Monday, March 8, 2021

Guest Post: Deborah Grabien Says Rock and Roll Never Forgets

How I Accidentally Brushed George Harrison’s Hair

By Deborah Grabien


Since this is going to be all about interweaving real world Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame musicians with fictional musicians in a fictional band at the same level of stardom, let me throw this out there: Back in the day, just as 1970 was officially becoming 1971, I accidentally spent fifteen or so minutes playing with George Harrison's hair.

Yes, that that actually happened. And yes, there's a story in there, but it's not the story I want to tell, here. Nor is this simple name-dropping. What it does do is to hint at why, when writing fiction about a very public profession—in this case, a world-famous guitar player—the occasional presence of the actual real-world stars of that profession is inevitable.

In my day, I wrote—among many other things—two mystery series with music and musicians at their core. The first series, the Haunted Ballads, had a traditional Scots guitarist Ringan Laine and his theatrical troupe leader girlfriend Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes as the protagonists. In those, I learned how to be comfortable letting some of the genuine stars of British trad music filter through into my fictional setting. There were mentions of Ringan's band switching start times at a festival show with "Martin and Dave." I suspect most readers of the Haunted Ballads knew that I was talking about Martin Carthy and the late Fairport Convention fiddler, Dave Swarbrick. I did get some fan mail asking who some of the names belonged to. I still take pride in being able to steer them towards the legendary bands of that musical genre.

But the need to move actual musicians in and out of my own fictional universe really came with the JP Kinkaid Chronicles. John Kinkaid, when we meet him in the first of the eight Chronicles, is in his mid-fifties. He's an English ex-pat, who has lived in San Francisco for 25 years with his life partner, Bree Godwin. Like me, he's a guitarist with multiple sclerosis; those two things, music and MS, are not happy bedfellows.

JP is a touring musician with Blacklight, a fictional band roughly as successful, and nearly as long-lived, as the Rolling Stones. And since JP's voice is the voice of my own first love, legendary pianist Nicky Hopkins, some of JP's memories and experiences are drawn from the few years I spent doing very much what Bree does: being fierce about his health and safety, not wanting to step out of the shadows to do real shows (like JP, Nicky was unhappily married at the time), and just wish all this rock star stuff would disappear and leave me alone with him. But the reality is that, if JP is touring and recording at that level of stardom, he's going to interact with some real world legends.

It's tricky. For one thing, I have to be true to how the character would see, feel, speak, react. Since JP is narrator, he's not going to say "oh, yeah, then Heart came out and jammed with us." He wouldn't think that way. The band's official blogger might, but JP wouldn't.

So I took it on this way. From "Dead Flowers", Kinkaid #7. Bree is reacting hard to the woman fronting the opening act for JP's side band, The Fog City Geezers. And JP thinks she's jealous. As it turns out, she is, but he has the reason wrong, at least at first: 

"I didn't say freaked out, did I? I didn't say scared, either." We were eye to eye again, just enough moonlight to see what was happening in her face, and this time, I was keeping my voice even. "I said jealous. And yeah, I said nuts. Crikey, Bree, you'd have to be, to not trust me after all this time. So she plays a Les Paul, so what? You didn't lose it like this when we played with Heart, back on the Book of Days tour. Nancy Wilson didn't flip your switches, and if we're talking about a hot chick who knows her way around a Les Paul, she's the gold standard. So what the hell is the real story here? Because I don't buy that this is about Elaine Wilde being a musician, you know? Not unless you're jealous of that kid, as well."

Nancy Wilson of Heart isn't just dropped in as a famous name. She's there, she exists, but the only reason she exists at this moment in time in the Kinkaid story arc is because something about who she is, and what she does, is having an effect in JP and Bree's world. She's never extraneous. There's a reason for her to be there, a reason for her to impact the characters. The reason for Bree's personal panic has nothing to do with the opening act, however. The reason, which JP suddenly realises a moment later, is in fact the opening act's child.

Another moment, this time from Kinkaid 5, "Book of Days." Blacklight is about to take the stage for two songs during the Super Bowl halftime show. One of the two songs, "Liplock," is very dirty indeed, and the network censors have their knickers in a twist. Mac, Blacklight's lead singer, as they're waiting to go onstage to a global audience of about a billion viewers:

"It had taken one short band meeting - five minutes - to decide what we wanted to do. We opened with "Liplock," five minutes of high intensity, every damned note of it aimed straight at the groin. When we'd first told the NFL people what we wanted to play, they'd had a look at the lyrics and started making the sort of noises I'd have associated more with nuns. Ian came back to us and said they were flipping their shit over it, we pointed out that the Stones had covered "Rough Justice" as part of their twelve minutes, and that the programming puritans might want to check out the lyrics to that one. Good call, since the song's got lyrics suggestive enough to have made them squirm."

