Monday, October 26, 2020

Springblade #6: Battle Zone

Springblade #6: Battle Zone
, by Greg Walker 
December, 1990 Charter Books 

I’m missing a couple installments of Springblade, and it appears there’ve been some changes to the status quo; whereas the previous books featured the three-man team of Bo Thornton, David Lee, and Jason Silver, with gruff old former master sergeant Frank Hartung serving as the organizer, “Springblade” is now comprised of a couple extra members…not to mention a girl(!!). This would be Thornton’s girlfriend, Linda, who previously only appeared in the opening scenes on Thornton’s Oregon ranch; now we’re informed she can shoot, drive, fight, and etc, “just as good” as any of the male members of Springblade! 

Regardless, the series has if nothing else become even more in the vein of the “military fiction” thrillers that were, at this point in time, taking over the shelves of bookstores – shelves which once featured more-escapist men’s adventure fiction. I mean Springblade might as well just have a generic photo cover of some SEAL commando or somesuch; Battle Zone is stuffed to the gills with military acronyms, military strategy, insights into military life, and even military red tape – unlike the men’s adventure of the decades before, this one is on slow-boil for the duration, building up to the “realisitc” rescue of a DEA commando deep in the Burma jungle. Whereas say Phoenix Force would be blasting apart native soldiers by chapter three, the members of Springblade plot and plan for the majority of the novel’s runtime, not even getting onto the field until page 126. And the book’s not even 200 pages long. 

As mentioned there’s a lot of background on the military and Special Forces and whatnot. The book is dedicated to Colonel Nick Rowe, a real-life Green Beret who was a POW in ‘Nam, escaped, and wrote a best-selling book about his experiences. He went on to found a brutal Special Forces training program called SERE, which factors strongly into Battle Zone. Rowe was assassinated by Communists, in the Philipines, shortly before Battle Zone was published, thus his sacrifice is often mentioned. Walker clearly looked up to the man, as one of the “new” Springblade members, presumably introduced in the previous volume, has the same last name: Alan Rowe, “the team’s only Chinese-American.” Curiously none of the characters mention that he has the same last name as the recently-departed colonel. And also Rowe doesn’t do much, but we learn he enjoys painting in his California home, as this is what he’s doing when he gets the call to go along on this latest Springblade mission. Personally I imagined him doing fluffy clouds and trees a la Bob Ross. 

The other new member is Peter Chuikov, a former Spetsnaz commando who is just now getting Federal clearance to become part of Springblade, which we’ll recall is Thornton’s special commando team of active and inactive soldiers who do special jobs for the US government. He also doesn’t make much of an impression on the reader. In fact it’s Linda who takes up the brunt of the “new member” focus; this is the first mission Thornton decides to bring her on, concerned that the guys in the team will be ruffled a bit that a woman’s coming along. But Linda we are assured can hold her own…not that we actually see her do so. Her role will be “computer girl,” and like the female character in MIA Hunter she essentially stays off the field for the duration, running point on info and etc. The most action she sees is when she flies in a chopper with Hartung and watches him blow enemy troops away with a high-caliber machine gun – but shockingly enough, Walker keeps the vast majority of the novel’s climactic action off-page

This is especially shocking given how much padding there is in Battle Zone. Seriously, almost the entire novel is focused on the plight of the DEA agent, Thornton’s past with him, Thornton putting together the team, then finally getting them all over to Burma…where the hellfire full-auto action slaughter is, as mentioned, pretty much kept off-page…relayed via off-hand dialog in the final pages. Really the DEA agent is the star of the show: Mike Bannion, a former Special Forces comrade of Thornton’s who now heads up a SLAM commando team for the DEA which has gone through some hardcore SERE training. (You see what I mean with the acronyms.) The first twenty pages of the book, for some reason entirely presented in ugly italics, concerns his plight in Burma: his chopper crashes and he manages to escape with a bunch of guns and knives, soldiers of the Shan United Army chasing after him. 

