Thursday, December 6, 2018

Traveler #6: Border War


Traveler #6: Border War, by D.B. Drumm
June, 1985  Dell Books

It’s a veritable Old Home Week in this installment of Traveler, which sees John Shirley writing what comes off like a series finale. This leaves me with many questions, as Shirley did pretty much the same thing in The Specialist #3; he caps off the entire series with a satisfying conclusion. One wonders what led him to this, as there were seven more volumes of Traveler to go.

I wonder if Shirley just figured this was it for him on the series, but as it turned out he wrote one more volume: the eighth installment, with series co-writer Ed Naha writing the others. Maybe it looked like Traveler was about to be cancelled and Shirley wanted to give the readers a proper finale. Who knows. Whatever the story behind its creation, Border War is a blast, my favorite volume yet in the series. It features everything you could want in post-nuke pulp, save for the inexplicable lack of Shirley’s patented hardcore sex scenes. Bummer!

First though a bit of pedantic housekeeping: the back cover states that the novel takes place in 2015, which is odd given that previous volumes were set in 2004. In the text itself, Shirley writes that WWIII happened in 1995, “seventeen years before.” This would place the action in 2012. First I thought Traveler took one hell of a detour in his drive to Arizona, which he began in the climax of  the previous volume, but later we’re told that the third volume was just a year ago. So what I assume has happened is that Shirley intended to write that the nukes came down in 1985, not ’95, or maybe a copy editor just goofed. But even that doesn’t work out, as seventeen years after 1985 would be 2002, not 2004. Ultimately I just said to hell with it and enjoyed the book.

So Traveler is headed for Arizona in the Meat Wagon, his buddies Link (a muscle-bound black dude first introduced in the third volume) and Hill (an old Special Forces pal who debuted last volume) riding along, as well as the seldom-speaking Rosalita, the sexy Hispanic babe Link has hooked up with. Traveler himself wants to hook up: with Jan Knife Wind, the Indian babe who was established as his soul mate back in the third volume, but whom Traveler unceremoniously dropped at the end of that volume so he could get back to travelin’. Traveler is so intent upon reuniting with Jan that one wonders why he didn’t just stay with her in the first place. Again, it seems clear to me that Shirley assumed this would be the last volume of the series, or at least his last volume, and wanted to give Traveler a proper sendoff.

But nothing’s ever easy in the post-nuke US, and when Traveler and crew arrive in Pyramid Lake, Arizona, they find the place overrun by Hispanic-looking soldiers in black uniforms. Jan’s tribe has been imprisoned, and these soldiers, as Traveler learns after a soft but violent probe of the area, are from El Hiagura. The same Central American country Traveler was stuck in doing CIA stuff when WWIII happened. I’m not sure if this has been stated before, but here it’s relayed that El Hiagura is actually Guatemala, the new name coined by commie dictator Diaz, aka “the Colonel Qadafi of South America.”

In a unique spin on things, Shirley has it that the United States has become the stomping grounds for “military advisors” from other countries; in other words, the US has become the new Vietnam. And those former third world hellholes are veritable industrialized empires in comparison to the nuked US. What really makes Traveler seethe is his realization – perhaps grasped a bit too quickly – that senile President Frayling, commanding his lunatic “army” the Glory Boys from a bunker in Las Vegas, is clearly working with Diaz, despite Frayling’s hatred of commies. It’s again made clear that Frayling “started World War III,” something the entire surviving populace of the US is apparently aware of, and this is just yet more of his nefariousness.

Each volume of Traveler has been heavy on the action, with many of the books really just extended chase scenes; Shirley continues the trend but varies things up a bit. For one, people finally seem aware that bullets and ammo would be scarce 17 years after nukes destroyed the country, so Traveler, in an attempt to save his ammo, often resorts to using a crossbow. There are still many scenes of gun-blazing gore on full auto; even the mounted machine guns on the Meat Wagon see some use, and Traveler at one point takes out a Russian helicopter with an M-79 grenade launcher, just like Rambo was doing in movie theaters at the time. The El Hiagurans tote new submachine guns Traveler’s never seen before, things that look like Uzis, but surprisingly there’s never a part where Traveler gets his hands on one of them.

Each volume of the series has also had a bit of a metaphysical slant, and Border War really goes all-out with it. In many ways this volume comes off as almost New Agey as the average volume of Doomsday Warrior. Traveler is briefly captured by the El Hiagurans and finds Jan’s tribe in the camp stockade; Jan herself unsurprisingly has been taken away, to serve as Diaz’s personal concubine. Meeting with the chief of the tribe, our hero learns he is the clichéd “Chosen One” of prophecy who will lead “the red man” against “the white man.” Through the novel Traveler will experience the occasional astral voyage, meeting a spiritual Indian and reconnecting with mysterious holy man Nicholas Shumi, returning from previous volumes.

One of these astral voyages features a surprise appearance by a previously-vanquished foe: the super-cool Black Rider, Traveler’s mutant archenemy who was killed off in the fourth volume. As part of a test to prove he is indeed the chosen one, Traveler is baited by the Black Rider, who claims that while his body is gone, his spirit is strong as ever. But Traveler is powered by his love for Jan, whereas the Black Rider is just fighting out of hate: “Traveler kicked his ass but good.” All of this seems to me another indication that Shirley intended this to be the series finale.

We also see a return from Orwell, another of Traveler’s old Special Forces guys, last seen in the third volume. Now he’s a prisoner at a Glory Boys base, but manages to break free and assemble the surviving soldiers into another of the rag-tag armies Traveler will use to beat the El Hiagurans. Orwell is also our guide through the horror element Shirley delivers each volume; there’s an arbitrary but fun bit where he takes a tour of all the gruesome mutants Frayling’s men have created out of unwilling test subjects. I believe Shirley has a bit of in-jokery here, as we’re told that Orwell’s second-in-command is a guy named Bolan who looks around sixty and claims to have fought in Vietnam. More in-jokery comes courtesy Traveler, who early in the book poses as “Robert B. Parker” to avoid the Glory Boys who are looking for him.

Shirley introduces a new character, one I assume will become important in later volumes: The Grizzly, a burly, red-bearded roadrat leader who was a friggin’ professor of Medieval Literature and Mythology pre-war. Now he’s like a figure from Beowulf, commanding his loyal army of bloodthirsty roadrats. Shirley clearly has fun writing this character and I appreciated how he wasn’t just another of Traveler’s many one-off enemies; Traveler and comrades free Grizzly and his crew from the El Hiagurans, after which Traveler appeals to the man’s patriotic instincts – America is being overrun by a militant horde, and it’s time to band together and kick those South American asses back where they came from. To its credit, though, at least this particular horde is honest about the fact that it’s an invading army.

Another new character is one of those one-off enemies: the Gila Lord, another roadrat leader, but this one a super-massive monster with lizard eyes. Word has it he’s not human, and I kept picturing the Mutant Leader from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In an arbitrary but very entertaining sequence, Traveler must fight the Gila Lord in a match to the death in order to win the support of his roadrats. Shirley again shows his mastery of the minor details: the Gila Lord comes onto the stage amid much fanfare, biting off the fingers of one of his attendants to feed to his pet gila. After all this, Shirley just has Traveler “stroll” onto the stage, which I thought was very funny. But then as ever there is a subtle comedic element that runs through Traveler.

Traveler becomes a post-nuke Patton, putting together a makeshift army of Indians, roadrats, and “real” soldiers who have become sick of the ruling Glory Boys. Speaking of which we have an almost anticlimactic sendoff for President Frayling; the Reagan analogue hasn’t even appeared yet in the series, I think, but here Traveler and his army finally decide to make short but final work of him. Frayling’s exit would of course be another indication of the quick wrap-up Shirley appears to be giving the series, but it leads to fun potential developments for future volumes, in particular a character at the end of the book who reveals his surprising intent to become the next president. 

Action is frequent and as usual well-handled. Shirley as ever delivers appropriate gore, as well as a cruel streak in Traveler – his torture of a captured El Hiaguran soldier shows a new side, though in his defense the soldier beat Traveler around during Traveler’s brief imprisonment with the El Hiagurans. Toward the end of the book Traveler becomes more of a field commander, so that the climactic battles for the most part feature Traveler watching from afar while others do the fighting. Indeed, Shirley attempts to shoehorn too many big battles into the text, and given that the book’s so short this means that many of them are basically dealt with in summary. We do get more detail in the bigger battles, like the fight to free Kansas City – which sees yet another return of previous characters, like Baron Moorcock (yet another in-joke), last seen in the second volume.

But as mentioned Shirley doesn’t treat us to one of his purple-prose XXX scenes. Jan stays off-page for the duration, and in fact I think she has like one or two lines of dialog. Shirley is more intent on giving Traveler a Happily Ever After; he is as expected reunited with Jan (like a page or two before the end of the book!), and further decides that he’s going to go off with her on Diaz’s captured yacht. Further, Traveler gives the Meat Wagon to Hill and Orwell, who are going to stay behind and help rebuild the United States – Traveler just wants the tape deck and the tapes! Meanwhile Link and his girlfriend Rosalita will come along with Traveler and Jan on the yacht, hoping to find some paradise in this post-nuke world.

 And that’s it for Border War, and seemingly for Traveler. Curious then that there were more volumes to go. A peek at the back cover copy of the next volume would indicate that Traveler is not headed for a Happily Ever After, which reminds me how I felt when I saw Alien 3, the opening of which completely ruined the dramatic finale of Aliens. I’d love to know the story behind Border War; did Shirley intend it as his swan song? If so, was it because he wanted to leave or because it looked like Traveler was going to get cancelled? Or did he just want to wrap up all the plot elements he’d created in the previous volumes so that Naha could work off a clean slate upon his assumption of the writing duties?

Regardless, I loved this one, and it encapsulates everything that’s great about post-nuke pulp.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Glimpses


Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner
August, 1995  Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1993)

I first read Glimpses back in the late ’90s, when I was on an inexplicable Beach Boys kick(!). In fact this is how I discovered the novel, as at the time it was quite famous among hipster Beach Boys fans for its altertnate reality look at the making of Brian Wilson’s never-realized psychedelic masterpiece Smile. (Which of course Wilson ended up completing in 2004.) Learning this I couldn’t get the book soon enough, and I believe this mass market papberback was one of the first things I ordered off of the just-launched Amazon.com.

This is another of those novels that’s stayed with me over the years, both the good and the bad of it. Given that I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, in particular Jimi Hendrix stuff, I thought I’d give it another read. Betrayed by a sci-fi label on the spine, Glimpses is about a former child of the ‘60s who discovers that he can channel the unfinished rock albums of that era. Further, he eventually discovers he can even go back in time and meet the rock stars themselves. In this regard the Beach Boys stuff is key, as Brian Wilson is given the most spotlight – telling, then, that his portrait isn’t shown on the cover. At the time Brian Wilson hadn’t yet achieved his current status with the hipsters, I guess. Perhaps this book helped him to achieve it.

