Thursday, July 30, 2020

Special People

Special People, by Hugh Barron
April, 1978  NEL Books

Okay, now that we’ve all taken a moment to appreciate that cover photo… Seriously though, this British paperback original has long been a mystery to me. As every schoolkid knows, “Hugh Barron” was a pseudonym used by Burt Hirschfeld early in his career; he seems to have dropped it upon the success of his 1970 blockbuster Fire Island, which was published under his own name. But then there’s this 1978 “Hugh Barron” book, only published in England; we know it’s by Hirschfeld, as it was reprinted in hardcover in 1988 – again only in the UK – under Hirschfeld’s name.

I picked this one up many years ago, before the blog, shortly after I learned of Hirschfeld’s work – probably around 2009, after I discovered Cindy On Fire at a used bookstore. I’m glad I did, as it appears Special People has become pretty scarce. I’ve often wondered what the story was behind it, but put off reading it because, per the back cover copy, it was about a football player, and I’m just not into football – and also, the back cover only refers to “football,” not specifying for British readers that it’s American football, not soccer. And there was also that 1978 date that put me off; I prefer my trash fiction from the late ‘60s to mid ‘70s. But now that I’ve actually read the book, I can confirm two things: it’s not much about football at all, and it was clearly written in the late ‘60s, probably 1969.

The ostensible protagonist, Cotton Tate, is indeed a famous running back for fictional football team the Truckers (apparently based out of New York), but there’s only one “football scene” late in the novel, and the narrative is more concerned with the large cast of characters that congregates around Cotton’s nightclub in the fashionable East Side of Manhattan. There’s a bunch of them, too, meaning that Cotton himself is lost in the shuffle; his subplot has it that he’s in debt to a mobster type, and is being requested to fumble plays and the like so as to affect the point spread. He borrowed the money to get his club, The Nubiles, and he’s desperate to maintain his lifestyle – secretly 37, which we’re told is ancient for a pro footballer, Cotton has a wife and kids back home but lives on his own, picking up women left and right. As described he seems to a Joe Namath type, only with “orange” hair.

Cotton’s a bastard for sure, a real love ‘em and leave ‘em type who walks over lesser mortals. The only part where we get to see any humanity is a brief bit where he visits home and we see that his young son looks up to him – and that his wife is quite happy with Cotton out prowling around, as she prefers sleeping alone! But regardless of whether he’s a hero or antihero, Cotton Tate doesn’t show up much, hence the subplot of him being in danger with the football commission and such doesn’t resonate with the reader. The sprawl of supporting characters is just too large, and the reader is left wanting a center, something to hold it all together. Only Cotton’s club, The Nubiles, performs in this capacity, with the titular “special people” being the screwed-up regulars who frequent the place, which is on First Avenue in the Sixties.

There are a lot of them, but Hirschfeld does his usual admirable job of juggling the large cast of characters; in this way the novel comes off like a prototype of Fire Island. First we have Deke Mann, a former PR guy in his 30s who now works as a writer for a TV talk show. While he starts off as a minor character – and an increasingly annoying one at that – Deke turns out to be pretty much the protagonist of the tale, as the narrative focuses on his sort of redemption through love. But for the majority of the tale his plot revolves around his increasing plunge into despair; divorced, with a young son he only sees once a week, Deke gets drunk a lot and starts fights he knows he can’t win, apparently looking to be beaten up. Eventually he starts stalking one of the female characters in the book – a pursuit that eventually pans out for him, #metoo be damned!

Kate is that female character, a hotstuff young babe with a heart of gold who lives with a small-chested wildchild named Libby. Kate initially falls in love with Cotton; she’s just one of his many one-night stands, but to her it seems to be something else, and she pursues him, only to be crushed. From here she ends up dating Cotton’s lawyer(!?), another doomed romance. Meanwhile Deke meets Kate in the Nubiles, falls for her, and starts making a nuissance of himself; there’s a bizarre sequence where he sees Kate looking at an expensive dress in a store window, and he goes in and buys it for her, even though he’s only ever said hello to her. She of course turns down the “nice gesture,” thereby setting off an also-bizarre subplot where Deke keeps carrying around the damn dress and trying to give it to her. Only when Kate realizes that this slouchy dude with the “angry eyes” and a propensity for stalking is really a sweetheart does she accept the gift.

