Cover Story continued


Times change fast–the Punk Era, as manifested in the l980s, already seems part of ancient history–except, of course, for some Hawaii kids, always a bit behind whatever curve is largely vanishing.

Defining punk is a difficult matter, and that is among the several strengths of Tyler McMahon’s double-meaning-titled How The Mistakes Were Made, which, in microcosm, details the confusion, pretensions, and self-destructive arrogance of the Punk Rock era. The Mistakes proves to be the name of the penultimate rock band. It’s narrated by an atypical band musician (percussion, keening vocals, bass) a woman named–look out now–Laura Loss.

“Punk Rock had everything to do with the Cold War,” Loss pontificates. “They (the government), built a machine for destroying life on the planet.” Hence ingenuous but cynical music, masochistic singers bashing themselves on stage–and indulging in classic tropes of booze and (some) dope. These paragons of ersatz reality think they’re exposing the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain.

Mistakes is a perfectly competent first-person ‘80s novel, heavy on predictability and sorely in need of more editing in its first 40 pages. McMahon sometimes seems a writerist instead of a writer, in love with his own redundancies as well as a stylist-master of the misused nominative absolutes. Once he reins himself in, things look up.

Sit down, dear reader, take paper and pen in hand, and list all the things you perceive as indicative of a possible punk rock novel. They’re all here again and again: profligacy, self-indulgence, limited musical skills, lots of colorful language, off-again-on-again sex affairs. (Most types of love seem to be missing here, except between the narrator and her ill-fated musician brother.)

And now for the band. Sean is the more interesting of the two guys because he is a Synethesiac–in his case, he can see colors emanating from music. That device really punches up a novel character, nevermind the gimmick originated with Edgar Allen Poe. As the first-lady of Hard Core, as Laura is called, she has foundelay affair with both boyz, and can’t make up her mind. (A good case can be made for the ‘80s being called The Decade That Couldn’t Make Up Its Mind.)

Another originalist device is the juxtaposition of time-line, moving back and forth in the ‘80s, the information heading for a confrontation involving Laura’s bro.

This historicizes the upward progress of The Mistakes as well in the time-honored punk formula: success equals chaos and alienation. The Mistakes are a Chaos band, no brick-and-mortar affair. Sean nearly (accidentally) kills himself on stage during several fame-inducing concerts.

There’s more to be said, but not by us. This book is technically accomplished but has little new to say. Sad, but true.


During a tour of the American Westcoast, Laura Loss meets Sean and Nathan, two talented young musicians ready for neon lights, roadhouse bars and punk spirit. At the height of their fame, their fans blame Laura for the band’s toxic demise, and in McMahon’s novel, we hear her side of how the Mistakes were made.

“I don’t mind the hate. It doesn’t bother me anymore. There was a time when I was adored by the same brain-dead sheep who despise me now. I don’t miss that. Behind every dead rock god, there’s always some uppity female scapegoat. Why shouldn’t it be me? The public eye sees only love or hate. Fans aren’t capable of anything in between.”

McMahon sharply describes the hardcore punk scene of the ‘80s and the money-hungry music biz as one with quickie biographers and poseur journalists, as art synonymous with dollar signs and synthetically amplified stadiums. His characters are explosive, noxious, naïve and brilliant, and their relationships explore how we hurt people we care about, and how easy it is to confuse love with obsession.

The story moves fast, and for those looking for a good summer read without all the overwhelmingly creative narrative text, this books is must-have. It’s Almost Famous meets The Runaways, and the mindfully named character, Laura Loss, reminds us how it’s possible that a woman worth tens of millions of dollars might shave her head as a reaction to being overexposed, and why a grunge rocker from Seattle–the spokesman of a generation–would fall victim to heroine addiction, illness and depression as a gateway toward artistry and expression.

How the Mistakes Were Made

Tyler McMahon

St. Martin’s Press 340 pages, 2011