Daisy Jones & the Six meets Nick Hornby in this uplit debut novel about a young musician who auditions for a band and is suddenly catapulted into the wild world of rock and roll stardom, where nothing is quite what it seems. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom on your way to the top. It’s 1974. The music world is rocking with bellbottoms, platform shoes, and lots and lots of drugs. This year’s sensation is an American band called Downtown Exit and their latest album has just gone gold. For high school dropout Levi Jaxon, things aren’t so great. After bouncing around foster homes for years, he’s living in his best friend’s basement. His dream is to someday be a rock star, but he has a problem—his own band has just broken up. In an uncanny stroke of luck, Levi lands an audition for Downtown Exit, who are now recording their second album at Abbey Road Studios. He arrives in London and aces his audition, only to learn he’s not really in the band. No, Levi’s job is to sit in the wings and cover for the band’s real guitarist when he inevitably starts tripping on stage. Levi sticks with it, hoping to step into the role he’s always dreamed of. But he must first navigate egos, jealousies, and deceptions. Frankie, the band’s front man, has it out for him. And Levi has fallen for Ariadne, the band’s photographer. All of them have their secrets, Levi included. And as the band tours through Europe and struggles to finish their new album, Levi comes face to face with unanswered questions from his past and the impossible price that fame demands. Utterly magical and transporting, 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.
Release date: April 6, 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Print pages: 304
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Our keyboard player quit but we turned up for the gig anyway. It didn’t matter. At most, the Salty Dog pub had about five people in it, and that included the bartender, who felt sorry for us and brought us a pitcher of Molson beer. He said he liked the way we played “Space Oddity.” Not many bands covered David Bowie, he said, so it was pretty good to even try.
That was the last song in our opening set. It wasn’t a disaster but there wasn’t much to get excited about, either. I was sitting with Rudy and Katrina at a beer-sticky table near the stage. Rudy was our bass player. Katrina played drums. Together, we were all that was left of the band called Breakwater.
Rudy tipped his head toward a window near the front door. “It’s still snowing,” he said, as if that weren’t obvious. We’d loaded in through a spring snowstorm—Calgary still gets tons of snow in April—and I’d only worn my jean jacket, the one with the corduroy collar. It was warm enough, but my Adidas runners weren’t so great. My socks got wet and they squelched a little when I walked.
“That’s why no one’s here,” Rudy went on. He was grinning that big dumb grin of his, trying to be helpful, but Katrina cut him off.
“I thought 1974 was supposed to be our big year,” she said. “Levi, are we even getting paid?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just happy to be playing.”
“Right.” She crossed her arms and wouldn’t look at me again.
The Salty Dog wasn’t great, that’s for sure. It smelled a bit and they had fishing nets hung up on the walls, just tied ropes really, hung with plastic starfish and conch shells. At the back, a pool table sat under a big fake Tiffany lamp.
“Maybe we should just start the second set,” I said. Rudy and Katrina both nodded grimly, and we plodded back up onto the stage.
As soon as I strapped on my guitar, though, I forgot our troubles. I had a Fender Stratocaster with a sunburst finish and a rosewood fretboard. That’s a pretty nice guitar in case you didn’t know, and just to hold its weight in my hands was to dream, to imagine I was a rock star, onstage in front of thousands. And at the Salty Dog—even with no one there—at least I got to try out my moves. We started into our first original and I did a Pete Townshend windmill and that felt pretty good. I bobbed my head and whipped my hair around, then stopped when I saw Rudy staring over at me. I was growing my hair, but it kind of fluffed out more than it hung down. Still, I was trying, and that’s what’s important.
Just the other week, Rudy said I had droopy eyelids like Paul McCartney. He said I could probably pose for Tiger Beat magazine and that all the girls would go nuts over me. I told him to fuck off. Rudy, just so you know, had straw-colored hair that was as stiff and straight as a scarecrow’s. He was a little paunchy too and kind of short.
