Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Last Great Death Stunt

The Last Great Death Stunt, by Clark Howard
January, 1977  Berkley Medallion

With a plot that practically cries out for a film adaptation, The Last Great Death Stunt is courtesy prolific author Clark Howard, who published many novels, both hardcover and paperback, but this is the first of them I’ve read. The plot is also as “late ‘70s” as you can get, however the novel takes place in the future – only it’s the best kind of pseudo-future, as it’s basically just the 1970s with slightly higher technology, a la The Savage Report

Howard clearly seems to have been inspired by the bummer “future ‘70s” movies of the day, particularly Rollerball, but with much less of a downer vibe. The Last Great Death Stunt takes place in the then-future of the mid-1980s, in which there is no war or other sorts of suffering. All professional sports have vanished: people just want to watch Death Stunts, which have taken over from boxing, basketball, football, and etc. From vehicular jumps to high-wire walking to free-falling, these “Death Stunt” athletes certainly have a broad portfolio, and don’t just stick to one stunt like Evel Kneivel did. And yes folks, just to let you know how “futuristic ‘70s” this is, Evel Kneivel is in fact mentioned frequently in the narrative – even by the President of the United States in a televised address to the nation! 

This is how the novel opens; the President is unveiling to the public the “Anti Death Stunt Bill,” which within a month will ban death stunts forever. The President, who is young at 50 and serving “the first of what he hoped would be two six-year terms” (remember, it’s the future, folks!), states that this bill is near and dear to him, as human life is precious and the death stunts have resulted in too many fatalities…not just among the actual stuntmen, but also due to civilians, particularly children, who have tried to recreate the dangerous stunts. Although “only a few thousand” people have died in this manner, the President is still concerned. He somewhat needlessly reminds his public that the population is tightly controlled in this future era: immigration is banned (no comment!) and the government has become so totalitarian that it even mandates how many children a family can have (no comment!). 

The novel concerns two Death Stunt artists who try to achieve the titular “last great Death Stunt” before the ban kicks in: Jerry Fallon, 42 years old and retired, but considered the greatest Death Stunt artist of all time, and Nick Bell, 28 year-old current Death Stunt champion who many consider to be even greater than Fallon was. Like I said, the plot of this one is so geared for film adaptation that you can almost see the “Soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin” credit. It seems pretty evident that Howard has James Caan in mind for Bell and maybe Paul Newman for Fallon. He even lets us know his casting ideas directly: Bell’s girlfriend is a “Death Stunt groupie” named Janis who looks “like a young, blond Ali McGraw.” Throughout the novel the cultural references are from the 1970s; this isn’t a complaint, as I sure would’ve preferred a “futuristic 1970s” than the actual future we got. It’s sort of like the Buck Rogers TV series that came on around this time. I mean dammit, I’m still waiting for disco clubs on the moon! 

The biggest problem with The Last Great Death Stunt is that there’s little difference between Fallon and Bell. Save for that Fallon is older and has a wife and a teenaged daughter, there’s no real differentiator between the two men. Both are calmly detached about their superhuman skills, both are confident that they are the top of their field, and both have a sort of humble approach to their fame. I mean I thought there’d be the total cliché with Bell the arrogant young punk, eager to destroy Fallon’s legendary record, but nope…Bell only claims he’s the “greatest” after a notoriously-aggressive sports reporter pushes and pushes him for a comment to that effect. And this happens toward the very end of the novel. Otherwise the two men are so identical in their natures that there’s hardly any tension in the plot Howard attempts to cook up. 

Another big problem is that we hardly see any Death Stunts. The novel opens with the President announcing they’re to be banned, thus we’re constantly told about such and such Death Stunt of the past. Indeed, there are only two Death Stunts in the novel: Nick Bell gets in his “Death Sled” and rides it down a mountain early in the book, and then there’s a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge…at the very end of the book. Actually we don’t even see the jump, either. We see the events leading up to it, then move forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. So basically there’s an entire “future world” that hinges around Death Stunts – it’s literally the only thing people talk about, with crowds of thousands congregating at each Death Stunt location – but none of it is brought to life for us readers. 

So the only real Death Stunt we see is Bell’s slide down Mount Witney early in the novel. He wears a “padded gunmetal-red racing suit” and a visored helmet, and Howard makes the internal workings of the Death Sled suitably “futuristic:” viewscreens that allow him to see outside and keep him connected with the live TV coverage. This is a suitably tense sequence that nonetheless seems to go on too long. The Sled is rigged up so that it’s like a snowsled high up on the mountain, but then treads roll out for when it gets lower, so it can navigate the rocks and foliage and such. Bell gets bashed around a lot, suffering minor injuries in the suicidal race down the hill, yet at the same time it’s not the most effective Death Stunt for us readers to witness, as really he’s just sitting in a sled throughout. And sad to say, this will be the only Death Stunt we get to witness! 

Meanwhile Jerry Fallon is content with his domesticated life in California, watching all this on TV like the others. We learn he retired two years before and is content that his legend will never be outdone; he is roundly considered the greatest of all time, but there is the nagging worry of Nick Bell taking the top spot. Actually this is only inferred. Fallon is so calmly blasé about the whole thing that it almost comes off like the author is pushing him into being worried about Bell’s rising star. At any rate, we learn that Fallon started off as a race car driver, but when that circuit washed up, like all other professional sports, he moved into Death Stunts – and was about to jump the infamous Snake River in his first go. This was only the beginning of his legend. And yes, Evel Kneivel’s failure “some years ago” at Snake River is mentioned frequently in the narrative, even by the President in his address – now there’s a State of the Union I’d enjoy watching. 

Speaking of the President, Howard only vaguely brings to life this future world. The focus is really on the popularlity of Death Stunts. But we are informed that “the world is half-Communist, half-quasi-Socialist” (no comment!), and that there are no wars supposedly as a result. This would be a naïve assumption on Howard’s part, but at any rate the political climate isn’t much explored – save, that is, how Nick Bell’s abruptly announced “last Death Stunt” of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge causes ripples in California. For some curious reason Howard burns pages on subplots about politicians, from “the first black Governor of California” to the Mayor of San Francisco, all of them heated up over Bell’s announcement. He’s made it right after the President’s address; the ban will go into effect on New Year’s Day, thus Bell announces he’ll jump on New Year’s Eve. 

This pisses off the President, who spends a lot of the narrative on the phone with various California politicians, usually while watching his wife get dressed. Howard almost half-assedly caters to the ‘70s demand for sex with occasional scenes of undressed women, like here, with the President’s wife coming out of the shower and trying to keep on her towel while the President talks on the phone. Yet this only displays Howard’s non-understanding of what us sleazebag readers want. I mean who gives a shit about the dude’s wife! Make it the President’s whip-cracking bondage mistress or something who keeps dropping the towel. Further displaying this non-understanding, Howard later gives us a somewhat-explict sex scene between Fallon and his wife. We also get minor hanky-panky between Bell and his girlfriend, but again this is a miss, as Bell is so devoted to her that she is practically his wife. And yes, in case you are taking notes, the only female characters in the novel are either wives or girlfriends, with none of them having any roles of importance in this future world, meaning that this is likely another book that will be consigned to the flames when the perennially-aggrieved Millennials finally take over. 

So much of the novel is padding, though. It opens memorably enough, with the President’s announcement of the ban, followed by Bell’s plunge down Mount Witney. But then the narrative goes into a stall as we get a lof of stuff about minor characters, from local politicians to various reporters. Meanwhile Fallon just sits calmly in his home, drinking various juices. Eventually he meets with a psychiatrist to see what would compel Bell to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, given how “over six hundred people” have attempted this, but only eight of them have ever survived. Through this we are to understand that Fallon is interested in jumping himself, but again the reader has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, as Fallon is presented as such a complacently content guy that there’s no real impetus for him to cement his legacy. 

Bell for his part begins to practice jumping off a smaller bridge in Lake Havasu, this one a mere sixty feet above the water. But even this is sort of lost in the narrative, which more so spends its time on background of how Bell met groupie Janis and fell in love with her. Through Bell’s character Howard really had an opportunity to bring this future era to life, but for the most part the opportunity is lost. This is also due to the fact that the novel occurs over just a few weeks, and Bell spends it jumping off this practice bridge. Oh and also it’s via the Golden Gate that we get an indication of when the novel is set; we’re told it was built in 1937, “nearly fifty years ago.” And here’s another line I jotted down, from the aforementioned part where Bell gets it on with Janis: “[Nick] looked down the length of their bodies and watched himself enter her through the field of pubic hair that was as yellow as the hair on her head.” See, friends, even the pubic references are from the shaggy ‘70s! 

