Monday, August 13, 2018

Random Record Reviews: Volume 1

A few favorite obscure ‘70s Rock LPs: 

I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorite obscure rock records, inspired by the list 00individual did. (One of the coolest guys on the web, by the way.) Anyway hopefully you all won’t mind this anomaly of a post…though if do you like it, maybe I’ll do more in the future. Or maybe despite your feedback I’ll just continue to do them and then cry myself to sleep at night.

With no further ado, here is my list, in order of release date:

1. Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against The Empire
RCA Victor, 1970

While the Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus, guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner assembled a pantheon of California rock musicians at the recently-opened Wally Heider studios in San Francisco and recorded this sci-fi concept album about a group of “crazies” revolting against America, stealing a starship, and heading to “the garden” in space. So basically like that “space hippies” episode of Star Trek. This Jefferson Starship is not to be confused with the later one Kantner would also put together – that one was more of an actual group, who of course had a huge hit in the ‘80s as Starship with “We Built This City” (which ironically was written and released after Kantner had left). This 1970 Jefferson Starship is composed of Grace Slick, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and Peter Kaukonen, brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Not to mention many others.

Rolling Stone was ruthless in its review of the album, but if anything it has aged well. Each side flows from one song to the next, with side 1 set on Earth and starting off with the shambolic proto-punk of “Mau Mau” (which manages to call out Nixon and Reagan) and coming to a close with the Kantner-Crosby gem “A Child Is Coming,” dedicated to the baby Kantner and Slick were soon to have (mistakenly reffered to as “he” throughout, the baby turned out to be a girl they named China who eventually became an MTV host!). Side 2 opens with Slick’s proto-metal muezzin “Sunrise,” the sidelong suite eventually centering around the “Hijack” of a starship – complete with an SFX track courtesy Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead. I thought I’d do a “top track” for each of these LPs, but I had a hard time picking one for Blows; this is such an “album album” that to me the songs don’t work as well when you excise them from the album itself. That being said…

Top track: “A Child Is Coming,” which starts off like an acoustic ditty before morphing into a droney, drugged-out psychedelic dirge with Kantner and Crosby trading non-sequitir lyrics while Slick provides ethereal wordless vocals above them. Bonus note: The fuzz bass on this one is positively cavernous on the vinyl – but then my XLM MKII cartridge (with New Old Stock stylus, baby!) brings out the bass in everything.

2. Twink: Think Pink
Polydor, 1970

In 1969 Alexander “Skip” Spence, troubled former Jefferson Airplane drummer and Moby Grape singer/guitarist, got out of a mental ward, headed for Nashville, and recorded the solo album Oar, a solo album in its truest sense, with Spence handling all the instruments. Ignored in its day, Oar was rightly praised decades later. However, a year after Spence’s record came out, another former drummer in a psychedelic group recorded his own solo masterpiece, however this one’s yet to have received its due. The drummer was named Twink (aka John Alder), and he’d been with the Pretty Things; his record, Think Pink, is one of the last blasts of British psych.

Unlike Spence’s album, which sometimes sounds more like a scratched-up folk 78 than a rock record, Think Pink is fuzzed-out acid rock, complete with druggy spoken word pieces, backwards sound effects, and driving acid rock guitar, Twink fronting a group that would soon reform as The Pink Fairies. It’s also damn funky at times; Gnarls Barkley even sampled the track “Fluid” on “Would Be Killer,” on their 2008 album The Odd Couple. Special note must be made of my copy, released by the Italian label Akarma on neon pink vinyl; definitely one of the most psychedelic things I own.

Top track: “Rock And Roll The Joint,” a fuzzed-out acid rock stomper that doesn’t even waste our time with vocals.

3. Wilderness Road: Wilderness Road
Columbia, 1972

Several years ago, for an inexplicable but brief moment in time, I was interested in country-rock. I’d had friends who raved about Gram Parsons and stuff like that, but whenever I tried listening to it I was like, “I hear the country, but where’s the rock?” (Regardless, at the time I declared “Chestnut Mare” the greatest song ever.) Anyway here for once is an example of the genre that truly lives up to both styles of music. Aptly described by Rolling Stone as “The Who fronting The Byrds” (bearing in mind that RS meant the early ‘70s Byrds, ie the version of the group that gave us country albums like Farther Along), Wilderness Road was a group of comedians(!?) who also performed music together, and this, their first of two records, is a sort of Western concept album, telling the story of a gunslinger.

You know you’re in good hands from the first track, which starts off with the familiar country twang – and then some Townshend-esque power guitar kicks in. Not only that, but there are psychedelic production tricks here and there, so the record truly straddles many genres, and sadly it’s another that’s been ignored. But fortunately like most of the other albums on this list, the hipsters of today are still unaware of it, so you can get a copy for cheap.

Top track: “Dr. Morpho’s Revenge,” which really captures the “Who meets the Byrds” vibe, plus adds in some cool psychedelic-‘60s style production effects.

4. Randy California: Kapt Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds
Epic, 1972

Randy California was only in his early 20s when he recorded this but he was already a veteran rocker – at 15 he played with rising star Jimi Hendrix, who dubbed Randy “California” given that Jimi had two Randys in his band. After this California formed Spirit with his 40-something stepfather, and went on to the cusp of fame, before dropping out and leaving the group. California headed to London where he assembled two other former Hendrix colleagues – none other than Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, aka the “Twirly Birds,” appearing here under pseudonyms.

Perfectly described in a Youtube comment as “the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas of rock albums,” Kapt. Kopter is a drug-soaked epic of Hendrix proportions, featuring countless overdubbed psych guitars and California’s stoned ramblings fluttering in, out, and overtop the soupy mix. Comprised of tripped-out cover versions and shambling, freaky originals, Kapt. Kopter is a damn monster of a record, unjustly ignored upon release and too obscure today.

Top track: The hazed-out, nine-minute cover of “Rain,” which I think trumps the Beatles original, complete with a random fake-out opening and a whole new refrain. 

5. Kenny Young: Last Stage For Silver World 
Warner Bros. Records, 1973

Just one of those chance discoveries…two decades of collecting ‘70s LPs and I thought I was familiar with just about everything, but I’d never even heard of this ultra-obscure record until I spotted it recently in the clearance bin of a Half Price Bookstore. Kenny Young, aka the guy who wrote “Under The Boardwalk,” went the singer-songwriter route that was so en vogue the early ‘70s, and this was the second of two such albums he released. I don’t know anything about the first one, but Silver World is a sci-fi concept album set in the far-flung future of 1997, telling the Romeo And Juliet story of two young lovers in a totalitarian society. Unlike the Kantner sci-fi LP, this one’s of a decidely country-rock flavor; actually, maybe George Harrison’s material of the era would be a more apt comparison. Indeed some of the lead guitar throughout sounds identical to Harrison, and some of the tracks could almost be outtakes from All Things Must Pass.

Like the Kantner record, this release has all the bells and whistles – a gatefold cover, a little booklet on the storyline, and a big pamphlet with color photographs and detailed perfomer info. However the album clearly didn’t register much; I searched my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM and couldn’t find a single mention of Kenny Young, let alone this album. Regardless, I find it very compelling, and it was a nice discovery.

Never released on CD, Silver World is also a healthy reminder of the power of vinyl: the top track, “Light To Light,” has this awesomely deep fuzz bass throughout, yet it’s almost entirely missing in the Youtube upload. To paraphrase the old lady in the ‘80s commercial, “Where’s the bass?” Get yourself a turntable and hear it for yourself – Last Stage For Silver World has yet to be “discovered” by the hipsters of today, so copies are still very cheap.

6. Mike McGear: McGear
Warner Bros. Records, 1974

Mike McGear, aka Mike McCartney, aka Paul’s brother, released this unsung LP in ’74 which was basically a Wings album in all but name – Paul wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, performed on them along with wife Linda and Wings guitarist Denny Laine, and also produced the album. So it’s pretty much a Wings album with a different singer, though occasionally you can hear Paul’s distinctive backing vocals. The record is pretty great, even if it apparently didn’t resonate with listeners of the day. Rolling Stone did like this one, though, writing how McGear, known as a comedy performer, approached each song as an actor approaches a role.

