In "The Life of Byron Jaynes," James Howard Kunstler draws deeply from the rock 'n' roll life he encountered during his years as the "Random Notes" writer at Rolling Stone. He also incorporates rock 'n' roll myths, most heavily and specifically those surrounding Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, and emerges with a jolly read that doesn't seem any more fiction that a number of recent rock biographies.
There have been few successful "inside" novels about the rock business. They tend to be ridiculously glitzy like Lisa Robinson's "Walk on Glass" or boringly caustic like Tony Parsons' "Platinum Logic." In truth, much of the actual business of rock is as boring as any business; it's the personalities that transcend the genre, both in print and on vinyl, and Kunstler has gone the safe route by making the character of Byron Jaynes as charismatic as he is is capricious.
The concept is as simple as it is sure-fire: Take the life of a rock 'n' roll supernova who lives his life on the edge of self-destruction before burning out in spectacular, and mysterious, fashion just as he's on the verge of renewal. Bury him overseas and perpetuate his myth through the posthumous release of new albums and the recycling of old ones. Watch his popularity revive so that it's possible for a national magazine to publish a headline 10 years after his burial that says, "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead."
Sure, that's the real-life Jim Morrison story told in "No One Here Gets Out Alive." Kunstler takes it several steps farther, possibly borrowing from Ray Manzarek's famous "Did anyone see the body? I didn't" speech at a Doors reunion several years ago, but more probably expanding on the immediate and persistent rumors that Morrison faked his death in 1971 to free himself from rock's chain gang.
So say hello to Byron Jaynes, a.k.a. Peter Greenwald, a bohemian drama student turned folk-rocker who rises like dough in an overheated oven to become "a prophet to his generation . . . an idol who embodied all the spirit, rebellion and disaster of the '60s." After rising through the ranks and discarding his band, and after appropriate overdoses of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, Jaynes dies mysteriously in London, where he's also buried (for Morrison, it was Paris).
Plot twist: Ten years later, a Rolling Stone writer who'd interviewed Jaynes at the height of his success accidentally crosses his path in a tiny New Hampshire country store. Is he or isn't he? Book title aside, it's not hard to guess, and sure enough, "Joe Doaks" turns out to be the still-enigmatic Jaynes. Once "the slender, incandescent young man in the tight jeans and flowing white silk shirts, the pale face that seemed lighted from beneath his long black hair," Jaynes is now quite different, his black hair "considerably grey at the temples . . . clipped very short, and so thin at the top that a shiny circle of scalp reflected the fluorescent light overhead. He was beginning to go bald."
Tempted at first to run, Jaynes ends up more tempted to talk, and he and the writer settle down to a series of tapings in which he recounts his life up to his "death." Having stoked the pot, Kunstler now starts throwing in just about everything he ever learned at Rolling Stone, though his primary models are obviously Morrison and Dylan. Jaynes, who lives in the Catskills town of Tamberlane, has a motorcycle accident that almost kills him; some of his earliest material is copped from Folkways albums and he has a predilection for biblical imagery in his lyrics. He eventually records an album in Nashville, and to his fans his songs are "stacked in memory like cordwood."
However, as he gets older (relatively, since he "dies" at 26) Jaynes begins to suggest Morrison: "His career was on ongoing flirtation with death. Death and Eros walked hand in hand through so many of his lyrics." This Jaynes indulges indiscriminately in sex and drugs and, when the spirit moves him (as it does in Florida), exposes himself to his fans through more than his lyrics. Sure, it's mighty familiar, but Kunstler has stirred all these ingredients into a delicious stew that moves briskly, particularly when the writer lets his imagination overrule his clip files.
Although the greater portion of the book is taken up with Jaynes' discourses, Kunstler makes his writer integral to the story, partly by having him blocked and therefore grateful for the story dumped in his lap, and partly by placing him in a troubled marriage made more difficult by the project's secrecy. Jaynes' own familial conflicts come into play, but don't really seem to serve any purpose. In fact, a major weakness of the book is that it posits so little history outside the rock years. You end up wondering what Jaynes did for 10 years after his death, what inspired him to turn to music in the first place.
Part of the fun in books of this nature is guessing who's who. Simon Lewisohn, the oversized personal manager who understands "the true nature of personal power," is obviously a mix of Nat Weiss and Albert Grossman, and there are enough other thinly veiled portraits to please rock aficionados. And as seems the norm these days, there are fictional encounters with "real people" like Janis Joplin, Clive Davis and Jann Wenner.
There are frequent stops at equally obvious cultural signposts--West Coast psychedelia and Woodstock being the most elaborately drawn out--and Kunstler even has fun with his former comrades, gently spoofing Rolling Stone and rock writers in general. He writes well, and "The Life of Byron Jaynes" ends up both fun and familiar, though--oddly--not enough to make you wish there really had been a Byron Jaynes. You won't gain any insights into the rock 'n' roll of the '60s, but the book will certainly make you miss the era.