The apotheosis of Kurt Cobain into adolescent rock martyr in the 90’s was an undeniable cultural milestone for many Gen Xers. It also resulted in my spending an inordinate amount of time as a teenager watching dodgy bands play terrible music in pubs that smelt of piss and cigarettes. Grunge felt like a last gasp of rock ‘n’ roll, an angry death rattle of a music genre that refused to slip into irrelevancy. It encouraged every aspiring musician with a need to stand in dark rooms and play their hearts out to do just that – if these kids from Seattle could take on the music industry and change it, there was hope. Grunge also jettisoned a lot of the baroque nonsense that had congealed around rock.
What makes Bloody Waters so appealing is how Jason Franks sites his supernatural satire on the cusp of this movement in modern music, capturing its refusal to compromise.
Clarice Marnier is one of those individuals who sees rock as a way of becoming something more. Of actually becoming an individual, instead of just another follower. After all, the history of rock ‘n’ roll is full of rebels taking on the system. She spends every available hour on guitar lessons, enduring school and her education as a necessary nuisance despite her driven intelligence. She joins bands, grows frustrated with their lack of ambition – and so starts to form her own.
At this point in the ‘Behind The Music’ special we would learn about how the aspiring rockstar had a lucky encounter with an agent who catapults him to fame and glory. The key word there is ‘him’ of course, as Clarice Marnier soon discovers there’s a glass ceiling waiting for her. Her solution is to employ her lead singer and affable lover , as well as aspiring black magician, Johnny Chernow to make a deal with the Devil. Who of course is a Silence of the Lambs fan. Instead of a one-stop solution to her problems with sleazy record company men, this decision only serves to reveal to Clarice that the music industry is littered with demons and warlocks – never mind the host of backstabbing rivals jealous of her success and already looking to take her out. Her rise to the top proves to be a mite more eventful than the lives of most musicians. Janis Joplin never had to take out any succubi or incubi – as far as we know.
Franks’ neat inversion of the Blues myth of the guitarist selling his soul for success – liberally played with here – cleverly sums up the history of rock from its beginnings on the banks of the Mississippi to the MTV VJs cheerfully gossiping on the sex lives of celebrity popstars. Clarice is a fantastic central character, an anachronism in an industry of fakes and fops. Indomitable, cutting and fiercely ambitious. She repeatedly makes the point that her success is due to self-discipline and not being given a hand up. Any young rockers hoping to get a free ride on the back of her fame are given short shrift. While she does openly talk to reporters about her deal with the Devil, the assumption is this is just your typical whacked out rockstar weirdness. The distinction she draws between the two kinds of favour forms the crux of the plot – just how much of her rigid principles will Clarice compromise in order to succeed?
Readers of Franks’ comic The Sixsmiths will recognize the sly pisstakes of conservative Christian values, not to mention the same deadpan humour. The banter between Clarice and Johnny is frequently very funny, not to mention their casual contempt for each supernatural roadblock they encounter. The hysteria surrounding rumours of Satanism in heavy metal – I can remember footage of the members of Judas Priest chuckling amongst themselves while in court accused of trying to brainwash listeners with their lyrics. As Bill Hicks once remarked “What musician wants his audience dead?” Franks eventually delivers an unexpected exposition on the themes of the story with an epilogue that hammers his points home – cf Milton, is the Devil the archetypal rebel, or just an unwitting instrument of God’s will?
This is confident and very entertaining writing, at times reminiscent of Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss meets Pratchett and Gaiman’s classic Good Omens. Franks’ enthusiasm for rock shines through on every page, but there’s also a satirical wryness here which catapults this above other supernatural thrillers clogging up the market. A great, fun read.
The Kindle edition of Bloody Waters is available here. Check out the gorgeous cover by Rhys James below.