Monday, October 19, 2020

Kane’s War 4: Crackdown

Kane’s War #4: Crackdown, by Nick Stone
September, 1987  Ivy/Ballantine Books 

The fourth volume of Kane’s War seems to confirm my theory that this series had two different authors. Whereas the previous volume featured a vaguely sci-fi plot featuring a mind-controlling madman, not to mention really big print, this volume has the “realistic” vibe of the first volume, as well as the same small, dense print. Also there’s a ton of brand-name dropping, and elaborate scene-setting, this particular author really trying to capture the glitzy “beach read” vibe of an ‘80s trash paperback, even down to the explicit sexual shenanigans. 

And at 275 pages, Crackdown really does come off like one of those beach read novels; no idea why the volumes of Kane’s War are so damn long, but I assume it was a mandate from the publisher. As would be expected, though, the author has a helluva time filling up so many pages with what is just another entry in an action series; it’s like these publishers and editors didn’t understand that the shorter these books are, the better. The editors and publishers of men’s adventure in the ‘70s understood this, but it appears that by the time the ‘80s rolled around the intention was to make these books look like “real novels.” Thus Crackdown sort of stalls out for long portions of its runtime, but it must be stated that this author does a good job of capturing the “marina mystery” vibe Ivy/Ballantine was clearly aiming for. 

One thing this volume does retain from the ‘70s is the sleaze; Crackdown opens with a focus on T&A …actually, make that some uncomfortable T&A. For we meet Mike and Michelle Mulhaney, the father-daughter duo who have appeared in the series since the first volume, cast adrift on a stalled boat. And Michelle, a hotbodied brunette who is the casual bedmate of Ben Kane, takes the opportunity to get into a skimpy string bikini…even doing a “pirouette”…for her dad!! Very strange. Otherwise, all this occurs mainly so the two can witness a hijacking: the Mulhaneys watch as the boat belonging to Maria, a “light-skinned black” beauty pageant queen friend of Michelle’s, is taken over by some swarthy Cubans. The Mulhaneys wonder what’s going on, desperate to get their boat fixed so they can report this. Meanwhile we readers see that Maria and her galpal, a six-foot stripper named Shirley, are in for a rough time. 

The entire incidenct comes off like something from a men’s adventure novel of the decade before, as sleazy as can be. The Cubans take the captured girls to their yacht, which is filthy with garbage and refuse, and there proceed to rape Shirley. As I say, it’s all very ‘70s in its exploitative tone, as the Cubans rip off Julia’s clothes, exposing her “jutting tits,” and go about raping her in explicit fashion, after which Paco, the boss, jams a knife in Julia’s heart. It’s Maria the men are here for; Paco reveals to her that he has two keys of “la coca,” and he wants Maria, who happens to have a degree in chemistry, to help him with it. Maria is not raped, but chained up in a cabin that stinks of garbage and a backed-up toilet. There she will stay for pretty much the entire novel, which occurs over a few days. 

The Mulhaneys, when they get their boat fixed and get back to St. Thomas, tell Ben Kane about this hijacking, but our hero is more focused on getting in Michelle’s pants. The author, to his credit, delivers yet more graphic sex material here: “[Kane] guided his cock toward the damp entrance. With a mighty thrust, he rammed his slippery cock deep.” I mean, two points for the usage of “cock” in back-to-back sentences. One other thing that calls back to those ‘70s mens adventure books is the unrepentant wish-fulfillment of Ben Kane: he’s in his 40s, ruggedly handsome and virile, and lives on a retrofitted Chinese junk that’s basically a waterborne bachelor pad, as swank as you could imagine. As mentioned this particular “Nick Stone” likes to lay on the topical details, and the ship, the Wu-Li, has all these fancy accommodations that you could just expect some wealthy, unattached guy to create for himself. As I’ve mentioned before, this very much gives Kane’s War the feeling of the earlier series Killinger

And speaking of wish fulfillment…just a few hours after he’s with Michelle, Ben’s getting busy with his other casual badmate, hotstuff Brit Jessica! We learn this volume – it might’ve been mentioned before, I can’t remember – that Michelle is insanely jealous of Jessica. The two women are quite aware that each is involved in a casual affair with Ben, but whereas Jessica pretends to be “adult” about it, Michelle gets very worked up over the thought of Ben having sex with Jessica. However it should be mentioned that Ben spends much more time with Michelle in this one; it seems like each volume has traded off on which of the two will act as his “main girl.” Jessica really only factors into this opening part; her father is throwing a gala affair on their island, and Ben’s invited. There he runs into returning character Weaver, an intelligence spook who offers Ben a job – and Ben tells him to screw off. 

Unbelievably, the author turns out yet a third hardcore sex scene, so soon after the previous two, this time again with Michelle. At least he presages it with some action; Ben tries to get the drop on these Cuban hijackers who have been preying around this area, leading to a nicely-done action scene. But right after this it’s back on his Chinese junk so Michelle can give his bruised body a massage, leading to more whoppers like, “[Michelle] eased his shaft into her well-lubricated pussy…she began to ride him like a steeplechaser posting for each fence.” I don’t even know what that least part means, but I sure do like the sound of it! I quote this stuff in full because “Stone’s” usage of hardcore words is very out of touch with the otherwise-reserved tone of the narrative. In many ways the series is like something Lyle Kenyon Engel would’ve “produced” in the ‘70s; those books too would be written in a sort of highfalutin style, only getting explicit in the sex scenes. 

Curiously though, after this the sex stuff dwindles away…almost as if the author had some editorial mandate to include at least three sex scenes per novel, and decided to just get them out of the way as soon as possible. At this point the narrative gets more into the lukewarm espionage vibe of previous volumes; Weaver lets Ben know about Pritchard, a “triple-agent” Weaver suspects has now become merely a double-agent, working with “the Reds.” Somehow this is all factored into the Cuban hijackers subplot. Ben for his part gets involved because “Pritchard” turns out to be a guy he knew by another name, Carter, back in the ‘Nam…a guy who worked in intelligence and sold out Ben and his pals, setting them up for dead. He’s waited over a decade to punch the bastard’s ticket, and now he has his chance. 

Speaking of teams, Kane’s World is typical of ‘80s men’s adventure in that the focus is on teamwork, on a large group of characters that surrounds and assists the main character. It seems as if Ben Kane’s entourage is growing per volume, but this time his main crew is the same: Ganja, the pot-smoking black dude (my favorite character in the series, and sorely underused), and Miles, the cipher-like former SEAL. These three, as well as other members of Ben’s crew, get in frequent skirmishes with the Cuban hijackers, as well as Cuban soldiers who are led by Martinez, a nutjob who is working with Pritchard. Most of the action concerns Ben’s growing assortment of water craft, including a hydrofoil he now has which memorably features in a few sequences. There’s also a nice action scene involving Jessica, who happens to be on Wu-Li before some random Cubans attack; Ben gets her to fire off a flare so he can snipeshoot, and later Jessica also fires a machine gun. 

There are a lot of nice ’80-isms, too, like Miles – the Nam SEAL, remember – using “ninja darts.” I mean you just gotta figure the guy ordered them out of an ad in Ninja Magazine (damn I loved that mag as a kid – even had a subscription to it…probably some of the greatest cover art in magazine history, too). Ganja too carries around an assortment of knives, and in one humorous bit when he’s putting together his war gear he’s also sure to grab a bag of “Jamaican herb.” Miles didn’t seem to feature much in previous books, but this time he does a lot of the heavy lifting, even putting on scuba gear and planting explosives and tracking devices on the Cuban ships. Otherwise he’s almost somnambulant, leaving all the personality to Ganja. There’s also a funny part where Ganja responds to a question with “Yo!”, and Ben replies, “Cool it, Rambo.” 

While the action scenes are nicely-handled, they get to be a little repetitive, and it’s clear the author is struggling to meet his unwieldy word count. This is especially apparent when the novel seems to end around page 200, with most of the main villains dead and lovely Maria saved. But there are 70 more pages to go! The author fills this up with yet another Michelle-Jessica fight, but again Michelle doesn’t have much to get upset with, as the novel ends with her in Ben’s arms. But overall, as I think of it, this series really does have the vibe of the action movies of the day, definitely with a little Miami Vice sprinkled in, so far as the locale and boat-action goes. 

It’s just the length that’s killing the series for me. Regardless I’m looking forward to the next one, and have been since I discovered Kane’s War several years ago – it’s about an “underwater resort for the wealthy,” and that sounds like a cool setup to me. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Hulk: Stalker From The Stars

Stalker From The Stars, by Lein Wein, Marv Woflman, and Joseph Silva 
November, 1978 Pocket Books 

In the late ‘70s Marvel Comics attempted to branch out into the general fiction market, releasing several tie-in novels through Pocket Books. I picked up a few of them many years ago, but just couldn’t get into them. Recently I came across this sole Hulk novel and decided to read it, particularly given its sort of Lovecratian alien menace, a space squid with mind-control powers. 