Finally New Year’s Eve is upon us, the last quarter of the novel taking place on this day. Nick Bell arrives in San Francisco amid much hoopla; throngs of his followers who are excited to see him, and cops who are determined to prevent his jump. Howard adds some lame eleventh hour suspense when Bell goes out on his stories-high hotel windowsill to wave to his throngs far below, but he stumbles on his way back inside and nearly falls over – the first time, we are portentiously informed, he’s ever lost his balance. Just mere hours before his jump off the Golden Gate! Shortly after this a pushy reporter basically corners Bell into “admitting” he’s the greatest Death Stunt guy in history, and this finally gets through the frosty exterior (and interior) of Jerry Fallon…who is, you guessed it, once again watching it all on TV back home. 

Now it becomes ridiculous as Fallon merely goes to his gym out back and does two workouts, like on the parallel bars and whatnot, and then he says so long to the wife and kid and hops in his car and drives on over to San Francisco. Yes, he’s decided to jump off the bridge as well! Zero training, zero practice other than those two workouts – however we are informed that he’s already stayed in peak condition. Must be all that pinneapple juice he drinks. The novel climaxes with Fallon making a surprise appearance on the bridge and telling Bell he’s come because Bell should never have said he was the greatest. The two men jump off at the same time. 

And, infuriatingly, Howard jumps forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. It gets even more ridiculous as the mystery of whether either of them survived is teased out past the breaking point. SPOILER WARNING so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well anyway friends, this is a tension-lacking book, ‘cause they both survive…Fallon with nothing more than a broken ankle, but Bell all busted up, with smashed knees, knocked out teeth, and basically just in general broken apart. However the doc says in time “he may be a man again,” and Fallon invites Bell to come stay with him and work out in the gym together! Further, nice guy Fallon tells the press that “the last great Death Stunt” was a draw, as both men survived – both are now the greatest. 

Overall The Last Great Death Stunt was marginally entertaining, but there was a lot of potential that wasn’t reaped. It just felt like the reader was missing out on the larger story. So in other words, if this really was a ‘70s movie, it would be more along the lines of a TV movie.

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Rolling Stone Rock 'N' Roll Reader

The Rolling Stone Rock 'N' Roll Reader, Edited By Ben Fong-Torres
February, 1974  Bantam Books

This doorstop of a paperback is almost like an archive of some forever lost time. Consisting of about a gazillion articles taken from 1967 – 1972 issues of Rolling Stone Magazine, The Rolling Stone Rock ‘N’ Roll Reader delivers an engaging view of the rock era, jumping from one section to the next and offering great writing throughout. I’m not sure how remembered he is today, but editor Ben Fong-Torres was a well-known, guiding presence in the early days of the magazine; he even made a cameo appearance in the cocaine fantasy that was the Tenth Anniversary TV special (he’s the dude in the opening scene who asks “Jann” to approve the galleys for his “Kiss story”). 

First of all, this is not to be confused with The Rolling Stone Reader, which Warner Paperback Library published in 1974; that one was courtesy “the editors of Rolling Stone” and featured articles that weren’t focused on rock music. This book however is completely focused on the magazine’s rock features, articles, and news items, and if you want a bird’s eye view of the rock scene as it was happening, you couldn’t do much worse. Fong-Torres has picked some great articles that are very respective of Rolling Stone’s early days, ultimately delivering pretty much the same vibe as the somewhat earlier anthology Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. There’s no true “theme” to the collection, either; you might get a few pieces on John Lennon, or a brief section on the Rolling Stones 1969 tour of America, but really it’s just all over the place…sort of like an issue of the magazine, which no doubt was the point. Unlike the original articles, though, there are no photos or illustrations; we’re talking 783 whopping pages of small, dense print and nothing else. 

Fong-Torres delivers a rather short intro in which he states that this is not a “greatest hits” of the magazine, but rather “a lot of good shit.” He could’ve worked a little more on the opening sequence of pieces, though, as the Reader gets off to a rather haphazard start. I mean the first piece is on Joan Baez. And from there, arbitrarily enough, to a nice essay by Ralph Gleason on The Band performing at Winterland. Then we get into some heavy Beatles material; this is the one section that really is pretty theme-centric, and it covers the gamut from news pieces on the opening of the band’s Apple store in London to their final days together. There’s a lot on Get Back, later to be known as Let It Be, complete with even a review of the documentary film. 

Throughout the focus is really on John Lennon; we get several pieces on his various bed-ins, as well as a few interviews. It’s also interesting to see how news of the impending Beatles split slowly came to press; early articles have one or other Beatle denying any rumors of breakup, then later the same Beatle will announce they’ve broken up. We don’t get into any of their solo careers, though; if I’m not mistaken, if you want the Rolling Stone take on that, you’ll find it in a super-long essay in The Rolling Stone Record Review Volume II (Pocket, 1974), which goes over the state of all the solo Beatle LPs of the early ‘70s. 

After this though it’s back into the haphazard selection; we get a few pieces on the Rolling Stones, like Jann Wenner’s laudatory review of Beggars Banquet (during which he spends most of the time bitching about Their Satanic Majesties Request, which by the way I love to death). This is followed randomly enough by a piece on Johnny Cash and then an interview with Captain Beefheart. Before we know it we are reading a couple pieces on the Gram Parsons-era Byrds, then back to Johnny Cash and over to Joe Cocker! But to tell the truth none of these really appealed to me. Much better was the material on Cream, which follows the Beatles breakup material earlier in the book with one member flatly denying the breakup rumors in one piece, only for the breakup to be confirmed in the next. This portion closes out with an interesting interview with Eric Clapton, where he keeps dissing the Blind Faith album, which is another one I like…even the nigh-endless closing track with its Ginger Baker drum solo. 

One thing I enjoy about these early Rolling Stone writers is you could tell that sci-fi was never far from their minds…the review of the Let It Be Twickenham studios footage says that it’s like the Beatles are “in the land of Silver Surfer,” given the different colored auras that surround them in the studio on film. And later the Cream piece mentions the “banks of amplifiers” behind the group on stage, the red lights of which are like “science-fiction backing” for Cream’s loud “hairy Satanic” music. Another thing I appreciate is that everything’s on the level; there’s no snark or cynicism. The writers may have problems with a certain group’s album or particular concert performance, but there’s never any overt attempt to knock anyone down, and the enthusiasm all the writers have for the subject is very clear. 

The few short pieces on Crosby, Stills, and Nash are also interesting; the first one’s right before the release of their first album, and the second one’s from the release of their second, with Neil Young. And hey, how about an interview with Donovan? You’ll find that here. Surprisingly there isn’t too much on what I’ve always considered one of the greatest ever American rock groups: The Doors. But then they were an LA band and Rolling Stone in its early days was pretty snobbish toward any Californian rock group that wasn’t from San Francisco; in fact I’ve read this is why Spirit was never much covered in the magazine, as they too were based out of Los Angeles. At any rate the Doors material is paltry, and the majority of it concerns the infamous “dick flashing” incident in Florida which threatened to send Jimbo to the slammer. Curiously his death is not mentioned in any of the collected articles. 

Speaking of material I skimmed – I didn’t read any of the Bob Dylan section. I’ve just never got into his music, sad to report. But it might happen someday. The section on Jimi Hendrix is almost as paltry as the Doors material; Rolling Stone also never seemed to care much for Jimi, either. We do get a great profile piece courtesy Sheila Weller, who had some similarly-great pieces in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader, but after that it’s straight into the sad reports on Jimi’s death, followed by a belated appreciation of his work once he was gone. Curiously the material on Janis Joplin’s death dwarfs the material on Jimi – but again, she was another rocker based out of San Francisco, so the magazine was just staying true to its snobbery. The Joplin material is almost overwhelming, with material from when she was still alive to overly-comprehensive reactions to her death, complete even with the scene on the ground in SanFran the night her death was announced. 

One of the people contacted here is Grace Slick, who doesn’t have much to say about Janis being gone…Slick’s basically like, “she’s dead, so let’s get on with our own lives.” Speaking of Grace Slick, the Jefferson Airplane section is pretty cool, and again more comprehensive than others given that they were another San Francisco group. We get a few pieces on the Airplane’s psychedelic masterpiece After Bathing At Baxter’s, as well as a later piece in which they can’t figure out what to name the album that would become Volunteers. Ralph Gleason provides another cool concert review, taking us through a 1970 show at Winterland, complete with a set from the Grateful Dead – who also have their own little section, but that’s another I skimmed. Can’t get into their music either, and I’ve really tried! 

