Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Vigilante #4: Chicago: Knock, Knock, You're Dead

The Vigilante #4: Chicago: Knock, Knock, You're Dead, by V.J. Santiago
May, 1976  Pinnacle Books

Three short weeks after the first volume and two days after the previous one, antihero Joe “The Vigilante” Madden heads to Chicago, where he can kill more criminal scum. At this point Robert Lory wants it to be clear that Madden is nuts; whereas before Madden at least made gestures toward protecting society and the like, now he’s practically a thrill-killer. This time his stated goal is to kill FALN terrorists who are targeting banks, but the somewhat messy plot has him ultimately taking on the merciless crime boss who finances them.

Madden’s back in New York for the first time in a few volumes, and we get to see how his coworkers at the engineering firm are just as casual about that whole “sorry your wife was brutally murdered” thing as ever. Instead it’s all about the job – Madden’s to be sent off to Chicago to help another client, a bank that’s looking for tips on video surveillance. Also, shortly after this Madden will be sent to Detroit, so we’re given a hint of where the fifth volume will take place. I’d imagine then that at this point Lory felt comfortable enough that the series would continue, thus was planting seeds for future installments. Unfortunately, the next volume would be the last!

This is most apparent in a subplot featuring Sgt. Leo Delancy of the NYPD, returning from the first volume. Delancy is the cop investigating the murder of Madden’s wife, the trio of punks who did it thus far having eluded capture. Delancy calls Madden into the station because his credit card, stolen that night, turned up, and Madden checks out a lineup to see if any of the men on display are the ones who killed his wife and stole his wallet. None are, however Lory here appears to develop a thread that Delancy might be coming after Madden himself.

Humorously enough, Delancy casually discusses the pile of cases he’s working on – one of which happens to be the stuff that went down in the second volume. This is because Madden has been doing his vigilante work with the same revolver he appropriated in the first volume, not realizing the bullets he left behind would eventually be matched up. Delancy tells Madden that whoever did all the killing in New York and Los Angeles surely wasn’t a professional, as a pro wouldn’t be stupid enough to use the same gun across the country. It’s not hinted that Delancy suspects Madden, but it’s definitely a setup for future developments.

Madden finally dumps the .32 in the Hudson and bullies an underworld fence to rassle him up some new guns. He still has the Mauser from the second volume, but this is a ‘70s crime novel, so a revolver is demanded; the fence gets him a .38 Colt, which Madden doesn’t like as much as he did the .32. We get more of those flashbacks to simpler times when Madden simply hides the guns in his check-in luggage for the flight to Chicago. Lory proves again he’s a savvy men’s adventure writer, not wasting much of our time with the whole “engineering” schtick; Madden appraises the situation, learns about recent FALN terrorist bombings in the Chicago area, and helps out with video surveillance setup.

Instead the focus is on Madden hunting down the terrorists on his own, but here Knock, Knock, You’re Dead sort of loses its way. That being said, this one’s pretty sleazy at times, so it has that going for it. This is demonstrated posthaste, as Madden follows a teenaged FALN bomber back to his place, makes him call his superior to arrange a meeting, and then blows the kid away. Later Madden stakes the meeting place out, watching from a dive bar where the blonde bombshell waitress, a former hooker named Jean, gives him free booze and makes interested remarks. Apparently that horrific scar Madden has across his face is quite the turn-on for certain women.

This unexpectedly leads to the novel’s first sex scene, and the most explicit one yet in the series – but not with Jean. Madden sees a sexy hispanic gal wandering around the meet place, then abducts her, takes her to a sleazy hotel, and starts slapping and punching her around for info. You guessed it, folks, this turns her on good and proper. Before you know it, she’s naked and begging Madden to do her. This he does, for a few pages of graphically-depicted sexual a-happenings, Lory actually detailing back-to-back bangings, like this was The Baroness or something. He also works in the “man’s conquest” theme he explored in the John Eagle Expeditor entry The Glyphs Of Gold, which also featured a sexy Hispanic babe “challenging” the hero’s masculinity by seeing how long he could last in the sack – or, as Lory puts it, “to see who drains who.” Of course, just like John Eagle, Joe Madden proves his worth, and then some.

Madden is increasingly becoming the most obnoxious “hero” in men’s adventure fiction; after boffing the girl, Juana, into wilting submission, he gets more info out of her about her FALN comrades – and when she relays that her kid brother was recently murdered, Madden happily informs her that he was the one who pulled the trigger! Also throughout the novel he bullies and bosses people around, even beating Jean’s boss at the restaurant to a pulp when he goes back there later on and insists she drop everything, walk out of her job, and go to a nearby hotel for some quick sex(!). Also, I wondered why Lory named his sole two female characters so similarly (Jean and Juana), but figured it must’ve been like a theme or some other sort of literary trick that escaped me. But the two characters never meet so it doesn’t get too confusing.

Part of Madden’s assholishness is just a play; for some reason he decides to bluff it that he’s a Mafia rep, and he’s cornering these FALN bombers because they’re hitting property that belongs to his “family.” It’s kind of goofy, but the terrorists, just kids, go for it. It gets even goofier when Madden meets the chief bomber in a park and bullshits the kid that he, Madden, has a sniper hidden in the distance with a bead on the kid’s head, and one wave of Madden’s hand and it’s bye-bye commie terrorist! But here’s where things get sloppy. The terrorist is really looking to branch out of the whole commie thing, and to auction off his bomb skills to the highest bidder, his most recent employer being a shady entrepreneur named Jake Pontis.

So we’ve bounced all over the place at this point – including even arbitrary bits where Madden goes out into the nighttime city to randomly kill creeps and crooks – but Lory has now settled on Jake Pontis, not the FALN, as being the main threat Madden’s up against here in Chicago. But here his bullshitting technique doesn’t work out. In the novel’s most tense sequence, Madden tries to bluff Pontis with the usual syndicate stuff, when Pontis immediately calls him out on it and declares that Madden’s just a phony, one whose time it has come to die. Then Madden finds himself in a desperate fight against a couple thugs and crooked cops, but it’s all in a pitch-black park and relayed more via the tension and fear than slam-bang action.

A recurring idea in The Vigilante is that Madden gets by on luck, but at this point it has worn a little thin. He of course manages to escape the park ambush but it’s really because the villains decide to turn on each other. At any rate it leads to another tense sequence, where Madden corners the FALN bombers, including Juana, while they’re on a job. Here Madden displays his cold roots, in particular so far as Juana is concerned. But still, something is lacking here, and I’m pretty sure it’s because Madden just doesn’t seem as driven. He’s out there killing crooks with the best of them, but there’s just no impetus for him to even be here – I mean this guy’s gone up against muggers and rapists and white slavers; why’s he suddenly taking on a big-time crook who plans to bomb his own factories for insurance payoffs?

But at least there’s a nice sleazy vibe throughout (even down to off-hand weird stuff like Pontis being described as looking “like a girl-type bitch”). Madden also finds the time to shack up with Jean, and here Lory builds up a growing relationship between the two, with Madden even wondering if he’s falling in love. It’s to Lory’s credit that, while he goes the expected route of Jean being abducted in the final pages, he doesn’t deliver the expected Death Wish-esque payoff. Instead, Madden gets to play the hero, and while it’s just him up against two thugs, it still packs more tension and entertainment than the typical “one man army” action scenes of the men’s adventure genre.

Overall I enjoyed Knock, Knock, You’re Dead, same as I have the other entries in the series, but this one seemed a bit muddled when compared to the previous books. Hopefully Madden will get back to his safe space next time. And finally, this is the first installment to feature a painted cover. Not the greatest ever, with Madden’s bizarre grimace and that massive tie he apparently borrowed from a clown. Bring back the bored-looking cover model!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Dakota Days

Dakota Days, by John Green
No month stated, 1983  St. Martin’s Press

Wrapping up my impromptu “Lennon trilogy,” Dakota Days is an overlong, too-chatty book by John and Yoko’s tarot card reader. Seriously! And it gets even goofier – the book is published under his real name, John Green, but John and Yoko knew him as “Charles Swan” due to convoluted reasons provided here. But I’ve read elsewhere it was really because John Lennon was superstitious about having another “John” in the Dakota. 

Whatever – this book is sunk from the get-go. In a brief Introduction Green states that he’s chosen “several literary devices” in his telling of the six years he served the Lennons; what he means is that he’s chosen, for some inexplicable reason, to relay at least 80% of the narrative in dialog. This means each page is filled with huge chunks of expository dialog, and the helluva it is – none of the dialog by John actually “sounds” like John Lennon. Anyone who has ever listened to an interview with John will instantly detect something off in the way Green presents his dialog…he tries to catch the turns of phrase and play on words John Lennon was known for, but it’s such a huge miss you could be reading about some other person.

And Yoko, who takes up more of the narrative, comes off even worse. Gone is the “mysterious” persona of interviews; here she’s like some chatty housewife who spends all day worrying over everything. And I mean everything. Frederic Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon stated that Yoko spent the majority of each day on the phone; Dakota Days implies that none other than John Green was on the other end, fielding Yoko’s incessant stream of “disasters,” ie the innumerable mundane things she worried over. And Green’s job was to read the cards for her and provide advice.

Here’s the other huge failing of Dakota Days, perhaps an even greater one – John Green provides zero background on who he is, how he got into the occut, or even how he reads the tarot. This was such a monumental blunder I could barely believe it. Honestly, when I discovered this book existed I couldn’t read it soon enough. I imagined a book detailing John and Yoko’s vast occult interests, perhaps written in its own sort of occult style, using the tarot as a theme – Yoko the High Priestess, John the Magus, whatever. But good golly. Green not only gives no information on what the tarot is, he’s even apologetic about it; “a fistful of cardboard” being his dismissive description of it to John early in the book.