Meanwhile Thornton stews on his old buddy’s capture, having learned about it a few days later. He’s chomping at the bit to get the clearance from DC to head into the green hell of Burma and get Bannion out…while also checking out Linda’s nice rack. We’re often reminded how hot Thornton finds his girlfriend, checking her out while she waltzes around half-nude in their place in Oregon (they’re clearly not married yet!). But as ever any hanky-panky is firmly off-page in this series…I mean it’s the early ‘90s now, and all that sleaze is just oh so ‘70s. I mean we wanna read about guns and knives and military acronyms, right?! Well anyway, Thornton eats a bunch of MREs (meals ready to eat) and gabs a lot on the phone with his DC contacts and checks out Linda in her revealing clothes, and meanwhile Bannion survives like a true badass in the jungle, knifing Shan soldiers in the dead of night and doing pretty damn well for himself for a dude’s whose stranded in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the enemy. 

After a meeting with “Reagan’s heir” (aka Bush – whom we’re later told is “a good man”), Thornton’s government handler Billings finally gives Springblade a go. At this point Thornton officially assembles the team. This is like 90 pages into the book, folks. About the only memorable part here, I thought, was how Jason Silver plays T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong” on his “recently-purchased CD player.” (Dude, keep your vinyl!) But boy is it an exercize in patience. Meanwhile Bannion takes up the brunt of the action scenes, becoming more animalistic as he flits across the jungle, slitting Shan throats in the dead of night. Oh, and suffering from bouts of diarrhea, Walker even thoughtfully detailing the act for us. Bannion’s plight is clearly intended as a callback to Colonel Rowe’s real-life tribulation; Bannion even often thinks of Rowe, not to mention that SERE training which prepared him for just the sort of situation he now finds himself in. 

So Thornton and team work with ground forces in Burma to mobilize various military vehicles to venture into the jungle and extract Bannion. And folks get this – the part where Thornton’s scout team actually finds Bannion’s comatose form happens off-page! Instead more focus is placed on his Thunderball-esque extraction, which sees a special flight suit prepared for Bannion; it pulls him aloft on a balloon, which is collected by a Talon plane or somesuch. Actually this part goes on for a bit, relayed from multiple perspectives. And get this, too – Thornton and team’s battle with the converging Shan forces is entirely off-page! Mind-numbingly enough, the chapter ends here, picks up the next day or something in a military hospital, and we learn that Thornton and some others picked up some injuries during the massive battle which ensued. I mean we waited the entire novel for the action to go down, and it all happened off page! 

At least Battle Zone ends on a memorable note, though again we must endure a lot of narrative padding to get there. It seems to me that the gimmick of this series is that Thornton uses the titular weapon each volume – ie, the “Russian ballistic knife” which launches its blade at a push of a button on the hilt. So the main Shan soldier guy, who has his own inordinate share of the narrative, has come to Rangoon to get revenge on Thornton, posing as a bellboy in Thornton’s hotel. It leads to a knife fight, of course, with that Russian springblade again saving Thornton’s ass. 

But while Thornton’s ass might be saved, the novel’s is not – Battle Zone was a little too padded, too listless, and the fact that it kept all the climactic action off-page was unforgiveable. In other words, I’m not sorry that I’m missing a few volumes of the series.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Rose

The Rose
, by Leonore Fleischer 
November, 1979 Warner Books 

I’m not sure if The Rose is a well-known movie; I’d never heard of it until I discovered this tie-in novelization. But then, I’m not the world’s leading expert on Bette Midler. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single movie she’s been in…and to tell the truth, I’ve always confused her with Barbara Streisand. At any rate, Ms. Midler starred in this 1979 film, playing the titular character, a ‘60s rock star very clearly modeled after Janis Joplin. I’ve read that the film was originally going to be titled “Pearl,” before Joplin’s estate got involved, or something to that effect. But it’s clear as day that The Rose is a roman a clef about Janis Jopin – and in true roman a clef fashion, Janis Joplin herself briefly appears in the story. 

