As a nineteen-year-old college student, Hunter Sharpless emails the manager of a little-known band and pitches to her a proposal: He would spend a few months on the road with them during one of their cross-country tours and write a book about them and his experience. Sharpless is surprised when he not only gets a response at all, but that the response is, in general, encouraging. He is even more surprised when, ultimately, he is invited to join the band on the road.
So begins Sharpless’s musical and literary odyssey, which he recounts in Song of the Fool, part tribute, part music biography, part travelogue, part diary, part memoir.
This thin volume is arranged in five parts, each part focusing on one of the four band members of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers as well as on its manager. The book begins with Stephen Kellogg (aka “Skunk”), the leader and frontman of the band, whose roots are on the East Coast. Kellogg features prominently throughout the book, even those parts ostensibly dedicated to his bandmates. Perhaps this is because he is the frontman, perhaps because he might have a larger personality than the others, perhaps because the author might feel closest to him.
In focusing the book on each member of the band and its manager, Song of the Fool unfolds as glimpses into relationships with these individuals, four guys and one woman of varying ages from varying places, but all of whom are dedicated to the band and its music. Sharpless is, in more ways than one, the odd ball out. Not only is he only vaguely familiar with the Sixers when he pitches his road-trip idea, but he is not much of a musician to speak of, has never been on the road, and is far younger than the youngest band member.
And, yet, he somehow fits in. The members of the band become something like older brothers, guys in whom Sharpless sometimes confides, who sometimes confide in him. During their months on the road, they share stories about women, wine, and song. They share hotel rooms. They share cramped quarters in a dingy van nicknamed “The Bear.” It seems only natural that a certain intimacy would develop; indeed, it would have been odd if something like friendship hadn’t developed during the months-long, cross-country road trip.
Sharpless, who lives in Naperville, captures those relationships, noting how they evolve over the weeks and months they all share on the road. He tells, for instance, of his affection for “Goose,” of his fear of “Boots,” and of his admiration of Skunk. We feel Sharpless’s self-conscious awkwardness as he struggles to find his place among the band members, a temporary interloper who is not quite reporter, not quite groupie. We feel his youthful naïveté as he muddles his way through pick-up lines, watching as Boots ends up with the women he eyes while Goose urges him on. We feel his frustration when, after long drives and sleepless nights, he bickers with band manager Jessica about taking inventory of merchandise the band sells during its gigs.
Song of the Fool also serves as something of a backstage pass, revealing the band when it’s not performing, chronicling the hours spent in that cramped van, nights in mid-priced hotels, and poorly attended performances held in small music venues. We see the band loading and unloading and loading equipment again and again. We see them driving hours on end from one gig to the next, stopping at brightly lit gas stations in the middle of the night, tanking up on gas and filling up on Pop-Tars. We see them goofing around, witness to the brotherly banter of friends and musicians who have known each other for a long time.
What we don’t necessarily see, however, is much of a revelation or turning point that marks Sharpless’s journey as a young man or as a writer. We don’t necessarily see Sharpless evolve from awkward, unsure nineteen-year-old to a more confident, mature version of himself. We don’t necessarily see what drives Sharpless to take this strange trip or what he ultimately got out of it.
Although an interesting travelogue of a band on the road, Song of the Fool could have gone much deeper, reporting not just on the Sixers and their behind-the-scenes antics but examining more closely what this strange trip meant for and did to Sharpless. That’s not to say that this debut work is without merit. There is some honest, raw feeling here. There are some well-written scenes that expertly capture place and time and mood. But in the end, some readers might still wonder what Sharpless’s intentions were with this book. Was it to see what it would be like to travel across the country in a cramped van with a bunch of strangers? Was it to explore America in an unusual way? Or, was it just to write a book? Any book? To write a book so that Sharpless could, indeed, call himself an author rather than just an aspiring wrier?
Song of the Fool leaves the reader wondering what Sharpless hoped to get out of this adventure, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth the read. Although this is no Almost Famous, fans of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers will appreciate the backstage pass into the often lonely, sometimes silly off-stage world that colors the lives of so many musicians. Readers who are curious about what writers go through when aching to become published also will find some unique insight in these pages. Whether this Song is music to everyone’s ears, though, is, perhaps, another matter.
September 2014, Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock Publishers
$19, paperback, 147 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen