Monday, January 7, 2019

The Armageddon Rag

The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin
January, 1985  Pocket Books
(original hardcover edition 1983)

This is still the only George R.R. Martin novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it twice now. I first read The Armageddon Rag a little over twenty years ago. I can’t recall how I discovered this obscure novel, but I figure I was probably just searching the internet for rock novels. Something, sadly, I still do to this day. I got the original hardcover from the Dallas public library and enjoyed it, other that is than a few reservations.

Anyway long preamble short, re-reading the book brought those reservations back home. Similar to Glimpses, this is a great concept that is given a poor protagonist and a sometimes-muddled execution, with an author apparently uncertain what type of novel he wants to write. Perhaps tellingly, “Lew Shiner” is thanked as one of Martin’s rock researchers, which really brings home the similarties between the two books – not the least that they’re both by authors known for genre work who were attempting to go mainstream. Something another genre author, Norman Spinrad, did years before either of them in Passing Through The Flame.

On his website, Martin states that The Armageddon Rag was his lowest selling novel by a country mile. I’ve seen other reports that its failure led him to give up novel wrting for over a decade, branching out into TV scriptwriting before returning to books in the mid ‘90s with the sequence of fantasy novels commonly referred to as A Game Of Thrones (which I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about). The closest comparison I could think of to Martin’s style would be Stephen King – who, again perhaps tellingly, graced the novel with a glowing cover blurb.

So far as Martin’s comment that the book sold poorly goes, my assumption is it was just too soon for this particular novel. Characters here act like the ‘60s was decades ago, whereas the big events were slightly more than a decade before – the novel hinges on the aftermath of 1971. Perhaps if the novel had been published just a few years later, maybe in ’89 to coincide with Woodstock’s 20th anniversary, it might’ve fared better. Or perhaps the problem is the book is just too bloated and uncertain of itself; it veers everywhere from murder mystery to Big Chill “what happened to us?” bullshit to a somewhat-trashy rock novel, before finally shaping itself into straight-up horror fiction for the finale. One suspects that Martin should’ve chosen one genre and stuck with it.

Which is to say Martin’s writing is fine, and he brings to life his characters and various fantastical sequences, but the problem is the book is so incredibly fat. It could stand to lose a good hundred pages and still come off as too overstuffed for its own good. This is especially bothersome because much of what Martin writes about is uninteresting at best – that is, unless you want to read about a bunch of thirty-something navel-gazers moaning about how the ‘60s ended, taking with it all their youthful dreams.

In this regard our protagonist is perfect for the job – he’s a cynical, self-obsessed, entitled asshole…pretty much the same as the protagonist of Glimpses. But whereas Ray of that later novel at least loved rock music and partook of the occasional drug, the hero of this book, Sander “Sandy” Blair, doesn’t even seem to even much like rock ‘n’ roll. And the most he does in the book is drink the occasional beer. We learn that even in the ‘60s he shied from LSD, even though all his college pals were into it. But it’s the rock stuff that most makes you wonder why Sandy is the hero of this particular tale; it’s a couple hundred pages before he even does any serious music-listening.

Back in the late ‘60s into the very early ‘70s, Sandy was a roving reporter for Groundhog magazine, an underground rag not to be confused with Rolling Stone – which in true roman a clef fashion is mentioned once or twice in the novel, so we don’t assume it and The Groundhog are one and the same. But Sandy lost the faith in ’71 and eventually turned his hand to writing novels. Now he’s 37, moderately successful, lives in a New York brownstone, and drives a brand new Mazda RX-7, the capitalistic sellout. But seriously, Sandy will be chastised for this, as will his other freak-flagging pals who have gone straight – the novel wants us to understand it’s a bad thing not to be a dirty hippie. 

The year ’71 is central to the novel because that’s when the ‘60s dream died – September 20th, 1971, to be precise. For that was the day Pat Hobbins, albino lead singer of the mega-popular group The Nazgul, was assassinated while singing on stage at a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, Arizona. (Curiously, the sniper was never apprehended, but the various reveals of the climax seem to imply who pulled the trigger.) Hobbins was the fourth and final of the big four rockers to die –  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and then Hobbins; for the Nazgul, we are informed, was the defining rock group of this alternate reality, more important than even the Beatles. This is a bit humorous, given that Martin describes their sound as something like Sir Lord Baltimore mixed with Blue Oyster Cult: hard-driving proto-metal mixed with occult (or at least geeky) lyrics. A group like this would be cult at best in reality.

