Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner
August, 1995 Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1993)
I first read Glimpses back in the late ’90s, when I was on an inexplicable Beach Boys kick(!). In fact this is how I discovered the novel, as at the time it was quite famous among hipster Beach Boys fans for its altertnate reality look at the making of Brian Wilson’s never-realized psychedelic masterpiece Smile. (Which of course Wilson ended up completing in 2004.) Learning this I couldn’t get the book soon enough, and I believe this mass market papberback was one of the first things I ordered off of the just-launched Amazon.com.
This is another of those novels that’s stayed with me over the years, both the good and the bad of it. Given that I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, in particular Jimi Hendrix stuff, I thought I’d give it another read. Betrayed by a sci-fi label on the spine, Glimpses is about a former child of the ‘60s who discovers that he can channel the unfinished rock albums of that era. Further, he eventually discovers he can even go back in time and meet the rock stars themselves. In this regard the Beach Boys stuff is key, as Brian Wilson is given the most spotlight – telling, then, that his portrait isn’t shown on the cover. At the time Brian Wilson hadn’t yet achieved his current status with the hipsters, I guess. Perhaps this book helped him to achieve it.
It’s a great concept, and my understanding is Lewis Shiner is/was a rock reporter, so he certainly has an appreciation for the topic and brings the music to life. But boy oh boy has he saddled us with a loser of a protagonist – a narrating protagonist at that. This is Ray Schackleford, and it is his material which I still recalled as the “bad” of Glimpses. And sadly, he and his sad-sack bullshit account for around 75% of the novel. You crack open the book expecting to read about the Beatles, the Doors, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix (especially Jimi Hendrix), but instead for the most part you get the navel-gazing banalities of a potbellied 38 year-old with that patented ‘90s cliché of a plot: Daddy Issues. This soon becomes quite a beating over 328 pages of small print.
It’s even more of a beating that Daddy Issues is the theme that unites the novel. Ray in the course of the novel will encounter Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix; each of them, Ray’s sure to tell us, had overbearing fathers: Morrison cut off all ties with his parents once he became famous, Brian had a dad who once told him “You’re not the only genius in the family, Brian” (which honestly I’ve always thought was pretty funny), and finally Jimi’s dad never cared much for Jimi or his work while Jimi was alive, and it was only after Jimi died that Ray Hendrix became such a champion of his son (or so Ray argues).
An Austin, Texas-based stereo repairman, Ray identifies himself for us as a “college-educated liberal” (as if there’s any other kind); to ensure we grasp this he finds the odd moment to complain about President Bush (the first one), global warming, and heavy metal. He even manages to make an off-handed apology for Muslim terrorists, claiming that “desperation,” due to the global economy and exploitation of their land and whatnot, has driven them to acts of terror. I guess it’s that “desperation” that also makes them strap bombs onto their own children. Ray, just a teenager in the late ‘60s, was the drummer in a rock group (before he was unceremoniously sacked – cue more woe-is-me bullshit), had all kinds of dreams and the like, but of course was eventually beaten down by life.
And you know, I could deal with all this stuff if Ray wasn’t such a goddamn loser. Practically the entire book is him worrying over his feelings, or crying, or dreaming about his recently-dead dad, who wouldn’t you know it, never really showed Ray any love. Ray is such a navel-gazer that he turns away pretty much everyone (not just the reader!), though he’s so self-involved he doesn’t even appear to realize it. Oh, and there’s his growing realization that he’s a drunk, so we also have that other ‘90s-approved subplot going for us: coping with addiction.
Honestly, you read this book and you want a roller-coaster ride into the rockin’ sixties, but instead Shiner has clearly struggled to write a “Real Novel,” as literary and weighty as could be, something to be pondered over while sipping your latte at Starbucks. Ray Shackleford carries the brunt of the blame, and eventually I started to wonder if this is why Shiner named him thusly: that we readers are “shackled” with a loser protagonist. Hell, I woulda been more entertained if we had been given a Church Lady type, or a Tipper Gore type or something – someone who went back in time to prevent rock albums from being completed. I mean anything would’ve been better than this sad sack.
Well anyway, Ray’s our hero so here we go. The novel opens in November, 1988, a week before Thanksgiving (ironically, exactly when I was re-reading the book), and Ray’s dad recently died in a scuba-diving mishap in Mexico that might’ve been suicide. Well Ray’s worrying himself over that – as he will frequently for the next 300+ pages – and he’s listening to Let It Be. Ray works on stereos so there’s lots of audio gear namedropping, which I appreciated, though I did get a chuckle out of Ray telling someone in the ‘60s that the CDs of his future era are “perfect reproduction” of music(!).
