same enthusiasm for music, for creativity, this time around it is the Irish band, Whipping Boy, who are the musical heart of the novel. Whipping Boy’s early singles and debut album Submarine were fine enough records but they were not on the verge of any kind of greatness in most people’s minds. Yet, somehow they found themselves signed to a major label and hit a streak of great songwriting culminating in the release of their second album which was received rapturously in the music press. Like the novel, the album showed a band full of complexity, darkness and light and it seemed that they were poised on the precipice of becoming huge. And yet, it never happened. Three years later, a self-titled third album limped out to little fanfare. I didn’t even know it existed until I bought it a few years later in Road Records in Dublin.
Ben Vendetta captures the buzz, the excitement of falling in love with a band, of falling in love (and out of love) with someone with all its vagaries, thrills, doubt and joy.
There are not shelve-loads of great works of fiction about music. There are a handful that I love including Iain Banks’ brilliant Espedair Street, David Keenan’s quite unsettling but fantastic This Is Memorial Device, John Niven’s scabrously funny Kill Your Friends, Cathi Unsworth’s The Singer and a handful of others but these two novels manage to write about music in a way that feels authentic, fresh and very human. Possibly I’m that elusive target audience that publishers dream about finding given the music being written about but equally both novels can be read as coming of age novels as well without needing to know who Meat Whiplash were. In much the same way as I read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Women as a teenager, I knew nothing first hand of the places or the milieu in which both novels were set in but I was drawn in to them by the writing, by the respective narrators sense of alienation and attempts to find a sense of belonging and place of their own. The musical background and my own tastes add to the joy of reading both books but an in-depth knowledge of the British independent music scene of the mid 1980s to 1990s is not a prerequisite for reading and enjoying these books in my humble opinion.
I found both novels a joy to read and fired through them with great pleasure. They tell a story that is both unique and universal. As My Bloody Valentine once sang, ‘Let’s fall in love / It’s exciting.’ And scary.
You can purchase both novels in paperback or Kindle editions here
For more information you can also check Ben Vendetta’s site .
Some related music …