On the surface, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device is a clever, offbeat novel about the underground music scene in a small Scottish town from the late 70s into the first half of the 80s. The scene is a swirling vortex with a very local, but hugely influential, band called Memorial Device at its center. Keenan writes as someone who was there, vividly detailing the subtleties of taste and fashion that informed the era. He has created something of a 21st century epistolary novel, with various participants of the scene recounting their memories via letters, transcribed interviews, or e-mails.
One can’t help being a bit suspicious, though, that the novel is also something of an hallucinated roman a clef. Just a few pages into the book Ross Raymond, a character who might just be Keenan’s alter ego, grounds us in the scene’s musical aesthetic, “Every Saturday I would meet Johnny and we would travel to Glasgow and buy two LPs each: the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, which is still the greatest psychedelic record ever made, Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders—in fact anything by Johnny Thunders, everyone in Airdrie was obsessed with Johnny Thunders.” Other characters voice other influences, the Only Ones, Suicide, or Throbbing Gristle (and in fact this novel is likely one of the few ever published to carry a blurb from Cosey Fanni Tutti on its cover.)
This is a culture where the record geek is king. This idea is strengthened by a section in which the character Bobby Foster recounts his experiences with Teddy Ohm, an older, biker type who “looked like Johnny Winter crossed with Frank Zappa crossed with Cher in the 1970s, effeminate but tough and kind of scarier for it.” Besides being the local drug connection, Teddy was also a dealer of the rarest vinyl, specializing in “weirdo private-press” discs, “like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, D. R. Hooker, garage stuff like the Bachs and Index” as well as the folkier end of things like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind. As the private-press label collecting scene was still in its infancy even in the later 1980s—and was a very American phenomenon in its earliest days—this section feels like a fantasy of how things should have been. But it’s exactly this sort of savvy anachronism that makes the book endearing. There’s a certain type of reader who won’t have to look up any of the obscure band names mentioned and for whom the adventures of Keenan’s motley cast of characters will bring back memories of his or her own local scene. It is this reader-as-insider who may just find This is Memorial Device a warm, fuzzy read despite the dysfunction it honestly portrays.
In recent years the theme of memory has been very influential in literature, film, and music. This is evidenced by the spike in interest in the works of W. G. Sebald over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of the not-exactly-parody blog Scarfolk Council and the nostalgia-haunted sounds of the bands on the Ghost Box label. For me, if This is Memorial Device has an overarching theme it has to do with what and how we remember. Lucas, the singer in Memorial Device, has a vaguely defined condition in which he has no long- and very little short-term memory. Like the notebook he carries in order to keep his world in order, the very name of the band seems to imply that the group functions as a tool to help him remember. Perhaps the band took its name from this notebook in the same way that other bands in the scene took their names from unlikely, random objects, incidents, or ideas. The format of the novel in which each chapter of the book is told by a different individual recounting his or her personal memories helps emphasize this theme of slippery remembrance. Sometimes the voices contradict one another. Sometimes they recount the same incidents painted with a different brush. This is not an exploration of multiple realities a la Rashomon, but simply what happens when different people try to remember the events of several decades past. For me, This is Memorial Device demonstrates that there is no single narrative that constitutes an objective musical history. The history of a genre, a local scene, or an individual band can only be pulled from a field on which multiple narratives interplay, driven by the always subjective, ever-flawed engine of memory.