But folks let me tell you – having read this rock novel masterpiece, I have no intention of ever seeing the movie. Veteran tie-in novelist Leonore Fleischer (who as “Mike Roote” turned in the similarly-excellent Prime Cut) clearly put her heart and soul into this book, to the extent that it is far more than a mere “novelization” and comes off like a genuine novel in its own right. The characters and settings are clearly defined, as is the era (the late ‘60s), and Fleischer has included lots of background detail and flashback material which certainly isn’t in the movie. She also isn’t straightjacketed by the ratings system, and features a whole bunch of explicit stuff that I’m positive didn’t make it into the film. As it stands, The Rose is better than the majority of the rock novels I’ve reviewed here, and I feel that watching the movie would tarnish the enjoyment I gained from the novel. 

For one, there’s no way I could see Bette Midler as the character Fleischer delivers. The Rose of the novel is a small, almost elfin young woman in her mid 20s with “frizzy” blonde hair. And, let us not forget, “big tits.” Rose’s massive mammaries (“disproportionately large but firm and bobbing”) are mentioned frequently throughout the novel, Fleischer usually using the word “tits” to describe them – that’s how “rock novel” the book is, folks! For the first third of the book they are plainly visible, as she runs around the dingier parts of Manhattan in a skimpy tank top that leaves nothing to the imagination. “She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she made you catch your breath.” Born Marie Rose Foster in smalltown Lawrence, Florida, Rose escaped a hardscrabble, sleazy life to become the cream of the late ‘60s rock crop; now she flies around the world in her own Learjet, one with a giant red rose painted on the fuselage. She’s been at the top for 17 months, now, and the problem is she is exhausted. 

The novel runs to 254 pages of small, dense print, and the first third of it occurs in mid-August, 1969 (no mention’s made of Woodstock, btw). We meet Rose as she’s returning to New York, from which her main office is run; part of the crux of the story is that Rose is a product, a product in great demand, and her “owner,” ie her manager, has been pushing her relentlessly to give the people what they want. Rudge is that manager, “An Englishman dressed as a cowboy.” I’m not even sure who played him in the movie and don’t care to find out; the Rudge of the novel is a fully-realized character, complete with a backstory that runs throughout the narrative, showing how he rose from his own hardscrabble roots in London to become the merciless, money-lusting driver of the present. But while he’s a prick he does clearly care for Rose; we don’t learn until late in the novel, but he became her manager after Rose’s mostly-disastrous first concert, which occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, after which Rudge freed Rose from a nightmarish life of heroin addiction and set her on the path to superstardom. 

Thus Rose feels beholden to Rudge for the most part, but still she chomps at the bit for her freedom, for at least a little break from the relentless touring and recording. In just over a year she’s already done a handful of albums and toured extensively, and right now she’s about to start a new tour that will end in her hometown of Lawrence. She wants a year off after this, and Rudge goes ballistic. This is typical of how rock stars were treated at the time; Jimi Hendrix, who is mentioned occasionally but doesn’t appear in the novel, suffered at the relentless pace of his own manager, Michael Jeffery – who in fact pushed Jimi to do the European tour which turned out to be Jimi’s last. If he’d let the guy take a break, maybe enjoy the new studio he’d just opened, it’s possible Jimi would’ve lived many more years, maybe even still be alive today. 

Like Jimi no doubt did, Rose feels that this relentless pace will wear her out permanently; if Rudge doesn’t give her a break, she swears she’s “going to be a cadaver.” Rudge won’t, uh, budge, and after a spat Rose cools out a little…mostly due to her ever-present bottle of Aquavit. Rose is a recovering junkie, and has sworn off drugs, save for the odd joint or two. Thus there isn’t as much “drug stuff” in The Rose as you’d expect, but Fleischer still captures the “high times” of the era, mostly courtesy Rose’s band, who enjoy smoking joints in her Learjet. Speaking of which, I hate to report this, but Fleischer is yet another of those rock writers who doesn’t tell us what the music sounds like; we know Rose has her original backup band, initially formed in her acid rock San Francisco days, but now that she’s a bigger star she also has an additional drummer and a horn player, and also someone on “keyboards.” (Keyboards are mentioned a bit too much for something set in the ‘60s, I felt.) 