Since I’m confessing, I also skipped over the section on “those oldies but goodies,” aka Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and whatnot. I was much more interested in the later section on the Rolling Stones, which was mostly composed of reviews of their 1969 tour, which of course culminated at Altamont – which isn’t much discussed in the Reader. Rather, Fong-Torres sticks with a positive view of the tour, starting off with a great review from Greil Marcus, then moving into a longer piece that looks at the first four shows. We get to Altamont in the piece on the documentary Gimme Shelter, and here we learn the interesting revelations that no one at the time realized a man was being murdered right in front of the stage; Jagger says he had no idea, and even the cameramen are quoted as saying they just thought they were filming someone being pushed around. 

The section on “Festivals” is pretty cool, and gives the personal touch that was so missing from Robert Santelli’s later Aquarius Rising. Woodstock ins’t much discussed, but we do get a seemingly-endless piece on the Toronto Peace Festival and what “went wrong” with it (spoiler alert: lots of greed). If this festival is remembered at all today it’s for the appearance of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, their set later released as Live Peace In Toronto. This article is overlong but filled with that awesome late ‘60s vibe, like weird stuff about plans for an “air car” that would be powered by Lennon’s aura or somesuch. We also have Lennon chortling that the Plastic Ono Band was so incredible that following act The Doors insisted on waiting 45 minutes to go on stage. Maybe they were just waiting for their eardrums to heal after the Yoko caterwauling and feebdack frenzy that ended the Plastic Ono Band’s set. 

Even cooler is the following piece, on the “Million Dollar Bash.” This one focuses on the new-to-me “Festival Express,” which is one of the more forgotten festivals of today. It took place in Canada over the last week of June, 1970, and featured Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, and various other country-esque bands (save for Mountain); they all boarded an express train, complete with sleeping cars, and ventured across Canada, stopping to play festivals. This was probably the most entertaining piece in the book, with the author capturing all the moments the various rock stars would sit around on the train and jam. One thing not mentioned here is that the Festival Express was such a bomb that there not only wasn’t another one, but the filmed footage was locked away for decades, only released in 2003 (and boy I’d love to see the movie). 

Fong-Torres was an FM rock deejay in addition to an editor at Rolling Stone, so he also includes a few pieces on what was then known as “freeform progressive” radio. There’s a cool article by legendary deejay Tom Donahue, one which practically drips with venom towards the bland approach of mainstream AM pap. Fong-Torres then incldues a few of his own pieces, both of which come off a little too dry and go into the behind-the-scenes squabbling at various freeform stations, all of which were under the threat of “selling out.” Fong-Torres also has a bone to pick with the syndicated “Brother Love” package shipped out to some stations, a sort of plastic fantastic take on true freeform; curiously Fong-Torres does not include a later piece of his own in which Brother Love’s firing was discussed. (I only know of this later piece due to having come across it in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-Rom archive.) 

Speaking of selling out, we next have some pieces – some of them again by Gleason – on how you could try to break into the rock world by writing songs…in 1967, at least. From there into more business: the financial impact of bootleg LPs. Then we have a mere two pieces on The Who, but the second of them’s pretty cool in that it’s a study of Tommy, complete with Pete Townshend’s typically-eggheaded explanations on which each of the songs mean. Yes of course, McLuhan is mentioned throughout. I mean it wouldn’t be a late ‘60s interview with Pete Townshend if he wasn’t. I had Tommy on cassette tape in the early ‘90s and I’m telling you, it was my favorite album ever when I was 15. Today though if I’m going to listen to the Who it’s going to be Live At Leeds

And friends that’s pretty much it – we’re actually in the very last pages of the book. A piece (which I skipped) on Hank Williams, and then the final article in the anthology: an interview with Neil Young. This one I found super cool, as it’s from right when he joined CSN and before the release of Déjà Vu. Young spends a lot of time discussing overdubbing and remastering, to the point that it almost sounds like something you’d read today over at the Steve Hoffman music forum. Young in particular rails against the originally-released mix of his first, self-titled album, saying how a “remastered” version was being re-released. I’ve heard both versions and I kind of like the original mix, though it’s almost impossible to find these days. It’s also cool because you can see here, even though he was only 24, Neil Young already knew the course his solo career would take – he says he has no interest in overproduced, overdubbed albums, a la his first one, in which you could spend months on just one song; he much prefers the live vibe you get playing with a group. 

And with that – not even an afterword! – The Rolling Stone Rock ‘N’ Roll Reader comes to a close. A seemingly abrupt close, which is especially surprising given that it’s nearly 800 pages long. But man, I really enjoyed it. Sure, I have all the original issues, at least in digital form, in the Cover To Cover CD-Rom, but there’s just something undeniably cool about this paperback collection. I could just see countless mid-‘70s hippies lighting up some “good shit” and perusing the pages. It looks like the book is becoming increasingly collectable, though, so if you want a copy I’d advise you to seek one out soon before the prices get too stupid.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Harker File #2: Dead And Paid For

The Harker File #2: Dead And Paid For, by Marc Olden
July, 1976  Signet Books

After Black Samurai and Narc folded, Marc Olden aimed for something more upmarket than men’s adventure and turned out The Harker File, which Signet still graced with a series title and volume numbers, just like the Black Samurai and Narc books. The differences between these series couldn’t be greater; The Harker File, which ran for four volumes, is narrated by an investigative reporter who not only “isn’t in great shape” but who also runs from violent confrontations, a far cry from the battle-hardened heroes of those two earlier Olden series. 

Hawthorne Albert Harker, who just goes as “Harker,” is a well-known reporter for a New York paper and is famous for spending months on investigative research, research which usually leads to trouble for whoever he is investigating. But Harker is also a far cry from later investigative reporter Dagger, as he has no combat experience – at least none he mentions this time – and he never carries a weapon of any kind. About the most we learn is that he’s nearly seven feet tall, 33 years old, and has an ex-wife named Loni, who was (and now is again) one of the “top call girls in New York.” Yes, Harker’s ex-wife is a hooker, and he’s still in love with her. This bizarre background tidbit isn’t much elaborated on, but Loni does show up at novel’s end to give Harker a little off-page lovin.’ Otherwise Harker is curiously asexual, and Olden doesn’t really descend to the typical lurid depths of the ‘70s; that being said, there is a part where Harker and an informant eat “organic nuts” off of a naked girl’s crotch, but more on that anon. 

I’m not sure if Olden originally planned this as a series or if he just turned in a standalone novel and Signet compelled him to branch it out into a recurring story. At any rate the character development is about on the lines of your average men’s adventure series, and really Dead And Paid For could easily serve as an installment of Narc, only with less action. Actually that’s not true. Narc itself wasn’t really action-packed, with hero John Bolt usually only dealing with one or two foes at a time, with long breaks between the action scenes. The same holds true here, it’s just that unlike Bolt, Harker is more prone to run and hide and doesn’t pack a gun. Otherwise he operates like a private eye, and that seems to be the vibe The Harker File most attains, with Olden even going for a hardboiled tone in Harker’s narration. 

One thing that Harker has in common with Bolt is that he’s white; Olden never outright states this but it’s clearly implied given how Harker is sure to tell us whether someone is black or American Indian or whatnot – in other words, he never tells us when a character is white, because Harker himself is. And did I mention he’s nearly seven feet tall? He tells us he’s six foot seven…he mentions he was in sports in college, but a vicious knee injury decommisioned him. He’s now so slovenly that his ex wife gave him a gym membership and he refuses to use it. We don’t get much more detail about Harker (other than his bizarre statement that “people have said that I look like a child molester”), but again with the slothfulness and aversion to violence – not to mention the bum knee – he comes off like your typical cliched private eye…particularly like Hardy

Well anyway I don’t have the first volume but it seems to have been about Harker investigating some CIA nefariousness. Olden looks to have tapped into the post-Watergate paranoia of mid-‘70s America with this series, with this installment focusing on a scam involving MIA soldiers in ‘Nam. When we meet Harker he’s already been on the investigation for some time; it all hinges around a sleazeball named Richardson, who was busted for running drugs and whatnot in ‘Nam. Now Richardson is involved in a new scam, telling the families of MIA soldiers that he’s found intel that their husbands/sons/whatever have been located…and Richardson just needs some money from these families to negotiate for their release. The story goes that the US government has written these lost men off as dead and now it’s up to private contractors like Richardson to seek them out…and negotiate for their release. 

