The ’70s are back, apparently.
Elton John, Cher and Fleetwood Mac are on world tours. Marie Claire magazine recently argued that the 1970s were “the best fashion decade” with a sequin-and-paisley slide show that included Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, John Travolta and the Osmonds (?!). And in the first “Saturday Night Live” episode of 2019, the retro-rock band Greta Van Fleet appeared on stage looking like the tasseled, psychedelic love children of Yoko Ono and David Bowie. On Weekend Update, the joke was that their name was actually Super Blood Wolf Moon.
Our love for the ’70s, equal parts homage and satire, is inseparable from the bell-bottomed music scene of that decade. Taylor Jenkins Reid has written a stylish and propulsive if sometimes sentimental novel set against that backdrop, in the stadiums, studios and pool houses of late-1970s L.A. Though the back cover suggests that “everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six,” the book is the story of a fake band in a real world.
“Daisy Jones & The Six” is a fairly earnest portrait of the ’70s, though, a mockumentary without the mocking. It begins as two stories: that of Daisy Jones, the bangle-wearing, hard-partying young singer-songwriter whose beauty is as powerful as her voice, and that of Billy Dunne, the denim-wearing, hard-partying young guitarist and frontman for the rising rock band The Six. Daisy has recorded a semi-successful solo album of other people’s music, but she wants to write her own songs. Although she drifts in and out of the beds of men she meets on the road, her most reliable romance is with the pills rattling in her pockets. Billy has his own brush with the excesses of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Not long after his pregnant wife, Camila, finds him in a compromising position on the tour bus, he comes home and checks into rehab, swearing sobriety and loyalty to his family.
Then a prophetic manager plays Cupid, suggesting that Billy and Daisy try a duet on The Six’s second album. The band members — Billy, his brother Graham, Karen, Warren, Eddie and Pete — aren’t thrilled. They resist the decade’s slide into soft rock. But once the duet, “Honeycomb,” becomes The Six’s biggest hit, the only choice is to invite Daisy to join the band. And sure enough, Daisy and Billy enter a love-hate friendship fraught with a will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension that makes for some of the strongest pages in the book. Even the photographer for the cover of “Aurora,” their third album, feels it: “They were angled in, and there was so much … the negative space between them felt … alive somehow. Electric. There was so much purpose behind the not touching, right?”
Romance is Reid’s calling card. Her first four books, including “Forever, Interrupted” and “After I Do,” are first-person, voice-driven novels narrated by women somewhere between heartbroken and madly in love. In her fifth and most recent, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” she began to approach the terrain of “Daisy Jones & The Six,” presenting another famous figure — this time a film star — telling her love story to the narrator, a journalist. It’s a pleasure, then, to see Reid tweaking her own formula in “Daisy Jones & The Six” while also leaning on her strength, the love story. Narratively speaking, this is easily her most sophisticated and ambitious novel. Which is not to say that all of its risks pay off.
Where this book departs from Reid’s others — and from most rock novels — is in its unconventional structure. Presented almost entirely as an oral history, the novel reads like the transcript of a particularly juicy episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.” In the brief author’s note at the beginning, the author — Reid? someone else? who? — explains, “This book serves as the first and only time members of the band have commented on their history together.” The mystery author has collected the voices of The Six, Daisy, their manager, music critics and others in a kind of monologue mix tape. And this device works surprisingly well. If we can forget for a minute the question of just who this “as told to” is being told to, it’s easy to fall under the musical spell of these voices, which shift fluidly from speaker to speaker as the characters hand off the microphone. Reid has a great ear, both for the way people talk in interviews and for the music they describe, as when Billy is explaining the B-side of “Aurora”: “‘Young Stars’ is tortured but up-tempo, it’s a little dangerous but you can dance to it. And then you go right into ‘Regret Me,’ which is hard and fast and raw. And then come down off it with ‘Midnights,’ which gets a little sweeter. You lead into ‘A Hope Like You.’ Slow, and tender and wistful and spartan. … And then, you know, the sun comes up at the end. You leave on the high note. You go out with a bang. ‘Aurora.’ Sprawling and lush and percussive.”
But while it makes for a heady journey through the band’s ascent, the script format inherently limits our access to the characters’ innermost selves. The camera is locked on a tripod, the interviewees confessing their greatest fears and loves in the same shoulders-up shot for much of the novel. After a while, we long to get closer, to hear what the characters aren’t confessing on the record, or to zoom out, to take in more of the decade than its miniature backstage dramas. When only the characters narrate the story, their reminiscences can fall flat.
“It is what I have always loved about music,” Daisy says. “Not the sounds or the crowds or the good times as much as the words — the emotions, and the stories, the truth — that you can let flow right out of your mouth. Music can dig, you know?”
Moments like these are a little cheesy, but maybe that’s the point? I felt the same way reading Daisy and Billy’s lyrics, which perfectly channel the cringey, soulful, not-quite-brilliant but damn-catchy lines of every pop song written in the 1970s. Reid is so good at them that she’s written a whole album of lyrics, which is included at the back of the book (“But maybe I should stake my claim / Maybe I should claim my stake / I’ve heard some hopes are worth the break”). It was these songs that convinced me that Reid could see her subject with some critical distance, that for every pastel Polaroid in the book, there’s another moment that is, if not making fun, at least having fun. And here is the ironic thing: It’s at that moment that we start to let our guard down. Maybe we download Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.” We can’t help singing along. We think: Wow, O.K., it’s really good. We start to feel the feelings of Daisy and Billy, and we forget the nagging question about who is telling this story anyway? And when we finally find out, we might cry a few unironic tears.
In the end, that’s the most surprising gift of “Daisy Jones & The Six” — it’s a way to love the rock ’n’ roll of the 1970s, without apology, without cynicism, bell-bottoms and all.