We were pretty good, though, all things considered. Katrina wanted to do more Motown, but we drew the line at that. Me and Rudy wanted to do stuff like Pink Floyd and Bowie, and most of all we wanted to write more of our own songs and become famous.
A couple of songs into our second set, some construction workers came in, still in their orange overalls, their hard hats tucked under their arms. They headed straight for the green felt of the pool table like it was the promised land. They dropped their hard hats, chalked up their cues, and started racking up the balls. We were playing one of our own songs, “Hello Juliet,” when one of the pool players stopped to check us out. He listened for a moment before yelling out for us to play “Smoke on the Water.”
I stopped. “We don’t really do that one,” I said into the mic, and it might have come across as a little too brash.
He grimaced and strode across the empty dance floor toward us. He was a big guy, and he had the pool cue balanced over his shoulder like a fishing pole or something. “Buddy,” he said, but he was eyeing Rudy. “C’mon. I’ll give you five bucks to play ‘Smoke on the Water.’?”
I don’t know why he was going after Rudy. I was the one on the microphone. The stage was small and maybe six inches higher than the dance floor. Rudy was short, like I said, so he stood about eye level with this guy.
Katrina leaned out from behind her drum kit, peering between the cymbals. “Rudy,” she said, “I’ll give you ten bucks not to play it.”
Rudy took a step backward. This guy was big, and Rudy wasn’t exactly John Wayne. “We don’t know any Deep Purple,” he blubbered.
The big guy scowled and reached for Rudy’s guitar cable. It was a long one, looping around all over the stage. He just reached down and yanked on it, hand over hand. Rudy had the end of it tucked under his guitar strap so it wouldn’t pop out and the guy just hauled Rudy over. Rudy fell sideways, and the guy kept pulling on the cord, reeling Rudy in across the stage like he was a fish. Poor Rudy floundered a bit, then rolled onto his back and started playing the riff from “Smoke on the Water.” He wasn’t the best bass player in the world, but still, I give him credit for that.
“Too late, buddy,” said the big guy.
I stepped forward. I mean, jeez, I didn’t want to, but I kind of had to. I lifted up my foot and kicked at the guy, like some sort of bad karate move, and my soggy running shoe caught him right in the middle of his forehead. His eyes bore a confused expression for a moment and I could see the imprint of my tread on his forehead before he toppled backward. Rudy scrambled back onto his feet. Katrina stood up from her drum stool, gaping at us, holding up her drumsticks like she didn’t know if she should start the next song or not. And far away, in the back by the pool table, this guy’s buddies all turned to gawk at us, their big cow heads swiveling around to take in what had just happened.
“Run,” I said.
And we did. I took my guitar and Rudy had his bass. Katrina had her sticks but we left the rest of the gear and peeled out of there, out the back door, out into the cold, our breaths huffing out in cloudy blasts. We ran for our van and I struggled to get the keys out of my pants even as I was running. Just as we got to the van, the front door of the pub flew open and this guy’s buddies were all trying to squeeze through it at the same time like the Three Stooges or something. I hopped into the driver’s seat while Rudy and Katrina piled in through the sliding door on the other side. I thumped the van into gear and we tore out of there, fishtailing a bit in the slush. The snow was coming down hard now and it seemed like the end of things. Probably because it was.
We practiced in Katrina’s dad’s garage. Her dad had to move his station wagon out on Wednesday nights so we could fit all our stuff in. He had tools hung up on nails above his workbench and they rattled when we played. Along the other wall were a couple of bicycles and a pile of empty paint cans and a snow shovel.
One time he came in to check on Katrina, and he stayed to listen for a while. We were playing our Bowie stuff again, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and he nodded his head and said I sang it really well. So, I liked him. He seemed pretty decent.