This is a good comparison, as McGear, whose voice is a bit too thin and weak for the heavier songs, veers from Bowie-esque monotone on some tracks to sounding on others like, well, sort of like Paul McCartney. Special mention must be made of “What Do We Really Know?,” one of the tracks Paul wrote himself and which surprisingly he never did his own version of; clearly from the guy who gave us “Helter Skelter,” it’s a hard rocker that, like the earlier Beatles classic, features a heavy metal sort of coda.

However my top track on this one would have to be “Givin’ Grease A Ride,” a funky sort of “T. Rex meets krautrock” thing with Linda on awesome vintage synths and Paul showing up to help scream the vocals at the end.

7. Neil Merryweather: Space Rangers
Mercury, 1974

Like the Randy California album, this is a proto-metal hard-rockin’ monster of an LP, but whereas Kapt. Kopter has a druggy looseness about it, this one’s razor sharp. The guitars are heavy throughout, but Merryweather’s pop sensibilites keep the hooks in place – for the first side, at least. The second side veers more into a funk-metal sort of thing, with the riffs and beats more important than the hooks. In fact the last quarter of side 2 sounds like Primus a few decades early. Speaking of beats, Space Rangers is funky throughout, and thus has apparently been plundered by DJs of today, so this is one of those LPs that’s sometimes priced a bit too high. It’s super cool, though.

Top track: Opening song “Hollywood Boulevard,” which encapsulates the vibe of the entire LP in a little over 5 minutes.

8. Relatively Clean Rivers: Relatively Clean Rivers
Pacific Is, 1976

I’ve never gotten much into the Grateful Dead…the sole album I have of theirs is the original release of Anthem Of The Sun, which is cool, but not enough to make me seek out anything else – again, I just find it all too country, and country’s not my thing. And yet, this privately-pressed mid-‘70s LP is everything I always wanted the Dead to sound like…it’s rural for sure, but it also features occasional acid rock guitar, psychedelic sound effects, and sometimes even video game-esque electronic squelchings. The brainchild of reclusive underground rocker Phil Pearlman – who previously had fronted similar private press acts Beat of the Earth and The Electronic Hole – Relatively Clean Rivers also sounds like a sort of underground Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – or maybe that should be “and Reed,” as Pearlman’s monotone vocals at times are very similar to Lou Reed’s.

This sole album from the group goes for insane prices today…the kicker being that the original release is the only official release. Pearlman, who dropped out of the music biz after this and became a farmer, living with his family in the country (and one of his sons, by the way, grew up to become an Al-Qaeda operative!), refuses to reissue any of his albums. Thus the only copies of Relatively Clean Rivers you’ll find are bootlegs, in particular released by bootleg label Radioactive Records or its vinyl subsidiary Phoenix Records. Regardless, it’s a fun listen, sort of a last gasp of the early ‘70s counterculture, and it’s often pretty damn funky to boot.

Top track: “Journey Through The Valley,” which features all the stuff mentioned – country vibe, sub-Reed vocals, acid-dripping electric guitar, and a funky beat.

9. Klaatu: Klaatu (aka 3:47 EST)
Capitol Records, 1976

The mysterious group so good people actually thought they were the Beatles, Klaatu eventually turned out to be a trio of Canadian musicians who preferred to operate anonymously. When I moved to Dallas in the summer of ’96 I was on a Beatles kick and I recall I got a Beatles trivia book at the library, something from the ‘80s with a bunch of Beatles minutiae. Anyway this is how I discovered Klaatu; one of the lists in the book was like “Top Twenty Reasons Klaatu Was the Beatles.” But get this – the author provided no further details, so when I read the list I thought, “Holy shit! The Beatles got back together and no one knew??!!” I found an online seller with this LP, ordered it…and sometime before its arrival I found info about the group online…back then there wasn’t near the amount of info on the web as now, of course. But anyway by the time the record got to me – in prisitine mint condition as if someone had carefully stored it away for the past twenty years, just for me – I knew that, sadly, Klaatu was not the Beatles.

But the record was great! I played it a lot, then rediscovered it a few years later, when I wrote a review of it for Julian Cope’s Unsung. Reading the review now, I see I come off as overly negative and condescending (imagine that!!). I did this record a disservice, as it’s truly great. It moves and grooves, and it’s filled with cool ‘70s production gimmicks…and it does really sound like the Beatles at times. One singer sounds identical to George and another sounds identical to Paul; there’s even the goofy track “Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III” with its Muppets sort of vocals, and you could easily figure it for Ringo. However the solo Beatles weren’t doing anything like this at the time – Klaatu, titled 3:47 EST in Canada – is more along the lines of ELO with a bit of a ‘70s hard rock crunch, and perhaps is an indication of what Sgt. Pepper’s might have sounded like if it had been recorded ten years later.

Top track: “Sub-Rosa Subway,” aka the greatest hit single Paul McCartney never recorded. I mean tell me that singer doesn’t sound exactly like Paul!

And that’s just the tip of it, friends. I haven’t even mentioned King Crimson rhythm section McDonald and Giles’s self-titled 1970 psych-folk-funk masterpiece, or Grace Slick’s ’74 solo LP Manhole, or….

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Man From Planet X #2: Tiger By The Tail

The Man From Planet X #2: Tiger By The Tail, by Hunter Adams
June, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Whereas the first volume of The Man From Planet X at least made the pretense of being a men’s adventure sort of spy-and-sex thing, this second volume drops all such pretenses and goes straight for a comedy approach. James D. Lawrence, once again serving as “Hunter Adams,” appears to already be bored with the concept “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel has handed him – a red-skinned alien with a monstrous-sized member who has come down here to Earth to “study Earthlings,” which is shorthand for banging tons of babes. All in the name of science, of course.

Branded a “New Erotic Adventure Series” by Pinnacle, Tiger By The Tail is more akin to the goofy sleaze novels that were so common of the era, a light-hearted sexual romp that encompases both purple prose and straight-up explicit material. But even though there’s the occasional fight or chase, none of it is treated seriously and hero Peter Lance, aka Pritan Lansol of the planet Tharb, is so superheroic there’s never any question of him getting killed or even injured. I mean the dude’s super strong, hyper fast, can do all sorts of bizarre mindblowing stuff in the sack, plus he can even talk telepathically to animals. Not only that, but he’s as patient as a zen master and as polite as Mr. Rogers.

Well anyway it’s a few weeks after that previous book and ol’ Peter is heading out of New York in his station wagon(!) for another excursion into human relations, when his ESP senses detect nearby danger, right across the border in New Jersey. Turns out to be a sexy young housewife who is being threatened by a tiger on her own front yard. Peter first literally (and lamely) catches the “tiger by the tail” and tosses it, then telepathically communicates with it. The tiger is a female named Tanya, and Peter calls her off, but then some dudes with machine guns show up, gunning for the animal. Peter easily defeats them, disarming them and beating them up in the blink of an eye. Then he and the housewife repair upstairs for some casual ‘70s sex – Peter’s sexual magnetism is such that these Earthling babes immediately think of getting him bed as soon as they meet him. (I happen to have the exact opposite affect on Earthling babes.)

But Lawrence seems to have gotten sick of all the intermittent banging in the previous volume, so this time his focus is on weird gross-out stuff. We get our first indication of this when, after their quick screw, the housewife notes that Peter’s extra-long and thin member has an injury on it, Peter having been knicked there during the fight or somesuch, and insists that he clean off the wound. Anyway to cut to the chase, Peter’s dick gets stuck in the sink. It’s just one of those books, folks…then the lady’s husband shows up, and he is, naturally, a plumber, but Peter with his superhuman strength is able to pull the entire sink out of the wall as he beats a hasty retreat.