Shiner includes nicely concise backgrounds on the various albums Ray listens to, though I’d imagine the audience for Glimpses would already know all this stuff. Like for example here, that this infamous Beatles album was the result of Phil Spector’s postproduction tinkering, and that the Beatles’s originally-envisioned album (which was to be titled Get Back) was never properly captured. Ray sort of drifts off while listening to the album, and next thing he knows he’s hearing a completely different version of “The Long And Winding Road” on his stereo, one clearly done live in the studio and featuring a musicianship the Beatles never succsessfully attained in the real recordings of the track.
So really, the novel is more magic realism than sci-fi, as Ray’s newfound talent is never much explored or even explained. But basically he’s able to zone into the music, hear what was not but should have been recorded, and pull it back into his reality. More importantly, he’s able to capture it on tape. After finding that Elizabeth, his wife of several years, isn’t much interested (big shock, huh??), Ray eventually hooks up with wheelchair-bound Graham Hudson, owner of Carnival Dog Records in Hollywood. Graham is appropriately blown away by this “new” Beatles song, and sort of becomes Ray’s taskmaster – he’ll suggest a never-completed ‘60s album, hook Ray up with research material on the artist and era, and then get it all on a digital recording to be released as a bootleg CD(!).
First up is the Doors’s unrealized “Celebration of the Lizard,” an epic piece that was to encompass the full side of an LP of the same title. Mostly due to Jim Morrison’s hard drinking – booze having supplanted LSD – the group never got their shit together and eventually released an album titled Waiting For The Sun. Graham is a Doors fan, the name of his record label taken from a Morrison lyric, and he proposes that Ray make this his first project.
Any Doors fans should steer well clear of Glimpses, in particular fans of Morrison. I wonder why Shiner even included them in the book, as he doesn’t seem to care much for them at all; it’s almost as if he wants to get this section over and done with as soon as possible. But Morrison comes off as a loutish drunk with no redeeming features at all; this might even be a true indication of the guy, but what’s worse is that later in the novel Ray and Graham are almost embarrassed by this album because it’s so “evil” and etc. Instead it becomes apparent that Jim Morrison is just too much of a natural born rocker for sad sacks Ray and Graham; one gets the feeling these two would be happier listening to the gentle pan flute of Zamfir.
Here Ray discovers there’s an extra avenue to his new gift: he can sort of travel back in time. This time he just sees the past, sitting in on a “Celebration” session that goes nowhere. So Ray plays god, thinking back to how Morrison seeing a bunch of dead Indians when he was a kid was an image that plagued and inspired him his entire life. Ray pulls astral strings and has Morrison run over a bum; this serves to reinvigorate Jimbo’s creative juices, and he and the band tear up on a killer take of “Celebration of the Lizard.” Ray says it’s even more powerful than their epic “The End.”
After this the ensuing album is almost rushed over, and is seldom mentioned again in the text. Graham takes the resulting digital tape, mysteriously culled from Ray’s brain – again, there’s no study into how it’s even happening – and burns it onto CD. With an embossed cover and fancy packaging, Celebration Of The Lizard goes for a hundred bucks(!), Graham releasing it via a secret subsidiary of his label. If the album is referred to at all anymore, it is in a deragtory light, and Ray ultimately is apologetic about it. At the end we learn Graham’s let it go out of print and doesn’t mind if bootlegers bootleg him, as he wants nothing further to do with it!
Much, much more time is spent with Brian Wilson in 1966 as he works on Smile. This is the centerpiece of the novel and almost serves as a novella; indeed, the rest of the book almost comes off like filler. And speaking of filler, we have to get through more interminable stuff with Ray and his moaning before we even get to Smile, in particular his suddenly-failing marriage with Elizabeth. Who by the way comes off as a fine wife, as far as I’m concerned – she basically lets Ray do whatever he wants, up to an including going to Mexico by himself.
