Thursday, August 30, 2018

Narc #8: Death Song

Narc #8: Death Song, by Robert Hawkes
July, 1975  Signet Books

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, thus this penultimate volume of Narc seemed to be just what I was looking for – both the front and back cover blurbs mention “hard rock” and imply that D-3 narcotics agent John Bolt is about to get involved in the rock music scene. Only…that isn’t so much what happens, and the novel is of a piece with the previous seven volumes, with the rock stuff barely explored.

As usual there’s no pickup from the previous volume (or any other volume, for that matter), and once again the story occurs in the insane heat of a New York summer. At this point I’m starting to think Bolt is stuck in some hellish purgatory, sort of like Bucher; an endless continuum of humidity, crime, and illegal drugs. About the only recurring character other than Bolt’s erstwhile partners Kramer (the black one) and Masetta (the Italian one) is Bolt’s custom-made shotgun, which is given a curious re-introduction this time, with the reminder that it has a three-foot barrel and was made for Bolt by an old ex-Nazi who still flies his swastika flag high.

With each volume Marc Olden has gotten closer and closer to the style Barry Malzberg seeems to have employed in the Lone Wolf series (which Marty McKee hooked me up with the other year but I’ve yet to read, but I intend to!); a barebones plot stretched thin and padded out with stream-of-conscious asides from the many various characters. It’s getting real outrageous, too, with almost the whole of Death Song comprised of hopscotching POV narration by various characters, to the point that it somehow achieves an almost psychedelic vibe – or at the very least until the reader is just plain confused by the incessant juggling of perspectives from one paragraph to the next. The fact that there’s very little forward momentum so far as the plot itself goes doesn’t help.

But Marc Olden always has a good opening sequence, and this volume’s no exception. We meet Bolt as he’s in Los Angeles, waiting on a building rooftop for an LAPD helicopter to pick up a Mafia prisoner named DiPalma who promises to blow the lid off the mob’s involvement in the rock music business. But when the copter shows up it’s a fake, and the dude on it starts hammering Bolt and his fellow D-3 agents with a grenade launcher. All as so faithfully depicted on the cover, though for some reason the artist has given Bolt blond hair this time. I wonder if this is due to a misreading of Olden’s text, as the guy on the LAPD helicopter with the grenade launcher is often described as “the blond cop,” so it’s possible the cover artist – or whoever gave him his marching orders – maybe gave the text a lazy read and assumed “the blond cop” was the hero of the piece. Hard to believe given that the same artist did the previous covers (I think), where Bolt was given brown hair, so I digress.

Anyway Bolt’s like the lone survivor, blasting back with his shotgun and taking out the grenade launcher guy. And wouldja believe – one of the killed D-3 agents was like Bolt’s best friend ever!! Of course we’ve never heard of him – the only recurring D-3 guys we meet are Kramer and Masetta – but that’s beside the point. Bolt’s desire for revenge gives Olden opportunity for more stream-of-conscious musings from Bolt’s perspective. That is, when Bolt’s even in the book. Once again he comes off like a supporting charater in his own series.

Instead, and again as per previous entries, the brunt of the narrative is devoted to a host of characters: Tom Thumb, the good-looking Mafia enforcer who really enjoys his work; Candyman, drug peddler to the rock elite who is described as like a Jewish Superfly; Richie Roses, Tom Thumb’s obese capo; Curt Crane, boss of mob-run Lina Records; Dutterman, former CIA agent, current Lina Records chief of security; and finally Richard Story, a black drug flunky who snitches on Lina’s illegal activities for Bolt. The rock characters are only peripheral, from a petulant glam rocker whom Candyman entertains with coke and a pair of willing gals, to a wanna-be Janis Joplin named Leslie Sugar who finds out the harsh side of the music biz quite quickly. There’s also a female act called “Silver” (Olden has this weird habit of always putting his band names in quotation marks) who are all sexy black women with silver wigs and lipstick and etc, curiously similar to the character Synne in Olden’s much superior Black Samurai #6, published just a few months before this one.

After the opening action scene things settle down to the borderline padding we know from the series…Bolt goes back to New York, often muses on the miserable heat, and tries to figure out how to bring down Richie Roses. As if worried the rock material isn’t enough to flesh out a full novel, Olden also introduces the subplot that Roses’s mob family recently heisted a million dollars worth of amphetimines and has it stashed somewhere. Really though the entire novel’s more about drugs and drugdealing than the “hard rock” promised on the cover, and other than a peek in a recording studio and a concert or two (used as the setting for action scenes), there’s really not much of it at all. Hell, Bolt doesn’t even bang a rock babe, as one might expect – Bolt’s sole conquest this volume is Chris Cotten, blonde PR whiz for Lina.

Halfway through the book I wondered why I was even paying attention…I’d read enough Marc Olden now to know what to expect. The villains would take the limelight, Bolt would get lost in the shuffle, there’d be a lot of talking and worrying and then the harried action scenes would be over before you knew it, and by novel’s end none of the villains would have paid for any of their ill deeds. And what’s more, all of them would likely have escaped. In particular I saw this coming with Dutterman, who per vague backstory ran afoul of Bolt a few years before, and our hero shot Dutterman in the hand and ear(!?), leaving Dutterman disfigured and permanently pissed at Bolt, vowing to kill him one day.

Strangely though, mob sadist Tom Thumb is given more focus in the narrative, coming off like the main villain of the piece. But then this is also typical of Olden; he busies up his Narc books with so many damn villains that I swear sometimes he himself confuses them. Dutterman is introduced as this bogeyman from Bolt’s past – in fact, sort of like old enemy The Apache in #2: Death Of A Courier (which I think is still my favorite volume in the series) – but he comes off more as a weakling, sort of terrified of Bolt and looking to Tom Thumb for all the heavy lifting. Candyman actually has more run-ins with Bolt than anyone, like an action scene that takes place during a Silver concert – Bolt chases Candyman, and the drug pimp throws his platform shoes at Bolt, almost knocking him out!

Only occasionally does the novel come off like the “VH1 Behind The Music From Hell” story we want; Lina prez Curt Crane (whose recently-purchased “Indian painting” is titled Death Song) has a few “look hard in the mirror and wonder what the hell I’ve gotten into” moments, and poor waif Leslie Sugar finds out the hard way that you shouldn’t consort with dudes who are friends with a snitch – the image on the cover of the blonde being held in an armlock while the guy on the floor is being forcefed amphetimines comes from this scene. Olden really toys with us on this one, as he writes it with such skill that you keep expecting John Bolt to crash in and save the day.

Instead, Bolt’s busy scoring with plucky PR babe Chris Cotten, though as ever Olden doesn’t get too explicit. Bolt hits it and quits it, though, called away when he discovers that Tom Thumb and crew are closing in on Robert Story. This leads to another of Olden’s taut action scenes, each of which are usually barebones so far as the genre goes (usually just Bolt against one or two people, with lots of ducking and hiding). That being said, someone tries to drop steel beams on our favorite narc in this one. But the climax goes back to the barebones style, taking place in a factory in Jersey where Bolt uses a decoy to lure out Tom Thumb, Dutterman, and a few other gun-toting cronies. Even here the vibe is more The French Connection than The Executioner.

And I’m happy to report that for once Marc Olden delivers a genuine, bona fida conclusion – by the end of Death Song all the villains are either dead, arrested, or on their way to prison. I couldn’t believe it! Not that this cheers Bolt up much; he’s probably one of the most dour, pessimistic heroes in the genre. Anyway, despite what comes off like a tepid review, Olden’s writing is as ever skilled, but it’s increasingly evident he was getting burned out by deadline pressure; too much of Death Song is made up of page-filler, and it lacks the spark of the earliest installments.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader

Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader
No month stated, 1972  Straight Arrow

Here’s another Rolling Stone book I picked up several years ago and just never got around to reading – until now! If you want proof that Rolling Stone was originally much different than the slick celebrity-worship rag it eventually became, then look no further than this old trade paperback, published by Rolling Stone’s own imprint, Straight Arrow.

“Smokestack El Ropo” is a by-line occasionally spotted in the first hundred issues of the magazine, usually credited with drug-centric articles; I’ve seen some online comments that at one point people speculated El Ropo was really Ken Kesey. However, it turned out to be an RS editor named Charles Perry. Interestingly, Perry appeared in silhouette, his face intentionally hidden, on MTV’s 1992 documentary 25 Years Of Rolling Stone Magazine. One wonders what the hell that was all about – I recently watched the documentary on Youtube, hence it was fresh in my mind when I read this book – particularly when Perry’s mugshot is on the back of The Bedside Reader. But of course no one at the time likely even knew what Perry looked like, and I only do because I have the perfect hindsight granted by the internet.

Anyway I’m ranging all over the place like I myself have been smoking some of the wacky weed, but sadly that’s not the case. Mr. Ropo himself writes a witty introduction/overview of his Bedside Reader, stating that these articles, features, short stories, and fables have been culled from the first hundred issues of Rolling Stone, showing the dope scene as it was covered at the time. He also mentions that there’s some stuff that didn’t even get printed back then, but I did discover that in one case, as noted below, the version included in The Bedside Reader is actually shorter than the original magazine version.

