Book Review: “Next Big Thing” — The Music Scene and Rock Clubs of 1980s Boston, Revived
In “Next Big Thing,” Terry Kitchen’s prose brings 1980s Boston, its music scene, and its rock clubs—from the long gone Rathskeller to the still standing Paradise—to life.
Next Big Thing, by Terry Kitchen, Urban Campfire Press, 256 pages, $12.99 (softcover), $9.99 (Ebook)
by Adam Ellsworth
Though Terry Kitchen is best known as a singer/songwriter of acoustic music, in the 1980s he fronted Boston pop/rock band Loose Ties. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of them—despite some smart songs and a sound that fit the ‘80s pretty well, the group never truly “made it,” and they split before the end of the decade. Loose Ties didn’t turn Kitchen into a rock star then, but it’s the experiences he had as a member of the band that inspired his recently published debut novel, Next Big Thing.
To reiterate, Next Big Thing is a novel, not a memoir or autobiography. Enough rock and roll memoirs have been published over the past few years to last us for the foreseeable future, so some fiction is a welcome change of pace. Of course, had Kitchen not actually “been there,” he wouldn’t have been able to inject his story with the kinds of rich details Next Big Thing is chock full of, and which make the book such a unique, spot-on read. Kitchen’s prose brings 1980s Boston, its music scene, and its rock clubs—from the long gone Rathskeller to the still standing Paradise—to life. In this sense, Next Big Thing functions nicely as rock and roll historical fiction, a literary genre that doesn’t really exist (at least not widely), but perhaps should.
Genres aside, one of the book’s greatest strengths is the way it so brilliantly captures the love/hate inner life of a struggling rock band. Mark “Zodiac” Zodzniak, the novel’s narrator and the main singer and songwriter of the book’s fictional group Shadowland, is the “Lennon” of the story right down to his wire rim glasses. Yes, he wants Shadowland to be successful, but only on his own artistic terms. Bassist Will is the careerist “McCartney” willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead and be a star. Naturally, Mark and Will are often at each other’s throats, despite the fact that they obviously need and love each other. Crucially, while we’re meant to most identify with Mark, we’re not necessarily always meant to agree with him. Kitchen (who you could argue “is” Mark) is careful to show that sometimes Will does in fact have a point, and his way of thinking is often as reality-based as it is career-based.
Mark and Will are Kitchen’s most fully formed creations, but every character is presented in three dimensions, even the ones who are gone almost as soon as they appear. The biker Shadowland meet at one of their shows in a Worcester club for instance is just fantastic. He clearly has no time for pretention or “art” or for that newfangled MTV for that matter. But he loves rock and roll, and wants to see it performed as it was originally intended: loud and lewd. It means something to him, though he’d probably never put it in such sentimental terms. This man has nothing, and everything, in common with the members of Shadowland, and probably with the average reader of Next Big Thing too. In a weird way, he’s the soul of the book, even though he only appears in this one scene and isn’t even given a name. “Keep your asses rockin’,” he tells the band after the show and before they head back to Boston. What advice could be better than that?
Next Big Thing’s characters are simply marvelous, but they aren’t the only thing the novel has going for it. Kitchen creatively “fast forwards” and “rewinds” through time to move the story along, which is a nice trick. The “rewind” chapters start in August of 1981, as the members of Shadowland are preparing to leave Ohio for Boston, and end in March of 1983 as Mark is writing the song he hopes will be the hit a local producer says the band is still missing. The alternating “fast forward” chapters start in December 1985, just as the group is preparing to release their debut album, and end in July 1986 as they take part in a “battle of the bands” style competition. This storytelling strategy can lead to minor confusion if you’re not paying sufficient attention to chapter breaks, but overall it works, and keeps things far more interesting than if the narrative was laid out in a completely linear fashion.
As if the book alone isn’t enough, Next Big Thing comes with a code so you can download the novel’s soundtrack album (if you purchase the book directly from Urban Campfire Press it comes with a physical CD). The album includes a few Loose Ties tracks and Kitchen’s tribute to the Rathskeller, “Ghosts of Kenmore Square,” but most intriguingly it features recordings of some of the songs “written” by Mark during the course of the story. Listening to these tunes after reading about them can be a strange experience. Sort of similar to watching a movie adaptation of one of your favorite books and complaining, “That’s not the way I pictured it at all!” Kitchen is a talented songwriter and performer though, so it’s hard not to be won over (eventually) by his renditions.
Next Big Thing is strong enough to stand on its own, but its characters are so rich and the successes and struggles of Shadowland are so superbly (and at times comically) presented that it’s hard not to hope that Kitchen will write a sequel, if not a whole series of books on the band. Doing so would probably take too much time away from his “other” job of being a musician, but we can hope for at least one follow up anyway. In the meantime, you can catch Kitchen at one of readings in Medford, Cambridge, Westborough, or Hudson in early December. At some events, he’ll be singing a few songs as well.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.