Dawnie Walton on Her Music-Obsessed Novel and Liking Whatever the Hell She Wants
‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’ author goes deep on Betty Davis, Altamont, and crafting an unforgettable protagonist
Leave it to a fiery soul legend to make a low-key TMI anthem. Before tell-all memoirs by Cybill Shepherd or Karrine Stefans, Betty Davis, who died in February at 77, put no less an eminence than Miles Davis on front street with her 1974 deep cut, “He Was a Big Freak.”
“She opens this song with a line screaming, ‘He was a big freak,’” says author Dawnie Walton, who found inspiration in the songstress’s brazen, zero-fucks-given ethos. “And it’s like, ‘I used to beat him with a turquoise chain.’ Like what?”
Walton, who, as a former editor for Entertainment Weekly, has hobnobbed with her fair share of famous people, has a tell-all tome of her own. Far from a gossipy confessional, though, her wonderful novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, which just came out in paperback, is the coming-of-age tale of Opal Jewel, a spicy singer — not unlike Betty Davis, whom Walton based her rebellious heroine on — who seeks to redefine herself over three generations.
The novel captivates you like one long, blissful marathon of VH1’s Behind the Music: There’s sex, drugs, and rock & roll, with larger-than-life characters and a politically charged plot that sticks in your brain like a provocative pop song. Speaking of which, Walton even put together a commemorative playlist, the range of which mirrors the amiable mutability of her dramatis personae.
Walton’s been a storyteller and music lover for as long as she can remember. Raised in Jacksonville, Florida — two hours away from Eatonville, the birthplace of Zora Neale Hurston — she has the kind of inquisitive mind that’s developing characters and ironing out minute plot points. Emboldened as it is by her love of Seventies rock lore (from her teenage years spent obsessing over old Rolling Stone issues), Walton writes with an expressive urgency, making it seem as though she’s populated the worlds of the musicians her characters are based on. Which, of course, she has.
Since 2013, when she was pursuing her M.F.A. at the venerable University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Walton had been conjuring up her protagonist, Opal Jewel, a freewheeling soul singer with a passion for revolutionary politics. From there, it was just a matter of filling in the backstory, mapping out Opal’s upbringing in Motown-era Detroit through her emergence as a free-spirited artist in early Seventies New York. There’s a striking, sepia-toned feel to the milieu Walton creates in her novel, which invokes a bygone era of automat cafeterias, checkered cabs, and Max’s Kansas City.
Walton relies on her journalistic experience, employing a cinema-truth-style narrative, where the characters tell their stories — replete with all manner of juicy insider’s particulars — as if in front of an omnipresent camera. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, which was released around this time last year, reads like a great rock oral history, with a postmodernist film-within-a-novel twist that feels as binge-worthy as your favorite Netflix doc. On the phone from her home in Brooklyn, Walton talked to me about Afro-Punk, the importance of finding your own tribe, and the quaint charm of the CD.
Opal is such a great character, very reminiscent of the late great Betty Davis. Was she an inspiration for Opal?
Yeah. There were three main inspirations. The first one — before I knew who the character was and I was just thinking of her style and the scene she was in, of her physically — was Grace Jones. And then I was also thinking about Nona Hendryx, one third of LaBelle, who was the force behind the rock edge LaBelle would sometimes have. I love their outfits, their costumes, and I love Nona Hendryx as a solo artist. All the work that she’s done in rock & roll with the Black Rock Coalition.
And then yes, number three was Betty Davis for sure. I wasn’t actually familiar with Betty Davis until after I started writing the book. But in my research I was learning more about her and she became more and more of an influence as I was writing the character. She didn’t have the most traditionally beautiful voice, and I think she even called herself, not a singer, but a vocalizer. I love that. You hear her screeching and yelping and making sounds that are just so wild and weird. She was so kind of upfront about who she was and not willing to compromise that. With Betty, it was being a very sexual person. With Opal, it’s a little different. It’s more about her politics, but the commitment to it was the same.
And I just loved that about her. And I sort of was interested in her story and what happened — having such a brief hot moment in New York as a live performer, and then kind of retreating into the shadows a bit. I was interested in that, as inspiration for what happens with Opal.
