‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’: A read that’s as thrilling as being at a rock concert
Dawnie Walton’s debut novel is a rollicking read about rock stars who don’t exist. And yet its heart and soul are utterly real – and its narrative is like a truth-seeking missile.
The prologue alone is like a bolt of lightning, a crack from a whip that resounds across time – potent, high-calibre stuff signalling that what you’re about to read is no mere rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. Written as an editor’s note by the fictitious compiler of a made-up slice of music history, it is a manifesto, a battle cry, a call to action against interconnected scourges – racism, cultural hegemony, patriarchy.
It’s also an introduction to the story of a woman, a cult-status punk rocker with fire in her soul. A Black songstress who – at a time when Black women’s voices are too seldom heard and very often suppressed – refuses to be silenced. Instead, she speaks truth to power, marches to the beat of her own drum, and in the heat of the moment stages a thrillingly vivid protest that sparks mayhem, unexpectedly launching herself into the twin realms of notoriety and, among the many women and girls who look and feel like her, fame.
Her name is Opal Jewel, and she’s entirely made up, an invention of a bountiful imagination. She’s the vital ingredient in The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton’s debut novel which is essentially a rockumentary about a firebrand proto-Afropunk diva.
It’s not too far into her story – from small-town innocent, destined to play second-fiddle to her more vocally talented sister, to outspoken heroine – that you in fact start to believe, or wish, that Opal Jewel might have been real. There’s a strong inclination to Google her, browse for details of the events and characters conjured into existence for the sake of this novel, wondering how you missed this captivating figure who breezed through New York’s early-1970s music scene. How incredible, I thought, it would have been to have seen Opal on stage, to witness her in all her avant-garde glory, with her attitude and anger, her unhinged performances fuelling the dreams of her devoted fans.
But, no. Opal may possess strains of Grace Jones and channel aspects of other female greats, but she is her own unique creation, a product of Walton’s urgent need to tell a story that connects to the part of her that felt unseen when she was growing up, in love with music that was in some ways not meant for her, music in which people like her did not seem to figure – other than as background singers.
Walton grew up in northern Florida, in a place she says was more Alabama than the Florida we imagine when we think of Miami; her hometown – Jacksonville – also birthed Lynyrd Skynyrd. She says it was bands like that – popular, hard-hitting Stetson-and-cowboy-boots-wearing musicians who sang rock anthems like Sweet Home Alabama in front of a Confederate flag – that deepened her sense of not being represented in the musical landscape of her youth.
Not only that, she says, but when she found herself in places where symbols of repression such as that flag were displayed without question, she felt scared.
Walton says it was watching 20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary about background singers, that sparked the idea for the novel. In it, she’d noticed a pair of wonderful songstresses grooving along to David Burn in footage from a Talking Heads concert and it made her imagine what might happen if one of these women had been front-and-centre alongside Burn, rather than merely backing him up. What if a black-and-white male-and-female duo had in fact found musical fame somewhere back in the 1970s?
And so Walton created that scenario, conjured two curious characters to inhabit the roles and allowed the fraught politics and climate of social tension that accompanied the unfolding civil rights movement of the time to layer and texture events along the way.
While Opal is one kind of outsider (“an outcast Black girl from Detroit”), Nev Charles – a lanky, redhead from Birmingham (in the UK, not Alabama) – is another. Having endured a bit of a messy childhood, he’s a bit of a loner, “a goofy white English boy” who writes attention-grabbing music but can’t quite find his niche. Not until his own attention is grabbed when he first sees Opal on stage; they are destined to make beautiful magic together. As an interracial musical duo, they are dynamite.
And, like dynamite, their impact is explosive.
Walton brings Opal and Nev together at a time when their union was almost too preposterous to imagine. She invites us to witness the beauty of their artistic collaboration, while at the same time setting them up as the spark that ignites a racial conflagration.
The story, which unfolds in the form of an oral history enabling multiple voices to give their account of events, revolves around a pivotal backstory moment. While on stage during a music label showcase in 1971, Opal destroys a Confederate flag – right in front of a contingent of rough, rude, rowdy bikers, blatant racists who are also quite keen on violence.
While the riot that ensues has tragic consequences, it also propels Opal & Nev into the spotlight. Media notoriety provides the momentum for the duo to achieve some level of fame, even if it is short-lived.
Following the dissolution of the Opal & Nev phenomenon, Nev manages to reinvent himself and achieve greatness as a solo musician. Opal, who never gives in to the allure of the mainstream, falls into relative obscurity, her career a patchwork of creative endeavours and flickering moments that are picked up by die-hard admirers and eventually become memes that Opal herself is too old to understand. What’s undeniable, though, is that these two star-crossed artists had been at the height of their artistic greatness when performing together.
Now, decades later, it’s the promise of a reunion that prompts the writing of a book about the duo, and an opportunity for a music journalist who goes by the name Sunny Shelton to rigorously research the life of the music idol with whom she’s always had a “complicated” relationship.
The stakes are higher than usual, though, since Sunny, who has recently taken on the mantle as the first Black woman editor of a Rolling Stone-type magazine, enjoys a connection to Opal that extends beyond idolising her as an artist. Sunny’s own father – a drummer – had had an affair with Opal. Not only that, but he’d been killed during the race riot incited by Opal’s on-stage flag mutilation.
And so, as Sunny digs into this history, she is also uncovering details of her own pre-story, and while some of what she finds out is sweet, there are always darker truths waiting to be illuminated.
The novel plays out as a deep-yet-funny look at the specific events leading up to, during and following the riot. And it forms a bridge between those events and a more contemporary time, notably 2016, when Sunny is researching her book and the US is again fraught, this time with social tension stoked by Trump’s campaign to take his prurient politics into the White House.
By the time the book reaches its second major climax – the reunion concert towards which everything has been building – your heart breaks as you feel the weight of years, decades, centuries of oppression come to bear on the reality of today. In the context of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd tragedy, the book is a timely acknowledgement of the fact that, despite the veneer of social progress, in too many ways things have not changed much at all for people of colour.
This final, explicit, heartbreaking revelation of truths that are hard to handle is executed with such beauty and control, and yet it compels you to measure your own complicity in a system that privileges whiteness. There’s a kind of shame in accepting the status quo, whether by burying your head in the sand or by looking away rather than speaking up on behalf of the oppressed and defenceless. Or simply by tolerating such symbols of oppression as Confederate flags, statues of slave owners, or racially motivated police brutality.
It’s not all high-minded idealism, though. This is a story about rock stars, and so we also get a glimpse at that often chaotic world – the egos, the infighting, the backstage shenanigans and record label politics, the drugs and sex and terrible performances caused by an excess of both.
And, beyond the instinctual thread of activism that nourishes the story with a weightier backbone than you might expect from a fictional music biography, there’s something else that seeps off the pages – a deep, abiding love of music. Walton is clearly steeped in it, and you feel her passion oozing off the page. You feel her love of the rhythms, of the hip-grinds, of the rock stars cavorting on stage. And you sense a love of the sweaty crowds who idolise and worship those stars, whether from their seats or the mosh pits or the muddy festival grounds.
In this sense the book is a poignant reminder of those gatherings music fans have been missing out on over the past year. How it makes you yearn for a return to those days. And how it makes you hope that, when we do return, we will do so with greater grace. And with more space in our hearts for those who have always had to struggle simply to be acknowledged. DM/ML
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is published by Quercus and distributed locally by Jonathan Ball Publishers, on sale from 15 May 2021.