Thursday, July 19, 2018

Death Rock


Death Rock, by Maxene Fabe
No month stated, 1972  Popular Library

Several years ago I was on this late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture kick, reading a bunch of “hippie lit”-type novels of the day. I was also into early ’70s issues of Rolling Stone, or “The Rolling Stone” as it was then known, back in the days when it was a newspaper and hadn’t devolved into the glossy celebrity rag of the ‘80s and beyond. In its early years it was practically The Communist Manifesto with a record review section.

So I was very happy when in the fall of 2007 the CD-Rom boxset Rolling Stone Cover To Cover was released: a digital archive of every page of every issue of the magazine from its first issue to the latest one from 2007. You could search, scan, filter articles and reviews by contributor, etc. Very cool. Unfortunately though, the proprietary software the CDs are encoded with has stopped working on many operating systems these days; I recently put CD 1 in my home laptop for the first time (it’s been many, many years since I was into this stuff) and had to download a “patch” to get the damn thing to work – and even then it was faulty.

Anyway somehow after searching through reams of old Rolling Stone articles and reviews on the CDs back in late 2007, I landed on a 1977 feature by Greil Marcus in which he discussed how most “rock novels” were just plain bad, in particular Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street. But Marcus said there was in fact one good rock novel: Death Rock, by Maxene Fabe. In the article Marcus mentioned that Death Rock was long out of print; by 2007 the book was completely off the radar. I could find zero info about it; it wasn’t mentioned (and still isn’t mentioned) in any “great rock novel” lists. At that time I was only able to find two copies for sale at Abebooks; the cheapest one cost me $15. (More about the other copy later.) Today it doesn’t look like Death Rock is available anywhere. It’s as if the book never even existed.

I’ve sort of been on a late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock kick lately – so happy I bought such records back in the ‘90s, before they went up to the insane prices of today (I mean I spent three bucks for a copy of Abbey Road at a Half Prices Bookstore in ’97; today they sell that record for at least $40) – so I decided to give my treasured copy of Death Rock another read. I have to say, I enjoyed it just as much on this second read, even though I’ve long since moved past all that hippie lit stuff I was once into. But author Maxene Fabe doesn’t really write a hippie lit type of novel – in fact the closest comparison I could think of would be the fuzzy-freaky parables early Rolling Stone contributor JR Young once passed off as “reviews.”*

Like Young, Fabe wholly captures the vibe of the era; hers is a story of dopesmoking, LSD-dropping countercultural types who let their freak flags fly high. Like Passing Through The Flame, Death Rock takes place in the early ‘70s and is concerned with the death-throes of the counterculture, but unlike Spinrad’s later tome this one is still fueled with the energy of the era. While Fabe understands the rock era has a short lifespan – she even mocks Mick Jagger for being old (in 1972!!) – there’s still a wide-eyed sort of innocence to it, with Commie symp hippie terrorists who truly believe they’re about to bring about a new social order.

But make no mistake, Fabe mocks these idiots soundly. Actually as I re-read the novel I realized that subheading Death Rock as “A Rock Novel” was a bit misleading, as Fabe is more concerned with the countercultural revolutionary spirit of the day. (Of course, only a fine line really separated the two at the time.) It’s not so much a novel about a rock group giving concerts and going through all the cliched stopping points of your average rock novel. Indeed the rock star who brings all these counterculture characters together, Sissy Ripper – a sort of amalgamation of Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and Sly Stone, plus others besides – stays peripheral to the plot for most of the narrative, and only appears a few times.

Another point of reference to Fabe’s style would be another rock reviewer, this one a bit more famous (or perhaps infamous): Lester Bangs. Fabe capably captures the same sort of amphetimine-fueled, coked-up narrative drive as Bangs at his best; Death Rock is told in this sort of rambling, omniscient tone very similar to what one might find in the diatribes-cum-reviews found in Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung. Another similarity would be the hazily omniscient tone Wilson and Shea used for Illuminatus!. Actually the two books are very similar (Illuminatus!, despite being published as three paperbacks, actually having been written as one book), both in tone and in plot; they both even climax at a massive rock festival.