Speaking of Libby, she’s another character who starts off as minor but gradually gets a little more focus. Her storyline seems to be a precursor of Cindy On Fire, in that she starts off as a partygirl bimbo but descends into drug-induced madness; there’s even a part where she literally runs from an orgy, same as Cindy would in her novel a few years later. She’s the daughter of some famous actress or something, just a total jet-setting nympho without a care in the world; one of the many subplots has it that the Nubiles bartender lets his mobster pals know when certain girls are at the club, and the mobsters send over guys to loot their apartments while they’re gone. When this happens to Libby and Kate’s apartment, Libby laughs it off. Her heart is broken by that same bartender, though, which leads her into a spiral of sex and drugs and swinging and whatnot, with her subplot mirroring Deke’s in that she finally finds redemption through love and understanding and all that jazz.

The novel seems to occur in a bland continnuum, Hirscheld for once failing to bring his world to life. There are hardly any topical references to the era, other than some of the outlandishly mod outfits Cotton Tate wears. This brings me to the matter of dating the manuscript. An early reference to Jimi Hendrix means Special People couldn’t have been written earlier than 1967, as that’s when Jimi came into the spotlight. There are also a few references to The Beatles which help pinpoint the date: we’re told someone says a lyric from “the new Beatles song,” and later someone mentions “All You Need Is Love,” implying that this might’ve been the earlier-referenced song. But late in the novel Libby, in a drug frenzy, hallucinates that the Blue Meanies are chasing her(!!!), and this would have to date the novel to late 1968, when The Yellow Submarine was released in the US. Another factor that makes me think the novel was written in early 1969 is a minor character states there are “no black quarterbacks” in football, a statement which was no longer true by 1969.

The Jimi mention occurs in one of my favorite parts of the book, if for no other reason than it’s a sad premonition of the average mentality of some of today’s “special people.” Deke ends up hooking up with some lady in her 30s at the Nubiles; she’s a proto social justice warrior, ranting and raving that America is a racist society founded on a lie. She also proudly announces that she’s had sex with several black men, just to prove that she herself isn’t a racist. (Little does she realize that this too will one day be considered racist.) She takes Deke back to her place, where Deke is shocked to discover the woman has left her seven year-old daughter alone (Hirschfeld masterfully calls out the hypocrisies of his characters with just a few subtle asides). She plays Jimi on the stereo – I guess because he’s black and all, but it’s not like Jimi really ever made “being black” a major part of his identity – and eventually she and Deke have some off-page sex (the majority of the sex is off-page, with the few on-page instances relayed in Hirscheld’s usual metaphorical prose of “cresting waves” and the like).

Unfortunately, there’s not much meat to the tale – it’s just a bunch of screwed-up characters congregating at a vaguely-descibed Manhattan nightclub. There are other characters besides the ones I’ve mentioned, like an older lady who looks young who sleeps around with a host of Nubles personages, all so as to gather “research” for the trashy novel her husband wants to write! This part could be its own novel, as the lady eventually is fashioned into a Jackie Susann type who will be positioned as the true author of the trashy tome. But nothing much comes of this subplot, like so many of the other subplots, save for a memorable bit where the lady is raped by a pair of over-eager football players…a situation the lady soon begins to enjoy!

As mentioned the football stuff isn’t that integral to the plot, other than Cotton’s woes with the commission – woes which are quickly dispensed thanks to a call to his lawyer. But it’s hard to give much of a shit about the guy because he’s presented as such an arrogant demigod of perfection, which is probably the same as what could be said about any real-life football star. He learns though that he’s gotten over his head with the mobsters who loaned him the money to buy the Nubiles, thus he will still have to affect the point spreads and etc to skew the betting numbers, but there’s no resolution to the storyline as the novel just sort of ends, so far as Cotton’s story goes: we see him playing a big game, giving his best, then we jump over to Deke and Kate, who have decided to leave New York and head off into a happily after ever.

