The Rock Nations, by George William Rae
June, 1971 Paperback Library
Well, Death Rock appears to have sent me back into the spiral of late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, and The Rock Nations is another paperback original cashing in on the era. But unlike Death Rock this one didn’t appear to get much traction anywhere. It is similar to Maxene Fabe’s superior novel though in that it isn’t as much of a “rock novel” as you’d expect, especially given the back cover hype (below).
This turns out to be one of the more uninentionally funny things about the novel, as the whole friggin’ thing’s supposedly about some hippie driving around the country and going to all the rock festivals of the day!! So naturally the reader would assume the novel would be filled with furry freak brothers and sisters passing the peace pipe and dropping the sugar cubes and soaking up the vibes of Hendrix, the Airplane, the Dead and whatnot. But nope – what we instead get is a lot of speechifying and preaching and sermonizing on this or that, not to mention whole heaping helpings of bitching about practically everything. The novel is basically a 224-page diatribe narrated by a self-involved asshole.
The common perception of the hippies in today’s world is the “peace and love, man!” cliché familiar from movies and TV shows; the actors on the late ‘80s Freedom Rock commercial pretty much represented all hippies to the kids of my generation. But years ago when I started reading all the hippie lit of the era itself, I was surprised to discover that the hippies were pissed. About what? Everything!! Most of those hippie novels, written by scrawny-chested guys and bra-burning gals, were screeds against the establishment, filled with hate and anger about everything, even their own movement. But then, the Left is filled with hate, and if anything it’s only gotten worse.
So this novel follows suit, and George William Rae captures the same angry voice. Strange then, as the only author I can find by this name was a pulp writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s who also turned out a book on the Boston Strangler in the late ‘60s. Surely this guy could not have been a hippie, as the narrator of the novel, a twenty-something Boston hippie named “Skin” Sherman, is too authentic…I know good writers can capture any voice, but it would really be assuming a lot that Rae, likely in his forties or beyond, could do so well. Sure, an author of that age could do it today, but today such an author would’ve grown up in the post-rock world. I asked James Reasoner if he knew anything about Rae, and he confirmed the author seemed to mostly operate in the ‘50s and ‘60s; James brought up a great point, though – perhaps this was actually Geroge William Rae, Junior, but left that tag off the end of his name?
At any rate, the novel is copyright Coronet Communications, owner of Paperback Library, so it’s possible this was written by some other author entirely, and “Rae” was just a house name, but given that it’s such a specific name, that’s hard to buy. Regardless of all the mystery, the novel is pretty well written, faithfully and exactly capturing the voice of other examples of this short-lived subgenre, and Skin Sherman seems like such a real person that I’d be shocked as hell to learn the book was really written by an older pulp author. The acid test comes in the fact that, by novel’s end, you are sick as hell of Skin and his endless bitching and self-obsession – just like the real hippies, he burns himself out and by book’s end you just want him to shut up and go away forever.
Skin drives an International Van with “Busy Being Born” painted on the side; when we meet him it’s June 1969 and he’s on his way to Atlanta, to catch the Atlanta International Pop Festival, which actually isn’t named – we’re just told it’s a festival on the Raceway. Skin is quite ashamed of the fact that he is, “dig it!,” rich, thanks to a wealthy grandfather who insisted Skin take some money when he became an adult. So Skin bought up an actual house in Boston’s trendy hippie district, so ashamed that he’s actually a “capitalist” that he hides the fact from everyone, even his (temporary) “true love” Mary Faulkner, an “ultrabuilt” blonde in pink granny glasses Skin picks up on his way to Atlanta. That’s her on the cover, right alongside Skin; the cover artist clearly read the character descriptions.
Mary, who turns out to be from Boston, too, is hitchhiking with “fat Times,” aka a heavyset girl who comes from the Haight and who escaped the place due to the “bad scene” developing there, with hippies turning on one another. This theme becomes apparent in The Rock Nations as well, so the author was clearly aware of the direction things were heading – one should not go to this novel looking for doe-eyed reflections on the Woodstock Nation or the peaceful ways of the hippies in general. And one certainly shouldn’t look to it for frontline reporting on those rock gods and goddesses at the height of their powers; hell, even Jimi Hendrix gets the brush-off from our eternally-pissed narrator.