Stan Lee provides a brief intro in his customary style, where he curiously only mentions authors Len Wein and Marv Wolfman; Joseph Silva, supposedly a pseudonym of prolific writer Ron Goulart, isn’t mentioned at all. Lee states that this could just be the first in a long line of Hulk novels, though it turned out there were only three of them. He also clarifies for readers that Stalker From The Stars takes place in the world of the comics, thus it features two characters who didn’t exist in the TV show (which was going strong at the time of the book’s publication): the Hulk’s archenemy, General Thunderbolt Ross, and Bruce Banner’s best friend, young sort-of hippie Rick Jones. (Ross’s daughter Betty is not mentioned.) Lee drums up a lot of enthusiasm for the novel, but to tell the truth I felt it was so straighjacketed to the confines of the comic world that this “novelistic” approach was ultimately a failure. 

I was a little surprised at the amount of hardcore sex and violence in the book. Just kidding – there’s none of either, though the authors seemed to have fallen in love with the word “damned.” Rick Jones says it so many times in the book that you could make a drinking game out of it. Usually it comes off as arbitrary as can be, but it is another reminder of those Bronze Age Marvel comics, where “damned” was about the extent of cursing that was allowed. The Hulk does appear to kill someone, though; early on in the book he’s walking along the countryside and witnesses a car about to run over some random kid. The Hulk jumps to the kid’s aid, putting his body in the path of the car – which basically pretzels around Hulk’s body. Absolutely no further mention is made of the driver, though it’s clear he had to have been killed, given the destroyed condition of the car. To make it all the more clear, later when Hulk crashes Army tanks or helicopters or whatnot, the authors are sure to mention the pilots and drivers jumping out of them. 

The book opens with Rick Jones walking into the small town of Crater Falls, North Dakota, having hitchhiked across the country to get here; the authors insert all kinds of goofy foreshadowing that something bad’s about to go down here. Otherwise it’s an idyllic little town, filled with the cliched slackjawed yokels you usually find in such fictional places. Rick is here to search out Dr. Rudy Stern, a nuclear scientist with specialty in gamma radiation, ie the special radiation that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk. The authors insert a long flashback to how Banner became the Hulk, taken directly from the comics; dumbass Rick Jones somehow got on the testing grounds, and Banner rushed out there to save him, thus taking on a heroic dose of gamma radiation. Now Rick of course blames himself, venturing around the country in the hopes of finding someone who can cure Bruce Banner so he won’t be plagued with the Hulk anymore. 

Thus he has come to Crater Falls, as Dr. Stern not only knows Banner but worked with him in gamma research. But Stern apparently had a falling out with the government and left to do his own research up in this small North Dakota town; its name comes from the large crater in the center of the town’s forest, courtesy a meteor impact many centuries ago. Rick walks around the small town, asking the slackjawed local yokels where Dr. Stern lives. He finally ends up outside a boarding house, where he doesn’t meet Stern, but the pretty young woman who works as Stern’s assistant: Linda Connolly. Here we get some unintentionally humorous stuff, in light of our modern emasculated era: the book is clearly written for boys or young men, thus Linda is often exploited for us: “her slim figure showed to advantage,” and the like. I also loved the random observation from Rick that Linda’s probably in her early or mid-20s, and so “still in range” for him, should he try to pursue her (not that he does). 

Linda explains to Rick that she hasn’t seen Dr. Stern in a while, leading to the goofy development of Rick moving into the boarding house (which Linda manages) and taking on a handyman job! Meanwhile the authors inject a little Hulk action into the narrative; we meet Bruce Banner as he rides in a boxcar in the midwest, mulling over the incidents “some time ago” which turned him into the Hulk. Now he’s chased everywhere by the army, with General Ross personally in charge of bringing down the green giant. This leads straight to an action scene, with helicopters attacking the train Banner’s on; he turns into the Hulk, and the authors don’t much describe the transformation or what the Hulk looks like, clearly aware that the majority of their readers would be familiar with the comics. The action is handled pretty off-handedly, with Hulk just throwing things around and charging across the countryside. The authors also try to retain the “sound effects” of the comics, which really gives the book a juvenile tone: “smash,” “kerplop,” and my favorite, “kaslam!” 

General Ross has “Operation Pea Pod” in effect (gotta love the name), in which plastic pods are dropped on the rampaging Hulk. These actually work and the big freak is finally captured, taken to a special containment area. The authors here also introduce a character from the comics: Quatermain, a rugged SHIELD agent who quickly got on my nerves with his comic-booky smart ass asides, none of which were very funny. We also here get a lot more background on how Banner became the Hulk, how he’s been running all these years, and whatnot. While Banner’s plight is well-captured, his insistence that “it’s not me, it’s the Hulk!” who is doing the damage comes off as incredibly petulant, like a temper-tantruming little girl. As for General Ross, no effort at all has been made to make him seem realisitic; he’s a walking, talking cliché, angry at everything and even yelling at broken-down cars. Again, fine for a comic, but the reader of a novel expects a little more. 

Meanwhile in Crater Falls, Rick discovers some weird shit is going down. Namely, the entire populace turns into zombies at night, including Linda…they stumble around the town in a daze, at some strange mental command. Rick tries to follow, only to get knocked out. Next morning he pretends like nothing happened, and Linda is oblivious to any strangeness, as is everyone else in the town. We finally get back to the Dr. Stern subplot: Rick and Linda find his green-glowing corpse out in the forest, right by the crater. That night Rick again is subjected to the zombified locals, who again get out of bed and stumble around town; we never learn what happens here, but Rick calls a special number Banner gave him – which connects directly to General Ross – and gets knocked out (again) during the call. This scene is relayed from Ross’s perspective, and what’s happened to Rick is a mystery. 

Banner himself doesn’t do much in the novel, other than fool Quartermain and Ross into thinking that he’s calm and peaceful, to the point that they let him out of his special Hulk cell. He overhears Ross on the phone with Rick Jones, and when Ross won’t tell Banner what’s going on, Banner knocks out Quartermain and steals his helicopter, to fly to Crater Falls on his own. Again, all very comic-booky, with not much concern over realism. Banner’s threatened with such bad vibes upon entering Crater Falls at night that he turns into the Hulk; to the authors’s credit, they don’t skimp on the Hulk action in this novel. Here he finds the entire townsfolk under a strange mental command – and by now we readers know it’s courtesy an ancient Lovecratian alien, which is buried in the crater. Indeed, the alien, Sh’mballah, caused the crater when his spaceship crashed here eons ago. 

The Hulk can never catch a break; the townspeople attack him, under the alien’s control, and then General Ross shows up on the scene with those damn “pea pods” again. This part features the great line, “You will not gas Hulk!” Kind of reminded me of that ancient Saturday Night Live skit with John Belushi as the Hulk, coming out of the bathroom. But anyway, they do “gas Hulk,” those pea pods having a knockout gas in them, so Hulk is captured yet again – it seems he’s constantly passing out and turning into Banner, or vice versa. But ultimately we do get what we’re here for: Hulk versus Sh’mballah, which turns out to be a monstrous squid-like thing, with its glowing organs visible through patches of its hide. It’s a straight-up comic book style fight, with green monster and space monster slugging it out – but it’s like the authors were afraid it would be too comic booky, thus Hulk kicks Sh’mballah’s ass much too soon, tossing the space squid into a burning garage and killing it. Like just a handful of pages after we finally got to see the creature! 

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. For Sh’mballah isn’t dead – it’s just possessed the corpse of Dr. Stern. There follows an unintentionally humorous part where Banner (changed from the Hulk again), Rick Jones, General Ross, and Linda stand in the town and watch a figure walking toward them…and it just keeps going on. “Is that Dr. Stern?” “It sure looks like him!” Just on and on, like something that would be a couple panels in a comic but it goes on for like a couple pages here. In fact this last quarter features a lot of padding like this, with the heroes standing in the burning chaos of Crater Falls and trading expository dialog or arguing. General Ross particularly wears out his welcome here. But it’s a drawn out affair in which Stern’s corpse is a “gamma bomb,” and the group must figure out how to dispose of it without destroying the entire town. 

The novel ends on a mystery note – of course, the Hulk rampages off with Stern/Sh’mballah so that it can explode elsewhere, but by book’s end Rick Jones, General Ross, and everyone else are under the impression that the Hulk was killed in the blast as well. As if! The book ends in true “Bill Bixby starring in” fashion, with Bruce Banner ambling along into some new shitkicking town and wondering if he’ll ever be free of the Hulk. There were two more books featuring the Hulk: Cry Of The Beast and Hulk and Spider-Man: Murdermoon, but that was it. Doubtless the books just failed to resonate with the general readership Pocket no doubt aimed for – the comic readers probably even found these novelizations unsatisfying. ‘Nuff said!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Triple Platinum


Triple Platinum, by Stephen Holden 
July, 1979 Dell Books 

The other week I went on one of my infrequent deep Google dives to find a new-to-me rock novel and struck gold, coming across this obscure Dell PBO courtesy a former contributor to Rolling Stone. Holden seems to have based Triple Platinum on his own experiences, as the novel features a 27 year-old record label rep who got his start writing reviews for a rock magazine: Holden began writing record reviews for Rolling Stone in 1972, and later in the decade he handled A&R at RCA. The book promises lots of kinky fun in the Harold Robbins mold, but Holden doesn’t much dwell on the sleaze and ultimately a tiresome soap-opera subplot takes precedence over the more-entertaining “rock world” stuff. 

