Pictures of You

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev BY Dawnie Walton. New York: 37 Ink. 368 pages. $27.
Cover of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

Dawnie Walton. Photo: Rayon Richards

One night in the spring of 1970, up-and-coming British singer-songwriter Nev Charles sees a young woman named Opal Robinson singing at a Detroit open-mic. She is wearing crushed velvet and a long blue-black wig, and he is, in his own words, “absolutely gobsmacked.” Her strange voice wields just the power his act is missing. When Opal starts performing with him in the New York City rock scene, a cult idol is born.

Opal is the fictional musician and provocateur of Dawnie Walton’s debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, which begins by revisiting the duo’s origins. It goes on to cover their sudden rise and flameout after a riot erupts at a gig in 1971. In 2016, after decades apart, Opal and Nev prepare for their first reunion show, and Opal enlists S. Sunny Shelton, a music journalist with family ties to the band, to chronicle its influence. Walton has chosen a canny frame for her novel: she writes it as Sunny’s book, an oral history that summons a chorus of voices from Opal’s past and, like any good work of journalism, challenges settled narratives.

Walton spoke with Bookforum over video from her writing desk, surrounded by photos of cultural greats like Eartha Kitt and James Baldwin. We discussed how performers become icons, the erasure of Black women in music history, and her process of crafting rock stars so real, readers can almost hear them.

Since your novel is about a fictional rock ’n’ roll duo, I wanted to ask about your own relationship with music. What did you grow up listening to?

I come from a family of music fans—record collections were a thing in all my relatives’ households. My grandparents were into jazz vocalists: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole. And my parents were in their twenties in the 1970s, a very exciting time for Soul music, so Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were such a big part of my childhood. My dad also listened to instrumental music, like jazz and fusion. I loved all of that stuff, but my own curiosity led me to other kinds of music.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, what a person listened to was representative of so much—for better or worse. I fell in with the alternative, artsy kids. We were into post-punk, a lot of British music, and bands like the Cure and the Smiths. I also really loved the shoegaze band Ride and the indie-rock band Pavement. But it was complicated—there was nobody who looked like me in that scene. During my freshman year at Florida A&M, an HBCU, my musical tastes and my identity started to reconcile. This was 1994, the golden age of hip hop, and still an exciting time to be into rock ’n’ roll. I started to understand that what I listened to didn’t define me. It didn’t change the fact that I was—and am—a proud Black person and comfortable in my own skin. And I was meeting other Black people who liked all kinds of things.

I’ve always been interested in those years of my life, when I didn’t see myself in the things I was drawn to. I wanted to write something about it—and now I have—about that wish to have a figure. Someone you put up on your wall that you’re proud of, as opposed to, like, hiding that poster under your bed. I often felt like the music I listened to was somehow contraband.

Did your research uncover anything surprising?

One of the things that’s been really incredible and sad about writing this book is understanding that there were so many Black women in rock who’ve been erased. And I’m still learning about new ones. In fact, I just read about this band Bam Bam from Seattle. Have you heard of them? The band’s style was a forerunner of grunge, and they were led by a Black woman named Tina Bell, who I had never heard of before. There are so many women like Bell who were foundational and people—even an enthusiast like me—just don’t know about them.

In your novel, Opal, the Black singer at the center of the story, has not been erased, but there’s a lot the public doesn’t know, or gets wrong, about her. Can you tell us about Sunny and her project?

This is not a spoiler because it’s the very first sentence of the book: Sunny is the daughter of Jimmy Curtis, who was Opal and Nev’s drummer, and who was killed before Sunny was born. Jimmy was at the concert where Opal lodges a protest that changes the trajectory of the band and the book. At that time, he was also having an affair with Opal. Sunny grows up thinking of Opal as a taboo figure, but she sneaks Opal and Nev’s music and becomes a rock ’n’ roll fan listening to these contraband albums. Sunny is fascinated by how fiery Opal is. She ends up becoming—to her mother’s consternation—a music journalist. But she’s paranoid in her professional life. She doesn’t want people to know her family history because she doesn’t want them to think that she’s been given anything.

