In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The latest of these books is Jon Cleary’s Remember Jack Hoxie.
This 1969 novel was one of the books that attracted me once I started exploring the extensive shelves of Didsbury Library, and it proved something of a favourite in the Seventies, as I believe that I borrowed and read it at least three times. What’s suddenly caused it to pop back up in my memories, I have absolutely no idea, but it was an easy, and cheap, book to refind (in hardback).
Ostensibly, Remember Jack Hoxie is about the pop business, in 1968, but really it’s not. The game is given away by the dustjacket blurb: “the tension between… people who accept morals and manners as a necessary part of life and people who don’t” tells us very clearly what this book is about.
Cleary was 48/49 himself when he wrote this book: his central character is slightly younger but is still 41, and has no understanding, affinity, enjoyment or respect of and for the music.
What he does have is a son who’s been taken up as a pop singer, on a management contract with an Australian entrepreneur, calling himself Brian Boru O’Brien. Patrick Norval is aged 41, a widower who lost his wife to cancer eight years before, a committed Roman Catholic, an insurance assessor with a very stable (and boring) job with Rock of Ages, and a son called Bob who, after a year singing in a pop group, has been picked out as a solo artist with potential to become a hit star.
Bob Norval. Roll that name around your tongue and try to imagine that as the name of a teenage heartthrob pop star in the late Sixties. Not really, is it? Yet despite having hanged his own name, O’Brian doesn’t even contemplate for a moment giving Bob a stage name.
But this book is not about Bob, but Pat. And the Generation Gap, which was a big thing in the Sixties.
The story starts in Pat’s ultra-normal semi-detached in Bromley where, for some reason, a press conference featuring every possible news organisation you can imagine has been called. Immediately, the question is why? Bob is a brand new name, with no track record. He will be quickly successful: a single that peaks at no 23, followed by a smash hit, ‘Brighton Rock’, that goes to no 1.
But though the scene lacks in logic, it’s there to serve Pat’s introduction, to demonstrate just how completely he is out of the ‘scene’ (most pop jargon is a good three to four years behind the time the book is set). Pat is the sceptic, who cannot bring himself to think that this is in any way important, or musical. Nor can he ever get behind his own son’s career with any kind of enthusiasm: after all, he cannot even bring himself to believe that Bob has any genuine talent, even for the artificial world he is hoping to succeed in.
However, the point of the book is that Pat will be part of this experience, that he will be part of Bob’s image: the father who understands, who crosses the Generation Gap, who isn’t irretrievably square, even though he is.
And this comes about because of this initial, unfounded press conference. Pat wanders around, obviously lost and bewildered. At an early stage, a BBC cameraman swears at him (with an unrecorded four letter word). In search of sanity, he discovers a pretty blonde American woman, Suzanne, closer to his own age, sitting in his bathroom. She’s the most level-headed person in the place, and she’s O’Brien’s secretary. When they go downstairs, the BBC guy prepares to swear at her whilst demanding she get out of his way, and Pat decks him.
O’Brien seizes upon this as an angle: the Father who understands defending his son when a layabout is about to swear at him. Pat gets added to the team for the publicity value.
And so Pat accompanies, at varying degrees of closeness, his excited son through the process of recording, touring Britain and touring America. He becomes a surrogate father figure to nearly everyone on the tour, in particular to Henry, the only black kid, who is set upon by racists in Boston. He also becomes a father figure to O’Brien, and is treated to many cynical asides that contribute to the artificiality of everything.
The only people to whom Pat doesn’t become a father figure are Cham Hubbell, O’Brien’s arranger and the only real musical figure in the piece, and Suzanne. Suzanne because the two are very quickly sleeping together, and Cham (what on Earth does or could that name be short for?) because he’s the bad guy, an all round, self-centred, poisonous prick.
Bob himself takes most of what follows in his stride. He’s initially thrown by his first hostile audience (in Liverpool) and he struggles under Hubbell’s contempt until he decides that it’s just not worth responding to him. The book does show him gradually growing more mature, and it does suggest, in the faintest possible terms, that Bob might be one of those disposable pop stars who might last.
