The Life Of Byron Jaynes, by James Howard Kunstler
No month stated, 1983 W.W. Norton
Here we have another obscure rock novel, one with some similarities to The Armageddon Rag. Not in the horror or supernatural element, but in how it’s about a previously-thought-dead ‘60s rocker who returns in the ‘80s. And like The Armageddon Rag, The Life Of Byron Jaynes almost seems to have been published too early; if it had come out later in the ‘80s, maybe around the Woodstock 20th anniversary, it might’ve resonated more. As it is, it doesn’t seem like the novel made much of an impact, with the paperback edition in particular seeming to be scarce.
Kunstler was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone, and clearly takes his experience there for this novel, which is about Byron Jaynes, a Jim Morrison-meets-Bob Dylan rocker who died at the height of his fame in 1971…and ten years later, Rick Sears, the narrator of the novel, happens to spot him buying cat food at a grocery store in rural New Hampshire. Yes, somehow Kunstler predicted all those “Elvis lives” stories that would proliferate later in the ‘80s, with people claiming to have spotted the King pumping gas in some backwoods town or eating at Arby’s or whatever. Like Kunstler, Rick Sears is a former RollIing Stone editor, and after several years on the mag he has decided to “retire” here to New Hampshire to work on a book about ‘60s rock, to make some real money. The novel opens directly upon Sears’s spotting of Jaynes in the town grocery store; admirably, Kunstler doesn’t waste our time with a lot of backstory or setup.
In some ways The Life Of Byron Jaynes is like one of those vintage Rolling Stone interviews taken to absurd proportions – and clearly this was Kunstler’s intent, as he prefaces each chapter with a quote from Jaynes’s own Rolling Stone interview in 1968. The magazine was known for comprehensive, seemingly-endless interviews with the rockers of the day, the most famous instance likely being the two-part John Lennon interview which was eventually published in book form (to Lennon’s anger) as Lennon Remembers. Kunstler takes that same setup here, with the majority of the book given over to Byron Jaynes’s first-person narrative about his origins and his time in the limelight…and why he decided to fake his death ten years ago.
The only problem is, this format could prove a little confusing for the lazier reader…because Sears’s narrative is also in first person. Thus we have first-person sections with Sears talking to us, then we’ll jump to Jaynes’s first-person narratives when Sears switches on the tape recorder. Of course, this is the same format the Rolling Stone interviews followed, with the caveat that the typeface would be changed around for the interviewer and interviewee, or there’d be questions from the interviewer throughout. Here for the majority though it’s just Jaynes’s first-person recollections, with only the occasional italicized question from Sears interrupting the storytelling. It’s not a big deal, but I only point it out because the dual first-person narratives sort of bugged me. I felt that maybe Sears’s parts should’ve been in third-person so as to create more of a separation between the narratives.
Even worse is that we have no idea what Byron’s music sounds like; we know he writes a ton of material, and that a late ‘60s album is “extremely trippy,” but so far as even the style of rock music he plays we have no idea. I mean just a little detail about the sound of his music would’ve been beneficial to the storyline. But then, narrator Sears doesn’t seem to have much interest in rock music at all. It seems to just be “his job,” if you follow; we know he wrote for Rolling Stone and he’s working on a book about ‘60s rock, but other than that he shows no interest in music. He never discusses it, it has no major focus in his life – he doesn’t even mention John Lennon’s murder, which would’ve happened a year before the ’81 storyline takes place. Instead, Sears’s portion of the plot is more about the growing rift in his marriage, as he has to keep his knowledge of Byron Jaynes still being alive a secret. But otherwise rock is incidental to Sears’s storyline; even the guy in The Armageddon Rag showed more interest in rock music.
