Robert Duncan’s semi-autobiographical book from Three Rooms Press went on sale Oct. 6.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The phrase is a throwback, but that doesn’t stop Robert Duncan from embracing his past and mixing in some fiction to revisit the late 1960s through the early ’80s with his debut novel “Loudmouth,” published by New York City-based Three Rooms Press.
The semi-autobiographical book went on sale on Oct. 6, following protagonist Thomas Ransom who is a stand-in for Duncan. The novel is part coming-of-age, as Ransom goes from being a prep school disappointment and upper-middle-class family outcast to wannabe rock star, and from rock critic to managing editor of Creem magazine at 22 years old — much like the author.
From Memphis to New York City, a move to Detroit, and later a return to the Big Apple, Ransom is on hand to witness some of the best rock and punk music on offer in the 1970s. There are musicians, such as Bruce Springsteen, and on tap are punks and hippies, and even a pint’s worth of the late Lester Bangs as a pivotal member of the supporting cast. Sprinkled in are the drugs and a dollop of other fascinating characters, as the rebel Ransom carves himself a career. He even pens a book on Kiss.
What does Ransom get for all his effort? He starts to grow up. He survives his immaturity, indulgences and carefree lifestyle, unlike his mentor, Bangs, who wrote for and edited Creem magazine, and Ransom gets to California where he can start over. It’s an opportunity he earns, through his durability and the wisdom he’s acquired during his brief existence.
Of Ransom’s experiences writing for Creem, the former rock publication that was distributed nationwide from 1969-89, when he lived in Detroit, Duncan writes: “I never said I was cool. Nobody at Creem was cool. Nobody — back-door or any way — was a rock star. Not even Lester, in his unselfconsciously galumphing, self-consciously anti-cool way. Not then. It was the thing that was cool. Within the punch-drunk culture of that overinflated factory town, working for a national rock ‘n’ roll magazine — for sale as far away as the subways of New York — when rock ‘n’ roll was the center of culture, carried a full measure of glam.”
The opening of Part 1 reads: “Got a mouth on me. Been at the root of most of my troubles, most of the time.” Ransom is often in trouble, yet keenly aware of his surroundings, as the narrative is presented with the distance of Ransom looking back on his life, making him not shy in his honesty. Indeed, it makes perfect sense for a rock critic to be critical of himself in retrospect.
“Loudmouth” plays out less like a novel and more like a memoir — not just in its premise and supporting cast being inspired by real characters and events, but because of its structure. As fascinating as Ransom and the world he inhabits are, the book doesn’t really have an inciting incident, nor does it offer any page-turning complications. There’s a clear linear structure which lacks tension, making the text read like a concise hyper drug-induced trip through time for nostalgia’s sake, like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” meets Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” with a thick coating of grime.
Duncan, who lives near San Francisco and is married to rock photographer Roni Hoffman, has no doubt seen and experienced some heavy things, and blending his story into a novel provided him the creative license needed to get some distance to unspool the early chapters of his life. “Loudmouth” is packed with broken hearts and even some drug casualties. In less than 250 pages, Duncan reminds his readers that it’s not a bad thing to love, stumble, and grow through loss, and that it’s a gift to live with a full heart and an empty stomach. That’s quite a present for just $15.