Tanya escaped from a zoo run by Velma Thorp, brunette babe with beehive hairdo who is running the place in the mysterious absence of her great white hunter father, Hugh, a former movie star. But upon his arrival at the zoo Peter is again attacked by men with machine guns, and after quickly knocking out these ones it occurs to him that perhaps they are tracking something hidden within the animal. Ultimately he will of course be proven correct; Velma reveals that her dad brought Tanya back from Russia a few months ago, and mentioned something special about her – it will develop that something has been surgically inserted in Tanya’s hide, a device which could trigger WWIII or somesuch.

For the most part this main plot – which just barely categorizes the novel as men’s adventure – is cast aside and more time is spent on the “jungle porn film” Peter is roped into filming by drunkard director Burk Fontana, who declares upon seeing Peter’s dick: “That fucking whang of his is a potential goldmine!” Burk you see has been hired by Velma in a desperate bid to track down her missing father, who has been gone for three months but who is known for random, unexplained disappearances…Velma’s muddled hope is that this film, to be shot on the zoo Hugh Thorp opened, will somehow capture the attention of her father, wherever he might be, and he’ll come back home. Upon seeing that awesome whang, though, Burk demands that the flick needs to be a porn.

Burk, who steals the novel, calls in a former sword-swallower turned porn starlet to feature in some test footage based around fairy tales in which Peter screws a bevy of gals, capping off with this sword-swallower managing to contain his entire girth in her mouth. But she turns out to be a commie spy who has something hidden up in a certain part of her anatomy, something which latches onto Peter’s dick while he’s enthusastically boffing her, to the extent that Peter’s dick swells up to crazy levels. Enter the CIA agent from the previous volume, who has been tracking this sword-swallowing spy, Fifi, and informs everyone that she’s known for this trick – cue more gross-out stuff as Fifi again has to blow Peter, but this time it’s to suck that poison out.

Along comes wealthy socialite Crystal Warrick, a blonde vixen who demands, “Take out your cock!” promptly upon meeting our hero. She’s seen the test footage, you see, and through some chicanery she’s managed to buy out the Thorp zoo so she can have a controlling interest in the jungle porn. She is now running the film, and declares that they’ll be filming in Africa, not on the zoo itself, and that further she will star in the film and Velma can co-star if she’d like – there is a simmering jealousy between the two, not that this stops them from shooting girl-on-girl scenes for the movie! But Crystal, despite coming on strong to Peter, always refrains from full-on sex with him; it later develops, in another of the novel’s many arbitrary subplots, that Crystal’s a virgin – and of course Peter takes care of that for her.

Lawrence hits all the bases, so to speak: promptly upon arrival in Nairobi Peter is being propositioned by a sexy native: “Peter’s first real contact with a black Earthling.” And boy is it a memorable first contact. Later on, Peter, realizing that Crystal is hiding things from him, decides that “A simple little rape might do the trick,” and proceeds to anal-rape her, after which a satisified Crystal declares, “Okay, I’ve taken you up the ass, I guess I may as well take you into my confidence.” There’s also a part where Burk and the film crew are lured into the jungle by a bunch of horny native gals and screw away with aplomb, not realizing it’s a trap orchestrated by the Black Death, a big guy in black robes with a leprousy-ravaged face.

Despite the amount of sex there’s nothing steamy about any of it…particularly given how Peter’s always thinking of the women as “Earthling females.” You almost sort of get the idea that Peter would be just as game to experiment with Earthling males. But the explicit material is less pronounced than last time – I mean it’s graphic and all, but many times Lawrence spends more time on the foreplay or naughty dialog, then leaves the actual “coupling” vague. This one’s also missing those cool ‘70s touches that were frequent last time, I mean who could forget Peter Lance dancing to Led Zeppelin on a quadraphonic hi-fi?

But it does go on and on, and it’s more of a lame comedy than anything; even when Peter is briefly captured by Chicoms it’s more goofy than thrilling. But Lawrence plods away, almost desperately padding the 200+ pages; there’s even an arbitrary bit where Peter gets amnesia – a subplot that lasts all of a few pages and has no bearing on anything. For those diehards who want to know “But what’s it all about?,” long story short: Hugh Thorp turns out to be an agent of top-secret CRACK, as is Crystal Warrick, and he was on a mission to capture some doomsday tech from the Reds, and hid the schematics or whatnot in that cannister which he implanted in Tanya.

All told, Tiger By The Tail was really stupid, displaying none of the cool funky sleaze Lawrence delivered for Engel in the far superior Dark Angel series. My assumption is The Man From Planet X failed to resonate with readers even in its own day, as the third and final volume didn’t appear until two years later.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Rock Nations

The Rock Nations, by George William Rae
June, 1971  Paperback Library

Well, Death Rock appears to have sent me back into the spiral of late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, and The Rock Nations is another paperback original cashing in on the era. But unlike Death Rock this one didn’t appear to get much traction anywhere. It is similar to Maxene Fabe’s superior novel though in that it isn’t as much of a “rock novel” as you’d expect, especially given the back cover hype (below).

This turns out to be one of the more uninentionally funny things about the novel, as the whole friggin’ thing’s supposedly about some hippie driving around the country and going to all the rock festivals of the day!! So naturally the reader would assume the novel would be filled with furry freak brothers and sisters passing the peace pipe and dropping the sugar cubes and soaking up the vibes of Hendrix, the Airplane, the Dead and whatnot. But nope – what we instead get is a lot of speechifying and preaching and sermonizing on this or that, not to mention whole heaping helpings of bitching about practically everything. The novel is basically a 224-page diatribe narrated by a self-involved asshole.

The common perception of the hippies in today’s world is the “peace and love, man!” cliché familiar from movies and TV shows; the actors on the late ‘80s Freedom Rock commercial pretty much represented all hippies to the kids of my generation. But years ago when I started reading all the hippie lit of the era itself, I was surprised to discover that the hippies were pissed. About what? Everything!! Most of those hippie novels, written by scrawny-chested guys and bra-burning gals, were screeds against the establishment, filled with hate and anger about everything, even their own movement. But then, the Left is filled with hate, and if anything it’s only gotten worse.

So this novel follows suit, and George William Rae captures the same angry voice. Strange then, as the only author I can find by this name was a pulp writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s who also turned out a book on the Boston Strangler in the late ‘60s. Surely this guy could not have been a hippie, as the narrator of the novel, a twenty-something Boston hippie named “Skin” Sherman, is too authentic…I know good writers can capture any voice, but it would really be assuming a lot that Rae, likely in his forties or beyond, could do so well. Sure, an author of that age could do it today, but today such an author would’ve grown up in the post-rock world. I asked James Reasoner if he knew anything about Rae, and he confirmed the author seemed to mostly operate in the ‘50s and ‘60s; James brought up a great point, though – perhaps this was actually Geroge William Rae, Junior, but left that tag off the end of his name?

At any rate, the novel is copyright Coronet Communications, owner of Paperback Library, so it’s possible this was written by some other author entirely, and “Rae” was just a house name, but given that it’s such a specific name, that’s hard to buy. Regardless of all the mystery, the novel is pretty well written, faithfully and exactly capturing the voice of other examples of this short-lived subgenre, and Skin Sherman seems like such a real person that I’d be shocked as hell to learn the book was really written by an older pulp author. The acid test comes in the fact that, by novel’s end, you are sick as hell of Skin and his endless bitching and self-obsession – just like the real hippies, he burns himself out and by book’s end you just want him to shut up and go away forever.

Skin drives an International Van with “Busy Being Born” painted on the side; when we meet him it’s June 1969 and he’s on his way to Atlanta, to catch the Atlanta International Pop Festival, which actually isn’t named – we’re just told it’s a festival on the Raceway. Skin is quite ashamed of the fact that he is, “dig it!,” rich, thanks to a wealthy grandfather who insisted Skin take some money when he became an adult. So Skin bought up an actual house in Boston’s trendy hippie district, so ashamed that he’s actually a “capitalist” that he hides the fact from everyone, even his (temporary) “true love” Mary Faulkner, an “ultrabuilt” blonde in pink granny glasses Skin picks up on his way to Atlanta. That’s her on the cover, right alongside Skin; the cover artist clearly read the character descriptions. 