Speaking of El Ropo, his six “Fables” provide a sort of framework for the book. These are short but humorous yarns, set in some mythical Middle Eastern past – indeed a Middle Eastern theme runs through the book, with images taken from Egyptian hieroglyphs and the like – and they usually concern heroes who use their dope-spawned cleverness to get out of hairy situations. Two of the fables feature Zig, “the trafficker in counterfeit,” who in one story escapes the cops and in another outwits a dealer known for screwing over his customers. Many of the tales have a magical conceit, like an eternal stash that replinishes itself each night – if only you believe and share the stash with others! These yarns all have a goofy charm similar to that found in the RS stories of J.R. Young – whose work by the way would’ve fit right in with The Bedside Reader, but I guess none of it was included because the focus here is solely on drug-related stories.

“King Hash Is Sure To Come” by Sheila Weller – Our first story takes us to Tangier, where Ms. Weller profiles Ahmed, a well-known hash trader who wears a “schlockedelic fake-silk ascot” and has a wall full of photos of himself with various rock stars who have bought his wares. One of his customers was Jimi Hendrix himself, of whom Ahmed says: “This man, he don’t know it, his music from God.” This one’s a short but cool character study that reads more like fiction, complete with Ahmed barrelling through Tangier while blasting a tape of Cream’s Goodbye.

“A Dealer’s Dozen Incidents In The Dope Trade” by Sheila Weller – Weller’s next story is longer and comes across even more like fiction. But then Rolling Stone was known for “new journalism,” aka fake news before fake news was cool, so there’s a fiction-esque vibe to the majority of the stories here. But this one really seems to be a short story posing as nonfiction; it’s mostly dialog from a group of young smugglers, from a girl who is recruited by would-be filmmakers and poses like she’s pregnant, carrying hash in the fake stomach, to a Harvard graduate who now runs a hash farm in Lebanon and discovers that “goat shit” is the secret to getting the best crop. There’s also real fiction-y stuff about “Island X,” off the coast of Spain, where another American trafficker supposedly hid a huge stash of contraband before dying, and dopers are constantly digging the place up at night to find it. Regardless whether it’s “factual” or not, this one’s fun and makes me wish Weller had more stories in the book.

“A Nervous Journey To The Hash Capital” by Charles Alverson – This one takes us to mythical Ketama, a village near Tangier which is the titular “hash capital.” Our author finds that everyone is selling, from the people he bumps into on the street to the kid at his hotel, but there are cops everywhere, and they’re really looking to crack down on foreigners who have come over here for drugs. We get yet another visit to a larger-than-life native drug dealer: Omar, who runs out of an opulent place in the sticks and has some incredible hash for sale. But Alverson and friends regretfully decline, for fear of the cops – only to regret not purchasing anything when they’re able to drive out of town without any police hassling at all.

“Shocking Tale Of GI Drug Abuse” by Arthur Leon – Just like the title says, this one’s a rundown of all the drugs taken by US infantrymen in ‘Nam. “Many of the soldiers in my unit stayed stoned for the entire year of their duty,” Leon informs us, going on to get into the pendantics of how drugs – mostly dope, hash, and some speed – are smuggled into Vietnam, or how you can get good shit from local contacts. An interesting curio of the era, though I have to relate that a friend of mine had a dad who’d served in ‘Nam, on a PT boat – just like in Apocalypse Now! – and that dude once told me he never saw any drug use over there. Regardless, I like to envision my Vietnam-era soldier blitzed on hash and/or LSD while the Doors blare in the background.

“By The Light Of The Kennedy Moon” by Charles Perry – The alter ego of Smokestack El Ropo turns in this short piece of psychedelic fiction, which is just a bit too strange for its own good. The moon is compared to a Kennedy silver dollar – with an offhand comment that if you want some of these you can go to the hospital, where some dying patients have them sewn into their flesh – and the narrator and friend are ripping off a hash field or something. Then a little girl comes out and asks the narrator what an orgasm is, and then the narrator’s partner shows up with a living, breathing sheriff in a duffel bag. Like I said, just a little too strange, but it’s marvelous that Rolling Stone even published something like this, once upon a time.

“Open House At Paul’s” by Charles Alverson – Another goofy one that has the ring of fiction about it. We’re back in Tangier, in the “Frankie Avalon-as-directed-by-Dennis Hopper atmosphere” of Paul, who has a “commune” here that’s more like a ‘50s frathouse with head shop paraphernalia. Not much point to this one, other than to make fun of good ol’ boy types trying to fit in with the changing drug-heavy era, or something. Personally I suspect it’s yet another piece of fiction masquerading as “new journalism.”

“New Mexico And The Acid Cowboys” by John Dean – This is the one I mentioned above, as the author has put the entire original article up on his website.  From this we can see that “Smokestack El Ropo” chopped off the entire first half and last quarter for the version he reprinted in The Bedside Reader. Anyway this one opens in “Brother Daniel’s New Mexico Homestead,” Bro Daniel being a back-to-the-earth hippie farmer, but then the story becomes Daniel’s first-person recounting of his problems with a group of wealthy Americans who like to dress up like cowboys and ride around with loaded pistols. Or as Daniel so wonderfully puts it, “The acid cowboys can blow it for the psychedelic farmers.” Not sure how I made it this far in life without ever reading that sentence. This one’s another strange read, as it comes from such a different era that you have a hard time processing it.

“Johnston Was Talking Low” by Alexander North – Another short piece of psychedelic fiction, this tells the surreal tale of Sgt. Pepper’s blaring on the stereo while some guy fucks his girlfriend. Meanwhile people shout out of windows and take drugs. And Lyndon Johnston talks on the TV, but the sound is too low. Weird, wild stuff, as Johnny Carson would say. Not very interesting, though. 

“News Of The Day After Day” by Dr. Elmo Rooney – Look, kids, more short psychedelic fiction. The friggin’ Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse charge across the “Plain of Despair,” smoking some heavy shit and arguing endlessly over which way to go. So they just keep charging along and passing the hash pipe. Perhaps there’s some “deep meaning” here but I didn’t catch it. Cool imagery, though. “Elmo Rooney” was another Rolling Stone pseudonym, perhaps another of Charles Perry’s. Curiously, Steve Martin appeared as “Dr. Elmo Rooney” in a skit in the jaw-droppingly weird Rolling Stone 10th Anniversary Special which was shown, unbelievably, on network television in November 1977. Wait a second, could Elmo Rooney have been a pseudonym of…? Nah. Right??

“Worship At The Planetarium Of Your Faith” by Les Bridges – More psychedlic literature, this time about a group of hippies getting stoned along the Chicago riverfront, then heading to a nearby planetarium and grooving to the trippy lightshow.

Along with all this we also have two excerpts from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, credited to “Raoul Duke,” ie the psuedonym Hunter S. Thompson used for the original Rolling Stone version of the story, and another excerpt from Thompson’s Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, which isn’t credited at all. This leads me to believe that rights issues prevented the publisher from crediting “Hunter S. Thompson.”

There are also some more bland features that didn’t interest me, like an overlong report on the drug scene in South Africa, as well as the occasional “psychedelic” poem. Dr. Elmo Rooney, that “wild and crazy guy” (maybe??), returns with a goofy piece on how to play music on your touch-tone phone. Finally there’s the long “Cheap Thrills” section at the end of the book, devoted to elaborate pre-internet means of entertaining yourself, like putting a glass bowl of water over a lamp or lighting a toilet roll paper and the like – complete with even letters Rolling Stone received with reader suggestions of more elaborate cheap thrills.

Overall Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader is entertaining, and certainly would be a nice nostalgic “trip” for someone who read Rolling Stone in its earliest days. I think it could’ve been better, though. It certainly would’ve benefited from the long feature Ken Kesey himself contributed to the magazine, in his search for the “Lost Pyramid” of Egypt. But I think that was published in ’74, so this book came out earlier.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Marksman #16: This Animal Must Die

The Marksman #16: This Animal Must Die, by Frank Scarpetta
March, 1975  Belmont-Tower Books

I definitely have to agree with Lynn Munroe that this sixteenth installment of The Marksman is courtesy George Harmon Smith, as it’s very much in the vein of another Smith novel: Savage Slaughter, which thanks to some tinkering from series editor Peter McCurtin became an installment of The Sharpshooter (apparently without Smith’s knowledge!). In fact, I’d go further and say that This Animal Must Die was written as a sequel to Savage Slaugher – which happened to be published the month before.

To recap, that Sharpshooter yarn, which clearly started life as a Marksman yarn, featured “Johnny Rock” doing a job for the CIA. Well, This Animal Must Die continues the trend, with Philip Magellan arriving in Naples when we meet him, wondering where his CIA backup is – and also he’s here thanks to a “63-page document” the President(!!) has given him. We’re never told what exactly this document says, but boy we’re often reminded that it’s sixty-three pages long. Why Smith came up with such an exact number is just yet another baffling mystery in the Marksman/Sharpshooter universe. But anyway the President himself has tasked number one wanted criminal Philip Magellan with taking out a Mafia boss in Italy.