Richardson is such a scumbag that he fleeces people based off what they can afford; the poor Hispanic lady whose son is MIA is asked for $200, whereas old rich man Vance is asked for fifty thousand dollars. This is where we come in, Harker meeting with frosty socialite Amanda Vance, wife of an MIA who has been missing since ’72. She’s living with her father-in-law, one of those magnificently wealthy types, and he’s being taken for a big ride by the scammers – the missing boy was his favorite, and he’s desperate to get him back. The old man never appears in the story, but Harker’s main accomplice throughout is Roger Vance, younger brother of the MIA and an up-and-coming senator. Vance gives Harker most of his leads as the novel progresses, and he too believes that his dad is being taken for a ride. 

Harker spends a lot of time running into a pair of thugs who work for Richardson: a dullard named Aaron and a hulking sadist known as Mickey Mouse, due to only having three fingers on one hand courtesy a ‘Nam wound; he covers the hand with a white glove. Harker suspects these two are “not only sadists but perhaps share an unnatural relationship,” a suspicion he will learn to be true. But as mentioned Harker is not a fighting he-man type, and panics whenever these two confront him. He manages to still get the better of them, though; when Aaron and Mickey corner Harker in an apartment corridor our hero makes use of the heavy brass nozzle on a fire hose, and later, in a car repair shop, he manages to light some puddles of oil on fire with a cigarette lighter. But there’s no part where Harker gets a gun and puts the hurt on anyone, and he’s not a hero at all. In fact the finale has Harker escaping to save his own skin and pointedly telling us he’s not going to try to save the other people Richardson has captured! 

Harker shuttles around the East Coast for the majority of the novel, meeting contacts to pin down Richardson or getting more intel from Vance. Eventually Harker learns that Richardson now goes by the name “Vale,” which was kind of a weird miss on Olden’s part, as the name is so similar to “Vance” and could easily cause reader confusion. Harker is adamant that Richardson is running a scam and makes it clear to Vance that he believes there are no MIAs at all in ‘Nam; in Harker’s opinion they are all certainly dead and the relatives are clinging to “hope when there is none.” We also learn that in a previous research assignment Harker found out about some American soldiers who went over to the Cong, doing missions for them; this promised a more action-centric tale than the one we get here, but not much else is said about it. 

Wait, I forgot about the girl with the nuts. The “organic nuts,” that is! She’s the drugged-out hippie girlfriend of some sleazy informant Harker meets up with in one sequence that goes on a bit too long. The couple live in a crash pad and the dude was one of Richardson’s flunkies in ‘Nam, the only one who did any time and thus has a score to settle. Olden adds some oddball sleaze here with the girl, who is rail-thin, dirty, and just in general unkempt, lying on a bed watching Hawaii Five-O with a bunch of organic nuts resting on her hairy crotch. And the sleazebag informant keeps encouraging Harker to eat some of them…which Harker grudgingly does. All very strange stuff indeed. 

Eventually Harker discovers that Richardson runs his operation out of Arizona, on a rolling ranch that’s filled with armed thugs. One of them is a heavyset American Indian named Joe Dread; he is the dude with the bow and arrow on the photo cover. He threatens Harker often with this weapon, nearly making our hero soil his pants. But again Harker manages to turn the tables by setting a fire. Harker’s come down here to investigate as Richardson claims to have sprung an MIA from a “top secret Viet Cong base.” Of course Harker soon learns that this too is b.s. As mentioned Olden goes out of his way to keep the novel realistic, though I did feel that Harker was able to escape a little too easily thanks to combustible stuff that just happened to by lying around. 

By limiting the viewpoint to just Harker, Olden is able to get away from the rampant POV-hopping that mired so many volumes of Narc, where the perspective would just jump wily-nily among the characters, almost surreally dipping into their random thoughts. One thing that remains from Olden’s earlier work is the needless stretching of everything out; if Harker tells us something once, he tells us three or four times. There’s a lot of mulling and recapping and worrying, same as with John Bolt in Narc, only here we stick with just one worrier for the duration. That being said, I didn’t find myself liking Harker very much. I guess the problem with going into this series after Narc or Black Samurai is that you’re used to a little more of an ass-kicker in an Olden protagonist. 

No doubt it was refreshing for Olden to have a little change of pace with a meeker hero, but at the same time I felt that Harker’s “run and hide” ethic kind of detracted from the story. I also felt that Dead And Paid For was a little slower-paced than it should’ve been, with a little too much repetition; it seemed that Harker and Vance were forever talking about what they planned to do, instead of us just seeing them do it. That said, the finale was suitably tense, with Harker’s ex-wife Loni being threatened. I’ve only got one more volume of The Harker File, the last one, but if I ever see the other two someday I’ll pick them up.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls

The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls, by Julie Nelson and Linda Tracey
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

Sometimes I wonder why I read this crap. The True Confessions & Wild Adventures Of Two Rent-A-Girls presents itself as one of the countless sex books of the early ‘70s (it’s actually labelled “Sociology” on the spine), but the cartoonish cover art is more indicitave of the content. Credited to a pair of “rent-a-girls” but likely churned out by some poor contract writer (it’s copyright Pinnacle), the book comes off like a poor man’s The Happy Hooker, presenting itself as a glimpse into the life of a pair of girls for hire. Who are not, as you might justifiably suspect, prostitutes! In fact the entire premise of the book is about as hard to buy as the authorial credit. 

“Only in the swinging seventies could there be rent-a-girls,” the intro informs us. Throughout the book we’re given a bit of backstory on this organization, which turns out to be a business run out of Los Angeles in which men (or women!) can rent a girl…for dates or whatever. Only later in the book do we learn that rent-a-girls are not hookers, and indeed it’s “against the rules” for them to have sex with the men who have rented them, as they could lose their job, the company could be fined, etc. What makes this so strange is that, prior to us readers being informed of this, narrator Julie Nelson has already had sex with practically every guy who has rented her! It’s also kind of funny because she and her rommate, fellow rent-a-girl Linda Tracey, get indignant when clients bluntly ask them for sex, or assume they’re hookers, etc. 

“Julie” narrates the majority of the book, turning in a series of random chapters that follow a “day in the life of a rent-a-girl” approach. Each chapter is very short, concerns some unusual “client” she or her fellow girls meet and have sex with, and then each chapter ends on a lame punchline or joke. This, coupled with the naïve tone of Julie’s narrative, reminds me very much of The New Stewardesses. Even when it comes to the frequent sex scenes, which – early in the book, at least – are about as tame as those in The New Stewardesses. In fact early in The True Confessions I thought I was about to read another of those unusual publications: the sleaze novel that isn’t very sleazy. I’ve always wondered about those kinds of books, and who the intended readership for them was. Like, “I want to read some sleaze, but then I also have church tomorrow, so…” 

At any rate, The True Confessions (I refuse to type out that super-long title every time) does indeed become more explicit as it goes along, as if “Julie Nelson” were skittish in the opening pages and got more bold as she went along. But still, we aren’t talking super-sleazy material here, with the majority of the shenanigans over and done with in a sentence or two. Also, textbook anatomical terms are used throughout, which I guess goes along with the b.s. “Sociology” tag on the spine. Even when Julie quotes her fellow rent-a-girls, it’s all “his penis” this and “my vagina” that, and none of it has any impact. Also as mentioned the sexual material is over and done with in just a few sentences; practically every chapter – and there’s a bunch of them, each chapter only a few pages long – follows the same template: Julie gets a phone call from Bernice, buxom redhead who runs the Rent-A-Girl office, and Bernice will have a new client. Julie will go meet him, talk to him a bit and learn what his weird hangup is, more than likely have sex with him, and then she’ll end the chapter on a lame joke. 

Julie informs us that she and Linda were sorority sisters in college at Wisconsin and then moved to LA to become actresses, with little success. One day they were at a friend’s wedding and the bride told them her husband was a former “client.” She further explained that she’d been a rent-a-girl, the “best job in the world,” and on this shaky recommendation Julie and Linda decided to give it a go. That was two years ago and the book is comrpised of Julie and Linda’s wily-nily reflections on the job. The author works in some hamfisted metatextual stuff with Julie occasionally informing us that “Linda says I should write about this…,” as if there really are two women writing. 

The True Confessions opens with Julie on one date, then flashing back to how she started the job. This entails a chapter in which she and Linda meet Bernice and have to fill out a questionaire. Then they’re each sent on their first dates: Linda’s client wants immediate sex and Julie’s is a wealthy guy who just has Julie run him a bath and then give him a “happy ending.” So from this first date it’s established that rent-a-girls have sex with their clients. So imagine my stupefecation when later in the book Linda comes running home crying from a date because her client demanded that they have sex! Or when Julie gets indignant because another client tells her he wants a mistress in every state! “What does that have to do with me? You just met me!” Julie asks him in shock, causing the reader to wonder if he’s suddenly reading a completely different book. 

