Book Review: ‘Bang Bang Crash’ by Nic Brown

Once a drummer, always a drummer? When Nic Brown landed a fellowship to enter the very selective Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he earned his MFA in 2006), he figured his drumming days were done. He didn’t want to reference his years on the rock circuit with his new friends in Iowa City. At parties, the words he most feared hearing were, “Nic was in a band.” Though he’d been in Rolling Stone and on The Tonight Show, he’d suspected that, if anyone asked about his music career, they would never have heard of the band he’d been in (Athenaeum) or its signature hit (“What I Didn’t Know”). This might have embarrassed them, which would have embarrassed him. Better to let those sleeping dogs lie.

But as he admits in this self-deprecating memoir, he had trouble getting drumming out of his system. Even when he pivoted his career toward publishing novels and teaching aspiring writers, he would find a rhythm track coursing through his veins. His dentist asked if he’d been grinding his teeth. Not exactly. He’d been using them as a non-stop click track.

As a coming-of-age memoir, Bang Bang Crash isn’t your typical Behind the Music episode. No sex or drugs, nor detailed accounts of drama with the record label or management. Instead, it’s a more thoughtful rendering of how a kid achieves his dream — so fast and so young, with his high school band — and then discovers that this particular dream isn’t the right fit for him. His musical tastes change, as do his creative ambitions. The thrill he felt at first signing a contract can’t sustain him, even as his band’s music gets some serious play on the radio.

He also develops the “yips,” a term most often associated with sports, with baseball players or golfers, who overthink the throw or the putt that used to be instinct. What they could once do naturally they can no longer do as well, or sometimes at all. He had trouble finding the groove, or keeping the beat. Something was seriously wrong.

One of the memoir’s other unexpected revelations shows how he gained more confidence to switch from drumming to writing. He wrote a fake bio for one of his later bands. He thought it was as outlandish as anything, say, Cheap Trick had once issued, but others took it seriously. And it could have had serious repercussions, as the New Yorker (he’d aimed high to publish his own work) was interested in writing a piece on the band, based on this fake origin story.

It’s a funny story, and could have had serious consequences, but it gave Brown the confidence that he could craft a story that would connect with others. He appreciates the autonomy a writer has, though he missed a band’s collaborative spirit. And he discovers that the writing racket doesn’t necessarily provide a smoother career path or a road to riches. Though it seems to suit him as a better vocation for growing up and growing older, as he becomes a husband and then a father.

Ultimately, he decides to revisit what he had once wanted to outgrow. He reunites that first band for a 20th anniversary performance, partly to give this book its conclusion, but maybe a little to come to terms with what he’d never gotten past. And in the process he opens the door, at least a little, that he’d once been so determined to slam shut.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s April 2023 issues.