by DA Watson
352 pages, Creativia
Review by Pat Black
Everyone knows the devil has all the best tunes, but it seems he’s got all the best deals, too.
Cuttin’ Heads is the story of Public Alibi, a three-piece rock band based in the west of Scotland. They play pubs and small venues all over the country, as well as some of Glasgow’s bigger venues. They sustain themselves on belief and a bit of ability, but not a whole lot else.
Aldo is the singer, guitarist and chief songwriter. He admits that music is his passion and joy, and everything else suffers as a result. He has one great big failed relationship behind him, and among the wreckage of this he finds time to spend with his little boy, Dylan. He acknowledges that he could be a better father. When we meet Aldo, he’s lost yet another pointless data/telesales job, which he needs to fund his ambitions (having no lifestyle to speak of).
On the bass is Ross, a hospital porter from a troubled background. He is a friendly bloke, but also as hard as they come. Any bams attempting to kick off in casualty soon find their pressure points tweaked and possibly their backsides kicked for good measure. But Ross is a fundamentally decent person who happens to have been brutalised when he was a child.
Then there’s Luce, the drummer. She’s from a strong Italian-Scots Catholic background, and her mother doesn’t like her daughter being in thrall to the devil’s music. Talented and bright, Luce lectures at a music college during the day and holds tutorial sessions at the weekend.
Public Alibi have their fall-outs, but they are a tight unit, and loyal to the core. If they’ve got a show to play, they’ll pack themselves and all their gear into Luce’s car - “the Tardis” - and drive to wherever they need to go. That might be Dundee on a Tuesday night; so be it.
If you are the type of person who looks at the bottom line of any endeavour and very little else, then what Public Alibi do with their spare time will look like madness. But every creative person will instinctively understand the band’s frustrating struggle to balance paying the bills with following a muse.
They are all 27 years old, and that’s significant.
A question many of us following a creative dream might ask ourselves: what would you sacrifice for the sake of success? Or, never mind success: away from any idea of bright lights, festival headline slots, awards shows, endless clickbait articles and covers on whatever magazines still exist, what would you give up just for a chance at being able to create art that provides you with a living?
A dark question, which might prompt some dark answers.
This is the predicament Public Alibi find themselves in when they are approached by Gappa Bale, a devilishly handsome man who has a deal for the band which is too good to be true. On the strength of a show at Glasgow’s 13th Note, Bale offers them a plum gig supporting one of the country’s biggest bands at the Barras, on top of a wodge of cash, and a glimpse of the unholy grail: a record deal.
This is the dream, offered up on a plate. Ross and Luce are sceptical about how quickly and smoothly this has all happened, but for Aldo, this is all of his prayers answered.
Although it looks like his prayers might have taken a wrong turn.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Gappa Bale isn’t what he seems. Cuttin’ Heads is a supernatural horror novel with music as its theme. Bale’s deal takes the band away from Glasgow to a strange place in the Highlands, where they’ll record their debut album. Weird things happen almost immediately to the band, but the big bad stuff really crystallises after their Barras support slot when Public Alibi gain an instant, fanatical following which grows to legendary proportions.
However, Bale’s record deal is looking for something a bit more fundamental than downloads, streaming, record sales and concert revenue. Public Alibi are soon fighting for more than just their lives.
Cuttin’ Heads refers to the practice of humiliating a fellow musician with your superior ability. Think Ralph Macchio vs Steve Vai at the end of Crossroads. But in this book, it takes on a more literal meaning. There is some brutal violence in DA Watson’s novel, as well as some nasty, uncanny scenes as diabolism moves front and centre in the lives of Aldo, Ross and Luce. Watson doesn’t soft soap the nastier elements of his tale. There’s one very tense scene involving a child and a moment’s distraction which every parent will recognise and dread. This might be one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in a long time.
The book grips on a visceral level, whether that’s Ross using his krav maga skills to put the manners on some idiots, or Gappa Bale’s dread power manifested in blood. There’s also a cleverly-rendered moment of terror where Luce is at the mercy of a crazed crowd – a nod towards the brutality and raw sexism some women face to this very day for simply being artists and performers.
Music flows through the story, and this presents DA Watson with a problem. How do you represent music in a novel – the one format where the key medium, sound, is absolutely void?
Very skilfully, is the answer. Watson peppers his story with plenty of musical references and clues, but he focuses more on the feelings engendered by Public Alibi’s tunes, rather than minutely detailing what they might actually sound like. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but he manages it. We all like music… don’t we? Actually, I’ve met one or two people who don’t. I cannot 100% trust those people.
It’s a very Glasgow-centred novel, although there are nods to Inverclyde, where the author hails from. I’m from Glasgow but haven’t lived there for a long time, and it’s starting to fade. How do you describe this city? It’s a place that, when it sees you, might run at you full-pelt, perhaps to kiss you, or perhaps to give you a tanking. A place just as likely to render you into a burst bag of mince as it is to make love to you; as likely to bray laughter at you, as clap you on the back, welcome you home, and ask what you’re drinking. Like any other city on earth, I suppose.
But Watson’s prose conjures the place by harkening towards the rhythms of speech – of patter – in Glasgow. He does this without resorting to representations of the vernacular, as we see in other Scots authors such as Irvine Welsh, James Kelman or Tom Leonard. So Watson talks about square gos, pure bams, and other idiomatic and four-lettered things, but the prose is still welcoming to people with no link whatever to the west of Scotland.
The references to the music venues – the 13th Note, King Tut’s, and the Barras – made me nostalgic. One thing I miss terribly about Glasgow: everyone plays there. This is something I took for granted. I don’t get that where I am now. If I want to go to a show it usually means a hundred quid dropped at a hotel and a half day off my work. How spoiled I was!
Watson conjures a sense of the uncanny and the diabolical, which relates so easily to music. All the touchstones are there, from Robert Johnson’s hellhounds and his reputed deal at the crossroads, through to references to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and all the other members of the 27 Club.
There’s even a direct nod to Jimmy Page’s Loch Ness residence, Boleskine House – previously owned by Aleister Crowley, of course. “Don’t go up there,” I remember being told by a taxi driver, when I visited Loch Ness. “Weird things go on up there, mate. It’s not a joke.”
Rock n’ roll is the devil’s music, and everyone knows the maleficent folklore of pop music, from Altamont to plane crashes, accidental suicides, a plague of drug deaths and many other unpleasant outcomes besides. But perhaps Watson’s abiding gift in this book is the sense that music is a great bonus for human beings. A good song, like a good novel, has the touch of the divine, not the diabolical, no matter what its subject matter. Cuttin’ Heads is a smart, enjoyable fantasy.
Read our author interview here.
Read our author interview here.