Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Indy Life: Leslie Stein's Brooklyn's Last Secret

Leslie Stein's work has veered between direct memoir and her "Eye Of The Majestic Creature" series, which is essentially fabulist memoir. Brooklyn's Last Secret represents a fictional story that nonetheless is deeply personal. It's about a slightly aging indy rock band from Brooklyn (hilariously named Major Threat) that embarks on a tour of America that operates out of a van. Stein has written a number of books, but she's also been a professional guitarist for a number of years as well. This book feels like an ode to a thousand road trip stories that she and many people she knows have collected over a lifetime. It's affectionate and wistful, as some of the characters are filled with regrets as they grow older while the younger characters are trying to imagine their futures. 

I've often thought that the indy rock and indy comics scenes had some similarities. Beyond the obvious comparison in that many cartoonists are also musicians, and that many cartoonists have done rock posters or album art, there's a deeper level here. There's not a lot of money to be made in publishing a book or releasing an album. Self-releases have limited reach and costs that have to be covered by the artists, while label/publisher releases have costs built into limiting royalty payouts. To compensate for this in music, there's a national network of clubs that host bands, where they might get a cut of the gate but also get a chance to sell merchandise. The past 25 years have seen a similar rise in smaller shows aimed at zines and small press comics, running nearly year-round now for cartoonists who want a chance to move their books directly to an interested audience. Touring and tabling are both frequently frustrating and demeaning, but every now and they have transcendent moments. 

There is a key difference that Stein highlights near the end. The "band dad" Ed, who's now in his 40s, is a professional tech guy in his day job. He's not especially fond of his co-workers and their smarmy attitudes about being a musician. At the same time, he hates being on the road, hates being hit on, and is pretty much a ball of anxiety. When bandmate Lilith calls him out on this, his reply is simple: I like to play the drums, and it is not a solitary pursuit. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones used to say much the same thing, where when he was at home, all he wanted to do was go out and play drums, and when he was on tour, all he wanted to do was go home. The joy of music is performance, and unless you're playing on your own, you're dependent on others. This is in striking contrast to the solitary existence of the cartoonist; part of the fun of shows is simply being with other cartoonists. 

The structure of Stein's book is beautifully and conveniently episodic. It starts off with the band's agent setting their tour itinerary, and there's a running joke where the drunk/stoned members of the band fell asleep and they didn't get good food guarantees as part of their rider. The first show is a hometown show, and Stei elegantly reveals details about each of the four main characters organically as the tour proceeds. Ed never feels comfortable in any world, as the biracial son of academics who's a coder and rock drummer. When the band drives in Montana and they're stopped by police, he makes sure to sit in the back. Lilith is recovering from heartache and wondering what to do next in life as she realizes she's starting to get older as well. Marco is the young new singer, full of energy but also cagey about his life outside the band. Dave is the bass player who is mostly quiet and enigmatic, floating through a charmed life. 

By the end of the book, Stein unravels their backstories and mysteries to give the story more structure. None of that was really necessary, though. The real attraction here is the aggregation of anecdotes, the shared experiences on the road with this group of artists. What they share is not exactly friendship; indeed, Lilith points out that the road is no place for expressing your feelings. There's a hilarious sequence where she is upset and about to talk about her breakup with her bandmates, before she catches herself and instead "confesses" that she's "really into progressive electronic music right now." This elicits far more sympathy and understanding than a confession about her love life would. As in all of the book's vignettes, Stein's expressive cartooning is absolutely masterful. Her control over her spare line that suggests forms more than actually depicts them, is augmented by her tasteful and restrained use of color that furthers the narrative on several fronts.

As Stein describes it, being on the road is a long series of inconveniences, humiliations, tight quarters, drunken numbness, and the occasional transcendent moment. All of these things are endured to get to those moments as artists, seeking the sublime, as well as a few moments of mutual understanding from their peers and energy from the audience. Musicians need to play, cartoonists need to draw, and sometimes life is just picking up the mess that's made in between these fleeting, but deeply connected, moments of beauty. When the musicians in the book have on of those moments, they aren't just experiencing that one moment, but rather a continuum of that beauty across time, for every instance that they were in touch with the sublime. Being an artist is a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, and Stein depicts both with comedic grace and deep sensitivity.

No comments:

Post a Comment