You made an Opal and Nev playlist, which is fire, by the way.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
Do you usually have music playing when you come up with your characters?
I was listening to not only music from that era of, you know, Opal and Nev — which would be the early 1970s — but also artists that I feel like would’ve been influenced by Opal and Nev. So on the playlist I had Janelle Monáe, the Noisettes, Arcade Fire — like all these groups that I felt would have loved Opal and Nev, found something of interest in them. That’s how I was thinking about putting that playlist together. And that’s the kind of music I was listening to when I was trying to get into the vibe, especially writing the last scenes of the book that take place at the festival, Derring-Do. I was definitely listening to a lot of music to kind of get in the mood.
Today, with so many prominent Black artists getting recognition for being “eclectic,” do you think it’s easier to be into your thing and not get stigmatized for it?
I do. And I think the internet is a big part of that. You can sort of satisfy different curiosities — it’s not as if you’re making a conscious choice when you’re going to stream a song. It’s not like when we were kids, and you had your little $20 allowance, and you have to decide what you’re going to buy. That’s more of a consequential choice, whereas, there’s just so much music freely available [today]. And I think in that sense, it’s easier. And I think that you can also find community easier. Honestly, the thing that blew my mind was in 2003, when the Afro-Punk documentary came out, James Spooner’s film.
And I remember being in a screening for that film and just feeling close to tears because I was like, “Wow, look at all of us who are into this music?” And like, “We’re out here, but we’re sort of like satellites,” you know? And then after I saw that documentary, I found the Afro-Punk message boards. And then suddenly there’s community. And that made all the difference. I think being able to find your people, who are into what you’re into, is like a huge, huge thing. Now, sometimes I do have nostalgia for things like albums, you know [laughs], like holding a CD or liner notes in your hands.
A lot of Black people experienced fragmentation to a certain degree. And it might not have fit with whatever vision of what they were supposed to be.
It was a different time, right? Music sort of worked differently in that time when I was in high school. What you listened to very much formed your identity. If you were into goth music, you dressed like a goth. If you were into hip-hop, you dressed very hip-hop. This is before the internet where, when new music came out on Tuesdays, you went to get the CD from the store; everything was very heavily marketed, very branded. What you listened to was really a strong part of your identity. So in high school I was questioning myself.
It was like, “Well, if I like this punk, if I like this indie rock, what does that mean about who I am as a Black person?” And I ended up going to an HBCU — I went to Florida A&M — and that’s when I learned how to hold all the different fragments of myself together, because I was in an environment where I was with such a diversity of Black folks. And we learned how to be our full selves and bring our full selves to the table and to say, “I can like whatever I like and still feel very comfortable in my skin as a Black person and in my identity and in my politics as a Black person.” So what I wanted to do with Opal was to create a character who’s able to hold all those pieces together.
There’s an Altamont-like concert in the novel and a conflict involving the drummer, Jimmy Curtis. Did you study old clips of Altamont or go back or read old Stones interviews for context?
I did. I knew a lot about Altamont because I used to work for Life.com, which was the sort of reincarnation of Life magazine. And we used to do these photo essays that would sort of look back at major events of the past, especially as the anniversaries of them came around. And I remember the anniversary of Altamont coming around and learning about that. Also Life had done an iconic photo essay about the Hells Angels a little bit earlier than Altamont. So, yeah, I absolutely went back, looked at photographs, looked at some video, read a little bit. I didn’t read too much about the Stones’ perspective because I didn’t want it to … I wanted to be sort of lightly inspired by Altamont, but I didn’t want to get too tied up in that.
I know it’s taboo to ask a novelist this, but do you see yourself in the Sunny character?
Well, she’s very thoughtful. She’s always thinking through and worrying about a lot of things at once. And I think that’s kind of close to me. But the thing that I think is closest to me is there’s a scene where Sunny is describing hearing Opal and Nev’s music for the first time, when she’s 14. And she not just describes the music, but describes how it physically makes her react. And that, I felt, was the closest thing to me: describing music that she hears as revolutionary, and it triggering almost a fear response. And I can remember moments that I felt that exact thing. That was where I probably most drew on personal experience, how I feel music that is going to shake things up in my body.
From Rolling Stone US.