It’s a great concept, and my understanding is Lewis Shiner is/was a rock reporter, so he certainly has an appreciation for the topic and brings the music to life. But boy oh boy has he saddled us with a loser of a protagonist – a narrating protagonist at that. This is Ray Schackleford, and it is his material which I still recalled as the “bad” of Glimpses. And sadly, he and his sad-sack bullshit account for around 75% of the novel. You crack open the book expecting to read about the Beatles, the Doors, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix (especially Jimi Hendrix), but instead for the most part you get the navel-gazing banalities of a potbellied 38 year-old with that patented ‘90s cliché of a plot: Daddy Issues. This soon becomes quite a beating over 328 pages of small print.

It’s even more of a beating that Daddy Issues is the theme that unites the novel. Ray in the course of the novel will encounter Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix; each of them, Ray’s sure to tell us, had overbearing fathers: Morrison cut off all ties with his parents once he became famous, Brian had a dad who once told him “You’re not the only genius in the family, Brian” (which honestly I’ve always thought was pretty funny), and finally Jimi’s dad never cared much for Jimi or his work while Jimi was alive, and it was only after Jimi died that Ray Hendrix became such a champion of his son (or so Ray argues).

An Austin, Texas-based stereo repairman, Ray identifies himself for us as a “college-educated liberal” (as if there’s any other kind); to ensure we grasp this he finds the odd moment to complain about President Bush (the first one), global warming, and heavy metal. He even manages to make an off-handed apology for Muslim terrorists, claiming that “desperation,” due to the global economy and exploitation of their land and whatnot, has driven them to acts of terror. I guess it’s that “desperation” that also makes them strap bombs onto their own children. Ray, just a teenager in the late ‘60s, was the drummer in a rock group (before he was unceremoniously sacked – cue more woe-is-me bullshit), had all kinds of dreams and the like, but of course was eventually beaten down by life.

And you know, I could deal with all this stuff if Ray wasn’t such a goddamn loser. Practically the entire book is him worrying over his feelings, or crying, or dreaming about his recently-dead dad, who wouldn’t you know it, never really showed Ray any love. Ray is such a navel-gazer that he turns away pretty much everyone (not just the reader!), though he’s so self-involved he doesn’t even appear to realize it. Oh, and there’s his growing realization that he’s a drunk, so we also have that other ‘90s-approved subplot going for us: coping with addiction.

Honestly, you read this book and you want a roller-coaster ride into the rockin’ sixties, but instead Shiner has clearly struggled to write a “Real Novel,” as literary and weighty as could be, something to be pondered over while sipping your latte at Starbucks. Ray Shackleford carries the brunt of the blame, and eventually I started to wonder if this is why Shiner named him thusly: that we readers are “shackled” with a loser protagonist. Hell, I woulda been more entertained if we had been given a Church Lady type, or a Tipper Gore type or something – someone who went back in time to prevent rock albums from being completed. I mean anything would’ve been better than this sad sack.

Well anyway, Ray’s our hero so here we go. The novel opens in November, 1988, a week before Thanksgiving (ironically, exactly when I was re-reading the book), and Ray’s dad recently died in a scuba-diving mishap in Mexico that might’ve been suicide. Well Ray’s worrying himself over that – as he will frequently for the next 300+ pages – and he’s listening to Let It Be. Ray works on stereos so there’s lots of audio gear namedropping, which I appreciated, though I did get a chuckle out of Ray telling someone in the ‘60s that the CDs of his future era are “perfect reproduction” of music(!).

Shiner includes nicely concise backgrounds on the various albums Ray listens to, though I’d imagine the audience for Glimpses would already know all this stuff. Like for example here, that this infamous Beatles album was the result of Phil Spector’s postproduction tinkering, and that the Beatles’s originally-envisioned album (which was to be titled Get Back) was never properly captured. Ray sort of drifts off while listening to the album, and next thing he knows he’s hearing a completely different version of “The Long And Winding Road” on his stereo, one clearly done live in the studio and featuring a musicianship the Beatles never succsessfully attained in the real recordings of the track.

So really, the novel is more magic realism than sci-fi, as Ray’s newfound talent is never much explored or even explained. But basically he’s able to zone into the music, hear what was not but should have been recorded, and pull it back into his reality. More importantly, he’s able to capture it on tape. After finding that Elizabeth, his wife of several years, isn’t much interested (big shock, huh??), Ray eventually hooks up with wheelchair-bound Graham Hudson, owner of Carnival Dog Records in Hollywood. Graham is appropriately blown away by this “new” Beatles song, and sort of becomes Ray’s taskmaster – he’ll suggest a never-completed ‘60s album, hook Ray up with research material on the artist and era, and then get it all on a digital recording to be released as a bootleg CD(!).

First up is the Doors’s unrealized “Celebration of the Lizard,” an epic piece that was to encompass the full side of an LP of the same title. Mostly due to Jim Morrison’s hard drinking – booze having supplanted LSD – the group never got their shit together and eventually released an album titled Waiting For The Sun. Graham is a Doors fan, the name of his record label taken from a Morrison lyric, and he proposes that Ray make this his first project.

Any Doors fans should steer well clear of Glimpses, in particular fans of Morrison. I wonder why Shiner even included them in the book, as he doesn’t seem to care much for them at all; it’s almost as if he wants to get this section over and done with as soon as possible. But Morrison comes off as a loutish drunk with no redeeming features at all; this might even be a true indication of the guy, but what’s worse is that later in the novel Ray and Graham are almost embarrassed by this album because it’s so “evil” and etc. Instead it becomes apparent that Jim Morrison is just too much of a natural born rocker for sad sacks Ray and Graham; one gets the feeling these two would be happier listening to the gentle pan flute of Zamfir.

Here Ray discovers there’s an extra avenue to his new gift: he can sort of travel back in time. This time he just sees the past, sitting in on a “Celebration” session that goes nowhere. So Ray plays god, thinking back to how Morrison seeing a bunch of dead Indians when he was a kid was an image that plagued and inspired him his entire life. Ray pulls astral strings and has Morrison run over a bum; this serves to reinvigorate Jimbo’s creative juices, and he and the band tear up on a killer take of “Celebration of the Lizard.” Ray says it’s even more powerful than their epic “The End.”

After this the ensuing album is almost rushed over, and is seldom mentioned again in the text. Graham takes the resulting digital tape, mysteriously culled from Ray’s brain – again, there’s no study into how it’s even happening – and burns it onto CD. With an embossed cover and fancy packaging, Celebration Of The Lizard goes for a hundred bucks(!), Graham releasing it via a secret subsidiary of his label. If the album is referred to at all anymore, it is in a deragtory light, and Ray ultimately is apologetic about it. At the end we learn Graham’s let it go out of print and doesn’t mind if bootlegers bootleg him, as he wants nothing further to do with it!

Much, much more time is spent with Brian Wilson in 1966 as he works on Smile. This is the centerpiece of the novel and almost serves as a novella; indeed, the rest of the book almost comes off like filler. And speaking of filler, we have to get through more interminable stuff with Ray and his moaning before we even get to Smile, in particular his suddenly-failing marriage with Elizabeth. Who by the way comes off as a fine wife, as far as I’m concerned – she basically lets Ray do whatever he wants, up to an including going to Mexico by himself.

After the usual background research, including more concise history on this famous never-realized Beach Boys album (which I myself was obsessed with back in the day – I even got a 3LP bootleg on colored vinyl at one point), Ray puts together his “work tape” of tracks in the order he thinks they’d go, and starts zoning out. The ensuing section is really enjoyable, though I’ll admit it was more enjoyable back when I was into the Beach Boys stuff. Or maybe now that all of the Smile sessions have been officially released, with countless fan recreations of the album available for free download, the whole thing has sort of lost its magic. But Shiner, uh, “shines” here, and it’s a testament to his word-spinning that I found myself thinking of this book when I watched Love And Mercy (2014); parts of that biopic were very similar to scenes in this novel.

Here Ray himself goes back in time – this after blasting the obscure track “Glimpses” by the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds while driving in a half-asleep state on the streets of Los Angeles. He passes out in his car in ’89 and wakes up in ’66. With his future knowledge he’s able to bluff his way into Brian’s home; conveniently, he’s appeared right outside the front door! Here Ray finds a portly, childlike Brian Wilson surrounded by nervous family and band members who fear he’s losing his mind in his all-consuming quest to record a psychedelic pop album that will beat the Beatles.

Shiner develops a nice rapport between Brian and Ray, who initially poses as a record label rep but is quickly outed by Brian’s suspicious wife, once she calls the label to verify his story. But Brian is trusting and innocent, and takes Ray in. All of it is very memorable and engaging as Ray smokes hash with Brian and goofs off with him, trying all the while to push him to finish Smile. There’s the inevitable confrontation with Brian’s band members/family as he plays them some of these new tracks, Brian at this point recording all the music with session musicians and just bringing the boys in for vocals.

This part also features an unintentionally hilarious scene: a desperate Ray employs the progressive liberal version of Scared Straight to get Brian to finish his album. Ray makes 1989 sound like a dystopian hell, sort of implying off-handedly that it’s all Brian’s fault because he never completed Smile, which could’ve brought happiness into the world!! Ray describes his hellish future, with its global warming, its “sexual cancer” called AIDS that killed free love, and most horrifically of all its “heavy metal music.” And Brian starts to cry, my friends. It’s no wonder the Brian Wilson section is the longest in the book, as Ray has finally found almost a big a loser as himself.

Brian is awoken and plunges into finishing the album, even doing new pieces Ray’s never heard of before. Here’s another part that’s stuck with me over the years, as Brian does a solo rendition on piano, for the “Air” section of his “Elements Suite,” and when Ray says he always thought “Wind Chimes” was the Air piece, Brian just looks at him, as if he were seeing all those future fans looking back at him, fans who have mistakenly believed this for decades. Shiner describes the ensuing Smile album in a way that makes one want to hear it, unlike the harried Doors album; individual songs are described, as well as linking pieces. It would be interesting to hear a fan mix that followed Shiner’s idea; he even pulls in the avante-garde studio goof “George Fell Into His French Horn,” with the horns serving as “laughter” between some tracks.

All of this 1966 material has been very entertaining, so we must be punished for it. Ray heads to Mexico for a recounting with his dead dad, planning to scuba dive in the same area in which his father drowned. Along the way he’ll ponder his failing marriage and fall in love with someone new. This goes on from pages 134 to 207 and will be a trying read for most, as it too comes off as its own novella, though one that doesn’t have the draw of the previous section. In fact, skimming is advised, and is advised for the majority of the parts focusing on Ray.

