Veteran Wire contributor David Keenan is set to publish his debut novel next year, his second book, following his celebrated account of the UK industrial underground England's Hidden Reverse. Entitled This Is Memorial Device, the novel promises “a love letter to the small towns of Lanarkshire in the west of Scotland in the late 1970s and early 80s as they were temporarily transformed by the endless possibilities that came out of the freefall from punk rock.”
The book is a fictionalised account of how post-punk rippled out outside beyond the cities into the region, abbetted by what's described as “hallucinatory first-person eye-witness accounts”. "There were plenty of weirdos and eccentrics and one-offs in Airdrie, it was and still is a uniquely eccentric place, if you can penetrate the seemingly grim front," Keenan reminisces in an email. “Plotting and performances and recordings went on in bedrooms in council houses, in the back end of parks and in disused car parks or at whoever had an ‘empty’. Gigs could happen locally in pubs and clubs, but everyone aspired to ‘make it’ to Glasgow, where there were good venues and good club nights. The last bus home from George Square to Airdrie at the weekend was always a riot and filled with musicians and fans and writers and schemers.”
For Keenan, the post-punk era realised what punk had promised and failed to deliver. “Post-punk was much more diffuse and took the energy liberated by punk and pushed it in countless new directions, encouraging much more experimental and personal work and not just in music, really across the board," he says. “Whether it was painting, art actions, sculpting, travelling the world, dropping out, dreaming, indulging in sensory excess, putting up posters, starting club nights, becoming teenage occultists, writing books, publishing zines or just, you know, getting out of Airdrie.
“Post-punk was really like a kind of mass existentialist movement,” he argues, “and its real story took place in secret in small towns across the world and as such This Is Memorial Device is like a microcosm of a time when anything seemed possible, even though sometimes it really seemed impossible, particularly growing up in Lanarkshire.”
Keenan's account might be hallucinatory, but drugs are not a major part of the equation, and the era of the book predates the rise of heroin in inner city Scotland. “Booze was primarily the drug of choice. This is Lanarkshire, and there was some marijuana, but really, though it almost sounds incredible now, the drug was the culture, the records, the gigs, the train into Glasgow, seeing faces walking down the street in Airdrie looking amazing.” The Airdrie scene was, he declares, rock and roll in microcosm. “One of the characters in the book, Paprika Jones, says “We had our own Syd Barrett and Brian Jones and Nico and Pete Perrett and Bruce Russell.” There were all these people, living it, probably living it harder than their role models. After all, it isn’t easy being Iggy Pop in a small town in the west of Scotland.”
Keenan himself was in the thick of it in the early 1980s. “I was a crazed fan and was publishing a fanzine and then just starting to get my first pieces published in music papers and magazines… The hallucinatory aspect is really the fantasy of it, the fictionalising of it, I drew on what was there, just hallucinated it even further.”
The Memorial Device of the title – who may or may not be on the cover of the book – were “a mythic post-punk group that could have gone all the way”. But Keenan admits the book itself is its own Memorial Device of his formative years. “The book deals with the aftermath as well, and tracks what happened to the people involved, some of it is sad, some of it is a little tragic. What do you do with all of that energy and where does it go?"
Keenan began contribuing to The Wire in 1996, and has contributed countless major features and reviews, including cover stories on Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Mercury Rev, as well as a major underground music scoop in the first ever interview with Jandek. “I think music writing is a great training for writing fiction or for creative writing in general because you are essentially dealing with something nebulous, something abstract, something that is difficult to capture with language so it forces you to be creative, to push language until it almost topples over into a sort of sensory experience, that’s when it’s at its best and it matches the music and doesn’t betray it, when it takes on a property of synaesthesia, almost,” he reflects. “That’s the best music writing and of course writing about music hones your feel for rhythm and you can extended that into feeling the individual rhythms of the character’s voices that you are inhabiting. I mean, I like the best rock writing as much as I like the best rock music. I dig Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung as much as any of my favourite records. And Lester is in This Is Memorial Device too.”
David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device will be published by Faber in February 2017.