Mary, who turns out to be from Boston, too, is hitchhiking with “fat Times,” aka a heavyset girl who comes from the Haight and who escaped the place due to the “bad scene” developing there, with hippies turning on one another. This theme becomes apparent in The Rock Nations as well, so the author was clearly aware of the direction things were heading – one should not go to this novel looking for doe-eyed reflections on the Woodstock Nation or the peaceful ways of the hippies in general. And one certainly shouldn’t look to it for frontline reporting on those rock gods and goddesses at the height of their powers; hell, even Jimi Hendrix gets the brush-off from our eternally-pissed narrator.

Nope, what you’ll get from The Rock Nations is a lot of senseless entitlement and an irreperable hate which permeates through the pages…again, not much different than what you’ll find today, though at least the hippies smoked dope and took acid and knew how to relax every once in a while. Along the way Skin also encounters Janie, a well-bred aristocratic type who has gone, naturally, full-bore hippie terrorist, dedicated to bombing capitalist institutions and often trying to hijack “rockfests” to spread Leftist propaganda against the establishment. Yawn.

One thing though that also bears similarity to those other hippie novels of the era – there’s rampant cursing (“fuck” appears several times a page, at least) and a fair helping of sleaze; Skin gives us all the details on the various “hairy situations” he gets into with “earth-mother” Mary and “incredible fuck” Janie – and folks, we’re talking 1969-1970 here. It’s real hairy. And let’s not forget the typical uncleanliness of the hippies in general…they’re sleeping in mud at these rockfests, using broken porta-potties, standing out in the rain all day…and occasionally runing into muddy ponds for a “bath.”

As mentioned the “rock” material is scant, at best; Skin takes us along to the major rockfests between June 1969 and August 1970, but we more so get the intermittent bitching about the ever-present rain, the lack of food and water, and the general “bad vibes” that descend on each place. Music content is relegated to something like, “Jimi Hendrix was hamming up the Star-Spangled Banner” or somesuch; perhaps the most mentioned performer is Grace Slick, about whom Skin fantasizes over (“That chick really does something to me”), but otherwise there just isn’t much, folks. It’s a head-scratcher for sure. Hell, even the Grateful Dead gets like a single mention, and that in passing. The author does though often quote rock lyrics – with no credits on the copyright page – but even here it’s in a demeaning light, like when Skin informs us how they all get to singing a “dumb song” by The Who on the way to one of the festivals.

The back cover, below, outlines all the rockfests Skin attends over the timeframe of the novel. They’re the big ones, of course. But in each case he has to be convinced to go – Mary having moved in with him and begging him to go to Woodstock, or Altamont, or whatnot – and we’ll really just get a rundown on how traffic was bad, what the turnout was like…and then instead of rockfest stuff we’ll get stuff like Skin having to leave to go broker a “skag” deal for heroin junkie/eternal annoyance Dubinsky, another of the hitchhikers he’s picked up along the way. Woodstock is given the most text, naturally, and here we see that Skin actually likes one of the groups – Santana(!!). Altamont is almost as featured, but as expected it’s all the heavy stuff…the sadistic Angels beating up the crowd (and even the Airplane singer), killing a guy, etc.

As for the less-famous rockfests…ironically, Powder Ridge also takes up a lot of the text, and the kicker here is that there wasn’t any music at that festival, due to an injunction by the town leaders. So of course this is the one Rae spends a lot of time on, as the “rock tribes” that make up the “rock nation” have come here to Connecticut anyway, and it starts off idyllic before it too descends into Altamont-esque violence and madness. Kickapoo Creek is so vague that Skin tells us he can’t recall the name of a single band that performed there, which is one of the things that makes me suspect this novel really was written by a contract author who just did some serious research, as Kickapoo Creek, held in Illinois in May 1970, is one of the lesser-hyped (and lesser-remembered) festivals of the era. 

Skin actually hops over the pond for the big finale at the Isle of Wight; Mary has left him, given his penchant for screwing random women (even hippie girls have standards, it appears), and she’s gone off with the crew to the big festival over in England. So Skin follows, hires an air balloon to find her, spots her in the massive crowd right before taking off, and, in an actual memorable and touching scene, they end up riding the balloon over the freak throng and feeling all warm and sunny. Hell, even Hendrix gets a positive mention here, Skin telling us that they of course had no idea at the time that Jimi “would soon leave us.” But then Mary says so long, she’s going off to France with some other guy, and Skin’s right where he was at the start of the novel: all alone. “Were any of us being born?” he wonders, finally ending his miserable tale of self-pity.

The Rock Nations is recommended more as a period piece, but it’s got nothing on Death Rock, or for that matter even on Passing Through The Flame. It is at least a little easier to find than Death Rock, but personally I thought the best thing about it was the cover art, which also appears on the back cover along with some great copy – copy that promises a much better novel than what we get:

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Steel Lightning: Slash And Burn (Steel Lightning #3)

Steel Lightning: Slash And Burn, by Kevin Sherrill
January, 1992  Zebra Books

The never-titled men’s adventure series that I call “Steel Lightning” reaches its third and final volume, sporting basically the same cover as the previous volume (only with “Slash and Burn” lamely added beneath the title) and jumping over to the Zebra imprint, which at this point was the same house as previous imprint Pinnacle.

Like those earlier two books, Slash And Burn is just way too friggin’ long for the genre, coming in at 256 pages. And the helluva it is, most of it’s padding. For once again Kevin Sherrill keeps his main characters on the sideline for the duration, only occasionally livening things up with some action – but even then the action is a bit bloodless when compared to the previous volumes. A sort of blandness has settled on things, and there’s no mystery why there was never a fourth volume.

To make it worse, the opening of the book promises something a lot crazier than we actually get – we meet a teen girl as she’s tripping on Delight, the new drug that’s basically Ecstasy on steroids; pop a pill and you’re a living orgasm or something. Well this girl takes a bunch and prety soon she’s sucking and fucking away, right in the middle of a New York nightclub that’s blasting techno music (the book is very “early ‘90s”)…and then she goes into a massive seizure (one of those unfortunate Delight side-effects), a seizure so, uh, climactic that it makes her entire body seize up, so quickly and so savagely that she severs off the dicks of the guys who happen to be inside the various orifices of her body! And plus she’s dead, too, another of those unfortunate Delight side-effects.

Meanwhile hot brunette Barbara Cohen, former druggie-hooker-pornstar-legal assistant-rape victim(!), current “Street Machine” smurfette, is jogging through the hellzones of New York (it’s the pre-Guliani era, baby), hoping to lure out the latest group of reprobrates her brothers in the Street Machine urban combat unit can wipe out. She lures out some teens with bats and we’re constantly informed how clean-cut they look, how hard it is for Barb (or “Cohen,” as Sherrill arbitrarily refers to her; the dude as ever can’t stay consistent) to grasp that these kids are trying to rape and kill her. This goes on for quite a while and finally Street Machine come out to even the odds…only here does Sherrill realize that he failed to inform us that these kids are “all black,” whereas previously he seemed to be describing like a roving pack of kids just escaped from a rerun of Leave It To Beaver

But “sloppy writing” is the name of the game in the Steel Lightning series, so we’re prepared for this sort of thing. However we are not prepared for the endless dirge of dialog that ensues here, as the members of the team, all hoisting subguns and suited up in their black kevlar uniforms, argue over whether or not they should kill these hoodlums. Here we are quickly re-introduced to the team: there’s JD Dinatale, the gruff and unlikable leader; Moses White, aka “the black guy,” a pro football linebacker once known as “Dr. Pain;” Miguel Negron, aka “the Hispanic one,” a former jazz trumpeter or something; Joseph Vernick, the stout WWII vet; and finally Brian Benson, the wraithlike force of malevolence who was burned to a crisp in the first volume. And of course we’ve already met “Barb,” she of the checkered, hard-to-understand past.

