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October 21, 2011

Book Notes - John Warner - "The Funny Man"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

John Warner's debut novel The Funny Man is a dark, smart, and satirically humorous examination of modern celebrity culture.

The New York Journal of Books wrote of the novel:

"The Funny Man joins a short list of intelligent, dark comedies about self-loathing main characters whose success is built on the poor taste and/or low IQ of the American public. In so doing, Mr. Warner follows the path of authors like Chris Buckley and Randall Silvis, but he is darker than the former and funnier than the latter. Regardless of the company he keeps, The Funny Man puts John Warner among the most perceptive and edgy chroniclers of an increasingly coarse American culture."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is John Warner's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Funny Man:

My novel, The Funny Man, is an exploration of what happens when someone gets famous and then rich on a gimmick, in this case as a comedian who does impressions of famous people with his fist shoved all the way inside his mouth. It's a pretty dumb thing to become famous over, but then again, we know who Kim Kardashian is because she had sex with her boyfriend on video. Now she has her own clothing line at Sears, and a tremendously tall husband who her sisters apparently hate.

That's what they call the American Dream, folks.

While I am one of those writers who needs music when tapping at the keyboard, once things are going well, I forget it's even there. It also took me eight years of off and on work to complete The Funny Man, so the music that "inspired" it, could be anything from The Monkees to Radiohead, to Thelonious Monk, to The Carpenters, so my list will instead be inspired by the story of the funny man and the different varieties of fame.

How Did that Happen?
"Pac-Man Fever" by Buckner and Garcia

This is perhaps the ne plus ultra of one hit wonder gimmick songs, which briefly made Buckner and Garcia famous for no good reason, unless writing novelty songs about a mega-popular video game is a good reason, which it isn't. The chorus, "Pac-Man fever, got me goin' out of my mind" is unforgettable, as in, listen to it for ten seconds and you'll consider sticking a power drill into your ear hole in order to stop it from running through your brain. Buckner and Garcia actually released an entire album of video game-themed songs, including follow-ups to "Pac-Man Fever," "Froggy's Lament," and "Do the Donkey Kong." "Do the Donkey Kong" also came with its own dance. I can't imagine why they didn't break through to the next level.

Bonus fact, Buckner and Garcia also wrote, but didn't perform, the theme to WKRP in Cincinnati.

Should Have Been a Contender
"Wishing Well" by Terence Trent D'Arby

Another theme of The Funny Man is how talent will only take you so far. Unlike Buckner and Garcia, Terence Trent D'Arby had talent to spare, and his rocket trip to fame didn't rely on any gimmicks, but he was nonetheless a one-album wonder. Released in 1987, "Wishing Well" was the first single from the album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, and even today it sounds fresh and powerful to my ears, built on the foundation of its opening rhythmic groove, and D'Arby's growling vocals. At the time of his debut, I remember him being hailed as the heir apparent to Prince, and people not laughing, but his follow-up albums pretty much tanked.

The reason you haven't heard of him lately is because he changed his name to Sananda Francesco Maitreya in an apparent attempt to run away from the fame that had gone so sour.

The Bright Burning Flame
"20th Century Boy" by T. Rex

At the opening of The Funny Man, the titular character is having his Charlie Sheen moment, if in addition to the emotional meltdown, Sheen was also on trial for allegedly manslaughtering a homeless drug addict. Fame almost invariably leads to excess and you could pretty much pick any of the 70's era rockers for this slot (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Starland Vocal Band), but I've always had a soft spot for Marc Bolan of T. Rex, who achieved the full-Elvis (sex, drugs, obscene weight gain) before getting back on track, only to be killed in a one-car accident a mile from his home. We know T. Rex for "Bang a Gong," but I prefer "20th Century Boy" for its glammed-up Zeppelin riff and nonsensical lyrics, even held against the very low standards of the era:

Friends say it's fine, friends say it's good
Ev'rybody says it's just like rock'n'roll
I move like a cat, talk like a rat
Sting like a bee, babe I wanna be your man
Well it's plain to see you were meant for me, yeah
I'm your boy, your 20th century toy

Sounds cool, says nothing, a perfect recipe for fame.

The Comeback
"Back in Black" by AC/DC

Just about everyone who achieves fame, ultimately loses it (or most of it), and will attempt a comeback. The funny man is no exception. I won't reveal what happens in the novel, but given that he becomes famous for doing impressions with his hand all the way inside his mouth, you can probably figure it out.

The most successful comeback album of all time is Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell, but I won't be writing about that because I'd rather listen to "Pac-Man Fever" on infinite loop than "I Would Do Anything for Love" even once. Meat Loaf's achievement is extraordinary because of the duration between his first hit (Bat out of Hell) in 1977, and the comeback in 1993. In between, I don't know what he did, but let's assume he worked at Wendy's, or as a dog washer at a kennel.

AC/DC may seem like a poor choice as the exemplar of comebacks. After all, there's less than a year between the release dates of the very strong selling Highway to Hell (July 27, 1979), and Back in Black (July 25, 1980), but in between, lead singer Bon Scott choked to death on his own vomit.

Scott was deemed irreplaceable, except that Brian Johnson replaced him and Back in Black has gone 22 times platinum. The title song is a declaration that those who are inclined to rock cannot be stopped, and they haven't, still managing to tour every year. You'll have to pry that school boy outfit off of Angus Young's cold dead body.

Should've Made It, but Didn't
"Space Aged Boy" Cupcakes

One of the major themes of The Funny Man is the role that chance plays in achieving fame. While we'd like to think that talent and hard work will eventually pay dividends, the reality is that if fortune doesn't shine at some point, the most brilliant career will never get off the ground.

Cupcakes were a sort of Chicago-area supergroup made up of brothers Preston (vocals) and Solomon (bass) Graves, Greg Suran (guitar), and Matt Walker (drums). Walker had achieved a measure of fame as a member of Filter, and as a replacement drummer for Jimmy Chamberlin in Smashing Pumpkins, and the others were well-known in the local scene as top-flight musicians. Their music hearkens back to glam-era rock combined with Nine Inch Nails-style electronica, huge crunching guitars with Preston Graves' vocals quite literally soaring over the top. He's the best rock singer you've never heard of, and I often wonder what happened to him. (He had a local reputation for being a little prickly.) Their major label debut came from Dreamworks, which was a best of times/worst of times deal, since it had Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen money behind it, except that it turns out that Dreamworks never gave a crap about music and the label's sales track record was by and large miserable. I saw Cupcakes live at Metro in Chicago and was convinced this was the next big thing because they melted my face off.

But it didn't happen. The album was dead on arrival, and the next big thing dissolved. The only remaining Cupcakes fan page is on Angelfire. Nuff said.

John Warner and The Funny Man links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Journal of Books review
Picky Girl review
Publishers Weekly review
Splitsider review

HTMLGIANT essay by the author (on genre)
Huffington Post interview with the author
The Millions essay by the author (on his father)

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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