It’s cool to read this one because you get George Harmon Smith’s unfiltered manuscript, with stuff that was apparently cut out of Savage Slaughter to make it fit into the Sharpshooter mythos. For one, we get the Spider-esque gimmick of Magellan often referred to as “The Marksman” in the narrative, ie in italics, which of course brings the flair of an oldschool pulp. But Smith tries to temper Magellan a bit; he keeps the psychotic rough edges of the Russell Smith installments – and Lynn Munroe is likely again correct in his hunch that Harmon Smith edited many of Russell Smith’s manuscripts – but he often has Magellan psyching himself up to do them. Like, even when he has to drug someone and stash ‘em in the trunk of a car, this version of Magellan “hates” it, whereas the Russell Smith version had all the emotional content of a Terminator.

After an aborted mob hit in which Magellan makes quick, gory work of his enemies with a Browning pistol (his choice gun this time around), our hero is whisked away by a hotstuff blonde. Her name is Toni and she’s very mysterious but Magellan’s certain she works for the CIA. In fact she works for an Italian-American who wears a mask, operates out of a cathouse, and tells Magellan that he was extradited from the United States years ago but wants to come back. He figures if he can help on this hit of Frank DiCarlo – ie the Mafia chieftan the President wants dead – then he might get passage back to the States. Interestingly, Magellan has made his way here hidden in a coffin as it’s hauled in a hearse through the countryside – perhaps some sort of sub-“literary” trick per Harmon Smith, certainly the most literary of all the Marksman authors. Don’t believe me?

At the roadside, peasants crossed themselves dubiously as the hearse rattled past. The quick dabs of their gnarled fingers across chests and foreheads were more in the nature of signs warding off ill luck than symbolic affirmations of the Christian faith. 

At the end of the valley the hearse began to climb as the road, curving upward in great loops, left the fields and orchards, the vineyards and little towns that lay scattered like toys on the valley floor to bask away the last of their long, hot, breathless Italian afternoon under the westering sun.

That’s right, folks, that’s taken from a Marksman novel.

But literary flourishes aren’t all Smith brings to the table – he brings a heaping helping of sleaze too. This Animal Must Die is the most explicit volume yet in the series, filled to the brim with that lurid mid-‘70s vibe I love so much. Now, Magellan as we know isn’t the most “sensuous” of men’s adventure protagonists, and in most volumes is a strictly business before pleasure type of guy. But the mysterious masked guy offering to help him (the mask being yet another pulpy touch) as mentioned runs out of a cathouse, the best damn cathouse in Naples – indeed all of Italy – and so he sets Magellan up with a steady stream of free tail.

In fact Smith doesn’t just bring us sex – he makes it sleazy and wildly pre-PC as hell; Magellan’s first “gift” is a black hooker who introduces herself, “Black can be beautiful. Do you like to fuck?” To which Magellan responds, “I don’t care to fuck you!” One of the stranger statements you’ll ever hear a men’s adventure protagonist utter. It gets even weirder, and wilder, with it turning into a hate-fuck thing, the hooker first throwing blood on Magellan so he has to take off his clothes(?!), then playing on Magellan being a “Southern Man” (ie of the Neil Young song type). And Magellan plays it right up for her, doling out the dreaded N-word a few times and calling her “slave” before finally screwing her good and proper. It occurs to me that the whole bit could almost be seen as a spoof of the torrid Plantation Lust subgenre that was big at the time – given that Smith was an editor and clearly had some writing chops, I wouldn’t be surprised. Either way, it’s some crazy shit.

Later we’re informed off-hand that the masked man sends Magellan a new woman every night, though we don’t have another “in-depth” sequence until the man takes Magellan up on his (apparently) joking concept that he “wants virgins.” That night Magellan is gifted with a sixteen year old beauty named China Doll who is a veteran whore, and likely this is Smith again catering to the prurient demands of the sleaze reader of the day. First Plantation Lust, now Jailbait Lust. Meanwhile Magellan keeps lusting over Toni, the blonde who rescued him in Naples. Smith keeps this sex scene off-page, only letting us know at the end of the novel it’s a sure thing; otherwise Magellan’s main fling here is the jet-setting wife of none other than DiCarlo, ie the man Magellan has been brought here to kill.

That’s just the sleaze angle; Smith also introduces this bizarro subplot that could come straight out of the other Smith who worked on the series – namely, Russell Smith, whose Magellan (and Sharpshooter) manuscripts were touched by a special kind of madness. The masked man puts Magellan up in the famous “Magellan Castle,” run by batty old women and a loony uncle who is locked in his chamber and howls at the moon every night. This ridiculous cover has Magellan posing as a wealthy Sicilian or somesuch who has come back to take over the “family castle.” Complete with Magellan dressing like a wealthy Italian gadabout and conducting tours of the crumbling castle(!). All this is wacky to say the least and easily could’ve been cut from the novel, but Smith at least tries to pass it off as Magellan going to all this trouble so as to find – and abduct – gorgeous Crocifissa, the never-seen wife of DiCarlo.

This is another callback to the Russell Smith books, as Magellan hoodwinks her into going up to his private chamber and then locks her in there – even though he “hates” doing stuff like this. Sure he does. He’s banging her that very night, but don’t worry, the lady’s hot for him too – we’re told she’s a passionate-blooded Itallian babe and she’s constantly compared to Sophia Loren, only she’s hotter and has a nicer rack. Smith builds up a relationship between the two, with Crocifissa knowing Magellan wants to kill her husband, but Magellan’s so good-looking and so great in the sack, what can she do? Magellan for his part threatens DiCarlo with Crocifissa’s torture and death, vowing he’ll chop off bodyparts and kill her if the mob boss doesn’t give up, and it’s clear that our hero will actually do it if necessary.

There’s a lot of stuff here that brings to mind previous Marksman and Sharpshooter books – like a hit on the laundry owned by Chinese agent Wing Quong. Magellan tortures him before killing him in a scene very similar to one in Smith’s previous Savage Slaughter. The “action climax” is along the lines of the ones Russell Smith and McCurtin would give us – no real dramatic resolution, just Magellan blowing people up from afar. Gore is given a slight more prominence than in other volumes, particularly when it comes to mentioning the “fecal matter” that blows out of gutshots. So far as the sleaze goes, there’s also the usage of the curious term “v-tuft,” ie female pubic hair, and the only other place I can recall encountering this term was in The Marksman #6 – which could be an indication that George Harmon Smith edited some of Peter McCurtin’s manuscripts as well.  Or maybe just that Smith read that McCurtin installment and latched onto the term, who knows.

Otherwise Smith’s writing is very good, with the caveat that he relies too often on adverbs and his characters are prone to exposition. There are some parts where Magellan and Toni exchange “philosophical” quips that are particularly aggravating. Also he lacks consistency in character names in the narrative, which is one of my pet peeves – our hero goes from “Phil” to “Magellan” to “The Marksman” all on the same page, which is pretty sloppy. I mean the characters can call him a host of names, but the narrative voice should stick to just one. Or at least that’s what I think.

But that’s just minor stuff; This Animal Must Die actually comes off like a masterpiece when compared to the other books in the series, most of which seem like speed and booze-fueled first drafts – most likely because that’s what they were.

Monday, August 20, 2018

J.R. Young & The Review As Fiction

The Rolling Stone Record Review, by The Editors Of Rolling Stone
August, 1971  Pocket Books

In my review of Death Rock I mentioned obscure early Rolling Stone contributor J.R. Young, who introduced the novel concept of writing short stories instead of straight reviews. Inspired by Fabe’s novel I decided to give the Young stories another read, so got out my copy of The Rolling Stone Record Review and my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM.

According to the CD-ROM, Young contributed 26 articles, most of them reviews, between February 1970 and December 1973. But as noted below, this number is suspect, as per The Rolling Stone Record Review Young had pieces in the April and November 1969 issues, which would make it 28 total – that is, if there aren’t more in addition to those two. I’ll have to figure this out someday. Anyway, Young was doing short stories from the beginning, and it was my assumption that he only eventually moved to regular reviews due to editorial/reader pressure or because he’d gotten burned out on the short story format. But in fact he was also doing regular reviews from the beginning; of the 28 (known) pieces he contributed to Rolling Stone, only eleven of them were short stories, all contributed between April 1969 and January 1971. And I’m not sure about any editorial pressure; The Rolling Stone Record Review features an entire section devoted to Young, titled “The Review As Fiction,” and has an intro perhaps written by RS honcho Jann Wenner that enthuses over his work:

The problem of communicating one’s thoughts about an album by writing a story rather than directly dealing with bass lines, influences, production flaws, and the like, is nearly insurmountable. Perhaps the only reviewer to come to terms with this exacting form has been J.R. Young, a mild-mannered young man who lives on a lush 15-acre farm in a tiny town in Oregon “where we have a nice garden, but we also have these funny little bugs in the cold water.” Don’t let his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oregon or his two years’ teaching experience at the State University of New York fool you – the man’s a good writer.

This brief intro is all that’s really known about the mysterious J.R. Young, whose first name it appears was “Jeff.” Several years ago I started a thread about Young at the Steve Hoffman forum, and in 2015 a woman who was briefly Young’s sister-in-law, in the early ‘60s, kindly filled in some details about him. We know from it that he was into the blues, that he lived in Oregon for a time (one of his early Rolling Stone contributions is a short feature about an Oregon co-op), and that he moved to California – and apparently slipped into the aether, as there’s no other info about him I can find. Some have claimed that he did his short story reviews for Creem after leaving Rolling Stone, but I’ve never owned a copy of Creem so can’t attest to that. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who knows, though.