Well anyway, as mentioned there’s no “plot,” per se. The two girls – plus other rent-a-girls who are occasionally quoted – tell us all about their various dates, like the couple that hires Julie so she can watch them have sex, or the guy with the small dick who flies Julie to Vegas, or even when Julie tells us about “my first black date.” There’s even a part where two lesbians rent them, and Julie grits her teeth and goes through with it. Again, practically every client does these two girls…and not to beat a dead horse, but it continues to be strange when Julie goes out with a guy who turns out to be an undercover cop, and we’re informed the LAPD occasionally runs sting operations on the office to make sure the girls…you guessed it, aren’t having sex with their clients. Because they could “lose their license” and stuff. Of course Julie manages to screw the cop and keep her job. 

Even more random is the part where Julie and Linda are hired to “act” in a movie…and of course it turns out to be a porno. “What do we have to lose?” Julie tells the ever-suspicious Linda, and soon enough Linda’s having sex on film and Julie is being double-teamed. And they’re fine with this. Again, it’s just a “date” they’ve been hired for. But then a few chapters later Julie gets uppity when another client asks her to go straight up to his hotel room. Well anyway, the author tries to cover the full spectrum of kinkiness, each client wanting something odd, like the guy who wants Julie to play hide and seek with him. Some of the clients are unhappily-married men…and again, confoundingly enough, Julie feels bad for one of them and decides, moments after meeting him at the office, to take him back to her apartment – which is against the rules – and screw his brains out to make him feel better. For a negotiated price, of course. But please, don’t ever confuse her with a hooker. 

Honestly, I don’t why I read this kind of crap. Anyway, this is another one of those books that is better served by a series of random excerpts: 

But the idea of having sex with a stranger I had only met a few minutes before was not very appealing. I was beginning to feel more like a call girl instead of a rent-a-girl. But by the time we reached his room, I had made up my mind to give my very first customer the best screw he ever had. -- pg. 26 

We had our drinks in the library and Mr. Palmer was a different man. He was relaxed, dignified, and cool. We didn’t talk about his bath, but rather about politics. He is a Democrat and so am I, so we had much to discuss. -- pg. 32 

I was becoming excited and I am sure part of it was the anticipation of what his small penis would feel like up my vagina. -- pg. 72 

We made love and I really did my best. I did everything I could think of to excite him, but at first I was doing as badly as his wife. Then I remembered something one of my girl friends had told me. I grabbed his balls and began to squeeze them. -- pg. 99 

It was wild. Two men screwing me at once. And I was getting paid! -- pg. 115 

Toward the end of the second day I was beginning to feel guilty. What was I doing here? Was I nothing more than a cheap whore sleeping with some creepy guy who paid women to fuck him in London and probably Paris, Madrid, and Rome too? -- pg. 150 

I hope I haven’t given the impression that all our rent-a-girl dates are wild, weird, and off-beat. -- pg. 171

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Devil’s Ring (Don Miles #4)

The Devils Ring, by Larry Kenyon
July, 1967  Avon Books

The first thing one realizes about this fourth and final installment of Don Miles is that it actually takes place before the previous volume; we know this due to an early comment that Don won the race in Le Mans “two years ago,” an event which happened in the first volume. We also get a recap of the events of the second volume, with the note that they happened “one year ago.” And we’ll recall that in the third volume, Le Man was “four years ago,” and the events of the second volume were “three years ago.” So anyway not to draw a chart or anything, but you get my drift – even though it has a “4” on the spine and was published one month after the third volume, The Devil’s Ring clearly takes place before Revenge At Indy and likely only came out last in the series due to a publishing snafu. 

Anyway, we also know, per Revenge At Indy, that Challenge At Le Mans took place in 1963, which means that The Devil’s Ring takes place in 1965. Not that Lou “Larry Kenyon” Louderback mentions any dates this time. There aren’t as many topical details this time, either. If anything The Devil’s Ring more so harkens back to twenty years before, as the plot of this one is focused on World War II and it seems that Don is forever coming across some bombed-out ruin or abandoned bunker as he drives across West Germany. This is how we meet him, Louderback delivering an evocative opening in which Don is running solo along a section of the Nurburgring, the titular Devil’s Ring, a notoriously-dangerous racing course that cuts through the Eifel mountains in Germany. 

Don crashes out during his late-night trial run and ends up injured and stranded in a remote section of a fenced-off forest; it’s been condemned given all the artilery, tanks, bunkers, and other detrius of the final days of WWII which litter the countryside. In an effectively surreal moment Don’s fired at by a spectral figure who emerges from the foliage, blasting away with an old Schmeiser. It’s the infamous “Wolf Man” of the area, a psychotic holdover from the war who has been haunting these condemned hills for over twenty years, complete with Nazi helmet and everything. Don, who has a severely-injured leg due to the crash, manages to get the upper hand in a tense sequence, the outcome of which sees Don in possession of the Wolf Man’s SS ring. 

While a savage WWII relic known as the “Wolf Man” would be enough for most authors to devote an entire novel to, Louderback’s over and done with him in this opening chapter, though the Wolf Man’s ring will play a central role in the ensuing plot – a nice play on the title from Louderback, the “Devil’s Ring” referring to the race course as well as the SS ring. But as ever Louderback stuffs the novel to the gills with oddball characters, to the extent that the oddness of each is ultimately lost: a skull-faced rival driver (his skin burned off in a crash so that his face is literally skull-like), a hulking Patagonian Indian, kidnappers who wear Frankenstein and Dracula masks, two women who claim to be the same person, and even a return of Don’s rarely-seen boss, Hedge, whose entire being seems to be a carefully-constructed special effect, from his face to his voice. Don even gets in on the oddness by once again wearing the “Mr. Nobody” mask, a “plastotex” creation which makes his face so unremarkable that it’s impossible for anyone to remember it; he wears it during a meet with another agent who wears a similar mask, adding another surreal sequence to a novel that’s filled with them. 

This is another one of those “secret agent stumbles into an enemy plan” sort of novels; Don’s not on assignment, and in fact is never officially briefed on an assignment. It’s just that his fight with the Wolf Man sets the action in play and it turns out various groups of people want that SS ring. Don gets his first indication of this some time later, once he’s back in Texas; it’s not exactly stated how long after the fight with the Wolf Man this is, but Don’s leg is healed and he’s sick of fending off questions from the media about the bizarre attack. He’s also concerned that the Wolf Man battle will ruin his cover, as it might seem too coincidental to some that a millionaire race car driver just happened to find himself in a fight to the death with a WWII holdover in full Nazi battle gear. 

This part in Texas features Sierra “Smoky” Stover, Don’s hotstuff blonde secretary-slash-former race car driver. We’re informed here that the two have never done the deed, even though they’re both hot for each other, as Don believes that a good secretary is more important than a good lay. Now there’s a LinkedIn recommendation I’d love to see! This also means that this would’ve been the first time we saw Sierra, had this volume been published in the proper sequence, ie before Revenge At Indy. We also get to see, once again, Don’s engineer Buck, who continues to speak in an annoying Texan drawl – annoying due to how Louderback phonetically spells it out, to the point that most of what he says is incomprehensible. 

Don’s racing world stuff is not given as much precedence this time, though Louderback works in a few car chases here and there. For the most part the opening trial run in the Devil’s Ring is the most we get, and in fact The Devil’s Ring ends with Don just about to enter his latest championship race, per the template of earlier installments. It’s more so his cover identity Don is concerned with, and here in the Texas portion he learns he might indeed have undone his own cover when a good-lookin’ babe named Marilu Madero shows up for an interview – and all she wants to talk about is the fight with the Wolf Man. With her “high breasts” and sultry South American looks, Marilu has Don all worked up…particularly when she offers her body in exchange for info. She even sort of goes down on him to keep him talking, though Louderback isn’t super-clear with the details, this being a mainstream book from the ‘60s and all. 