Case in point is Rose’s big concert in Madison Square Garden, that very night – she tells her guitarist to set his watch for twenty-five minutes, because that’s all Rose has in her. She puts on a show, and Fleischer capably displays how such a small girl, barely 90 pounds we’re told, embodies something so much greater in the power of her voice. But it’s still just focusing on her lyrics, with not much detail on what the band sounds like. Thus I was free to imagine they sounded like this or even this. (I ignored Cheap Thrills forever, only to finally get it on vinyl and realize it has some of the most mind-melting acid rock fuzz psychedelic guitar ever!) When her twenty-five minutes are up, Rose belts out a blues song that comes straight from the guts, then collapses on the stage. This part features a definite Joplin reference, as a floored Rudge exclaims, “I’m gonna buy her a Rolls Royce!” 

Rose is truly exhausted at this point, but whether she or the reader realizes it or not, this will only be the start of her night; as mentioned, much of the ensuing novel occurs over the next several hours. First Rose is dragged by Rudge to meet with an Elvis Presley stand-in named Billy Ray, a famous good-old-boy country singer who surrounds himself with a bunch of redneck sycophants, all of them in matching outfits. Billy just gave a show of his own in New York and Rudge has worked out a meeting between the two superstars, as Rose has covered a few of Billy’s songs and, like most people her age, she idolizes the man. This makes for an uncomfortable scene, as Rose, still in the skimpy attire she wore for the show – a barely-there halter top, velvet pants so tight they had to be sewn on, and feathers in her hair – makes an immediate impression, openly hitting on the young guy in Billy’s place, going on about how she loves “young meat.” Unfortunately this young guy turns out to be Billy’s son, thus resulting in Rose’s complete embarrassment in front of the entourage. As a final slap to the face, Billy tells her he doesn’t like her remakes and doesn’t want her to record anymore of his songs! 

A crying Rose rushes from the scene and commandeers Billy’s waiting limo. This is how she meets what will become the great love of her life, or at least one of the great loves of her life: the chaffeur is a young, good-looking guy named Houston Dyer. Fleischer skillfully handles the blossoming relationship between the two, also doling out Houston’s backstory so that much of it is inferred instead of outright stated. He’s a ‘Nam vet, we eventually learn…also later learning that he’s AWOL. At this point the novel becomes almost a sort of picaresque, set in the wild world of late ‘60s Manhattan, including even a bizarre foray into a bar filled with transvestites who idolize Rose! There’s also a part where Rose and Houston go into a diner in the “trucks and warehouses” section of the city, and Houston knocks out a slackjawed trucker who starts badmouthing “hippie” Rose after our heroine starts bantering with the assorted redneck scumbags. 

Throughout Fleischer does an excellent job of capturing the vibes of time times. Writing the novel only a decade after the era, there is none of the revisionism or glossy-lensing one would encounter in a modern novel set in this time period. There are also none of the niceties you’d encounter in modern fiction; Fleischer at times is rude and crude, in true rock spirit, often objectifying Rose’s ample charms or going into explicit detail about her sexually-varied past. And the novel makes it clear: Rose was the town tramp back in Lawrence, sleeping her way through a legion of good old boys. One night she even “took on” the entire high school football team…on the field! This last bit is relayed to Houston to see if it will scare him off (it doesn’t), and Rose treats it like it’s a big secret, one that haunts her…we’ll find out that more people are aware of this “secret,” but it does truly haunt Rose…and the novel unexpectedly ends with a long flashback to the sordid events of that night. 