Young’s “reviews” perfectly capture the vibe of the era, and for the most part his protagonists are dopesmoking hippies – kids, really, with the majority of them barely into their teens. Only one or two stories feature adult characters. But somehow Young was able to tap into the hazed zeitgeist of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s; while his stories rarely ever feature anything having to do with music other than the characters occasionally listening to it, he still manages to convey the spirit of rock.

So here is a rundown of the short stories Young wrote for Rolling Stone, in order of publication date. I’ll follow the Rolling Stone naming method – artist name, album name, and date of the issue in which it appeared. An asterisk denotes that the story was included in The Rolling Stone Record Review.

The G.T.O.s, Permanent Damage (4/16/69)* – This short tale was apparently Young’s first; it isn’t listed when you sort by “Contributor” in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM; the earliest listed result is the Live/Dead review, below, which wasn’t published until February 1970, almost a whole year later. Fortunately the review is included in The Rolling Stone Record Review, but not in the “Review As Fiction” section; instead, it’s buried in the “Los Angeles, Southern California, and Other Extremities” section. The mass market paperback equivalent of an Easter Egg, I guess. But if this truly was Young’s first story for the magazine, he came in with a bang – it’s a crazy tale about a proto-punk kid who takes speed, berates his mother for her old-fashioned music tastes, beats her up, then pranks her with the gift of a new record, the joke being that the G.T.O.s were an all-female group (“Girls Together Outrageously”) under the direction of Frank Zappa, and their LP was all about screwing famous rock stars. This one’s weird and wild.

Ten Years After, Ssssh (11/1/69)* – This is another one that doesn’t appear in the “Contributor” filter under “J.R. Young” in the Cover To Cover CD-ROM, it but does appear in The Rolling Stone Record Review. Anyway, the tale introduces us to the “Very Wise Kid,” a teenager who is shopping in an antique store for an instrument – anything other than a guitar. As he explains to the kindly old proprietor, it’s all been done with the guitar, and there’s nothing someone else couldn’t do “ten years after” the Kid himself has done it. This phrase puts him on the topic of Ten Years After, in particular their new LP, Ssssh, which the Kid says is a new sort of thing; indeed, “I think perhaps Alvin Lee is God.” He then leaves the store, going out to preach the Word to others, fated to return in another Ten Years After review.

The Grateful Dead, Live/Dead (2/7/70)* – This is the earliest listed entry when you sort by “J.R. Young” in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which makes me wonder if there are even more Young reviews before it that just didn’t get tagged – if I ever get a lot of free time, it might be worth hunting through the review section of each issue to find out. The fact that the Permanent Damage and Ssssh reviews don’t come up in the results makes me suspect that there might be more Young stories that just didn’t get tagged by the CD-ROM creators.

Anyway, According to The Rolling Stone Record Review, this was Young’s most popular story, and I saw one online claim that some editions of this album came with a slip proclaiming, “Put on the Dead and spread!” This memorable tagline features throughout the story, which is a short one about a trio of young girls named Marsha, Starglow, and Sheila, who when we meet them are “four joints to the cosmos” on “very potent dope.” Sheila’s telling the other two about her latest boyfriend, Real George, who every day after work likes to come home and immediately “ball,” screaming “Put on the Dead, and spread!” This is because, “Real George likes nothing better than to fuck to the Grateful Dead.” Soon enough this very thing happens, Real George ripping off his clothes as he tears into the house, bellowing, “Put on the Dead, and spread, ‘cause I’m loaded and ready to go!” Sheila sheds her own clothes (“She was naked in a jiffy”), puts on a tape of Live/Dead, then rushes into the bedroom with him. The story is goofy and has that fuzzy-freaky vibe I love so much, but it’s pretty short and it’s mostly centered around the tagline, which is repeated several times.

The Guess Who, American Woman (3/7/70) – “Teddy had spent the warm January afternoon at Sugar Marlow’s place rolling finger-sized joints out back in the rec room where Sugar’s dad sometimes played pool and had executive parties.” With yet another effective opening line J.R. Young brings us into the world of Teddy, a dopesmoking Long Beach “blues freak” teen who likes to get ripped and play all the latest heavy blues stuff with his buddy on his KLH portable (a turntable Young mentions a few times in his stories, leading me to believe it’s the one he himself perhaps used). When Teddy goes home and finds his kid sister and her “weird fuckin’ cunt” of a friend listening to the usual “bubble gum” type music, he pokes fun at her for listening to such shit. But the joke’s on Teddy, because they’re playing The Guess Who, and the music gets stuck in his head, and that night he slips into his sister’s room and borrows the LP – lighting another fat joint as “the half-gram [turntable] arm drop[s] onto the album.”

B.B. King, The Thrill Is Gone (4/2/70)* – One of Young’s very best stories, and you often find it mentioned by those who remember his work. Opening with an explanation that it’s inspired by the recent B.B. King single, this wonderful little short story, so good that it should’ve gotten out of the rock magazine world and into a “Best Short Stories of 1970” anthology, concerns a guy named Bud as he drives through rural Oregon, reflecting on how he used to make the same run with his frat brother Phil back in ’64. Phil was a “card” who was known for telling tall tales; in particular he once told Bud a good one about how Phil was driving through a desolate area just like this and his radio picked up an actual broadcast from 1949, like a beam from the past. Phil’s theory was that, since sound travels as waves, it only stood to reason that at some point the waves pass outside of human comprehension but are still out there, and somehow his car radio just picked that particular wave up. But then Phil always was talking about strange shit, as we see in this ultra-weird aside:

Phil once told Bud that someone had pictures, almost a film, of Christ on Calvary. The pictures had been discovered buried, wrapped in a parchment tube. What it was, so Phil’s story went, was a series of rabbit retinas. Someone had lined up a row of rabbits facing the cross and then chopped their heads off in quick succession. The final retinal imprint was somehow made permanent in each eye, and thus, when all the retinas were lined up, there was a pictorial study of Calvary. The story had bothered Bud for a long time.

I love that this little story is buried within the main story, and it’s an indication that by this point Jann Wenner (or whoever edited the reviews section) was letting Young do whatever he wanted. But anyway here Bud is driving on the same stretch of road, almost ten years later, and he turns on the radio, and he hears this ghostly voice coming over the waves. The song sounds old and antiquated, the signal is weak and fading fast, and Bud wonders if he is experiencing the same thing that Phil did all those years ago. That here is another of those old sound beams experiencing a “pause in its second stellar flight.” But the signal’s fading away and Bud cranks it up – only to be blasted almost out of his seat by Wolfman Jack, announcing that he just played B.B. King’s latest single, “The Thrill Is Gone.” This is an effective little piece, alternately poignant and eerie, and very memorable.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu (4/30/70)* – I’d say this one is Young’s masterpiece, if for no other reason than it’s a full-fledged short story, taking up 5 ½ double-columned pages in The Rolling Stone Record Review. The intro to “The Review As Fiction” states that this story “almost found itself onto the Big Screen, and is known to have frightened ‘hip’ record store owners from Secaucus to Sacramento.” This is because the crux of the story revolves around a small group of dopesmoking would-be terrorists who are radicalized by the real thing – a Weather Underground type who moves into the complex they all share in Eugene, Oregon and who ultimately gets them to blow up a record store. As ever Young brings the whole fuzzy-freaky era to life, with its fuzzy-freaky characters; in addition to Dave, who works in a record store and designs his own bomb blueprints, we have:

[Dave’s] old lady was something else, too, because her scene, as she so candidly admitted, was a “mixed bag,” anything from “politico-revolutionary theatre” to blue ribbon winner at the Lane County Fair for her apricot conserve. She said “Sorry ‘bout that” more than three times a day, and talked on endlessly about good karma. 

Clipper, the cat who lived next door to them, thought “her act was nowhere” privately, although he still would have loved to ball her. He was an older cat, and presumed he was terrifically sexual, and was into all kinds of “villes,” such as “I’m in Turned-onsville,” or “He’s from Hostilesville.” He had a freaky girlfriend who always wore a peasant blouse and jiggled her tits on purpose. 

“Nipplesville,” Clipper often laughed as he made a grab for the big ones. 

They were all heavy record freaks and well into dope, always dropping “pure Owsley” and tripping at the beach, stashing joints, and things like that, and always to the big beat of the sounds that Dave brought home from the record store. Music and dope went hand in hand in their households – whether fucking in the shower, eating dinner, talking revolution, reading Mao, answering the door, whatever, they were wacked.

Into this fold comes the mysterious Jordan Rover (hmmm…“J.R.”), who moves into their complex and keeps to himself. He seems to be on the run and the others try to bring him into their fold to find out about him. But he refuses their friendship and even, believe it or not, their dope. Instead he rails at them for their laziness, how all they do is talk about revolution, while their energy is really devoted to the next big record that comes out. As far as Jordan’s concerned, they all should hope that CSNY’s upcoming album – which is so hotly anticipated that it will come off like an atom bomb in the current blasé rock scene – turns out to be bad. That way they can channel that energy back into fighting in the streets and causing societal upheaval.