One thing Triple Platinum has going against it is the era in which it’s set: the late ‘70s. The novel takes place in 1978 and stays there for the duration; I kept hoping and hoping for some interminable flashback to the late ‘60s or even the early ‘70s, but sadly it never happened. I mean there was no blander time in rock than the late ‘70s…and Holden, a record reviewer, is quite aware of this. Indeed it’s very interesting reading the novel with the perspective of a couple decades, as Holden clearly knew that the countercultural giants of the ‘60s were fading and would be replaced by sleek new “product.” It’s also interesting because the book was published at the point where the ‘60s stuff seemed “old” and hadn’t achieved the classic/revered status of today. Here those countercultural giants are still striving for relevance, looking to keep their ‘60 ideals alive in the late ‘70s. But as one character puts it, “The kids today want Billy Joel.” 

So yeah, we’re stuck in the late ‘70s throughout, with all the cliches you’d expect – characters are constantly “taking a toot” of coke and dancing to disco. In fact, this jet-setting scumball stuff takes up the brunt of the narrative; despite having a Bob Dylan-meets-Johnny Rotten character and another group that’s clearly modeled on The Eagles, Holden thinks us readers are more interested in the boring travails of a self-involved pair of narcissists: Craig Morrison, 40-something president of IMC Records, and Beverly, his ultra-annoying 41 year-old former model of a wife. We must endure pages and pages of their relationship, and they’re the epitome of the nauseating self-involved “New York jet-setter” type, even down to Beverly calling everyone “darling.” Meanwhile the folk-singer gone hard-rockin’ punk gets short shrift, and the Eagles analogs only feature in one memorable – and pretty sleazy – sequence. 

And really, that’s about it for the rock characters. Our ostensible hero is Nick Young, the aforementioned 27 year-old A&R rep, and while he seems to actually like rock – which clearly sets him above the loser who featured in the similar Rising Higher – he’s grown bored with it, due to his job. Folks, when writing a glitzy novel set in a trashy world, never make your characters bored. And yet that’s what Nick is…he’s bored with the garbage no-name groups who send IMC their demo tapes in the desperate hopes of being discovered, giving the demos just a handful of seconds before switching off the tape player and sending out rejection notices. Nothing’s good, everything’s a ripoff of what came before, or lacks any spirit, or whatever, and yes it’s obviously more knowing condemnation of the era’s general shittiness, but still, it makes for a bored reader, too, which should never be the goal of a 430-page book that promises on the cover to be a “sizzling supershocker.” 

There are some curious similarities to Vinyl, a short-lived series that ran on HBO in 2016: depraved label execs who snort coke to fill the emptiness in their lives, various plottings to get their product to the top of the charts, lots of internecine scheming behind the label scenes. There’s even the same sense of blandness, but Triple Platinum definitely has the edge on that, as while rock was kind of boring in the 1973 of Vinyl, it wasn’t nearly to the depths of 1978. You’ll notice I’m just mentioning rock; thankfully, Triple Platinum is not a punk novel, though a few punk acts are mentioned here and there. Holden does not seem to be a fan of this particular subgenre, and I have to agree with him – the only punk I’ve ever liked is Danzig-era Misfits, and that’s it. When punk is mentioned in the novel, it’s as a “fresh” take on rock, something IMC should back more fully…which is another similarity to Vinyl, which featured its own coke-snorting label executive going crazy over punk (complete with anachronistic punkers who looked more “Sid Vicious late ‘70s” than the longhaired proto-punks of the real 1973, but I digress – and really the show overall was pretty bad, anyway). 

The main thrust of the novel has to do with Craig Morrison trying to hold onto his new position as IMC president, and to get his label back on the top of the charts. But brace yourself for this one, folks – Craig is not a fan of rock music. Already you might see the wrong footing we’re getting off on. I mean it’s a 430-page book about the rock world, and the main character hates rock! But no, seriously – he’d rather play the Gone With The Wind soundtrack in his upscale Manhattan penthouse (which he actually does in the course of the novel). Well anyway, Craig has just dumped a whopping seven million dollars on Lance Macon, IMC’s 33 year-old “answer to Dylan.” While the rest of the industry sees Lance as a rapidly-crashing ‘60s reject, no longer relevant and too far gone on coke, Craig wants to bank on his archive of unreleased material, some of which has attained legendary status. 

There seems to be a bit of Neil Young in Lance Macon as well, and not just because of the vault of unreleased material; one of Lance’s biggest albums was titled On The Beach, which has to have been an in-joke from Holden, this being the title of a 1974 Neil Young album. Actually the whole “Bob Dylan” angle doesn’t make much sense; Lance himself hates being compared to Dylan, and I suppose the only correlation is that he too has a somewhat nasally voice and got his start doing folk. But the Lance Macon presented in this novel has more in common with a spaced-out hard rocker in the Spinal Tap mold; always in an Army jacket and shades, he snorts his way through reams of coke, likes to spit on reporters and the members of his audience, and ponders “primal mantras,” where he repeats words over and over in a variety of inflections to get at “the real meaning.” 

The crux of the novel has Craig fearing that he’s blown seven million bucks on a joke; Lance is so burned out that he can’t even play his guitar anymore, and he’s been at a creative standstill for years. Not only that, but he has no intention of releasing any archival material – plus he announces, midway through the novel, that he plans to retire from the rock world. He’s going into movies, and IMC will have to be happy with a live album of his farewell concert. This of course does not sit well with the IMC shareholders and whatnot, and Craig is increasingly in the crosshairs, thus coming to a crazy scheme that again seems like something we might’ve seen on Vinyl (if it had actually made it past the first season, that is). He’s also got trouble with a group of studio musicians who have formed into a somewhat-successful band: the L.A. Dudes, whose loudmouthed Allen Klein-esque manager threatens to leave IMC for CBS Records. 

Nick Young comes into all this as Craig’s “golden boy,” plucked from his reviewing gig at Record World to act as a special A&R consultant. Nick also has a rapport with Lance Macon, having covered several of his albums in the past, and ultimately Craig has Nick use this friendship to spy on Lance and figure out what he’s up to – a subplot that could’ve been much more exploited. But this is just the framework, because Holden’s real intent is to deliver a Sidney Sheldon-esque potboiler about Beverly Morrison’s obsession with Nick – she wants him, and she wants him bad. The Morrisons have your cliched ‘70s swinger thing going on, with Beverly openly screwing whatever guy catches her fancy and Craig sitting amiably by, usually playing with himself during the festivities. 

This makes for the one true blast of sleaze in the novel; after an interminable “party” sequence in which a whole army of characters is introduced, Beverly implores Craig to invite Nick over for dinner the next night – all so she can screw him. After dinner and dancing in their penthouse, Beverly casually offers, “Let’s go upstairs and fuck,” and here the shenanigans begin. “She’s wonderful in bed. Be my guest. But please don’t mind if I watch,” says Craig – though it actually turns out he offers some coaching as well, doling out stuff that had me laughing due to the sheer insanity: “Get down and eat her pussy, boy!” Or even, “Chow down on that joint!” Which is to say it is overall a pretty sleazy scene as Craig plays with himself while his wife and protégé have sex, but ultimately this is as sleazy as Triple Platinum will get. Even worse, this will set up a tiresome love triangle subplot that takes over the entire damn novel. 

As if that weren’t enough, there’s more maudlin soap-opera stuff with Susan, Nick’s girlfriend…even ABC Afterschool Special stuff like her flushing a bag of coke down the toilet because she’s afraid Nick’s becoming addicted. Not just to coke, but to the entire depraved world of rock and roll. There’s a lot of space wasted on this, and I became more resentful of it as the novel went on, as it took away from the fun stuff. Like the L.A. Dudes subplot. Early on Craig announces that he’ll be sending Nick to Los Angeles to win them back to the label. The reader waits patiently for this to finally happen – and when it does, Triple Platinum becomes the sordid rock novel we’ve been waiting for. The L.A. Dudes are complete cretins, in it for the money and fame, and there follows a queasy sequence where Nick chaffeurs them as they pick up a preteen girl and start groping her in the back seat – even doping her with qualudes and taking her into their hotel for some (off-page) gangbanging. But this will be it for the L.A. Dudes, because even in this section of the book the annoying Beverly subplot intercedes and Nick must head down to San Francisco to shack up with her for a few days, at Craig’s request. 