On the Wednesday after our gig, Rudy was a bit late because he had to come straight from his job at Kmart. Katrina wasn’t saying much. I could tell she was still mad about the Salty Dog. Someone had punched holes in her snare drum when we’d left it behind, and she’d put pieces of duct tape to cover the damage. It sounded a bit flabby, if you want to know the truth.
We only made it through a few songs before Katrina quit playing. She sat on her drum stool and sighed heavily, wanting us to notice.
“Jeez,” said Rudy, slipping off his bass. “That sounded pretty good.”
Katrina sighed again, heaving herself up like a balloon, then deflating.
“Everything cool?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think—”
“Aw, shit, don’t say it.”
Rudy was looking from me to her in that hurt way of his, trying to understand what was happening.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t think I want to be in this band anymore.”
“C’mon,” I said. “We need you.”
“No you don’t. All the songs are yours. You’re the singer, you’re the guitar player—”
“No, no, I need a drummer.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need me.” She looked down. “Besides, I got accepted to the U of C for the fall.”
Rudy considered the hanging chisels and screwdrivers. He thought for a moment. “Can we still practice in your dad’s garage?”
“Don’t be a dink,” she said. “What if I want to start another band?”
A couple of days after Katrina quit, I was listening to Cat Stevens on my record player. I lived in Rudy’s basement, or I guess I should say, Evelyn’s basement. Evelyn was Rudy’s mom. The place wasn’t much but at least it was mine. It had orange shag carpet laid down right over the cement, so it was still cold in April. I tried to spruce up the walls with posters, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a couple of sci-fi movie posters like Planet of the Apes—the first one and still, obviously, the best. On the other side of the room, I had my records lined up on shelves made from bricks and boards. The albums weren’t in any alphabetical order, that’s for sure, but I knew where everything was.
I loved album covers. There were some really good ones, like Yes and Uriah Heep—with dragons and wizards and zeppelins crashing. That was pretty cool art if you ask me. It made you think.
I was listening to that song about fathers and sons when Rudy called down from the top of the stairs.
“What?” I said, plucking the needle from the record. The turntable whirled to a stop and I lifted the vinyl carefully, the tips of my fingers touching just the rim. I blew on it and slid it into its paper sleeve, then slipped that down into the cardboard of the album cover.
“Stroganoff,” Rudy called down. “We’re having beef stroganoff.”
I went over to put the Cat Stevens album back in its place.
Rudy came down a few steps, eyeing me from under the roof beams. “Levi? You coming up?”
“Yeah, in a minute.”
Rudy trundled down the rest of the stairs. “Mom says to wash your hands.” He swept his gaze around the basement. I had a school desk we’d found on the side of the road when I first moved in two years ago, and lying on top of that were the manila envelopes.
“You got the demo tapes ready to go?” he asked.
We’d been putting the tapes together for weeks. We’d recorded six songs—three originals and three covers—on a reel-to-reel belonging to Katrina’s dad, and I’d been copying a bunch of cassette tapes from it to send out to record companies. I switched up the songs, though, so each tape was slightly different.
Mixed with our originals were very specific cover songs. We did “The Weight” by The Band, who were signed to Capitol Records. And “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, who was with RCA Records. And last, we’d recorded “The Blues Don’t Live Here No More” by Downtown Exit. Everyone said we sounded like them. They were on Labyrinth Records.
For each record company, I put our cover of their band’s song as the first track on the tape. Which was either the dumbest idea I’d ever had or a pretty good one.
Rudy was waiting. “What are we going to do about the band?”
“Well, I was thinking, if we get signed, we could maybe get the drummer from the Barrel Dogs to join us.”
“Levi, c’mon. We’re not going to get signed.”
“No,” I said. “I think it’s a possibility. It could happen.”
“I’m not that good. It’s just you, Levi. You’re the band. It’s exactly what Katrina said.”