Anyway, psycho superstar Sissy Ripper sets off the proceedings; in vague backstory spun throughout the novel, Sissy’s been a reculse for the past two years, after some wildness happened with his girlfriend, Alicia Dubrow (who herself went missing). Sissy we learn is from Africa, basically the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica(!), but whereas Jimi was the most mellow cat to ever walk the face of the friggin’ earth, Sissy is a wild child who feeds off “dark energy.” Sort of that dark god image Mick Jagger appropriated up toward Altamont (and channeled in Performance). But Sissy means it, man. And whereas the Altamont disaster had Jagger promptly changing his image, Sissy needs the evil vibe of a crowd to keep going.

But he’s been gone two years now, and the novel opens with Sissy making his first appearance since his seclusion – incongruously enough, on the Ed Sullivan show! After running through his new hit, “I Wanna Rip You Up The Middle,” Sissy announces that in two months, ie late August, he will be holding a tryout concert in Lebanon, Kansas, aka the center of America. He invites all the freaks in the audience to head on to Lebanon and show off their skills for the chance at being Sissy’s new backup band. This rallying call sets off the activities of the handful of characters who star in the novel; Sissy himself thereafter disappears in the narrative, only popping up now and again. 

Instead, the brunt of the narrative is given over to the antics of these characters:

Venceremos (aka “Vence”): A devoted revolutionary who quotes Chairman Mao and preaches about the post-revolution society, as expected completely oblivious to the fact that he’s a fascist. (The more things change….“Hey, let’s put on masks and outnumber our enemies and then beat them up, and we’ll call ourselves Antifa! You know, like Anti-Fascists!” “Great Idea!...You think your mom could give us a ride?”) Having come from the big city to Kansas University, Vence has found his Commie preachings falling on deaf ears; the local corn-fed jocks could care less. But Vence sees Sissy’s imminent arrival in Kansas of all places as a divine gift – he could use the superstar to spur the masses to revolution. But first Sissy must be converted! To accomplish this Vence puts together a rock group, heedless of the fact that he has no musical skills, hoping to win the audition and gain Sissy’s ear.

Ruby: A 15 year-old blonde beauty from Lebanon, Kansas who sees Sissy on TV and vows to have sex with him. First though she’ll have to get rid of her pesky virginity. To this end she runs away from home and begins a pilgrimage which will see her sharing the bed of several famous rock stars of the era, Fabe taking the opportunity to skewer everyone from Joe Cocker to Bob Dylan.

Angel: Another Kansas U. character, but one that’s been expelled for having dynamited a teacher’s office so as to impress a radical chick. Angel is a “cocksman” as the saying goes, and has slept with an untold number of college girls, all of whom look up to the wild-haired anarchist. The fact that he makes his own LSD and gives it out for free doesn’t hurt matters. He sees Sissy on TV (while tripping on acid and having sex) and can’t believe the dark energy that floods out of the screen; Angel vows to “save” Sissy.

Alicia Dubrow: Sissy’s old flame; a rail-thin, redheaded beauty who shaved off her hair two years ago after a horrific night in which Sissy, riding those dark energies, savagely whipped her until her back was scarred. Now she goes around the country as a “mystery woman,” uniting all the females in various universites under the banner of women’s liberation – women’s lib of a very sadistic sort. She also rails against rock music, claiming it is misogynist. (Honestly this novel predicts so much nonsense that has become commonplace today that it’s almost scary.) While Angel wants to save Sissy, Alicia wants to kill him, hopefully at the concert in Lebanon. It’s through Alicia’s sections that we see the most of Sissy Ripper, usually in flashbacks to the good times.

These four characters guide us through Death Rock, each of them interracting in unexpected ways – like Vence being the guy Ruby decides to give her virginity to, having come upon him practicing with his new rock band (another funny scene that skewers Vence’s know-nothing know-it-all firebrand arrogance) and assuming he’s a rock singer. Angel and Vence already know one another; former best friends, they’re now enemies, all over that girl Angel tried to impress by dynamiting a teacher’s office. Alicia ends up trying to use both Vence and Angel for her own violent whims, though she has much more success with Vence, as one might expect.