The crux of all this is that Ray hooks up with a frosty-exterior gal named Lori who happens to be in a relationship with an old friend of Ray’s dad. But she listens to his magical story of the making of Smile, complete with how he traveled back in time, and this alone is enough to make Ray go head over heels. He’s finally found a woman who will listen intently as he talks about his favorite subject: himself. But this initially is a relationship of heavy petting, neither Ray nor Lori willing to go all the way. This made me chuckle – I thought AIDS killed free love, Ray! Instead it’s Ray’s own anxiety that keeps him from knowing Lori in the Biblical sense. Meanwhile we get lots of scuba diving mixed with emotions-plumbing (Ray cries frequently and often), including a part where Ray pushes himself too far, just like his dad did, and almost drowns.

By the time this part is over you’re pretty much exhausted. It doesn’t help that it just keeps going and going, even when Ray returns to Austin. Now the plot’s about him and Elizabeth splitting up and Ray pining for Lori, wishing she’d come stay with him. Meanwhile Graham returns, as if trying to rein the novel back together: his latest assignment is for Ray to do Jimi Hendrix’s never-completed fourth studio album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Well, this would be fine reward after the previous pages of doldrums, but Shiner is determined to deny us our pleasures. Ray is deadset against it, not wanting to go into the coma-like state which befalls him while traveling back in time, but nonetheless he does his research and even goes to London to take a look at Jimi’s old stomping grounds, including the place where he died. Along the way his guide is rock journalist Charles Shaar-Murray, author of the Hendrix bio Crosstown Traffic.

I didn’t remember much about Jimi being in the studio from my first reading of Glimpses; I just remembered random stuff, like Ray telling Jimi that he was still ranked as the greatest guitarist of all time in the future, and also a part where Jimi took Ray to eat at a soul food place in Harlem. Upon this re-read I realized why – there are no parts with Jimi in the studio!! I couldn’t believe it, friends. Because when Ray finally decides to do the job and ventures back to 1970 London, his goal to save Jimi’s life and help him finish his album, Lewis Shiner makes one of the more “interesting” authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered. He decides that we readers will be more interested in Ray’s story than we would be in Jimi Hendrix’s!!!

That’s right! It’s all about Ray Schackleford now, folks. His own reality is melding with these alternate pasts he visits, again giving the impression Ray has been visiting his own imagination all along. Soon Jimi Hendrix will be asking Ray shit like, “How’s it going with your dad?” At least before we get there Shiner promises to give us what we want; after a little background on Jimi’s intended album, along with the now-discredited “facts” on how he died (ie Shiner relies on the b.s. story told by Monika Danneman), Ray’s off to the past. I was really looking forward to this. If you could imagine any ‘60s rocker being open-minded about a visitor from the future, it would be Jimi Hendrix. 

As with Brian, Shiner does “get” Jimi; he is very believable and sounds like the real thing. As in reality, Jimi’s eager to please everyone and he is indeed open to Ray’s harried story about being from the future – though you can tell he’s just being polite. Something that occurred to me as I was writing this review is that Ray is never really taken aback by these rock gods in their prime…it’s all very matter of fact in a way. He goes back in time, he meets them, he tries to help them record their albums. But there’s never a part where Ray’s like, “Holy shit! I’m talking to Jimi friggin’ Hendrix!!” Perhaps yet another indication that all this is the product of Ray’s own imagination, and the resulting music too is being channeled from his subconscious.

The Jimi sequence does feature some nicely dark comedy, though: despite Ray’s best efforts, Jimi keeps dying. From choking on his own vomit (as in reality) to being shot in the street, even run over by a truck, Jimi keeps dying and dying, and Ray becomes increasingly desperate in his trips to the past. At this point everything else is unraveling for Ray, and it has become clear even to him that a rock album, despite how great it is, cannot save the world. The reader looking to see some of the making of Jimi’s album will be just as disappointed as the Doors fan.

Jimi’s last death, which occurs outside that Harlem soul food joint, results in Ray too being dead – or at least in a sort of limbo where he walks through an endless park, once again running into the rock stars from the previous chapters. Here we also learn that Ray’s a bad guy, folks. In one of the more cringe-worthy scenes in a novel filled with them, Ray not only meets Jim Morrison but also the nameless drunk Ray made Jim run over. Seriously. Morrison takes a moment to shame Ray for being a murderer, and the vagrant himself gets in a few jibes. Cue more woe-is-me shenanigans from Ray. 

After this the novel goes into an interminable free fall; the plot is now all about Ray, back in reality, and how he’s getting his life back together…even looking up (and hooking up) with old girlfriends. I mean we coulda had another trip to the past to meet a dead rocker…how about Janis Joplin? Or maybe Ray could go to 1980 and save John Lennon? Or, I don’t know, maybe a more satisfying part with Jimi Hendrix?? But as mentioned Shiner has decided that we readers are now invested in the doldrum, mundane story of Ray Schackleford and his tedious life.

Again, Glimpses has a great concept, and Shiner capably brings these dead (or forgotten) rock stars to life, letting us see them in their prime. I just wish that more of the novel had been focused on that…it would’ve been so much more satisfying if the whole of it was about Ray being stuck in the psychedelic sixties, and if the tedious “grownup worries” stuff had been relegated to a subplot. But for inexplicable reasons Shiner has reversed this, so that Ray’s story is the center of Glimpses. It’s a testament to how well he did handle the rock stuff that one wishes there were more of it.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Mexican Connection


The Mexican Connection, by Alexander Mason
No month stated, 1977  Leisure Books

You’d never guess it from the cover, but this Leisure paperback original is a drug smuggling caper in the vein of Night Crossing and High Fliers. (In fact, “High Flying” is the back cover slugline.) I wonder if Ken Barr’s typically-great cover art was commissioned for something else, maybe for the Sharpshooter series, given how it misleadingly presents the novel as an action yarn. That being said, there is a sort of airplane shootout, and a jeep does crash into flames in the desert, so who knows.

No idea who Alexander Mason was; the book is copyright Leisure. There was another paperback credited to him in 1980 (Losers Keepers). My hunch is this was a real writer, maybe someone who shot for the hardcover market, failed, and ended up publishing via Leisure. Because really there’s a world of difference between this and the imprint’s typical books. It’s more of a novel, if you get my meaning, and not something quickly cranked out to meet an editor’s request.

Whereas Night Crossing is a sometimes-humorous buddy smuggling tale and High Fliers is a straight-up comedy, The Mexican Connection is more serious. For this it lacks the charm of the other two, and could’ve used a little levity. Also the rapport of the main characters is nowhere near that of the other two books. On the other hand, this one gives a bit more detail on the drug smuggling efforts of the day, even if it does lack the adventurous spirit one would expect, given that the smuggling entails night flying over the desert with federal agents in hot pursuit.

The novel has an effective opening, though: Steinman, our terse hero, is flying his Piper Navajo over the Mexico-US border when he realizes another plane is chasing him. This leads to an actual aerial gunfight, or at least sort of one, as the other pilot leans out of his window and starts shooting at Steinman’s plane. Later we’ll learn that this other pilot is crazed Federal agent John Roy Corrigan, infamous even among his fellow officers for the lengths he’ll go to enforce the law. Steinman and Corrigan have an intense personal rivlarly, due to the little fact that Steinman blew up Corrigan’s house(!).

Losing Corrigan, Steinman manages to offload the grass he’s flown over the border, then he heads on to his spartanly-furnished home in Barstow. The furnishings match Steinman’s personality; even we readers don’t learn much about him, or what brought him into the drug running biz. A brief background on him lets us know that the novel takes place in 1973 or so; we’re told Steinman began flying drugs in ’69, three or four years ago. His partner is Harry Crane, a guy who in somewhat-confusing backstory got into the biz thanks to someone else: Winnie Secker, a young surfer dude Harry met shortly after Harry got divorced, who made his living selling drugs.

Harry ended up managing the business with Winnie, building it up to the point that he ran everything on his own. Eventually he realized he’d need his own pilot, and this is how Steinman was referred to him. Since then the two have managed the business, with Winnie now relegated to a hanger-on. Also there’s a stigma about Winnie, given how he was recently abducted by Corrigan, who beat him unmerciful in the effort to get info on Steinman and Harry. Winnie was let go, but now Steinman and Harry are uncertain if they can trust him and wonder if he told the Feds anything. Particularly given that Steinman’s recent flight was almost blown – how could Corrigan have known he’d be crossing over at that time?

The titular Mexican connection is a drug dealer named Sanchez, who when we meet him is in the process of killing off his cousin. This is because the cousin was revealed to be an informer, and it was he who blabbed about this recent border crossing, not Winnie. Meanwhile Sanchez is planning a bigger deal: he’s going to heist a million quaaludes and sell them to Steinman and Harry, who figure they’ll make enough money out of it that they’ll be able to retire and go legit. Sadly though this is the sole bit of drug running we get; I was hoping for a few such scenarios of Steinman skillfully piloting a cache of good Mexican grass across the border. But they’ve learned they can make much more money smuggling these quaaludes, so this entails a lot of planning.

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t mentioned a single female character. That’s because there isn’t one! Not until the end, at least, and even she is reduced to just a few words and standing on the sidelines while Steinman deals with a traitor. Otherwise there’s no women involved, not even a lame eleventh-hour romance for any of our heroes. Instead, Mason builds up more of a suspense angle, with Steinman starting to believe Winnie is indeed innocent, and that someone else he trusts is really the traitor. To his dismay he will be proven correct, but the only problem is when the confrontation goes down it lacks much drama, given that we’ve barely even seen these two characters together. Hence the reader is not party to the camaraderie and trust that has been destroyed.

While Sanchez is sadistic, he’s no match for the cops, in particular one who is Corrigan’s Mexican counterpart. But the quaalude deal still goes down, and we finally have another aerial chase, with Corrigan again going after Steinman. This eventually leads to a car chase, with Corrigan, having been unable to find any drugs on Steinman’s plane, relentlessly shadowing our smuggling hero, certain that he dropped the drugs off somewhere (which he indeed did). The car chase passes by the San Diego campus of UCLA and eventually ends up with a flaming crashed jeep, as depicted on the cover. 

There’s action here and there, and the writing is as stated a caliber above the usual stuff you get from this publisher, but for all that there seems to be something lacking about The Mexican Connection. It’s as if Mason wasn’t sure how he wanted to write his book. It has a great idea, but too much of it is composed of Steinman sulking around, drinking beer, and plotting against people he’s certain are plotting against him. Most inexplicable of all, there’s no feel for the drug world; we’re not even told if Steinman himself smokes dope, and none of these characters have the countercultural flair you’d expect. None that is save for Winnie, who barely appears in the novel, anyway.

All this leads me to believe that Leisure purposely spun the book as “a tough narc versus druggers” action yarn, hoping they’d rope in easily-duped blue collar readers who were expecting to see a bunch of hippies getting their faces bashed in.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age


Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, by David Henderson
No month stated, 1978  Doubleday

I’ve gone through periodic bouts of obsession with the music and life of Jimi Hendrix, and it just so happens I’m in the midst of one right now. I tell ya, this guy’s music just gives and gives, which is crazy when you realize he was only 27 when he died and he was only in the public eye for less than four years! Yet to this day, almost 50 years after his death, “new” Jimi Hendrix albums are still being released…the guy practically lived in the studio, and there’s still tons of unreleased material in the vaults. And people are still buying his records.