At the start of the book, she gets promoted to editor in chief of the music magazine she works for. And she thinks, finally I can breathe, I can trust my own instincts. She decides to write an oral history of Opal and Nev. As she talks to people involved with the band and looks into her own background, she goes back and forth between worshipping Opal and being very angry with her.

What was it was like to develop Opal and Nev as complementary characters?

Back in 2013, I was watching footage from Talking Heads’ concert movie, Stop Making Sense (1984). At one point, singer David Byrne is in the middle of the stage, being his weird self in his gray, boxy suit. Then the camera pans and you see his backup singers: two Black women whose names I’ve since learned are Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. They were giving it their all—so talented, so compelling—and wearing microbraids and bright-red lipstick and gray short suits to match Byrne’s. I thought, “God, I wish I could pull one of them to center stage.” It sparked a bunch of “what-if” questions. To friends, I pitched the novel as: imagine if David Bowie and Grace Jones made proto-punk music in 1970s New York City. What would that be like? I started riffing from there.

I began with Opal’s voice, thinking about the city where she lived, Detroit, which was, at the time of her childhood, a place of wonderful empowerment and resistance for Black people. I wanted Nev to come from a different socioeconomic background. He’s a funny one—he ended up surprising me often. As I was getting to know his voice, I thought of him as charming, but also a little slick—in the way that a celebrity would be. I was also thinking about his privilege in this context, and what the idea of certain rock stars being chameleons would ultimately mean for him.

Has your background as a journalist factored into your fiction writing?

I think bringing in history was key. For three years, I worked at, a photography site that was the resurrection of Life magazine. I spent a lot of time looking at old photos in the archives and trying to decipher the stories they were telling. I think that mode of processing history really affected the way I think as a writer. And at Entertainment Weekly, where I worked for six years, I became a fan of oral history and was interested in questions about imagery and celebrity: what is public versus private, issues of intent and art making, and how some things become incredibly popular while others just fall off—all things I explored in the novel. At the end of my nine-to-five, like, executive media life, I was at Essence, which is a magazine and brand that, for more than fifty years now, has celebrated and uplifted Black women.

I was an editor at Essence; I didn’t write very often, but I did write a feature based on a study about images of Black women in media. It broke down nine different categories of negative tropes from across television and movies. So, I was very cognizant, in writing this book, about creating a full and rich character who didn’t fall into a “jezebel” trope or an “angry Black woman” trope. I wanted to create an iconic figure who was powerful and inspiring but also complicated and human and vulnerable.

There are two timelines in the book: the main storyline takes place in the past, while the characters telling it live in America, circa 2016. How did you think about those two frames of reference?

The biggest technical complication was that Opal and Nev were supposed to be famous people. Household names. I had to keep an idea of the book as a real document in the world of the novel as I was writing, and consider how a reader in that world would approach the book. I wanted to reveal new information and new context for that reader. But what information would go without saying? That was a tricky thing to get around. I didn’t want to take it so far as to write something like, “You remember when this thing happened, and that thing.” So, I started thinking of it more like Sunny does as a journalist: by laying out the myth of Opal and Nev and then deconstructing that myth.

We also hear from real people who are alive now, like Gloria Steinem and Quentin Tarantino, alongside other familiar cultural figures. What were you hoping to show by placing Opal among this constellation of “real” data points?

I’m putting on my journalist hat here—I was thinking about people who would have good commentary on how Opal and Nev were positioned in different cultural contexts and social movements. I was able to think about Opal as a feminist character by imagining Gloria Steinem talking about her being on The Dick Cavett Show and about intersectional feminism. I was interested in thinking about Opal’s image as a badass and how that image was exploited in ways that aren’t always comfortable. I was thinking about artists whom Opal might have influenced, such as Janelle Monáe. And Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello also have moments in the novel talking about Opal’s music, her place in the music world, and being very clear about her influence on punk.

At one point, I had Beyoncé make an appearance. I took her out simply because Beyoncé doesn’t talk to the media very much.

Alex Madison is a writer based in Seattle.