Glenn Dixon is living the dream in double time, combining his passions for writing and playing rock ‘n’ roll into the novel, Bootleg Stardust. In fact, the protagonist in the novel, Levi Jaxon, has become his avatar. Dixon plays guitar in a Calgary rock band that has recorded under the name Downtown Exit, the name of the ’70s band in the book. Every chapter is titled after one of the band’s songs, and to make it even more real, they were recorded in the old Rolling Stones mobile recording studio, which is currently parked at the National Music Centre in Calgary. And five songs were mastered at Abbey Road Studios in London. They can all be heard on YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services.
Dixon taught high school English for twenty years before pursuing a writing career. This is his first novel, but fourth book. His first two, Pilgrim in the Palace of Words and Tripping the World Fantastic were about his travels far and wide. His third book, Juliet’s Answer, which was published in twelve countries and translated into five languages, is a memoir of being the only male secretary in Verona, Italy, answering letters from the lovelorn to Juliet. Yes, that Juliet.
In Bootleg Stardust, Dixon’s fictional debut, Levi Jaxon, a troubled but talented young man, scores an audition and wins a spot with a successful band of misfits on tour in Europe. Anyone who has played in a band, or seen Spinal Tap, knows how many things can go wrong on tour, and they do go wrong for Downtown Exit.
Interview by Mike Sadava
Mike Sadava (MS): I’ve listened to Downtown Exit on YouTube and it does sound as if it could have been 1974, the era of your book. Which came first — the band or the idea for the book?
Glenn Dixon (GD): The book came first. I’m a full-time writer and, at best, a failed rock star. It’s true that, in my twenties, I was actively pursuing music, but it never really amounted to much and years later, when I became a writer, I figured I could at least write about being a rock star. Thus was born the fictional band Downtown Exit. However, the world is full of coincidences and it just happened that, after all these years, I was really playing in a band again – in fact, the best band I’ve ever been in. We’re just a bunch of old guys (all of us failed rock stars I guess) and we quickly realized we could and should make the music of the band in the book.
MS: Why the ’70s?
GD: One summer, when I was just a kid, my older brother came home with armfuls of record albums – classic vinyl – and during those glorious sun-filled days, I listened to everything from Cat Stevens to Led Zeppelin. It was a golden era of music, and I knew I wanted to set my story there, in that soundscape. So Bootleg Stardust is the story of a young guitar player from nowhere, who gets the break of his life: a chance to audition with the already famous band Downtown Exit.
MS: Was it a difficult adjustment switching from non-fiction, which had been the basis of your career, to writing a novel? And was it difficult to convince your publisher?
GD: You know, like many writers, I have a bunch of unpublished novels in my closet. They’re terrible. They’re my early attempts and they will certainly never see the light of day. My first published books happened to be non-fiction, but I always wanted to return to novel writing. And yes, there were concerns. I know my literary agent read the manuscript with dread, having known a lot of authors who didn’t make the jump well. I guess, though, she liked it well enough because she ended up signing it to an international deal with Simon & Schuster.
MS: Levi, who had a troubled start in life, seems to be coming of age under pretty chaotic and inappropriate circumstances. What general points does your novel make about coping with young adulthood — even in an environment where it would be hard to call people much older “adults.”
GD: Yeah, these musicians were young. Levi Jaxon, the main character, is only 20 years old, naïve as hell. And he gets taken advantage of, for sure. But he learns as he goes. There’s a bit on the back cover copy that I like, “Bootleg Stardust is a one-of-a-kind joyride about the power of music to bring people together—and break them apart—and the courage it takes to find your own voice.” And that’s it. The courage to find your own voice. Bootleg Stardust is the story of Levi losing almost everything and then fighting to get it back.
MS: There are a lot of references to poetry, especially Tennyson. Where do you personally find the most poetic songs in the vast catalogue of pop music?
GD: I’m the kind of guy who used to study the lyrics on the back of album covers (when there were album covers). For me the lyrics are really important and I have a sort of pantheon of great lyricists I especially admire. Of course, it’s Leonard Cohen at the very top. He’s the Zen master, but just slightly below him I’d put both Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. That’s my holy trinity of lyricists. All three of them are legendary songwriters but that’s kind of the point; the words and the music are inseparable.
MS: Are the characters in Downtown Exit based on people you’ve met in the music industry, including managers?
GD: There are archetypes in that world, the record executives in suits, a lead singer out of control on drugs and drink, but you’re quite right about the manager. In my book, Downtown Exit is managed by a guy called Surly Bob. I mean, c’mon, the name says it all. He is loosely based on the manager of Led Zeppelin, a man named Peter Grant. Grant was a huge bear of a man who would not hesitate to pull a gun on you, and he insisted on everything in cash. Always. So I took a lot from that.
MS: There’s a real overlap of history and fiction in your book, especially in terms of the recording studios of the time. Can you talk about that?
GD: Yes, there’s a bit in the book where the band is under huge pressure to finish their second album and they basically steal the Rolling Stones Mobile recording studio. The Mobile is this old truck that was owned by the Stones in the 70’s. In the back was a state-of-the-art recording studio and the Stones used it, especially on their seminal album “Exile on Main St.” Led Zeppelin recorded on it too and so did Bob Marley and a host of others because you could record anywhere, at any time. Well, as it so happens, the old truck sat in mothballs for years and was then purchased a few years ago by the National Music Centre in Calgary. They refurbished it and built a whole room around the truck and now it’s available to record on again. In fact, it became available just as we were recording the songs for Bootleg Stardust, so we went in and used it for real. You can hear the sound of the 70’s in those songs, I think, and what’s more, we then took the basic tracks to Abbey Road studios in London to have them mastered. Imagine that. I got to walk into that legendary building, the very place where the Beatles produced almost every record they ever did, and work in the very same rooms. I hope you can hear a bit of that in the songs. Really, we went out of our way to try and sprinkle magic over this whole project.
MS: Now that COVID restrictions seem to be lifting, are you considering a combined book/band tour?
GD: Ha. If we were the age of the characters in my book, then yeah maybe. As it is, I’d love to do some local showcases with the band but I don’t think anyone is up for driving a thousand kilometers in a cold and cramped van anymore. What COVID did do for me, though, is give me time to work on the film footage I’d taken just before the world shut down. I had all this raw footage of us recording on the Rolling Stones mobile studio or working in Abbey Road, even some pretty cool footage of going off to find Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris (all of which play a part in the book). So, I was able to edit that video footage and a lot of those short films are up on YouTube and other places. I am looking forward to writers festivals though (where, I suppose I could bring along my guitar, sans band) because I really do miss the live events. Bootleg Stardust is meant to be heard as much as it is to be read and I’m really looking forward to bringing it out to the world.