Panic Years by Daniel DiFranco
Tailwinds Press, 2018; 331 pp
Reviewed by Britny Brooks
“I had a small panic attack and Pink Floyd’s song 'Time' crept in my head. I was suddenly aware of myself, my age, the past ten years slogging it out in clubs, giving lessons, sitting in with bands for fifty bucks a night trying to catch a break. . . .We had no drummer. We were broke. These weren’t my songs. . . .My heart started beating faster. I didn’t want to be forty and working in a fucking Burger King between tours.” (177-118)
The life of a musician isn’t glamorous. Daniel DiFranco’s debut novel, Panic Years, delves deep into this fantasized, idealize occupation and reveals the raw, wonderful, arduous journey of being a musician in an up-and-coming band on the road. Following Paul, the bassist and newest member to the band Qualia, DiFranco grabs us by the front of our shirts, puts us in the front seat of the van, and shows us the other side of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Together Paul and his bandmates—Laney, Jeff, and Gooch—endure long nights and longer days, theft, episodes of heavy-drinking and drugs, crooked promoters, gastrointestinal distress, abuse from rival bands, friction in the band, and the grueling grind of playing gig after gig in the various bars, venues, and nightclubs of indie-rock America as they travel from Texas to New York on their first tour.
What sets Panic Years apart from other music and even road-trip fueled narratives is the dry humor, authenticity, and heart that DiFranco brings to the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. Paul and his bandmates have their own fears, hopes, and hang-ups—the band and their music means something a little different to each of them—and it is easy to relate to and side with Gooch or Paul one minute and then Jeff or Laney the next. We can see our faded dreams of stardom and the less flattering, rough-edged bits of ourselves and our friends, that we don’t often own up to, reflected in them. It is easy to believe that this is what life is like on the road because DiFranco conveys his own personal experiences onto the page. Each gig and obstacle that the band faces uncovers the very real passion, creativity, fear, anxiety, and determination that goes into creating music and keeping a band full of very different people together. Surprisingly often, Qualia’s journey from gig to gig, and the constant give-and-take between the characters mirrors the mundane conversations and arguments, habits, and cyclical rhythms of everyday life. Music, like everything else, is actually work.
At its heart, Panic Years is about friendship, what it takes to make good art, and the struggle to survive the day-to-day grind, rather than fame and glory. This is also one of the few books that is able to capture and reproduce the energy and “sound” of a song without including lyrics or specific chords, which is something special in its own right. A smooth, enjoyable summer read to take with you out to the hammock, to the beach, or on a long road trip, then pass along to your friends.