Ruby probably gets the most narrative spotlight, given that through her Fabe parodies the early ‘70s rock scene. Ruby makes her way through a host of rock singers, none of them named, but all of them easily spotted – there’s Mick Jagger (desperate now that he’s “old” to strike up some heat from his audience), there’s Crosby, Stills and Nash (awfully singing together in their live shows, as they were roundly criticized for back in the day), there’s Bob Dylan (who wants Ruby to pay him a thousand bucks for sex – but he’ll settle for fifty), there’s Pete Townshend (who so scares Ruby with his on-stage chaos that all she can do is ask for his autograph). There are others besides; we know from a throwaway line that “Jimi” is one of Ruby’s many conquests, and there’s an eerie bit that foreshadows reality where “Jimi” threatens to kill himself, and Ruby mutters that he’s always making such threats. But then again maybe Fabe wrote this after Hendrix’s death, and made this line intentional. 

One thing sort of becomes clear, though…Maxene Fabe doesn’t much like rock and roll. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading the novel. The superstars are all fakers, their glory years at least ten years behind them (and keep in mind it’s only the early ‘70s!!), and their fans are loyal dupes with chemically-fogged brains. In fact, hardly any of the rockers come off well in the book, though I did note that the one band to escape criticism was the Beatles. This is as it should be, though. I wonder if Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs (another Death Rock fan, per the below) also got this feeling from the novel.

Sissy comes and goes in the text – we learn he came to prominence in mid-‘60s London, like Jimi Hendrix, and there he picked up Alicia as his consort. From there to mega fame, his rock hits becoming wilder and wilder. Given that he also did a few songs promoting social revolution – a la Beggar’s Banquet Stones – Sissy’s not only beloved by the regular rock freaks but by the hippie terrorists too. So they all come out to Lebanon, blitzing the midwest in a vast unwashed throng. However the climactic concert isn’t given as much narrative space as you might expect; we read about a few bands auditioning for Sissy, but then Vence’s group takes the stage and Alicia’s stashed a bomb in the drum kit and the novel is heading for a conclusion before we know it. Ruby and Angel also take the stage, these two having become “married” via LSD.

The finale is bizarre, and again harkens to Altamont, with Sissy and Vence inflamed by that evil energy from the crowd and setting to on a cowering Angel. Meanwhile that bomb blows up in unexpected fashion. Greil Marcus in his brief mention of Death Rock got the end wrong; per Marcus, Sissy Ripper was sacrificially killed in the finale. Rather, Sissy lives, but another character is killed in front of the audience – a clear bit of metaphor, given that this particular character represents the peace and love ethic of the ‘60s, torn apart by the nihilsm of the ‘70s. Fabe clearly saw which way the wind was blowing. As for Sissy, his sendoff is just as fitting; when Ruby finally has her chance for sex with him, she instead realizes Sissy Ripper is a piece of filth and whips him! 

Suprisingly, Maxene Fabe never published another novel; the only other book I can find by her is a guide to TV gameshows, published in 1979 (Greil Marcus reviewed it in Rolling Stone, too). In early January 2008 when I first read Death Rock I contacted Fabe and told her how much I enjoyed her novel. She sent me this nice response:

What a great email to get out of the blue. It particularly got my 25-year-old film-maker son all revved up; he's talking screenplay. It also got me to haul out my 1 remaining copy and start scanning it so i can indeed get it online. I also ordered another copy from Abe. You spent $15? You're lucky; mine is costing me $25. =)

I believe the Creem review of Death Rock appeared in October, 1973. I have a copy of it somewhere in a box in my storage room under a bunch of other boxes, otherwise I'd resurrect it. As an interesting footnote, Lester Bangs called me shortly thereafter asking me to write for the magazine, so, for a time, sporadically thru 1974 and into 1975, I was Creem's TV critic and had a column called “Prime Time.”