In a previous such phase I read the paperback edition of this bio, published by Bantam in 1982 and retitled ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky; at one point it was pretty common, given that it was for a time the only extensive biography of Hendrix. However David Henderson’s book has fallen out of favor in recent years; folks don’t much like the mytho-poetic approach he’s taken to Jimi’s life, the way he sometimes dips into the thoughts of Jimi or other characters, the way he fictionalizes certain people and events, the occasional inaccuracy he presents as fact. In particular, they don’t like the way he tries to convey Jimi’s music through poetic word-painting.

But I friggin’ loved it – all of it! In fact I enjoyed it so much that, even though I first read the book back in the summer of 2001, parts of it still rolled around in my head. I decided recently to read it again…only to recall that the paperback edition was an abdridgement of this original hardcover. So of course, this time I had to get the hardcover, which is now scarce and overpriced on the collector’s market. But it was worth it; it was just what I wanted: a veritable doorstop of a book, 500+ pages of incredibly small, dense print, all about my man Jimi Hendrix, written in a super-hip, super-literary style. The book is very much of its time – and around here, in case you haven’t guessed it yet, that’s meant as a compliment.

Personally, I don’t want a rock bio that tells me that a recording session took place on such and such a date, and the umpteenth take of a particular track was recorded on that date, or that the musician was wearing red socks at the time. I could care less about that stuff. I want a book that captures the spirit of rock, and folks in my opinion Henderson has captured it perfectly. His book is very much in the mold of the New Journalism, as it was then called, as popularized in Rolling Stone and such; it reads like fiction (and some detractors would claim that’s because it is fiction!), like the greatest blockbuster ever about James Marshall Hendrix, aka the greatest figure in rock history. (Or at least he is to me!) 

Henderson takes his time with the story. As evidence of this, the first hundred or so pages are devoted to Jimi’s history, from how his parents met to his hardscrabble childhood in Seattle, traded from one family to another, given how his dad was fighting WWII and his mother was either too sick or too drunk to care for him. One curious thing I found to be missing was why Jimi, or “Jimmy” as he was then known, was drawn to the guitar; Henderson tells us that he eventually took one up after playing other instruments, but leaves it at that. Luckily we have Jimi’s own words on this, as related in the pseudo-autobiography Starting At Zero (2013): Jimi claimed that he was more interested in pianos and such, but wanted an instrument he could easily carry around. And since guitars were plentiful, that’s what he ended up playing.

But it’s a testament to Henderson’s word-spinning that these initial hundred pages are still so gripping. I mean, like most I just wanted to get to the good stuff – the formation of the Experience, the recording of their first album, all that stuff. But I really enjoyed reading about Jimi hanging out with his childhood friend, getting involved with various bands in his hometown of Seattle. One wonders though how much of this, too, is anecdotal; it’s my understanding that Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, was prone to spinning tall tales about Jimi’s youth, usually presenting himself in a flattering light. Again we know from Starting At Zero that, at least according to Jimi, Al would occasionally beat him, and was generally overbearing.

I also appreciate how Henderson foregoes all opportunities to sap things up, as would be mandatory in a book published in today’s touchy-feely, “movie moment” world. Like Jimi’s troubled relationship with his mother. She died when he was just a teenager, but Henderson doesn’t dwell much on the sad scene, and only relays that Jimi didn’t say much about it at the time. He only did later, through his music – years later he would record “Gypsy Eyes,” take after take after take of it, and what his increasingly-frustrated bandmates didn’t realize was that the song was inspired by his mom. Nor does Henderson sap up the admittedly-moving part where Al, returned finally from the war, takes a train to go pick up Jimi, whom he’s never even seen before.

Speaking of Al, one also gets the suspicion that Jimi’s brief Army career is a bit gussied up. We’re not told, for example, that teenaged Jimi was given a choice: Army or jail. This is due to the fact he was arrested for joyriding in a stolen car. (Jimi claimed he didn’t know the car was stolen.) But his dad was in the Army, and Jimi strives to retain the family name by going airborne. We know from Jimi’s own comments that he hated the Army, but Henderson doesn’t convey that as much, angling more for the idea that Jimi was really trying to make his dad proud. But meanwhile the other guys were hassling him because he was such a weirdo, playing his guitar all the time and even sleeping with it.

Jimi’s departure from the Army is also a little vague; I’ve read multiple stories, from him injuring himself to faking his way through psych eval tests so he could be discharged as a nutcase. At any rate, soon Jimi’s back to the hardscrabble life, slumming around the south and playing for a variety of R&B groups. Here he also meets funky bassist Billy Cox, who would factor heavily in Jimi’s later years – and in my estimation was the best bassist Jimi ever recorded with. I’d never had much interest in this early period of Jimi’s career before, but Henderson tells it with such enthusiasm that I was caught up in it neverthless. And one really gets to feel some sympathy for Jimi, being screwed over by unscrupulous band leaders and management companies.

Chief among the screwer-overs would be Ed Chaplin, who early on has Jimi sign a contract for a measly one dollar; this laughable contract would come back to haunt Jimi in his final years, his useless lawyers unable to free him from it. (Though we learn in the “Coda” that that this was handled posthumously, by lawyers who actually knew what they were doing – folks, Jimi just never got a clean break in his life.) Eventually he winds up in New York, living in Harlem but spending more time in the Village, where he discovers and becomes obsessed with the music of Bob Dylan. Jimi plays in dingy clubs, and here he is discovered by Animals member Chas Chandler.

Henderson doesn’t mention much about Jimi’s band at this time; one of them, we’re told, is Randy California, but Henderson doesn’t tell us this guy will eventually become a rock star himself (though not nearly as popular of one as Jimi), in the group Spirit. Instead, Jimi sorta coldly ditches his backing group and heads on over to England with Chas, taking him up on his promise to make him a superstar. We’re told that upon arrival in London it’s been decided that “Jimmy” will become “Jimi,” but we’re not told why this decision was made. My assumption is it must’ve been an idea of Chandler’s, as “Jimi” Hendrix does look a little cooler than “Jimmy” Hendrix.

Now we get to the good stuff. Jimi is feted by the English rock establishment, with the Stones and the Beatles following him around London. And we already know he’s been successful with the ladies, but here he goes into overdrive; Henderson has Kathy Etchingham as Jimi’s main squeeze in London, though she’ll gradually drop out of the text. (Henderson is more focused on making Devon Wilson Jimi’s sort-of soulmate, and one wonders if this is because Devon is black – more on which anon.) There’s no outright sleaze in the text, but we are aware that Jimi is quite the swordsman; we even get a report from the infamous Plaster Casters, ie the American gals who cast plaster statues of rockstar dicks. Jimi’s is recorded as being the biggest this particular Caster has ever seen.

But when it comes to the music Henderson really shines. He has a definite understanding of Jimi’s music and in addition to describing the sounds will often tell us the keys and the chords being played. That being said, he’s guilty of overusing the word “dubbing” in his frequent song descriptions (ie “Jimi dubbing the rhthym” and such). As mentioned a lot of online reviewers bitch about this excess of word painting, but I really enjoyed it. As an example, here’s Henderon’s breakdown of one of the tracks on the first album, Are You Experienced:

On “Love Or Confusion” the setup hook chord delineates the entire song. The strange harmony between the long sustained sitarlike chord and the overdriving Fuzz Face and Cry-Baby combination creates a tremolo that double-times against the 4/4 time, thus belonging to both the rhythm and the harmony. Jimi makes his guitar do a Sagittarian bow thrust, like the sound heard in cartoons when the Road Runner takes off. Mitch beats out a snare-in-the-round intro. In a fast 4/4 the funky hambone bass lines are joined by Jimi’s skipping rhythm work. The bass evokes cavernous underground insurgency in echo. Jimi gets an exotic sitar sound on one guitar track and a harmonizing sustain tremolo on another. The major chord drone dips into a lovely minor mode… 

The Fuzz-Face-Cry-Baby combination is jacked to the upper registers where the looney distorted Cry-Baby peal takes over. Driving to a peak of oscillating intensity, it begins to solo as Jimi shouts, his voice integrated into the sound on an equal par with the rest of the instruments: Is it love! Baby, or just a confusion?

And by the way, “Sagittarian bow thrust” is used almost as frequently as “dubbing.” But it’s a cool phrase, so no big deal. Anyway maybe this little excerpt will give an idea of what I’m talking about. We get thorough rundowns of many of Jimi’s songs, with most focus placed on the first album. Surprisingly, Henderson doesn’t have much to say about Axis: Bold As Love, which is strange given that it’s one of Jimi’s more lyrical albums. He does appropriately spend some time on the title track, one of Hendrix’s best and most unsung, with a phased guitar coda that never fails to send shivers down the spine. Henderson gets a bit more in-depth with Electric Ladyland (Jimi’s masterpiece, in my opinion), in particular “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” And I really appreciated his examination of “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” my favorite of all Jimi’s songs, and a damn revelation on headphones on the recent Sony Legacy 180 gram vinyl remaster (all analog, baby!).

Henderson ranks the material Jimi recorded in his final two years as his very best, and I tend to agree; over the past few decades I’ve found myself listening to these songs, slated for an album to either be titled First Rays Of The New Rising Sun or Straight Ahead (or something else – Jimi was always coming up with new titles), more than I’ve listened to his stuff with the Experience. Henderson and others often stress that this material was different than what came before, but relistening to these albums in sequence (again, on those awesome Sony Legacy vinyl remasters), it seemed to me that Jimi’s biggest artistic change occurred in the year between Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland. The former is heavy psychedelic rock, the latter is more organic (though still quite heavy at times). To me, this ’69-’70 material is really just a logical progression of Electric Ladyland; “Night Bird Flying,” for example, could’ve fit right on that album and not seemed out of place. 

Another thing I dug about the book was that Henderson clearly understands that there was something of the “Other” about Hendrix – as former bandmate Buddy Miles once said of him, “It’s as if he went through something the rest of us haven’t,” or something to that effect. Jimi was a high school dropout who had an intuitive grasp of heavy concepts. He was in many ways a sort of rock ‘n’ roll shaman. And in case we don’t grasp this ourselves, there’s a character in the book who articulates it for us – that Jimi is the “Axis” as defined by Manly Hall in The Secret Teaching Of All Ages. This character is identified as Ray Warner, “a guitarist for the Chambers Brothers;” he is so inspired by Jimi upon meeting him in early ’68 that he forms his own group, called Axis.

Folks, I can find no info of any such person – Google searches of “Ray Warner” with “Chambers Brothers” just returns hits for this very book! Also no such group member is listed on discogs.com. I started to wonder if Warner was just a composite of other characters, or if Henderson was using him as a stand-in for himself. Especially given that Warner baldly states what Henderson implies about Jimi throughout the book – that there was something special about him, something alien:

Jimi would take the words from the songs on the Axis album and repeat them back to Ray and they would make a completely different story that was not as farfetched and odd as the album itself sounded. He was trying to say that he could take you to a place without even moving your body – and he wanted to do that. It was not about LSD or any hallucinogenic – he was the drug, he was the high. He had a way to work that was going to reach across the nation. And any extraterrestrial beings out there would have to pick up on it. It was a heavy communications thing. Jimi knew he could not tell a whole lot of people about where his head was at and what he wanted to do, but he could give little hints in interviews and some of it in the songs and all of it to a few. He saw the music in the sky. He saw his music as a living life form that had the potential to give people a direct feeling, a direct understanding – that would open their eyes to cosmic powers by simply directly experiencing his music. Ray Warner began getting the distinct feeling that Jimi Hendrix was not of this Earth.

I could be wrong, and there really was a Ray Warner of the Chambers Brothers who had these heavy talks with Jimi and started a band in tribute to him, but I do wonder if the character isn’t a creation of the author. I read somewhere that David Henderson wrote this book because he met Jimi in the late ‘60s and promised to write his bio someday, but this story is not related in Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age. Also, I know from other sources that Henderson himself is a guitarist – in fact, one so gifted that for some years a track of his was passed around the trading community as an actual Hendrix outtake. Instead it was a prank on Henderson’s part; apparently he was trying to fool Alan Douglas, the guy who at the time was in charge of the posthumous Hendrix albums, into believing it was a legitimate Jimi song. Somehow the track leaked out to the bootleg community. But anyway my argument is this – Henderson met Jimi and he was a guitarist in his own right, so perhaps he himself is “Ray Warner.”

At any rate this character only comes and goes in the text. Jimi has a lot of clingers-on, more and more of them as time goes on. This was one of the many things that drove him apart from Noel and Mitch. Eventually we’ll meet Vishwa, a “black cat into TM” who comes off as one of Jimi’s few friends not in the music biz (until that is Jimi coldly dumps him, a week or so before he dies), and also Finney, Miles Davis’s official hairdresser who, with Miles’s permission, also works on Jimi’s hair. But most focus is placed on Devon Wilson, Jimi’s sort-of girlfriend, sort-off secretary, sort-of housekeeper, sort-of pimp, full-time heroin addict. (Jimi himself never touched heroin, by the way – something the coroner made explicit, as there was no sign of needle damage on him.) At the expense of Kathy Etchingham, whom many would argue was “Jimi’s Yoko,” Devon is presented as Jimi’s soul sister in all but name, his star-crossed lover.

Henderson covers everything, from all the albums to most of the concerts to most of the TV apperances. There are some mistakes, of course, but unlike the diehards I didn’t let them bug me. Some of them are unintentionally humorous, mostly because they only made it into the book thanks to sloppy editing. For example, we’re told on one page that Noel Redding was hired for the Experience due to his frizzy afro. But on the very next page, we’re told that Noel had short, almost buzzed hair when he joined the group! There are also misspellings throughout the book, almost but not quite to the level of what you’d encounter in a Leisure Books publication of the era. Even names are wrong; Eric Burdon of War is consistently referred to as “Eric Burden.”

On a geekier level, Hendrix fanatics will instantly detect some mistakes. This ranges from major stuff – and Henderson states in the “Coda” that he willingly committed fallacies or fictionalizations in order to streamline the book, which is fine by me – to minor stuff, like when we’re told that Jimi writes a new piece he calls “Pali Gap.” In reality, “Pali Gap,” a wonderful instrumental in a Santana vein, only received its title posthumously, when the soundtrack for Rainbow Bridge (1972) was being put together; supposedly Mike Jeffrey, Jimi’s manager, named the track after a wind that blows in Maui, location of the film. Recently it’s been suspected that the track was actually titled “Electric Lady,” an otherwise mysterious song that only appears in Jimi’s handwritten tracklist for his never-finalized fourth studio album.

But obviously that’s not a big deal at all. Nor is stuff like the claim that Jimi was unhappy with the 1970 single “Izabella/Stepping Stone” because the label had recorded over Buddy Miles’s drums and replaced them with Mitch Mitchell’s. Actually, Buddy’s original drum track was on both sides of the single, which was quickly withdrawn (and is rare as hell today); not because of Jimi’s request, but because Capitol complained it was interfering with sales of the just-released Band Of Gypsys, out on Capitol (and not Jimi’s label Warner Reprise) due to that Chaplin lawsuit. Also, Mitch recorded his drum tracks at Jimi’s request, and Jimi was there to oversee the recording; one fan met Mitch many years later, and Mitch stated that he himself preferred Buddy’s original drums, but only did his takes because Jimi was unhappy with Buddy’s work.

Of course, it’s easy for me to be such a know-nothing know-it-all about this stuff because I’m writing this review in 2018; all the above info and more is available with just a few internet searches. In particular, the Steve Hoffman music forum is a treasure trove of Hendrix data; I’ve spent hours reading the various threads about his music. Henderson obviously was writing long before the internet era, so he had to do his own research, thus one can’t really fault him for a few minor goofs. 

However what is kind of a bigger deal is that Henderson sort of implies throughout that Jimi never made it with black audiences because The Man was keeping him down. There’s a part where Jimi plays a concert in Harlem and Henderson has these black radio DJs apologizing to Jimi for never playing his music – it’s pretty much stated that the white bastards who run the station insist on only black music being played. This is an untruthitude of the highest order. The reality is, black audiences did not, for the most part, respond favorably to Jimi’s music or to Jimi himself. Indeed he was derogatorily referred to as a “Jim Crow” for playing with two white guys. (We live in an era where “racism” is always used to describe white-on-black hate, but folks – racism is universal.) It’s debatable if Jimi himself was overly hung up on not being a superstar among his “own people;” Jimi Hendrix had ascended far beyond race, and I’m not just saying that because he liked to sleep with white women. (And really, who doesn’t??) The other week, though, I saw a young black lady at the mall wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt, so Jimi, you finally made it.

But Henderson is a little guilty of playing up Jimi’s blackness; we’re often told of how happy Jimi is to meet a “brother” when he’s out and about, and in this book at least he definitely wants to incur the support of black audiences. In this regard Jimi’s short-lived Band of Gypsys (Billy Cox on bass, Buddy Miles on drums and sometimes-egregious backing vocals) is given a lot of focus: the first black power trio, Henderson is sure to remind us. We’re also often reminded that Jimi’s management (aka white guy Mike Jefferey) doesn’t “get” the Band of Gypsys, doesn’t like this funkier, more soulful shit Jimi is playing, and just wants him to get back with the white boys in the Experience and make music for white audiences. And that bigger group of black musicians Jimi briefly formed before, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows (ie his Woodstock band), was even worse.

Given the era in which Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age was published, one really can’t blame Henderson, who himself is black, for trying to bring Jimi Hendrix back into the black community. Given the sort of black renaissance going on at the time, it’s likely Jimi would’ve been accepted as a superstar among black audiences if he’d lived. Some of his later music would’ve killed it on soul stations of the day, like the recently-unearthed master mix of “Power Of Soul,” inexplicably kept from release until it appeared on the compilation Both Sides Of The Sky (2018). In fact in his last interview Jimi immediately responded that Sly Stone was a performer he himself was knocked out by, so I suspect if Jimi had lived he would’ve found some way to bridge the divide between “white music” and “black music.”

The final pages do veer into what can only be deemed as fiction, though, mostly because Henderson for the most part relies on Monika Dannemann’s story of what happened in Jimi’s final hours, and also in how we’re informed jazz producer Alan Douglas befriended Jimi and was poised to take his career in a whole new direction. For the former, Monika was a chronic liar, at least about her relationship with Jimi (this isn’t my theory – it was proven in a court case which she lost in ’96, committing suicide immediately afterward), and for the latter, Douglas no doubt wanted to make himself seem as if he were important to Jimi when Jimi was still alive, instead of being the guy who plundered the vault recordings after Jimi was gone, wiped the backing musicians off the master tapes, and replaced them with his own session men. And credited himself as co-writer on a few of the resulting songs!

But the rundown of Jimi’s death is wholly fabrication – he wasn’t still alive when he was put into an ambulance, and the paramedics didn’t strap him into an upright position so that he choked on his own vomit. All this nonsense comes from Monika, who changed her story multiple times over the years. It’s unfortunate that Henderson didn’t track down the paramedics or the doctor or the coroner; in his “Coda” he states that he spent five years writing this book, meeting with multiple people who knew Jimi, so it’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to set this particular record straight. If he had, a generation wouldn’t have grown up incorrectly believing that Jimi died of a drug overdose, or that the most incompetent paramedics in history accidentally killed him. In reality, Jimi was long dead when the paramedics arrived, but I already went into too-much detail about this in my review of Jimi After Dark.

More interesting is the discussion of where Jimi’s music might have gone if he had lived. It’s universally agreed that he would’ve at least dabbled in jazz, and he did plan to record an album with jazz bandleader Gil Cohen. That sadly never happened, but Cohen released Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix in 1974, for the most part a pretty cool melding of big band, cosmic jazz-funk, and psychedelic rock that gives an indication of what the real thing with Jimi might’ve sounded like. But to get what I consider the truest indication of what “Jimi goes jazz” would’ve sounded like, look no further than Miles Davis’s live release Agharta (1975), one of the greatest albums in the history of music: a 2LP excursion into heavy psychedelic jazz and fuzzy electronics, recorded before a mind-blown audience in Japan, lead guitarist Pete Cosey channeling Jimi’s spirit throughout. Indeed, Jimi’s spirit loomed over Miles Davis’s entire ‘70s output; even the man’s wardrobe began to resemble Jimi’s.

As mentioned, Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age is too long (sort of like this review!), but I enjoyed every word of it. I really did. But I can see where some things could’ve been whittled out. Some of the contemporary reviews and interviews Henderson shoehorns into the text could’ve been tightened up or just plain removed. Some of this stuff is just far-out inexplicable, like an interminable stoned conversation Jimi, Eric Clapton, and assorted hangers-on have in a London club; somehow Henderson got hold of a tape of this “conversation,” and he transcribes the whole thing…even the parts where the tape cuts off and some of the words are lost. And it just goes on and on and on – and it’s about nothing! Jimi was super-awesome, super-talented, super-everything, but one thing I’ve noticed…when you listen to him talk in his interviews (or check out his “as himself” appearance in Rainbow Bridge), it quickly becomes clear that the dude enjoyed his booze and his drugs. I actually followed this whole conversation, trying desperately to divine some sort of meaning or even a thread, but failed miserably. It occurred to me that I wasn’t high or drunk enough to follow it.