However Don loses all randiness when it turns out Marilu wants the ring – and she wants it for her father, who is none other than an infamous SS sadist named Helldorf, one of the most notorious of the concentration camp commanders. But a crying Marilu insists her dad is just an old man, living feeble and almost senile in Argentina, and plus she was born long after the war, her mom an Argentinian woman. Don tells her to take off, without giving her the ring or consumating the act, then takes a cold shower…only for Sierra Stover to inform him that another “Marilu Madero” is here to see him! This one’s a built blonde, just the type Don likes, we’re informed…as if this makes Don different from practically any other guy in history. This Marilu also claims to be half-Argentinian, though she’s clearly pure German and is only pretending to be someone else, and failing miserably. Regardless, Don works her up so much that she screams they must do it “Now! On the floor!” 

This one’s name turns out to be Rosemarie Kwiff, aka Rosie, and she’s a German secret agent in training. Don promises to bring the SS ring to her, as she claims her boss wants it to destroy it, as it could be seen as a talisman to neo-Nazi movements…particularly the one the real Marilu Madero is part of in Argentina. The plot gets even more busy when it turns out that Buck is wearing the SS ring, and what’s more he wants to keep it because it helps out in his engineering work or somesuch, so Don just decides to buy another SS ring when he’s over in Europe and take that to Rosie. After all, they’re all the same, he figures. This turns out to be the main plot of The Devil’s Ring, as the SS ring Don got, which Buck now wears, is anything but typical, and various factions are willing to kill for it. 

The middle section stalls out a bit as Don muddles his way through Germany; as with the previous books, The Devil’s Ring is “only” about 180 pages, but boy does it have some small, dense print, to the point that it would probably be near 300 pages at normal-sized print. These books are as overwritten as one of my reviews! Like I said before, I don’t know why Louderback went to such trouble to plot-build in this series. I mean his writing is great and all, with copious evocative scenes – like when Don meets with a German intelligence official who has a room completely made of and furnished by plastic – but there’s just too much of a good thing. Like this interminable sequence in Bonn; Don arrives, takes out Rosie, and is immediately chased by some goons. But the chase just goes on and on, and later material, with Don being shuffled around by various groups of kidnappers, makes our hero seem like a nitwit. Don Miles has never been the most perfect of secret agents, as evidenced by the previous three books, but in this one he’s constantly getting outsmarted or captured – easily at that. 

More revelations and plot-heavy stuff ensue when it develops that the original “Marilu Madero” is really named Justa Boll, the mistress, not daughter, of SS bastard Helldorf (who never appears in the novel, by the way). She has various oddball goons at her disposal, but when she too manages to capture Don the two find the opportunity to consumate their earlier shenanigans. I should mention here that while Louderback doesn’t go for full-bore sleaze, he’s definitely one to exploit the ample charms of his female characters: some of the stuff in here is like paeans to boobs. While this breast worship will go on for quite a bit, the actual boinkery only occurs over a few sentences, the actions only vaguely described. At any rate, the stuff with Justa Boll also turns out to be very plot heavy, with various revelations occurring for her character – and who she really works for – as the novel trudges for the climax. 

Don even comes off poorly in the climax, for that matter; with some enemies turned friends, he tries to lead an ambush on the villain of the piece. And is immediately captured – for like the fifth time in the book. Louderback goes to his usual elaborate lengths in scene-building here, with the finale taking place in a ceramics kiln, where the villain intends to melt the gold stored in a bunker in the hills – the Wolf Man’s SS ring containing microfilmed directions on how to safely recover the gold, which is protected by nerve gas. Don and his comrades put in “six hours of back-breaking labor” to transport the bricks of gold from the truck to the kiln, after which the villain intends to put Don and comrades in the kiln. But our hero is saved by another character, after which he gets in a protracted fight which of course sees the villain going up in flames. All pretty much telegraphed, but it just takes forever for any of it to happen. 

Once again an installment ends with Don about to run another race. Only periodically has he raced his Panther throughout this one, and Louderback includes a chase within a race sequence at one point, a fellow racer being one of the enemy agents after Don. As mentioned though Don’s not “on assignment” this time, despite a brief appearance by Hedge, who gives Don what turns out to be faulty intel. Don’s also given some poison-tipped C02 pens, which he spends more time trying to get away from other people who keep taking them from him; as I say, Don Miles is about a rung above the dude in Get Smart, so far as his secret agent skills go. 

Back to the publishing goof which caused this one to come out last…it actually works that Revenge At Indy was the real finale of the series, given how it ties back to the plot of the first volume. So it was kind of weird reading this “final volume” knowing that the events of the previous book were Louderback’s true finale to the series – though of course it’s likely Revenge At Indy wasn’t even planned as such, and Louderback no doubt was ready to write more volumes. I imagine Don Miles got canned because the books, despite their awesomely pulpish plots and exploitative nature, are just too plot-heavy and sluggish, coming off like miniature epics instead of fast-moving action yarns.

Monday, February 15, 2021

MIA Hunter #11: Crossfire Kill

MIA Hunter #11: Crossfire Kill, by Jack Buchanan
February, 1989  Jove Books

Unforunately this eleventh volume of MIA Hunter is a definite low point for the series; it seems to have been written by an author who has no knowledge of the previous volumes and just wants to do a Robert Ludlum style Cold War thriller. The editorial hand of Stephen Mertz is only occasionally present, usually just adding clarifying points about the changing nature of Stone’s mission. This disconnect from previous books is odd, given that Arthur Moore wrote Crossfire Kill, and he wrote two earlier volumes, #8: Escape From Nicaragua and #9: Invasion U.S.S.R. Checking my reviews of those two previous books, it looks like I wasn’t very fond of either of them…but Crossfire Kill is real patience testing, and definitely my least favorite volume of the series. 

For one, some revisionism seems to have taken place; Carol Jenner, hotstuff blonde who much earlier in the series was nothing more than “Mark Stone’s girlfriend,” now comes off like the boss of the team! We’re informed that she’s “on assignment from Fort Bragg,” with the official capacity of overseeing the taskforce that is Mark Stone, Hog Wiley, and Terrence Loughlin. There’s absolutely no indication here that she is (or was?) Stone’s woman, and what’s more she now seems to have an antagonistic relationship with Hog, easily frustrated with his one-liners and ever-randy attitude. Now we know that a few volumes ago the series overall changed, with Stone and team now working directly for the US government; Carol’s role changed as well, acting mostly as “the computer girl,” giving intel and whatnot on each mission. But this time she’s not only giving intel but basically dictating what Stone and team does. She also seems to have lost the ability to use contractions when she speaks. All very, very strange, and not exactly welcomed. 

But then, the change in the series itself isn’t much welcomed. Capturing POWs was the gimmick of MIA Hunter, and with the gimmick removed the series is struggling. Particularly here, as Crossfire Kill is really just a sluggish thriller with “action scenes” that seem to be huriedly grafted on to meet a series mandate. In fact, Stone and team pretty much disappear for long portions of the narrative, Moore focusing instead on the one-off Eurotrash villains. In this regard the novel most reminded me of S-Com #1: Terror In Turin (which curiously also had a main character named Stone), another slow-moving “men’s adventure novel” that kept its heroes on the sidelines so as to focus on the annoying bickering and bantering of its too-many villains. But at least Terror In Turin had some sleazy sex to keep things interesting; we don’t even get that in Crossfire Kill. The genre has been neutered of such stuff by 1989, anyway; I mean there’s even a hooker in the book, but she’s just there to add more pseudo-suspense to the tale. In a men’s adventure novel from the ‘70s her role would’ve been entirely different. That’s progress, I guess. 

So Stone and team are now tasked with saving kidnapped people all over the world, at the behest of the US government; this time though their role is pretty muddled. The opening chapter lets us know what we’re in for: an overlong sequence in which one of the villains of the piece carries out his hit, assassinating a German official. The assassin is a “potato-faced” little man named Danzig(!). He’s just one of the many villains we have to keep up with…there’s also Neff, a terrorist leader initially presented as the main villain of the novel, until we ultimately meet Von Schiller, a former SS officer who truly runs things. But man. The majority of Crossfire Kill is comprised of these dudes fighting each other, with long portions of the narrative devoted to Danzig trying to kill Neff, or Neff trying to kill Von Schiller, or whatever. And every once in a while we’ll cut over to Stone and team in their Frankfurt apartment, where Carol Jenner bosses them around a little more. 

After this opening assassination, Stone’s team is called to Frankfurt…for something. Even Hog questions why they should give a damn if some German official has been killed. (Of course Carol doesn’t take kindly to this.) The explanation is that the murdered official was organizing a visit from the US Secretary of State or somesuch, so Stone’s here to ensure everything goes smoothly – but wait, an American General has just been adbucted right off the Army base here in Germany, so Stone’s team will indeed have someone to rescue after all. When Stone rescues the General we get our first indication that Crossfire Kill won’t have near the action quotient of previous books; as we’ll recall, some of the early volumes of MIA Hunter were nothing but long-running action scenes. Here it’s over and done with in a few pages, Stone, Hog, and Loughlin making a few bloodless kills as they storm a Euroterrorist compound and rescue the General. 