Nick’s spying on Lance is more missed opportunity. This part too seems to come from a superior novel; they smoke some Thai Stick and Lance hits Nick and his hangers-on with his primal mantra nonsense, then it’s off to a studio to watch another group rock out. Holden by the way is another of those rock novelists who doesn’t really describe the music, going for altogether more of a poetical, metaphorical approach. I mean we learn the L.A. Dudes do “harmonized West Coast rock,” and that Lance has new, hard rock takes on his old protest folk numbers, but there’s really not much of an attempt to capture the sound of any of it. Even Lance’s manic final concert is rendered in a poetical, nigh-psychedelic tone. Holden does however focus on the lyrics, which was typical of those Rolling Stone reviewers – you could read a two-page review of the latest Beatles (or whatever) LP and it would just focus on the lyrics. 

Nick’s job at IMC is also presented as incredibly boring, which is humorous when you consider that his job consists of listening to rock music all day, meeting with famous rock stars, and going to glitzy parties around New York. However in the demo-reviewing sequences we do at least get a little more music detailing, as Holden will quickly recount the merits (or lack thereof) of the latest demo tapes to arrive on Nick’s deck. Nick passes on most everything, save for the occasional group that has a cliched or familiar sound, given that Craig insists on hit single potential for any group on IMC. Holden was clearly familiar with rock, from the famous to the unknown, and I’m pretty certain there’s a veiled reference to obscure singer Kathi McDonald: Nick quickly reviews a demo from a Janis Joplin soundalike who had a few albums early in the ‘70s, all of which failed to gain an audience, and who is trying to get back into the music biz. She too gets a rejection slip…one wonders if in reality Stephen Holden rejected a demo from Kathi McDonald in the late ‘70s and incorporated this into the novel. 

As mentioned though, so much narrative space is given over to the Morrisons, from Craig mulling over various business deals to Beverly pining for Nick. This builds into a love triangle that’s very irritating to endure, with Nick trying to get out of this tricky situtation of screwing his boss’s wife at his boss’s order, but realizing at the same time that his boss is quickly becoming jealous of him. This stuff goes on to such an extent that the “main plot” of the book, IMC’s problems with Lance Macon, is overshadowed. And sadly, the Lance stuff is just so much more entertaining. There’s a memorable part – which Greil Marcus detailed in his review of Triple Platinum in Rolling Stone – where Lance invites an old girlfriend up to his hotel room, but the two are unable to do much of anything but get high. She’s all thin and frail (Holden implies she’s become a crack whore, about ten years before there even was such a thing) and has had so many abortions (courtesy various rock stars – one of whom might’ve even been Lance) that she doesn’t even feel any sexual urges anymore, resulting in one of the most unerotic “sex scenes” I’ve ever read. 

There’s an interesting-in-hindsight bit where Lance has a big news conference, his first ever, and tells the assembled reporters his plan to retire from music and get into movies. I say interesting because, apropos of nothing, Lance brings up John Lennon and says that he “was the only [rocker] who had the guts to quit before making a fool of himself.” (The book being published during Lennon’s five-year retirement from the music scene.) Lance then attempts to get the reporters to do a “Power to the people!” fist-shake in tribute to Lennon, the reporters looking at him in confusion – more ample commentary from Holden that the counterculture is dead. I say all this is interesting because, immediately after this Lennon reference, Craig Morrison starts thinking of all those rock stars who died and became very lucrative for their labels after they were gone, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix. Another of those curious synchronicities, as a little over a year after this novel was published John Lennon would be gunned down. 

Craig makes this decision almost casually – he’ll kill problematic Lance, making it look like an accident, and IMC will move forth with plans to release his archival material and just in general exploit him. All this because Lance makes a fool of himself at the press conference, breaking open a suitcase he claims to be filled with coke, offering toots to the reporters, and then revealing it’s just sugar! Craig reveals his plan to Lance’s longtime manager, who himself has grown sick of Lance’s increasing psychosis, and the two carry out the murder via heroin planted in Lance’s coke stash – per tradition, they know Lance will backstage for a toot or three during his farewell concert at Madison Garden. This is the only part in the novel where Holden delivers a concert sequence, but as mentioned it’s relayed via poetic imagery, with Lance truly in his element and putting on a spectacular show – which is clearly lost on Craig, who stands by as Lance runs backstage for what will turn out to be a fatal snort of coke. 

But folks even here our author interjects the nauseating “love triangle” subplot; Nick and his girlfriend are at the concert, as are Craig and Beverly…and, moments after Lance has been announced dead, Beverly is clinging to Nick and asking him why he hasn’t called her lately! It’s like we must constantly be pulled away from the more-interesting material to deal with this tiresome “fatal attraction” subplot. Thankfully Nick finally tells Beverly to fuck off, after which he quits IMC and leaves the narrative. But for some reason the novel doesn’t end here. Instead we flash forward a couple months and learn that Craig is now at the top of the heap; Lance’s death has proved incredibly lucrative for IMC, with his unreleased material selling in droves, as well as a record of his never-completed farewell performance. 

Even here, though, it becomes more about Craig and Beverly…we learn that the latter was so heartbroken by Nick leaving her that she went through rehab and a brief ailment and etc, Holden apparently under the impression that we readers give a shit about the self-involved shrew. It also focsues more on Craig dithering about a big party he’s throwing at Studio 54 for IMC, even down to debating on when “to start the disco music.” It’s supposed to be a wild party of the rock elite, but instead it just focuses on the banalities of setting up the party. The only interesting bit is all the drugs Craig takes to keep himself going – something else Greil Marcus mentioned in his review. Craig’s party turns out to be his undoing, though; the IMC owner takes umbrage that Craig put his own name before the company name on his party invitations, and fires him for it(!), even locking Craig out of his office…preventing Craig from gathering the incriminating evidence of his plotting of Lance Macon’s murder.

Triple Platinum is a long book, and I spent some time with it, meaning I was able to give it a little more thought. And it occurred to me that Holden’s argument here is that rock didn’t go stale because of the artists, but because their music and art was destroyed by soulless corporations that were just looking for product. The most overt display of this is Craig literally killing his biggest star, Lance Macon, so that IMC can release all kinds of material that Lance would never have approved of – and also preventing Lance, permanently, from going in a new artistic direction. Meanwhile, crass slugs like the L.A. Dudes, who churn out soulless, cliched music, are feted by IMC. Even the forays into unusual areas are pedestrian, like IMC’s “punk” group, the Joyboys (apparently modeled after the New York Dolls, with a little Stooges tossed in), who display none of punk’s true spirit but instead come off like watered-down carbon copies of what’s expected of a “punk” group. 

All in all I enjoyed Triple Platinum, with the caveat that it was more a turgid soap opera than the depraved rock novel I was hoping for. Also it was a little too focused on the business end, to the extent that the actual “rock group” stuff was pretty much lost. However Holden’s writing is good, carrying the narrative along with skill; his style is along the lines of the BCI/Lyle Kenyon Engel house style, ie Robert Lory or Paul Eiden. It appears that Triple Platinum is now scarce and pricey, so I’d only suggest picking it up if you come across it cheap – as I luckily did, after a full night or searching online for a reasonably-priced copy.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Minikillers (1969)

I wrote the below a little over ten years ago for, but couldnt post all of it because of their word count limits. Blogger has saddled users with a complicated new interface Im trying to figure out, so I decided to resurrect this old writeup for todays post until I can figure out what the hell Im doing on this stupid new Blogger interface, which seems to have been designed by Millennials who do everything on their phones. 

German producers H.G. Lückel and D. Nettemann had an entrepreneurial idea: to provide entertainment for people getting their cars refilled at gas stations in Germany. The idea was to place TV sets by the pumps, so customers could watch a short film while their car was filled (this was before the days of self-service.)  They envisioned an espionage thriller to capitalize on the James Bond/Eurospy genre. Casting about for a famous lead, they eventually settled on Diana Rigg -- fresh from her biggest role in the Bond film On Her Majestys Secret Service. After negotiating, Rigg agreed to appear in these films. 

Minikillers is a series of four short films, tied together into a coherent storyline: the idea was that customers would keep coming back to that particular gas station to see the conclusion. The series was shot on 8 millimeter and without dialog; sound effects and music were added later. In a way the project comes off like a silent film; all is relayed via movement, gestures, and facial expressions. 

Rigg apparently did not realize the uber-low budget of these films until the camera(s) started to roll. However true to her contract she shot each of them...and never mentioned them again. The entrepreneurial project, by the way, failed completely: the deal fell through and the movies were never shown at any gas stations. Hence Minikillers achieved a mysterious status; copies circulate on the bootleg market. It appears also that each film was released on 8mm reels for a short while in Germany; most bootleg DVDs are no doubt sourced from these. 

Minikillers is comprised of 4 minifilms, each about 7 minutes long, totaling a 28-minute movie which is as good as any other Eurospy flick you could name. Rigg apparently plays Emma Peel here; at any rate, she’s a fun-lovin’, judo-choppin, swingin’ chick who smirks at danger. The film also retains the surreal charm of The Avengers; Rigg never fires a pistol, defends herself with the crudest of martial arts moves, and never once appears to be in any real trouble. 