I no longer have my paperback copy of the book, but as mentioned ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky was abridged. I’m assuming it’s this sort of stuff Henderson edited out. I don’t know much about Henderson’s most recent revision, now subtitled Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, other than he now puts forward the notion that Jimi was murdered. This is a longstanding theory, but much of it revolves around the misinformation that Jimi was “drowned” in wine. In truth, only one person claimed this – the doctor who tried to revive Jimi’s dead body when it arrived in the hospital – but his comments were given decades later and it’s clear he was thinking of another patient. No one else, including the paramedics who first arrived on the scene, mentioned Jimi’s body being covered in wine. You can read more about Jimi’s last days here. But then I don’t even know if this is part of the theory Henderson puts forward in his latter revision.

So yeah, the book is long, perhaps inordinately so. But good grief did I enjoy it. I looked forward to reading it every day, and my enthusiasm never waned. In fact I intend to read it again someday. Now that I think of it, this would also make for a great “desert island book;” by the time you finished reading it, you’d be rescued!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 10

Godzilla

Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971): Aka Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, this is the Godzilla franchise at its most psychedelic. Like no other Godzilla movie you’ve seen, Hedorah features rampant use of the wide angle lens, not one but two psychedelic nightclub scenes, an LSD-esque tripout, and Godzilla ripping the innards out of his monstrous foe. Not to mention more horrific human deaths than are normally seen in the films; usually the monster destruction is limited to buildings, but this time we see corpses and skeletons in Hedorah’s wake. A shambling creature with big eyes that glow a psychedelic red (I have always loved how the eyes glow on Japanese monsters), Hedorah is the mutant spawn of pollution, and it goes through a series of evolutions in the film. It’s also the first stoner monster – made clear early on, as Hedorah inhales from a smokestack and makes purring noises, after which his eyes seem to be even more red. Godzilla shows up soon after and fights Hedorah throughout; this one’s filled with a lot of knock-down brawling between the two, and Godzilla takes some damage, even getting his left eye burned shut by Hedorah’s acidic spew.

The humans are comprised of a marine bioligist and his prepubescent son (the same actor who would show up as the obnoxious shit “Rokusan” in Godzilla vs Megallon, two years later) and a pair of hippie teens; the girl, who is also a singer at the psychedelic club, isn’t even named, I think. The movie features a hilariously arbitrary bit where the hippie teen hallucinates in the nightclub and sees everyone with fish heads – a bit that is unexplained and unexplored. The movie is filled with such bizarre shit, though, even periodically flipping over to crude animation that looks like it could’ve come off The Electric Company or somesuch.

Hedorah is very divisive among Godzilla freaks, but I do like it, mostly because it’s so different. Not to mention trippy – speaking of Hedorah’s red eyes, there’s a part at the end where the military shines lights at the creature to distract it, and the director just lets the camera sit on Hedorah as it stares back. It’s strangely compelling, not to mention more indication that Hedorah is a stoner, transifixed by those blinking lights. Plus the fights are pretty brutal and gory, with Godzilla ripping Hedorah apart – this particular monster really seems to piss the big guy off. However the movie was so bizarre that it got the director fired from the franchise; it was the one and only Godzilla movie he got to make, though he planned to do a sequel.

American fans were ticked that the recent DVD/Blu Ray only featured the “International English Dub,” ie the one heard in English-speaking countries other than the USA; fans wanted the old AIP dub. Personally I prefer the international dub, and not just because it features voices familiar from the many kung-fu and Shaw Brothers dubs of the day. The AIP dub I find annoying, as it’s one of those where the American voice actors give all the characters fake “Oriental” accents, which is more annoying than offensive.

Godzilla vs Gigan (1972): Released in the US in 1977 as Godzilla on Monster Island, Godzilla vs Gigan replaces the dark psychedelia of Godzilla vs Hedorah with super-bright colors, a goofy cast, and comedy hijinks. It also comes off as a lot more ponderous, despite featuring four monsters who engage in a brawl in the final quarter. Whereas Hedorah, while strange, was still compelling, Gigan seems to just drag. It isn’t helped by the fact that, for the first half, the human characters take center stage. They’re a diverse lot, from a manga artist to a female karate expert to a fat hippie who looks like Sammo Hung. Another gal is searching for her missing brother, a scientist. He’s been kidnapped by men who are creating a Monster Island sort of amusement park, an element which makes no sense within the context of the overall story. Anyway, the kidnappers are really space-cockroaches, and their goal is to control Godzilla and the other monsters, so they can kill them with their own space monsters(?).

As you can see, this film is from the era of the franchise in which Godzilla movies were exclusively made for children. The titular Gigan is the first of two space monsters called in – looking sort of like a cyborg chicken, Gigan has a very cool red-glowing visor for his eyes. The villains also call in three-headed King Ghidorah, who appears courtesy recycled footage from the earlier Monster Zero (1968). Meanwhile Godzilla slowly makes his way to Japan, bringing along his pal, stegosaurus-like Angilas. Godzilla vs Gigan is notable because we actually hear Godzilla talk – early in the film he bosses Angilas around, and in the English dub they gave Godzilla a voice. (The Japanese version kept it as backwards screeching sound effects – also heard in the English dub, over which you hear the spoken words – but they explained what the Big G was saying via kanji-filled word baloons.)

The finale is given over to a positively endles fight between these four monsters – with the Angilus-Ghidorah matchup again all recycled from Monster Zero – and it’s very ponderous despite the action. Godzilla takes a beating here, and we get a big splash of monster blood courtesy Angilas, but for some inexplicable reason Godzilla gets a second burst of energy and kicks monster ass. Neither Ghidorah nor Gigan are killed – Gigan in fact would return in the next film – but the Earth is saved and the space cockroaches are vanquished. Overall Godzilla vs Gigan is fun for the most part, but could’ve used a little tightening up.

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973): I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid, back when I got a VHS of it for Christmas in 1986. Parts of the English dub are ingrained in my brain – little did I know at the time that all of the dubbers were veterans of the Shaw Brothers English dubs. Thus there are familiar voices throughout the English dub of Godzilla vs. Megalon, which Tokyo Shock thankfully included with their recent Blu Ray (which also includes the original Japanese audio track). I’ve read online complaints about the low quality of this blu ray, but I assure you it’s a thousand times better than the pan and scan VHS tape of my youth. So many details are apparent here that were invisible on that shoddy tape – most humorously the tattoo on the Seatopian leader’s shoulder! Surely they could’ve covered that up?? The blu ray also includes the Japanese cut of the film, which features a bit more violence: the annoying little kid in the short-shorts is forcibly abducted at one point, snatched off his bike into a car, and there’s a bit more violence in the few fights.

The movie is dumb in a glorious way, with shoddy production and a phenomenal jazz-funk score, aptly compared to Yusef Lateef by Tom Servo in the great MST3K version of the movie. Godzilla here looks like a toy and Jet Jaguar is a poor man’s Ultraman, but there’s still something likable about him. And Megalon is cool, like a giant beetle with drills for hands who shoots exploding hockey pucks from his mouth. Gigan makes a return appearance from the previous film, teaming up with Megalon against Godzilla and Jet Jaguar; his visor glows a very cool red.

People deride this one but no one seems to understand it is intentionally goofy. It’s clearly not meant to be taken seriously; for example, toward the end Megalon and Gigan are getting the better of Godzilla and Jet Jaguar, surrounding them in a ring of fire. Then Godzilla throws his arms over Jet Jaguar’s shoulders and the two fly off, out of the fire’s reach. Megalon and Gigan – two mutant monsters – sort of look at each other and then throw their arms up, like “What the hell?!” This movie was clearly made by some people who were having a lot of fun, and unfortunately that’s lost on most who watch it – but then, most geeks are humorless twits, anyway. But I love all the little touches, even the weird interpretive dance beneath the Easter Island head carving in Seatopia. This is easily my favorite Godzilla movie.

Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla (1974): The goofy/campy tone of the previous film is gone, replaced with a more serious sort of approach that brings to mind the Godzilla films of the decade before. That being said, there’s precious little Godzilla to be found in this one; the big guy shows up for a brief patch early on and then disappears until the final fight. For the most part Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla feels more like a Japanese attempt at a Eurospy film, mixed with a bit of a Planet of the Apes ripoff. The focus is more on suspense and intrigue as our cast of heroes – a marine biologist, his mostly-useless brother, and two gals, one of whom is a photographer and the other the daughter of a scientist – run afoul of a shady group who turn out to be evil monkey-men aliens from space who disguise themselves as humans.

The film features more human-on-human violence than other Godzilla films of the era, with “human” characters strangled and shot, sometimes in the face – leading to cool, somewhat-psychedelic special effects of the skin “melting” off, revealing the Planet of the Apes ripoff faces beneath. But where is Godzilla? He shows up early in the film, or at least appears to – but when “Godzilla” gets in a bloody fight with series mainstay Angilas, even the humans know something is up. During the fight Angilas knocks off some of Godzilla’s skin, revealing a Terminator-esque steel skeleton beneath. This is MechaGodzilla, which reveals itself later in a brawl with the real Big G. Controlled by those aliens, MechaG’s intent is to destroy Japan and kill Godzilla, or something. Anyway Godzilla gets knocked into the sea and isn’t seen again for a helluva long time, save for a brief (and also slightly psychedelic) bit where we see him like inhaling lightning bolts and glowing a blacklight poster purple.

After interminable hijinks with the human actors, things finally get to the monster bash we want, with Godzilla and new pal King Ceasar (a monster that looks like a big puppy which is called forth by an endless song courtesy some kung-fu like chick in Okinawa) take on MechaGodzilla in a two-on-one brawl. Monster blood flies here and MechaG unleashes hell courtesy eyebolts, finger missiles, chest missiles, a force field, the works. But Godzilla manages to win the fight (no thanks to Ceasar, who sort of hides behind rocks throughout the fight) and then storms off back to Monster Island without even a glance back at the cheering humans. This was the last one courtesy the director who gave us the previous two films; after this old hand Ishiro Honda returned for Terror of MechaGodzilla, which was the last Godzilla film until 1984. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Butcher #7: Death Race


The Butcher #7: Death Race, by Stuart Jason
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

My assumption is Harlequin Books briefly took over The Butcher, at least for this one volume, as James “Stuart Jason” Dockery gives us a slow-moving yarn in which usually-gruff Bucher falls in love with a lovely young Eskimo gal, spends lots and lots of time pondering his feelings, and ultimately decides to quit White Hat and live here in Alaska happily ever after. At the very least, Dockery can be credited for finally straying outside the rigid template he has followed for the preceding six volumes.

I’ll skip my usual belabored rundown of the purgatory-esque sequence of events Bucher experiences in each and every volume: let it only be said that yes, the novel opens with him being tailed by two superdeformed Syndicate goons who knew him back in the day, and yes, Bucher makes short work of them. After which he is, once again, bailed out of jail by a slackjawed local yokel cop who can’t believe this grim-faced killer has such governmental clout. From there to the assignment briefing with the aged Director of White Hat, who has it that the Dewline defense system on the US-Canada border has been compromised.