As usual though, Sherrill refers to these characters by a host of different names in the narrative, often making it hard as friggin’ hell to understand who he is referring to. As I’ve mentioned before, “main character” Dinatale is referred to as “J.D.,” “Dinatale,” or sometimes as just “John,” and it’s even worse when new characters enter the fold. And Sherrill is very much a “you missed the earlier volume, you’re shit outta luck” kind of a writer, as he doesn’t much re-introduce any of these characters and just thrusts them at the reader, arbitrarily referring to them by a variety of names with little concern for reader comprehension.

You’d think by this point someone at the publisher would call Sherrill and tell him, “Mr. Sherrill, consistency is your friend. All this referring to your characters by multiple names in the narrative, particularly when you’ve just introduced the character and haven’t given him proper setup, is most confusing for the reader. Could you please consider just referring to your characters by one name in the narrative to avoid such confusion?” To which Sherrill would respond, “Hey, fuck you, man – I don’t need this shit. I’m Kevin Sherrill!! If I wanna refer to my characters by a hundred different names, I will! Now suck it!” “Yes, Mr. Sherrill, I’m sorry to trouble you,” the publisher would say, but he’d be talking to silence because Sherill had already hung up. At which point the publisher would call up his chief editor: “Look, we’re cancelling Steel Lighnting. I can’t take anymore of this diva Kevin Sherrill, not to mention his lack of consistency in character naming.” “Cancel Steel Lightning? Are you crazy?” The chief editor would explode. “We’ve got Sherrill all lined up for Carson – he’s gonna be one of the last guests!” To which the publisher would respond, “Listen, I’m Mr. Zebra – if I say Steel Lightning is cancelled, it’s cancelled! Now suck it!”

But anyway our heroes have lured out these creeps and now they’re all rarin’ to gun ‘em down, just clean this scum right off the face of the earth, but instead they get in a long debate about it. Just back and forth, right in front of the punks who moments ago were chasing Barb with the intent of raping and killing her. And it goes on and on…with Moses White figuring maybe the punks should get a break and Vernick agreeing, and even Barb agreeing, but Brian’s over there chomping at the bit to kill ‘em all. It’s up to Dinatale to come up with the novel idea of beating them all up to a pulp.

The book as mentioned is too bloated for its own good, so we don’t get to the main villain until later: his name is Levi Golden, he’s an old Jewish man who escaped to America from the Nazi horrors of the ‘40s, and he’s behind the Delight scheme. In a bit of continuity we also learn he was the boss of the main villain in the previous volume. But man, talk about sending mixed signals. The back cover hypes Golden as “sadistic,” but when we meet him we’re treated to an overlong backstory showing all the horrors and misery he endured…escaping Germany as a young man with his wife and coming to New York, where he found even worse horrors, his wife raped and his daughter turned a hooker-junkie and his son killed and his wife left a catatonic wreck – and I mean all this before it’s even 1947!

So are we supposed to hate this guy or feel sorry for him? At any rate in a “tribute” to The Godfather, Golden a la Don Corleone had to get tough to face toughness, thus resolved to becoming more monstrous than those who preyed upon him. He set up a mafia of other escaped Jews and now, in 1992 (and we’re told this is all in December of ’92, right before Christmas, in other words a few months after the book was published – the future!!), Levi Golden is a kingpin of crime. But he has no marks on his record, and indeed his cover is as a harmless New York tailor, and he’s so successful in this pose that when Dinatale visits his shop later in the book only Dinatale’s cop-born sixth sense tells him the harmless old man is anything but harmless.

Sherrill though just wants to bide his time for the majority of the book; we endure all kinds of padding, from more Delight-spawned deaths to arbitrary action scenes starring Golden’s top henchman, Turk. When we get back to the Street Machine themselves, it’s usually to encounter them in mundane aspects – again arguing over the justness of their cause (three volumes in!!), or like with Vernick pulling the plug on his vegetable wife, or Dinatale bullyng an old nemesis of his from the force named Reimer who is clearly set up as a dude who will attempt to take down the Street Machine in some future volume that never happened.

While Slash And Burn is padded to the extreme, to Sherrill’s credit he writes as if it’s ten years earlier and not 1992; which is to say, the novel’s as un-PC as one could demand from the genre. This is mostly relayed via dialog, in particular from Dinatale; for example there’s a part early on where Maitland, the millionaire who secretly funds Street Machine, tells Dinatale that his team has picked up the notoriety of Batman and Robin in the underworld. To which Dinatale gruffly responds: “Two flaming queens if there were ever any.”

Speaking of sleazy stuff, the moment you’ve waited for has finally arrived, friends – Dinatale and Barb do it. As we’ll recall, our former hooker-pornstar-rape victim-crook asskicker has been doubting if she’s truly a lesbian; the thought of a man touching her makes her flesh crawl, after the gang-rape she endured in the first volume…any man, that is, except for Dinatale. As we learned last time Barb was wondering if she wanted to say to hell with it and do the guy – this time, after a failed hit attempt on Dinatale and Barb by Turk, the two repair to Metro Meats, ie the towering Street Machine headquarters, and clean up each other’s wounds before giving in to temptation. Sherrill really stretches this way out, long-simmer to the max, but after lots of talk, including the two smelling each other (seriously!), when they finally get to the down and dirty screwin’ Sherrill cuts away: “It went on like that for hours.”

After this Barb is now “the leader’s woman,” but nothing much else plays out on this subplot. It’s made clear though that it’s true love between the two and they would’ve remained an item in future installments. And the others othe team take it all in quite pragmatically, which is to say there are no ripples caused. I guess the only change is the two now worry over each other in the action scenes – which, finally, we get to in the final quarter. So in that way Slash And Burn is identical in its construct to the previous two volumes: an opening action scene, lots of padding, and then a final harried climactic action scene. Gee, I wonder if the fourth volume would’ve followed the same path…?

And the big finale is more goofy than anything: Golden’s secret Delight-manufacturing location is a fortress of a building deep in Chinatown, which we are informed is a no-man’s land along the lines of Beirut or something – such a no man’s land that Dinatale tells his troops they can go in with guns blasting, no silencers needed this time. And hell let’s bring a couple LAW rocket launchers along, too! But just when it goes down it all gets super ridiculous…Moses’s knee goes out on him due to an injury he’s been dealing with the entire book, and his massive frame crashes into the garbage the team’s hiding in, alerting Golden, Turk, and their entourage that it’s an ambush. And meanwhile Barb, apropos of nothing, goes into a seizure and starts freaking out!

Golden doesn’t have like an army or anything, so for the most part it’s just the Street Machine hiding in refuse and springing up to fire off a shot or two. We do get just a bit of gun-porn, not as much as previous volumes though, and as mentioned the gore is much toned down. In fact it’s all so bland I can’t even remember if Golden is given a big sendoff. About all I remember is all this occurs on Christmas Eve, and the book ends with a lame “Bah, humbug” joke from Brian Benson, and that’s all she wrote for the Steel Lightning series.

I recall the thrill I experienced when I discovered this series a few years ago, trawling Amazon for anything published by Pinnacle in the latter ‘80s, in particular any obscure men’s adventure books. I remember seeing “Midnight Lightning” listed, with no details provided, and then researching further and realizing it was indeed a men’s adventure novel – and that there were two more volumes! But sadly the series just never amounted to much, and my only suspicion is that Sherrill was given poor direction by the publisher…the books are always promising to go all-out, but never quite do, as if the publisher wanted a “real” novel, and not just a crazy action spectacle.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Mace #6: The Year Of The Boar

Mace #6: The Year Of The Boar, by Lee Chang
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

I’ve been looking forward to this sixth volume of Mace for quite a while. Because my friends we’re finally out of the weeds, ie the previous five volumes by Joseph Rosenberger, and as if in reward for enduring those five beatings we’re graced with an installment by Len Levinson (using the same house name that Rosenberger did, “Lee Chang”). So even though Len delivers a protagonist much different than his usual (at least when considering his other ‘70s novels), it goes without saying that The Year Of The Boar is vastly more entertaining than any of Rosenberger’s installments.

