Measuring The Weight Of Sound

Uncle Green Drummer Peter McDade's Fiction Debut Brings the Crowd to Their Feet

by Jason Warburg

People write stories for a lot of reasons: to share an idea they think is important with the world; to explore places they’ve never been but always imagined going; to interpret their own experiences in a way that both disguises and closely examines the most wrenching, difficult parts of them. (Never underestimate the therapeutic power of taking control over something happening in your own life by writing about it.) But another reason people write stories is more prosaic, even selfish: because we want to create more of the kind of stories we most enjoy reading.

The latter was one of several sparks for Believe in Me (and more recently, Never Break The Chain)—there were other, important ones, but one was the simple fact that I’d read so few novels in which music played the kind of foundational, omnipresent role that it has in my own life for the past half a century. For purely selfish reasons, I wanted more novels like that, stories where music wasn’t just incidental stage dressing, but the essential fuel for the story itself. Coral Press, publisher of my friend Roger Trott’s terrific rock and roll yarn Getting In Tune, calls stories like ours “musical fiction.”

weight_of_sound_595 To that canon we can now add Peter McDade’s The Weight Of Sound, a novel about the world of popular music that’s so authentic you can smell the stale beer clinging to the soles of your shoes, taste the bitterness of thwarted ambitions, and feel the adrenalin pumping through your veins at that pivotal moment when a song first comes together, coalescing from stray chords and phrases into something vital and alive. It’s a story about that visceral thrill of creation, and the price life often extracts in exchange for it.

McDade comes to his tale with abundant experience to draw on. For 15 years he was the drummer in Uncle Green (later 3 lb. Thrill), a scrappy next-tier band that managed to make seven albums for four different labels through the ’80s and ’90s while touring America in a Ford van. For all their efforts, they never quite broke through, leaving the four principals—who met and formed the band while still in high school—stranded in their early 30s trying to figure out what happens next. In McDade’s case that was finishing college, teaching history to undergrads, starting a family, making music with local groups, and figuring out how to tell this story: the story of a band, and the ripples it sends out into the world by its very existence.

The “how” is significant. The narrative structure McDade chooses is key to his ability to create a fully-realized, achingly real world that plays out over 20 years in his characters’ lives. It’s a story told in a dozen chapters that feel almost like self-contained short stories, each told from a different character’s perspective, hopscotching around from parent to band member to other band member to manager to label promotions guy to girlfriend to devoted fan and back again, each story-nugget offering a fresh perspective on the arc of the band’s career and the reverberating aftershocks of its earthward impact. Frontman Spider Webb is nominally the central character, but you only view things from his perspective three times: once early, once toward the middle, and once late. That might sound disorienting, but in fact it’s both charming—it’s fun figuring out at the start of each chapter whose perspective we’re in now—and valuable, in the sense that each major character emerges as more three-dimensional with the benefit of seeing them through the eyes of others around them.

Again and again, McDade finds clever ways to interweave elements and characters, finishing with a virtual coup de grace as—no spoilers here—a character you didn’t really expect to see again, but were secretly hoping you might, reappears at the perfect moment, in the perfect new role. What makes it all work is the authenticity McDade brings to every scene, every beat. The melodramatic, love-triangled teenage fans, the disconnected, indifferent label promotions guy, the nostalgic ex-musician manager, the put-upon girlfriend struggling to deal with both a family crisis and a musician boyfriend who’s adrift now that his band has broken up… each of these characters has a voice that feels genuine, flawed and poignant in its own way. In just a few pages McDade convinces you to care about what happens to every one of these people.

Best of all is that McDade doesn’t go the obvious route and make The Weight Of Sound all about the charismatic, slightly mysterious Spider. His presence is felt in myriad ways throughout, but much of the time he seems to float above the action, as much a concept as a person, an idea that everyone else has in their head that doesn’t necessarily match up to his three-dimensional reality. In choosing that path less traveled, McDade manages to convey the essence of the celebrity illusion: we turn our idols into whoever we most need them to be.

McDade also devotes important moments to an idea that resides at the core of Believe In Me: that music can be a powerful healing force. At the close of one of the book’s most heartfelt, intense chapters, a young character copes with a traumatic event by turning to music for solace. “I’m not afraid to remember the whole night, even the ending, now that the music is here with me. I breathe out slowly, aware of my arms opening and the muscles in my legs relaxing. I can’t pretend that things that happened did not happen, but as long as I keep listening I can pretend that I’m fine.”

The cherry on top is that McDade’s story exists in both literary and musical dimensions. The Weight Of Sound: Original Soundtrack —a free download with purchase of the book—presents recordings by McDade and friends of 14 original songs featured in the story, bringing them to life in a way that enriches the entire experience. Just for example, the initial band’s big single “Pay Me Now” is note-perfect: catchy, driving and sassy, while gleefully nicking the opening chords of “Taxman,” the lead-off track from the album Spider’s father plays for him in the first chapter that seems to set the course for his life: The Beatles’ Revolver

The Weight Of Sound is a sparkling debut for McDade, rich with textured characters, charged situations, and astute observations, all set against a music-centric backdrop that he understands intimately and conveys to the reader with an easy, understated flair. It’s exactly the kind of story I wanted more of: musical fiction full of heart and soul and characters that feel as real as a song that lifts you up for a few precious moments and carries you away to another place and time.

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