Nope, what you’ll get from The Rock Nations is a lot of senseless entitlement and an irreperable hate which permeates through the pages…again, not much different than what you’ll find today, though at least the hippies smoked dope and took acid and knew how to relax every once in a while. Along the way Skin also encounters Janie, a well-bred aristocratic type who has gone, naturally, full-bore hippie terrorist, dedicated to bombing capitalist institutions and often trying to hijack “rockfests” to spread Leftist propaganda against the establishment. Yawn.
One thing though that also bears similarity to those other hippie novels of the era – there’s rampant cursing (“fuck” appears several times a page, at least) and a fair helping of sleaze; Skin gives us all the details on the various “hairy situations” he gets into with “earth-mother” Mary and “incredible fuck” Janie – and folks, we’re talking 1969-1970 here. It’s real hairy. And let’s not forget the typical uncleanliness of the hippies in general…they’re sleeping in mud at these rockfests, using broken porta-potties, standing out in the rain all day…and occasionally runing into muddy ponds for a “bath.”
As mentioned the “rock” material is scant, at best; Skin takes us along to the major rockfests between June 1969 and August 1970, but we more so get the intermittent bitching about the ever-present rain, the lack of food and water, and the general “bad vibes” that descend on each place. Music content is relegated to something like, “Jimi Hendrix was hamming up the Star-Spangled Banner” or somesuch; perhaps the most mentioned performer is Grace Slick, about whom Skin fantasizes over (“That chick really does something to me”), but otherwise there just isn’t much, folks. It’s a head-scratcher for sure. Hell, even the Grateful Dead gets like a single mention, and that in passing. The author does though often quote rock lyrics – with no credits on the copyright page – but even here it’s in a demeaning light, like when Skin informs us how they all get to singing a “dumb song” by The Who on the way to one of the festivals.
The back cover, below, outlines all the rockfests Skin attends over the timeframe of the novel. They’re the big ones, of course. But in each case he has to be convinced to go – Mary having moved in with him and begging him to go to Woodstock, or Altamont, or whatnot – and we’ll really just get a rundown on how traffic was bad, what the turnout was like…and then instead of rockfest stuff we’ll get stuff like Skin having to leave to go broker a “skag” deal for heroin junkie/eternal annoyance Dubinsky, another of the hitchhikers he’s picked up along the way. Woodstock is given the most text, naturally, and here we see that Skin actually likes one of the groups – Santana(!!). Altamont is almost as featured, but as expected it’s all the heavy stuff…the sadistic Angels beating up the crowd (and even the Airplane singer), killing a guy, etc.
As for the less-famous rockfests…ironically, Powder Ridge also takes up a lot of the text, and the kicker here is that there wasn’t any music at that festival, due to an injunction by the town leaders. So of course this is the one Rae spends a lot of time on, as the “rock tribes” that make up the “rock nation” have come here to Connecticut anyway, and it starts off idyllic before it too descends into Altamont-esque violence and madness. Kickapoo Creek is so vague that Skin tells us he can’t recall the name of a single band that performed there, which is one of the things that makes me suspect this novel really was written by a contract author who just did some serious research, as Kickapoo Creek, held in Illinois in May 1970, is one of the lesser-hyped (and lesser-remembered) festivals of the era.
Skin actually hops over the pond for the big finale at the Isle of Wight; Mary has left him, given his penchant for screwing random women (even hippie girls have standards, it appears), and she’s gone off with the crew to the big festival over in England. So Skin follows, hires an air balloon to find her, spots her in the massive crowd right before taking off, and, in an actual memorable and touching scene, they end up riding the balloon over the freak throng and feeling all warm and sunny. Hell, even Hendrix gets a positive mention here, Skin telling us that they of course had no idea at the time that Jimi “would soon leave us.” But then Mary says so long, she’s going off to France with some other guy, and Skin’s right where he was at the start of the novel: all alone. “Were any of us being born?” he wonders, finally ending his miserable tale of self-pity.
The Rock Nations is recommended more as a period piece, but it’s got nothing on Death Rock, or for that matter even on Passing Through The Flame. It is at least a little easier to find than Death Rock, but personally I thought the best thing about it was the cover art, which also appears on the back cover along with some great copy – copy that promises a much better novel than what we get: