Rating: 4.25 stars
It is 1990 and a local band called King Phoenix is looking for a lead guitarist to round out the band. When 20 year old Scott King shows up to audition, his music and song writing abilities mesh perfectly with the songs and sounds King Phoenix embodies and they welcome him into the group. Scott also bonds closely with their lead singer, Ash Walker. As the rock band evolves from anonymity to fame, Scott and Ash form first a close friendship which turns into a intense, sexual and romantic relationship that lasts for four years. But unlike his other band members, Scott starts to experience stage fright the bigger the venues they play. His coping mechanisms coupled with some bad friends, start Scott on a downward spiral that Ash and the band are first unaware of, then unable to stop. Pressure mounts until the stresses and rumors of Ash leaving the band, cause Scott to implode, ODing on drugs and alcohol. While Scott lies in a coma in the hospital, the band leaves to go on tour without him. There will be no further communication between the band and Scott until 16 years later.
2011, Berry, Australia. Scott King has worked hard since coming out of rehab to become a successful music producer with his own studio. He’s healthy having been clean for 16 years. Scott likes his quiet life, he lives with his twin sister and his niece, he has friends and ex lovers, and is mostly content. His past is safely secured in a box tucked away in a closet in his bedroom, a box that never gets opened lest the past bring out all the old demons he has fought for so long.
Then he gets a phone call from the past, his old band manager, who wants Scott to play at a benefit gig for King Phoenix’s old sound man who is dying of cancer. The benefit is to raise money for his wife and child and Scott is needed to reunite the band. Prodded by his sister and fond memories of their sound man, Scott agrees against his better judgement. But seeing Ash, who wants to take up where they left off, starts to shatter Scott’s self control as does the stage fright that starts to come back. Can Scott handle the stress of seeing the only man he has ever loved under the same conditions that once broke him? Or will this reunion cost Scott everything he has worked so hard to build, including his sobriety.
I love a good rocker book and Metal Heart is terrific. It is my first introduction to Meredith Shayne and I will eagerly check out the rest of her library. Metal Heart has so much to recommend it, including a gritty look at the effect of drugs and alcohol on someone vulnerable enough to let them take over his life. Actually, I think this element of the novel is perhaps the best part of the story, elevating it even over the lovers reunited.
Shayne starts off by giving us the character of Scott King, a naive 20 year old gay musician. A friend and later band manager drags him to audition for a scruffy local band called King Phoenix. Scott is someone who loses himself in his music, from the compositions he writes to the lead guitar he plays. Shayne gives him a vulnerability that shows the reader how open emotionally Scott can be to all things, including love in the form of Ash Walker. I love this character and we watch him grow and struggle over a 16 year period. For Scott, the best part of his life is the early years with Ash, before the band caught on and became famous. Young, impressionable, artistic and happy, those are his defining years. But the stresses of playing to large crowds, as well as hiding their romance and sexuality from all around them, places such a strain on Scott that the cracks start to appear and fissure, and we feel helpless as we watch it happen. The author then goes on to demonstrates how readily available drugs and alcohol allowed musicians and others to cope with the demands of touring and the pressures of fame. The scenes where associates introduce Scott to drugs rings true as does the resulting addiction that others are helpless to derail.
This leads us into discussions of therapy and rehabilitation as well as the fact that once you are an addict, you are always an addict. Shayne is careful to give us an authentic portrayal of someone in the throes of an addiction to someone living the life of a recovered addict. The temptations to succumb to the pressure to use again are always present and Scott is that addict personified. Really, this is just a remarkable characterization.
The character of Ash Walker is one that, while he didn’t quite work his magic on me, will be a favorite of most readers. A little older, Ash is less vulnerable and more savvy than Scott, even at the beginning. And while we never doubt the love he holds for Scott, he comes across as the most secure and ambitious of the two. He wants fame, and is at ease with the pressures that come with it, unlike Scott. And while there is more to his story than is revealed at the beginning, I still found myself disconnected from this character, especially after he continues to pressure Scott to resume playing while acknowledging that Scott is showing the symptoms of cracking under the stress. I did find it realistic that the band members would be so self involved not to understand what was happening to Scott in the 90’s but for them to consider his actions that of a “jerk” when he is clearly trying to protect himself and his self control in 2011, well I found that to be less feasible, more objectionable than anything else.
This also applies to the “aha” moment of the story which I won’t divulge here. But one thing that is repeatedly brought up is the fact that Scott “disappeared” and that in 16 years Scott never tried to contact the band members. They all knew he was in rehab and a little research would have shown that those in rehabilitation are not to have contact with those that helped enable them. Plus Scott King became a successful music producer, and they couldn’t find him until 16 years later? Again, that just doesn’t seem all that realistic. But those qualms aside, this author delivers a vibrant, enthusiastic portrait of young rockers, love and the price of fame to life in Metal Heart, and then leaves us with the promise that sometimes love is enough, even after 16 years apart. For me, this is still a HFN, instead of HEA and there seems to be plenty of room for another book to see where they take the relationship next as not all obstacles have been cleared away. Either way, this story will please fans of rock n roll stories and bad boys with music to burn as well as those of romantic lovers reunited at long last. All fans will be left satisfied at the end of Metal Heart. Pick it up and happy reading!
Cover art by Anne Cain. Love, love this cover. From the graphics to the color choices and fonts, just perfect.