I wonder if this is yet more commentary buried within the story, as this particular issue of Rolling Stone carried a separate review of Déjà Vu, ie a “real” review, and it was very negative, bitching about how polished it sounded and etc. But anyway our heroes get serious about all that hippie-terrorizing and before you know it Dave’s blown up the record store he works in – after closing hours, when no one’s there, fortunately. The group is so radicalized that they don’t even realize Déjà Vu has finally come out – they’ve tossed out all their albums and their apartments are now spartanly-furnished centers from which they plan more guerrilla warfare. Then one night they hear some good music coming from down the hall – and there’s Jordan Rover, naked and smashed on a fat joint, blasting Déjà Vu on a portable KLH turntable.

Ten Years After, Cricklewood Green (6/11/70)* – A sequel to the Ssssh review, this one’s framed as an interview with the Very Wise Kid himself. The unnamed reviewer, who claims to have read that earlier review and realized at once that the “Kid” was “a very old and dear friend” he knew back in Junior High, three years ago(!), decides to track the Kid down and ask him if he really thinks Alvin Lee is God. The Very Wise Kid defends his claim, but does admit that the new Ten Years After album Cricklewood Green isn’t as good, and comes off like Alvin Lee searching for a top ten hit. This one ranges everywhere from comparing the new record to Chinese food to claiming “Sometimes even God shows off” when it’s argued that Lee’s guitar playing is unnecessarily fast. It occurred to me that this review is likely a parody of the long, often pretentious interviews Rolling Stone was known for, with rock stars elaborting at length on all and sundry topics and the interviewers asking long, probing questions; the tone and style are the same here, though of course it’s done in a fraction of the space. 

Various Artists, Woodstock (7/9/70)* – Per the intro to “The Review As Fiction” in The Rolling Stone Record Review, this and the Déjà Vu review are Young’s two “masterpieces.” I like some of the others better than this one, but it is an effective tale, basically an indictment against the hipsterism that was already rearing its head in the hippie underground. For once we move out of Oregon: it’s Pittsburgh, PA, where we meet 18 year-old Bill, who was “too drunk” to drive over to Woodstock when the festival was going on. But he got bitten by the Woodstock bug afterward, and has become a walking encyclopedia of everything that happened there – he knows the album by heart, has seen the movie multiple times (even getting some of the fabled “brown acid” so he could experience bad vibes during his second viewing), and further has started to lie that he was at Woodstock.

Such is Dave’s fame that others on campus now come to him with Woodstock questions – like at the party in which the story takes pace, where a girl asks if it’s true everyone was naked, “like cocks and cunts and all that.” (Always throws me for a loop how profane Rolling Stone could get in its early days!) But there’s another kid at the party, someone new on campus, memorably described as “a hairy ragamuffin of hipdom,” and he’s sitting there listening to Bill with a strange look on his face. Of course, this kid was really at Woodstock, and with just a few simple questions he outs Bill as a liar. But it’s not a good victory for this kid, as he himself is later shamed by a “girl” (Young has a habit of never naming his female characters), who tells him, “You are Woodstock Nation, and if it’s come down to this, then that’s sad. That’s why there will never really be a Woodstock Nation. You won’t let anybody live on your land.”

Free, Free (7/23/70) – “Our number one rave record reviewer” gets the new Free album in his latest batch of LPs to review, and takes it home where it becomes the butt of a few lame “Is that so and so?” jokes. It seems that with this review Young was attempting to meld his short fiction approach with a regular sort of review, so that we understand Free is imitative of more famous acts, and not very good at all, but it’s relayed in the format of a short story. It doesn’t really work as well as the straight-up stories, though.

Neil Young, After The Gold Rush (10/15/70) – Young’s last major piece of fiction is one of his best, and surely the only reason it wasn’t included in The Rolling Stone Record Review was because it was submitted too late for inclusion; otherwise this one is a masterful character study that surpasses the poignance of the B.B. King review. I was really caught up in it, and it’s nearly as long as the Déjà Vu review. It’s about young Steven, a “good boy,” who has only recently decided to look into rock music; he owns a mere two records, both by Neil Young, whose voice he likes. But Steven is more into sitting on his bed every night in total silence and straining to hear his father in the den beneath him; Steven’s nights are filled with the sounds of the den’s TV, from the Carson show to the late movie, until he finally drifts off to sleep. But his father never makes a sound down there, sitting in total silence, and when Steven asks him about “that movie last night,” his dad just shrugs.

The story is very much the antithesis of the Permanent Damage review, as it’s about a son desperate for his father’s attention and love. The two never talk, but every night Steven goes to bed earlier and earlier, just so he can sit in silence in his bedroom and listen for the sound of his father down in the den. It goes on for a while – and despite the lack of anything “happening” it’s more enthralling than many thrillers I’ve read, such is the power of Young’s prose and characterization. Finally it comes to a head, and late one night Steven’s dad abruptly switches off the TV and yells for Steven, saying he knows he’s up there.

Father and son bond in an all-night session of laughing and talking, and all seems well, even on into breakfast the next day. But when Steven asks his dad about “all those movies” he used to watch in the den, his dad bottles up again and that’s all she wrote for the father-son bonding. That day Steven goes downtown all day and comes home with “Neil Young’s newest record,” and “he was with it for a long time afterwards.” Once again Young has delivered a tale that has no bearing on the actual record under “review,” but he’s managed to capture the desolation and alienation that is central to Neil Young’s work. This is a good story, another indication that J.R. Young should’ve been known beyond the Rolling Stone readership, but it was the last such story he was to contribute.

“A Tale Of Christmas Present” (1/7/71) – Young’s last piece of fiction (at least according to the Cover To Cover CD-ROM) isn’t even a review – I mean, even less of one than his other “reviews” were – but it is buried in the “Reviews” section of this issue. It tells the Yuletide tale of two 14-year-old kids getting ripped on dope and shoplifting at the local mall: “Sammy Snapper and his lamb, Cynthia Swellhead, that lovely little liberated libido herself, had arrived after three at the Valley Creek Shopping Center, and by three-thirty had declared it was theirs for the asking.” The short tale has the duo hitting the discount record store, where Cynthia does her thieving in the Opera section. A “house dick” disguised as Santa nearly catches her, but Cynthia knees him and the two make their escape, after which Cynthia figures she might stop stealing. It’s a fun story, with that same fuzzy-freaky vibe, and I wonder if it was written as a “review” for one of the records mentioned in Cynthia’s stealing spree but just excised and put here on its own.

And with this short tale Young’s fiction contributions ended; unless as mentioned there are indeed more Young stories that just aren’t populating in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM search results due to some technical snafu. Young did contribute the occasional review and feature to the magazine until December ’73, but after a feature piece on a “Singing Cowboy” he dropped out – and apparently vanished from the scene. The veritable D.B. Cooper of rock journalism. As stated above, it’s possible he did more short story-style reviews for Creem, but I have no confirmation. It’s a shame Young didn’t branch out into fiction, as juding from the tone and quality of these stories he could’ve written the novel of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, or at least a pretty damn cool paperback cash-in of it.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Smuggler #7: Welcome To Oblivion

The Smuggler #7: Welcome To Oblivion, by Paul Petersen
June, 1975  Pocket Books

Grab your hankies, everyone – The Smuggler comes to an end with this volume. Seriously though, it’s another tedious trawl of a read, 200+ pages of characters sitting around and talking – and usually the sole topic of their conversation is hero Eric “The Smuggler” Saveman, that perfect paragon of human perfection who is perfect in every way.

It’s four months after the previous volume, the date given as May, 1972. Eric is on trial, indicted by none other than the Supreme Court for his “treasonous” actions in the climax of the last book. As we’ll recall, Eric expressly went against the President’s orders so as to stave off a war with China or something, and now his ass is in trouble. It appears that Petersen set his series in the recent past (the first volume was set in 1969) because he wanted to bash Nixon a little more – this volume brings up a subplot that the government is corrupt and at novel’s end Eric wonders who he is even working for. 

The end result is that the Supreme Court puts Eric on suspension – for at least 4 and a half years, or until the ’76 election. Now we delve into the tedious, ultra slow-moving section of the book where Eric says goodbye to all his friends, like blue-eyed black guy Joshua Kane and his wife Belinda, and Eric’s dad, and all these other characters, because Eric is no longer a ZED agent and can’t associate with any of them because they are top-secret people living top-secret lives. Even Eric’s home in Connecticut, the pretentiously-named paradise that is Cascade, is ransacked by ZED staffers; the bastards even take his guns, though Eric still has a couple of his own. Not that he uses any of them. 

Indeed, action is pretty damn sparse in Welcome To Oblivion. And the title, by the way, is couresy an offhand comment Eric makes when he’s canned; “Welcome to oblivion,” he mutters to himself, in what will prove to be an incredibly lame bit of foreshadowing. Because this installment’s villain turns out to be named “Dr. Oblivion,” folks! But anyway Eric goes around saying so long to everyone, then decides to head out of town…and on the way he does what any other recently-fired secret agent would do. He sees a softball game in progress as he’s driving along the road and he decides to join in(!).