Filmed in Spain, the movie takes advantage of the scenic locales of Costa Brava – however most of the scenery is lost in the washed-out and blurry 8mm film print. Long story short: Minikillers looks like garbage. My DVDR is taken from the original 8mm film and looks rough; colors are muddy, faces are blurred. But Diana Rigg still glows. 

Part 1: Operation Costa Brava – At seaside resort, lounging by the pool in a red bikini, Rigg sits reading a paperback. She notices a toy doll which walks up; somewhere distant a bald assassin who looks like Telly Savalas sets a sort of time-bomb activation clock. The doll stops in front of some guy, who picks it up; the doll squirts poison through its eyes and the guy dies. In the melee of panic Rigg takes the doll, investigating; the bald henchman sees this and sends a stooge after her. A quick judo fight outside Rigg’s house; she tosses this guy and as he slouches off she spots a clock which has fallen from his pocket – it’s the same kind as the clock used to activate the doll. Rigg goes back into her swank room to inspect the doll. Unseen by her another doll another comes in, controlled by the Savalas lookalike; Rigg leaves her place just as the poison sprays from doll #2’s eyes – Rigg never even sees that it’s there. 

 Part 2: Heroin – Rigg sits along the beach in a wrap, mini-camera in hand. She spots some scuba guys who get into a yacht; Rigg snaps photos of them with her minicamera, the guys on the boat looking back at her. The main boss is here – a mustache-sporting type who controls the Telly Savalas lookalike and who is apparently behind the minikillers. He gives the order and the men on his yacht hoist a lever, activating a trap. A strange scene where Rigg realizes she is surrounded by mannequins on the beach – as if she didn’t notice? Yacht guys pull lever; a net comes up from the sand and ensnares the mannequins and Rigg and drags them into the water. Guntoting stooges in the yacht wait as the net’s dragged from water – but it’s empty! Meanwhile Rigg comes out of the ocean unseen by them – wearing only white panties and a bra, her wrap lost in the tumult – and gets into a dingy. She pulls herself into the yacht. Hides from men and goes into bottom deck, investigating – minikiller dolls everywhere. Ever curious Rigg looks into one, finds a bag of heroin tucked inside it – the dolls transport drugs as well. Cute bit where she waves a “naughty naughty” finger in the doll’s face. Next she finds a photo of two men, with “Interpol” written above them, and X marks over each face; one of the faces is the man killed in part 1. Rigg puts on a raincoat and avoids the armed thugs. Eventually the yacht gets back to the dock; while sneaking off Rigg sees the Telly Savalas looking thug, and he sees her. A few judo chops and she beats away her attackers; escapes into the main villain’s car, races off. Ends with Rigg depositing the stolen car on the street and hopping into her own race car, jetting off; a cop puts a ticket on main villain’s car for being illegally parked. 

Part 3: Macabre – Rigg enjoys a coffee at an outdoor restaurant. The Savalas lookalike and the main boss watch her from afar. They take the minikiller (from part 1) from her car and activate it, then place it back in Rigg’s car. She leaves and they follow in another car, she sees them. She hears a ticking noise and so stops to look at the doll. Realizing it’s been armed, she looks up in her rearview mirror and sees that her tailers have also stopped. She throws the doll at them and it explodes; men scatter. Cool bit where Rigg saucily gets out of her car and challenges the bald henchman. A quick fight scene where she judo-chops him and he plunges off of a hill, out cold. Rigg leaves, and back at her hotel a porter hands her a note. Apparently she’s asked to come to a certain address. That night, Rigg in sexy black minidress arrives at a palatial estate. Men there await with a coffin, one of them the Savalas lookalike. She beats them up and escapes in a horse-drawn carriage. This is the shortest installment, at just 6 minutes. 

Part 4: Flamenco – Rigg sits in a packed nightclub, enjoying a flamenco dancer named Sali. In an upper balcony sit the main villain and his Savalas lookalike henchman. Also, we see that Sali the dancer is one of the two Interpol agents in the X’d out photo from part 2. (Talk about a strange cover assignment!) A waiter comes by with a photo for Rigg, of that same “Interpol” photo. Again a message being sent to her. Flamenco over, Sali takes his bow, goes to his dressing room. In his mirror he sees a minikiller doll advancing on him. Too late, it sprays its poison in his face and he dies. Later Rigg comes down to Sali’s room. Before she can go in she’s gagged and dragged off. She comes to strapped inside of a cliffhanger serial-type device: bound flat while the stone ceiling slowly descends on her while gears revolve; soon she will be crushed to a pulp. The Savalas lookalike watches for a while and then goes back up to the main boss to gloat. Meanwhile Rigg reaches for the gears… Upstairs Savalas realizes something’s amiss. Goes downstairs, sees that the device is not working – plus it’s empty. He leans in to investigate; sees a ring jammed between the gears. Savalas is so caught up that he gets caught in the device by the wrist and can’t move. Rigg pounces off into Sali’s dressing room, sees his corpse, notices that he died pointing into his mirror. She follows the direction of his finger – a hidden room. Finds in there several crates filled with heroin-stuffed minikillers. Rigg takes one of the dolls out of a crate, remembers the clock-activation device she got from the judo-tossed henchman in part 1, which she conveniently has strapped around her neck. Meanwhile upstairs the main villain messes with a minikiller of his own, charging it up with a syringe of poison. Downstairs, Rigg sets up her own minikiller to test it out. She winds the clock and sets it off, but somehow this sets off the minikiller in the main villain’s hands. Poison sprays in his face and he dies. So Rigg has disposed of the main villain completely unawares! The film ends with Rigg enjoying a drink at a bar as cops lead off the bound Savalas lookalike; Rigg winks into the camera, takes another drink, and the credits roll. 

The direction is actually very good considering the rudimentary production. One can only wonder how much better this would look with an actual budget – not to mention dialog. But there are some innovative camera angles and the action scenes are handled with aplomb. Rigg of course carries the film; it’s a shame she didn’t feature in more globe-trotting Eurospy productions. The soundtrack is a swanky treat. Two tracks from Minikillers can be found on the CD Poppshopping Volume 1, released by the German label Crippled Dick; ironically, neither of them are versions actually heard on the soundtrack! The versions released on the Popshopping CD are the same, but are just slower – the main version as heard in the film itself is sped up. But either way the theme gets stuck in your head.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Penetrator #37: Candidate’s Blood

The Penetrator #37: Candidates Blood, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1980  Pinnacle Books

This timely installment of The Penetrator features an election-focused plot, only it’s a Congressional race in Alabama. Initially I was under the impression that Mark Roberts had taken a look at recent volumes and found them lacking, and decided to bring back some of the fire and brimstome of the earliest installments. But as the narrative progressed Candidate’s Blood turned out to be just as bland as everything else Roberts and series co-writer Chet Cunningham have churned out over the past few years, with a suddenly-emasculated titular character now acting more like a law-abiding cop than the revenge-minded sadist of the earliest books.

But man, the beginning’s great, and has the makings of a trash classic. First of all we meet “Dandy Andy” Wells, a Democrat who is running for the seat in Alabama. A black former civil rights activist, Wells is a “walking stereotype” per his own followers and talks in an affected “black southerner” drawl, even gnawing on spare ribs while he gives his speech! (Which has to do with “normalization” of trade with China, “making friends” with other countries around the world, and of course banning guns.) Meanwhile an assassin named Art Belman watches him from afar…and we’ve already gotten a glimpse of how twisted this dude is, as he actually has to jerk off because he’s so excited that he gets to kill again. (Definite shades of Justin Perry here!) Once that’s taken care of, Belman blows Wells’s head off with a rifle, escaping in the ruckus – and meanwhile Mark Hardin just happens to be watching the live broadcast of all this back at the Stronghold. Which I believe is in California…yet they’re showing live broadcasts of a political rally in Alabama. But whatever.

Given that there’s nothing else on the “trouble board,” Mark decides to fly on over to Alabama and sort this shit out. Mercifully there’s none of the “flying fiction” Roberts indulges in so often, though he does craftily work at least something in later when Mark happens to flip through an aviation magazine. The Penetrator takes a host of weaponry with him, which again had me expecting the action onslaught of the earliest volumes, but inexplicably he doesn’t use much of it. Once again he’s acting more in a detective capacity, hoping to root out the assassin, find out what conspiracy caused the murder of Wells – whose politics, we’re informed, Hardin doesn’t agree with – and bring the perpetrators to justice. Not kill them. Only late in the novel does Mark finally decide that the main villain needs to die.