In yet another similarity to a previous volume, duplicates of the thoroughly-vetted defense personnel are apparently being put in place by a mastermind (or “The Snake,” as Bucher eventually begins to think of him, apropos of nothing). Due to a random accident one of the dupes was outed, and now the Director is frantic that all of the remote Dewline outposts, each manned by one person, have been compromised by lookalikes. But as usual there’s nothing to go on, no leads to track. All White Hat has is a letter the sister of one of the personnel sent to the President, complaining that her brother was acting strange lately, probably due to all the pressure running his outpost. The Director suspects that her brother is one of the dupes.

Bucher flies to Alaska to investigate. It’s page-filling of the most egregious kind as we’re informed of all sorts of “life in Alaska” bullshit. I experienced a bad flashback to the similar page-filling “life among the Eskimos” stuff in John Eagle Expeditor #7. Dockery pulled similar stunts in previous books, usually with shoehorned detail about the Middle East or Egypt or whatever, so this time it’s at least a change of scenery. But it does go on and on, with zero in the way of action. It gets worse when Bucher meets Sonja Rostov, the sister who wrote that letter to the president about her brother – and it’s love at first sight.

The Butcher gets all lovey-dovey as our hard-assed hero finds himself acting like a smitten fool around Sonja. We’re informed she’s not classically beautiful, but appropriately hot, with a jawdropping but petite body. More importantly, there is a “primitive” look about her – she makes her appearance draped in animal skins and wielding a Bowie knife – and gradually Bucher understands that the two are very alike. Soon enough she’s giving him a leather band that symbolically binds them as mates(!). There follows lots of crap seemingly lifted from a RomCom as Bucher relaxes in a steam bath, shocked when Sonja and a female friend happen to see him nude, Bucher embarrassed and getting tongue-tied and etc, and you just wonder to yourself, “When, Lord, when will Bucher start killing people again??”

After an extra-long haul some action presents itself: Sonja is being hassled by two locals, and after an interminable sequence of setting the situation up they arrive in the village. Bucher goes out to confront them, first shooting their dog as a sign of his bad-assery. But other than this it’s anticlimactic as all get-out; Bucher whips out his Walther, and it’s “koosh-koosh,” goodbye both tough guys. We’re back to the romance stuff…and by the way, as ever Dockery is reluctant to provide any explicit material. About all we get is Sonja wrapping her arms around her stomach and murmuring how she feels she’s been “wifed” good and proper. And meanwhile Bucher has decided that this is his last job, he’s going to quit White Hat, stay here in Alaska, and get married.

But Dockery hasn’t forgotten the other mainstay of his series template: the mission Bucher’s been sent here on abruptly changes. Ostensibly he’s here in this backwoods Alaskan village waiting for Sonja’s brother to arrive; White Hat arranged for Rostov to be sent home on a temporary leave of absence, with the idea that Bucher would be waiting here for him and figure out if he’s the real thing or a dupe. Sonja for her part is certain the man she saw a few months ago was not her brother, which is why she wrote that letter. Okay, so we’re waiting for all this to happen. Then the Director swings into town and reveals that Sonja’s brother is not coming, and also it was all a mistake and there really were no “dupes” as such, just personnel who were pretending to be dupes, as part of a diversionary meaure to distract attention from the real plot of the mastermind behind all this!!!

And who is the mastermind? In some of Dockery’s lazier plotting, Bucher early on just happens to see an old photo of some village schoolkids, and one of them has a hideous birthmark on his face. Identical to a Chinese doctor Bucher once knew named Wu who was employed by the Syndicate but was finally retired due to the fact that he liked to strap people up and feed them to his trained dogs. Well guess what, folks. Wu is, believe it or not, the mastermind behind the Dewline plot!! The Director reveals as much, and also that Wu’s real plot appears to be the unleashing of an army of saboteurs into the US.

As if waving a big middle finger at his readers, Dockery then has the big climactic action scene occur off-page; the Director reveals that a team of Marines are right now converging on Wu’s hideout! Indeed, more priority is put on the “big revelation” that the Director’s real name is Sam White; he comments that he always wondered why Bucher never asked him what his real name was(!). So now Bucher’s job is to voyage out into the Alaskan wild and get the list of saboteurs from Wu’s training base, which is of course nearby, him being a hometown boy and all. Bucher will be assisted by an Amazonian White Hat agent named Olga. Sonja of course manages to bully her way into going along on what Bucher vows will be his last mission – he’s already tendered his resignation to the Director.

Now, anyone who even harbors a suspicion that Sonja might make it through Death Race alive is in serious danger of flunking Men’s Adventure 101 (and there is no remedial class!). As Marty McKee succinctly put it, “It comes as no surprise that Sonja doesn’t live to the end of the book.” So of course, she’s dead before the last page. But let’s take a moment to dwell on her murder, which Dockery delivers as expected, but in such a half-assed manner that I had to laugh at his bravado. I mean, Bucher has lost lady loves in previous volumes; it’s part of the template. But this time, we’re led to believe, it’s much different – he plans to marry Sonja, he plans to quit White Hat for her. Yet when Sonja’s assassinated by a sniper, just a few pages before the end of the book, we’re never informed who shot her!

Bucher’s kissing her goodbye, about to make his final assault on Wu’s lair, and Sonja’s shot at that moment. Bucher watches in a daze as she falls, dead…and then the next chapter has him storming in upon Wu, who’s in the midst of feeding a fresh victim to his dogs. Wu is shocked that Bucher is even here; the sadist has so descended into full-blown madness that he’s not even aware his main base has been attacked. Plus he hasn’t seen Bucher since his Syndicate days. We’re informed that Bucher killed off Wu’s two sole security guards on his way in, so that would mean it wasn’t either of them who shot Sonja – not only were they guarding the boss, but the boss wasn’t even aware Bucher was around! So it wasn’t Wu or any of his men who killed Sonja.

So then…who the hell was it? My guess is it must’ve been White Hat itself. In fact it’s the only possibility. The Director is initially startled that Bucher intends to quit, then brushes it off with a smile and something to the effect that he loves how Bucher is a man of his convictions and could make such a life-changing decision so quickly. In reality though, “Iceman” would be too valuable an agent to lose, so clearly Sonja Rostov must die. The more I think of it, I’m sure this was Dockery’s intention. Otherwise no info is given on who killed Sonja, and I’m betting no mention will be made of her in the next novel, which will see the usual “game reset” taking place.

But anyway as mentioned Wu, when we finally meet him, is about to feed an old Eskimo man to his dogs. And it still drives me nuts that Dockery creates these crazy, disgusting villains and never properly exploits them. I mean, Wu has two brains, one of them on his face, and he gets his jollies tying people up and setting his dogs loose on them! But as with all the other main villains in the series, Wu stays off-page for the duration, only showing up right before the very end – and only then to meet his expected fate: becoming dog food. At least Dockery goes full-bore with the graphic violence here, with Bucher feeling like he’s about to puke as he watches. Not that he stops watching it.

Here’s the last paragraph:

Bucher stared grimly at the grisly scene for a long half minute, then turned from it and headed out of the cave toward the cabin, the bitter-sour taste of galling defeat strong in his mouth.

On an unrelated note, only one post next week – it’ll be up on Wednesday.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimi After Dark


Jimi After Dark, by Stephen Mertz
November, 2018  Wolfpack Publishing

First published by Perfect Crime in 2017 (with an atrocious cover), now brought out in a new edition by Wolfpack Publishing (with a much better cover), Jimi After Dark is an action-filled yarn that combines Ennis Willie with Swinging London; Stephen Mertz even dedicates the novel to Willie, so the tone is unmistakable. The book also comes off like Don Pendleton at times – and let’s not forget Pendleton sent his own two-fisted hero to Swinging London, in Assault On Soho.

Regardless, this is a fun, inventive mixing of influences: psychedelic rock meets hardboiled action. And there certainly is more action here than you’d find in something by Hard Case Crime, evidence of Stephen’s history with Gold Eagle Books (not to mention his sort of apprenticeship with Pendleton himself). It seems as if our hero, the anonymous “Soldier,” is constantly either getting shot at, knocked out, beaten up, threatened, chased, or just in general mistreated. He does though manage to pick up one of those infamous English “birds,” though. Actually she’s a Houston transplant, so maybe she doesn’t count as an English bird after all.

The novel is an effective mystery thriller, and takes place in the very last days of Jimi Hendrix – I mean like the last three or so days before he died, on September 18, 1970. Stephen wisely keeps Jimi as a supporting character; only the prologue and a few other brief sequences, all of which are in third-person, feature him in the sole spotlight. Otherwise he is a supporting character, usually off-page, with Soldier carrying the brunt of the tale, and narrating it for us. As mentioned Soldier wishes to be anonymous; he tells no one his name, and Jimi, who knows what it is, doesn’t tell anyone, either. Eventually I pretended that Soldier was just Mark Stone…or maybe even John Cody.

All we do know is that Soldier’s the same age as Jimi, 27, and he sports a facial scar. (So if my Stone/Cody theory is valid, we’ll just have to discount that!) He’s just rotated out of ‘Nam and is on his way to Germany when we meet him. But first he’s making a brief stopover in London to help out his old pal, none other than Jimi Hendrix – the two were stationed together during Jimi’s ultra-brief Army career and became fast friends. We know from the outset that Soldier owes Jimi his life; later in flashback we see that Jimi prevented Soldier’s brains from getting blown out at a black bar, near their base.

But that was a few years ago; the Jimi of late 1970 is in some ways a different person. Withdrawn at times, worn out from years of incessant touring, a little bitter. He wants to be back in America, in the new studio he just opened in Manhattan: Electric Lady, but he’s stuck here in Europe on this tour his manager, Mike Jeffrey, insisted he do so as to pay all the mounting bills. Jimi’s also in hock to some underworld types for money he borrowed. But now there seems to be a new element to it all, and Jimi is paranoid that someone’s out to do him in. Soldier’s here because he received a note from Jimi – they’re penpals of sorts – asking Soldier to stop by when he flies into London, because Jimi needs some help.

Soldier for his part doesn’t tell us much about himself. He’s fresh out of the shit in ‘Nam and he’s old buddies with Jimi. Soldier not only doesn’t want to tell us his name, he also doesn’t want anyone he meets to know his name. Even when his ID is confiscated, his name is not mentioned. Of course, the heaviest Pendletonisms are courtesy Soldier’s narration; not just in how he periodically flashes back to stuff in Vietnam, usually when he’s knocked out (and folks Soldier gets knocked out a whole bunch), but in how he uses his jungle warfare background to frame his experiences in London. Just as Pendleton would introduce a concept or theme early in a volume of The Executioner and then reinforce it throughout the narrative (sometimes relentlessly), so too does Soldier compare and contrast his ‘Nam background with this current caper in London as he tries to figure out who means Jimi harm.

