Home Book Reviews The Sterns are Listening review: Jonathan Wells’s wonderful NY family tale

The Sterns are Listening review: Jonathan Wells’s wonderful NY family tale

by Karl Coppack
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The Sterns are Listening. Actually, they’re not. The Sterns are doing anything but listening and that’s the problem. It’s that that brings together a wonderful tale of family dysfunction, rebellion, musical soul (faked or otherwise) and an inherent lack of trust.

Jonathan Wells is best known for his three poetry collections of teenage reminiscences. ‘The Sterns are Listening’ is his debut novel.

Benjamin Stern is married to Dita who, for reasons best known to herself, decides to become Italian one day. Their children Mark and Claire are subsequently renamed Giorgio and Alessandro and she adopts the syntax of her new identity – peppering her language with ‘caro’ and ‘carissimo’ etc. Benjamin fails to raise his voice about this unusual change. And that’s common elsewhere. His brother, Spence, runs Belphonics and bullies him and his staff unmercifully, so when Spence comes up with the idea of an aid for the ageing rockers who have lost their hearing due to the screaming speakers at CBGBs, Benjamin falls in unquestioningly. Benjamin tends to do as he’s told.

There are further complications at home. Mark/Giorgio returns from a corrective camp three years after he assaulted hisRamone best friend at school. He can’t tell anyone why he, a placid student, decided to attack Hal one day. There’s a dark secret behind the incident and the Stern men are going to have to face up to it before their lives can improve. The problem is that the Sterns aren’t listening. No one communicates. The browbeaten sit in silence, the major traumas repressed.

As with Wells’ other work, music and nostalgia form a central theme. Benjamin has lost touch with his gig going days which fired his imagination at CBGBs—the New York venue which saw the rise of The Ramones, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads. He and Spence visited the club regularly when it was in its prime though it had more effect on one brother than the other, but we’ll come to that. The best passage in the book shows Benjamin digging up his old vinyl to re-engage with the fire of his youth. Here he is listening to Venus by the band Television:

Benjamin thought the song was as mysterious and captivating as it had been when he first heard it, as sublime and mercurial as its subject. Maybe even more so than the complacent man he had become. He picked the arm up and set it back to the beginning. He didn’t just want to hear it again, he wanted to live through it and in it, to find there the fearlessness that he had felt when the music had been alive, before he had become measured and afraid.

Many of us have experienced that head-swimming joy of an album that just hits. I can remember hearing The Velvet Underground’s first album for the first time. For years I’d written it off before I heard a note as I knew that Serious Music Journalists always put it on a pedestal, but when I did it knocked me sideways. From the fairground tinkle of Sunday Morning to the screeching of European Son to Delmore Schwartz, it was beauty combined with terror. ‘Heroin’ is quoted at the end of the book too.

Contrast Benjamin’s sensory overload with Spence’s corporate night out at a Rolling Stones gig. Spence loves Mick and the boys. Adores them. He considers them to be the pinnacle of all music though he seems to love their reputation more than their actual worth. They make money so they must be great. It reminded me of a Grammy Awards night about fifteen years ago on MTV where the acts were introduced with the amounts of units they’d shifted that year. ‘Rihanna – 20 million copies of blah blah blah in 2010 or whatever.’ Imagine The Ramones lurching onstage at CBGBs with that welcome.

Spence is joined at the gig by Mark/Giorgio who sits baffled at the cacophony emanating from the stage. Earlier he’s sat in an expensive restaurant watching rich people in their Stones attire eat expensive food. To paraphrase The Smiths, they say nothing to him about his life. (I can’t help but feel that Wells has been a little harsh on the Stones here. The Stones were great. Let It Bleed is one of my favourite albums, but bearing in mind that they nicknamed one of their tours ‘The Cash Machine Tour’, I can sort of see his point.)

The Sterns are Listening is out now from Ze Books.
We received a copy of the book in return for an honest review but that did not influence us.

If ‘The Sterns are Listening’ grabs your interest, check out our review of Lou Reed The Life here.

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