Here also we get the bizarre revelation that some chick Loughlin once had a thing with is now with Neff; we’ll eventually learn she’s a hardbitten SAS agent, thus her shocked yelp of “Terry!” when she sees Loughlin comes as a bit hard to buy. But whatever, this is the absolute most focus the cipher known as Terrence Loughlin has ever received. I mean I honestly thought the dude was gay (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but here we have an ex-girlfriend for him and everything. And hell, later in the book Loughlin even gets in some casual gay-bashing, putting down some dude who appears to hit on Stone in a German bar. Well anyway, the girl is named Eva Ullman, and once he gets over his shock Loughlin tells Stone and Hog that he had an affair with her many years before, when he was still with the SAS, and this is the first time he’s seen her in all these years, etc. 

But for veteran commandos, the Stone group seems easily fooled. Eva just happened to be standing right beside terrorist leader Neff when she saw Loughlin, and the two then ran away – Loughlin unable to tell if Neff was pulling Eva, like she was a captive or something, or if she was willingly running off with him. Shortly after this Loughlin receives a message at their apartment complex, presumably from Eva, asking to meet “Terry” at a certain location – a location which the team’s German contact tells them just happens to be in the middle of the friggin’ forest. “Well, let’s just go see how it plays out,” our heroes basically decide. Of course, it turns out to be a trap, leading to another bloodless action scene as Stone and Hog, lying in cover while Loughlin drives around on a dirt bike, cut down the assassins who unsurprisingly show up. 

There is such a focus on the one-off characters that we even have sections from Eva’s point of view, with the intent that we’ll be afraid that Neff will have her killed. She’s on assignment from SAS, you see, which makes her shocked yelp of “Terry!” even harder to believe. Not that she should worry about Eva’s wellbeing, as Neff is such a lame villain that he actually forgets to do anything about Eva, who might, you know, be familiar with at least one of those mysterious commandos who keep killing Neff’s men. She’s eventually taken to some countryside retreat to be interrogated, but manages to escape on her own, Stone and team luckily coming upon her before she can indeed be killed. After this though she basically disappears from the narrative; about the most we learn is that she needs to take a nap to calm her nerves and she’s determined that this will be her last SAS assignment! 

But yeah, most of the last third is composed of Von Schiller hiring Danzig to kill Neff, due to all Neff’s screwups, and then Neff trying to get the better of Danzig, and then Neff trying to get revenge on Von Schiller, and on and on. And meanwhile Stone and team stand around and try to put together the clues to figure out who is funding Neff. Occasionally we will have a super-brief action scene, Stone and his crew cutting down Neff’s seemingly endless supply of Eurotash terrorists in spectacularly bloodless fashion. Hog will occasionally make a quip or two; he has a strange fetish for talking about “tits” this time, sometimes in the most unsettling of ways, like implying that Neff is going to torture Eva by beating on her boobs. To the extent that even Loughlin and Stone wonder what the hell’s going on with Hog. That being said, there’s one goofy part where Hog merely backhands a guy and kills him! 

Even the climax is pretty unspectacular, with Stone and team racing around Germany and Holland and then back to Germany to put the hammer down on Von Schiller. Who by the way has a great track record, despite all the internal squabbling; he and his men manage to kill several more European officials during the novel. Stone seems to be especially driven to take out Von Schiller, once he learns of the man’s Nazi past, but even here the final battle is pretty quick and anticlimactic. I mean it features an exploding car, like an episode of Knight Rider or something. 

I think here in the very final pages is the only part where Stephen Mertz contributes to the tale; we get a sudden glimpse into Stone’s perspective. His was the most common perspective in earlier books, but it’s hardly present this time. He muses over “the shifting role of his team.” Here we also learn that Stone’s “main” objective is still rescuing POWs in Vietnam, but there’s been no recent “hard intel” of any. I know eventually Mertz delivers an installment which returns Stone and team to ‘Nam, and I have to say I’m looking forward to it. Like I wrote above, saving POWs was the gimmick of this series; these guys should be in the jungle, hitting Charlie in long-running action scenes. That’s their thing. Taking them out of their element hasn’t really been working out, at least not for me, so I’ll be looking forward to this eventual return to the original series template.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Aquarius Rising

Aquarius Rising, by Robert Santelli
August, 1980  Dell Books

This is sort of the nonfiction equivalent of The Rock Nations in that it’s an overview of the rock festivals that occurred across America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But unlike that earlier novel, Aquarius Rising goes further into the ‘70s, author Robert Santelli documenting how the rock festival concept was basically dead by the end of the “Me Decade.” Santelli also seems to have a clear appreciation for rock music, something you couldn’t really say about the narrator of The Rock Nations, and also he keeps his opinions to himself – though I have to admit I would’ve preferred a bit more color commentary. 

Indeed, Santelli goes for a dry, almost textbook format for the book, whereas the material calls for a bit more personality. You don’t even get the impression Santelli’s been to any of the festivals, as he never mentions himself in any of the sections. This is all well and good if you want to read about the facts and less about some guy’s recollections of them, but still, an “I was there” viewpoint for the Woodstock material in particular would’ve been welcomed. The strange thing is, at least judging from a few of the photo credits herein, Santelli was there…he just doesn’t tell us he was. This is a curious omission, and I can only assume Santelli was going for more of a “just the facts” approach. 

Santelli opens the book with a quick preface in which he states the goal of the book is to document the rock festivals of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and how they were more than just rock concerts for those who attended them – that they were thriving communities in which young people communicated with like-minded heads. The other goal is to show how corruption gradually set in post Woodstock, with the ultimate outcome that by the late ‘70s the rock festivals of a decade before – three-day affairs in which people stayed on the site for the duration – were basically dead and gone, replaced by one-day concerts that lacked any of the community experience of the earlier fests. Also, and Santelli doesn’t broach this as much, but by the late ‘70s the music sucked, too. I mean I could see standing in the rain and mud for three days to see Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and maybe even Janis Joplin, but Aerosmith or Rush? I think I’d stand in the rain and mud not to see them. 

Another curious thing about Aquarius Rising is that Santelli writes about the great rock festivals as if they were long ago, whereas in reality Woodstock was only eleven years before the book was published. In many ways the tone of the book is akin to one that would be written today, over fifty years after Woodstock; there is a wistful tone to Santelli’s narrative of a time lost, never to be regained. Again, it lacks the immediacy of an on-the-ground sort of report; I know there are multiple Woodstock books out there, but I’ve never read any of them. I could imagine the majority of them give more immediacy to the reporting than Santelli does here. And not to beat a dead horse, but if Santelli really was at some of these festivals – he’s got photo credit for both Woodstock shots and Altamont shots – you would expect a slightly less reserved perspective. 

The book opens with a look at the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, which is generally considered the first major rock festival, setting the template that others followed. It was also the intro of many acts who would play at other major festivals, like Hendrix and Joplin. Santelli documents how the festival was created and set up, dropping some notes I’d not seen before, like how Monterey was one of the only festivals with assigned seating. We learn in this first chapter another important element of Aquarius Rising; Santelli won’t be telling us much about the music, either. Very rarely do we get any sort of description of the sound of these various groups; if anything it will just be sweeping statements about their overall contributions. 

In addition to some detail on Ravi Shankar’s three-hour performance (in which he advised everyone to sit still and keep quiet!), we get a little more color on the two most remembered events of Monterey: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix’s respective debuts. There’s also some detail on the Who’s destructive set. The Jimi stuff is cool, but not a patch on the Monterey material in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, but then Santelli’s m.o. here as stated is more of a dry overview. Actually I know I wrote this above, but “textbook” really sums it up – I mean this bit on Steve Miller reads like it could’ve come out of a high school Social Studies textbook: 

Miller became a near-legend in San Francisco rock circles. His albums, Children Of The Future and Sailor, both released in 1968, are still considered classic psychedelic albums. But while other San Francisco bands were crisscrossing the country in the late sixties and early seventies, Miller slowly faded from the picture. It wasn’t until 1973 that he resurrected himself with The Joker. The album contained the smash hit single by the same name and helped introduce Miller to the Top 40 AM radio audience. He’s been a superstar ever since. 

