How the Mistakes Were Made
“How the Mistakes Were Made is a fiercely affectionate rendering of that period right before the general public was hungry for the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams—but hadn’t yet heard them to know it. . . . How the Mistakes Were Made will connect with anyone who believes in the endless possibilities of the three-minute pop song: that the right combination of words and music could genuinely change your life.”
It may be hard for someone who bought a copy in 1991 to believe, but Nirvana’s Nevermind turned 20 in September. To mark the occasion, the band’s surviving members gave the album the full commemorative treatment, releasing a trove of archival material to satiate the faithful. And they’re not the only ones: Pearl Jam is celebrating its own 20-year anniversary with a similar merchandising victory lap.
Listening to Nevermind and Ten 20 years later, one is compelled to feel this music represented something—an ethos or an authenticity—that we desperately needed, a tonic to the overindulged Eighties. That Nirvana and Pearl Jam could conquer the mainstream, if only for a short while, seems like our culture got something right.
Did these bands, and the countless others that came to dominate early-90s radio, have any idea that by 2011 they’d have moved into the Nostalgia phase of their careers, their music fully canonized, their biographies a piece of mythology?
Tyler McMahon has obviously spent time wondering the same thing. His novel How the Mistakes Were Made is a fiercely affectionate rendering of that period right before the general public was hungry for the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams but hadn’t heard them yet to know it.
It charts the rise and fall of a small Seattle band that catapulted to unforeseen heights before internal drama caused them to implode, a story that’s as well-trodden as a three-chord rock song. But How the Mistakes Were Made is also a book that deals with the unspoken contract between performers and the fans that support them—and what happens when that conrtract is broken.
Laura Loss is a woman ambling through her 20s, working in a coffee shop by day, chugging away by night in yet another band she’s scrounged together. Dubbed “The First Lady of Punk” for her role in one of the 1980s’ most revered hardcore bands, she is now prepared to turn the page and accept a full-time manager’s job.
Before her band headlines a set at a Montana club, Laura hears two flannel-clad slackers take the stage and likes what she hears, especially how Nathan’s orderly bass playing complements Sean’s unique, chaotic guitar sound. “If you ditch that drummer and get serious, you two could be on to something,” she tells them, offering help if they ever make it to Seattle.
Awed by Laura’s punk ancestry, Nathan and Sean soon come calling. She agrees to play drums until the two boys get it out of their systems, but a funny thing happens when they play live for the first time: They’re explosively good—despite the glib name Laura assigns the band.
The Mistakes are armed with two secret weapons: an anthemic single that anyone who hears it once can immediately sing back, and Sean, their magnetic lead guitarist. Thanks to a neurological condition called synesthesia, he is literally able to “see” the music, in which notes and riffs appear as colors, lending him an unrivaled stage presence.
Things move quickly for the Mistakes: They sign with a small label. They record an album. They continue touring. The crowds get louder; the demand grows bigger. The buzz is overwhelming. Finally their record label gives them the news: The Mistakes have the number-one album in America.
And the band begins to unravel.
On one level, any astute viewer of “Behind the Music” will be prepared for Mistake’s rhythms, its almost fated trajectory. Nothing in its back half comes as a surprise, particuarly if the reader wants to draw parallels between the Mistakes and Nirvana. The booze, the jealousy, the acrimony—it’s all in there.
As Laura tells the story of the Mistakes, she flashes back to her seminal first band, which had been fronted by her brother Anthony. What happens to that band (and her brother) will not be spoiled here, but it provides the fuel for her often combative narration, imbuing an otherwise straightforward story with added depth.
Laura presents her story as a confessional, a defense against fans who blame her for breaking up their beloved Mistakes. “I don’t mind the hate,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me anymore. There was a time when I was adored by the same brain-dead sheep who despise me now.” But despite the scars she carries, she has not lost her wide-eyed romanticism about music and its power to resonate with listeners on a gut level.
Laura’s narration is the best thing about the novel, but it does come with a cost: None of the characters are portrayed as vividly as she. Sean is the closest Mistakes comes to cliché: that of the troubled but gifted artist whose candle shone brightest before burning out. His synethesia helps make the Mistakes great, but since we only experience it as a function of how it affects the band, it does carry the whiff of contrivance.
How the Mistakes Were Made will connect with anyone who believes in the endless possibilities of the three-minute pop song: that the right combination of words and music could genuinely change your life.
As Laura puts it, “I want them to lose themselves in the music . . . I want them to feel three chords resonate deep in their bones, with some words screamed out over the top that—for a moment or two—make them feel a little less lonely.” That feeling seeps through every page of this deeply personal novel.