In the words of Floyd from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem: “Just play the gig, man. Don’t get involved with politics.”
Susan heads off to her next battlefield where she’s meant to collect a Viking-esque warrior. She finds the whole situation untenable and can’t believe her grandfather just let nature run its course when he might have done something about the deaths he saw. The next hourglass that’s come up is Imp y Celyn, one that Susan knows somehow… In the desert, Death joins the Klatchian Foreign Legion. Susan arrives at the Mended Drum and sees Imp about to play. She thinks to stop his death, but she doesn’t have to—Imp begins playing and suddenly the whole place is hypnotized by the a brand new sound: Music With Rocks In. She realizes that something else is keeping Imp alive. Imp and his bandmates book the same gig the next night for more money, and discuss changing their names. Lias wants to be Cliff now, and Imp translates his name from the original language “Bud of Holly” into Buddy Holly. The Librarian goes back to the University and begins playing the organ after hearing the concert at the Drum, waking everyone in the school. Buddy says they need keys for the band, so Glod suggests he and Cliff steal the piano from the Opera House, which they do.
The Librarian’s music has caused trouble—the Dean is practicing the guitar now, the Lecturers of Recent Runes is using condiments for instruments, everyone is wearing lifts in their shoes, and the Librarian made off with some carriage wheels, prompting an angry citizen to complain to Ridcully (who turns him into a frog). The wizards explain the music they heard last night to the Archchancellor, who decides they had all better go observe again and make sure no strange magic is going on. Glod, who is related to Modo the University gardener, hears about the organ incident and recruits the Librarian to the band. Susan goes back in time to see Death right after his confrontation with her father in the Lifetimer room; he can remember her (in that particular Death way where times are places) and they sit and have tea. She asks him what to do about Buddy’s hourglass, and Death explains that his life is being powered by music right now, and that these sorts of things happen. They discuss his entanglement with people and having the courage to make changes to the world. He takes Susan to task for presuming it’s simple to make those changes and take responsibility for them. He wants to know if he was a good grandfather.
The band decides to name itself the Band With Rocks In, and begins their show at the Mended Drum. Ridcully notes that he’s the only wizard seemingly unaffected by the show, and that the Musicians’ Guild has representatives there to shut the whole thing down, and manages to glimpse Susan there before she vanishes from his sight (he thinks she’s a Tooth Fairy girl). She stops the Guild from causing trouble for the band. Death is sent to the Pit, where they put soldiers who aren’t doing well in the Klatchian Foreign Legion—he’s hoping it will help him forget, but it’s not at present. A beggar tells Vetinari about the riot that broke out at the Mended Drum as result of the music, and the Patrician reasons that he might need to have someone killed for this. Ridcully has to bail the wizards out of prison for their part in the riot (which was basically becoming a mosh pit). The band talks of throwing the guitar away because they’re all aware that it’s doing something to them, but they’re enjoying themselves too much to stop. Dibbler approaches and offers to be their manager, which they agree to.
The Musicians’ Guild decides to send an intimidation squad over to Glod’s to punish the band, but they’re sleeping at a hostel for the night, so that doesn’t go over as planned. Ridcully goes to the University’s High Energy Magic Building to talk to Ponder Stibbons about the music and what it’s doing to the faculty. Stibbons and his student assistants are keen to help after noting how Ridcully was able to trap bits of the music in a manner that doesn’t make scientific sense. A local instrument shop gets its entire stock of guitars bought out by barbarians and the like, people who just want to play. Susan, frustrated with her grandfather, decides that she’s going to remake reality and change how death works. She heads into the room full of books of people’s lives and finds Imp’s book, which ends the way his life was supposed to have ended, not the way it did. As Ridcully and Stibbons are trying to make sense of this new state of affairs and talking about the possible sound or chord that began reality, Mrs. Whitlow comes in all dolled up and saying things like “daddio.” Stibbons realizes that whatever this phenomenon is, it’s catching.
So we’ve got the beginnings of rock music here, with a lot of shoutouts to early rock’n’roll legends… and it almost works.
There is a thing that we need to talk about, which is that, while I understand the desire to use Buddy Holly and the Beatles as the root of this narrative with rock music—on account of the global phenomenon that was the Beatles at the height of their popularity, and Holly’s demise being referred to colloquially as “the Day the Music Died” being too good to pass up—they are white rock musicians. And white musicians didn’t invent rock and roll—Black musicians did. So here’s a place where the satire kinda fizzles out because Pratchett unfortunately is allowing the creation of rock music to be this divine thing that was injected into the world like magic, but that neglects the reality of what happened in our history. The progenitor of rock was Sister Rosetta Tharpe; the “first” rock album should probably go to Wyonie Harris or Goree Carter; Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and Bo Didley were hugely responsible for the popularization of the genre.