Well anyway, Sears spots Byron at the local grocer one day, and stalks him to see where he lives: in a cottage out in the countryside. His name is now “Joe Doakes,” and Sears manages to get in contact with him through the local lawyer; “Doakes” doesn’t even have a phone. Initially Doakes claims Sears is crazy, but soon enough he’s admitting to him he’s really once-famous Byron Jaynes. We’re to understand Byron opens up to Sears because Sears interviewed him for the magazine at the height of his fame in 1968. At this point the book turns into long “The Life Of Byron Jaynes” transcripts, which as mentioned are just long first-person narratives, complete with dialog from other characters and etc – in other words there’s no attempt at making it seem like a magazine-type interview, and just comes off like a regular first-person novel. But as stated the only problem is this causes confusion with the other first-person narrative, Sears’s, that also runs through the novel.
Even the storyline that ensues doesn’t convey what made Byron so special in the ‘60s; his background is like so many other random rockers of the day, and his somewhat-pretentious storytelling makes him sound more like a scholar than a crazed, Jim Morrison-style rocker. But I guess this is where the Bob Dylan motif comes in, as Dylan was clearly another inspiration for the character; Byron even suffers a mysterious motorcycle crash in the late ‘60s that takes him out of the music scene for a time. Otherwise the story is pretty basic: Byron, born Peter Greenwald, discovers in college that he has a proficiency for music, playing guitar and writing songs, and joins a rock group called The Romantics alongside an accomplished lead guitarist named Rego. This is in the early ‘60s, in New York, and they apparently play a folk-rock sort of style. They start getting more club dates, and Peter is drunk when a reporter approaches him – the first time they’ve ever gotten any coverage. He comes up with a b.s. story about the band being from Chicago and says his name is Byron Jaynes, the first name from the poet and the last name inspired by a poster of Jayne Mansfield.
The published interview has twofold ramifications: the group is now popular, and also “Byron” is positioned as the leader of the band…which is now referred to as Byron Jaynes and the Romantics. This of course causes tension in the group, which becomes even more pronounced when a bigtime producer wants to get rid of the other guys and make Byron a star – more shades of Jim Morrison. Byron resists, and instead the band is augmented with a new member; Byron is to focus solely on the songs and the songwriting, and a spaced-out kid named Spago (not to be confused with Rego) will handle lead guitar. Byron proceeds to tell us all about their first big tour, which commences shortly after the recording of their fist (undescribed) album. It’s 1966, and their antics on the road seem to be more the sort of thing you’d read about a decade later, with groupies and plaster casters and whatnot. But still it’s not nearly as crazed as you’d imagine, and Byron’s decades-later recounting of the events takes away much of the impact.
There’s zero sleaze in the novel, by the way; Byron is not one to give any exploitative details at all. In fact of his few “conquests” in the novel, only one is given any narrative importance: Catherine, a beautiful young jet-setter who comes from wealth and is nuts in a lovable way. She’s into sex and drugs and rock, but also likes to lug fishing gear around the world with her and shoots guns in the countryside, like a psychedelic ‘60s version of a character Katherine Hepburn would’ve played in a ‘40s screwball comedy. Hell, maybe that’s why Kunstler named the character Catherine. She and Byron even have a screwball-esque “meet cute;” Byron, the latest hot new thing in ’66, has a sort of intro party courtesy his manager, and he goes off into the woods to drink alone and runs into Catherine. He tells her he’s a valet and etc, and when she finds out who he really is she decks him. He’s so smitten he shows up at her apartment in Manhattan the next morning, unfazed that the troggish bassist of another group happens to be in bed with her. He courts her in grand fashion, and pretty soon they’re having inexplicit sex…and then Catherine catches a flight for Paris, having decided to stay in Europe for the summer, and is out of the narrative for a while.