The most interesting thing about Special People remains the question on why it was only published in the UK, even again under Hirschfeld’s own name. Perhaps Pyramid, the main publisher of his “Hugh Barron” work, just rejected it, as it must be said the novel isn’t very good. I mean it’s not bad, it’s just that it simmers for a couple hundred pages and never even reaches a low boil. And you don’t care about any of the characters. But then there’s the possibility Hirschfeld himself wasn’t happy with it, and maybe it’s what he was writing when Fire Island hit the bestseller list and thus he decided to postpone his “Hugh Barron” material. But then that again raises the question of why the novel was still published in the UK.

I guess we’ll never know. Otherwise though Special People isn’t up to the caliber of the other “Hugh Barron” books, all of which had great period details and more-gripping plots. However this one certainly had the best cover of them all! Now let’s get back to appreciating it…

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Marksman #18: Icepick In The Spine

The Marksman #18: Icepick In The Spine, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower

“The reason I write under a pseudonym is because I don’t want to be remembered as the author of Icepick In The Spine.” 

-- George Harmon Smith

A big thanks to Lynn Munroe for the above quote; as I mention in most all of my Marksman and Sharpshooter reviews, Lynn is owed a huge debt of gratitude for the research he did on these series. It’s due to him that we even know who George Harmon Smith was; a sort of fix-it author for series editor Peter McCurtin, who eventually went on to authoring his own installments, this being one of them. While Icepick In The Spine was one of the few Marksman volumes to have an attribution in the Catalog Of Copyright Entries, where Aaron Fletcher is credited as “Frank Scarpetta” (the book was also later reprinted under Fletcher’s own name), as Lynn successfully argues this was probably due to some mistake or behind-the-scenes nonsense. Icepick In The Spine is clearly the work of George Harmon Smith. And, as Lynn also points out, there’s that quote of Smith’s, above; it comes from Smith’s nephew, who specifically recalled this title as being one his uncle talked about.

As I think I’ve written in all my other reviews of his novels, George Harmon Smith was a great writer, very literary, delivering strong characters – particularly very strong, fully-realized female characters. But in many ways he was too good for the genre. By that I don’t mean he was a better writer than others in this genre, I just mean that he didn’t understand when to reign in the literary flourishes. Like all the other Smith Marksmans, Icepick In The Spine is just too damn long; 204 pages of small, dense print, most of it comprised of excessive topical details or description of menial actions. It’s hard to convey exactly what I mean other than there’s a lot of “baggage” in Smith’s work…you mentally slash entire paragraphs of abritrary, unnecessary (but very well written) material so as to keep the pace moving. These kinds of books should not have excessive baggage; also, as I’ve written before, Smith was basically the men’s adventure version of John Gardner, ie the American author of Sunlight Dialogs and such. Their narrative styles are very similar, even down to the excessive wordiness.

And as I’ve also mentioned in just about every George Harmon Smith review I’ve done, I am becoming more and more certain that he was the author who delivered the almighty Bronson: Blind Rage. There are too many parallels with the other books of his I’ve read; Icepick In The Spine in particular has a lot of similarities, from the insane “hero” to the strong female accomplice, not to mention the periodic detours into extreme sadism and torture. As with Blind Rage, and the other Smith novels I’ve read, there’s also an almost surreal vibe of dark humor, like real dark humor – for example, in this one Philip “The Marksman” Magellan briefly encounters a 16 year-old girl who sells herself for heroin money. She tries to spark up conversation with Magellan in a diner, questioning the purpose of life. Magellan gives her ten bucks and she leaves – only to immediately be run over and killed by a car. Magellan meanwhile can’t even be bothered to get up from his table and keeps right on eating. 