But as mentioned Fleischer puts so much backstory into this novel, stuff I’m sure isn’t in the film – like how when Rose was 22 she finally decided to hitchhike out of Lawrence, thanks to a gay BFF of hers who’d moved to San Francisco and insisted Rose come be with him, and “on the way, [Rose] was obliged to fuck fourteen drivers and give blowjobs to eight as well.” We also learn that one of the many sexual legends about Rose is that she likes to “stick a tab of acid up her snatch so anyone who ate her pussy would go away tripping.” Note how that’s “anyone” who goes down on her; it gradually develops that Rose is a switch-hitter, with one of her longest relationships being a lesbian fling with a rail-thin jet-setting socialite namd Sarah. This occurred a bit over a year ago, and we learn that Rudge schemed to break off the affair because he hated Sarah. The phrase Rudge uses to describe Sarah would no doubt shock the readers of today. Indeed, I doubt a mainstream novel could be published in our modern era with such freedom of expression. We even get an explicit lez-sex flashback, with Sarah “reaching out with her fingers and her tongue, burying herself in the warm, moist body of The Rose, lapping the dew from her petals.” Bet that wasn’t in the film! 

Rose’s sexual drive is often mentioned; Rudge in fact often mentions how “hungry for cock” Rose is after each concert, thus warns both Sarah (and later Houston) that she would only set herself up for heartbreak if she were to tag along on a tour. While Rudge is exaggerating things to get rid of Rose’s lovers (he prefers her single and thus easily controlled), we later see he wasn’t totally stretching the truth; when Rose whines about this latest tour, Rudge tells her to “just think of all the cock you’ll be getting.” This stuff is of course humorous, just due to how over the top it is, yet again Fleischer has a subtext in play: Rose is empty, and is, so to speak, filling herself up. She is very much a three-dimensional character, with a short fuse and big mouth; she comes off like a temper-tantruming “rock queen” one moment and a caring maternal figure the next. At any rate, Houston becomes her main squeeze for the majority of the novel, easily seeing through Rudge’s attempts to scare him away – this leads to a laugh-out-loud part where, on the band’s jet, Rose freaks out, not knowing where she is, how “all these damn clouds look alike,” and then passes out. Without missing a beat, Rudge toasts Houston: “Welcome to rock ‘n’ roll.” 

Rose is as mentioned at the top of the rock heap, but unfortunately we don’t see her interracting with other rock stars of the day, except via flashback. We know she’s a fan of The Who (a group Rudge wanted to manage, we’re informed!), and also as mentioned Janis Joplin exists in this book. One wonders if Mona Drake also exists in the world of this novel, meaning that there would be two pseudo-Joplins and one real one. The extended flashback to the Monterey Pop in 1967 is where we see the most of this action; Rose’s no-name group has somehow been invited to attend, and she watches starstruck from backstage as various groups perform. In particular Rose is floored by the two women present: “Gracie” Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, who seems so sophisticated and makes Rose feel like smalltown trash, and of course Janis Joplin, who puts on such a show that Rose realizes she herself doesn’t have a chance of capturing the audience. 

Again, not sure if this made it into the film, but Fleischer successfully explains how Rose was able to achieve rock stardom. After the Monterey show, in which Rose gave a somewhat-stumbling performance due to the pills and booze she took to calm her nerves, Rose ended up living on the streets as a heroin addict. Rudge, who had offered to manage her right after her Monterey performance but was turned away when Rose refused to fire her band, tracked Rose down, got her off the streets, and got her off heroin – hence her devotion to him. The narrative jumps ahead a few weeks at this point, so we can see Rose performing in various venues while on her “last” tour. Despite Houston’s presence, she gets back into the same, depressed funk: zoned out when not on the stage, on a terminal bummer trip. Houston, who argues with Rudge to give Rose a break, often takes the brunt of Rose’s tantrums, including a goofy part where she slaps Houston and he takes off, and a frantically-apologetic Rose chases after him into a “Turkish bath,” complete with Rose making ribald comments about the many exposed male privates she encounters therein. A very humorous scene, and one I doubt packed this much of a punch in the movie – that is, if it even happened in it. 

