The music world of the 60s and 70s seems to be having a literary renaissance at the moment. Recently we have had David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue and Taylor Jenkins Read’s Daisy Jones and the Six. Much like those books, Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, is about a band that burned brightly and briefly and a quest to find out what happened and why. Along the way though, Walton, as well as wondering about the indefinable magic of music, will dig into issues of race (Black Lives Matter) and gender relations in the United States and questions of privilege and entitlement.
The mode of Opal of Nev is established early on. S Sunny Shelton has been given an exclusive for her music magazine in the lead up to a revival of 1970s rock sensations Opal Pearl and Nev Charles. Shelton has a personal stake in their story, as she is the daughter of Jimmy Curtis, the drummer who lost his life in an incident at an event known as the Rivington Showcase. This tragedy in some ways launched Opal and Nev to stardom. The book is told through the interviews that Shelton does as she uncovers the truth about that night and of her father’s relationship with Opal, but also with plenty of authorial voice as Shelton also tells the story of the writing of the book itself.
The story of Opal Pearl and Nev Charles is one of accidental alchemy. Shelton digs into their histories, the fact that neither of them were necessarily the best at what they did. Opal, a young black singer with more than a little flamboyance, and Nev a skinny white song writer from Manchester desperate to be the next Paul McCartney. But when the two come together with their session musicians they seem to create something magical. Only the world did not necessarily agree. And it is only in the aftermath of a tragedy, an event which forms the centrepiece of the book, that they take off and then implode and then forge very different solo careers. The focus then becomes on how Opal navigated the world and of the growing relationship between Opal and Sunny, a relationship that is threatened by the information that Sunny unearths about her father and his death.
Writing about music is difficult and Walton does not try to capture the music or the lyrics. Instead she gives a sense of the types of music that Opal and Nev create both together and separately. Walton is using this setting though to dig much deeper than the story of the music. There are questions of cultural appropriation, the differing treatment not only of male and female musicians but of black and white musicians, the way racism can be swept under the carpet when there is money to be made but also the way that popular music and culture can be used to make a stand. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is, in some ways, Dawnie Walton’s stand. And she makes it engaging and tragic and visceral. And most importantly, she makes it count.