After the usual background research, including more concise history on this famous never-realized Beach Boys album (which I myself was obsessed with back in the day – I even got a 3LP bootleg on colored vinyl at one point), Ray puts together his “work tape” of tracks in the order he thinks they’d go, and starts zoning out. The ensuing section is really enjoyable, though I’ll admit it was more enjoyable back when I was into the Beach Boys stuff. Or maybe now that all of the Smile sessions have been officially released, with countless fan recreations of the album available for free download, the whole thing has sort of lost its magic. But Shiner, uh, “shines” here, and it’s a testament to his word-spinning that I found myself thinking of this book when I watched Love And Mercy (2014); parts of that biopic were very similar to scenes in this novel.
Here Ray himself goes back in time – this after blasting the obscure track “Glimpses” by the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds while driving in a half-asleep state on the streets of Los Angeles. He passes out in his car in ’89 and wakes up in ’66. With his future knowledge he’s able to bluff his way into Brian’s home; conveniently, he’s appeared right outside the front door! Here Ray finds a portly, childlike Brian Wilson surrounded by nervous family and band members who fear he’s losing his mind in his all-consuming quest to record a psychedelic pop album that will beat the Beatles.
Shiner develops a nice rapport between Brian and Ray, who initially poses as a record label rep but is quickly outed by Brian’s suspicious wife, once she calls the label to verify his story. But Brian is trusting and innocent, and takes Ray in. All of it is very memorable and engaging as Ray smokes hash with Brian and goofs off with him, trying all the while to push him to finish Smile. There’s the inevitable confrontation with Brian’s band members/family as he plays them some of these new tracks, Brian at this point recording all the music with session musicians and just bringing the boys in for vocals.
This part also features an unintentionally hilarious scene: a desperate Ray employs the progressive liberal version of Scared Straight to get Brian to finish his album. Ray makes 1989 sound like a dystopian hell, sort of implying off-handedly that it’s all Brian’s fault because he never completed Smile, which could’ve brought happiness into the world!! Ray describes his hellish future, with its global warming, its “sexual cancer” called AIDS that killed free love, and most horrifically of all its “heavy metal music.” And Brian starts to cry, my friends. It’s no wonder the Brian Wilson section is the longest in the book, as Ray has finally found almost a big a loser as himself.
Brian is awoken and plunges into finishing the album, even doing new pieces Ray’s never heard of before. Here’s another part that’s stuck with me over the years, as Brian does a solo rendition on piano, for the “Air” section of his “Elements Suite,” and when Ray says he always thought “Wind Chimes” was the Air piece, Brian just looks at him, as if he were seeing all those future fans looking back at him, fans who have mistakenly believed this for decades. Shiner describes the ensuing Smile album in a way that makes one want to hear it, unlike the harried Doors album; individual songs are described, as well as linking pieces. It would be interesting to hear a fan mix that followed Shiner’s idea; he even pulls in the avante-garde studio goof “George Fell Into His French Horn,” with the horns serving as “laughter” between some tracks.
All of this 1966 material has been very entertaining, so we must be punished for it. Ray heads to Mexico for a recounting with his dead dad, planning to scuba dive in the same area in which his father drowned. Along the way he’ll ponder his failing marriage and fall in love with someone new. This goes on from pages 134 to 207 and will be a trying read for most, as it too comes off as its own novella, though one that doesn’t have the draw of the previous section. In fact, skimming is advised, and is advised for the majority of the parts focusing on Ray.
The crux of all this is that Ray hooks up with a frosty-exterior gal named Lori who happens to be in a relationship with an old friend of Ray’s dad. But she listens to his magical story of the making of Smile, complete with how he traveled back in time, and this alone is enough to make Ray go head over heels. He’s finally found a woman who will listen intently as he talks about his favorite subject: himself. But this initially is a relationship of heavy petting, neither Ray nor Lori willing to go all the way. This made me chuckle – I thought AIDS killed free love, Ray! Instead it’s Ray’s own anxiety that keeps him from knowing Lori in the Biblical sense. Meanwhile we get lots of scuba diving mixed with emotions-plumbing (Ray cries frequently and often), including a part where Ray pushes himself too far, just like his dad did, and almost drowns.
By the time this part is over you’re pretty much exhausted. It doesn’t help that it just keeps going and going, even when Ray returns to Austin. Now the plot’s about him and Elizabeth splitting up and Ray pining for Lori, wishing she’d come stay with him. Meanwhile Graham returns, as if trying to rein the novel back together: his latest assignment is for Ray to do Jimi Hendrix’s never-completed fourth studio album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Well, this would be fine reward after the previous pages of doldrums, but Shiner is determined to deny us our pleasures. Ray is deadset against it, not wanting to go into the coma-like state which befalls him while traveling back in time, but nonetheless he does his research and even goes to London to take a look at Jimi’s old stomping grounds, including the place where he died. Along the way his guide is rock journalist Charles Shaar-Murray, author of the Hendrix bio Crosstown Traffic.