On this incredibly hamfisted “plot development” the entire novel hinges; Eric ends up with a hot tomboy on one of the teams. Her name is “Alysson O.” and she talks Eric into heading to Manhattan with her in her mobile home(!). While Eric’s driving she goes in the back to change and comes out with long blonde hair and a skintight dress that shows off her “full breasts.” She relates that her dad wanted a boy and raised her to act like one or whatever, so she indulges in the occasional baseball game and shit like that. It’s all just so ridiculous as to be awe-inspiring; Eric was just fired by the Supreme Court a day or two ago.

As if that weren’t enough, Alysson reveals that she’s a fan of Eric’s – she even has, believe it or not, scrapbooks devoted to his quarterback days at Stanford years ago. And that’s scrapbooks friends, ie in the plural! Man, The Smuggler is just an ego-trip of the highest order…as we’ll recall, Eric Saveman is a demigod among mortals, better looking, better muscled, better skilled than anyone, and smarter to boot. And when he’s not on the page, the other characters sit around and talk about him. Or think about him. Eric Saveman is the sole human being of any importance in the world of The Smuggler, with entire government conspiracies centered around him and a master criminal who has even devoted six years of planning to draft him.

And look at that…judging from the cover, Eric Saveman sort of looks a little like…why, he looks a lot like Paul Petersen! Wait a minute, it is Paul Petersen!

Petersen attempts to be going for more of an ensemble piece this time, with other ZED entities, in particular Joshua and Belinda, getting their own subplots…and yet all they do is talk about Eric! Or think about him! The fact that Alysson O. actually kept several scrapbooks devoted to Eric Saveman’s glory years as a friggin’ college quarterback is actually just one example of many such Eric-worshipping moments throughout the book. But at the very least Alysson turns out to be a great ultra-‘70s sort of babe, right up there with the New Age occult babe of  volume #3.

For one, her Manhattan pad is an ultramod dream – it’s got “platforms” that are like rooms on elevators, and with the push of a button you can bring different “rooms” down to you. This is explained at length – of course, Eric actually knows the guy who designed the place, ‘cause Eric Saveman knows everyone and everything – but I did dig the “music room,” which is stuffed with LPs. It’s suddenly an analog geek’s delight as Petersen starts namedropping vintage stereo gear – Alysson has MacIntosh equipment, a Garrard turntable, and a Shure cartridge. Eric’s such a superman he even fixes the “contact strips” of the faulty Shure in a matter of seconds so the music can blast.

And what music do they play? Welcome To Oblivion features a lot of period details, which is cool if you’re into stuff like that, as I am, so we get various mentions of rock or jazz groups of the day; Eric himself plays some Hubert Laws before leaving Cascade, and here at Allyson’s he tells her he “doesn’t understand” Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so Alysson decides on some more soothing jazz as the two of them get down to the dirty business of finally screwing – but Petersen, for once, cuts away from the shenanigans! Yet more evidence that the depraved, graphic second volume was courtesy another author…though maybe that one, which as I recall was written in a more rough-hewn style, was the work of Petersen, and all the other volumes, which are a bit more polished but not nearly as depraved, are courtesy the mysterious co-writer David Oliphant, who is only credited in small print on the copyright page. 

Not that Petersen (or Oliphant) doesn’t give us a little sleaze here and there. We come back to the Eric-Alysson thing mid-boink, as if the author(s) realized we needed a little something to keep us from falling totally into a stupor. I mean The Smuggler isn’t as boring as Dakota, but it’s definitely up there (or down there, I guess), and it doesn’t help that this final volume is mostly made up of talking, talking, talking. And usually all the talk’s about the same topic – you guessed it, Eric Saveman. But there are more topical ‘70s flourishes about, like when some of Alysson’s jet-setter friends come over (one of the lovelies, wouldn’t you believe it, immediately hits on Eric!!) for a bona fide cocaine party, and Eric after a little deliberation partakes in the coke bowl as it’s passed around. This makes Eric the second of two men’s adventure protagonists I know of who snorts cocaine, the other being Johnny Rock in Len Levinson’s The Sharpshooter #7.

Things finally pick up when Eric meets Alysson’s dad, Dr. Oblivion. He’s a spare guy with a bald head and a nondescript demeanor and no one seems too taken aback that his name’s friggin’ Dr. Oblivion. They’re jumped by some thugs outside a Manhattan restaurant and Eric of course makes short work of them, this being the second action scene in the book, about a hundred pages in. But it’s all a ruse, the thugs secretly in the employ of Oblivion, and the good doctor drugs Eric’s drink and the Smuggler’s out for the account. Doctor and daughter casually discuss everyone’s favorite topic right over his unconscious form – Dr. Oblivion has planned this for six years at least, and his goal is to turn Eric.

And yes, Eric met Alysson because he decided join a softball game on the spur of the moment…well, this is vaguely and quickly explained away as like Providence or something, at least on Alysson and the Doctor’s part. Eric comes to in Montana, in the doctor’s lair, where he’s to be brought into the man’s employ…to do something. At this point Petersen seems to be writing a James Bond script in the manner of the Roger Moore years; Dr. Oblivion has this high-tech SCUDA thing, self-contained underwater drilling apparatus, which he plans to cause some global havoc with. Oh, and he’s got a forest of coca plants, ie millions of dollars of cocaine, so Eric knows the dude’s loaded, yet he’s sure someone else is footing the bill. Eventually Eric will learn that Dr. O even bought out a portion of the US government to frame Eric, and also many of them are conspiring with him in his SCUDA plot. 

The finale sees Eric almost too quickly escaping, and calling in some of the students from the nearby Deep Security School, where Eric himself was a student in the second volume. At one point they get caught on SCUDA, where Alysson joins the cause – mostly because her dad decides to make her a casualty of war, to die from lack of air in the sealed-off, inescapable SCUDA! “Perhaps if you’d been a son,” he regretfully tells her over the ship loudspeaker. That’s cold, man! And while the other characters are freaking out because there’s no way to escape the SCUDA, guess who keeps a level head and comes up with a way to get out??

From here we have an almost off-hand climax in Venezuela, to which Dr. Oblivion has absconded. Whereas the previous volumes at least had some semblance of climactic fireworks, this one continues on the blasé vibe, with Eric and team surprising Dr. O and Eric handing the doctor a pistol to finish himself off. As mentioned the novel ends with Eric back at ZED, but wondering if it’s all worth it – the novel (and series) ends on a Watergate joke, which would imply that the “something treasonous is going on” subplot that runs throughout is intended as a reference to the soon-to-happen (in 1972, that is) Watergate fiasco.

I wonder if Petersen and Oliphant had this ending in mind all along. We know from publicity reports that Petersen got a contract to write eight books in the series – my hunch is still that the unpublished eighth volume was actually something between volumes two and three, as discussed in my review of the third volume. In other words I don’t think the eighth volume was one written after Welcome To Oblivion, as the series definitely seems to conclude here, and gives some indication at least why Petersen set the series in the recent past – perhaps he was leading up to Eric getting caught up in the corruption of the Nixon administration?

Who knows. The important thing is it’s all finally over.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Random Record Reviews: Volume 1

A few favorite obscure ‘70s Rock LPs: 

I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorite obscure rock records, inspired by the list 00individual did. (One of the coolest guys on the web, by the way.) Anyway hopefully you all won’t mind this anomaly of a post…though if do you like it, maybe I’ll do more in the future. Or maybe despite your feedback I’ll just continue to do them and then cry myself to sleep at night.

With no further ado, here is my list, in order of release date:

1. Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against The Empire
RCA Victor, 1970

While the Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus, guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner assembled a pantheon of California rock musicians at the recently-opened Wally Heider studios in San Francisco and recorded this sci-fi concept album about a group of “crazies” revolting against America, stealing a starship, and heading to “the garden” in space. So basically like that “space hippies” episode of Star Trek. This Jefferson Starship is not to be confused with the later one Kantner would also put together – that one was more of an actual group, who of course had a huge hit in the ‘80s as Starship with “We Built This City” (which ironically was written and released after Kantner had left). This 1970 Jefferson Starship is composed of Grace Slick, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and Peter Kaukonen, brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Not to mention many others.

Rolling Stone was ruthless in its review of the album, but if anything it has aged well. Each side flows from one song to the next, with side 1 set on Earth and starting off with the shambolic proto-punk of “Mau Mau” (which manages to call out Nixon and Reagan) and coming to a close with the Kantner-Crosby gem “A Child Is Coming,” dedicated to the baby Kantner and Slick were soon to have (mistakenly reffered to as “he” throughout, the baby turned out to be a girl they named China who eventually became an MTV host!). Side 2 opens with Slick’s proto-metal muezzin “Sunrise,” the sidelong suite eventually centering around the “Hijack” of a starship – complete with an SFX track courtesy Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead. I thought I’d do a “top track” for each of these LPs, but I had a hard time picking one for Blows; this is such an “album album” that to me the songs don’t work as well when you excise them from the album itself. That being said…

Top track: “A Child Is Coming,” which starts off like an acoustic ditty before morphing into a droney, drugged-out psychedelic dirge with Kantner and Crosby trading non-sequitir lyrics while Slick provides ethereal wordless vocals above them. Bonus note: The fuzz bass on this one is positively cavernous on the vinyl – but then my XLM MKII cartridge (with New Old Stock stylus, baby!) brings out the bass in everything.