I know from Len himself that he never read those previous five books; in fact as he most memorably informed me once: “I never heard of Joseph Rosenberger.” So for all intents and purposes this could be considered a standalone novel. And in many ways it is much different from Len’s other books of the decade, with a straight-shooter protagonist wholly at odds with Len’s typical main characters from this era. In fact Victor Mace is kind of boring, and makes one miss, for example, the neurotic Johnny Rock of Len’s three Sharpshooter novels.

Len was clearly given at least a character outline to work from, though. It’s still Victor Mace, Chinese-American kung-fu wizard from Hong Kong who has relocated to America, but whereas Rosengerber’s Mace did CIA jobs on the side, Len’s is the head instructor at the Lotus Academy on Canal Street, in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. There is of course no mention of the previous five volumes, though if anything Len’s novel harkens back to the vibe of Mace #1, in that it doesn’t have any espionage commando stuff and is more of a simple “kung fu master versus stupid thugs” sort of thing.

The simple nature of the storyline is made clear by the plot: Mace goes up against some crooks who plan to burn down tenement buildings in Chinatown and build luxury high-rises in their wake. Mace comes into it when one of his students is killed in the latest fire; he learns later that another building was recently burned down in the same area. But as the dead guy’s teacher Mace is sworn by the ancient rules of kung-fu to avenge his student’s murder within a few days or something, so he’s off into action posthaste.

Mace starts off the novel being interviewed by sexy journalist Joyce Wilson, who is doing a story on the kung-fu craze. Len sort of pulls a fast one on the readers; we know that Joyce is attracted to Mace and hopes he asks her out – indeed she hopes he’ll take her back to her place and boff her brains out, being a “liberated woman” and all – but it never happens. Mace goes off with Joyce within the first few pages, but is first distracted by some would-be muggers who give him the handy opportunity to show off his skills, and then he’s further distracted by the burned-down building his student lived in. He ends up telling Joyce “maybe next time” and sets off – and Len apparently forgets all about Joyce, having her disappear for the rest of the novel, only returning near the very end when Mace calls her up to see if she knows a mob boss’s address. 

Instead, the novel is given over to a lot of chop-sockeying; same as in the Rosenberger era there are random all-caps bursts of “CHINK!” from Mace’s enemies, followed by Mace’s shouts of “KIII-AAA!” as he kicks them into oblivion. However the incessant “shuto chop” of Rosenberger is gone, replaced by various combinations of punches and kicks, though Len’s own “shuto chop” (meaning his own overused pose, a la Rosenberger’s shuto chop) would have to be the “horse stance,” which it seems Mace is going into every few pages. That being said, Len’s fights are more entertaining, even though they’re really the same as Rosenberger’s – endless, extended sequences of Mace kicking and punching people. But as I’ve said before, I personally feel that martial arts combat isn’t as suited to prose as say gun combat is. There are only so many ways you can describe a punch or a kick.

And as mentioned Mace is kind of boring anyway…he’s too much of a straight-shooter, and his occasional speeches on the kung-fu way kind of make him a bore. That said, he does have an incongruous habit of putting an unlit match in his mouth, which I guess is intended to make him seem tough – otherwise he’s very tall, slim build, long back hair, same as the cover. Also in an interesting bit of cross-series continuity, or at least what might be seen as such, Mace has a pal on the New York police force: Lt. Raymond Jenkins, who we can assume might be the brother of Lt. Richard Jenkins in Len’s Bronson: Streets Of Blood, written around the same time as The Year Of The Boar. Jenkins even gives Mace a gun at one point, insisting he keep it for protection against the Mafia enforcers who are coming for him, but of course Mace doesn’t use it.

Another harbinger of the Rosenberger installments is that Mace is suitably superhuman; he’s actually up in the Dr. Strange league this time, able to see and hear beyond normal human perception with his “shuh” talent. As if that weren’t enough, he’s even able to focus his “chi” to such an extent that he can stop the flow of blood from a gunshot wound in his shoulder…and when the bullet’s extracted (by a Chinatown acupuncturist, naturally), Mace is able to focus his will and re-seal the wound!! All of this, coupled with his take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward sex, makes Mace more of a sort of kung-fu Jesus than the typically-rabid (or at least driven) Len Levinson protagonist.

The title comes from Mafia bigshot Frank Zarelli, whose plans Mace threatens; Zarelli and Chinatown opium importer Mr. Sing concoct a scheme to hire some kung-fu killers to come over from Hong Kong and kill Mace. It’s Mr. Sing who compares Zarelli to a boar, so one assumes Len was given this title before he started writing and found some way to accommodate it into the narrative. Led by seven foot tall sadist Rok Choy, who happens to have been a kung-fu schoolmate of Mace’s who was kicked out twenty years ago, these kung-fu assassins are pretty cool and definitely bring the novel the flavor of vintage bell-bottom fury movies; upon their arrival in Manhattan they’re instantly getting drunk and taking advantage of Mr. Sing’s teenaged assistant – the only part of the novel to feature any dirty stuff, and most of it relayed via dialog.

However Rok Choy is dispensed with sooner than expected, and Mace quickly sets his sights on his remaining followers. In fact Mace is so superhuman that the question isn’t so much if he’ll survive but how quickly he’ll take out his opponents, no matter how greatly they outnumber him. I guess in this way Len’s book is also similar to Rosenberger’s, but it must be said that his Mace is a bit more likable, if too distant from the reader due to his perfection. As for Zarelli, his fate is a bit unexpected, and it occurs shortly afterward, as Mace promptly assaults the man’s heavily-guarded home. Len ends the novel right here, with Mace catching a taxi back to Chinatown – there’s a goofy out-of-nowhere recurring bit about a new cabdriver who doesn’t know his way around Manhattan, and the various characters keep getting into his cab – and that’s that. Vengeance has been meted out in the demanded time.

Overall The Year Of The Boar was entertaining, certainly when compared to Rosenberger’s previous five books, but at the same time I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Len’s other books from this period. Not that there’s anything wrong with his prose or his dialog, it’s just that it lacks that zany spark the others had. And mostly I feel this is due to Mace himself, but again this isn’t Len’s fault – he was hired to write a book about a kung-fu master and that’s how a kung-fu master is written. So in that regard he certainly exceeded, but when you’ve read say Shark Fighter you just expect something more from the guy. I mean when a cab driver who appears on maybe half a page total is more memorable than the lead character, you know something is up.

Back in July 2012 I asked Len about Year Of The Boar as part of the interview I did with him for The Paperback Fanatic. I asked him again about the book now that I’ve read it, and he decided to “augment” his original Paperback Fanatic comments for my review. So here’s Len on the origins of The Year Of The Boar – and I have to say, the “rapacity” of New York landlords (as Len memorably described them in a recent email) comes through loud and clear in the novel!

THE YEAR OF THE BOAR began with a phone call from an editor I knew at Belmont-Tower, don’t remember his name. He said he was working for a new publishing house called Manor and asked if I would write for them. I said “sure,” which was how a desperate freelance writer naturally would respond. 

I lived at 114 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in those days, and walked uptown to the meeting at Manor’s office located in the same vicinity as Belmont-Tower on lower Park Avenue south of 34th Street. Zebra Publishing for whom I later wrote was in the same area. 

Also in attendance at the meeting was a young lady editor who I also knew from Belmont-Tower. No one else was in the office, which as I recall, consisted of only one medium-sized room. This young lady editor had previously told me that she worked with Nelson DeMille when he was in the Belmont-Tower stable. I suspected that Manor was connected to Belmont-Tower in some way. 

I don’t remember details of the meeting but I ended up writing two novels for Manor, THE YEAR OF THE BOAR and STREETS OF BLOOD in their BRONSON series by Philip Rawls. I don’t remember which I wrote first. 

THE YEAR OF THE BOAR really stimulated my imagination because I was very interested in Eastern religions at that time, and had studied karate under the great Okinawan master Ansei Ueshiro who worked out in class alongside us students in his studio on West 14th Street in New York City around 1962. His speed, strength and precision seemed supernatural. Inspired by him, I affixed a bamboo mat to a wall of my apartment and punched it in order to build up callouses on my knuckles, but my knuckles bled and no callouses ever happened. 