Sandy’s called up by old Hog boss Jared Patterson, as blatant a Jann Wenner clone as possible, who informs Sandy that infamous Nazgul manager Jamie Lynch has been murdered. Jared wants to do a story on it and figures Sandy would be great for it, despite the fact that he fired Sandy from the mag years before, even though Sandy started the Hog with him in the ‘60s. This is just one of the many, many sources of anger and frustration for Sandy throughout the novel; he is very much an unlikable protagonist. Sandy is drawn to the story, mostly as a way to get out of struggling more on his latest novel, which is overdue; his wife isn’t thrilled with the idea, and we have here another mirror of Glimpses in that Sandy’s shrew of a wife just doesn’t get it, man.

Sandy heads off in his new Mazda, on up to Maine where Lynch was murdered. He discovers this was a ritual sacrifice; the Nazgul was blaring while Lynch’s heart was cut out, his body later wrapped in a Nazgul poster. Sandy works with a local cop who occasionally feeds him info, but this subplot sort of fizzles out. Instead the narrative here becomes more focused on Sandy hitting the road in his Mazda and reconnecting with all his old college pals, passing judgement on them and bemoaning what has happened to the world. At least he gets laid, hooking up with an old girlfriend in Chicago, and here Martin proves that, while his prose might be similar to Stephen King’s, he’s a lot more sexually explicit than prudish King ever was.

This Big Chill stuff is the most grating element of the novel and would be the first thing I’d cut. But basically Sandy hooks up with an old girlfriend, visits a former freak-flagger who is now a successful advertising executive, and hangs out with another old female pal who now lives on a commune, a lady who rails against the sexism and racism of the western world. (These godamn people would be lost without their “isms.”) This sadly is a motif of the novel, so she isn’t alone in her complaining, but Sandy’s happy to note that, despite the careful emasculation of the commune, the little boys still play cowboys and Indians when their parents aren’t around. Another old friend is now a college professor who complains that the kids of today are too docile and not radical enough; one wonders how proud he would be of Antifa, or those leftist college thugs of today who burn books that run counter to their agenda, completely oblivious of the fact that the Nazis did the very same thing.

There’s also a completely arbitrary part where Sandy visits his former best friend, who now lives a virtual prisoner in the mansion of his bestselling novelist of a dad, a Hemingway type who writes, you guessed it, sexist and racist action novels that sell bujillions of copies, much to Sandy’s dismay. This whole part exists so Martin can rail against the previous generation, with Sandy defending his old buddy for his heroism in dodging the draft and not taking the “easy way out” and going to Vietnam. I’m not sure too many vets would agree with Sandy’s sentiments, but if nothing Sandy is a man of his deluded convictions. There’s also a random freak-out part where Sandy walks the streets of Chicago and flashes back to when the cops beat him unmerciful in ’68, when he was here as part of the Democrat convention…this part at least factors into the supernatural element of the novel, eventually.

Mingled in with all this padding we occasionally get a return to the main plot, such as it is; Sandy visits each surviving member of the Nazgul, all of whom have moved on since 1971, the band breaking up when their lead singer’s brains were blown out. First up is the drummer, Gopher John, now remodeled as a slick bar owner, where he gives new rock bands their chance; that is, until a fire breaks out at the place while Gopher’s having dinner with Sandy, and 75 young people die in it. Next up is Maggio, the guitarist (the equal of Hendrix and Clapton, we’re told), now an obese psychopath who lords it over the underlings of his new bar band, bullying and beating his latest jailbait girlfriend. Finally there’s Peter Faxon, the bassist-songwriter, who has a wife and kids now but misses the music biz. There’s a nice part where he takes Sandy up in a hot air baloon over Arizona, Faxon now living not far from West Mesa.

Along the way Sandy gets wind of a mysterious individual named Edan Morse, a supposed rock promoter looking to get the Nazgul back together. Here Sandy sees motive, as with former producer Lynch dead, there’d be no one to get in the way of this reunion. During the interminable “commune” section Sandy finds out that Morse is just one name used by a nigh-mythical ‘60s radical who was behind a lot of bombings, hippie terrorist movements, and the like, but who eventually got into black magic and the like. This of course all ties in with the occult elements of the Nazgul. And all these sequences have their own subplots, making the book even fatter; there’s even the typical rock novel clich√© stuff, with a go-nowhere Brian Jones sort of riff, with Faxon being the guy who started the Nazgul and wrote all their songs, but slowly feeling the focus slipping over to Pat Hobbins, much to his dismay.