He doesn’t tell us what tarot deck he uses (Rider-Waite? Crowley’s Thoth? Or my favorite, the psychedelicized Albano-Waite?). He doesn’t tell us what kind of spreads he reads from. In fact, he doesn’t tell us much about the tarot at all. Instead, the book is mostly filled with chatty dialog with Yoko or John worrying over something, and then Green will briefly state something like “I checked the cards. Everything looked good.” And that’s it. Actual “occult” content is an out-of-nowhere supercool part where Green accompanies Yoko to Colombia where they spend a week in “Dan G’s” villa (aka Yoko’s BFF Sam Green, one of the two “Sams” Fred Seaman claimed Yoko was having an affair with). There they visit with a native witch. This whole part is like a minor grade Carlos Castaneda and I thought it was cool. (Robert Rosen briefly mentions this in Nowhere Man, but somehow as shown in my review I was under the impression John spent time with a native witch!) 

Midway through we at least learn that Green came into Yoko’s orbit late in ’74, when she was seeking counsel on how to win back John from May Pang. Otherwise Green just tells us he’s tall and obese; that’s about it for background or setup. The book starts with Green first meeting a just-returned John, in early 1975; John just back from his famous “lost weekend” with May. There’s goofy stuff here, like Yoko afraid that John’s been poisoned by May, in revenge for having left her, but Green instantly detects that this is a bullshit story John’s come up with so as to get some sympathy from Yoko. There’s also a “magic wedding” John and Yoko demand Green officiate for them, after which they begin sleeping together again.

When Yoko gets pregnant there are even more incessant worries for Green to read the cards over – more goofy stuff, like Yoko being certain that the unborn child is, despite what the doctors say, sick in some fashion. But she wants the baby to be sick or retarded, and she also wants it to be a girl, so as to be the perfect messiah for the new age or somesuch. The baby of course turned out to be a boy, Sean, and Green does relay some stuff that makes John come off worse than he did in either Seman or Rosen’s books – like the part where Yoko relays a story to Green that, during a “meditation circle” in which a nude John, Yoko, and baby Sean sat and meditated in silence, John got pissed when Sean started crying and got up and kicked him.

Instead of calling the cops, Yoko locked herself in a room with Sean…then the next day let John take the baby with him to their lakeside mansion in Long Island. You can tell this book was written in a different era, because Green, instead of being outraged, wonders if Yoko’s even telling the truth! Hell, today a woman could get a Congressional hearing on even shakier ground than Yoko’s story – I mean Yoko not only knows where and when it happened, she even has witnesses. Imagine that! But Green basically brushes it all off, instead wondering over how wise it was to let John take the baby with him. Yoko says no problem – Sean’s nanny Masako is there to protect him. I don’t believe Masako is mentioned in Seaman’s book; when he started as John’s assistant in ’79, Seaman’s aunt Helen was Sean’s nanny.

But then, John comes off as annoyingly self-involved in Dakota Days, as does Yoko. They’re both more like temper-tantruming children than millionaire rockstars, so I wouldn’t put it past John to kick a baby. Sean Lennon himself has told a story of how his dad once taught him how to eat steak with a fork, and when Sean acted “cheeky,” John started screaming in Sean’s ear so loudly that Sean had to go to the doctor. Dude, if your kid has to go to the doctor due to your screaming at him, you might just have anger control issues. Just maybe. Otherwise it’s a shame that this is one of the few memories Sean has of his dad.

Really though, John and Yoko are more annoying than offensive. For example a trip to Japan is akin to a space shuttle launch, with Yoko badgering Green for endless readings on what to expect, how to prepare, even down to what clothes to pack. Somehow Green ends up staying in the Dakota apartments while the family is gone, something he doesn’t elaborate much on; the impression is he’s there to answer Yoko’s constant phone calls. Here we also get more wrong-sounding “dialog” from John complaining about Japan, even expositing on how he does indeed like Asian women, but it’s just not the same when you’re in a country filled with them(!).

But there are interesting differences here, and I wonder if it’s a reflection of the truth or Green trying to protect his old clients. Most notably in John’s feelings toward Paul McCartney. In Seaman and Rosen’s books there’s no mistake – John hates Paul, a hatred that’s really just a mask for jealousy. Both books have John chortling over Paul’s infamous arrest in Japan, even claiming Yoko’s “magic” had something to do with it. None of that’s reflected here. Rather, John in Dakota Days feels sorry for Paul and worries over him – with a constant refrain of “Not that I care, you understand.” There’s no mention of Yoko having anything to do with the arrest. I have a suspicion this book’s the false one and Rosen and Seaman’s are more accurate, in particular Rosen’s comments in interviews of a few particular words John marked in his journal in regards to Paul’s arrest. But who knows – maybe John acted one way to Green, but felt another way in his thoughts, and the latter obviously is what his journals would reflect.

John becomes increasingly insular as the ‘70s come to a close, spending per Green the majority of 1978 in his room, rarely coming out or talking to anyone. Green must come to him to give readings. John’s interest in everything has waned, even in Sean; whereas he was deadset against Sean ever going to school, by now he basically says to hell with it, that it would be good for Sean, now 3, to get out of this crazy house. Yoko for her part is becoming more self-involved; Green finds himself more and more frustrated with her constant “what does so and so think of me” questions for the cards. This book, of all the ones I’ve read, gives I think the best indication of what John and Yoko’s relationship was really like: both were infinitely self-involved, with only infrequent periods of care for others, and thus were really only happy when they were apart.

As for John’s creative rebirth after a 1980 trip to Bermuda, it’s almost hastily recounted, as Green wasn’t there – he was with Yoko, answering her self-involved questions. Both Rosen and Seaman recount how an excited John called Yoko with his latest compositions, only to get a sort of disinterested reaction; Green relays that he was actually with Yoko on the other end, and she was more focused on her latest reading than hearing John’s music over the phone. There’s also a lot of exposition from Yoko on how she was initially attracted to Paul and how she’s sure he has always found her sexy – she asks Green to do a reading to see if this is still the case, but Green hides the fact that the cards say Paul feels the exact opposite about her!

Indeed, John’s final months are quickly passed over, and this is because Green admits he wasn’t really part of the fold anymore. With John and Yoko busy recording and then promoting their album, Green takes advantage of the down time. He does engage in a rather questionable bit where he has John paying him an unexpected visit one “chilly October evening in 1980” – the first time John’s ever visited Green, and of course just two months before he would be murdered. As the Church Lady would say, “How conveeenient.” I reckon this part is pure fiction as John exposits on how Green came into his life and helped him do various things, and how John’s been creatively reborn and now he and Yoko are happy again, and Sean’s happy, and he’s working on his relationship with estranged older son Julian, and etc, etc. It’s basically a goodbye speech, and it’s hard to believe it really happened.

Green ends the tale with a brief recounting of how John bumps into a former fan at the studio who is now an assistant engineer, then abruptly cuts to the chase with the jarring final line: “A half-hour later, John Lennon was dead.” He doesn’t detail the murder at all – in fact, the ending is so unexpected that it catches you off guard. Green doesn’t tell us what Yoko was like afterwards, or what further readings he did for her, etc. A bit of research proves why – Yoko apparently fired John Green for not having “predicted” John’s murder, thus the cushy room and board Yoko was giving him were taken away. Green doesn’t mention any of this, so it’s to his credit he doesn’t come off like he has an axe to grind, as Seaman did in his book. But it would’ve been nice for at least a postscript. After some research I’ve learned that Green wrote some tarot stuff for a magazine, but other than that all I know is he passed away some time ago.

All told, Dakota Days was the least engaging of the Lennon books I’ve read. It could’ve been much better if Green had stuck with the same sort of memoir format as Seaman. But his choice to render everything via dialog automatically results in a book of questionable veracity. Also, the book really should’ve been titled “Dakota Daze.”

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Penetrator #33: Satellite Slaughter

The Penetrator #33: Satellite Slaughter, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1979  Pinnacle Books (incorrectly states “1976”)

Despite the author’s note which proclaims that this installment of The Penetrator is based on fact, it’s clear that Mark Roberts either read about or saw the James Bond film Moonraker, which came out the same year – though given time between writing and publishing I’m wondering if it wasn’t just a coincidence after all. Regardless, this volume is very similar to the Roger Moore Bond film of that year – Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin goes into space, folks. I don’t think the Death Merchant even made it there!

As expected, there’s no pickup from the previous volume. (And another thing missing is the much-vaunted “Combat Catalog,” which appears to have already been scuttled just a few volumes after debuting.) When we reconnect with Mr. Hardin he’s sitting, bizarrely enough, in the press pen, listening to a commercial airline pilot talk about a recent UFO sighting(!). The pilot goes on to joke that perhaps this UFO is connected to the “freak weather” that’s been hammering the country, and this off-hand chance comment is the real reason why Mark is here in San Francisco.

The Penetrator is certain this freak, nonseasonal weather is the result of some chicanery on the part of some evildoers somewhere, and posthaste his wild hunch is justified – when he pays the airline pilot a visit, posing as a researcher, he finds the man murdered in his home. The killers are a pair of “Third World” types, and they’re still in the house when Mark arrives. Cue one of the novel’s few action scenes, as Mark makes quick work of one of them, but the other escapes. These hitmen are members of TWIS, a multi-ethnic spy ring made up of Communist Third World nationalities, and of course this group proves to be the main villain this time around. In other words, non-white Commies, the worst of the worst in the world of men’s adventure fiction.

Mark shuttles back and forth to DC quite a bit this time. He’s back in contact with Fed Dan Griggs, who basically hires the Penetrator to handle this threat, free to work outside the usual agency restraints. Griggs is also certain the Third World bastards have something to do with the weather, and he’s been working with some NASA folks who agree. Because it’s expected of the genre, Griggs hooks Mark up with a sexy female babe of a partner: Samantha Chase, a “rusty-haired” NASA security officer who ultimately proves to be useless to the plot, other than the expected hookup late in the game (which occurs entirely off-page!). Otherwise she just exposits on space research.

