Monday, August 6, 2018

The Rock Nations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 comments:

Zwolf said...

Dude... why do you even read these hippie books if they're just gonna piss you off and trigger ya on another crabby-old-man rant against "the left"? Jesus, dude, you were a lot more fun before you turned into my fuckin' grandpa. Every time I see some 60's-themed paperback showing up here, I wince, thinking, "Oh hell, here comes Hannity again." What're you expecting? Hippies whined a lot, it's what they do. Not that they were completely without reason, given the draft and all, but still...

Oh well, guess it'll be my turn I post my Johnstone review... which will probably get me branded a "hateful leftist." :) Or, centrist, anyway. Whatever ain't-in-love-with-the-left-but-hates-tha-fuck-out-the-right is, that'll be my label.

Anyway, pretty much any hippie book's gonna end up being a drrrrraaag, man, unless there's a murder-cult in it. If you find a copy of The Hippie Cult Murders (which is about impossible now), then it's worth it. Most of the rest of 'em, though, are gonna be diatribes that'll annoy anybody but the hardest-core Bernie-bros (and maybe even a few of them, if the author's taking shots at Hendrix). I'm not sure why you're subjecting yourself to 'em. I only forced myself through that Johnstone book because I've had a 35-year-vendetta with it, and in retrospect I should've taken a pass. I mean, I also read Crime & Punishment recently, and *that* was more fun than that Ashes book...

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

As someone who went to rock festivals back in the late '60s and who might have bought a copy of this book just to check it out, I want to thank you for saving me the cash and time! Love your reviews, man.

Johny Malone said...

Hippism must be the biggest cultural fraud of the 20th century.

Peter Collinson said...

What Zwolf said.

Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

Interesting read. These weird hippie books were just a strange point in time and literature, I think.

And I honestly worry about anyone that feels like throwing out a four paragraph rant at one aside about the grossness of antifa folks. It's not a good look to freak out when someone says, "hey those crazy extremists are bad."

Stephen Mertz said...

Zwolf & Collinson seem to know what they're talking about, so: what they said. I show up here to smile with your reviews, not endure the banality of divisive politics.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Zwolf/Peter: All this is the result of poor editing on my part. Not that you’d know it, but I’ve been trying to cut down on the length of my reviews. In my “first cut” of this review, written early last week, I had a long excerpt from the book, where “Skin Sherman” says that the overboiling anger of the Left is actually a reflection of the anger within themselves – that the various causes and etc they rally behind are just convenient excuses for them to unleash their hostilities. So the stuff that set you guys off was intended as an elaboration/fleshing out of this excerpt. But when I decided to cut down the length of the review right before prime time, I cut out the excerpt and associated material…but failed to remove the other stuff. That being said, I do think the anger currently displayed by the left, as demonstrated by antifa or Ms. Kathy Griffin with her ISIS video, is borderline psychotic, and is doing the democrat party no few favors. Not to mention their biased war on free speech.

That being said, I don’t mind leftist screeds…as long as they’re entertaining! Take Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus. I’ve read that one many times over the years and no matter what side of the political fence I happen to be on at the time, I loved the book – and I think anyone who has read that book would know that it’s very left-wing. Same goes for the recently-reviewed Death Rock, which was quite left wing. But the characters were so goofy and engaging it didn’t bother me at all. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to re-read Illuminatus, so I’ll get around to that so I can post a glowing review and you all can be happy again. As a matter of fact, I was recently listening to a jump drive in my car that has a bunch of speeches by Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and others on it, and one of them was a speech by RAW from the early ‘90s that started off with several minutes of glowing appraisal of Hillary Clinton. Believe it or not, I didn’t immediately yank out the drive and toss it under my tires so I could smash it out of existence!! I listened to it and laughed because it was humorous and entertaining. The stuff in Rock Nations though isn’t either of those things, and is more along the lines of the irreparable anger and unmitigated entitlement that has become THE face of the left in our miserable modern era.

What’s curious is none of you seemed to mind when I poked fun at the right-wing sermonizing in Mark Robert’s “Soldier For Hire” or that “NYPD 2020” book!

Zwolf said...

Eh, I disagree with a lot of that, especially with the right being so full of actual bona-fide swastika-wavin' Nazis at this point (and if anybody wants to do violence to those sKKKum, they have my blessing -- I've done it myself back in the day). Kathie Griffin is silly and picks idiotic stunts to get attention, but, there are legit reasons for anger. But, you've got your perspective and I know I won't change it any more than you'd change mine. And, it's not the purpose of the blog, so... eh, I'll just save my view for whenever I review Johnstone... 'cuz reviewing him will kinda *require* getting political. It'll be funny, though, promise. Mean as hell, but, funny. :)


Anyway, back to the book - I'm no fan of hippies at all (I argue with the far-left online almost as much as I do the far-right... the far-left annoy me by being whiney, drippy, unpleasable, over-parsing everything and sometimes being idealistic to the sacrifice of reality, and the far-right annoy me by being cowardly fear-driven church-trained hypocritical persecution-complexed morons who'll believe absolutely anything ( Q! )), but from the description, I think your initial doubts that the writer was too old to be really knowledgeable about hippies was probably a good instinct: the character sounded like some right-winger's depiction of hippies. Being so overbearingly mad and bratty and being a self-hating capitalist and such... I'm not sure a hippie would draw themselves that way, even if some were. Sounded like the writer hated 'em and wanted to portray 'em in as bad a light as possible, which might make the book more funny and easier to bear if approached that way. I'm not sure that's any more authentic than what William W. Johnstone thinks a "liberal" is -- just cardboard cut-outs to give conservative readers somebody to loathe, and liberals somebody to laugh at due to how ridiculously extreme he tries to make 'em. But, who knows? I *know* that's what Johnstone does, but I have no knowledge of Rae.