We readers already know from the get-go who was behind Wells’s assassination: Johnny Herter, a successful and famous businessman who leads a populist movement called…the American People’s Party. Now before you jump to conclusions on who this might sound like in modern-day politics, remember this is Mark Roberts writing the book. Herter’s the villain of the piece, so of course he’s a “radical leftist,” and the APP is a far-left party. (Hard to imagine such a party having “America” in its name these days, though…but then this book was written in earlier, simpler times, before the nation was irrenconcilably divided.) Herter lives in a big plantation house in Alabama where he throws wild bashes with his clingers on: “creeps…drug-pushing hippie musicians…bomb-throwing radicals,” and “slippery fixit-type fund raisers.” Roberts really tries to pile on the sleaze here:

But man, this will turn out to be it. This is the one and only part of the book that goes to this lurid extreme. Worse yet is around here I also thought we were going to get a bit of a rock novel subplot, Roberts doing his own take of The Destroyer #13, maybe, with Mark Hardin venturing into the crazy world of rock. For it develops that Johnny Herter finances a rock group named God’s Blood, which is known for depraved spectacles on the concert stage. But all we ultimately learn is that the lead singer is named Duce[sp] Wilde and we get a sampling of God’s Blood lyrics: “Let’s get down together, baby, fuck fuck fuck!” And this too will be it! It’s like Roberts teases us in this opening bit…racial stereotypes making speeches with ribs on podiums, masturbating assassins, wild parties with naked chicks diving in the swimming pool, and even “acid rock” (in 1980!!) for the soundtrack. And then he just drops all of it and turns out your basic generic Penetrator yarn that we’ve sadly become familiar with by now.

Once again Mark’s the only person who even bothers to investigate; obviously Wells’s murder has caused a national stir, but Mark waltzes around posing as a federal agent and doesn’t even run into any real ones. He does run into an old acquaintance, though: Samantha “Sam” Chase, redheaded NASA security agent introduced back in #33: Satellite Slaughter. She’s no longer with NASA, she says, operating as a freelance detective. There’s barely any history with her so far as the narrative goes; I mean she and Mark had a fling in that earlier volume and even ended the novel on vacation together, but you’d never know that here. In fact, they don’t even “get friendly” throughout the entire novel, unless it happens so far off-page that Roberts doesn’t even mention it. Instead it’s about Sam insisting she’s a “modern woman” who can handle all the gunfighting and whatnot that’s part of Mark’s life, and also she’s figured out he’s the Penetrator. But by novel’s end Mark tells her so long forever because he can’t have someone else he cares about getting wasted.

Mark and Sam reunite during an early action scene; Herter retains a team of security goons and Mark runs into them while investigating. One of them almost gets the drop on him before Sam takes him out with her pistol. But other than a brief explanation that after meeting Mark the whole NASA thing seemed “boring,” there’s really nothing that ties back to the previous volume, and Sam could’ve just have easily been a totally different character. She just happens to be in Alabama as well, hoping to make her career as a P.I. by finding out who killed Wells. Crazily enough, she’ll be the only other character Mark meets who is even investigating this case! Also here we get yet another reference to real-life private eye J.J. Armes, with Sam mentioning she wants to be as nationally famous as “that [private eye] in El Paso.” Roberts also referred to Armes – who sported metal hands – in #27: The Animal Game.

Action is infrequent, which is frustrating given all the heavy equipment Mark brings along. He does most of the early fighting with dart gun Ava, once again going out of his way not to kill unless absolutely necessary. In other words, Mark’s attackers have to try to kill him first before he returns the favor. Otherwise he knocks them out or doses them with a tranq dart. Roberts continues with his penchant for ending chapters on lame cliffhangers, thus Mark is often finding himself in dangerous situations…ones that just as often have anticlimactic resolves at the start of the next chapter. Like when he’s taken in by some local cops who happen to be on Herter’s payroll and deposited in a makeshift prison on Herter’s land. Mark escapes rather easily and makes his escape, ultimately running into a local American Indian who himself is an enemy of Herter. But Roberts drops this subplot, only to clumsily bring it back later, where Mark makes a speech to the assembled tribe, imploring them for their help and ultimately causing them to go into a war dance sort of ritual. 

There’s also weird out of nowhere stuff…like in one action scene, Sam gets shot in the shoulder and she and Mark escape from Herter’s goons…then the next chapter they’re suddenly half-dead from dehydration and starvation and out in the savage elements, having hid without food or shelter for several hours. This part seems to exist just so Roberts could insert some survivalist fiction material. And also Sam’s shoulder seems to heal up without much fuss, but it does factor into Mark’s eventual declaration that Sam must never see him again. His shock that she’s figured out he’s the Penetrator is pretty humorous, though. Roberts seems at pains to introduce a “modern woman” to the series, with Sam constantly going off on how she knows how to handle herself in a fight, and just as often arguing with Mark to let her go along with him. That being said, there really isn’t much else interesting about the character.

Roberts drops the ball on another female character. In the early wild party scene, a naked chick dives in the pool for the viewing pleasure of all the coked-up men, and we’re informed this is Herter’s girlfriend. But strangely enough this is all we see of her – and, as mentioned, all we see of one of these crazy parties. Or “Caligula Revisted,” as Roberts titles the chapter. But honestly it’s like some milk-sop editor at Pinnacle saw the early manuscript and frantically got on the phone to implore Roberts to dial it back, because abruptly Candidate’s Blood shifts tone, leaving us with yet another sluggish and meek installment of The Penetrator. Most damning is that nothing at all is done to exploit the entire God’s Blood subplot; there’s even a concert at one point, but Roberts doesn’t bother to bring it to life. How I wanted to see the Pentrator take on Duce Wilde, but sadly it never happened.

There are a lot of subplots that go nowhere, like a DC-based reporter for a “right-wing rag” who wants to get the scoop on Herter – not just his plots to murder rival politicians, but also his illegal mining schemes. This reporter ultimately meets his fate at the hands of Art Belman. Then there’s more go-nowhere stuff when Sam goes undercover with the APP, getting hit on by Herter – but she takes off before anything happens and the entire angle is dropped. Stuff like this is just frustrating because it’s clear Roberts decided to focus on less-important stuff than what the opening promised. The finale seems to imply we’re headed back in the depraved direction of the opening, as Mark decides to wipe out Herter while one of the megalomaniac’s wild parties is in full swing, but it’s really just another generic late-era Penetrator action sequence, with none of the underlings or killers or whatot meeting any brutal or memorable ends…save for Herter himself, that is. But his death, at the hands of a mining auger, comes off more as contrived than anything else.

Roberts’s patented writing style is in full effect throughout, with his usual oddball choice of words – never before have I encountered the word “crackled” as a dialog modifier (ie, “the boy crackled”). There are also occasional lines that must have been intentionally goofy, like: “The Penetrator left Guthrie’s office with his hunch node humming away like a vibrator.” But stuff like this isn’t enough to salvage what initially promised to be a lurid return to the Penetrator of yore. At any rate, by novel’s end Mark hands all the mining and assassination evidence over to Sam, so she can use her straight-world contacts to break the case and become a famous P.I., but as mentioned Mark tells her it’s over forever between them…not that anything really got started between them this time. Roberts is so busy spinning his wheels that the last pages are given over to Mark eating dinner with Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle back at the Stronghold.

I am curious what happened behind the scenes of this series – it’s very strange that both Roberts and Cunningham made their once-brutal character so bland and upright. Well, there are still more volumes to go, so maybe things will eventually improve.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Random Record Reviews: Volume 4

Even yet more (sort of) obscure ‘60s/’70s Rock LPs: 

1. Aorta: Aorta
Columbia, 1969

Sometimes dubbed “The American Sgt. Pepper’s,” Aorta is courtesy a Chicago-based group that should’ve gone on to bigger things, as this LP is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. To tell you the truth, I’d rather listen to it than Sgt. Pepper’s any day of the week! For one thing, it has a lot more variety, and more sonic textures; it’s definitely along the lines of After Bathing At Baxter’s, by the Jefferson Airplane, in that you hear something new every time you play it. Each side plays as a long suite, tracks flowing in and out of each other with recurring phrases and themes that add to an incredibly-realized conceptual nature. The pressing is phenomenal, too, with a wide soundstage. They cover the spectrum of psych rock, from pop to heaviosity to even a maudlin Burt Bacarach-type number on side 2. Judging from the copyright, Aorta was actually recorded in 1968, so perhaps releasing this in post-psychedelic 1969 did it no favors. I searched my Rolling Stone CD-Rom and only found a single mention of the album, in a review Lester Bangs did for the first Alice Cooper record, Pretties For You, where he commented on the fuzz guitar sounds of Aorta.

Top Track: This is a tough one, but if I had to say it might be “What’s In My Mind’s Eye,” one of the poppier numbers on the album, but with a super-cool “underwater” sound effect on the chorus vocals.

2. Dave Mason Alone Together
Blue Thumb, 1970

Okay, this one isn’t obscure, or at least it wasn’t at the time, as it sold quite a many copies and received regular airplay on the rock stations. But I guess over time its reputation waned, at least to the point that the average rock listener might not be aware of it today. This is their loss, as Alone Together stands up with any other rock classic of the day. Mason broke off from Traffic to start a solo career, this being his debut album, populated with a host of (usually uncredited) celebrity musicians. It doesn’t sound much like a Traffic album to me, covering a wide range of styles, from shorter tracks for radio play to longer ones for the dopesmokers at home. One of those albums that perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist but which have faded in significance – at least judging from a lack of “classic rock” airplay.