That’s how scarce Death Rock is, friends – even the author herself had to shell out twenty-five bucks for a copy! Unfortunately it doesn’t look like she ever did “get it online,” as I don’t see an eBook for it. I contacted her again before writing this review (she now goes by Maxene Fabe-Milford, and runs a college essay consultancy called Uniquely U.); I actually went on Facebook to write her, and folks I hate Facebook like some people hate [insert the name of your least favorite politician]. When I went back on there I saw a note that said “Maxene Fabe-Mulford has accepted your request,” so I assume that to mean she was saying it was okay if I quoted the letter she wrote me back in 2008.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Death Rock, probably even more this second time around. But this puts me in the same unfortunate situation as when I raved about Shark Fighter; I’m raving about a book no one will be able to find. Actually that changed with Shark Fighter, which is now back in print; hopefully someday Death Rock will be too.

Finally, I end the review with a question – I know the cover of Death Rock was used on a jazz LP from the early ‘70s. I have a couple hundred such records but not that one, though I’ve seen it before. For the life of me I can’t remember the artist or title, so if anyone knows what record has the same cover as this book, please let me know!

*JR Young is almost wholly forgotten today, with scant info known about him, but the line “Put on the Dead, and spread!” from his Live Dead review was legendary in the early ‘70s underground. Back in 2007 I started a thread about him at the Steve Hoffman forum, but it doesn’t look like much more info has surfaced. Maybe one of these days I’ll do a post on his various reviews, though per the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover set, he only published around 25 reviews in the magazine, all between 1970 and 1973.

6 comments:

Drew Salzen said...

Great review if frustrating - I would love to read this but it doesn't look like I'll get the chance. Anything where you quote 'Illuminatus' AND Lester Bang's 'Psychotic Reactions...' (I prefer 'Schrodinger's Cat' overall but the Bangs book has been a favorite since I got it in 1988)as comparable has got to be worth a read.

I don't know if it's the one you're thinking of, but Bob Downes' 1969 'Deep Down Heavy' - released in the UK on the budget MFP label - has the same cover. I had this and his 1970 Vertigo album 'Electric City' for many years. Downes was a maverick flute and sax player who liked to mix jazz and rock but not in a usual jazz rock manner. Eccentric and unique.

A bit like the sainted Lester, actually, who is one of my favorite writers. I like that in the introduction to 'Psychotic Reactions...' he posits that can it be true that the greatest Amercian writer of his generation wrote mostly record reviews and picture captions? Yes, probably, I'd say...

Drew Salzen said...

'He' as in book ed Griel Marcus, not Lester - I cut a line and edited badly: my career in a nutshell!

allan said...

Wow. This sounds fantastic, so thanks for what seems like an extra-long review. I'm a huge Bangs fan, back to 1980, when I was a junior in high school. I wish he had written more about being raised as a JW (as I was) (maybe he did and it's somewhere in his archives). I have some old Creems from that time period (72-76-ish). I wonder if she contributed anything to those issues.

Also, as a huge fan of the Stones' 1972 tour, it was a big deal that Jagger was closing in on 30. (Still performing, he will turn 75 next Thursday!!)

allan said...

A 1978 wedding announcement says she also wrote "Beauty Millionaire: The Life of Helena Rubinstein".

Bangs reviewed "Death Rock" in the May 1973 issue of Creem.

Marty McKee said...

Fabe also wrote for DC Comics in the late 1970s.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! And Drew, you are 100% correct -- that's the LP I was thinking of! I don't have any of Downes's records, and I don't think I even have any MFP records...I do though have a couple Vertigos, which are pretty rare over here in the US, including a very nice copy of Aphrodite Child's double LP "666," which I got for an unimaginably small amount at an estate sale or something many years ago. Like two bucks or something. And I see Downes's record was from '70, so it came first, then the painting was reused for Death Rock. Also, your "cut a line and edited badly" comment made me laugh out loud.

Allan, thanks for the extra info, as well as the Creem detail. I'd love to see that one someday. I actually don't have a single issue of Creem! I have been digging into my "Rolling Stone Cover To Cover" set lately, and the early ones definitely have the same fuzzy-freaky vibe as Death Rock. The question is whether it's true JR Young went over to Creem and did his short story schtick there as well, as some people claim -- one of these days I'll try to find out.