Actually, what type of music does Bob sing in 1968? The Beatles, the Stones and the Who were still going strong, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were still the housewive’s favourites, psychedelia had begun to fade away, hugely orchestrated pop was in, the pretty boys were Peter Frampton, Steve Ellis and Andy Fairweather-Low, but the underground and going heavy was beginning to develop.
Bob Norval, on the other hand, is marketed as a Christian Sensualist, whatever one of those is. He’s not yet 21 (Pat has to sign his contract for him as Bob is still a minor, and the age of majority wasn’t lowered to 18 until 1969), and he’s already being marketed, especially in America, with a view to his appealing to the oldies.
In short, Cleary hasn’t the faintest idea what sort of music Bob is singing or wants to sing, except that Bob struggles with anything more than simple arrangements, which is exactly the kind of thing Hubbell shies away from giving him.
The American leg of the tour is more interesting to read. The tour clashes with the unrest of 1968: indeed, Bob is saved from bad publicity from his only seriously mishandled night of the tour by the only real-life dating incident, the shooting of Senator Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan.
Pat’s relationship with Suzanne is mirrored by Bob’s relationship with Tina, one of the three backing singers, the inappropriately named Vestal Virgins. He gets to meet Suzanne’s old-fashioned family, with whom he feels at home, but their relationship is rocked by her repeated refusal of his proposal: Suzanne is not prepared to compete with pat’s dead wife, Brenda, with whom he is still in love.
With the tour approaching its end, and the novel with it, Cleary has to introduced two moments of drama. The first is Tina getting pregnant and getting an illegal abortion, a process that nearly kills her. Pat is the hero of this, saving the day, and Tina, and not incidentally, her career by ensuring O’Brien keeps her on salary, despite his automatic impulse to throw her under the bus.
The other is the flight home. Midway, the loathsome Hubbell, drunk, drugged, plainly out of it, reveals that in order to get back at Bob, he has planted two pounds of marijuana in the singer’s luggage. Both at O’Brien’s suggestion, and out of his own decision to save Bob from ruin, Pat – whose luggage is identical to his son’s, thankfully – takes Bob’s cases through customs and is duly arrested.
It ends his usefulness to Bob’s career, and provides the BBC reptile with a chance for a retributive sneer, but it gets him out of his alien situation, and more importantly causes Suzanne to fly back to America to be by his side.
Once Pat’s trial is over (£500 fine and six months suspended after a series of testimonials from all the kids on the tour), he promptly marries Suzanna and, just as promptly, impregnates her: they emigrate to Spain to live in peaceful retirement. Hubbell, who was quitting anyway, gets sacked and can’t score a top 30 hit whilst Bob goes top 3 with a song called “Hubble-Bubble” (thank heaven we can’t hear any of this music).
Why, you may be asking at this point, is the novel called Remember Jack Hoxie when there is nobody in it named Jack Hoxie? Hoxie was a (real-life) silent film star who apparently had a very level-headed and realistic attitude to his talent and his fame. He’s remembered for this by Pat’s next door neighbour, 78 year old former merchant seaman Charlie Coote, and he becomes Pat’s touchstone for keeping his head in the outlandish (for him) situations he finds himself in thereafter.
The book’s inauthenticity didn’t register with me in the Seventies, even though I’d been reading the music press since the summer of 1971 and would have the New Musical Express weekly from Easter 1972 for the next nearly fifteen years. The book is written by someone who, despite his reputation for research, has no sympathy for the music, in fact has little but contempt for it. It’s implausible and primarily negative, especially about the choices being made by the younger generation: Cleary was as much an old-fashioned Catholic as his characters and, despite the fact Pat is sleeping with Suzanne, and has had other sexual relationships since his beloved Brenda died, has problems with promiscuity.
Yet I didn’t read it three times then without enjoying it, and despite everything I’ve said about the book, I enjoyed reading it again. It held me, and not because I was mentally logging its flaws for this essay, but because Cleary was simply a very effective storyteller, and he wrote very good narratives and dialogue.
So, to that extent, the book is a success, and as a period piece it’s worth a read by the curious. But having refreshed my memories of it, I shalln’t retain Remember Jack Hoxie. It’s qualities are purely professional, and where it had the chance to make an impression, it fails because Jon Cleary has no respect for the subject he’s chosen.
At least the failure is not so apparent nor disastrous as the Batman TV show. This can be read without wincing. but it doesn’t pass any other tests.