Dance Prone by David Coventry (Victoria University Press, 2020), 394pp, $35
Time, time, time, see what’s become of me.
It was twenty years ago today.
History never repeats …
David Coventry’s Dance Prone goes back to the mid-1980s, to a pre-rave, pre-irony, pre-grunge universe, out in the flatlands, where the post-war American Dream is progressively sinking under its own weight. To think, 1985 was only 18 years after the release of Sgt Pepper’s. It’s nearly twice that length of time between 1985 and now. Yet that border decade between THEN and NOW spreads its shadow for generations. The Summer of Love is a historical curiosity in black and white footage, whereas the 1980s still seem within reach, in a strange kind of way—at least for Gen Xers like author David Coventry or this reviewer.
Down the middle is the fault line of punk rock, separating out these two distinct epochs. And at the other end—NOW—the sneaking suspicion that nothing much new of musical interest has happened in the 21st century, unless you could categorise the bleed and leak across the cellular membranes of genres as a thing it itself.
The two main take-outs: this is a novel about (a) a brief and intense immersion into a strictly time/place limited world of the music underground, and (b) the long play-out in the lives of those who found themselves enmeshed in this singularity: post-punk quartet Neues Bauen, comprising narrator and frontman Conrad ‘Con’ Wells, guitarist Tone Seburg, drummer Spence Finchman and lead guitarist Angel, aka Angus Heigl LLM.
It’s worth considering what impact fixing his compass on this time, this place, has on Coventry’s second novel. After the big bang/year zero of punk, music culture quickly blasted outwards, evolving, infecting, crossbreeding and colonising, locked into the genetic code of every popular form and subculture you could imagine—the burbling synthesisers of New Order to the faceless euphoria of rave culture, goths, mod revivalists with Jam patches on their cut-price parkas, Madchester, gangly indie pop kids, shoe gaze, ska, dub, electronica, ambient, free noise, industrial—even modern metal can look back along these lines of sight. And of course, the angular, harsh and prickly post-punk and hardcore sounds that crystallised in the dark mirror world of the American heartland.
If I had to line this book up in an identity parade of its musical antecedents, it would have been produced by Big Black/Shellac guitarist and leading sound engineer Steve Albini. It’s uncomfortable, disagreeable, compulsive in style—this is music/writing as a test of commitment rather than an entertainment form (or perhaps the latter is an aspect of the former), lacking the lumbering machismo of Rollins, the Spartan purity of Fugazi, or the nightmare comedy schtick of the Dead Kennedys.
There are plenty of choices the author could have made about where and when to locate his context in the space/time continuum. Sitting among the now institutionalised cultural capital of ‘New Zealand music’ and the ‘Flying Nun story’ and the ‘Dunedin Sound’, he skipped town and created a dystopia elsewhere. We move back and forth in time to filthy squats on the US punk circuit (‘a membrane stretched around us, a skin made of breathing and beer’) to modern-day Morocco (‘the various compulsions and deals you feel yourself making as you stare and walk’) and, eventually, back to Windy Wellington, where a reunion gig ends in a catastrophe of mindless Kiwi street violence.
Of course, he made the right call. Through distancing the author can go places village-sized New Zealand would never let him—introducing such essential cultural differences as handguns, artists’ colonies and the blank scale of things, the infinite highway that keeps on going to the next town, the next city, the next gig.
So many of the things about this novel that are necessary and right also make it a frustrating and at times aggravating read. The stop–go rhythm, rapid chunks of text hammering at you, discordant edges, extended riffs that sometimes collapse on top of themselves. David Coventry has got about as close as you can get to capturing the essence of this music in written form.
The difficulty extends to the awfulness of the world where these hapless thrashers dwell. The moment of disaster that sits at the centre of Con’s existence is when, at the start of a DIY tour, his bandmate Tone unsuccessfully tries to blow his head off (or does he?) at approximately the same time as Con is being sexually assaulted in the back of the band’s van. But in shock and trauma, the show must go on, and on, and on, up the dark river, onwards always towards Kurtz’s mythical compound, or whatever lies up ahead—often horror and/or grime: ‘I watched Tone jump in the dust trying to catch a plastic bag floated by the wind-pass then drove the van north, this machine in which each of us had at some point fucked. At some point pissed in a cup, come in a sock and stuffed it in a clothes bag and left it waiting for someone to take it out and put it over their freezing feet.’ This is rock-and-roll excess on an extremely tight budget.
Orbiting around the radioactive core of Neues Bauen are the fellow musicians of Spurn-Cock, Rhinosaur and Typocaust (the author has an accurate ear in the band-name field), conceptual artists and misfits, and girlfriends (all of the above contained within a complex and shifting Venn diagram of relationships).
There is something relentlessly male about this music scene, which is of course once again a realistic picture. Unwashed, angry, buzzing in and out of cultural theory and post-adolescent self-destruction. All the bandmates and their constellation of associates are forever splitting up, but instead of getting hunted down individually by The Creature as in conventional horror movies, they are making bad (or inscrutable) decisions until you are left screaming at the page, ‘Don’t do it! Have a cup of tea instead!’
The frontline characters themselves are the reverse of cardboard cut-outs. They are all remarkably seven-dimensional—either chronically screwed up in obtuse and (not always) understandable ways, or trying their best to smash themselves to pieces, or worse still standing back and stroking their chins and talking like art catalogues. Even as the text jumps into the present, while age may have taken the edge off their bug-eyed existence, everyone is still trapped in the gears and teeth of their past, grinding over old memories and old questions for resolution or absolution.
Nothing in this novel is easy: it’s dense, ugly, anxious, ambitious. I left the gig conflicted, and with ringing ears.
Reviewer note: The title of this review is taken from a song by Dunedin cult band Snapper, and the introductory lines are lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles and Split Enz.
VICTOR BILLOT is a Dunedin writer. His poetry collection The Sets will be published by Otago University Press in February 2021.