Things pick up when Morse enters the narrative, mostly due to his henchwoman, an ultra-sexy brunette named Ananda who promptly comes on to Sandy and takes him to bed. Pretty much the ideal ‘60s babe, Ananda’s kept the flame burning despite being in her 30s, plus she’s into occult stuff too. There’s also a monosyllabic henchman named Gort who seems to have walked out of a fantasy novel, which is likely the intention; the novel is filled with Tolkein references, some subtle and some overt. Both serve Edan Morse, an otherwise ordinary-looking dude who occasionally goes into delusional spiels about the supernatural and cuts his palms so that his blood can fuel visions.

At this point the novel is firmly in Stephen King territory, but then the Nazgul do in fact get back together and it abruptly changes tack into “rock novel” territory. For reasons neither Sandy nor Martin himself can explain, Sandy takes up Edan’s offer to be the PR man for the reformed group – even though Morse has taken the ghoulish approach of recreating dead Pat Hobbins in the form of a kid named Larry who looked sort of like Hobbins, but Morse paid to have cosmetic surgery so he’s now an exact duplicate of the murdered Nazgul singer. Only problem is, as Sandy discovers when he watches them practice in Chicago, the kid can’t sing worth a damn, and has none of Hobbins’s pint-sized menace.

We get a fullblown rundown of their first gig, playing to a packed auditorium who have come out to see the finally-reunited Nazgul. While things start off well, soon the audience is downright hostile. They resent the new songs and they mock Larry’s attempts at mimicking Pat Hobbins. It goes on and on, but Martin does a good job of describing the various songs to the point that you’d like to hear them – though again it’s pure “cult band” stuff, again sounding along the lines of Sir Lord Baltimore’s material on Kingdom Come mixed with a little early Blue Oyster Cult. Then Faxon finally relents and the Nazgul do an old number at the end, and it’s as if a completely different band is on the stage – and a different singer. For it very much appears that Pat Hobbins lives again, having taken over poor Larry’s body.

What’s funny is, Martin proceeds to write the exact same sequence over and over again. Sandy follows the group around the country and we get more rundowns of ensuing shows, all of them following the same path – lousy on the new numbers, the old group and singer reborn on the old numbers. Despite all the repetition the plot develops into a magical realism deal, with the hippies of old being reborn through the power of the Nazgul. True to Edan Morse’s proclamations, the old days are coming back, and it’s becoming more like 1971 than 1983…cool stuff here with the Nazgul being seen as dangerous, and cops blocking off areas from roving reborn hippies and radicals and the like. There is an aura of menace and danger that has been lacking from rock for over a decade, and Sandy’s at the center of it. So it’s funny to think of all this going down in the era of Tears For Fears. 

Also as Morse predicted, the future is becoming the past in that the Nazgul’s tour will culminate in a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, on the exact anniversary of the disastrous one in ’71. Along the way they’ve become more the Nazgul of old, only doing the old songs now, and Pat Hobbins himself walking the stage, to be replaced by an increasingly confused and scared Larry when they’re offstage. And meanwhile Sandy has lots of sex with Ananda, who proves to be more instrumental to the plot than initially suspected, to the point that the various reveals and turnarounds in the climax aren’t as hard to believe as might be imagined.

But still it’s as if we are reading a completely different novel in the homestretch; indeed, it’s as if we’re reading the novel the opening chapters promised us, before we took that looong detour into The Big Chill territory. It’s all reborn ghosts and Orc-like roadies and the supernatural spirit of evil about to take over the Earth, with a drugged and betrayed Sandy set up as a modern-day Lee Harvey Oswald or somesuch. However the Nazgul’s show sounds fantastic, sort of capping off the prematurely-ended ‘60s, complete with cameos from the ghosts of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison! This entire sequence is very well done, and one suspects if the majority of the previous 300+ pages had been whittled down Martin would’ve had a hit on his hands.