And folks, Satellite Terror is friggin’ mired in space research. Similar to the earlier installment Computer Kill in which Chet Cunningham wasted our time with endless programming code, Roberts here goes on and on about space travel and surviving in space and the like, even down to mathematical equations and calculations. This proves to take up the majority of the novel. Before that we have incredibly brief action flourishes, like Mark’s visit to a Third World agency in DC, which of course is the front for a hidden area in which leftist brochures and banners are printed for distribution to the revolutionary masses. Later Mark goes back and blows the place up. Take that, George Soros!

Early on there’s a bizarre “action scene” that’s unlike any other in the series. When tracking down leads on how these hardscrabble Third World people could even get funding for something as expensive as a space station, Mark discovers that wealthy westerners are secretly funding them. One of them is a left-wing banker, and Mark breaks into his home to grill him. Well, the guy’s entire family is there, two boys and a little girl, and Mark ends up shooting all of them with Ava, his dart gun – pretty strange indeed to see “The Penetrator” shooting an unarmed little girl with a sleeping dart. He even darts the dog! The boys put up a valiant fight to protect their dad, and Mark handcuffs them. At least he doesn’t kill their dad.

There’s also an ultimately arbitrary bit where Mark and Sam Chase go to Mozambique, again following leads. This part is developed to the point where you expect a good chunk of the book will occur here in Africa, but all told Mark is there and back within a few pages. What makes this part more interesting is it comes off like a prototype of Roberts’s later work on Soldier For Hire. Mark, under a fake name, has hired two mercenaries – each of whom are given inordinate, page-filling backgrounds – and hopes to filter out the secret TWIS base deep in the jungle. He’s begrundgingly brought along Sam. This part is kind of a waste, but it does show the merciless side of the Penetrator we don’t see very often anymore, when Mark kills two unarmed captives.

But from there it’s to deep in Texas where Mark is embroiled in some heavy-duty space training. Confirmation’s been gained that the Third World terrorists do in fact have a space station, and from there they are messing with the weather in the hopes of decimating the west. But that damn red tape still prevents any official action be taken, so it’s up to “Space Cadet Hardin” to go into space and wipe them out! Roberts tries to spice things up with the occasional action scene, like a would-be saboteur, but it comes off as bland, and the incessant exposition about space stuff doesn’t help. Roberts has done his research and by god, he wants you to know about it.

It's all cutting edge for the era, though; the space shuttle is so new it’s mostly referred to as the “Orbitter.” Mark is also trained in the newly-developed unit which will allow him to fly around on his own in space. Also here is where Mark and Sam become better acquainted; as part of a convoluted undercover scheme, Sam is posing as his wife, and Mark doesn’t waste time consumating the marriage. But as mentioned, for some inexplicable reason Roberts keeps it off page. I still feel some editorial mandate was behind the lack of sex and violence which befell The Penetrator in these later years, but hell, maybe Roberts and Cunningham just mellowed out.

Finally on page 134 Mark launches into space on the Enterprise shuttle; surprisingly, Sam doesn’t go with him. He exits on his own once they’re in orbit and pilots himself out into the depths of space, fixing his bearings on where they’ve determined the secret Third World space station to be. Roberts does not even attempt to capture the beauty of the heavens; no part where Mark looks off into the cosmos and ponders man’s inhummanity to man or other such bullshit. Nope, he just works his way through space via some calculations and figures, and that’s it. Even more incredible, Mark’s attack on the space station – that event the entire novel has been building toward – is as anticlimactic as you can get.

It’s over and done with in just a few pages as Mark uses a specially-designed “Gladiator sword” to break into the station, where he hacks up a few unarmed technicians. The villain is delivered a Moonraker sendoff, exploding as he attempts to escape. We get more space calculations and equations as Mark decides to orchestrate his own weather chicanery on the Third World itself before setting the place to blow. And honestly folks, that’s it – a quick wrapup with Mark and Sam spending some time in a Florida beachhouse.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Nowhere Man: The Final Days Of John Lennon

Nowhere Man: The Final Days Of John Lennon, by Robert Rosen
June, 2000  Soft Skull Press

As mentioned in my review last week of The Last Days Of John Lennon, this is sort of the other half of the story, in two aspects – one, author Robert Rosen was privy to why John Lennon did certain things in the last few years of his life, things which caused Frederic Seaman much confusion in his book. And two, because Rosen, though not named, was accused in the final pages of Seaman’s book of holding Lennon’s journals hostage in order to get a book deal, only stopped by a convoluted scheme Seaman claimed to have cooked up, like a poor man’s version of Ocean’s Eleven or something. So here Rosen gets the opportunity to show his own side of the story.

Nowhere Man is much shorter than Seaman’s book, and much more literary to boot. Whereas Seaman’s book almost comes off like a piece of tabloid journalism, Rosen’s is more akin to a cogent, literary look at the dangers of fame. The closest comparison I can think of would be The Tao Of Bruce Lee, Davis Miller’s slim-but-heavy study of “The Man, The Myth” himself. And just like Miller, Rosen attempts to deconstruct his subject, showing the man behind the myth; as in Seaman’s book, John Lennon here is a shell of his former self, so to speak, “trapped in a gilded cage” of his own making. But whereas he comes off as pathetic in The Last Days Of John Lennon, here he comes off more like a guy taking a well-deserved break from what has been a hectic life.

What sets Nowhere Man apart from all the other Lennon books is that this one makes use of his never-published journals, which Rosen temporarily had possession of in the very early 1980s, immediately after Lennon’s murder. What happened, per Rosen, is that Fred Seaman, who acted as John’s personal assistant in the last year and a half-plus of John’s life, promptly called old college pal Rosen promptly upon getting the gig and told him that they needed to collaborate on a book about the ex-Beatle. Rosen, who further claims that Seaman called him several times a day with gossipy updates from the Lennon home in the Dakota, began keeping a detailed journal of his own. Curiously (note sarcasm), Seaman makes no mention of any of this in his own book.

When John was murdered on December 8, 1980, Seaman didn’t seem to waste much time taking a lof of his stuff out of the Dakota and stashing it in Rosen’s apartment. Again per Seaman, this was all due to a secret promise he’d made John the year before – that he’d give John’s journals to his estranged teenaged son, Julian. As I noted in my review of Seaman’s book, this sounds rather fishy…John and Julian were never very close, and if any son were to get those journals it would more than likely be Sean, only five when John was killed but admittedly John’s favored son, per comments John himself made in multiple interviews. But anyway Seaman claims these journals all fit in a single attache case, so he doesn’t elaborate why he needed someone else’s place to stash it.

Rosen spent some time studying the journals, several hours a day. They ranged from 1975 to 1980, and Rosen was the only person outside of John who’d ever read them. Then, after Seaman pushed him to take a Caribbean vacation, Rosen returned to discover that all of the John Lennon material had been taken from his apartment; for some reason, Seaman also had a key to the place. Anyway Seaman presumably took everything, but Rosen realized that he’d spent so much time with the journals that he’d committed them to memory. Thus he began typing them out while they were still fresh in his memory. After this he contacted various people to get a book deal – and why exactly Seaman screwed him over isn’t really explored, or if it was I must’ve missed it. My assumption was Seaman found out he was in deep shit and tried to get rid of all the incriminating evidence.

Anyway after contacting Rolling Stone head honcho Jann Wenner, Rosen was put in contact with Yoko Ono – who offered Rosen a job. He turned over his own journals, the ones he’d started when Seaman went to work for John, and Yoko used the material recorded therein to burn Seaman. That being said, Yoko was rather lenient to Seaman in the punishment he was given; it wasn’t until 2002, after he’d made a fortune off dragging her name through the mud in The Last Days Of John Lennon, that she finally took him to court and got him ordered to stop. As Sean Lennon was reported to state at the time, “I just wonder why it took this long.”

But it gets even screwier; Yoko refrained from giving Rosen his own journals back, and apparently they didn’t return to his possession until after this original hardcover edition of Nowhere Man was published. The softcover version and the recent eBook all make use of these original notes, meaning there’s more material in these later editions, which is a shame – I got this first edition via Interlibrary Loan, so it’s the only one I’ve read. So long story short, this book offers a unique view into the mind of John Lennon – or does it? I have to admit I was confused here, because Rosen claims he was unable to actually quote from John’s journals, due to copyright infringement, and so could only write about stuff that he could find mentioned elsewhere.

So by way of example – Nowhere Man details one of John’s many sex dreams in which he gets lucky with an unnamed Asian actress. Rosen revealed in an interview that he’d made the “Asian” part up when he wrote the book, as actually it was Barbara Walters John dreamed about(!), but since Rosen couldn’t find any mention of this dream elsewhere, he couldn’t state who starred in John’s dream. So he just made it a random Asian gal because, as we all know, John liked Asian gals. Then, after the book was published, Rosen saw that knowledge of this dream had filtered out via other sources, so in the softcover edition of the book he changed it to “Barbara Walters.”

Anyway what I’m getting at is this…while I appreciate that John’s journals were used as the basis for the book, is the reality that Nowhere Man is actually like a “greatest hits” of info we can find out about John from other sources? As mentioned, I’m confused as hell by all this, and no doubt due to the various cold medicines I’ve been on recently. What I think Rosen is trying to say is that he is referring often to John’s journals, but paraphrasing them in a way that will keep him out of court.

Rosen further states that it took 18 years for Nowhere Man to be published, likely due to the stigma it had acquired with the whole Frederic Seaman connection. But it looks like Rosen wrote the majority of it in 1982, based off his memories of the journals he no longer owned but had memorized, and then tinkered with it until Soft Skull Press published it in 2000. Now it has become a veritable cult classic, and doesn’t seem to have the bad vibes Seaman’s book has acquired. But really it’s a very different book, more of a novel than a bio – Rosen also got some flak for claiming at the outset that Nowhere Man is sort of a combo of fact and imagination, which no doubt turned off people looking for “the real thing.” But then it seems clear that a lot of these Lennon books are mostly fabrication anyway.