2. Twink: Think Pink
Polydor, 1970

In 1969 Alexander “Skip” Spence, troubled former Jefferson Airplane drummer and Moby Grape singer/guitarist, got out of a mental ward, headed for Nashville, and recorded the solo album Oar, a solo album in its truest sense, with Spence handling all the instruments. Ignored in its day, Oar was rightly praised decades later. However, a year after Spence’s record came out, another former drummer in a psychedelic group recorded his own solo masterpiece, however this one’s yet to have received its due. The drummer was named Twink (aka John Alder), and he’d been with the Pretty Things; his record, Think Pink, is one of the last blasts of British psych.

Unlike Spence’s album, which sometimes sounds more like a scratched-up folk 78 than a rock record, Think Pink is fuzzed-out acid rock, complete with druggy spoken word pieces, backwards sound effects, and driving acid rock guitar, Twink fronting a group that would soon reform as The Pink Fairies. It’s also damn funky at times; Gnarls Barkley even sampled the track “Fluid” on “Would Be Killer,” on their 2008 album The Odd Couple. Special note must be made of my copy, released by the Italian label Akarma on neon pink vinyl; definitely one of the most psychedelic things I own.

Top track: “Rock And Roll The Joint,” a fuzzed-out acid rock stomper that doesn’t even waste our time with vocals.

3. Wilderness Road: Wilderness Road
Columbia, 1972

Several years ago, for an inexplicable but brief moment in time, I was interested in country-rock. I’d had friends who raved about Gram Parsons and stuff like that, but whenever I tried listening to it I was like, “I hear the country, but where’s the rock?” (Regardless, at the time I declared “Chestnut Mare” the greatest song ever.) Anyway here for once is an example of the genre that truly lives up to both styles of music. Aptly described by Rolling Stone as “The Who fronting The Byrds” (bearing in mind that RS meant the early ‘70s Byrds, ie the version of the group that gave us country albums like Farther Along), Wilderness Road was a group of comedians(!?) who also performed music together, and this, their first of two records, is a sort of Western concept album, telling the story of a gunslinger.

You know you’re in good hands from the first track, which starts off with the familiar country twang – and then some Townshend-esque power guitar kicks in. Not only that, but there are psychedelic production tricks here and there, so the record truly straddles many genres, and sadly it’s another that’s been ignored. But fortunately like most of the other albums on this list, the hipsters of today are still unaware of it, so you can get a copy for cheap.

Top track: “Dr. Morpho’s Revenge,” which really captures the “Who meets the Byrds” vibe, plus adds in some cool psychedelic-‘60s style production effects.

4. Randy California: Kapt Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds
Epic, 1972

Randy California was only in his early 20s when he recorded this but he was already a veteran rocker – at 15 he played with rising star Jimi Hendrix, who dubbed Randy “California” given that Jimi had two Randys in his band. After this California formed Spirit with his 40-something stepfather, and went on to the cusp of fame, before dropping out and leaving the group. California headed to London where he assembled two other former Hendrix colleagues – none other than Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, aka the “Twirly Birds,” appearing here under pseudonyms.

Perfectly described in a Youtube comment as “the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas of rock albums,” Kapt. Kopter is a drug-soaked epic of Hendrix proportions, featuring countless overdubbed psych guitars and California’s stoned ramblings fluttering in, out, and overtop the soupy mix. Comprised of tripped-out cover versions and shambling, freaky originals, Kapt. Kopter is a damn monster of a record, unjustly ignored upon release and too obscure today.

Top track: The hazed-out, nine-minute cover of “Rain,” which I think trumps the Beatles original, complete with a random fake-out opening and a whole new refrain. 

5. Kenny Young: Last Stage For Silver World 
Warner Bros. Records, 1973

Just one of those chance discoveries…two decades of collecting ‘70s LPs and I thought I was familiar with just about everything, but I’d never even heard of this ultra-obscure record until I spotted it recently in the clearance bin of a Half Price Bookstore. Kenny Young, aka the guy who wrote “Under The Boardwalk,” went the singer-songwriter route that was so en vogue the early ‘70s, and this was the second of two such albums he released. I don’t know anything about the first one, but Silver World is a sci-fi concept album set in the far-flung future of 1997, telling the Romeo And Juliet story of two young lovers in a totalitarian society. Unlike the Kantner sci-fi LP, this one’s of a decidely country-rock flavor; actually, maybe George Harrison’s material of the era would be a more apt comparison. Indeed some of the lead guitar throughout sounds identical to Harrison, and some of the tracks could almost be outtakes from All Things Must Pass.

Like the Kantner record, this release has all the bells and whistles – a gatefold cover, a little booklet on the storyline, and a big pamphlet with color photographs and detailed perfomer info. However the album clearly didn’t register much; I searched my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM and couldn’t find a single mention of Kenny Young, let alone this album. Regardless, I find it very compelling, and it was a nice discovery.

Never released on CD, Silver World is also a healthy reminder of the power of vinyl: the top track, “Light To Light,” has this awesomely deep fuzz bass throughout, yet it’s almost entirely missing in the Youtube upload. To paraphrase the old lady in the ‘80s commercial, “Where’s the bass?” Get yourself a turntable and hear it for yourself – Last Stage For Silver World has yet to be “discovered” by the hipsters of today, so copies are still very cheap.

6. Mike McGear: McGear
Warner Bros. Records, 1974

Mike McGear, aka Mike McCartney, aka Paul’s brother, released this unsung LP in ’74 which was basically a Wings album in all but name – Paul wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, performed on them along with wife Linda and Wings guitarist Denny Laine, and also produced the album. So it’s pretty much a Wings album with a different singer, though occasionally you can hear Paul’s distinctive backing vocals. The record is pretty great, even if it apparently didn’t resonate with listeners of the day. Rolling Stone did like this one, though, writing how McGear, known as a comedy performer, approached each song as an actor approaches a role.

This is a good comparison, as McGear, whose voice is a bit too thin and weak for the heavier songs, veers from Bowie-esque monotone on some tracks to sounding on others like, well, sort of like Paul McCartney. Special mention must be made of “What Do We Really Know?,” one of the tracks Paul wrote himself and which surprisingly he never did his own version of; clearly from the guy who gave us “Helter Skelter,” it’s a hard rocker that, like the earlier Beatles classic, features a heavy metal sort of coda.

However my top track on this one would have to be “Givin’ Grease A Ride,” a funky sort of “T. Rex meets krautrock” thing with Linda on awesome vintage synths and Paul showing up to help scream the vocals at the end.

7. Neil Merryweather: Space Rangers
Mercury, 1974

Like the Randy California album, this is a proto-metal hard-rockin’ monster of an LP, but whereas Kapt. Kopter has a druggy looseness about it, this one’s razor sharp. The guitars are heavy throughout, but Merryweather’s pop sensibilites keep the hooks in place – for the first side, at least. The second side veers more into a funk-metal sort of thing, with the riffs and beats more important than the hooks. In fact the last quarter of side 2 sounds like Primus a few decades early. Speaking of beats, Space Rangers is funky throughout, and thus has apparently been plundered by DJs of today, so this is one of those LPs that’s sometimes priced a bit too high. It’s super cool, though.

Top track: Opening song “Hollywood Boulevard,” which encapsulates the vibe of the entire LP in a little over 5 minutes.

8. Relatively Clean Rivers: Relatively Clean Rivers
Pacific Is, 1976

I’ve never gotten much into the Grateful Dead…the sole album I have of theirs is the original release of Anthem Of The Sun, which is cool, but not enough to make me seek out anything else – again, I just find it all too country, and country’s not my thing. And yet, this privately-pressed mid-‘70s LP is everything I always wanted the Dead to sound like…it’s rural for sure, but it also features occasional acid rock guitar, psychedelic sound effects, and sometimes even video game-esque electronic squelchings. The brainchild of reclusive underground rocker Phil Pearlman – who previously had fronted similar private press acts Beat of the Earth and The Electronic Hole – Relatively Clean Rivers also sounds like a sort of underground Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – or maybe that should be “and Reed,” as Pearlman’s monotone vocals at times are very similar to Lou Reed’s.

This sole album from the group goes for insane prices today…the kicker being that the original release is the only official release. Pearlman, who dropped out of the music biz after this and became a farmer, living with his family in the country (and one of his sons, by the way, grew up to become an Al-Qaeda operative!), refuses to reissue any of his albums. Thus the only copies of Relatively Clean Rivers you’ll find are bootlegs, in particular released by bootleg label Radioactive Records or its vinyl subsidiary Phoenix Records. Regardless, it’s a fun listen, sort of a last gasp of the early ‘70s counterculture, and it’s often pretty damn funky to boot.

Top track: “Journey Through The Valley,” which features all the stuff mentioned – country vibe, sub-Reed vocals, acid-dripping electric guitar, and a funky beat.

