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"Elevating Your Gender Via a Teen Surf Band"
A Review of Jeanne Thornton’s Queer '60s Rock Novel, Summer Fun
By the end of 1966, Brian Wilson had already been working on Smile for months. Recording the unfinished album—one of the most infamous in all of rock music history—had been a mired process from the beginning. It was made all the more complicated when Wilson decided to start recording his “Elements” cycle, four songs devoted to earth, water, air, and fire, striving for as much sonic authenticity as possible. When recording the latter element’s song, Wilson had his musicians wear toy fireman’s hats and told the janitor to start a fire in a bucket so he could record the sound of crackling wood. A few days later, a building near the recording studio burned to the ground. Wilson feared that his “witchcraft music” was the cause and stopped working on Smile shortly thereafter.
Jeanne Thornton’s latest novel Summer Fun, released in July by Soho Press, blends the myths of ‘60s surf rock and witchcraft with alchemical effect. Set in 2009, the story is told in a series of letters written by Gala, a trans woman in her mid-20s living in New Mexico, to her rock idol B—, the reclusive lead singer of her favourite ‘60s surf-pop band, The Get Happies. At a virtual book launch hosted by Brooklyn shop Books Are Magic, Thornton said she chose to write an epistolary novel after she was inspired by the tone of her own coming-out letter to a dear friend. “There was a raw and weird energy in there that was intriguing,” she said.
Summer Fun is titled after The Get Happies own unreleased album, an ironic title choice considering that the book takes place from September to January, with very little “fun” occurring for any of the characters. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the authenticity with which Thornton writes about music-making, as well as the often volatile power dynamics that come along with the territory. While fictional music narratives can often come across as fake or melodramatic, the story of B— and The Get Happies is fully realized and believable, largely by Thornton’s tapping into The Beach Boys’ real history and mythology alike. Asked why she chose The Beach Boys to draw from for the novel, Thornton said, “There was a lot of intensity with fans of The Beach Boys. I definitely think their music has a deep, magical quality to it.”
Through her letters, Gala tells both B— and the reader the story of the group, at first, a surf rock band of brothers, relatives, and friends in the early ‘60s, managed by the boys’ father. As Gala writes,
“Here is what is going to happen to you. One day, you are going to grow up. You and your cousin Tom Happy will form a band. Your brothers will join you in this band; a neighbour will too. This band will be successful beyond what you or anyone considered possible. You will work extremely hard, and through that work you will produce albums that people will continue to listen to fifty years after their release.”
As the decade progresses, the band goes from recording conventional, simplistic Americana hits to sonically sophisticated records that change the course of rock recording history. Much like The Beach Boys did by transitioning from hits like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to the aural mastery of Pet Sounds, The Get Happies go from recording songs like “Diner Girl” to seeking more experimental sounds during the process of recording Summer Fun. (Thornton’s pitch-perfect fake album titles are laid out in The Get Happies discography that opens the novel, with 1999’s The Get Happies Say God Bless America To Our Musical Heritage so accurate it made me laugh out loud.)
Summer Fun’s greatest sleight of hand is how Thornton expertly takes the myths of both the ‘60s and rock history and subverts them. While the early ‘60s are often characterized as an idyllic time of post-war boom for white Americans contrasted with the violence of the decade’s end, Thornton makes it clear that there was nothing simple about its early years. Even for a character like B—, a successful musician in a popular band, there is nothing easy about living up to the rock-solid expectations of 1960s masculinity. B—’s father, also The Get Happies manager, is emotionally and verbally abusive to B—, who learns to cope with this pain through self-harm at an early age. Just as Brian Wilson struggled with undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder and manic depression, The Get Happies’ B— also struggles with mental health, one topic among many considered ultra-taboo at the time.
Thornton said she was not only inspired by The Beach Boys for Summer Fun, but by Connie Converse, a little-known ‘50s American musician who disappeared in 1974. Although her music was not widely known or released until the 2000s, she is credited today as one of the first singer-songwriters in the Western pop-rock tradition. The myth of Connie Converse is translated through the character of Mona, B—’s wife. Despite also being a musician and leading her own band, The Pin-Up Dollies, Mona’s success is overshadowed by that of her husband. Mona and B—’s sexless marriage is one of convenience, an illusion for the two of them to maintain heteronormative normalcy, as Mona tells B— that she is a lesbian (Converse was also believed to be a lesbian, although this has never been confirmed). B—’s success takes an enormous toll on Mona, who is forced to continue to work at a record store while B— continues the Summer Fun recording experiments. Eventually, the two come to blows, with Mona telling B—,
“If you were a girl, you wouldn’t be me… You wouldn’t be you, either. You’d never have learned to play the guitar, or had friends tell you were good enough to write songs, or had anyone with money want to pay you for your songs, or fucking kids, fucking kids in the music store dragging their girlfriends, their wives in by the fucking wrists… who come up to the counter to buy an album your face on it.”
Still, B— is suffering just as much as Mona is by the gendered expectations of their marriage. As Thornton stated, “Participation in the world is not something you get for free, for all women.” While much is made of B—’s history and myth, Gala writes of Mona that “few biographers seem concerned with where she goes.”
The tension between Mona and B— is echoed in the relationship between Gala and Caroline, a cis lesbian with connections to The Get Happies who Gala starts dating at the beginning of the novel. Their relationship, as well as that between Gala and the only other trans woman in town, Ronda, is one of the few ways that the reader learns anything personal about Gala.
But even though Gala is telling the story, her story is wrapped up in the same one as B—. As Gala writes, “Remember when I said I wasn’t going to tell you anything about my life story? But I will tell you this: I’m an American. Exactly how much of my story can I separate from yours?” In Summer Fun, Jeanne Thornton not only subverts the myths of ‘60s rock but shows the dedication of fandom and the transformative magic of our obsessions.