Monterey Pop was also a trendsetter in how it proved to be a one-off; once the festival promoters had their fun, politics set in like a rot and another festival was prevented due to legal wrangling, public hue and cry, and the like. In fact the festivals for 1968 were pretty understated, and Santelli only sheds a little light on them. The Miami Pop in December 1968 sounded pretty cool, with unusual acts like Procol Harum and Iron Butterfly (who were supposed to play at Woodstock but couldn’t get there due to traffic – something Santelli doesn’t mention in this book, but which I knew from James Kunstler’s novel The Life Of Byron Jaynes). There was also the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, which was noted for featuring The Doors, an atypical presence at rock festivals. The Sky River Rock Festival in Washington was another trendsetter: gatecrashers led to such a violent scene that cops descended on them with billy clubs smashing hippie faces. Santelli sees in this a prefigure of the later Altamont debacle. 

1969 of course was the pinnacle year of rock festivals, and of course Santelli spends the most time looking at the most famous rockfest of all: Woodstock. We get a lot more detail here, from the origins of the festival to the setting up of the site. Again, some personal commentary would’ve been welcomed, but Santelli does a good – if overly dry – job of describing the hellish conditions…and how these conditions made such little impact on the good vibes of the massive crowd. For that matter, here’s another thing I learned from Aquarius Rising: previous to this I was really only aware of Jimi Hendrix’s set at Woodstock, having picked up the CD released in 1994 when I was in college. What I didn’t know is that Jimi only played to a fraction of the audience; some 400,000 people attended Woodstock, but most of them finally had enough of the constantly pouring rain and hit the road on Sunday morning…right before Jimi started to play. So he only played for like 25,000 people. I mean come on, hippies! Leave during Sha Na Na’s set, not Jimi Hendrix’s! 

Santelli doesn’t give as detailed a look at the performers, but he does provide a list of the pay each act received. Hendrix was contracted for the highest amount ($18,000), with an obscure band named Quill getting just $375 for their set. They were so obscure that I don’t think their set was even filmed, though bootleg audio exists. What Santelli really brings to the fore is how the media made Woodstock sound like a disaster waiting to happen…which it in fact was. Constant rain and trampling feet exposed some power lines, for example, threatening to electrocute a couple thousand long-haired freaks. There were also the downed communication lines, backed-up portapotties, the infamous brown acid (“It’s not poison. It’s just bad acid!”), and etc. 

While Santelli’s account is a little dry, it did provoke me to do something I’d never considered doing before: watch the 1970 Woodstock film. Santelli’s description of it, with the split screens and other filmic effects, got me interested in it, and I’m about halfway through viewing it, though I could only find the 3+ hour Director’s Cut. It seems that the original theatrical release, which Santelli discusses in the book (the Director’s Cut not existing until 1989), is now almost impossible to find. I couldn’t find it, at least, and I can usually find just about anything after some thorough web searching. Santelli presents Woodstock as the apotheosis of the youth movement, the hundreds of thousands of kids congregating peacefully in their own little republic. Unfortunately it was all downhill after that. 

In fact, the post-Woodstock festivals are progressively hellish, with Altamont not even the most violent, though it’s the most often namechecked. Thus Altamont gets nearly as much focus as Woodstock. I’d never realized how poorly planned this thing was; it was a disaster waiting to happen. Santelli opens with the well-documented moment in which a young black man was knifed to death by Hell’s Angels, right in front of the stage on which the Rolling Stones were performing. Santelli well captures the desperate plight of the Stones, who realized their “only choice” was to continue playing, else chaos would descend on the Altamont Raceway. From there Santelli jumps back to how this festival had the most hazy of planning, the Stones only vaguely giving their approval of it…and then the site being decided upon a mere twenty-four hours before the scheduled show. Laborers only had a day to set up the stage, the scaffolding, etc, thus there wasn’t even a bare minimum of safety checks in place…and 300,000 rabid kids showed up. 

Speaking of which, Santelli brings up something here few other Altamont chroniclers have; that the wanton rampage of the Hell’s Angels was just as much the fault of the cowed audience. As Santelli argues, there were only 200 Angels, yet they were “the masters,” smashing hippie heads and even knocking out Marty Balin of the Airplane – the only person, Santelli states, who stood up to the Angels that day. And yet there were like over 300,000 people in the audience. They could’ve easily swarmed upon the Angels and brought them to bear, yet they never did. All it would’ve taken was say for Jagger to call for their aid in the mike – this by the way is not something Santelli opines, though. He just says the fans themselves should’ve come to this conclusion. Santelli does bring up another salient point, that the stage was so important to the Woodstock community, with frequent updates to the throngs of what was going on, what to look out for, etc. But at Altamont, the stage was to be avoided – the only thing up there was a pack of Angels who would beat you bloody if you tried to climb up. 

Santelli also presents the Stones as “partly to blame” for the chaos and loss of life, but he also repeats the oft-stated fallacy that they purposely came onto the stage after dark, to be at their most evil. As it turns out, the Stones performed late for two reasons – the Grateful Dead chickened out of their set and didn’t play, and also Bill Wyman flew in by separate helicopter and was delayed, thus the rest of the band had to wait for him. But likely Santelli wasn’t privy to this info in 1980; as I understand, it was revealed in Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, which was published in 1984. Santelli does make clear that the Stones played a great show, with some critics opining that it was indeed the best show they’d ever done. 

As mentioned, after this things become almost ridiculously more hellish; there’s Powder Ridge, the festival that never was due to local law shutting down the concert and threatening legal action against any act that played there; it pretty much became a drug bazaar. Another encroaching element that spelled doom for many festivals was politics; leftist radicals tried repeatedly to ingratiate themselves into the planning stages, “demanding” that promoters include shoutouts for various leftwing causes in the shows and to fork over earnings to support those same causes. Many would threaten dire repercussions if their demands weren’t met, and ultimately promoters would either cut ties with them or simply just cancel the festivals. (There may be a lesson here.) Of course Pete Townshend summed it all up the best when he knocked leftist rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock, an incident Santelli documents here. 

As more and more festivals faced various setbacks, promoters tried novel approaches, like single-day festivals featuring nigh-endless performances from just a few artists; sorry, but three hours of the Allman Brothers just doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Then there was the uneventful festival in Puerto Rico, Mar Y Sol, held there to get around the increasingly-stifling US laws…and the locals quickly showed skill in fleecing the naïve American hippies who descended on their town (ie twenty bucks for a drive to the festival site, etc). Santelli also bemoans the frequency of hard rock artists who proliferated at festivals in the later ‘70s, finding their aggressive styles far removed from the sounds of the early rockfests. Just imagine how he’d feel if he could see into the future and witness Woodstock ’94! 

Speaking of which, Santelli ends the book with the prediction that rock festivals are forever gone. It turns out he was sort of right and sort of wrong. Wrong because there was the above-mentioned Woodstock ’94, with such diverse acts as a mud-caked Nine Inch Nails and even Bob Dylan (who decided not to show at the original Woodstock), and then five years later there was Woodstock ’99, which seemed to be a new Altamont. (I recall really wanting to go to Woodstock ’94 – I was 19, a NIN fan, but tickets were like a couple hundred bucks or something and I was just a poor self-financed college student. At least I got to see NIN a little over a year later, when they toured with Bowie.) 

But Santelli is correct in that none of these later festivals had the spirit of the originals, and indeed how could they, given the sea change of ensuing generations. Watching the Woodstock movie, one thing that amuses me is that, despite how grungy and unkempt those hippies were, they were worlds more…well, wisened than the kids of today, not to mention infinitely better spoken. I mean there’s this one scraggly-headed kid in the movie who talks about how everything he needs in the world “is right on this roadside,” commenting how his father, an immigrant, grudgingly accepts his lifestyle and even encourages him to pursue it and learn his own life lessons. This kid talks like he’s in his 40s or something, and the irony is the mass belief at the time was that hippies were a stupid, drugged-out lot. Actually, maybe it was the drugs that made them so wisened…I imagine several heroic doses of vintage LSD would turn the average kid into an old soul. What more is there to see once you’ve peered into the cosmos? 

Anyway, Santelli’s book is a success in what it aims to be: a snappily-paced overview of the rock festival era. I forgot to mention, he only discusses American rock fests – no mention of Isle of Wight. Which by the way did factor into the finale of The Rock Nations. To again bring up that novel, it would’ve greatly benefited Aquarius Rising if Santelli had gone for a similar, more lively commentary, with a few personal reflections. So if you’re looking for on-the-ground reporting from the rockfests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you won’t find it here. But you will find a concise overview with a few notable tidbits you might not find anywhere else.