There’s also a sleazy dose of torture porn straight out of the sweat mags of the day; late in the novel Magellan stages an assault on a Mafia-controlled “school” in Arizona which is used as a training facility for girls smuggled into the country from Mexico. Here they are apparently trained to become good whores or somesuch, but really the place as presented is a nightmarish facility of torture and punishment, complete with about two hundred fresh graves outside the place of previous girls who didn’t properly buckle under authority. Smith pulls no punches throughout the horrific sequence, which starts off with a mob “turkey doctor” torturing a poor bound girl and ends with the freed girls running roughshod on their former captors, tearing them to pieces with their bare hands. Even here though Magellan displays he’s not your typical hero, or even a “hero” in any sense – when the freed Mexican girls ask him what they’re supposed to do now, where they should go, Magellan’s curt response is, “I don’t give a fuck,” and he just leaves them to their own devices.

George Harmon Smith is like another series author, Russell Smith, in that he knows without question that Magellan is a psychopath. As Lynn has pointed out, Harmon Smith likely edited many of Russell Smith’s manuscripts, so perhaps he was inspired by them; series creator and editor Peter McCurtin never presented Magellan as nuts as either of the two Smiths do. But a big difference is that Harmon Smith at least attempts to convey a sense of loss and desperation driving his version of Magellan; Russell Smith’s is just plain crazy, and hardly ever does he reflect on the events that put him on the path to becoming the Marksman. Harmon Smith occasionally does, bluntly informing people that his course was set when his “son’s brains were blasted out” and his wife was killed. But also Harmon Smith makes it clear that none of this justifies Magellan’s descent into sadism; he’s such a natural murderer (and he really does murder in this one, not just kill) that you wonder if this dude was ever “good” to begin with. Again, very much like – in fact, identical to – Bronson in Blind Rage.

There’s of course no pickup from previous volumes, nor any indication how long Magellan’s been at it. There are seeming repercussions for future volumes; Icepick In The Spine ends with the intimation that the heads of the Mafia have banded together to finally do something about the Marksman, and also Magellan has himself a female accomplice at novel’s end, one who wishes to help him wage his war. Judging from previous volumes, I’m gonna bet we’ll never hear of either of these things again. But for what it’s worth this one is a very entertaining read, giving you all you could want from sleazy ‘70s crime pulp, with the caveat that as usual Smith’s excessive wordiness kind of kills the enthusiasm factor. Sort of like my reviews! But man this one’s really overwritten, another hallmark of Smith’s work; every menial or trivial action is described ad naseum. Small stuff to be sure, but it piles up over the course of the 200+ small-print pages. To get back to that other Smith, ie Russell – his installments might’ve been messy, barely even “plotted,” but they certainly moved.

The back cover has it that in this one Magellan goes up against a capo who retains a squad of ‘Nam vets. This sounds promising but unfortunately there’s nothing like it in the book. In the early pages Magellan gets word that Bello, a sadistic young Mafia capo who served in ‘Nam, has gotten into sex slavery south of the border; we’re told Bello has a group of commando vets at his disposal, but we never get to meet them. And Bello himself doesn’t even appear until like the last three pages. He’s more of a white wale that Magellan hunts throughout the novel; the narrative is more focused on the sex-slave angle, with multiple detours…not to mention Magellan sort of falling in love not once, but twice! Another thing that separates George Harmon Smith from his fellow men’s adventure authors is his strong female characters – I don’t mean “strong” in the modern cliched meaning, like they can do backflips while firing 9mm pistols with each hand, but “strong” in that they are fully-developed, believable women who seem to exist outside the boundaries of the novels. That being said, the second female character in this one probably could do backflips while shooting guns; she’s presented as a serious asskicker.