I do know a lot of "establishment" types wrote a whole lot of stuff about hippies back then, and a lot of it was goofy (check out some old episodes of Dragnet). :) Kinda like what they'd do to punk rock a decade or so later... we used to laugh our asses off at Quincy and CHiPS. :)

Steven Johnson said...

Well, Joe, not every one of your readers disapproves. I'd prefer you to keep pointing out the lefty crap, because I get enough of it in my daily life. If there's too much in my fiction, I'm liable to pitch the book entirely. Appreciate you letting me know.

But then again, I like the Destroyer series, so what the heck do I know ...

allan said...

My Plea: Do not cut down the length of your reviews. Write as much as you want and include excerpts. It's the internet. You don't have to worry about fitting your review into a certain number of magazine pages or a pre-arranged space in a newspaper. Many of us will never see these books in person, so the excerpts are a special treat.

I'm certain that on the range of political opinions of your readers, I am on the far, far left. As a socialist, I think both US parties are pretty much indistinguishable from one another on almost every issue, and yet I get a kick out of - and even enjoy - Rosenberger's work. I find it fascinating that he riddled his books with his right-wing rants. Was he merely venting or was he truly trying to influence his younger readers? (And yet he was not right-wing across the board, as his pro-choice letters to the editor illustrate.)

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, but ... do whatever you want on your own damn blog. If you don't, it will become less fun. ... If someone does not like a section, he or she can skip over it.

Aaron Jeethan said...

To be fair Zwolff, these days it's only the grandpas who are on the left. The younger generations lean rightwards (and the younger they are, the further right they lean i.e. Gen Z). So Joe is really turning into your 'fuckin grandson'. He's ageing in reverse, which is a nice trick if you can manage it. What that says about the state of American politics I have no clue.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

A lot of so called hippies came from families of means and were sheltered from the harsher realities of racism, injustice, poverty and, yes, the draft. Their anger was in the right place though. Then they aged, married, moved to the suburbs, built their stock portfolios and voted Republican. That's a sweeping generalization I know, but the voting demographics reflect it. I'm inclined to believe Johny Malone whe he called it a cultural fraud.

allan said...

these days it's only the grandpas who are on the left.

This is a strange statement. It ignores a ridiculous mountain of evidence from the tens of thousands of young people who supported Sanders to the activism of high-school students following school shootings earlier this year to a May 2018 poll by The Associated Press-NORC for Public Affairs Research and MTV that found people aged 15-34 are more politically engaged now than they ever have been before. (In fact, this is a trend that has been reported on since 2016.)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for your additional comments. It's nice to see that a good cross-section of people, despite different political views, can find harmony in vintage pulp paperbacks!

Zwolf -- I think as ever we are on the same page, even if we don't agree on particulars. And also having discussed it more with you, I guess this really was "that" George Rae, ie an older contract writer, and he just very faithfully captured an authentic hippie voice. It's just hard to imagine a guy going from something like "After You, Death!" in the January 1946 issue of Detective Tales to "The Rock Nations" in 1971! And hey man, Q is a prophet!! (Just kidding...I spent about 3 minutes looking into that and bailed.)

Allan -- Anyone who proclaims himself "far, far on the left" can't be all bad. Seriously though, thanks a lot for your comments. As for your question to Aaron, I think he might be referring to a survey Harvard did in the months before the 2016 election. Something like a thousand or so kids aged 14-18 were polled on politics. Surprisingly, the majority turned out to veer Republican. I remember chuckling that the number was probably greater but Harvard whittled it down -- I'm sure they didn't get the response they were expecting!

I'd say this is just the usual cycle of generations...each generation seems to go against the one that came before. Probably why the kids of my day, who grew up with Reagan and Bush, went so crazy for Bill C. And recently I've noticed teenagers in places I never saw them before...shopping at antique stores (I mean, by themselves -- not with their parents), and even in record stores. I was in one such place the other week and a group of kids came in and started excitedly riffling through the rock LPs, and I thought to myself -- is this 2018 or 1968? So I think these kids are subconsciously rejecting today and looking for something else, looking to the past...I mean we can write the Millennials off as a loss, but maybe this generation after them, whatever the heck they're called, are up to something else.

Oh, and as for the poll you mention...I brought up the Harvard one because you can guess it's true, given the source -- Harvard ain't the most right-leaning of institutions. But when you start quoting an AP poll (particularly one that was done with MTV)...well, that's when it gets questionable. Sort of like all those "Hillary has a 10-point national lead" polls in the days before the election. Aka "media polls" that are paid for by media institutions, etc -- in the case of those Hillary ones, many of them, if you dug enough, turned out to be paid for by the Clinton Foundation, or employees thereof. It's all a mind game, man. I only bring this up because that kid who has become the figurehead for "kids against guns" or whatever (Hogg, is it?) has directly challenged at least one or two Republicans that were up for election...and guess who won? As ever, it's the voting that matters, not the polls, and the country seems to be going red, despite the promises of a blue wave.

Anyway I need to stop -- as Zwolf so sagely wrote above, "it's not the purpose of the blog," so I will honestly refrain from digs in the future. But guys, sometimes I write these things just to entertain myself, so I really can't help it. Oh, and thanks Steven for the support on the jokes!

And Kurt, you are more correct than you know...just the other day a coworker told me his mom was a bona fide hippie in the '60s, following the Dead around and living on communes. Today she is, you guessed it, a diehard Trump supporter.