So far in the music itself, we’ve gotten I think one reference to a Black artist—with Good Gracious Miss Polly being a reference to “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard. The rest have been references to the usual (white) suspects, from Holly to Carl Perkins to the Big Bopper to Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact, you could go so far as to say that Pratchett makes a major error here in making the enforcer from the Musicians’ Guild Satchelmouth Lemon, which is a play on the names of two prominent Black musicians (Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Blind Lemon Jefferson). I’m sure that the intention was in pitting the music styles against each other, since you’re looking at the difference between jazz and blues versus rock, but when your fictional rock band is playing on a backlog of largely white musicians, that comes off poorly. Armstrong is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for “West End Blues,” for crying out loud.
It’s just a little disappointing that we can’t get some cutting satire that plays into what really went down in this era, the way white people grabbed rock and roll with both hands and then diminished the importance of the people responsible for its creation. When I was a kid learning about Elvis and the Beatles, those discussions didn’t really come into things, so it’s hardly surprising, but we can still look at the story now and realize that there are places where it falls short of what it could have accomplished.
It doesn’t change Pratchett’s general understanding of how musicians work because he continues to be right on the money. The conversation that the band has after the first gig where Glod explains how the song is constructed and asks about what Lias was doing, and Lias is just like “the beat had to go like that there” is like every band rehearsal I’ve ever been to. Like, some players know the technical side and can explain everything they’re doing to you academically, and some of them will say “It goes, baaah ba-DUM-dum-tah” and everyone just nods and plays it. (Watching the Get Back documentary is great for that, if you enjoy watching that sort of thing.)
“In my experience,” said Glod, “what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.”
LOUDER FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK. (I’m saying it in Death’s voice—it’s that’s important.) There’s this thing about whether you want to be famous, or want to work, and I appreciate that it gets brought up here. While I understand the brief desire to be a megastar, what Glod wants is where it’s at. You want to be well thought of, and have a steady gig, so you can eat well and sleep somewhere relatively comfy. Because art is work, same as any other job. It’s not easier than other jobs or more dispensable. (Everyone wants to pretend that it is, and then a pandemic happens, and the only thing keeping us going is the next season of television or a new album release.)
We’re at the point in the book where we haven’t really dived heavily into what Susan’s getting up to, but the conversation with Death in the past breaks my damn heart, I’m sorry, just leave me here crying forever.
WILL I BE… AM I A GOOD GRANDFATHER?
Don’t do this to me. I can’t handle it.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Sorry, but, Ridcully referring to the University organ as “our mighty organ.” *snerk*
- I love the whole long aside about the name Susan and how dull it is, but I’m particularly bemused over it being noted that “It was a name used by no queens or goddesses anywhere” because of course, there is a very prominent Queen Susan ruling over Narnia, which just makes it feel like a dig, really.
- There’s not really enough time this week to get into the French Foreign Legion stuff and Beau Geste parody in Death’s present day section, but boy that’s one way to have him try and learn forgetting.
- Vetinari reading sheet music so that people don’t ruin it is so irritatingly perfect for his character it makes me want to scream. I love it so much.
- There should be a tally of how many times people have made the “don’t play ‘Stairway to Heaven’” joke (in this case, it’s “Pathway to Paradise”). I remember the first time I saw Wayne’s World and being totally perplexed by that moment as a kid who had not yet heard “Stairway”—my dad’s roots were in jazz guitar, so that wasn’t really his jam when playing at home.
- Also, just, how many things reference every possible piece of the Blues Brothers they can manage. Like, I get it and appreciate it as a person who spent most of my childhood directly west of Chicago, but I almost want to place a moratorium on it because it happens too much.
The point was that people were dying and acts of incredibly stupid heroism were being performed.
This was music that had not only escaped but robbed a bank on the way out.
It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric sockets of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint you bedroom black and cover it with posters.
He sat for a moment in contemplative silence, a test pilot ready to slit the edge of the envelope in the starship Melody.
But this didn’t feel like magic. It felt a lot older than that. It felt like music.
They’d assumed that insulating her from the fluffy edges of the world was the safest thing to do. In the circumstances, this was like not telling people about self-defense so that no one would ever attack them.
They’d never told her about this. Parents never do. Your father could be Death’s apprentice and your mother Death’s adopted daughter, but that’s just fine detail when they become Parents. Parents were never young. They were merely waiting to become Parents.
He was extremely good at listening. He created a kind of mental suction. People told him things just to avoid the silence.
“mumblemumblemumble,” said the Dean defiantly, a rebel without a pause.
Next week we’ll read up to “Unfortunately, however, we can no longer entertain your contract.”