In which I assess one of the most fascinating reads of 2019
*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Over the summer, a grad school friend and longtime fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid suggested I read the author’s newest novel. Reid, she waxed, had made a name for herself evoking specific time periods and environments and creating dynamic characters to clash with them.
She needn’t have bothered telling me anything about the brain behind the book. What sold me was that its heroes were a fictional ’70s rock band.
The novel’s action occurs over a series of interviews with the seven titular performers and their families, friends, handlers, and helpers. According to my own sources, it lends itself extremely well to audiobook format; it practically sounds like a podcast. So many personalities appear–and vie for dominance–that one gets distinct Fleetwood Mac vibes. (Apparently Reid conceived the project as an excuse to listen to Rumours on repeat, as if one needs an excuse to do that.) The band history is marked by groundbreaking events, of which accounts vary, and the relationships between the people build up and break down over the course of several turbulent years. Some characters are meant to be sympathetic, some less so.
To be fair, I think it is extremely ambitious to try to pull off the story of a seven-member band. And Reid, on the whole, succeeds: her cast engages us, guiding us through a richly realized period in a collective life. In retrospect, the character I consider most central is Camila, girlfriend-turned-wife and constant muse of lead singer Billy Dunne. She supports him in his career, holds him accountable for his actions, raises a family largely in his absence, and gives him probably more chances than he deserves. Billy suffers bouts of alcoholism, particularly at the beginning of the band’s success, and proceeds to chase sobriety with fluctuating consistency. Camila endures the infidelities which accompany this excess, then the intrigue and press surrounding Billy’s creative partnership with the indomitable Daisy Jones. These days the idea of admiring a woman for her tolerance of a man’s misbehavior is being recognized as problematic; but in the context of a time when women were expected to stick by their men, she comes across as a strong, well-rounded figure. She also makes her expectations clear from the start: it is her ultimatum which pushes Billy into rehab, and her insistence that he can be a better version of himself which causes him to eventually believe it. For all his drive, he would be nothing without Camila. She becomes (as she probably always should have been) his raison d’être.
My major issues lie with Daisy herself. (I have a history of disliking characters named Daisy, so I might have seen this coming.) Evidently she is the daughter of a British painter and a French model, and yet her Southern California upbringing overshadows her entire person, including her speech patterns. It seems to me that her European heritage would show up just a little in the way she talks and the language she uses, though I suppose it depends on how long her parents had spent stateside prior to having her.
But all that is quibbling, as Daisy goes on to reflect far more glaring incongruities in a world notorious for its permissive philosophy. Historically, this was an environment in which people succeeded who were oftentimes not conventionally attractive or even necessarily talented–there was certainly an abundance and diversity of gifts, but the industry was also so saturated that it was as much a matter of who you knew as what you could do (the reverberations of which we still feel in the contemporary industry). Daisy is portrayed as possessing extraordinary beauty, to the extent that she garners arguably undue attention (“the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things”); but she also possesses a remarkable singing voice, one which multiple characters state has no formal training and needs no formal training, in fact cannot conform to any training (the keyboardist, Karen, says that if Daisy can’t do a number in her natural voice “then you have to take her off the song”). Unsurprisingly, the privileges Daisy takes advantage of results in a longstanding dependence on drugs, specifically pills, and a destructive self-loathing. And her longing for a stable nuclear unit leads her to fall for a man in the middle of a public struggle with his own demons.
My thesis, if you will, is that Daisy has it all when she should not. She is physically and vocally blessed, and she lives to tell the tale. If her existence alone were going to be that compelling, then she should have flamed out, like so many of the shining stars of the era. She should have made it to twenty-seven, or thirty-three, or forty, like Janis Joplin or Karen Carpenter or John Lennon, and then died. Or she should have been slightly less remarkable, should have had to fight for recognition, and then lived long enough to reminisce and be part of the whole interview process decades down the line. She should not get both, and yet she does.
I side with the death theory. Daisy’s indulgences (and illnesses) really ought to kill her in the end. But then, Keith Richards’s should have done the same long ago, and yet here he is telling his own story. I can only guess that he was the sort of model Reid used, that this was the trajectory she was going for. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.
In the meantime there is the question of Daisy’s voice. At the beginning it sounds too good to be true, this young woman who can enrapture a crowd with her magnetic rendition of “Son of a Preacher Man.” This is admittedly tempered by the fact that her writing is not up to snuff (as her first boyfriend, a musician, tells her, “‘The biggest thing you have going for your songs is that you might sing them'”). And it is gratifying to watch her grow into a bona-fide songwriter over the course of her partnership with Billy. All that said, different characters give differing accounts of her vocal personality, and I doubt this is due to it being difficult to pin down. I think we are meant to understand categorically that her voice has a gravelly quality, a rockiness, a grit, setting her apart from other chanteuses. If that’s the case, whence comes her friend Simone’s comment that “‘hell, she could have been Joni Mitchell'”? I can’t name a less gravelly voice, at the time anyway. Besides, Simone is a singer herself; one would think she of all people would have a better sense of whose voice Daisy’s recalls. My favorite perspective from which to look at Daisy is Karen’s, because she doesn’t idolize Daisy, or deify her, or objectify her. She respects Daisy as a fellow artist, but sees her for what she is and doesn’t let her off the hook. Karen : Daisy as Camila : Billy.
Speaking of Joni, my other objection is that these artists obviously exist in the “real” music world and yet never interact with any “real” artists. “Son of a Preacher Man” is a perfect setup: I would have loved to see a later scene in which Daisy’s recording enters Dusty Springfield’s orbit (maybe they even meet?), but this never materializes. Whom do the Six encounter as they adjust to life in L.A.? The city was a folk-rock mecca. Reid could have had her pick of the sheer volume of singer-songwriters populating Laurel Canyon. Perhaps some loose collaboration/mentorship/jam-session-meetup could occur? All missed opportunities, in my opinion.
I do consider Daisy Jones & the Six an exceedingly worthy read: I couldn’t put it down for two days until I was done. If my expectations come across as unreasonable or perfectionistic, it is only because I spend so much time immersed in this milieu myself and have a thorough concept of how I would go about such a project. And don’t worry that I’ve given it all away; there are other reasons Camila is the heroine of this story, which you won’t find out until you pick up a copy. If nothing else, read it for the songs. The band’s seminal album is chock-full of lyrics which ring chillingly true. I don’t know if Reid visualized melodies or arrangements to accompany them, but I’m already on it.
Image: Cover from the Ballantine Books edition (2019)