And so just who is trying to kill Jimi Hendrix?? Everyone, that’s who! Humorously, it appears that everyone’s out to get poor Jimi – in this book he’s not only abducted but also dangled from a rooftop, and just in general is threatened with bodily harm throughout. It appears that Stephen has personified Jimi’s various personal and business problems into real-life foes; even his manager, Mike Jeffrey (whose name has really been dragged through the mud since he died in ’73), is presented as a thug-employing crime kingpin. I almost expected Noel Redding to show up wielding a meat cleaver. Seriously though, Stephen doesn’t bother too much with the music side of Jimi’s life; the opening sequence takes place at Jimi’s last official concert, at the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany, and Jimi’s band members (Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell) aren’t even named.

Speaking of which, Stephen has whittled down the cast of characters who surrounded Jimi in his final days, removing some and adding others of his own creation. Of the missing ones, Devon Wilson would be first and foremost. Anyone who knows about Jimi’s life will know of Devon, the super-groupie who inspired the track “Dolly Dagger.” Her outrageously complex relationship with Jimi entailed everything from being his live-in girlfriend in New York to acting as a female pimp for him. She was in London these final days, in fact had a mysterious encounter with him the night of his death, but she’s not to be found in Jimi After Dark.

However, Jimi’s other girlfriend of the day, Monika Dannemann, is here, and Stephen successfully captures this needy, domineering woman who appears to have implanted herself like a parasite on Jimi in his final days. Soldier meets her early on and forms an instant dislike for her, and it’s hard not to blame him. Jimi for his part excuses the clingy German blonde, saying she’s a sweetheart or whatever. Meanwhile little does Jimi know that Monika has inadvertently brought even more problems upon him: Soldier soon takes on a group of German crooks who have come here to London to harm Jimi, so as to make themselves look good to Monika’s ultra-wealthy family, as none of them like the idea of Monika running around with a black man.

Upon his arrival at Heathrow, Soldier meets the first of the fictional characters Stephen has placed in Jimi’s life: her name is Syndney Blanchard, and she’s a pretty redheaded Londoner who comes from a wealthy family but likes to mingle with the rock stars of the day. She approaches Soldier seeming to know where Jimi is, but not giving him any info – later we’ll learn she’s trying to protect Jimi. And anyway we promptly learn why, as Stephen presents us with the first of many such action scenes that will ensue: Soldier, still in his uniform, is accosted by a couple punks and makes short work of them, seriously injuring one of them.

When Soldier tracks down Jimi, who is staying at a crash pad, it’s to Stephen’s credit that he doesn’t sap it up. Jimi comes here to hang out with Angel, an American expat hippie babe from Houston (she’s another of the fictional characters), and to get away from the heavy shit going on in his life. Stephen presents us with a haggard and stressed-out Jimi who is nothing like the ultra-mellow guy more familiar to those who love him so much. And by all accounts Jimi was seriously stressed in his final days; it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy and the miserable fate he suffered.

But Jimi at times doesn’t come off very well in the novel, not very bright on what’s going on, who is after him, or how in deep he is. Soldier also doesn’t like all the drugs Jimi takes – there’s a curious anti-drug stance in Jimi After Dark, given that it takes place in 1970 – and the drugs only serve to make Jimi seem even more addled and clueless. He also doesn’t play as much music as you’d expect, though again the novel only occurs over a few days. But as mentioned, Stephen wisely keeps Jimi off-page for most of the novel, only occasionally featuring him in his own scenes.

Soldier is the star of the show, and he’s very much in the Mack Bolan/Mark Stone mold. He storms his way through London trying to find out who is hassling Jimi, finding the time along the way to almost hook up with Syndey and ultimately to hook up with Angel. He’s also framed for the murder of a female character, and this proves to be the central mystery of Jimi After Dark, which makes sense; I mean the whole world knows that Jimi himself is dead, so there’s no mystery there. This frame makes Soldier a wanted man, so along with the other sundry characters he goes up against while protecting Jimi, there’s also a bulldog of a cop after him.

As for Jimi, at one point he’s abducted and strapped to a chair for a day or so; in the Afterword, Stephen says this was inspired by a comment the real Jimi once made, in 1969, about being briefly abducted. No one knows if he was being serious or not, but Stephen took this ball and ran with it, just changing up the dates a little. Jimi we learn has been captured by a group of thugs he borrowed money from, one of the thugs being Angel’s ex-husband. But then there’s the question of who hired these thugs to capture Jimi, and why they want him dead. Jimi actually takes his captivity pretty well, even attempting an escape at one point. That being said, he sort of gets over it a little too quickly in the finale, casually heading off to a nightclub for what will be his last gig.

Meanwhile Soldier busts heads and tracks leads as he tries to find Jimi; at one point he runs afoul of the German thugs, and later on he meets a dude who claims to be a former CIA agent who desperately needs to get in touch with Jimi, because the United States government is trying to kill him. Here it’s brought up that Jimi has been making positive comments about the Black Power movement and etc, and thus the uber-evil Nixon administration wants him dead. In reality Jimi Hendrix had ascended beyond race, just one of the bujillion things that were so cool about him. I’ve read my share of Jimi Hendrix interviews, and he rarely talks about being black. He literally cared nothing about race – “no matter what color the eyes or armpits might be,” as he once wonderfully put it. I’ve also seen a few interviews where he claimed the Black Panthers were going about things the wrong way, so I’d guess any such involvement with them would’ve ultimately proved short lived. 

Regardless, this conspiracy theory is a central thread of Jimi After Dark, at least in how it’s one of the main efforts to kill off Jimi. This meeting with the former agent leads to another running action scene, as Soldier and Angel are fired at by a hidden sniper. Ultimately we’ll learn the CIA is involved with Jimi’s abduction, and it’s up to Soldier and Angel to come to his rescue – that is, after a little kinkiness between the two. Stephen gets slightly risque as Angel treats Soldier to a little down-home hospitality; it’s more action than Bolan ever got on page, that’s for sure.

One can also tell that Stephen is more invested in this tale than he was in, say Saigon Slaughter or whatever; the tone is somewhat the same, but there’s more care and craft in the telling. Things are always entertaining, and the characters come off as three-dimensional. I do feel that the mystery angle got a little in the way of the action, particularly the long outing of the true killer in the climax, which is relayed via dialog. I only say this because it comes after the scene in which Soldier rescues Jimi, which features dudes getting their faces blown off. But then this mystery schtick is part of the hardboiled template.

I actually suspected I’d get a different story in Jimi After Dark. There are enough mysteries in Jimi’s death, let alone any CIA hit teams, German thugs, or shady managers. The chief mystery of them all would be what happened in Jimi’s final hours. This is because the last person with him, Monika, changed her story countless times over the years. According to her story (or one of her stories, at least), Jimi took some of her sleeping pills after drinking a lot of wine at a party, and when Monika woke up early in the morning, Jimi was sick, so she called the ambulance, and rode in it with Jimi to the hospital. Monika further claimed that the paramedics improperly strapped Jimi into a sitting position, and when he tried to vomit in his comatose state he was unable to move and thus choked to death on his own vomit, right there in the ambulance. This is the story most early Hendrix bios stick to, among them David Henderson’s phenomenal Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age (aka ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky in its paperback edition), which I intend to review shortly.

The only problem is, the story is bullshit. Many years later the paramedics who arrived on the scene were finally tracked down and interviewed. They each stated that no one was in the apartment when they arrived, and also the door was unlocked. Monika was not there, nor did she ride in the ambulance with them. They also stated that Jimi had clearly been dead for quite a while, given that the inside of his mouth was turning black. However they went through the fruitless motions of reviving him before putting him in the ambulance. The coroner later determined that Jimi had been dead for at least seven hours before the paramedics arrived, placing his death around 4AM. As for who called the ambulance, again, we only have Monika’s dubious word on that. Records of such things weren’t kept back then.

Long story short, it would appear that Jimi’s death is just what it’s seemed to be all along – an unfortunate, easily-avoided mistake. He took too many of Monika’s powerful sleeping pills and choked to death on his vomit, unable to move because of the barbiturates in his system. The question is, why wasn’t anyone there to help him? Or was Monika indeed there, but asleep at the time, and woke to find Jimi’s corpse and freaked out, running out of the apartment, her later stories just a way of repressing her memory of the truth? Part of this must be true, as apparently she called Eric Burdon of War and he and some others cleaned the place of drugs and guitars, steering clear of the corpse on the bed, before they called the ambulance.  (Priorities, people!)  Or was Jimi indeed murdered, waterboarded with wine by Mike Jeffrey and a few cronies as Tappy Wright claimed in his 2009 book Rock Roadie? (Overlooking the fact that Mike Jeffrey was in Spain, not London, on the night Jimi died…not to mention that Tappy later admitted he made it all up to drive book sales!)

But here’s another weird sidenote…on July 30th, 1970, Jimi was in Hawaii, doing a private concert for the film Rainbow Bridge, an occult, New Age-themed hippie movie financed by Mike Jeffrey. Jimi, asked by Jeffrey to appear as “himself” in the film, got drunk for his appearance so as to quell his nerves. I mean he literally stumbles onto the scene chugging from a bottle of wine. In this brief sequence shortly before the end of the film, Jimi engages in a nonsensical stoned rap with the lead female character and a “young guru” type in a goofy headband (none other than director Chuck Wein himself). Jimi describes an out of body experience in which he astrally voyages above the Sphinx and meets Cleopatra. He’s been drinking in the astral trip, too, and he relays that he suddenly feels the need to puke up the wine. But he holds it in because he wants to play it cool for Cleopatra: “The grape chokes me almost. But I can’t let the choke come out.” He then mimics choking on vomit. It’s all very creepy, because this is exactly how Jimi died less than two months later. Was he experiencing a premonition?

Check out this concise but thorough overview of Jimi’s last days, which gives all the pertinent info and also debunks the conspiracy theory that Jimi was waterboarded with wine.  The entire website is a treasure trove of Hendrix info and is highly recommended!

But anyway, none of this is actually in Jimi After Dark, so I apologize for the interminable detour.  And Stephen has written a novel, so he is not beholden to catering to facts or theories. In his book, Jimi’s death happens between chapters and is relayed in mournful backstory by Soldier, who sort of implies that Jimi died by his own hand. Or maybe it was another a backup CIA hit team. Either way, it’s a miserable loss, and Soldier – who as mentioned is telling us this tale years later – has already mourned him, thus doesn’t treat us to histrionics when he and Angel hear that Jimi’s dead on the car radio. Despite which, it is the ultimate in buzzkill to learn that Jimi’s died between chapters, given that the entire book was all about Soldier trying to save his life!

Soldier does tell us that many years later he met Angel again, this time in Texas, thus implying there is another tale to tell. I enjoyed the character and wouldn’t mind reading another story with him, but it won’t be the same without Jimi. Anyway, I definitely recommend Jimi After Dark, and I’m happy to see it’s available again…when I tried to track down the original Perfect Crime edition, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Luckily now it’s available from Wolfpack – and as mentioned with a much more fitting cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way…