Byron meanwhile goes on tour with the group, and shockingly this will be the only such material in the novel. We know the album does great, but there’s no indication of the nature of the music nor even a basic description of any of the tunes. There’s a cool part where, in San Francisco, Byron is escorted by a man named Oscar (a stand-in for real-life LSD guru Owsley) to meet a smokin’-hot seer babe who happens to be blind; she wants Byron to make love to her but he’s too freaked out by her witchy vibes. Actually Byron has a curiously-reserved libido for a ‘60s rocker. Catherine returns to the novel later – we learn from the get-go that she becomes Byron’s wife, and also that she’s headed for a tragic, self-inflicted end. Speaking of tragic, the band breaks up after the tour and Byron is made into a solo act; the Dylan-isms now come to the fore, as his first LP, recorded in Nashville in ‘68, is a “back to the roots” thing that inspires a whole new trend in rock music, though Byron himself is blasé about it. Here we get a little spoofing of vintage Rolling Stone record reviews; Sears wrote the review for the album in the magazine (just a quote from it would’ve been nice – there was all sorts of room here for intertextual fun), and Byron mocks its pretentiousness.
The highlight of the novel is the too-brief section in Woodstock. Byron’s suffered the Dylan-esque motorcylce crash which took him out of the picture for a bit, and thus his surprise appearance at the festival will be a huge event. He’s invited by the hotstuff lead singer of Seabird, a character who seems to be building up into something but proves to be incidental to the plot; judging from vague dialog she eventually becomes an actress. Kunstler brings Woodstock to life in just a few pages: the logistical nightmare of all those stoned freaks jammed together in the countryside, with the threat that anything could go wrong at any second, and all the famous rock stars hitting the open bar at the nearby Holiday Inn and nervously waiting for their chopper ride in. This is the only part of the novel where Byron hobknobs with the rock elite of the day; previously he’s seemed to exist in a vacuum. But even here they’re all on the periphery, with only Janis Joplin making an impression – and she starts razzing Byron for the whoreish acts of Catherine, who is Byron’s wife at this point, but also a heroin addict who enjoys rubbing other men in Byron’s face and making a fool of him.
Byron and Janis become friends in a nice scene that has them getting loaded together in Janis’s trailer on the fair grounds, but Byron gets so slammed drunk he’s unable to perform…and that’s it. In fact, that’s pretty much it for all the rock stuff. I mean the helluva it is, The Life Of Byron Jaynes quits just when it’s getting good. For after the Woodstock debacle, Byron’s sent on another tour, the only other one we read about in the novel – and it’s so rushed we only learn about one show, in front of a crowd of belligerent rednecks in Gainesville, Florida. Yes, it’s a cop on Morrison’s real-life “flashing” incident, and while there’s question if Morrison really showed his dick, there’s no question if Byron does – he whips it out when one of the rednecks yells “suck it!” or somesuch at him. Unlike Morrison, though, Byron does jail time – four friggin’ years. So once again he’s yanked out of the rock world just as it’s getting interesting. Luckily it doesn’t become a “life in jail” novel at this point.
The novel races for its conclusion as Byron reveals the last days of his rock star life; Catherine, who bore Byron a son right before he went to jail, has gone full-blown junkie, and Byron, once he’s out of jail, takes the boy away from her – leading to disastrous consequences. Kunstler pulls an interesting conceit here when a crying Byron later calls Sears and tells him what really happened to Catherine, but it’s left up to the reader to decide which is the true story. But man, that’s it; Byron Jaynes, his taped autobiography complete, returns to a world that’s shocked to discover he’s still alive, and it’s all rendered in such a super-quick epilogue that I had to laugh. I mean I really felt sort of ripped off…the entirety of the “rock stuff” in the novel is Byron’s early days with the group, one briefly-relayed tour, a would-be appearance at Woodstock, and a stormy concert in Florida. That’s it!
Given this, the thing is we still don’t learn what made Byron Jaynes so special in the ‘60s…because all the stuff that made him special happens off-page. We learn he released albums that went over well, but Byron in 1981 is so dismissive of them that they aren’t even described. We learn there’s a cult of mystique about him, but Byron in 1981 is so glib and forthcoming he sounds more like a talk show guest than a drugged-out rock star who was idolized by throngs of fans.
I can only assume other readers felt the same, hence The Life Of Byron Jaynes being a relatively unknown book today. I’m not saying it’s bad or anything – Kunstler’s writing is fine, and his prose carries the story along – but it just feels like a huge chunk of plot is missing from it, and also the dual first-person narration sort of confuses things.