BLOG TAKEOVER WITH LILLAH LAWSON—She Loves the Dead: Nostalgia, Wish Fulfillment, and Dead Rockstars
In my novel Dead Rockstar, the heroine Stormy Spooner is the ultimate music fangirl. In every scene, she’s either listening to music, talking about music, or thinking about music. Sometimes all three. Stormy has her favorite songs queued up in her car disc changer (nobody said she was totally “with it”). Her record player at home showcases all her favorite vinyl, lovingly stacked in order of favorite, and a black, dusty bass sits in the corner of her trailer. To say Stormy loves music—lives for it, even—is an understatement. For Stormy Spooner, music is life.
It's a rite of passage for anyone who has ever been a teenager to fall headfirst into music fandom at one point or another. We idolize our stars, and we glorify them to the highest of heights. That "rock n roll thing"—the sex appeal, the magnetism, the enigma that is a truly untouchable rock star. Prince, Bowie, Elvis, Axl, Kurt, Janis, Michael—those stars who seemed to climb out of the ether fully formed, ready to own the universe. We are powerless in their grasp. Their eyes seem to ensnare ours from the glossy pages of a magazine (or these days, an Instagram post) - captivating us, holding us in thrall. For young people, it's a way of safely exploring who we are, from our sexuality to our artistic interests and talents, to our political views, our sense of style, and everything in between.
Rockstar fandom is a tale as old as music itself. From the gin-soaked, dance-filled jazz-nights of Harlem to the sobs when Buddy Holly's plane crashed—the screaming throngs of hysteric girls when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan to the glitter-clad, androgynous fans who wept when an alienesque David Bowie announced to the crowd that his song My Death would be the last song Ziggy Stardust ever played. From the mounds of flowers outside the Dakota Hotel to mourn John Lennon, to the larger-than-life tribute concert-to-end-all-concerts for Freddie Mercury—and the fans who set up teary, shell-shocked vigils outside Kurt Cobain's Washington home, to fans who quietly and sadly mourned Amy Winehouse who was gone far too soon and far too tragically. From the way we took to Twitter and Facebook to share memes, gifs, and snippets of songs after losing Prince, George Michael, and David Bowie in the same year, to the stunned depression at the loss of Chris Cornell. At the time of writing, just two days ago, we lost the legendary and enigmatic Eddie Van Halen, whose scorching, searing guitar was a voice all its own. And oh, what a voice for those who were teenagers in the 1980s.
Every generation has its own set of rockstars and idols to emulate, to lust after, to pay tribute to on their walls. We've all ruined the paint in our teenage bedrooms for one idol or another, and when they go, a part of our youth goes, too. So is it any wonder we cling to their memory so hard?
I was a teenager in the 1990s, just entering middle school at the beginning of the grunge-era, as my 7th-grade school photo will attest. Like most kids my age, I was head over heels in love with all the grunge guys, the lead singers who married apathy with fantastic unbrushed hair, sincere eyes, and despairing lyrics. Cornell, Lanegan, Staley, Vedder, Cantrell, Cobain...oh glorious, glorious Cobain; he of the wide blue eyes and scratchy, beautifully desperate screech that penetrated a generation and seeped our pain like pennyroyal tea. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard he’d died - riding in the car with my stepmom, the announcer on the now-defunct 99x broke into the music to announce that Kurt had died by suicide in a choked-up voice. Then they played All Apologies, a song I find hard to listen to even to this day.
A less-sad memory: The first time I heard Black by Pearl Jam, I was sitting in the front yard, in the car, with the windows down and my feet up on the dash outside my Grandma’s ancestral home for a Sunday visit. It was a ramshackle, pre-Civil War homestead that had been built by her relatives. She called to me from the porch, saying that if I killed her battery, I’d have to walk half a day to get back home. But instead of turning off the radio, I turned it up because I was hearing the opening strains of guitar for the first time; the now-infamous two notes on the bass, and Eddie Vedder’s warbling, naked soul, entrancing me forever.
By the time I was in high school, grunge had turned into post-grunge, and we were already heading towards some other musical era that I still can’t quite define (yes to KoRn, no to Limp Bizkit, thanks), and I veered to deep-dive into Classic Rock. There began my obsession with one Jim Morrison, the Lizard King himself, Mr. Mojo Risin’, and my first REAL dead rockstar obsession. Like Stormy Spooner in Dead Rockstar with Phillip Deville, I threw myself into my fandom. Jim Morrison was my dead boyfriend. I bought every t-shirt, owned every album, copied his lyrics with painstaking care into my diary, bought his books of poetry, The Doors movie on VHS, read every biography I could get my hands on, and stayed up late at night with my friend Elsa. With all the lights turned off, candles lit indulgently, we listened to songs like The End, trying to decipher the hidden meanings in Jim’s cryptic, slightly-terrifying words. I’ve had many since, but Jim Morrison was my first real rockstar love, and he still thrills me a little.