The book opens and ends with this “fiction” approach in full swing, as Rosen imagines John in Jerusalem to carry out a Jesus-style “feet washing” ritual. After that we open up on a seemingly random day in January 1980; the book ends on this same day, and Rosen uses it as a framing device, the about-to-be-creatively-reborn John Lennon roaming around the Dakota and musing on this or that. We see straightaway one of those glaring misses from Seaman’s book: John’s love for his son, Sean. An early riser, John stops outside Sean’s room and looks in on him: “Sometimes tears well in his eyes.” Whereas Seaman had it that John mostly kept Sean at bay with expensive toys, Rosen presents a proud, loving father – indeed Sean is considered special, voicing profound witticisms well beyond his years.

That being said, we learn that John’s not so crazy about being a dad when Sean acts up, so there are times when he leaves a lot of the parenting to Sean’s “governness,” Helen Seaman. Seaman had it that father and son were constantly fighting in his book. I think here we get a better indication of how John really felt about his son; John stated in 1980 interviews that he pasted a photo of Sean in the studio, and it’s a little known fact that on the night John was killed, he was heading back to the Dakota shortly before 11PM so he could look in on Sean while he was sleeping. If John had gone for a burger instead, as he’d considered doing, the possibility exists that he might’ve lived at least another day, as after 11PM the front entrance of the Dakota was closed and John would’ve had to go in via the more-secure rear entry. However the murder probably would’ve still happened – the killer himself stated years ago, in an interview with Larry King, that he wouldn’t have left New York until John Lennon was dead.

As expected, Yoko comes off a lot better here. In Seaman’s book she’s a straight-up bitch, toying with John’s emotions and rarely speaking to him, indeed pushing him to leave the Dakota and then coming up with countless excuses why she can’t go with him. Seaman also has it that Yoko’s carrying on affairs with two guys named “Sam,” and also she’s back to snorting heroin, and she couldn’t care less about little Sean. But of course Seaman has an axe to grind, and also there was a lot he wasn’t seeing – he wasn’t there all day, every day. Here we learn that Yoko’s more superstitious than cruel; most of the time she’s afraid to leave the Dakota due to “Mercury Retrograde” or bad tarot card readings or whatever. And as for those two Sams, John understands something Seaman fails to grasp – they’re both gay. That one of them’s an interior designer and the other’s an art store owner should’ve been Seaman’s first clue...

John and Yoko were pretty much obsessed with the occult, and while I too have always found that stuff interesting, I think there comes a point where you can become too mired in it. Robert Anton Wilson had a saying to the effect of, “If you look at the Universe, the Universe eventually looks back at you.” I believe he was using this to illustrate Jung’s concept of synchronicity, aka a “meaningful coincidence,” and RAW no doubt meant this in a positive light. But I also think there’s a negative side. If you know Mercury’s going in Retrograde, or that the numerological significance of today’s date or such and such a person’s name is “bad,” or that a tarot reading on some event shows negative repercussions if you take certain actions – well, sooner or later you’re basically chained to that sort of shit. Kind of like the man and woman on the tarot “Devil” card, in fact – if you note, at least in the Rider-Waite deck, they could easily slip out of the shackles that bind them to the Devil. Meaning they are there by their own volition.

And John and Yoko are certainly shackled, Yoko in particular; she doesn’t go with John on his occasional trips and takes forever to visit him when he goes to Bermuda in 1980 due to all the bad astrological vibes and whatnot. Or so she says, at least. John does occasionally worry Yoko might be up to something, but here it’s revealed that John himself is fond of visiting massage parlors and the like. In fact Rosen delivers some actual sleaze with John getting handjobs from the occasional masseuse, and we also learn that one afternoon he slips away for some quickie sex with May Pang in a hospital bed(!). There’s also a part, not even mentioned in Seaman’s book, where John takes an impromptu trip, all by himself, to South Africa, staying only a few days, and visiting a few local massage parlors.

One of the things I appreciate about Nowhere Man is that it provides explanations, sort of, behind the insanity in The Last Days Of John Lennon. For example, anyone who’s read Seaman’s book will recall the bizarre part where John, apropos of nothing, takes an abrupt vow of silence for like two weeks or something. No reason is given and it nearly drives everyone crazy, especially Sean, who has no idea why his dad can no longer talk to him (of course, Yoko isn’t there – this all occurs at their lakehouse mansion on Long Island). It’s implied Yoko’s making him do it. But here we see it’s John’s idea, sort of a ritual to strenghten his resolve or something, and we also see that Yoko’s quite proud of him for achieving it. Regardless, it still comes off like more narcissistic shit on John’s part – personally I’d rather spend the two weeks playing with my kid.

We’re also privy to John’s dreams, and learn that he was into lucid dreaming, which I think is pretty cool. But it appears for the most part his “programmed dreams” were sex dreams about May. Actually this is a good segue into something I almost forgot to mention – what I think elevates Nowhere Man above the norm is that Rosen has studied the various occult topics John was interested in. Whereas Seaman constantly discounted all of John’s occult interests in an altogether condescending manner, Rosen seems to have read up on them to try to understand how they appealed to John. In fact there is almost a sort of occult or perhaps esoteric vibe to Nowhere Man, one of those books where you suspect there might be a “deeper meaning” to the text.

There are some details here I wish Rosen had given more info on, though, like the interesting revelation that in 1977, “with Yoko’s blessing,” John spent a week in South America with a native witch! If that doesn’t have the makings of a potential book, I don’t know what does, but unfortunately Rosen doesn’t elaborate and I can’t find anymore info about this anywhere. Speaking of Yoko, she also comes off much better in this book when it comes to the recording sessions that led to Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey; Rosen has it that it was John’s idea for them to record together, which is in accord with John’s own statements to the press. Seaman has it that Yoko badgered him into the idea.

In the last quarter of Nowhere Man Rosen makes a curious authorial decision: he takes us into the mind of John Lennon’s killer. Personally I could’ve done without this, as the last thing I want to read about is this guy. Rosen doesn’t try to make excuses for him; he presents a chubby freak who is well beyond insane, but again it has the vibe of literary fiction, as we’re actually taken into Chapman’s thoughts – we feel his outrage to discover that “Imagine no possessions” John Lennon is filthy rich and owns practically everything. This literary ring is effective in playing up the synchronicities that occurred as Chapman planned the murder – like the fact that the last name of the guy who sold him his gun was “Ono.”

Rosen also repeats the mistake that Chapman called out “Mr. Lennon!” before firing the gun, something I believe is generally discredited now. Chapman didn’t say anything, just waited till John walked by, went into a combat crouch, and opened fire. From there the book details more needless stuff about Chapman, how he appeared in court, the whole “Little People” nonsense, all that. We finally get back to John Lennon on that early January 1980 day, as he ponders again the “gilded cage” his fame has put him in, and here Nowhere Man comes to a close.

On a writing level, I think this one is much better than Seaman’s book, but whereas that one’s a quick, trashy read that makes you feel like you are right there alongside Seaman while he deals with the latest John & Yoko insanity, Rosen’s book is a slower read, with more of an insightful and probing nature. Honestly I think it’s best read along with The Last Days Of John Lennon, with the caveat that I suspect Rosen’s book is closer to the truth, at least in so far as the stuff with Yoko is concerned.

Next week I wrap up my “Lennon trilogy” thing with John Green’s Dakota Days, a goofy 1983 book by John and Yoko’s tarot reader!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Chopper Cop #3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert

Chopper Cop #3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert, by Paul Ross
No month stated, 1975  Popular Library

I didn’t realize this third and final volume of Chopper Cop came out three years after the previous volume. Surely it didn’t take producer Lyle Kenyon Engel that long to come up with a replacement for Dan Streib, whose work sucked so royally in the first two volumes – in fact I’m certain it’s Streib’s half-assery that caused this series’s short life, as otherwise Chopper Cop has a strong concept: dopesmoking anti-establishment cop handling counterculture cases on his custom chopper.

But anyway there was a gap of three years between installments, and finally the phenominally-titled Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert appeared. According to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms, it was the product of two authors: Bill Amidon and Nat Freedland. Info is scant on the two; Amidon published a novel, in hardcover only, titled Charge… (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), apparently about the early ‘60s hippie movement, and Freedland was a reporter, mostly remembered today for having written a 1966 article on Marvel Comics that caused a schism between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In 1972 he published The Occult Explosion, an overview of the various fringe beliefs of the day; the book got its own soundtrack LP, which is collectible today due to a segment with notorious Church of Satan figurehead Anton LaVey.

I’m curious how these two authors came together for the final Chopper Cop novel, and how they even went about writing it – I’m betting they traded off on chapters, as each chapter ends on a quick cliffhanger, one that’s generally wrapped up just as quickly at the start of the next chapter. My hunch is the writers were having fun with each other – “Let’s see how you get our hero out of this one!” and the like. There’s also a disparity in how the trashier stuff is written; one writer keeps all the sex completely off page, whereas the other gets down and dirty and doesn’t leave one sleazy stone unturned. Otherwise the book seems to be of a piece, and I bet I only noticed this because going in I was aware that it had been written by two authors.

Anyway, we learn late in the novel that it’s one year after the first volume; hero Terry Bunker, who is given a bit more of a background this time, still sports longish hair and thick sideburns, and still tools around California on his blue Rickman chopper at the behest of the famous but never-named Governor, for whom Terry acts as the chief handler of all cases concerning the counterculture movement. Otherwise Terry’s boss is Chief Raymond Haggard, who is much more accepting of Terry here, and in fact the two have a friendly working relationship. Actually Freedland and Amidon cut out the needless “other cops hate Terry” stuff that became so annoying in Streib’s books. 