I didn’t remember much about Jimi being in the studio from my first reading of Glimpses; I just remembered random stuff, like Ray telling Jimi that he was still ranked as the greatest guitarist of all time in the future, and also a part where Jimi took Ray to eat at a soul food place in Harlem. Upon this re-read I realized why – there are no parts with Jimi in the studio!! I couldn’t believe it, friends. Because when Ray finally decides to do the job and ventures back to 1970 London, his goal to save Jimi’s life and help him finish his album, Lewis Shiner makes one of the more “interesting” authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered. He decides that we readers will be more interested in Ray’s story than we would be in Jimi Hendrix’s!!!
That’s right! It’s all about Ray Schackleford now, folks. His own reality is melding with these alternate pasts he visits, again giving the impression Ray has been visiting his own imagination all along. Soon Jimi Hendrix will be asking Ray shit like, “How’s it going with your dad?” At least before we get there Shiner promises to give us what we want; after a little background on Jimi’s intended album, along with the now-discredited “facts” on how he died (ie Shiner relies on the b.s. story told by Monika Danneman), Ray’s off to the past. I was really looking forward to this. If you could imagine any ‘60s rocker being open-minded about a visitor from the future, it would be Jimi Hendrix.
As with Brian, Shiner does “get” Jimi; he is very believable and sounds like the real thing. As in reality, Jimi’s eager to please everyone and he is indeed open to Ray’s harried story about being from the future – though you can tell he’s just being polite. Something that occurred to me as I was writing this review is that Ray is never really taken aback by these rock gods in their prime…it’s all very matter of fact in a way. He goes back in time, he meets them, he tries to help them record their albums. But there’s never a part where Ray’s like, “Holy shit! I’m talking to Jimi friggin’ Hendrix!!” Perhaps yet another indication that all this is the product of Ray’s own imagination, and the resulting music too is being channeled from his subconscious.
The Jimi sequence does feature some nicely dark comedy, though: despite Ray’s best efforts, Jimi keeps dying. From choking on his own vomit (as in reality) to being shot in the street, even run over by a truck, Jimi keeps dying and dying, and Ray becomes increasingly desperate in his trips to the past. At this point everything else is unraveling for Ray, and it has become clear even to him that a rock album, despite how great it is, cannot save the world. The reader looking to see some of the making of Jimi’s album will be just as disappointed as the Doors fan.
Jimi’s last death, which occurs outside that Harlem soul food joint, results in Ray too being dead – or at least in a sort of limbo where he walks through an endless park, once again running into the rock stars from the previous chapters. Here we also learn that Ray’s a bad guy, folks. In one of the more cringe-worthy scenes in a novel filled with them, Ray not only meets Jim Morrison but also the nameless drunk Ray made Jim run over. Seriously. Morrison takes a moment to shame Ray for being a murderer, and the vagrant himself gets in a few jibes. Cue more woe-is-me shenanigans from Ray.
After this the novel goes into an interminable free fall; the plot is now all about Ray, back in reality, and how he’s getting his life back together…even looking up (and hooking up) with old girlfriends. I mean we coulda had another trip to the past to meet a dead rocker…how about Janis Joplin? Or maybe Ray could go to 1980 and save John Lennon? Or, I don’t know, maybe a more satisfying part with Jimi Hendrix?? But as mentioned Shiner has decided that we readers are now invested in the doldrum, mundane story of Ray Schackleford and his tedious life.
Again, Glimpses has a great concept, and Shiner capably brings these dead (or forgotten) rock stars to life, letting us see them in their prime. I just wish that more of the novel had been focused on that…it would’ve been so much more satisfying if the whole of it was about Ray being stuck in the psychedelic sixties, and if the tedious “grownup worries” stuff had been relegated to a subplot. But for inexplicable reasons Shiner has reversed this, so that Ray’s story is the center of Glimpses. It’s a testament to how well he did handle the rock stuff that one wishes there were more of it.
I've read few Lewis Shiner stories in various SF magazines back in the day and they did not impress me. This does not sound all that interesting to me. I don't have a romantic view of the sixties (though I actually like a lot of the music of the era.)
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