Rudy’s gaze went to my Raquel Welch poster, the one from One Million Years B.C. where she was this sexy cavewoman. Under it, my Stratocaster sat on its stand, its lacquered top shining. My old acoustic, a Martin D-28, was leaning against the sofa. I didn’t have a stand for that one. It was a bit bashed up. The fretboard was worn down and one of the tuning pegs had been replaced with a mismatched part, but it still sounded good.
“I don’t know, Levi.” Rudy came over and plunked down on the sofa. “I don’t know if I want to be in the band anymore either.”
“Shit, Rudy. You’re the bass player.”
“Mom’s been leaving these brochures around. You know, to sign up for college classes and stuff.”
“What kind of classes?”
“To be an electrician or, I don’t know, maybe I could get a job in a recording studio.”
Rudy considered me. “I can’t work at Kmart forever.”
“She got some brochures for you too.”
“She thinks you should do some remedial stuff. Get your high school diploma once and for all.”
“Oh, man,” I said, and shook my head. “I’m not going back to school. I’m done with all that.”
“I know,” said Rudy. “You’re going to be a famous musician.”
I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or not.
“Jeez,” I said. “It’s not that easy.”
“No, it is,” he said. “For you. You’re good. You know that, right? You’re really good.”
Upstairs, we heard the door to the basement creak open, and we both froze. This one time Evelyn had caught us smoking up. She’d wrinkled her nose at the smell and we could tell she was angry, but she didn’t really say that much. Just “Don’t do it again.” So, mostly, we didn’t.
“Boys,” she called down. “You get up here this instant.”
“Yeah, Ma. We’re coming.”
Rudy and I locked eyes for a moment before he got up off the sofa and plodded over to the steps. He sort of lumbered when he walked, maybe a few extra pounds on him. I followed him up the stairs.
At the top, the kitchen was one way and the living room was down the hall the other way. I could see the upright piano down there, with a book of Beethoven sonatas set up on its music stand. On the wall above the piano was that painting by Renoir, the one with all the people sitting around a table, the men wearing boating hats, the women in long dresses and ribbons. I remember I used to look at the painting when I was practicing. I used to pretend I was playing for them, and Evelyn noticed. After that, she taught me a bit about art too. She knew a lot of stuff.
Evelyn stood there in the kitchen waiting for us. She was wearing a floral-print dress and her lips were compressed indignantly. She looked a little bit like Queen Elizabeth, if you want to know the truth. Queen Elizabeth, except without the money.
“Well,” she began, “I’m more than a little ticked off at you two.” Behind her, on the table, dinner was laid out, but she wasn’t letting us by just yet.
“Aw, Mom,” said Rudy. “I told him dinner was ready.”
“It’s more than that. Have you seen the electricity bill this month?”
“That’s not my fault,” I said, though I knew I’d been playing records all day.
Evelyn glared at me. “I don’t mean just you. And I don’t mean just the electricity bill.” She paused. “There have to be some changes around here. It’s time you two took some initiative.”
“Ma,” said Rudy. “I told him already, about the brochures.”
Evelyn gestured for us to go and sit at the table, then she patted down her dress. She had a whole speech prepared. I could tell.
“We’re going to send out those demo tapes,” I tried, pulling my chair out to sit. “It shouldn’t take too long before—”
“Levi, you’re twenty years old, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’m almost twenty-one.”
“That’s even worse. You can’t live in my basement forever.”
“I know.” She was eyeing my socks. One of them had a hole so that my big toe stuck right through it. I sat down pretty quick so I could tuck my foot under the table. Rudy sat opposite me.
“I want to see some action around here. Either you go back to school, or you get proper jobs. That’s the deal. Both of you.”
“That’s not much of a deal,” said Rudy.
“You need to start planning for your future.” She slid gracefully into her seat. “Look at me. I worked hard and I made something of myself.”
“You teach piano to little kids,” Rudy said, and then slumped down like he knew right away that he shouldn’t have said that.
She pinned him with a look. “Rudy Wheeler, you mind your manners. You have no idea what I’ve been through. And you,” she said, pointing her fork at me. “I don’t even know where to start with you.”