Another element they introduce is that Terry throughout is actually referred to as “The Chopper Cop,” which I though was both stupid and cool at the same time. These authors, or one of them at least, have also actually ridden a motorcycle before, or at least read up on them, as Terry’s chopper for once is an integral piece of the story. In fact when we meet him he’s busy testing out a new auto shotgun device he’s had created for his Rickman; it’s hidden in a “fake bedroll” at the back of the bike, and with a few quick adjustments Terry can affix it to the handlebar and blast away. He actually uses it in the novel, but not to actually shoot anyone – sadly, one thing the authors do keep from the Streib installments is a curious reluctance to provide much violence. Terry in fact doesn’t shoot a single person, though the novel does end with him smashing someone in half with the Rickman.

The authors, apparently having used Valley Of Death as their guide, have also retained Streib’s bizarre decision to make Chopper Cop a mystery series. I still suspect that Engel was “inspired” by The Blood Circus when he came up with this series; I mean that one novel is more “Chopper Cop” than all three of these volumes put together. But anyway Engel might’ve had a grand concept, but – and this is by Engel’s own admission, as I wrote in my review of the first volume – he got a shitty author for it, and for whatever reason Streib wrote something more along the lines of a Gothic mystery. Well, Amidon and Freedland continue the trend, with Terry trying to figure out who plans to sabotage the upcoming Monster Boogie concert, to be held in the Mojave Desert. It must be said though that these authors turn in a novel much more entertaining than either of Streib’s.

For one, you can see how these authors melded their interests: there’s a red herring subplot about a Process-style Satanic cult, which could come straight out of The Occult Explosion, and there’s a strong grasp of the dopesmoking hippie movement that no doubt recalls Amidon’s novel, which I might get around to reading someday (I’m just more of a “late ‘60s” guy than “early ‘60s”). While they follow Streib’s mystery template, they do offer a little more action, and more importantly Terry Bunker doesn’t come off like a wuss. He doesn’t pine over some lost love – though we do learn one of the things which set him on the path from ‘Nam vet hippie student activist(!) to “Chopper Cop” was the OD death of his girlfriend, Ginny. This comes from Streib’s background setup, but whereas Streib’s version of Terry still pines and mopes over this, these authors have him briefly reflect on her and then get back to banging the latest chick – and Terry gets lucky pretty often this time.

Anyway a mad bomber is threatening the upcoming Monster Boogie, a one-night event which will feature the top rock acts of the day; someone’s sending threats to the management, and as the novel opens he or she sabotages a press event, nearly frying right-wing newscaster Grady Frazier. The Governor is alerted, and he calls in his one-and-only Chopper Cop, Terry Bunker. As we’ll recall, Terry’s the youngest lieutenant in LAPD history and serves in the State Department of Criminal Investigation, meaning he can cross over county lines and keep his authority. The authors try to keep to this with Terry shuttling around the state; he sees action in Los Angeles, San Francisco (where he has an expensive home, bought for him in gratitude by Thackery Caldwell from Valley Of Death), and the Mojave.

Terry is put in charge of security for the concert, which is coming up in three weeks. He checks out the acts, hanging around a bit with show headliners Chrome Lightning, “the American Rolling Stones.” He gets on most with their biker keyboard player, but there’s also superstar Jack Byrd, the handsome singer-guitarist, and “spaced out” Happy Watson, aka “the Ringo Starr of Chrome Lightning.” Here we see Terry not only smoke a couple joints but also snort some coke, but he draws the line at heroin, as we see later on when he gets down and dirty with Janis Joplin-clone Mona Drake, “sort of homely but ballsy” singer for Braincandy. There’s also a Grand Funk-esque hard rock trio, but the authors don’t make much mention of the other two Monster Boogie acts. Chrome Lightning gets the brunt of the mad bomber’s threats, and one of the leads has Terry checking out the local Satanic cult of sexy brunette Princess Diana – a cool scene with a nice lurid element, what with the “black magic orgy” going on at the time, but as mentioned a total red herring so far as the plot goes.

Let’s get to the sleaze, shall we? While hanging out with Chrome Lightning in their LA warehouse studio, Terry takes an 18 year-old groupie up on her offer and repairs to one of the apartments – quick cut to the next chapter, with not one detail given. This repeats throughout; we’re informed Terry pays frequent visits to some actress girlfriend who remains off-page for the duration, and late in the book Terry even scores with a pair of jailbat at Monster Boogie who just swear they’re 18 (after debating it for a hot second Terry says to hell with it and crawls into their tent). In each case this particular author will cut straightaway to the next scene. However the other author has no qualms with sleaze, as we see when Terry spends the night with Mona Drake: “Without any further discussion [Terry] forced her legs apart with his hips and drove his shaft to the root up her vaginal canal.” This after Mona has delivered one of the greatest lines in pulp fiction: When Terry tells her he’s conducting a police investigation, Mona responds, “You can come upstairs and investigate my pussy.”

Mona, a “perverted lesbian junkie” per yet another mad bomber threat, pretty much steals the novel. She carries around a “truly deluxe heroin kit” and seems dead set on a suicide trip. That’s no doubt supposed to be her on the cover, as she hitches a few rides on Terry’s chopper. She’s also the closest we get to a leading female character in the novel. A memorable sequence has a would-be sniper almost taking the two out after their boisterous banging in the loft of Terry’s house, which leads to a barely-clothed Terry chasing after the sniper on his Rickman. But Terry’s not wearing any shoes, so the authors really play up on the hell his foot goes through while trying to keep the bike from spinning out, etc. However he kind of gets over it pretty quick; a day or two in the hospital and then a cast for the foot, and after that the injury is seldom mentioned.

But once again Terry’s only up against a single foe, so really there isn’t too much action throughout. It’s usually of the lame cliffhanger variety, like one chapter ends with Terry about to get in a through-down fight with a bunch of outlaw bikers, but then the next chapter opens and we learn Terry’s old friends of sorts with the leader of the gang. It’s lame stuff like this that makes me suspect the novel was the product of a pair of authors playing “gotcha!” with one another. I mean this particular chapter ends with a crazed biker springing out of nowhere and hurling a dagger at Terry – then the next chapter opens and the dagger lands harmlessly at Terry’s feet and the biker starts laughing.

Another middling action scene has Terry almost run off the road by a truckful of redneck hunters. This bit, clearly inspired by Easy Rider, has Terry almost getting killed, so he whips out his auto shotgun and takes out the truck, but doesn’t kill anyone. In fact he ensures they’re arrested and vows to show up at the trial. Same goes for the finale, where Terry finally figures out who’s behind the Monster Boogie threats – but he’s too late, as the guy has already taken out a flame thrower(!) and is shooting flames over the audience. Here the authors actually work in the whole “Chopper Cop” setup, with Terry pulling a stunt jump to take out the terrorist before he can kill anyone.

As a result, Terry’s in a coma for a few days, and wakes up in the hospital with a broken leg, broken ribs, and etc. Plus his Rickman’s been totalled, but the Chrome Lightning guys have given him “a blank check at the Pinky Stevens motorcyle custom shop” to get the chopper of his dreams. We also get the interesting tidbit that Terry plans to start using “disguises” on the job now; this after the Governor wonders if Terry should retire, as given his heroic jump in front of 500,000 people at Monster Boogie Terry’s become the most famous undercover cop in the world. So clearly the authors planned more installments, perhaps having Terry adopt a variety of disguises as he worked the counterculture scene.

Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert ends with a goofy tribute to the Chopper Cop himself, as we learn the Monster Boogie headliners have recorded a song in his honor:

The disc was a silly but toe-tapping ditty with Jack Byrd and Mona Drake harmonizing a duet on simple lyrics about an impossible superstud detective who made love to all the ladies and caught all the baddest crooks. The title was, “We Can Dig the Groovy Pig.”

It's this sort of playful spirit the men’s adventure genre needs, and it’s a shame the authors didn’t have a chance to deliver more entries of Chopper Cop. It would be nice to know the story behind its cancellation – if Popular Library was willing to wait 3 years to bring out another volume, I wonder why they decided against publishing more?

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Last Days Of John Lennon

The Last Days Of John Lennon, by Frederic Seaman
December, 1992  Dell Books
(original hardcover edition 1991)

This is actually the second time I’ve read this book, the notorious “personal memoir” of Frederic Seaman, who served as John Lennon’s assistant in the final two years of Lennon’s life. The first time I read it was around 1997, when I was on a Beatles kick. I can’t remember the last time I actually listened to a Beatles album, let alone a John Lennon solo album, but this book stuck with me and somehow I’ve ended up reading it again.

Seaman’s book was always notorious, given that he’d been sued by former employer Yoko Ono and admitted to thieving all kinds of stuff from her, including most famously John Lennon’s diaries. These days his book is perhaps even more notorious, as due to a 2002 lawsuit Seaman is forbidden to financially benefit in any way from his time serving the Lennons, and thus The Last Days Of John Lennon is never to be reprinted. (Let’s pause a moment while online sellers jack up their prices accordingly.) This same lawsuit saw Seaman apologizing to Yoko in court for all the lies he spread about her, which casts even more doubt on the contents of this book.

Clearly I never knew John Lennon, so I can’t say what’s truth or what’s lies in this book, but I’d bet the majority of the Yoko stuff is a little shall we say embellished. In Seaman’s book, John Lennon in the late ’70s is an emaciated shut-in with pasty skin, stringy long hair and beard, and is totally under the witchy spell of Yoko, who controls everything he does down to the smallest detail. Plus she’s having affairs with two different men (confusingly both named Sam) right under John’s nose, and besides that she’s constantly on the phone talking to her retinue of psychics, tarot card readers, mystics, business partners, what have you.

We already know we’re in for an anti-Yoko book from the start, as the book opens in 1982 and Seaman’s in the process of being beaten up by two off-duty cops who moonlight for Yoko; they want back the still-missing John Lennon diary for 1980, but Seaman swears he doesn’t have it. From there we flash back to how Seaman came to be in this predicament. He got the assistant job through his uncle, an art-world guy who produced some of Yoko’s happenings and also testified on behalf of John when he was struggling for an American citizenship. Seaman had recently graduated college – having studied journalism – and was looking for work. One day in February 1979 he got a call asking if he’d consider being John Lennon’s personal assistant; Seaman had met the famous couple a few years before, at some shindig of his uncle’s, and John remembered him favorably.