In addition, I had studied Vedanta Hinduism plus Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, attending many lectures and reading lots of books. I also spent much time in NYC’s Chinatown, largest Chinatown in America, which was spilling over into Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Often I explored out-of-the-way streets and alleys, hung out in Buddhist temples, ate at funky restaurants, and munched on lotus seed buns as I wandered about. Sometimes I wished I could move to Chinatown because I loved the exotic atmosphere, almost like being in Hong Kong. 

I also had watched a few Kung-Fu movies on the Bowery in Chinatown. None had subtitles but were fascinating anyway. The nearly 100% Chinese audiences seemed to enjoy them very much. Those King Fu movies doubtlessly influenced action scenes in THE YEAR OF THE BOAR, which begins in Chinatown and much of the action occurs there. 

The character of Joyce Wilson, described as reporter for a NYC daily, was based loosely on a real reporter for an underground NYC weekly newspaper who lived in the same building as I in Greenwich Village, and was a friend of mine. Now she is a famous reporter for the NEW YORK TIMES. I don’t want to mention her real name because I don’t want to embarrass her. 

While writing THE YEAR OF THE BOAR, I was having problems with my landlord because my apartment was rent-controlled and he wanted me to move out so that he could jack up the rent. He refused to fix what was broken and threatened to have me beaten up if I complained to the Housing Authority. So he transmogrified into the predominant villain of THE YEAR OF THE BOAR and came to a very dark end in the novel. 

All these experiences and semi-understood theologies served as foundations of YEAR OF THE BOAR. As I skim through the novel today, I think the narrative was undermined by my tendency to toss in sex scenes that seem casual and unmotivated, but it seemed like a lot of sex was casual and unmotivated during the seventies. It was a strange time and I spent much of it sitting in a series of non-luxury apartments in Manhattan, writing action/adventure. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, it was life carried on by other means.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


Coffy, by Paul Fairman
No month stated, 1973  Lancer Books

This paperback tie-in to the famous Pam Grier movie Coffy is notable for one thing – it takes an already sleazy story and makes it MORE SLEAZY. All I know about Paul Fairman is that he was a prolific writer who died in the late '70s, but he really hits the ball out of the park with this novelization, which is really all a grindhouse fan could ask for.

What Fairman does throughout is take already lurid material and just builds on it; there are no fade to black moments here, and if someone's merely shot in the movie you can be sure that in the book it will be elaborated with exploding brains and gore.  But most particularly what Fairman has done is just sleaze the story right the hell up.  My friends, Coffy the novel is damn sleazy.  How sleazy, you may ask? Just take a gander at the first-page preview, folks – I mean this the very first page of the book!! 

The book follows the same path as the film, so I’ll skip my usual overlong rundown. (I can hear your cries of relief even from here.) Fairman follows director/writer Jack Miller’s script most faithfully, only changing the most minor of details, but sleazing it up good and proper whenever the chance presents itself. Whereas the film would fade to black before the real kinky stuff, Fairman just keeps on going – hell, even in something as harmless as a catfight, ie when Coffy is fighting King George’s stable of whores, we’re informed that Coffy’s toe jabs up into a certain part of the female anatomy.

Fairman informs us that Coffy’s full name is Flower-Child Coffin, something I don’t think was made clear in the film. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it so I might be wrong on that. And also that she’s comprised of so many various ethnicities that she comes off like a dark-skinned vision of bona fide lust; indeed, Coffy is “the kind of broad who could bring a man’s cock up with one look… Even decent guys got lustful where Coffy was concerned.” She’s got an Afro and she flaunts her stuff, but Coffy honestly comes off as a bit innocent in the novel – other that is than when she blows off a dude’s head within the first few pages of the book, forcing another guy to OD.

Coffy’s kid sister is now in a funnyfarm outside LA, her brains scrambled from the heroin she got hooked on. So Coffy lures the guilty pusher away with promises of sex, blows his head off with a shotgun, and then forces his companion to take a fatal overdose…and then she heads for work at the hospital! Coffy’s a nurse, same as in the film, though even here it’s not much elaborated on. What is elaborated upon is, as mentioned, the sleazy sex, so posthaste we’ve got Coffy bumpin’ and grindin’ with her politician boyfriend of sorts, Brunswick. But while Fairman might not leave the kinky details unexplored, he does drop the ball on important stuff – like the fact that Brunswick is black, something he doesn’t bother to inform us for quite a while.

On the side Coffy’s also giving the juicy goods to Carter, a black cop who refuses to give in to corruption, mostly after visiting Coffy’s sister in the asylum and vowing never to become part of the dirty machine that could produce such a wasted life. For this Carter’s beaten up by dudes with bats until he’s a vegetable, leading to one of those unforgettable lines: “Maybe he’ll be able to go to the bathroom on his own – someday.” Coffy’s with Carter when the two guys in masks attack him, and here Fairman elaborates in his own special way once again, with Omar, the more lecherous of the two hitmen, raping Coffy in graphic detail. This does at least get Coffy’s vengeance instincts all fired up; she vows to take apart the men who were behind Carter’s attack.

This puts her up against Carter’s corrupt partner McHenry (who of course is a white guy) and a local Mafia kingpin named Vitroni. But to get to the latter Coffy must first get through heroin dealer/pimp King George. In one of the book’s (and of course the movie’s) more memorable moments, Coffy goes undercover as it were as a high-class hooker from Jamaica named Mystique. Fairman as one might expect elaborates the sleazy world of King George’s harem, even including dialog between various whores about their johns.

To get the job though “Mystique” must first be “interviewed” by King George, leading to the sequence featured on the first-page preview; in the book itself it’s actually more graphic, and again a good indication of how Fairman indulged in his sleaziest impulses while writing the novel. But then the entire harem stuff is great, with Coffy instantly running afoul of the other hookers, leading to the memorable bit where she sews razor blades into her Afro and King George’s main woman grabs Coffy’s head in the catfight, slicing her hands up in the process. Even more so in the novel the reader can’t help but feel bad for King George, though; his fate – tied to a car and hauled along by Vitroni’s thugs – is much more grisly and gory here, with copious detail of his mutilated corpse.

Coffy herself doesn’t come off as hard-bitten as Pam Grier potrayed her. While the Coffy of the novel starts off strong, she’s prone to self-doubt and fearful at times, like when she’s captured in her failed attempt at killing mob boss Vitroni. Here we see Coffy pleading that she just “wants to go home” when Omar tosses her into a pool outhouse for safekeeping. But Fairman does his best to make the character more believable: when the novel storms for its awesome conclusion, Coffy realizes she’s able to change her personality like she changes her clothing – veering from a frightened woman to an emotionless killing machine in response to whatever situation she’s faced with.

There’s a line near the very end of the movie, which also appears in the book, where Coffy says over the past few days she’s been living in a nightmare, and that she’s still in the nightmare, and I recall reading something once where Quentin Tarantino raved about this line, how it was great writing – in fact he might’ve even been arguing that the line could be taken literally, that the events of the film really were a dream. Whether intentional or not, Fairman does capture the surreal texture of a dream in the finale, which faithfully follows the onscreen events – Coffy is taken off to her death, but through a series of events both accidental and planned, she’s able to not only escape but to turn the tables on her would-be killers. It’s a great sequence, complete with cars crashing on the freeway and a shotgun-armed Coffy taunting her former captors.

Fairman goes for more of a downer ending than the film – not that he changes anything. It follows the same course, Coffy extracting bloody vengeance at Vitroni’s house with that shotgun, then heading for a final confrontation with her old boyfriend at his beach cottage. But after dispensing justice Coffy tosses the gun aside and walks out along the beach, knowing that the cops are on the way and not caring – she just walks on and on, hoping to walk forever. What a bummer! The reader can be cheered up by the fact that Coffy did return, sort of; the following year’s Foxy Brown, again written and directed by Jack Hill and starring Grier, was conceived and written as a sequel to Coffy, only for the studio to request at the eleventh hour that it become its own thing, as sequels weren’t doing well at the time or something.

