This review starts with a quoted lyric from The Specials in the title, and I’ll give you good odds it will end in a similar manner.
The day after I finished reading Liam Murray Bell’s latest novel The Busker I was walking down Buchanan St in Glasgow and considered the various musicians who were playing there anew. I wanted to be able to give them all a copy as a warning to be careful what you wish for, but then I realised that the lessons the books contains are for all of us. What could have been a rail against the foolishness of youth is actually concerned about the way we judge art, (music in particular), asks us to consider “what price fame?”, and questions just what we value in today’s society.
There are many novels about heroic or spectacular failure, but few tell tales of self destruction resulting from self delusion and simple selfishness, and this is what The Busker does so well. It’s about the dangers of hubris and believing you’re as good as others may tell you you are. When the healthy doubts which we all have are shouted down by praise, and then silenced by substances, it’s unlikely to end well.
The Busker follows the highs and lows of Rab Dillon, the nascent protest singer that it seems the world has not been waiting for. I have to admit that using the name Rab Dillon for his Glaswegian protest singer had alarm bells ringing with me for being too neat a premise, but as Murray Bell addresses this himself early on any such problems are nipped in the bud. He portrays this coincidence as a millstone around Rab’s neck rather than a case of musical onomatopoeia. It also allows reviewers to riff on the the whole Dylan/Dillon is Judas theme, and although Rab certainly betrays plenty of people in his desire to sell his music and gain all the trappings which he is promised accompany success, he will never actually see his 30 pieces of silver as they are set off against the costs his career accrues by the record company, (or is that just this reviewer?).
The structure of the book is key to how the story unfolds. Starting in a bedsit in Brighton, we already know Rab has failed before the book really starts, and the drama is to discover, to paraphrase Talking Heads; “How did he get here?”. As the chapters move between Brighton and earlier days in Glasgow and London, the answer which unfolds is perhaps unsurprising, but it is heartbreakingly believable. After help and support from friends and family, he leaves his home town to make it big, and although his fall from being the next bright young thing to squatting in abandoned property may seem head spinningly quick, it correctly reflects the terrifying turnover rate in the music business, and is a reminder of just how quickly an individual’s life can spin out of control.
The Busker is a tale for our times, and if you read it alongside John Niven’s Kill Your Friends you would never encourage anyone to take to the stage ever again, but it’s not all negative. Rab finds a sense of camaraderie and self belief on the streets of Brighton, even if it takes a while. When he leaves Glasgow he’s a young man with little life experience, and the driving force of his music is not to change the world, it’s to get the girl (whoever that may be). At this point, Rab is disingenuous almost beyond belief. He is driven by a dangerous mixture of libido and ambition, and it would be easy to judge him harshly were it not for that nagging feeling that you would have behaved exactly the same having been offered such possibilities at that age.
When his manager, Pierce Price, tells him to leave his record company funded hotel to spend some time at the tented Occupy London community outside of St Paul’s Cathedral for reasons of publicity, and to sell them his credentials as a political activist, Rab’s misreading of the situation and his inability to understand the complex ideas that drive the protest, or even the fact that there are complex ideas at all, is cringe worthy. He comes across as someone who is keen to hang his hat to any passing protest if it helps him sell CDs. Of course this is partly naivety, but it does not speak well of the man, and it is, in many ways, his lowest point, even if he would argue otherwise.
Pierce Price is just one of the recognisable yet individual and believable characters who inhabit The Busker. From the group of teenage friends sharing cheap vodka, and other things, behind the railway line, through the record company execs who are just desperate to find someone who gives them a hit, to the hippies and professional protesters who know exactly how far they can push the law and remain out of jail, Murray Bell shows an eye for character which is spot on. All of the above could have fallen into stereotypes, and it is to his credit that this never happens as he always manages to find the small details which make them memorable one-offs.
The character who hits closest to home is Sage, the older homeless man who becomes Rab’s guardian angel and teacher; a streetwise Marxist Yoda who spouts pearls of wisdom using language which Rab just about understands. Sage was a university lecturer who did not have his short term contract renewed and who has ended up having to survive as best he can on the streets, and there but for the grace of god go many of us. He represents the humanity which has been missing from Rab’s life. In one of the most poignant scenes Rab acts upon the mistaken belief that Sage’s kindness is a result of the physical attraction which he thinks the older man has for him. Although he sees what he offers as an act of kindness it stems from his belief that no-one offers something for nothing, and that Sage is somehow ‘owed’. It’s another example of Rab’s misreading a situation because he applies his own values onto others, and when he realises that Sage is acting for altruistic reasons, it feels like a key moment in Rab’s life.
The Busker leaves you with the hope that it ain’t over til it’s over. As the novel comes to a close Rab learns a lot about himself, and, if you are like me, so will you. If we put ourselves in his position we should be honest about if and how we would act differently. Rab’s drive for singing and playing may be adolescent, but then that’s the case for many, if not most, musicians when they start out, (his near namesake displayed some decidedly rum behaviour as a young man; the difference being he was successful). When read as a cautionary tale, The Busker is exemplary, but it is only one singer’s song. Throughout writing this review a lyric stuck in my head; the opening lines from The Icicle Works’ Hollow Horse; ‘Be careful what you dream of it may come up and surprise you, I can’t confess my life’s a mess, I’ve come to idolise you’, and that sums up the heart of The Busker better than I have in the previous paragraphs. Recalling such a great song is also a reminder as to why such risks are, in the end, worth taking after all.