Seaman does a great job of bringing us into the fold, which is super crazy. I’ll say one thing: despite any questions on the honesty of his recountings, Seaman’s writing skills are top-notch. He might overuse dialog modifiers a bit (I lost track of the number of times Seaman “gaped” at some mystical profundity John had just dropped on him), but otherwise he really keeps it moving, sticking to a theme that might or might not reflect reality: John when Seaman meets him is a recluse and borderline nutcase, his muse long ago lost, content to take drugs in his bedroom, stare at TV, and simmer in his own hostilities. But after a cathartic trip to Bermuda in 1980 John is reborn, rushing to the studio to complete his comeback album, Seaman subtly implying that John was also about to free himself from the yoke of Yoko.

The official story for those who forget is that Lennon, after living it up in a “lost weekend” (which actually lasted like two years) with the sexy May Pang, returned to Yoko when, despite all the odds, she discovered she was pregnant in early 1975. The two had tried many times for a child but Yoko was “old” in her early 40s and all that friggin’ heroin she took didn’t help matters much. But a Chinese doctor gave them a prescription (in full: stop taking drugs) and Yoko proved the western doctors wrong. Sean was born on Oct. 9th, same birthday as John, and the former Beatle ensconsced himself in the Dakota to become a full-time dad. He didn’t come back into the spotlight until late 1980, upon the release of Doube Fantasy.

Lennon’s post-retirement interviews, all given in the weeks before he was gunned down on December 8, 1980, feature the same story of his average day over the past five years – he baked bread, he was a “househusband,” he focused solely on Sean. He and Yoko were the picture of domestic bliss. According to Seaman, though, all that’s bullshit – John barely interracted with Sean (who was a spoiled little brat anyway), he and Yoko seldom saw one another, let alone spoke, and John didn’t “bake bread” once. It’s clear from the get-go that Seaman is stretching the truth, in particular when it comes to Yoko, our first clue to the author’s true feelings being when he uses the word “chattering” to describe how she talks in Japanese. (I once told my wife she was “chattering” in Cantonese and let me tell you folks, it didn’t go over very well.)

But this indicates how the author really feels, and as the book progresses Yoko is portrayed in full-on “Yellow Peril” proportions, occasionally coming out of her Inner Sanctum in revealing clothes that show off her “ample cleavage” and alternating between a malevolent force of occult power and a person so clueless and meek that she’s terrified of a mere car ride. Seaman basically implies she has John hypnotized to her will; Seaman can’t undersand how a once-mighty rock star can’t make a single decision without checking with “mother” first, or how Yoko calls all the shots, with John constantly apologizing for being wrong and going out of his way to make her happy. So obviously Frederic Seaman has never been married…

It would appear though that the truth perhaps lies between the two – John was very close with Sean, and Seaman wasn’t in the Dakota 24/7 so surely there was a lot he didn’t see. (And John’s “Beautiful Boy” sure as hell comes straight from the heart and isn’t courtesy some disinterested dad who was just phoning it in.) But it’s also true there were a ton of assistants and gofers there, and a lot of Sean’s upbringing was courtesy his “governess,” Helen Seaman, aka Fred’s aunt. Yoko herself in those ’80 interviews stated that mothering really wasn’t her thing, so there’s that; both here and in Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man (to be reviewed next week, as part of a sort of “Lennon trilogy” I’m reading) we see that Helen is constantly with Sean, more so than either Yoko or John. But this too ultimately makes Fred Seaman look bad, as due to his illegal actions after John’s death, Helen had to quit and thus little Sean lost two parents back to back.

Seaman states that John told him he should keep a journal, as John himself did; Seaman includes a scan of a random journal page, and we see the detail he recorded each day of his time with the Lennons. So the book does have a ring of truth to it, particularly in Seaman’s interractions with John – the stuff John ate, the stuff he watched, the stuff he read. John we learn was fascinated by the occult, and there are many parts where he orders Seaman to buy the entire occult inventory of various bookstores. Even here Yoko is presented as a bitch; one part that stuck with me is where Seaman has an excited John running after Yoko to show her some book among the pile Seaman just delivered, eager to have her take a look, but Yoko just shrugs and keeps walking away.

Seaman takes us along on the frequent, months-long trips – for a recluse, John Lennon sure traveled a lot – and he continues to build on the theme of John slowly emerging from his shell. The funny thing is, I could almost see Seaman’s point; I happened to also get via Interlibrary Loan the book Instamatic Karma, by May Pang herself, a 2008 book filled with color photos May took of John with her Polaroid in ’73 and ’74. The differences between how John looks therein and in the photos Seaman includes here are striking; it’s as if John aged decades in just a few years. Whereas in May Pang’s book he’s healthy and fit, smiling and eating burgers and doing all sorts of rock star stuff, in the photos Seaman provides he’s a skinny wreck with hunched shoulders and a greasy beard and you can barely even tell it’s the same guy.

The book is never boring, and Seaman’s documentation of each day would be tedious if it wasn’t so fascinating, given the characters on display. John actually doesn’t even come off too bad; he doesn’t boss Seaman around and in fact makes jokes about his occasional goofs. John seems to save all his anger for Paul McCartney, whom he hates so much that, when Paul calls to say he’s about to stay in the same hotel suite in Tokyo that John and Yoko love so much, John freaks and tells “Mother” and soon Yoko’s consorting with her occult seers. The result, as all Beatles fans know: Paul was busted for marijuana possession upon his entry in Japan, and he went to jail instead of a luxury hotel. John claims Yoko’s magic was behind it and chortles over this “victory.”

Things pick up more when John takes up sailing, and soon embarks on his trip to Bermuda. Here Yoko again comes off as cruel, as she refuses to come visit John for like a couple months and he’s reduced to constantly calling her and being turned away – a recurring theme in the book. But Sean’s here, and Seaman finally has the father and son bonding. And meanwhile John’s creative instincts are spurred and he’s coming up with new material. Here Seaman states outright that Yoko “insists” she be part of John’s new album, even though John himself would prefer to do his album alone; John’s own comments in interviews would indicate otherwise, but we must not forget that Seaman’s goal throghout is to make Yoko look like a creature spawn from hell.

This is the highlight of the novel as Seaman shows John coming back to himself – that he’s lost his muse is only inferred, never outright stated, and as they go around Bermuda John’s coming up with song after song, recording demos on hastily-bought equipment. Speaking of which John and Yoko’s binge-spending is one of the more insane aspects of the book; I think they drop around a million or so bucks on anything that suits their fancy, and inevitably it’s hauled into one of their storage rooms in the Dakota and never looked at again. But back to the new music, Seaman makes it clear that Yoko’s own work is subpar, yet she has John so in her thrall that he too becomes excited at the idea of doing an album together with her.

When they get back to New York and begin recording the material that would eventually be released on Double Fantasy (1980) and Milk And Honey (1984), it’s as if a totally different John Lennon is the protagonist of the book; no more the recluse, brooding in his room and getting stoned, reading occult books, John’s now a man driven. It’s to Seaman’s credit that he doesn’t play up how John truly is living on “Borrowed Time,” as one of John’s new songs was titled. But then John Lennon clearly had some sort of premonition of his own death; you could lose count the number of times he refers to death or dying in his songs, even going back to the Beatles years, and his interviews, particularly those given shortly before his murder, are filled with ironic comments like “until the day I die” or about how he doesn’t want to be worshipped when he’s gone like Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious and all the other dead rockers.

The Last Days Of John Lennon has a trash fiction vibe throughout, but here in the homestretch it really reads like a rock thriller, filled with salacious details that are more goofy than anything, like Seaman’s report that Yoko snorts a line of coke “in front of everyone” in the studio before doing the vocals for one of her songs. Meanwhile, people have been doing drugs throughout the novel – including Seaman himself – so you wonder why he even bothered to mention this as if it were yet some other damning tidbit about Yoko. He also makes it clear that he considers her songs for the album to be terrible, and implies that John felt the same way.

It’s also to Seaman’s credit that, as we get to the inevitable, sad end, he doesn’t sap it up (“I woke up from a bad dream on the morning of Monday, December 8th,” or etc…). Indeed he barrels through these last days as if they were just any other day, and really they were – John Lennon’s murder is especially sad because it was so fucking pointless. However Seaman does have himself briefly interracting with the murderer just a few hours before he shot John, being introduced to him by Paul Goresh, the amateur photographer who snapped the infamous photo, earlier that day, of John signing Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy.

But after John’s murder is when The Last Days Of John Lennon becomes real questionable. As Seaman has it, only he, of all the people on the staff, is upset that John’s gone. And this includes Yoko! Per Seaman, she’s back to her old self in less than twenty-four hours, and Seaman also implies that Yoko’s so heartless she takes her time in telling Sean what happened to his dad. Yet we know from Sean Lennon himself that his mother told him the morning after, and he also states that as he walked into her room he had a premonition of what she was about to tell him. Actually, Sean is living proof that Seaman’s anti-Yoko stuff is bullshit – after John’s murder, he and his mother became, in Sean’s own words, inseperable, and she appears to have been a good mother to him. I mean the dude comes off as pretty level-headed and well-spoken, and has nothing but positive things to say about both his parents.

Also here’s where Seaman himself comes off as questionable. He’s already come up with the story that, the year before, John instructed Seaman that, “should anything happen to me,” Seaman was to give John’s diaries to his son, Julian. This is another sad part of the story, John basically having ignored the now-teenaged Julian his entire life, and while John did seem to want to reconcile, you have to wonder why he’d pick the kid he barely knew to be the holder of his journals, which apparently focus on how many times a day John took a dump, got high, or jerked off. “Hope you enjoy these, son!”