9. Klaatu: Klaatu (aka 3:47 EST)
Capitol Records, 1976

The mysterious group so good people actually thought they were the Beatles, Klaatu eventually turned out to be a trio of Canadian musicians who preferred to operate anonymously. When I moved to Dallas in the summer of ’96 I was on a Beatles kick and I recall I got a Beatles trivia book at the library, something from the ‘80s with a bunch of Beatles minutiae. Anyway this is how I discovered Klaatu; one of the lists in the book was like “Top Twenty Reasons Klaatu Was the Beatles.” But get this – the author provided no further details, so when I read the list I thought, “Holy shit! The Beatles got back together and no one knew??!!” I found an online seller with this LP, ordered it…and sometime before its arrival I found info about the group online…back then there wasn’t near the amount of info on the web as now, of course. But anyway by the time the record got to me – in prisitine mint condition as if someone had carefully stored it away for the past twenty years, just for me – I knew that, sadly, Klaatu was not the Beatles.

But the record was great! I played it a lot, then rediscovered it a few years later, when I wrote a review of it for Julian Cope’s Unsung. Reading the review now, I see I come off as overly negative and condescending (imagine that!!). I did this record a disservice, as it’s truly great. It moves and grooves, and it’s filled with cool ‘70s production gimmicks…and it does really sound like the Beatles at times. One singer sounds identical to George and another sounds identical to Paul; there’s even the goofy track “Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III” with its Muppets sort of vocals, and you could easily figure it for Ringo. However the solo Beatles weren’t doing anything like this at the time – Klaatu, titled 3:47 EST in Canada – is more along the lines of ELO with a bit of a ‘70s hard rock crunch, and perhaps is an indication of what Sgt. Pepper’s might have sounded like if it had been recorded ten years later.

Top track: “Sub-Rosa Subway,” aka the greatest hit single Paul McCartney never recorded. I mean tell me that singer doesn’t sound exactly like Paul!

And that’s just the tip of it, friends. I haven’t even mentioned King Crimson rhythm section McDonald and Giles’s self-titled 1970 psych-folk-funk masterpiece, or Grace Slick’s ’74 solo LP Manhole, or….

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Man From Planet X #2: Tiger By The Tail

The Man From Planet X #2: Tiger By The Tail, by Hunter Adams
June, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Whereas the first volume of The Man From Planet X at least made the pretense of being a men’s adventure sort of spy-and-sex thing, this second volume drops all such pretenses and goes straight for a comedy approach. James D. Lawrence, once again serving as “Hunter Adams,” appears to already be bored with the concept “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel has handed him – a red-skinned alien with a monstrous-sized member who has come down here to Earth to “study Earthlings,” which is shorthand for banging tons of babes. All in the name of science, of course.

Branded a “New Erotic Adventure Series” by Pinnacle, Tiger By The Tail is more akin to the goofy sleaze novels that were so common of the era, a light-hearted sexual romp that encompases both purple prose and straight-up explicit material. But even though there’s the occasional fight or chase, none of it is treated seriously and hero Peter Lance, aka Pritan Lansol of the planet Tharb, is so superheroic there’s never any question of him getting killed or even injured. I mean the dude’s super strong, hyper fast, can do all sorts of bizarre mindblowing stuff in the sack, plus he can even talk telepathically to animals. Not only that, but he’s as patient as a zen master and as polite as Mr. Rogers.

Well anyway it’s a few weeks after that previous book and ol’ Peter is heading out of New York in his station wagon(!) for another excursion into human relations, when his ESP senses detect nearby danger, right across the border in New Jersey. Turns out to be a sexy young housewife who is being threatened by a tiger on her own front yard. Peter first literally (and lamely) catches the “tiger by the tail” and tosses it, then telepathically communicates with it. The tiger is a female named Tanya, and Peter calls her off, but then some dudes with machine guns show up, gunning for the animal. Peter easily defeats them, disarming them and beating them up in the blink of an eye. Then he and the housewife repair upstairs for some casual ‘70s sex – Peter’s sexual magnetism is such that these Earthling babes immediately think of getting him bed as soon as they meet him. (I happen to have the exact opposite affect on Earthling babes.)

But Lawrence seems to have gotten sick of all the intermittent banging in the previous volume, so this time his focus is on weird gross-out stuff. We get our first indication of this when, after their quick screw, the housewife notes that Peter’s extra-long and thin member has an injury on it, Peter having been knicked there during the fight or somesuch, and insists that he clean off the wound. Anyway to cut to the chase, Peter’s dick gets stuck in the sink. It’s just one of those books, folks…then the lady’s husband shows up, and he is, naturally, a plumber, but Peter with his superhuman strength is able to pull the entire sink out of the wall as he beats a hasty retreat.

Tanya escaped from a zoo run by Velma Thorp, brunette babe with beehive hairdo who is running the place in the mysterious absence of her great white hunter father, Hugh, a former movie star. But upon his arrival at the zoo Peter is again attacked by men with machine guns, and after quickly knocking out these ones it occurs to him that perhaps they are tracking something hidden within the animal. Ultimately he will of course be proven correct; Velma reveals that her dad brought Tanya back from Russia a few months ago, and mentioned something special about her – it will develop that something has been surgically inserted in Tanya’s hide, a device which could trigger WWIII or somesuch.

For the most part this main plot – which just barely categorizes the novel as men’s adventure – is cast aside and more time is spent on the “jungle porn film” Peter is roped into filming by drunkard director Burk Fontana, who declares upon seeing Peter’s dick: “That fucking whang of his is a potential goldmine!” Burk you see has been hired by Velma in a desperate bid to track down her missing father, who has been gone for three months but who is known for random, unexplained disappearances…Velma’s muddled hope is that this film, to be shot on the zoo Hugh Thorp opened, will somehow capture the attention of her father, wherever he might be, and he’ll come back home. Upon seeing that awesome whang, though, Burk demands that the flick needs to be a porn.

Burk, who steals the novel, calls in a former sword-swallower turned porn starlet to feature in some test footage based around fairy tales in which Peter screws a bevy of gals, capping off with this sword-swallower managing to contain his entire girth in her mouth. But she turns out to be a commie spy who has something hidden up in a certain part of her anatomy, something which latches onto Peter’s dick while he’s enthusastically boffing her, to the extent that Peter’s dick swells up to crazy levels. Enter the CIA agent from the previous volume, who has been tracking this sword-swallowing spy, Fifi, and informs everyone that she’s known for this trick – cue more gross-out stuff as Fifi again has to blow Peter, but this time it’s to suck that poison out.

Along comes wealthy socialite Crystal Warrick, a blonde vixen who demands, “Take out your cock!” promptly upon meeting our hero. She’s seen the test footage, you see, and through some chicanery she’s managed to buy out the Thorp zoo so she can have a controlling interest in the jungle porn. She is now running the film, and declares that they’ll be filming in Africa, not on the zoo itself, and that further she will star in the film and Velma can co-star if she’d like – there is a simmering jealousy between the two, not that this stops them from shooting girl-on-girl scenes for the movie! But Crystal, despite coming on strong to Peter, always refrains from full-on sex with him; it later develops, in another of the novel’s many arbitrary subplots, that Crystal’s a virgin – and of course Peter takes care of that for her.

Lawrence hits all the bases, so to speak: promptly upon arrival in Nairobi Peter is being propositioned by a sexy native: “Peter’s first real contact with a black Earthling.” And boy is it a memorable first contact. Later on, Peter, realizing that Crystal is hiding things from him, decides that “A simple little rape might do the trick,” and proceeds to anal-rape her, after which a satisified Crystal declares, “Okay, I’ve taken you up the ass, I guess I may as well take you into my confidence.” There’s also a part where Burk and the film crew are lured into the jungle by a bunch of horny native gals and screw away with aplomb, not realizing it’s a trap orchestrated by the Black Death, a big guy in black robes with a leprousy-ravaged face.

Despite the amount of sex there’s nothing steamy about any of it…particularly given how Peter’s always thinking of the women as “Earthling females.” You almost sort of get the idea that Peter would be just as game to experiment with Earthling males. But the explicit material is less pronounced than last time – I mean it’s graphic and all, but many times Lawrence spends more time on the foreplay or naughty dialog, then leaves the actual “coupling” vague. This one’s also missing those cool ‘70s touches that were frequent last time, I mean who could forget Peter Lance dancing to Led Zeppelin on a quadraphonic hi-fi?

But it does go on and on, and it’s more of a lame comedy than anything; even when Peter is briefly captured by Chicoms it’s more goofy than thrilling. But Lawrence plods away, almost desperately padding the 200+ pages; there’s even an arbitrary bit where Peter gets amnesia – a subplot that lasts all of a few pages and has no bearing on anything. For those diehards who want to know “But what’s it all about?,” long story short: Hugh Thorp turns out to be an agent of top-secret CRACK, as is Crystal Warrick, and he was on a mission to capture some doomsday tech from the Reds, and hid the schematics or whatnot in that cannister which he implanted in Tanya.

All told, Tiger By The Tail was really stupid, displaying none of the cool funky sleaze Lawrence delivered for Engel in the far superior Dark Angel series. My assumption is The Man From Planet X failed to resonate with readers even in its own day, as the third and final volume didn’t appear until two years later.