One of the biggest draws of the album is the packaging. The original release was a sort of triple gatefold gimmick cover that opened up into a psyechedelic photo of Mason. Even better was the vinyl, a “marble splatter” of gray, brown, yellow, black, and a little pink, mimicking the rocky terrain on the cover photo. Only problem – the marbled vinyl made for a very noisy pressing. I’ve read comments from people who’ve sought a good-sounding copy for decades, ultimately deciding that good-sounding pressings don’t exist. I personally have two copies; the first I bought many years ago, and I seem to recall it sounded okay on my cheap conical stylus…but when I played it on an elliptical (where the stylus gets deeper into the grooves), it was nothing but noise – the record was toast. I replaced with a “very good plus” copy off Discogs, but it too has a bit of surface noise at times. Apparently it’s a combo of things: the marble effect makes it hard to gauge the groove condition, and also colored vinyl itself is often noisy. Regardless, the thing looks super cool spinning on the turntable…I mean you won’t get that from your MP3 download!

Top Track: There’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve always been a big fan of “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave,” a six-minute burner featuring an uncredited Eric Clapton on some mean wah-wah guitar. This would be one of those dopesmoker numbers.

3. Space Opera: Space Opera
Columbia, 1973

Hailing from nearby Fort Worth, Space Opera was sort of like a prog rock take on the Byrds or CSN. One of those groups that should’ve made it, they seem to have taken too long to get an album out; if this had been released a year or two earlier, doubtless it would’ve resonated more. But as it is, Space Opera had little impact, with this lone pressing going for high dollars now due to its scarcity. The album ranges from country-rock to prog, with a few tracks that sound for all the world like the “alternative rock” of the early ‘90s. Guitars are piled atop guitars in some of the most rampant overdubbing since Randy California’s Kapt. Kopter, almost to the point where the bass and drums are lost in the mix. I’m not as much into the more country numbers, and there’s an overlong prog instrumental (“Guitar Suite”) that I could do without, but overall the album has its own sort of sound that’s really at odds with anything else at the time. The vinyl’s hard to find, but there’s a CD out there, and supposedly the band members remastered it themselves, ramping up the guitars. Or so I ‘ve read. I managed to get a copy of the original vinyl for super cheap and mix wise it doesn’t sound that different from the CD…at least to my untrained ears.

Top Track: Definitely my favorite on here would be “Holy River,” one of those proto-alternative rock numbers. I don’t mean this as an insult – I mean personally I can’t stand ‘90s music, though I loved it at the time – but this track sounds like almost anything that could’ve played on MTV’s “Buzz Bin” around 1994.

4. Alvin Lee and Mylon Lefevre: On The Road To Freedom
Columbia, 1973

Like so many other rockers at the time, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After went rural in the early ‘70s, recording this LP with gospelist-turned-rocker Lefevre in Lee’s home studio in the countryside. Along with a cast of mostly-uncredited performers (apparently even Mick Jagger plays rhthym guitar on one track!), the two turned out an album that melds Band-influenced roots rock with heavier numbers along the lines of Lee’s work with Ten Years After (only less bluesy). The title track almost captures the very sound of the era, the whole back-to-the-country vibe so many artists were aspiring to at the time, but it doesn’t look like the album’s had much of an impact over the years, as it’s mostly forgotten. The album did have a sort-of hit at the time: “So Sad,” written by George Harrison and featuring him on guitar; it sounds like it could’ve come off of Harrison’s solo epic All Things Must Pass.

Top Track: Overall there’s a very laid-back sound to On The Road To Freedom, making for a pleasant, relaxing listen, but I’ve always been most drawn to one of the heavier tracks: “Fallen Angel.” This one sounds a lot like Ten Years After, only with more of a processed, in-studio sound to the guitars, which gives it a vaguely proto-metal vibe.

5. Ted Nugent: Ted Nugent
Epic, 1975

That’s right, Ted Nugent! I never would’ve thought of picking this one up, until I read this review. Man, I’d forgotten all about “Stranglehold,” doubtless one of the greatest tracks in ‘70s rock. As a Youtube commenter put it, this is the song Nugent should be remembered for instead of “Cat Scratch Fever.” I used to hear “Stranglehold” all the time on “classic rock radio” as a kid in the ‘80s, but over the years just forgot about it. After reading that review on Unsung, I remembered it and decided to pick up the album. Now I’ll be honest, the rest of the LP doesn’t reach those heights, but it’s pretty good mid-‘70s hard rock regardless, with a bit of a Stones influence going on for a few tracks. But who cares, just buy the LP and play “Stranglehold” over and over!

Top Track: You’ll be shocked to learn that my favorite track on here is “Stranglehold!” Seriously though, it’s 8+ minutes of grooving heavy ‘70s rock, with the coolest phased bass you’ll ever hear – the track that launched a thousand bongs, no doubt.

6. Various Artists: Flash Fearless Versus The Zorg Women Parts 5 and 6
Chrysalis, 1975

Flash Fearless was the rock opera equivalent of a big budget flop; the record spoofs Flash Gordon, clearly tapping into a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe. Alice Cooper sings on two tracks, Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas shows up, and Jon Entwistle, who co-produced, plays bass throughout. Another of those elaborate deals, the LP came with a big comic book explaining the clunky storyline (which the album itself doesn’t really stick to). I lucked out and got a promo copy years ago that came with all this, plus a Xeroxed memo sheet for radio stations which further explains the storyline and the genesis of the concept. I’m not sure how big of an impact this album had, and indeed Entwistle himself didn’t even appear to be aware it had been released, at least judging from the comments of someone who talked to him about it in the early ‘90s. Overall though this is total mid-‘70s studio rock, with nothing really standing out individually but all of it working together well enough. The goofy concept alone makes it kind of lovable.

Top Track: I like the closing instrumental track “Trapped,” by Eddie Jobson, but can’t link to it – for some reason, none of this album’s on Youtube, however you can listen to the entire thing on Daily Motion.

7. Lone Star: Lone Star
Columbia, 1976

The group name has you expecting some country-rock thing, but in reality Lone Star is slick but spaced-out mid-‘70s hard rock. I have no way of confirming it, but these guys had to have been inspired by the first Montrose album. This album has the exact same vibe, with heavy guitars put through all sorts of sonic wringers and songs focusing on sci-fi themes; most of the lyrics are about spaceships or journeying to the stars and whatnot. Now I won’t lie, maybe the album is a little too slick for its own good (one of the reasons why I generally prefer my rock up to 1975 at the latest), but this is total Guitar Hero sort of stuff, and at times it verges on prog – only without ever losing its hard rock foundation. UK DJ John Peel loved the group, but they never hit the big time, and this was the only album released by the original lineup.

Top Track: The eight-minue psych-prog-metal remake of “She Said, She Said” is probably my favorite, but please note – the version I’m linking to is not the album version, but instead a BBC rehearsal from 1975. For some curious reason, most of the album tracks from Lone Star aren’t on Youtube, but you can find all of those BBC rehearsals. Overall the LP versions are much more concise and slick, with extra effects on the guitars and vocals. But also I’ll admit, the LP versions also have that icy, lifeless sound pretty much all mid-to-late 1970s rock did, whereas the BBC versions are a bit more vigorous.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mafia: Operation Hijack

Mafia: Operation Hijack, by Don Romano
August, 1974  Pyramid Books

“Attention Mafia hijackers: Richard Dawson has had enough of your shit!”*

The penultimate volume of Mafia: Operation is courtesy Paul Eiden, the first of two books he wrote for the series; he also wrote Operation Loan Shark, which happened to be the last volume of the series. But again as I’ve mentioned in every single review, Mafia: Operation isn’t really a series, per se, and instead is a set of unrelated, standalone novels focusing on the world of the mob. This time the plot is hijacking, obviously, and my only assumption is that Eiden, like most other ghostwriters for series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, was given the title and synopsis and told to cater a novel to it – only he had a helluva time figuring out how to write about hijacking trucks for 190 pages.

The end result is that there’s precious little hijacking in Operation Hijack, with the focus more on inter-family Mafia rivalries, a complex heist involving freight shipments from Europe, and finally the seduction-via-subjugation of a couple cold-fish beauties – an Eiden staple, and a clear indication that he was indeed the author who wrote another Engel production, Crooked Cop. There’s a subplot here that’s almost identical to the one in that earlier, superior novel, where the titular crooked cop went out of his way to subjugate a beautiful high-society whore…and she ended up falling in love with him. Eiden is in some ways in an even more macho, misogynist realm than Manning Lee Stokes: Operation Hijack states often that most women want to be treated like shit or generally abused, and it’s the surest way to get them to love you – and when they love you they’ll do anything for you. Actually there are “tips” throughout on how to get women in line and to do your bidding. (None of these tips seem to work on wives, btw; in fact, it turns out they have the complete opposite effect.)

