Book review: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

You could be forgiven, mere pages into the nostalgia-tinged, conversationally-oriented wonder that Daisy Jones & The Six, for thinking that the novel should be shelved in the music section of your local bookstore rather than on its fiction shelves.

Styled like a VH1 Behind the Music special, where anyone and everyone associated with a band or solo music artist recalls seminal moments from their career and life, Daisy Jones & The Six feels as vividly alive and visceral as any real-life documentary.

A dissection of the brief but blazing flare that was the fictional band Daisy Jones and the Six back in the 1970s before they imploded, like so many groups before them, on the altar of thwarted ambitions, personality conflicts and stymied life goals, the book is an utterly immersive read.

So compelling is it from the opening pages that it quickly becomes one of those books that demand you stay up late and finish it, if at all possible, in one fevered sitting.

Alas, that wasn’t an option for this reviewer, but the urge was most clearly there as Billy and his younger brother Graham, Daisy, Karen, Warren, Eddie and Peter came leaping off the page, guitars, drums or songs in hand, telling their stories, flawed recollections and all.

“KAREN: ‘The album was doing pretty well and our tour got extended. I was talking to Camila about it and she said, ‘Karen, should I come join you guys?’
I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth fast enough. I said, ‘No, stay there.’

WARREN: ‘Let me sum up that early tour for you: I was getting laid, Graham was getting high, Eddie was getting drunk, Karen was getting up, Pete was getting on the phone back home, and Billy was all five, at once.'” (P. 67)

That is the point in many ways of Daisy Jones & The Six.

The tagline on the front cover promises that “Everyone was there. Everyone remembers it differently.” and as you revisit the go to whoa, and it’s a hard, explosive “whoa”, it becomes readily apparent how differently people perceive and recall particular events.

Take the recording of an album; you would think that the writing and recording of a bunch of songs would be a reasonably cut-and-dried affair, and that might true if you took the people out of the equation.

But, of course, you can’t, and so the chapters devoted to the lead-up, recording and fall out of the band’s biggest album Aurora, become less about the music itself that the host of behind the scenes issues feeding into it.

By the time we reach the recording of the album, Taylor Jenkins Reid has brought each character to life so fully and completely that you have a near-intimate insight into their beliefs, their hopes and goals, what drives their life choices and what the band and the people who make it up, or who orbit in its wake, really mean to them.

It means that when seminal events like the making of Aurora come up, the various machinations, conflicts and triumphs make perfect sense.

We can understand why Billy, who views Daisy Jones and the Six as his band and is sober and devoted to wife Camila and his kids, fights so hard to keep his vision for the album intact while trying to be magnanimous and defer to others (you can tell it’s pretty killing him to be this collaborative).

Taylor Jenkins Reid (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Or why Daisy, a beautiful woman that everyone notices with a powerful, evocatively-evocative voice that stops people in their tracks but who struggles with rampant drug and alcohol abuse as a way of coping with a host of familial and personal demons, veers between loving writing the songs with Billy and then regretting that she has poured so much of herself into them.

You get why Warren, who adores Karen, is reasonably to stand by and let things happen even as Eddie, who feels hard by pretty much all the time, seethes with barely-concealed resentment about slight after real or imagined slight.

Daisy Jones & The Six is, as a result, so graphically and brilliantly alive, so bursting with the veracity of a world where the music is often the product of people who love the creativity, the success and the acclaim, but who struggle to actually like each other.

So well does Taylor Jenkins Reid craft her characters that you feel as if you are sitting in the room listening to real people, people who have rise and fallen on the back of a mega band’s success, talk about why they acted like they did, how they perceived certain key events and why it mattered or didn’t matter to them.

I have never been in a band but I have been in close collaborative association with people and the way that personalities and worldviews can derail even the best of creative concepts is resonantly-evoked by the author who has a page-turning knack for recreating a long gone world in such rich, beguiling detail that you wish you could step into the book and live it for yourself.

“FREDDIE MENDOZA (photographer): ‘They had each veered to opposite ends of the group. But I kept trying to get everyone to mix it up. And at one point, I watched as Daisy leaned forward. She was looking at Billy. I just kept shooting. I always try not to call any attention to anything. I try to hang back and let people do what they are going to do. So I just kept snapping as Daisy was looking at Billy. And everyone else is looking at me, at the camera. And then, for a split second, bam, Billy turns and looks at Daisy just as she’s looking at him. And they locked eyes. And I caught it.” (P. 225-226)

What emerges most strongly in the midst of the story, where something so good and with so much promise comes apart on the back of the flaws and foibles of the people who birthed it and tried their hardest to sustain it, is the way Jenkins Reid simply portrays them as people doing their best.

Some truly messed up things happen, lines are crossed and love is expressed in ways that end being more destructive than nourishing, but you never get the sense of any judgement entering the mix.

The author is content to evoke the world of late ’70s rock without recrimination or commentary, beautifully accepting that we are flawed to the back teeth and that while we might aim for the stars, as the members and associated people of Daisy Jones & the Six most certainly do, we don’t always get there.

It’s not anybody’s fault, although some are more culpable than others, and while we are, as a species, all too adept at seeking and trying to lay blame, there is no one person you can look to, beyond possibly Billy and Daisy, who are intertwined in all kinds of unhealthy ways, for the end of this most meteoric of bands.

Life happens, mistakes are made and things begin and end, sometimes with great fury and combustion, and that’s OK, and life goes on, as Daisy Jones & The Six illustrates so beautifully that you honestly wish you could spend the rest of your life talking to these people.

Purely because they’re alive, they’re real, they feel like all of us at one point or another, and there’s something fiercely compelling about people laying all their skeletons bare and facing up to the demented dances of their demons, and owning it all and moving on.

It feels desperately, amazingly ALIVE, gloriously, imperfectly, messily alive, and so, as a result, is Daisy Jones & The Six, one of those rare books that inhabits its world so artfully, truthfully and knowingly that reading it transports far away from where you are even as it digs deep into your psyche and asks you “Would you have behaved any differently given the circumstances?”

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