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.