So anyway Seaman, seeing that heartless Yoko could care less, begins filtering out John’s journals, which per Seaman’s own statement fit in a single attache case. Yet despite this small size he somehow feels the need to stash the journals at the home of a friend, a journalist Seaman knew in college. In reality Seaman was taking tons of stuff from the Dakota, for which he’d later be arrested. And instead of taking the journals to give to Julian, it seems he planned to use them to write a book on John with his journalist friend, something Seaman had been planning all along. Of course the question here is why Seaman would even need any help with writing, as he proves in this book that he does fine on his own.

Seaman launches into a long-winded, convoluted explanation that comes off like a variation of “my dog ate the homework” taken to absurd proportions. Something about him stashing out the journals at the home of this friend, and then the friend deciding to keep them to work on a book, and holds them hostage, and Seaman goes to some psychiatrist he has been seeing (hmmm…) to ask for his help, because Seaman is too afraid to go to Yoko, and then the psychiatrist brings in another guy, who comes up with a scheme to fool Seaman’s friend into believing he is backing a book deal….anyway, it all ends with Seaman being punched in the face by an off-duty cop who moonlights for Yoko, then being taken to jail where he’s forced into signing a confession. And Yoko laughing spreads her wings…

Now this never-named “friend” of Seaman’s was actually Robert Rosen, who in 2000 published his own book, Nowhere Man: The Final Days Of John Lennon, which had been written in 1982 but not published for 18 years. There Rosen gives his own background on what happened here, claiming that he was the one swindled by Seaman, and to tell the truth Rosen’s explanation comes off as a little more believable. Particularly given his statement – in interviews, not in his book – that Seaman didn’t just take a suitcase from the Dakota and stash it at Rosen’s place. Rather, he took boxes and boxes of stuff – tapes and photos and videos and etc – to the extent that, again per Rosen, it almost went to the ceiling. That Seaman states in The Last Days Of John Lennon that he only took the journals “and a few things” John supposedly gave him really casts some serious doubt on his convoluted story of innoncence.

Regardless, Seaman does bring to life John Lennon here in this book; I get the hunch that the stuff that’s just Seaman and John is more than likely true, though I did read somewhere online the accusation that some of this stuff actually happened to another of the servants, and Seaman just took credit for it. Anyway it’s too confusing to think about. But Seaman makes John come across like a three-dimensional, flawed human being, one that might be fun to talk to – as long as you didn’t bug him about being a Beatle.

But as mentioned, Seaman was sued again in 2002, and this time he fessed up to having lied about Yoko in this book. However he still doesn’t come off as the sharpest tool in the shed, as the stories of the court appearance have it that Seaman gifted Sean, then 26, with a copy of this very book in Japanese(!). An incident which spurred the so-lame-it’s-actually-cool retort from Sean, “This is the nicest book I’ll ever burn.” One wonders what Sean’s dad would’ve said. Actually, if The Last Days Of John Lennon contains even a kernel of truth, John Lennon wouldn’t have said anything – he would’ve gotten Frederic Seaman to say it for him.

Next Monday I’ll have a review of Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man, which not only provides the other side of the story on the journal-stealing fiasco, but also shows the stuff Seaman wasn’t privy to, most of which concerns Sean and Yoko.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Aquanauts #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea

The Aquanauts #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Manor Books

I continue to ponder what exactly Manning Lee Stokes was up to with his work on The Aquanauts (which with this volume moves over to Manor Books). Once again he’s taken what is ostensibly an undersea commando-type plot and turned it into a lurid crime thriller more akin to the crime paperbacks book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel would later “produce.” And he overwrites to the max; Whirlwind Beneath The Sea comes in at a whopping 220 pages of super small, super dense print.

It’s November, 1970 (meaning this takes place before the previous volume, which was set in February, 1971?), and the titular whirlwind has already occurred before the novel starts; a massive tidal wave has hammered Pakistan, killing half a million people and ultimately killing half a million more in its aftermath. We will learn this tidal wave was accidentally caused by a secret Russian undersea base. It just takes a helluva long time to get there. In the meantime Stokes is up to his usual tricks of padding the story out to unbelievable proportions; the guy’s like the Jimi Hendrix of padding.

For once though Stokes doesn’t bore us with tedious stuff about old Admiral Hank Coffin worrying over this latest caper; to be sure, we do get this stuff, as apparently it’s an integral part of Stokes’s template for the series, but it’s a lot shorter than in previous books. In fact it’s practically streamlined how quickly it goes down; a CIA stringer comes upon a dead Russian frogman in scuba gear among the piles of Pakistani corpses, discovers upon his body a code book, and another CIA worker figures out that this frogman was one of their undercover agents who was trying to get out some important intel before he was caught in an underwater shitstorm.

Well anyway it all leads up to hero Tiger Shark and his handler Captain Greene heading for a “Godforsaken spot” of Australia, where the rest of the novel plays out. The idea is that Tiger Shark will eventually sneak his way via KRAB into the Indian Ocean and figure out what the hell the Russians have been up to this time. He and Greene stay in an old abandoned hotel built decades ago, we learn via needless backstory, by a prospector named “Harry Stokes.” Along with them is the mandatory sexy native babe: an Australian Navy intelligence official named Hillary Green who turns out to be a bisexual nymphomaniac with suicidal tendencies!

As if that weren’t enough, the CIA has also set them up with a notoriously-untrustworthy contractor named Neil “The Walrus” McCreary, who might even be working for the Reds. Officially he’s here for “security” on the desolate site, but really he’s here just to add tension to the narrative. But good gravy is his presence hard to buy, given that from the start he’s fighting with everyone and strutting around like he owns the place. A big muscle-bound bastard who loves to fight, the Walrus is really the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, of the novel Stokes wants to write, instead of this “Aquanauts” stuff – a sleazy crime thriller in which the Walrus plans to get revenge on old flame Hillary Green, who despite being a “sheila” (apparently Australian slang for whore) with an insatiable drive for men, has now gone “lez” and might be having an affair with a Chinese lady who, unbeknownst to Hillary, happens to be a Red China agent. Oh, and Hillary’s being counseled by a sex therapist who is in the midst of having a sex-change operation!

Honestly folks, this is the plot of Whirlwind Beneath The Sea, despite what the back cover proclaims. There’s a part midway through where Tiger, investigating the nuked ruins of the secret underwater Russian base, is abducted and taken inside, and all this works itself out within several pages, whereas the Walrus-Hillary-sex therapist subplot takes up the majority of the conclusion. And also whereas you’d expect that underwater sea base to be filled with, oh I don’t know, maybe a bunch of hotstuff Russian scientist babes just burnin’ and yearnin’ for a male visitor, ‘cause this is one of the few genres that would embrace such a development, instead it’s a dank hellhole with depleting oxygen staffed by a handful of emaciated, half-dead Russian dudes.

Turns out these guys somehow escaped the nuclear blast which destroyed the majority of their habitat and ultimately wiped out a million Pakistanis. Now they’re doomed, their oxygen running low and their own people out to kill them – the USSR wants to prevent the world from finding out they were behind the tidal wave; these scientists were down here experimenting on an earthquake trigger to be used in warfare, but do to miscalculations ended up destroying themselves. Tiger, in I believe the first such scene in the series, takes out a Russian sub that was apparently scouting the area for the habitat, which is now hidden among the rubble. This part features Tiger using KRAB to shadow the sub, evade its torpedos, and then blast it out of the sea; afterwards he discovers the habitat while swimming around in his special underwater suit, but this turns out to be all there is so far as “aquatic” stuff goes. Tiger’s caught by frogmen and hauled inside.

Promptly shackled to a bed, Tiger begins sussing out which of the four Russians he can manipulate into helping him escape. It’s much more in the suspense mold than the action sort of thing you might expect or want. And as mentioned Tiger makes it out in what is just a few pages, Stokes leaving much of the action off-page. It’s memorable, though, with the Russian subs bombing the habitat as Tiger makes his desperate escape with the scientist he’s managed to turn to his cause; a scientist who promises to spill the beans on the world stage and reveal that the USSR was behind the tidal wave. Here also we get to see Tiger’s Sea Pistol in use, in one of the very few such instances in the series; one of the Russians gets hold of it and shoots another, and Stokes mentions lots of exploding blood and bits and whatnot.

And folks that’s it for what passes for the action. From here we’re into a long haul of long-simmering plotting and counterplotting. Here the Walrus takes center stage, and he’s a hateful bastard who plods his way through nowhere Australia, bullying and bossing. He knows something is going on with Tiger and Greene but for security reasons he’s kept out of the loop, but ultimately he plans to sell the info to his Red Chinese contact, who as mentioned happens to be in a hot lesbian relationship with Hillary Green. It does go on and on, and good grief is it sleazy. I mean super ultra sick sleazy, where you start to wonder about Stokes’s mental health.

I’ve mentioned before in a few reviews that Stokes has a predilection for including a scene in which a woman is strangled to death while being raped, or she’ll be raped and then strangled, or, more often, strangled and then raped. Well, Stokes apparently decided to set the bar higher this time. Walrus, wearing a mask, breaks into the office of the sex therapist who counsels Hillary, looking to steal Hillary’s documents to use as blackmail – that Hillary has sapphic tendencies could be disastrous for her military career. But to cover himself Walrus has decided to make this look like a sex crime. And folks…brace yourself. The therapist as mentioned is in the midst of “the operation,” so when it comes time for the rape, Walrus has to go to work on her nether regions with his blade, and then it’s on to the customary rape-strangling we’ve now grown accustomed to in the oeuvre of Manning Lee Stokes…

This stuff is just so over the top that you almost have to shake your head in admiration. I mean despite the fact that none of it has anything to do with something even remotely “aquanaut” in nature, it’s just so lurid and crazy that you kind of don’t mind. Anyway this part with the Walrus is right up there in the “ultra-sleaze” category as the opening pages of Stokes’s later Corporate Hooker. But afterwards we’re back into the tedium; Tiger doesn’t come off too well in the finale, caught unawares and bashed on the back of the head by Walrus, then tied up. Stokes is so deadset on his blackmail subplot that, when Tiger has the expected sex with nympho Hillary, Stokes leaves it off-page and only informs us of it in passing!

