A GOOD MORNING AMERICA BUZZ PICK
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2021 BY BARACK OBAMA * THE WASHINGTON POST * NPR * ESQUIRE * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * GOODREADS * THE MILLIONS * READER’S DIGEST * PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER * EERIE READER * PUBLIC RADIO TULSA * CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY * KIRKUS REVIEWS
“Feels truer and more mesmerizing than some true stories. It’s a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It’s hard not to be charmed by Nev Charles. When he sings, obviously—that versatile instrument that switches from a sweet and high plaint to a low, cozy rumble—but especially when he laughs. You must have seen this before, in late-night skits or in concert footage or maybe in last year’s surreal Doritos commercial: He throws his head back, his green eyes and ginger hair disappearing momentarily from view, until all you see is chin and tongue and uvula and nostrils. The sound that erupts is boisterous and contagious, a blast of distinct “HA HA!s” often accompanied by a single sharp clap of the hands.
I triggered this delightful response when we finally met, as we were getting settled on his private plane, its dingy seats and the peeling adhesive tint over the windows evidence that the money, while still enough to cover jet fuel, wasn’t quite what it used to be. Our tête-à-tête was the result of a long negotiation—one that had irked Lizzie Harris, the PR maven who has plotted the direction of Nev’s public life for literally as long as I’ve been alive, through crises including Rivington Showcase, addiction, failed marriages, and, in recent years, the collective shrug with which his new music has been received. Lizzie made it plain that this book was proceeding under duress—No offense, doll, she’d said, I’d just planned to arrange the writer myself. But since Opal had floated the offer to me—an independent journalist who couldn’t be bankrolled, who could spill the possible reunion of Opal & Nev at any moment—she was backed somewhat into a corner.
I made concessions, and she made concessions, and our dance involved a loose agreement that I might be granted some time with Nev so long as I kept under embargo this talk of a reunion tour. The final step toward yes had been to get Opal & Nev’s producer, Bob Hize, whose health by then was seriously ailing, to agree to an on-the-record chat with me—touchingly easy, once I put in writing an interview request that revealed who I was. (When I visited him at his bedside, despite his late-stage cancer his eyes lit up and he called me “dear girl,” and I understood why his artists love and respect him so.) Once Bob came onboard for what would likely be the last formal interviews of his life, Lizzie sighed and gave the okay. I thanked her profusely, nearly teary with relief at getting the green light, but, like the toughest, most impressive women with whom I’ve ever worked, Lizzie skipped sentimentality and launched into logistics.
The best way to get several hours with Nev, she advised, was to do them consecutively and in a confined, non-distracting space. And so we planned that I’d join Nev on a twelve-hour flight from London to Kyoto, where he was due to perform the old solo hits (plus float a few new songs) at a jazz and folk festival. I’d brought along a file of clips about Nev from Aural’s archives, including a portrait from 1976, the year America celebrated its bicentennial (and Nev, coincidentally, got naturalized). In it, Nev’s head pops out of a gigantic apple pie. Glops of filling and bits of crust cling to his skin and muck up his mullet; wild-eyed and grimacing, he clenches his teeth around the stem of a miniature American flag.
Sitting across from him on the plane, looking for a way to break the ice as we rumbled down the runway, I showed this old photo to him. “First question,” I said, mock-serious. “Did you consider rescinding your citizenship after this?”
That’s when he gave it to me like a gift: that air-gobbler of a cackle. Which startled our flight attendant so badly that she nearly spilled the club soda she was pouring straight into Nev’s lap, which led Nev to joke about how such a spill would actually leave his blue jeans cleaner than before, which set him off on a recitation of limericks he’d once written in response to Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic”... all of which, I confess, had the effect of mesmerizing me dumb. Ten minutes later, he ended the riff with an “Ah, well.” And before I could ask a single real question, Nev Charles reclined his seat for what he said would be a power nap. “My left eye’ll go twitchy if I don’t,” he explained, yawning. He proceeded to plunge into a deep sleep, laid out on his back.
I spent the first hour of his snoring organizing my questions and feeling quite competent. Even glancing about with a bit of fondness. The wrinkles around Nev’s eyes made him look smart and distinguished. Better than on television. The kind of older man referred to as a fox. Did he look a bit like an older, redder Benedict Cumberbatch? He did, I thought; he did. In the seat next to him was a tote that had fallen onto its side to reveal what he was consuming these days: The New Jim Crow; a recent issue of The Atlantic; a slim book of poetry that, by some miracle, had just cracked the New York Times’ best sellers list.
When one hour became two became three, when the flight attendant draped a blanket over Nev’s prone body, pure panic surged through me. Time was ticking past, and I’d been told this would be my only shot to interview him. I glanced at the time on my phone, at the books and magazines again: Were these props set up for me to notice them? Would I ruin our rapport if I waggled his foot in order to wake him? Might he think such a move was admirably assertive, or just plain rude? Good lord, had he taken a pill? I asked the pretty young flight attendant how long he normally slept on these flights. “It’s the only time he gets to,” she chided me.
Thankfully, shortly after this, a sudden drop in our plane’s elevation jolted Nev awake. His eyes landed on me and he jerked again, as if surprised I hadn’t parachuted out the back.
“Sorry about the turbulence, Mr. Charles,” the pilot’s voice said over the intercom. “We’ll take her up a little higher.”
Nev returned to an upright position and jostled a pinkie in his ear. Jerked his head toward each shoulder, as if forcing water out. “I’m told you’re Jimmy Curtis’s daughter, is that right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but I’m not in the business of dropping his name.” I scrambled to open the recording app on my phone while Nev was still alert and somewhat focused. “Shall we start?”
“Straight to the chase, then,” he said. “Good! A real journalist. A little like your father too. Not much for idle chitchat, that one.”
Now Nev was going too fast, getting ahead of himself. As with Opal Jewel, I wanted to start our formal interview at the beginning. I felt that I needed to start there, although initially, with a megastar like Nev, I wasn’t sure why. Certainly there’s been enough ink spilled on the facts of his childhood, enough to comprise two paragraphs of his impressively long Wikipedia page. At first he unspooled it for me with great wit and verve, the way any crowd-pleaser spins through the old repertoire: He burst into snippets of melody when remembering the evolution of a riff or chorus, and his warm English accent modulated high or low with the mood of whatever tale he was spinning. Yes, of course, I was entertained.
But whenever he let loose that silly, spectacular laugh, I couldn’t help but wonder how most of what I’d read about Nev failed to answer these core questions: How does a laugh like this—so unselfconscious and assured in its obnoxiousness, so made for a good-natured mocking on SNL—square with the image of the lonely, bookish boy he used to be? What was the distance crossed? And what got lost along the way?
This journey begins circa 1962—the year Nev turned fourteen, and his musical life began in another Birmingham.