The final third of the novel occurs in Lawrence, Florida. Splitting off from Rudge and Houston, Rose has her limo driver take her down south alone, where she’s frantic to see if the townspeople remember her – and if they know that she’s “somebody” now. One of Rose’s biggest nightmares is that she’ll go home and find that nothing has changed, that no one will remember her or be aware of who she is. And this is exactly what happens – she goes into a drugstore run by an old man she remembers well, and he has no idea who she is. In other words, Rose, the superstar, remembers everyone…but no one remembers Rose. This leads to a bunch of wacky stuff, like Rose dropping twenty thousand on a brand-new Ferrari at a car shop owned by one of her old boyfriends; she hands over the bundles of cash and then proceeds to smash the car apart right in the show room. As the novel races for its conclusion and Rose becomes increasingly deranged, the reader becomes aware that she is not headed for a happy ending. 

Rose has taken her tantruming to a new level, resulting in Rudge making the power play of telling her she’s fired, and he’s no longer her manager. This occurs just as her show in Lawrence is about to begin, the fans growing increasingly restless. Rose once again runs away from the situation. When the relationship with Houston also ends, shortly thereafter, Rose is completely lost…and turns to the heroin she’s just been handed by an old dealer. Rose shoots up for the first time in over a year, in a phone booth that happens to be right across from the football field upon which she once “took on the entire team.” But as we see in the flashback that ensues, it was more like rape. After this Rose is taken to the concert – Rudge’s ruse just a desperate act to get Rose to shape up – where she puts on her greatest performance ever. Rose will experience a fate identical to Lance Macon’s, rock star protagonist of another rock novel from 1979, Triple Platinum. It’s a sad end to the tale, as the reader has grown very fond of Rose, but Fleischer’s just getting started – she also lets us know that Houston, who has decided to return to active duty, most likely won’t be coming home from Vietnam! 

Throughout Fleischer carries the novel along with skill and panache, though I did think she was a bit guilty of hopping perspectives between paragraphs, resulting in a bumpy read at times. And also she has a penchant for referring to the same character by multiple names in the narrative, which can be confusing. Otherwise she does a superlative job, and certainly evokes the spirit of the era; judging from the clips I’ve seen online of the film version, the producers didn’t really get the look of the late ‘60s…the film seems to have a generically gauzy “late ‘70s” vibe. Not true here; this is a world of hippies and “heads,” where Rose in her skimpy concert attire traipses through New York “like some hippie fairy tale princess.” Fleischer does deliver a few anachronisms, though none of them are too bad. For one, she has a brief scene in “Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios,” in Manhattan. It’s actually “Electric Lady” studios, and also it wasn’t even opened yet in the time this scene is set; Rose records her latest album there in August of 1969, whereas in the real world Electric Lady didn’t open until August of 1970. But stuff like this is minor, and hell, I thought it was cool the studio was even mentioned – though all we see of it is Rudge sitting in the control room and arguing with Rose. 

There has been a spate of rock novels recently, from David “Cloud Atlas” Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue to Taylor “Seventies rock is a fun place to tell a story in, but it is dominated by white males” Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (never question the racism and sexism of our progressive elites, folks). I picked up both novels at the library, thumbed through them, found exactly what I expected. The heart of rock did not beat in either book; rock is not refined, it doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings. Modern mainstream novelists are either incapable or unwilling (same difference, really) to turn out something on the level of Leonore Fleischer’s The Rose. (Just like any modern mainstream rock band would be incapable of writing a song like “Under My Thumb;” they’d be stymied by the label and their inability to even conceive of a song so sexist.) But the heart of rock beats strongly in this book – skip all those doorstop banalities of recent years and seek yourself a copy of this unjustly-overlooked tie-in paperback.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Kane’s War 4: Crackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Hulk: Stalker From The Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2020

Triple Platinum


Triple Platinum, by Stephen Holden 
July, 1979 Dell Books 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Minikillers (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Penetrator #37: Candidate’s Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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