Evelyn started teaching me piano when I was still a kid. For a while I was pretty good. In fact, I was her star pupil, and that meant a lot to me because, up until then, my childhood had been pretty shitty. I’d been shuffled around different foster homes for a long time. How it works is, when you’re a baby, you’ve got a shot at getting adopted. But by the time you’re in elementary school, well, no one really wants you anymore and you just get moved around from one place to another.
When I was twelve, child services put me in this group foster home, and that was the worst one of all. I hated the group home so much I actually wanted to spend more time at school. They had a band room there, and after classes I’d fool around on the piano. The band teacher let me play it even though I wasn’t in band, and sometimes, when he wasn’t busy marking papers or stacking chairs, he’d show me a few things. He told me I should probably get some proper training, and soon after that he arranged for me to get piano lessons.
That’s how I met Evelyn. She took me on, and I started to really learn about music. That’s also how I got to know Rudy. He was in grade six, one year below me, and he was always hanging around when I came over for lessons. He’d sit on the couch and watch when I practiced. It was all a bit weird. He was just this young kid, with wide, kind of sad eyes. But he liked to listen to me play, so I didn’t say anything. I just let him sit there.
Rudy didn’t really get music and I’m sure Evelyn wondered about that. Evelyn was amazing on the piano. She’d gone to Juilliard, which, if you don’t know, is about the most important music school in the world. It’s in New York City, and there was a time when it looked like she was going to be a concert pianist. There were photographs on the walls from when she was young, playing a shiny black grand piano. She wore a sparkly evening dress and she seemed really sure of herself. But that was before she got married. There were photographs of her husband too, Rudy’s dad, but he died a few years ago. It was cancer, one of the really bad ones.
When I was eighteen, I got out of the foster care system. I’d already stopped with the piano lessons and was learning the guitar. I’d found an old Martin acoustic at her place and, pretty quick, I got really good on it. Evelyn wasn’t thrilled about it, but she let me keep the guitar. Then I persuaded Rudy to get a bass and that’s basically how our band got started.
Evelyn wasn’t too thrilled about that, either.
About three weeks later, I was watching Gilligan’s Island on my little black-and-white television when I heard the phone ring upstairs. There was a pause and I heard Evelyn’s heels click across the linoleum. “Levi,” she called. “It’s for you.”
“Who is it?”
“Levi. You come and get the phone. How am I supposed to know who it is?”
I trotted up the stairs. Rudy was reading Lord of the Rings in his favorite chair in the living room. He sat sideways, his legs slung over the big upholstered arm of the chair. He glanced at me when I came in but then went back to his reading.
The phone was on a little table by the piano. Evelyn had left the receiver lying on its side, the coil looping across the glass top.
I picked it up, fingering the cord. “Hello?”
“Levi Jaxon?” It was a female voice.
“You posted a package to Labyrinth Records?”
I waved over at Rudy frantically, signaling for him to put his book down.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s me.”
“Very well, then,” the voice continued. “We are running some auditions for Downtown Exit and your demo tape has come up. We wondered if you might be interested in coming in.”
“To Labyrinth Records?” I said.
Rudy got up from his chair, his eyes wide. “Holy crap,” he said, but I waved for him to be quiet.
“You would have to come to London,” the woman on the line said.
“London? Like London, England?”
“Yes, Downtown Exit is currently recording in London.”
“Are you sure you have the right tape?”
“I don’t have anything else written here. Only that they’d like to see you for an audition.”
“With my whole band?” Crap. I didn’t really have a band anymore, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
“No,” she said. “Just you.”
There was another pause. “This must be confidential. I need to make that clear.”
Confidential, I thought. Why?
“Next Thursday. Two o’clock in the afternoon. Shall I put you down?”
“That’s in less than a week.”
Rudy was nodding at me. Yes, he was saying, say yes.
“Okay,” I said.