The Glimmer Twins become part of the moment again, same context, when the network tries to convince Blacklight to use a canned rhythm track and have Mac lipsynch, to make sure they don't exceed their twelve minute time allotment:

"Here we go." Stu had come up beside me, flexing his wrists, getting ready. He had a pair of sticks, just moving them about, limbering up, getting his hands turned on. "Good thing Ian didn't cave on that pre-recorded rhythm section shite. I'd have stayed home and slept in, instead."

"Yeah, that was completely barmy." I had to raise my voice; the crowd was beginning to really make noise. "I just loved the excuse, didn't you? How it was all split-second timing, and forcing the band to synch up with a pre-recorded rhythm section would make us stick to the time limit? Surprised they asked us to play, if they thought we were such amateurs. Shit, we've been together, what, thirty plus years, and they honestly think we can't structure a bleedin' set to end at twelve minutes? I wonder if they tried that rubbish on the Stones?"

"I'm even more curious about what Mick told them, if they did. I'll have to ask him, next time I see him. Or Keith." Mac was bouncing, foot to foot. "Come on, people, it's showtime, just bloody announce us, will you please...?"

So for me, it's not about putting real life celebrities into a fictional stories. It's about making sure, as the writer of a series about high end rock and roll, a writer who's lived a lot of it since 1968, that I seamlessly integrate them into my characters' world. As you read, it's simply a fact of life for a legendary band like Blacklight: they know everyone, because everyone at a certain level of the industry does, in fact, know everyone else. The man John Kinkaid gives voice to is the piano you hear on the Stones' "She's A Rainbow," "Gimme Shelter," "Angie." It's the second piano, side by side with John Lennon, on "Imagine." It's "Jealous Guy" and Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." JP began as a session player and became a world famous superstar. So he's worked with pretty much everyone, and knows them. The entire band does. They aren't celebrities to JP or Mac or anyone else in the Blacklight families. They're peers, musicians, singers, songwriters, colleagues and - in many cases - friends. Many of the people JP knows, I also know. But the only time their fame becomes something I have to look at is when we're trying to juggle schedules. Otherwise, it simply isn't relevant. These are people I know, and in many cases people I've co-written songs with or who've recorded with my band (David Lindley, for one).

Having your fictional characters moving on the top tier of touring music stardom means that both your fictional characters and the artists inhabiting that same space in the real world are going to interact. My job, writing those moments, writing the entire series, was not to leave the reader thinking "oh, wow, Mick Jagger!" My job was write it so seamlessly that, while watching a Stones video on YouTube, my reader has at least one moment of wondering if JP is in the band room, getting ready to sit in.

It's only rock and roll. And in the band rooms and bedrooms and hotel rooms of the Kinkaid Chronicles, rock and roll really never forgets.

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots—and quiet little towns—of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, with a few stops in between. But since her first look at the Bay Area, as a teenager in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. She was involved in the Bay Area music scene from the end of the Haight-Ashbury heyday until the mid-1970s. Her friends finally convinced her to write about those years—fictionalised, of course! The result is the critically acclaimed eight-book JP Kinkaid Chronicles. 

Deborah and her husband, San Francisco bassist Nicholas Grabien, have their own trio, The Sound Field (with Larry Luthi on drums). The band's second CD is due out 1 March 2021. Both CDs have featured guest appearances from rock music luminaries, both local and international. These days, Deborah can be found playing music and writing music or writing about music, insofar as multiple sclerosis - she was diagnosed in 2002—will allow.

Find her CDs, the JP Kincard Chronicles, and much more at Plus One Press.


  1. Thanks, Deborah! Long strange trip, it's been...

  2. Thanks, Deborah! What a long, strange trip it's been...

  3. good writing points. thank you

  4. Fabulous. You know what I want, but if I have to, I will take the music instead.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this guest post. Let's see if we can convince Deborah Grabien to share more with us!

    2. I'm going to have to take the deep breath and try finishing that ninth Kinkaid - "Watching The Wheels" - in a world that is drasticlly, frighteningly different than the one in which it was begun.