In fact, the so-called climax plods on this same course; Tiger, having found a note hidden for him by Hillary, gathers together Coffin and some Australian cops (Greene in the hospital with a broken ankle) and stakes out the Chinese lady agent’s home, waiting for Walrus to show with the Russian scientist he abducted from Tiger – ie the scientist Tiger was able to smuggle out of the now-destroyed Soviet aqualab. Tiger and Walrus get in a rock-‘em, sock-‘em fistfight while another character kills everyone else off-page before turning the gun on herself.

And that’s all she wrote for Whirlwind Beneath The Sea. The main plot – ie the massive loss of life accidentally caused by the Russians – is swept under the carpet, given that there are no witnesses to it, thus the Russians can’t be held accountable on the world stage, etc, etc. But ultimately that plot is just framework for Manning Lee Stokes to indulge in the slick, sleazy crime noir he really wants to write.

Monday, September 24, 2018

High Fliers

High Fliers, by Jim Esposito
December, 2016  CreateSpace Publishing

Mining similar territory as the earlier Night Crossing, High Fliers is a smuggling adventure comedy self-published by a guy who used to write for Creem and who, per his site, was once referred to by Grace Slick as “the weirdest person” she ever met. If that isn’t high praise I don’t know what is. I discovered this one during a random Google search for dope-centric novels set in the ‘70s(!), and I have to say I enjoyed it, other than for a few questionable parts.

The novel seems to be set in 1973, or at least no earlier than that – dates are mostly divined by the rock albums that are mentioned, and the latest one appears to be Lynrd Skynrd’s first, which was released in ’73. And Esposito does sort of capture the spirit of the era, with copious grass being smoked and coke being inhaled, though sadly there’s a bit more of the latter than the former; High Fliers is more of a coke novel than a dope novel, as our intrepid anti-heroes, The Ace and The Kid, seem to inhale a few tons of it. Kid’s recurring line of “Toot! Toot!”, asking the Ace for a snort, appears almost every other page, and while initially it’s funny it becomes tiresome.

But then this same criticism ultimately can be levelled at the novel itself, as its comedic, madcap tone eventually wears thin and you wish for a bit more meat to the tale, more depth to the characters. In this regard I suspect it’s probably better enjoyed in short doses, so to speak, and Esposito seems to have written it with that intention in mind, as each chapter is an “Episode,” sometimes starting off with a recap of the material we just read in the previous chapter. So maybe an “Episode” a week or such might yield a more rewarding read than tackling it all over a few days, which is what I did. 

Anyway the action takes place near Gainesville, Florida, and it’s sometime in the early to mid 1970s. The Ace and The Kid are former ‘Nam pilots who now make their living flying grass and coke across the border for a dealer named Wheeler. (“Wheeler-dealer,” I just got that…) Esposito has a habit of rarely describing his characters; about the most we get is that the Ace wears his “old Vietnam flight jacket.” But otherwise what these two look like must be determined by the reader’s own imagination. This was a curious decision on the author’s part, but also it’s an indication of the fable-like vibe of the novel, as we not only don’t get descriptions but we seldom if ever get a look into the Ace or the Kid’s thoughts.

There is a surreal vibe to the tale; again, it’s more of a comedy than a straight novel, and thus we have our heroes attacked in the Florida skies by a white Fokker D Triplane. This mysterious pilot, The Winged Crusader, has been shooting down drug-smuggling planes for the past few months, and Ace and Kid are his latest prey. They crash their Lockheed Lodestar (dubbed “The Flying Joint”), but there’s no tension or danger. Indeed they pull themselves out of the muck and run right into a sexy blonde – at least I assume so, as Esposito doesn’t describe her much, either. And the biggest indication that High Fliers was written in the tepid modern era and not actually in the free-wheeling ‘70s is that there’s zero exploitation fo the female characters; about the most we get is that this blonde, Dawn, wears her skimpy clothing “well.”

Despite having these two interesting lead characters, even though they’re ciphers and all, Esposito has this curious insistence upon filling up a goodly portion of the book with irritating, overlong sequences about the Fokker-flying pilot who shot them down. His name is Buck Jr. and he’s the son of a famous Christian minister. We get tons and tons of Christian bashing in the book, which is fine, I mean I know that’s a safe space for left-leaning authors (to complete the mandatory requirements, Esposito also mocks cops and makes the Feds look like imbeciles), but it does go on and on. And to make it worse, it’s annoying and seems to come from a different novel.

But then, there are huge tracts of High Fliers that abruptly switch over to Christian-bashing nonsense…most egregious being a part midway through where Buck Jr. is stranded in a small Florida town and we get this overlong dialog sequence where some hustler tries to get the local preacher to join a consortium of corporate-style churches or somesuch. I mean by this point we get it, you know? But beyond that it’s just a random and ultimately pointless flogging of an already-dead horse, and I say again it’s as if Esposito had two unrelated manuscripts, one a dope-smuggling adventure and the other a spoof of Christian ministries, and merged them into a single disjointed novel.

And all of it’s really strange because, minus this stuff, the novel is fun and does capture the vibe of the ‘70s, at least in so far as everyone’s either smoking grass or tooting coke while blasting the latest rock album. In that regard most mention is made of JJ Cale, but our heroes are also fans of Who’s Next. Deep Purple’s Machine Head is passed off as “too heavy,” and that friggin’ Lynrd Skynrd gets played a lot as well, while Ace and Kid hang out with Dawn near Gainesville – and, true to the madcap vibe of the novel, Dawn has a twin sister named Eve, so there’s a blonde for both our heroes.

But none of these characters are given even a modicum of personality. There are a lot of missed opportunities in High Fliers, and the fact that I even noticed this should be testament enough to the fact that the novel is so enjoyable that you ultimately expect more from it. I mean if it was pure shit, who’d care, but Espisito has delivered a fun concept, and he writes with a flair you’d expect from a veteran rock reporter. But then, he also spends way too much time with Buck Jr., at the expense of the infinitely more interesting Ace and Kid.

And Buck Jr. gets a lot of narrative time. He lives in opulence in the so-called Promised Land, ie the paradisiacal grounds owned by his famous minister of a father. Each section in the opening chapters is the same; Buck wakes to a beautiful day and waits for God to speak to him. And when he gets the divine word, Buck presses a button and descends into a Batcave-like lair in which his all-white Fokker Triplane waits for him. Buck dons his all-white pilot getup and becomes the Winged Crusader, and goes out to gun down dope-smuggling planes. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that Buck is dosed on a daily basis with acid and “God” is actually his DEA handlers, who use him to achieve their own ends.

Speaking of which, Esposito also features a crew of bumbling federal agents; there’s Michael d’Angelo, the chief of the district, and his underling Rickenbacker. These two are easily confused and they each take turns being the main villain. There are also lesser DEA agents, given jokey names (ie MacDonald & Douglas, etc), but they are all complete fools, ten steps behind their prey and incapable of doing anything right. They even goof up with Buck Jr., the guy in charge of him too busy playing chess with a vintage computer and not paying attention to Buck’s progress through his underground lair; ultimately this leads to Buck crashing, midway through the book, and ending up in an overlong subplot which sees him running a preachathon to drum up money to repair a local church(!?).

If you stick with the book mainly for the Ace and Kid material, it’s not bad, and does get better. Eventually we get to the main plot, such as it is – Wheeler wants the duo to fly over an incredible amount of coke from Mexico. Like a couple hundred pounds of it. There are some oddball comic touches here, like how Wheeler has a tanker filled with coke, and copious amounts of grass, but complains about the overhead and all the competition and etc, etc. Our heroes need a new plane, though, and end up coming upon a fully-armed B-25 bomber; here Esposito takes the opportunity to bash older conservative types, as the lady selling the plane claims it was owned by her WWII vet of a husband, and she’s so batty she doesn’t get it that Ace and Kid want to use the plane to haul drugs.

I forgot to mention – in one of the most head-scratching misses ever, we learn early on, in a clever bit of backstory, that Buck Jr. was actually Ace and Kid’s captain on a bomber in ‘Nam. But get this: Esposito does absolutely nothing with it. This reveal is so cleverly done that it promises something more, and I kept reading and reading, enduring all the irritating Buck Jr. sections, expecting for a big reunion between the trio – Ace and Kid introduced Buck Jr. to LSD, you see, dosing him during a bombing run – but it never happened. Instead about all we get is a jokey finale in which Ace and Kid, no longer in the smuggling biz, are offered a job flying for Buck Jr.’s new preaching-and-planes venture, but they never even meet him.

Action is sparse, because it isn’t really that sort of novel – upon getting their B-25 Kid and Ace get in a brief aerial skirmish with the Winged Avenger, but other than that we have a couple rip-offs, in which a mysterious group of masked men ambush our heroes. But really it’s all done more in a comedic vein. Speaking of which our heroes do have some goofy, memorable traits, like the “emergency joint” Kid always has hidden behind his ear, or the duo’s insistence upon always playing some classic rock tape or LP. So Esposito really does capture the ‘70s vibe, with the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, though to be sure the first one, ie the sex, occurs 100% off-page.

So really I’m on the fence. I appreciate Esposito’s attempt at capturing a story set “back in the day,” and his Creem background brings something special to the book, but I kind of expected more from High Fliers, mostly because it promised more than it delivered. Perhaps its greatest failing is that it wasn’t written and published in the ‘70s; maybe then it might’ve become a cult classic of sorts. But it was a fun way to pass the time at least, with the caveat that the arbitrary religion-bashing stuff just got old after a while, mostly because it had nothing to do with the story I wanted to read – namely, a fun adventure about “high flying” drug smugglers.