Reviewed by Sara Hodon
How The Mistakes Were Made
by Tyler Mcmahon
St. Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: 352 pages, October 11, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0312658540
Behind every legendary band lie the individuals at the heart of the legend. Quite often, the stories of in-fighting, self-destructive behavior and personality quirks overshadow the music itself. Some bands never get beyond their early days and fade before their full potential is realized. Tyler McMahon introduces such a band in his debut novel, How The Mistakes Were Made.
The Mistakes, as their name suggests, were a band that was not supposed to happen, which their jaded, world-weary drummer Laura Loss is the first to admit. Loss, a veteran of the early Los Angeles hardcore punk scene, is nearly ready to pack up her music career for good when she meets Nathan Sullivan and Sean Purvis, two young, passionate, wildly talented musicians. The boys start out as fans of Laura’s—her first band, SCC, was one of the early breakout acts of the underground punk scene and managed to maintain a loyal fan base despite breaking up years earlier—and, thanks to an offhand comment on Laura’s part, wind up as her bandmates. In Laura, McMahon creates a gritty, hard-edged woman who has seen it all—at least twice—and is frankly tired of it. She is not supportive of Nathan and Sean’s musical efforts, and grudgingly allows them into her life only after their talent truly touches something deep within her. Sean, the guitar player, has a neurological condition called synesthesia and says he can literally see the notes as he plays—a condition that drastically affects his playing ability. Sean wants to play music for the love of it, but early on, it is clear that he is fighting a few demons of his own that the notoriously self-destructive patterns of rock and roll will do nothing to help him overcome.
The two best friends are a study in contrasts. While both are clearly talented and passionate about their craft, they handle their rise to fame quite differently. Sean immediately starts down the path of over-indulgence and substance abuse. Nathan, meanwhile, does his best to remain a business-savvy professional; a musician whose main concern is the band’s best interest. Laura, who seemed to be literally pulled along for the ride at first, steps up as the experienced rocker girl she is, negotiating contract terms and using her first-hand experience to take The Mistakes to new heights, yet she falls a few times, as well, which begins the rapid descent of three musicians and a band once so full of promise. As narrator, Laura recalls the early days of The Mistakes and the series of events that led to its destruction, offering the side of the story not reported in the (fictional) tabloids. Some of Laura’s hesitation to re-enter the world of hardcore is understandable. As a member of SCC as a teenager, she watched in horror as the same crowds who had made the band what it was, also tear them down just as quickly. This nearly costs her brother Anthony, the social conscience and leader of SCC, his life. Understanding the sometimes fickle loyalty of music fans and critics, Laura vows not to make the same mistakes (as it were) again. But sometimes it’s hard to escape the past.
Although fictional, The Mistakes experience many of the same pitfalls that have cost real-life musicians their careers, if not their lives. Each character is a reflection of the punk rock scene they represent—a group of talented individuals who allow their fans into their world of anger, and frustration while showing them the human being behind the performer onstage. McMahon pulls no punches. His writing is terse and uncompromising, which sets the tone for the often tense relationships between the band members. The book’s chapters alternate between modern day—chronicling the formation, rise, and descent of The Mistakes—and Laura’s earlier experiences in SCC. It’s clear from the first chapter that something awful happened to her brother, but the details are left until the end of the story. The similarities between both bands are quite eerie, which proves that people don’t often learn from history.
McMahon does an admirable job of juxtaposing the energy and frenzy of punk with the wide-eyed innocence of two country boys who just want to play music—it’s clear that the punk scene is not for the fainthearted, and two young men could easily get consumed with its excess. Laura, for her part, saw this happen firsthand but can’t seem to stop it from happening again. She is consumed with guilt and dwelling on her past and “what could have been.” With The Mistakes, she sees a second chance to get it right—for herself, but more for her brother, whose time at the top was cut short. In the end she becomes too caught up in her own desires to prevent another tragedy from occurring. Telling the band’s story is another attempt to make things right with the fans.
I look forward to more books by Tyler McMahon. How the Mistakes Were Made is a wild glimpse into the roller coaster ride that is rock and roll; its title fitting for a story about brilliant but flawed individuals who remain their own worst enemies.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com