Stormy Spooner feels just that way about Phillip Deville, the mysterious, sexy, and slightly-dangerous frontman for The Bloomer Demons, her favorite goth/doom metal band from the 1990s. She’s been obsessed with him since adolescence, and after the untimely death of Phillip Deville of a drug overdose (or was it?) and Stormy’s own life spectacularly falling apart, she finds herself clinging to that old love again harder than ever.
What is it about music that can take us back to a certain time in our lives, a time when music was everything? A time when it got us by, made us feel things, providing us with that perfect backdrop to the formative moments of our youth?
There’s nothing wrong with revisiting those moments, throwing on a record, or queuing up your Spotify playlist with your favorite songs from the times that you were happy, revisiting an old favorite dead rockstar to remind yourself of unadulterated joy. But Stormy, in true Spooner fashion, takes things just a little bit too far. This gal, who protests hotly to her best friend that she doesn’t even believe in magic, finds herself drunkenly reciting a spell one night in the solitude of her empty, lonely trailer. A bundle of sage, a cinnamon-scented wax burner, and a few badly-written lines of prose later suddenly Phillip Deville, the embodiment of Stormy’s every rock n’ roll sex fantasy since she was fourteen, is standing, bold as brass, on her doorstep.
That’s the fantasy, isn’t it?
That was my goal—to write a dark, campy thriller that’s basically fan fiction for anyone who ever lusted after a dead rockstar. Haven’t you wondered from time to time what it would be like if you could bring your favorite rockstar back, just for a day? What they’d be like in today’s world, how they would adapt, what they’d look like, how they might have changed? Would they use Twitter? Would they eventually cut their hair? Which is better? To burn out or fade away? Dead Rockstar was the ultimate indulgence into that fantasy for me, and I had so much fun writing it. I wanted to explore a world in which someone’s secret dream literally comes true and how they handle the consequences of getting exactly what they asked for—in all of his six-foot-five, black-haired, wild green-eyed, dark-hearted glory.
Dead Rockstar isn’t even out yet, and I’ve already had readers speculate about who I based Phillip Deville on; I’ve heard everything from Robert Smith to Robert Plant. The truth is that Phillip Deville, while largely a figment of my imagination and was born fully-formed out of my own noggin—is loosely inspired by a handful of rockstars, and one in particular. Phillip Deville is a little bit Axl Rose, a little bit T. Rex, a little bit Jim Morrison...and a lot Peter Steele.
Peter Steele, the larger-than-life (literally; he stood at six-foot-eight) frontman for goth/doom metal band Type O Negative, was the hunk of beefcake for us alternative girls in the mid-90s. As a teen, I found him a little bit scary, with his long, jet-black hair, piercing, terrifying eyes, and tall, menacing stature. His voice was like a razor’s edge on velvet, his teeth pointed and sharp—he really had them shaved into fangs. The man was nothing if not devoted to his craft. Peter Steele was a goth-fantasy, a man’s man who possessed an ethereal, often-frightening beauty that seemed to be both feminine and ultra-masculine all at once. He was both doom and gloom, dark beauty and terror in one gorgeous package. While Peter Steele happily wore the goth frontman persona and wore it well, behind the scenes, he was known as a loving, generous guy with an unparalleled sense of humor, who liked being outside in the woods more than anything else because he was shy.
Peter Steele died way too young of a heart condition, and his unique, darkly-electrifying sound went with him. So naturally, I, still the fangirl (and always will be!), decided to base a character loosely on his larger-than-life statue and personality. From the dark dregs of a nightmare bass line, Phillip Deville was born.
Funny enough, the release of my book, Dead Rockstar, coincides with the tenth anniversary of Peter Steele’s death, a fact I mention in my acknowledgments because that’s just the kind of serendipity that Stormy and Peter would appreciate.
Like Stormy Spooner, for me, music is life. I can’t get by without it. I have playlists for every book I write, every possible situation in life that might require a soundtrack, and I can’t do without it. I joke to my friends that if I’m not listening to music, I’m either dead or dying. My life is a soundtrack; my world is a score. Music and literature are a natural marriage. After all, what are rock stars if not perfectly written characters for regular old flesh-and-blood mortals to inhabit? Because it’s fiction, you know. As Phillip Deville himself says, “it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
You don’t have to be a fan of Type O Negative or rock music, in general, to have fun reading Dead Rockstar. But if you’re a music fan—especially the type of music fan who has been known to stan a star to the point of madness once or twice - you’ll get it. And I hope you love it.
For all of you music lovers out there, dive into the Dead Rockstar playlist on Spotify!
And for an early glimpse into the lives of Stormy Spooner and her dead rockstar, Phillip Deville, in this reading from the author!
Lillah Lawson has been writing since she was 8 years old when she won a short story contest at her elementary school. The story was about a Princess who gets tired of waiting for the Prince to show up and saves herself. Once she saw her words printed in the local newspaper, she knew she wanted to be a writer.
Having written professionally as well as dabbling in poetry, children's books, and blogging, Lillah finally completed her first novel, Aroha, as part of a NaNoWriMo challenge in 2012.
She lives in Georgia, in the United States, with her partner and son and three rambunctious animals. She is currently working on another novel.