“Right,” she went on. “You will need to be— Do you have a pen?”
I put my hand over the receiver. “Rudy, get a pen.”
He rummaged through the drawer under the side table and fished one out.
When she said the name of Abbey Road Studios, I just about barfed. “Abbey Road,” I hissed at Rudy and he wrote it down.
“Be prompt,” she said. She repeated the date once more and then said she had other people to phone.
I hung up and turned to Rudy. “Holy shit,” I said, then we jumped up and down for a while. Evelyn called from the kitchen for us to simmer down and Rudy went in to tell her the news.
Evelyn was standing at the stove stirring a pot of tomato soup when I came in. She was going at it with a big wooden spoon, clanking it against the sides of the pot. “They want you to go all the way to England?” she asked. Her hair was just beginning to gray and I saw real concern in her eyes when she looked up.
“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t believe it.”
She raised the spoon at me. “You’re to be very careful with these people. Do you understand?”
“It’s Labyrinth Records, Ma,” said Rudy. “That’s, like, one of the really big record companies.”
Evelyn kind of harrumphed a little and went back to her soup. “I don’t care who they are. I’m just telling you to be careful.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can take care of myself.”
I heard her grumble at that, but she didn’t say anything more.
We went down into the basement after, to listen to the Downtown Exit record. Rudy studied the cover. “Their guitar player, that’s Pete Gunnerson.”
“I know,” I said. I knew every guy in the Exits.
Pete Gunnerson was not my favorite guitar player but he was good. He sang a bit too. He did the lead vocals on “The Blues Don’t Live Here No More.” In fact, that’s why we recorded that one—because my voice sounded a lot like his.
He wasn’t the main singer, though. That was Frankie Novak. All the girls went crazy over Frankie. He could have been a movie star—with his slicked-back hair and anvil chin—and the guy could sing. That was for sure. He had this deep growly baritone, something you just have to be born with. You can’t learn stuff like that.
“Do you think they’re replacing Pete Gunnerson?” Rudy asked. His voice was a little whistly. He was more excited than I was.
“Maybe,” I said. “I heard he’s off his head on acid half the time. Sometimes they have to stop a show because he’s too high to play.”
“Holy,” said Rudy. “I can’t believe they got our tape.”
I’d already listened to the Downtown Exit album about a million times, but I took the album cover from Rudy to look at it again. The front cover was just a brick wall and a guitar, nothing else, and of course their name splashed across it in white. I always liked their name. I liked the letter X in it. I always thought X was the coolest letter in the alphabet.
This was their first album and they had a couple of big hits on it. They were still pretty new but they were going to be huge. Everyone knew that. Even though the guys were American, they’d been signed by Labyrinth, a British record company, and their album was out everywhere on Earth. In fact, Rudy and I had just seen them a couple of weeks ago on my little television. They were on The Midnight Special, just before Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR did their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but I thought Downtown Exit were easily just as good.
Frankie had paced across the stage like a panther or something, playing it up for the television cameras. They did their first hit, “Painted Ladies,” which was raw and oozing with testosterone. Every girl I knew had gone bonkers. That’s all they talked about for days. But I’d been watching the other musicians in the Exits and I could tell they were really good. Chester Merriweather was their drummer. He was this huge black guy and he towered over his drums, making them look like a toy kit. He hit the skins so hard you could see the drums vibrating. Pete had this sort of pirate thing going on, with a bandanna wound around his forehead and one big hoop earring in his right ear. He was definitely cool. Frankie, Pete, and Chester all grew up together in New Jersey. The other guys in the band—the bass player and keyboard player—were top-notch session players who’d been brought in later.
I put the album cover down. “There’s something weird about all this.”
“What are you talking about?” said Rudy. “This is what you dreamed of. This is your big chance.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t know—why would they want me? I’m nobody important.”
“But they must have liked the tape. They phoned you.”
“Don’t be stunned, Levi.” He shifted
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