Overall though, I was grandly entertained by Paul Fairman’s Coffy novelization, which was a breeze of a sleazy read, coming in well below 200 pages of big print. Lancer clearly wanted to cater to the porn readers of the day, as the back of the book’s filled with ads for Lancer’s sex-focused books. One imagines then that Fairman was given the marching orders to filth up the story, and he succeeds admirably – I was actually more entertained by the novel than by the film, and that’s really saying something.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Specialist #9: Vengeance Mountain

The Specialist #9: Vengeance Mountain, by John Cutter
June, 1985  Signet Books

It’s hard to believe, but The Specialist is coming to an end; after this one there’re only two more, and the shame of it is that by this point John Shirley (aka “John Cutter”) has gotten his template down – basically, The Specialist at this point has become a sort of parody of The Executioner, with everything taken well over the top. Vegeance Mountain is very much an indication of this, as it’s basically just a long-running action sequence with some of the darkest comedy you’ll find in men’s adventure. That being said, the series still isn’t as cool as the stuff Shirley was writing at the same time for Traveler

Another thing that makes it unfortunate that the series is ending soon is that Shirley sets up a subplot that promises big changes for tough-ass hero Jack “The Specialist” Sullivan: namely, he’s considering adopting a young girl and raising her! This character is named Melina and is introduced in one of the grimier opening setpieces yet in the series, reminding readers that, of all the ‘80s men’s adventure series, The Specialist comes closest to capturing the grimy vibe of such books from the ‘70s. Whereas most other series in the ‘80s glossed out the sick-o material one would find in a ‘70s men’s adventure novels, replacing the sleaze and filth with detals about guns, guns, and more guns, John Shirley delivers what comes off sort of like a more polished installment of The Sharpshooter.

We meet Melinda in an opening sequence which sees Sullivan taking out a kiddie porn producer in the woods outside New York, where the bastard shoots his “movies.” It is of course an unsettling topic, but it must be stated that Shirley has his tongue firmly in cheek throughout, ramping up the insanity. In other words he takes a subject that is disquieting and disgusting in reality, but puts an almost surreal spin on it, with a “producer” so depraved that one is certain – or at least prays – that such a creature couldn’t actually exist.

Melinda is the man’s latest “star,” kept naked and shackled in this cabin in the woods, forced to “act” in perverted movies in exchange for bare morsels of food. As ever Shirley goes wildly overboard to make his villain loathsome so that the reader can’t wait to see him axed, but this kiddie porn freak really isn’t around enough to make much of an impression. As expected, Jack Sullivan makes short work of the guy’s henchman, delivers the producer a fitting sendoff to hell, and saves little Melinda – Shirley keeping the scene refreshingly free of treacle. Sullivan drops the poor girl off with Bonnie, the hotstuff private eye who first appeared in the previous volume, and asks if Bonnie would consider adopting her – then, after some off-page good lovin,’ Sullivan splits!!

He's soon contacted by another private eye, this one a sleazeball by the name of Preminger. This guy’s been hired by several victims of one of the more depraved and psychotic characters you’ll ever encounter in fiction: Jerome Farady, Jr, who according to Preminger has murdered 180 women(!!) over the past years, each of them in sexually sadistic ways. Farady, a Ted Bundy type (in that he has boy-next-door good looks, and isn’t a slavering wild-eyed freak as one might expect), has escaped prison because his father, Farady Sr, is a multi-millionaire with all kinds of power and influence.

But these victims of Jr’s excesses have banded together; each of them has lost someone due to the sadist, and they’ve heard of the Specialist and knows he’s the guy who can permanently punch Faraday’s ticket. Sullivan briefly meets them – taking the opportunity to check out hotbod brunette Angela Mills, whose mom was chopped to hamburger by Faraday – and promptly takes the job. Sullivan, as ever fueled by the need for vengeance, is almost at comic book levels here, becoming more and more enraged by the stories he’s hearing about Farady, and vowing to kill him but quick. Unfortunately Farady Jr and Sr have both sequestered themselves in an old fortress deep in Mexico, guarded by roving packs of ruthless mercs.

Sullivan heads for Mexico, where the rest of the novel plays out. He picks himself up a CAWS auto-shotgun thing, as memorably featured in the later Cybernarc #4. Shirley pulls a fast one, making us thing the novel’s going to be a long-simmer affair of Sullivan posing as a mercenary hoping to get a job at the “castillo,” as the fortress is constantly referred to. Posing under the in-joke name of Richard Stark, Sullivan beats up a few of the mercs, including fat boss Ludlow and drug-dealing punk K.C., and gets a successful audience with Faraday Sr, who doesn’t trust “Stark” but decides what the hell, he’s hired. Sr by the way is appropriately insane, ranting and raving beneath the framed painting of his forebear. In a bit of series continuity he also reveals he was once a client of the Blue Man, from volume #3. As for Jr, he’s locked away on his own floor of the fortress; no one’s allowed to see him, but Sr occasionally sends local whores in there to be raped and killed.

Shirley really goes for an over the top dark comedy vibe throughout; the mercenaries who guard the fortress are all criminals of the most depraved sort, boasting of how many women they’ve killed. Even “harmless” K.C. brags about wasting a couple people who found out about his dope-smuggling venture. While the reader settles in for the long haul on this – Sullivan dealing with these guys while trying to figure out how to kill Jr – Shirley pulls the rug out with it all happening in the next few pages. Sullivan takes out a monstrous Jamaican merc (who of course is toking on an equally-monstrous joint before the fight) – and gets into Faraday Jr’s chamber. But he misses his chance to kill him and has to escape into the jungle.

From here Vengeance Mountain employs the same template as all the other John Shirley men’s adventure novels I’ve read: it becomes a long chase scene. Sullivan spends more time fighting the corrupt local cops, all of whom are in Faraday’s employ. Shirley doesn’t muddy up the storyline with too many characters; Sullivan befriends a local bar owner who considers gringos his best customers, and the only other character here is the mandatory easy lay Sullivan must have each volume: none other than Angela Mills, who has come to Mexico because she wants to see Faraday Jr dead, and just hiring the services of the Specialist isn’t enough.

Sullivan is more pissed than anything at the girl’s presence, but of course we have the expected sex scene – up to the usual explicit standards we now demand from Mr. Shirley. Angela by the way has “the most incredible body” Sullivan has ever seen; indeed, his “heavy artillery [begins] to throb” when Angela tries to seduce him back at her hotel room. A graphic sequence which has Angela promising Sullivan that he won’t make her climax. If you think Sullivan fails in this, you are hereby sent to the men’s adventure remedial class.

The plot is barebones but what keeps it moving is Sullivan’s near-insane resolve to kill Jr; there are moments where he basically fuels himself with thoughts of getting his hands on the bastard’s throat. But it must be said that Shirley himself finally seems to be running out of fuel. Much, too much, of Vengeance Mountain is padded-out backstory about Sullivan’s days in ‘Nam. Too many times he’ll be looking off into the Mexico jungle and think how it’s so similar to ‘Nam, and from there we go into an extended backstory about a hairy patrol he once endured with his loyal soldiers. This seems to be setting up the plot of the next novel, which promises to see Sullivan leading a new team of soldiers, this time in an excursion into Iran.

The fun as ever comes in the unexpected moments of dark humor. Like when Sullivan discovers a traitor in his midst, one who has come down to sell info to Faraday Sr; when Sullivan gets him, he beats the traitor so badly that his face looks “like a cherry pie that’d been run over by an 18-wheeler.” When the going gets too tough Sullivan sends out for help, and old familiars Merlin and Rolf show up for the climactic assault on Faraday’s castle. Angela takes part, too, getting some field experience with assault weaponry. Shirley doesn’t shirk on the gore, either, so his action scenes are always entertaining, though it must be said that the Specialst doesn’t do near as much gory damage with his CAWS as Rod and Drake did in Cybernarc #4.

For the most part, though, it was the dark comedy I most enjoyed in this Specialist. Otherwise the storyline was a little too simple, and the volume was a bit of a comedown after the more entertaining previous installments. As mentioned though, there was only two more volumes to be, so we’ll see if Shirley gets back to previous standards.