Ira Robbins goes glam in his novel ‘Marc Bolan Killed in Crash’
Ira Robbins has given generations of hungry music hounds sustenance as the founder of Trouser Press, but his new book, Marc Bolan Killed in Crash: A Musical Novel of the 1970s, gives glam rock a fictional flourish.
Lifelong New Yorker Robbins started Trouser Press as an underground fanzine for lovers of U.K. rock in 1974, and in the decade that followed it became a primary source of info for punk, New Wave, and more. Even after the magazine’s run ended in ’84, a series of Trouser Press record guides lengthened the legacy, and a new reboot of www.TrouserPress.com has wedded the guides’ content with fully readable versions of every magazine issue.
Robbins’ first novel, 2009’s Kick It Till It Breaks, was set in the ’60s, and with the follow-up he edges into another place and time. The era of Bowie, Bolan, and Roxy Music, where flamboyant fashion ruled the rock roost, becomes the setting for British teen Laila’s long, strange journey of discovery. With the novel’s decade-long writing process and his website revamp finally finished, Robbins took the time to reveal the process behind his story of glam-rock glory and grief.
After a lifetime of music writing, what got you started with fiction?
The weird pathway that led me to writing fiction was, I started writing apercus, little observations… I started writing these little things on the subway. I would see people and concoct brief anecdotes about them. After a while I had a fair number of them and I thought maybe this is a way to jumpstart a novel. I had reached a point where after a lot of music writing I thought something different would be nice.
How did you decide to set this book in the glam rock era?
The British glam scene of the early ’70s has always been a real enthusiasm of mine. I’d actually thought a couple of times about writing nonfiction about that era. Then [1998 glam-filled film] Velvet Goldmine came out and it was really annoying because to me it really didn’t capture much about what was great about it. I thought maybe I should just create a character and put that character into a time and place and see where it goes.
What do you see as the overall arc of the main character, Laila, who is 15 at the start of the book?
The primary goal I had was to bring her from insecurity and timidity and self-effacement to courage, audacity, and then to frustration, cynicism and aggravation.
Marc Bolan isn’t really a part of the story, what made you name the book after him? How did his death affect you in 1977?
I was far more concerned about the Damned and The Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Jam than I was about Bolan [in 1977]. His death was shocking, of course. I’ve done a lot of news coverage in my day and you become inured to dealing with celebrity deaths. I have that poster [of the Bolan newspaper headline], it’s framed and hangs on a wall in my house, I find it to be a remarkable artifact of an era. It kind of hit me that this captured the era very quickly. It also gave it at least a nominal depiction of the arc of the story —that it ends badly, in a sense. It just felt like it said it all for me. His fame was singular, his personality was incredible, those records were great. Bolan was an archetype, he was a cartoon, but he was a really remarkable cartoon. If you could pick one person to encapsulate glam rock, he really was it.
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Did any other authors’ work have an influence on the book?
Irvine Welsh, through Trainspotting, put Scottish vernacular in my head. I didn’t use his book as a reference for this but it added to my appreciation for slang from that part of the world. A lot of the reason for me writing this book was to entertain my love of slang and language, I wanted to live in that world where people talk like that, and say things that might not be familiar to American ears. The strongest creative force I felt when I was working on this was Kingsley Amis, books like Lucky Jim… he has this very arch, unnecessarily flowery way of writing about things. I had that in mind, and there were parts where I tried to write the way an English author would write.
What was your personal experience of glam rock in the ’70s?
It connected a lot of disparate threads for me. One was Top 40 pop music. It was really disposable singles that were just meant to be fun. And it was very not blues based. And it was colorful. When those bands started, 1972, I was 18 years old, and it struck me as a really exciting thing. Trouser Press didn’t start until 1974 so it wasn’t like we wrote about it [at the time]. We did a little, we covered Bolan and we covered Roxy Music and Slade and Alex Harvey. But my interest was just as a fan.
In ’74 I was in London and I saw Sparks play The Rainbow, there’s a description of this in the book that I sort of fictionalized. They were extraordinary. It was very exciting. It was really chaotic and hysterical in a good way. I don’t think I’d ever seen a rock concert like that before. Back in New York I started going to Roxy Music shows in 74. We all dressed to the nines and put on platform shoes and did our hair up just right, because we wanted to be as good looking as the band. It was an interesting time. Certainly not my favorite kind of music of all time, but I felt it’s been underrepresented in literature, unappreciated in rock culture. This was a topic that I loved and wanted to say something about.
You’ve mentioned an inherent phoniness to glam that you found endearing. Can you explain that?
Rock ‘n’ roll is phony, that’s one of the reasons why I love it. As much as rock ‘n’ roll has been my life, I never overvalued its sincerity. It’s gullible to believe that rock ‘n’ roll musicians are always serious or always sincere and I think that’s part of its charm. When I was a kid and I went to see the Rolling Stones, I found out that the Rolling Stones from show to show were exactly the same, that Jagger said the same lines between songs. I was disabused of my fantasies about rock n’ roll. If I rejected everybody that wasn’t making it up as they went along there wouldn’t be very much to like or listen to. I don’t have any problem with appreciating and accepting the phoniness that most rock ‘n’ roll is. It’s not real life, it’s art. Glam rock was bubblegum with electric guitars. It’s the apotheosis of rock ‘n’ roll flimsiness, and all the better for it.
Marc Bolan Killed in Crash is available now at Amazon.