Rick Springfield has been many things in life: Grammy-winning rock star, “General Hospital” heartthrob and memoirist of the 2010 New York Times bestselling confessional “Late, Late at Night” (a lyric from his hit 1981 lovesick anthem “Jessie’s Girl”). But when he orders a drink at Starbucks in the Malibu Country Mart, at age 64, his shaggy brown hair and eyes, deep wells of oceanic green, harkening back to when his image was plastered on the bedroom walls of every teenage girl in America, it’s as the debut novelist of “Magnificent Vibration,” a book that combines the comedic elements of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” with the subversive ontological questioning of King David in Joseph Heller’s “God Knows.” “Magnificent” publishes on May 6 by Simon & Schuster.
“Strange and beautiful birds I later recognize as doves hoot plaintively just outside the window while she tricks herself out for Jesus,” writes Springfield early on.
This is not the prose of a rock star who decided to try his hand at novel writing, but of a novelist who just happens to be a rock star.
“Magnificent” revolves around a 32-year-old sexually frustrated divorcé named Horatio “Bobby” Cotton who, in the aftermath of a bitter split with his cuckolding ex, contemplates offing himself when he suddenly discovers that he’s got a direct line (1-800-Call God) to the “Omnipotent Supreme Being.”
Springfield was “dragged to church under duress by (his) mum,” as an adolescent Army brat in his native Australia and then England. His book is “all fiction,” but presents themes with which the “tortured soul,” who has wrestled with the concept of a higher power since boyhood, is well familiar.
“I was raised thinking that God punishes you when you do stupid shit, but when good stuff happens you get down on your knees and thank him,” says Springfield, who is receiving a star May 9 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “And I thought, what kind of a fucked-up relationship is that? Even as a kid I couldn’t figure that one out and I got really angry against God. I had a crucifix and I would break pieces off it every time something bad happened to me because I was really angry. I have a lot of issues with the dogma of organized religion.”
In “Night,” Springfield wrote close to the bone, nakedly recounting his botched suicide attempt at 17, the death of his father and lifelong struggle with depression — “My initial frustration was just being me and not being the bigger, better person that I thought I was”— and the destructive string of sexual encounters that served as a temporary salve for the darkness, but “Magnificent” afforded Springfield more artistic license.
“The (characters) are all composites and I’m in a little bit of every one of them,” he explains of the book, which excavates that charged intersection between sex and religion. “You start by putting a stake in the ground to do with where you come from, but then they have to take on their own life or it’s not fiction.”
Along Bobby’s spiritual odyssey he falls in love with a young, beautiful nun named Alice — “Sex has always come at a cost for me,” says Springfield; witnesses a catastrophic plane crash on the freeway; and comes face to face in Scotland with (what he thinks is) the Loch Ness monster.
“As a kid I had little monster kits that I made and I still love,” says Springfield. “I have a fascination with it. There are always naysayers and there are always people goin’, ‘Yes, that’s a UFO!’ That to me symbolizes a desire for there to be more than just us, something we don’t understand, and God to an extent.”
There was no outline for “Magnificent,” which is dedicated to the memory of Springfield’s Zoot bandmate Darryl Cotton, and Springfield was never really sure where the characters would end up save for where his inspiration took them, much in the same way he pens his songs.
“I looked up online and they said usually a first novel is 80,000 words so I actually wrote to my publisher and said, ‘I’m aiming for 80,000 words.’ And she wrote back laughing and said, ‘When’s the last time you ever read a book and said, ‘This is really good, it’s 80,000 words!’ So it was just a goal for me to set.”
The decision to make the God character “have a bit of an attitude” was more consciously shaped.
“I definitely wanted God to have a warped sense of humor,” says Springfield.
To wit, the snappy (and inadvertently deist) T-shirt slogan “Shit Happens” is God’s go-to mantra when pressed for answers as to why the universe is in such a hellacious state of dysfunction.
“It just came up, and it does symbolize how I feel it is,” says Springfield. “Because if it’s controlled then what’s the point, you know? I’ve always argued this with people who say, you know, ‘God brought us down 8,000 years ago and makes everything happen and I always say, ‘Why? Why would that be a journey?’”
Meanwhile, Springfield’s personal journey continues. He’ll play a solo concert May 11 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and on June 28 kickstarts a multi-city tour with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo. He’s also at work on a “Magnificent” sequel but, for now, won’t reveal more.
“If I talk about my writing too much,” he says, excitement rising in his voice, “then, you know, it just disappears.”