Another hallmark of Eiden’s work is that his books are basically tragedies, featuring an arrogant alpha male protagonist who is clearly headed for misfortune – misfortune he could easily prevent if he was more aware of what was going on around him and not so much wrapped up in his own ego. There are a lot of similarities to Crooked Cop, so far as the protagonist goes: the “hero” of this one is Ralph Borden, aka Rafael Bardini, a muscular former boxer who still runs a couple miles a day and hits the weights first thing in the morning, working out in his penthouse apartment in Manhattan. He’s 29, sports a moustache, moves through women with ease, and runs the “hijacking scheme” for Don Carlo Renati. Ralph was plucked from the streets by Don Carlo, taken out of his successful Golden Gloves career and put on the fast-track to Mafia success. He was sent to college and put his business ideas to work in refashioning the mob, immediately making the family tons of money through various legal and illegal schemes.

The main plot actually has more to do with Ralph scheming to become the youngest Don in the Mafia. Don Carlo is in his 70s and frail and Ralph worries that he might be going senile. The other families are closing in on them, and Ralph’s afraid a mob war is brewing, and their little family will be wiped out – unless Don Carlo can “make” more soldiers (ie giving them kill contracts so they can become full-fledged Mafia members) and put himself together a proper army. So there’s a lot of plotting and scheming in this one, more of a “peek inside the Mafia world” than in Operation Loan Shark, so be prepared for a barrage of Italian names and histories on the various fictional families at play. I found it all a little boring, but at the very least it is a “Mafia novel,” more so than any others in the series, most of which focused on characters who orbited around the Mafia. Operation Hijack is different from the other four books in the “series” in that the protagonist is a full Mafia member, wholly part of the mob life.

The opening had me thinking we were going to get something similar to Operation Porno (the best volume of the series by far!), as we meet Ralph while he’s planning the financing of a “black action flick with white money behind it.” Eiden was certainly aware of the urban action movies of the day, with the characters specifically referencing Blaxploitation, and Ralph telling the young black director of the movie that he could be “the next Melvin van Peebles.” Or as one of the black characters says, “People who put down so-called blaxploitation films are mistaken.” Central to this group of filmmakers is a six-foot black beauty named Camille Caine, who is to star in the movie Ralph is financing: “Black Motor Cycle Girl.” The title sucks, but the plot sounds promising (what little we learn of it)…a biker/Blaxploitation hybrid. But sadly friends this will be all we hear about the movie!

Instead, the focus is on Ralph getting his “pound of flesh.” Haughty Ciarra, a model, is pissed that she’s getting such low pay, and Ralph goes out of his way to talk down to her, to make it clear she’s easily replaced – just total prig stuff, like referring only to “the girl” when speaking of the main actress, even though Ciarra’s sitting right there. This will just be our first glimpse of how Ralph must subjugate his female prey before he dominates them…and the more they dislike him, the more enjoyment he gets out of it. The guys leave, and Ralph makes it clear that Camille has “the classic decision” all aspiring actresses face: anonymity or the producer’s bed. Camille of course choses the latter, trying to get some digs in on Ralph for being a “wop.” He responds that “to be Italian is beautiful,” and further makes a compelling case that all black women secretly lust for a white lover! 

As with other Eiden novels I’ve read, Ralph’s poor treatment of the woman works to his advantage, with her soon pleading for sex in his swank penthouse. And promptly falling in love with him afterward! Indeed Ralph has to threaten to throw her out a few days later, as she refuses to leave him – and she needs to fly out to California to get started on the movie. In other words she’s willing to throw away her potential career for this guy she just met, this guy she hated at first sight. This sort of alpha male dominance is of course unacceptable in today’s entertainment, but as mentioned Eiden doles it out so casually that you almost forget Ralph’s supposed to be an anti-hero. He’ll go on to subjugate and dominate two more women in the novel, and unfortunately this is the last we see of Camille, or even hear about the movie.

The only hijacking stuff in the novel occurs early on. Ralph’s lieutenant, a former street soldier named Mickey, oversees a trucking hijacking scheme, where they rip off some poor trucker, stuff him in the trunk (eventually letting him go), and take the wares to a secret location to sell later. We see one of the hijacks go down, then learn later that the hijackers themselves were hijacked – some guys with shotguns and lead pipes ran the truck off the road and beat the drivers so unmerciful that one of them dies and the other loses an eye. Mickey is simmering for revenge, as is Ralph, but Don Carlo finds out from the Mafia commission that they’re to let it slide – longtime rivals the Palucci family were behind the counter-hijack, lying that they didn’t know Don Carlo’s men had already hijacked the truck. The Don sees something Ralph missed: there must be a traitor in their family who let the Paluccis know about the truck.

Ralph succeeds into talking the Don into vengeance, so an elaborate scheme is set up where they can foil the hijackers…and figure out who the mole is in their own organization. The cover painting comes into play here, with Ralph and Mickey waiting in a decoy truck with shotguns; when they’re hit by hijackers they come out blasting, wiping out would-be hijackers in gory splendor. This will be the only action scene in the novel. After which it’s more into the “Mafia drama suspense” mode, with a lot of stuff centered on the elaborate revenge on the capo who set them up in the first place…a revenge which has another of Ralph’s men, Joey, making his bones by carrying out the hit. Later the Paluccis will approach Ralph, basically offering him the role of a minor don if he himself will kill Don Carlo. Ralph will of course refuse the offer, which sets off the climactic events, but honestly the Mafia subplot also disappears for long stretches.

Instead, Eiden is more focused on Ralph’s breaking down the icy demeanor of a “full-breasted” Dutch beauty named Holly, who is such a cold fish she wonders if she’s a “Lez.” Actually she doesn’t even wonder; she reveals later she’s had sex with “many” women, in addition to men…it’s just that no one’s able to get her off. This is the subplot that is so reminiscent of Crooked Cop. Holly works for Dutch airline KLM, and Ralph’s had this complex heist scheme in mind for a long time…basically, from what little we learn of it, involving Holly using her contacts in the freight departments of various airlines in Europe to hijack shipments by changing the shipping addresses. But first he’ll need to seduce Holly, so we have a lot of stuff of him breaking down her icy reserve, despite her reservations and hesitations and constant reminders that nothing turns her on. Of course Ralph succeeds, quite easily it seems, by merely going down on her…after which he has her calling him “Lord Ralph” and literally begging for sex.

I should mention that despite all the focus on seduction and foreplay, there really isn’t much hardcore material in Operation Hijack, certainly not as much as there was in the first three volumes by Alan Nixon and Robert Turner. Also Eiden’s recurring “widely-separated breasts” line doesn’t appear here, so maybe it’s something he only used occasionally as his literary calling card. We are often reminded of Holly’s “heavy breasts,” but even this boobsploitation is nowhere on the level of later Eiden offerings like Operation Weatherkill. So focused is Eiden on the subjugation and dominance of Holly that the actual Heist material is over and done with in a few pages; we’re told Ralph and Holly venture around Europe for “two months” to set up the complex scheme, after which Ralph thankfully deposits Holly in Zurich and hurries back to New York – she has, of course, fallen completely in love with him, hoping for marriage.

Ralph’s third conquest happens immediately after and isn’t as much explored as the previous two. It’s a redheaded beauty named Eilen, and he meets her at his country club, where she rides horses and enjoys the highfalutin life of the jet-set rich. She’s a stewardess, and Ralph doesn’t have to do much in the way of subjugation or domination for her, but Eiden does cleverly work it in when the first time Eileen sees Ralph, he’s screaming at some poor stable hand for failing to take proper care of Ralph’s horse. In other words she’s glimpsed his alpha male dominance from afar. So we get stuff of them romancing, and meanwhile Eiden occasionally reminds us that Ralph’s in the Mafia and there’s a war brewing between his family and the Paluccis.

As is typical with most of Eiden’s work, things come to a sudden head after so many, many pages of stalling and padding. Holly comes back without warning, to catch Eileen in Ralph’s bed, and literally tears her face apart in a shocking scene. Things fly to a conclusion after this, as Holly claims to have been sent back due to a cable she received from Ralph…however Ralph never sent a cable. It’s a setup from the Paluccis, and the finale is almost hamfistedly rushed; major characters are killed off-page, and Ralph assembles the remaining family to discuss going to the matresses…while a squad of Palucci hitmen with Browning Automatic Rifles converge on the scene. It’s memorable at least, and definitely the ending we’ve been expecting since page one, but man if Eiden had only spent more time developing the Mafia subplot instead of hopscotching around so much other incidental stuff. In other words he’s squandered the plot’s potential, something he did – even more drastically – in The Ice Queen.

That said, Eiden’s writing is fine as ever; he has a definite literary touch, same as most other writers in Engel’s stable, yet never lets it get in the way of the narrative flow. But he had a tendency to pad and stall, same as Stokes. Perhaps not as bad as Stokes, but then Stokes was capable of more memorable plots and sequences, whereas a sort of blandness often settles over Eiden’s books. But when he was on form, he could knock them out of the park, as with Crooked Cop. Maybe he just took a while to warm up to the series he was hired for, as Operation Loan Shark was much better than this one.

*In the tradition of Zwolf’s hilarious takes on celebrity lookalikes on cover artwork