The Laurie Moss Story

By Lewis Shiner

St. Martin's. 245 pp. $23.95

Rock is a musical locomotive that crashes through the emotional intersection of head and heart and guts and (how shall we put this?) loins with more force than any other style of music. One can argue for the potency of Beethoven or Wagner or John Coltrane, but for most people who've come of age in this country since World War II, rock is it. And because the past few decades have also seen an explosion in other media, there've been zillions of words written about rock music. But how do you put into words that feeling of hearing "Wild Thing" or "Satisfaction" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time?

It's that old saying, attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello to Erik Satie, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, that one medium will always struggle in vain to explicate another.

Lee Smith did an excellent job putting country music into words in her novel "Devil's Dream," while Albert Murray's trilogy--"Train Whistle Guitar," "The Spyglass Tree" and "The Seven League Boots"--conveys jazz and blues as well as anything ever written. But for some reason, despite its prominent place in our culture, rock music hasn't inspired a single great novel.

Lewis Shiner clearly wants that brass ring with his new book, "Say Goodbye," and early on he tries to let the reader be present at the creation of some rock magic with this passage:

"Laurie walked over to a vocal mike in the middle of the room, stopped playing long enough to switch it on, opened her mouth, and sang. It came together that fast, and everyone in the room knew it. Jim looked at Gabe and got a nod and slow smile in return. The air was sweet with the smells of hot electronics, camphor from the drums, the creme rinse in Laurie's sweat-damp hair, the ancient musky odor of the garage. The pressure of the sound waves caressed their skins and vibrated all the way through them."

That's the scene in which young songwriter Laurie Moss hooks up with some Los Angeles old-timers in a garage and a band is born. It's an epiphanic moment, supposedly a transcendent moment, but how can we tell? From the smells? Shiner clearly knows that he can't adequately convey the sounds, so he tries to describe other senses; it's a clever tack but it still comes up short.

Shiner (using a music journalist as a narrator) traces the brief career arc of the fictional Moss, her arrival in Los Angeles from the heartland, her transformation from earnest folkie to earnest rocker (think of a Jewel/Alanis Morissette/Sheryl Crow hybrid), her speedy rise through the L.A. club scene, her record deals, her disillusionment and her return home. Shiner seems desperate to find some universal truths in Moss's rock experience, but really this is a fairly dull story that illuminates nothing so much as the predictable emotional problems of both Moss and the journalist who's chasing after her like a puppy.

The truths found in "Say Goodbye" are on a small scale, and it's hard to say whether anyone who hasn't been connected to a band would care. Shiner's descriptions of the day-to-day drudgery of musicmaking are absolutely dead on, even brilliant at times. Take this description of a rehearsal, where Moss is trying to show the other guys their parts:

" 'What do you want from me?' Jim asked. 'Kind of a three A.M. tinkly piano?'

" 'Organ,' she said. 'That B-3/Leslie sound, real throaty and spare.' She eased in beside him as he changed his settings, saying, 'The melody goes dah da-da-dah da-da-dah dah, and you do a response, dat daaaah dat, like a horn part.' " Genius! That's exactly how it works. From the trouble with recording drums in the studio without a click-track to arguments with the record company about which song to turn into a video, Shiner illuminates the more obscure corners of the biz.

So approach "Say Goodbye" with modest expectations. Read it as a primer on how the music industry works, how it chews up and spits out its brightest lights, how bean counters run the world (if you didn't know that already). But don't look for it to be the great rock-and-roll novel that Shiner would like to have written. There are glimpses of greatness in these pages, and perhaps Shiner (whose previous works were more in the cyberpunk vein) still has that one in him.

Eric Brace, who writes about music for The Washington Post Weekend section and plays in a band.