All that being said, the novel kept my attention – save that is for some of the “visit my old pals and complain about today” bullshit. Some of that got tiresome and I’ll admit I skimmed over it. And the stuff with the Nazgul performing was cool, but suffered from too much repetition. I also feel the supernatural element could’ve been more properly explained; Martin tries to keep it all as a mystery, something Sandy can’t quite comprehend, which again makes the reader wonder why Edan Morse puts so much importance on him – one of the biggest fails of the novel is that it’s never satisfactorily stated why Sandy is so important to the various characters. He’s disagreeable at best, plus he’s not even the best representative of his generation: as mentioned the dude was never into drugs and really doesn’t even seem to like rock, let alone live for it, like the dude in Glimpses did. 

But still, I have read The Armageddon Rag twice now, which must at least be an indication of its quality. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a fairly good rock novel, but it’s certainly no Death Rock or even Passing Through The Flame.


Zwolf said...

I don't know about reading his novels, but Martin has a short story, "The Pear-Shaped Man," which is one of the best, weirdest horror short stories ever. That one's definitely worth seeking out. You'll never look at Cheez Doodles the same way again...

Ah, found it online:

Matthew said...

Mike Baron's self-published novel Banshees has a similar plot, but no complaining about the end of the sixties. (Baron likes rock and roll but his politics are right of Attila the Hun's.)

Will Errickson said...

I too know nothing about Game of Thrones other than what flitters through the pop culture stratosphere, but have owned a copy of RAG for years now. I enjoyed his historical vampire novel Fevre Dream but there was also something flat about it--I think now it's an aspect that probably served him well in TV scripts. But I tend not to enjoy rock novels (for the life of me I can't remember if I liked Glimpses or not) because the authors never seem to be authentic rock fans and get tiny yet important details wrong. Anyway I appreciate the detailed review and may still give it a read yet!

Oh and Martin's "Sandkings" is a masterpiece of SF/horror for anyone who hasn't read it...

Todd Mason said...

I liked "Sandkings" better than "The Pear-Shaped Man"...and I'm not too aware of leftist student book-burners. I'll believe there might've been some, but want some evidence of their activities that wasn't originated on 4Chan.

And I generally liked TAR when I read it, while seeing the Nazgul as pretty clearly being Led Zep, even if LZ is mentioned (I think) at some point (it's been about 30 years since my one reading)...the most annoying aspect to me was somewhat BIG CHILLin': the aging hippies congratulating themselves for having the bestest tunes ever, myan. All this punk rock and stuff is So Weak in comparison. Yes, you keep telling yoursellves that, while wearing out the grooves on your Mountain and Bee Gees platters. (Just my least favorites to have made a ton of money back when, while any number of punk bands have church basement soundcheck recordings which sound better...or at least less boring than LZ and entirely too many of the bloated dinosaurs of the latest '60s and earliest '70s...while many of their peers and certainly a large number of the mid-'60s bands remain great. Yardbirds Si, Led Zep No. Even King Crimson, once they lost their initial "poet"...

Todd Mason said...

Have you tried David Schow's THE KILL RIFF?

andydecker said...

Not to mention Skip/Spector's THE SCREAM, Robert McCammon' THE FIVE, Phil Rickman's DECEMBER and Michael Slade's GHOUL. All fat horror novels of the 80s and 90s about bands. McCammon and Slade have no supernatural elements, though.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone!

Zwolf -- Thanks for the link to that story!

FreeLiveFree -- never heard of that one, thanks for mentioning it!

Will, I'll have a review up soon for a rock novel that might float your boat -- "The Tale of Willy's Rats," by Mick Farren. Unfortunately it's next to impossible to find, but I'll try to post a place where you can get a PDF scan in my review.

Todd -- Glad to hear you share my sentiments on the "Big Chillin'" (great description!) The same sort of snobbery was in Glimpses, with the narrator especially hating on heavy metal and at one point telling someone (Jimi Hendrix, I think) that punk was cool before it "sold out" and went corporate. Now I can't remember if LedZep was mentioned in The Armageddon Rag...I want to say it was, though. I still chuckle that this super-heavy band with its Tolkein lyrics was bigger than the Beatles. And I have Kill Riff but just have never gotten around to it!

Andy -- The Scream is another one I've had for years and keep meaning to read. In fact I got it based off of Will's review, thus bringing this comment full circle!