After venturing down to Mexico to research the situation – and to beat up and murder a crippled guy at the Texas border – Magellan briefly holes up in El Paso to figure out Bello’s operation. He’s bringing in beautiful girls from Mexico and dispersing them across the US; eventually we’ll learn they’re smuggled around the country in big vans, and the soldiers carrying them around have orders to kill them if anything goes wrong with the job. This happens in the course of the novel, while Magellan’s tailing a “shipment,” and honestly Magellan’s “sickness” over the massacre is hard to buy given his sadism this time around. I wonder if Smith’s Goldfinger allusion is intentional; while checking out one of the Mafia staging areas in the woods Magellan runs into a hot young thing with a rifle, here to get a little vengeance of her own. Magellan’s response is typical; he beats the shit out of her, slapping her around and almost breaking her nose. All to keep her quiet.

As expected, the girl, a Latina named Anna, falls in love with Magellan soon enough. Anna is the first of two strong female characters we’ll get. There follows a domestic scene where Anna takes Magellan back to her apartment – after wiping the blood off her nose and stuff – and makes him burgers and fries, leading to one of Smith’s typical off-page sex scenes. He’s not one to much exploit his female characters, either…we’ll get like one or two mentions of nice breasts and that’s it. Anna’s cousin was abducted by the sex-slavers and she wants to find out what happened to her and get revenge (a subplot that is never resolved). She proves to have just as sadistic streak as Magellan; our lovable hero captures a Mafia goon and tortures him, setting his hair and feet on fire. The “fire torture” being another similarity to Bronson: Blind Rage, by the way. After this he blows the guy’s head off. Anna acts distant on the way home, not talking…only to later reveal that she was so turned on by the whole thing that she was afraid she’d jump Magellan’s bones right there if he’d said anything to her!

The problem with Icepick In The Spine is that it seems to be two manuscripts stuck together; perhaps this explains the “Aaron Fletcher” misattribution for the novel. Maybe he turned something in and Smith almost wholly rewrote it. At least Magellan’s characterization stays consistent throughout – he’s nuts from beginning to end. I also enjoyed his recurring penchant for calling all mobsters “motherfuckers” and all women “chicks.” Speaking of which, we don’t get to see Anna for the entire novel; I don’t want to spoil anything but she leaves the narrative shortly after telling Magellan she loves him. But after her departure we get to that seeming second manuscript – for the first half Magellan’s tracing Bello’s sex-slave ring, and it culminates with a shootout with the guys running the latest van filled with women. But after this we’re suddenly in Phoenix, it’s nine days later, and Magellan is posing as a bum on Skid Row, living in filth and squalor so as to fully hide from society and make Bello think everything’s clear so he can get back to his sex-slavin’ stuff.

Now the plot becomes something else entirely; Magellan reads in the paper about an old doctor being abducted, and he immediately deduces that this guy was probably kidnapped by Bello’s mobsters to look after the latest shipment of Mexican girls(!?). So he goes to the guy’s address…only to find a hotstuff statuesque babe (also described as Amazonian). This will be our second strong female character and she’s very memorable, very much in line with the action-prone female protagonists of today. Her name’s Julia, she’s in her 20s, and she’s unfazed when Magellan slips into the apartment, holding a gun on her. She’s not even afraid of the gun, and Magellan feels as if he’s lost control of the situation. It turns out that her father’s been returned secretly, but Julia’s not to tell anyone for a few days. And yes, the Mafia took him, apparently to inspect the anatomies of some women.

Eventually Julia will become Magellan’s latest partner in action and in bed. And she also falls in love with him, with Magellan feeling the same, despite his early protestation that “Not two weeks ago another girl with me was killed.” When Magellan hesitates about taking Julia with him, because she’s a girl and all, Julia responds, “The only thing a woman can’t do is catch clap from some whore.” She’s basically a female Magellan, anyway: an expert archer, she ends up nailing mobster scum with a bow and arrows later in the book. Unfortunately though the early parts with Julia come off like a carbon copy of the initial parts with Anna; she cooks him a meal, gives him some beer, they watch TV and then have some off-page sex. To the extent that you wonder why Smith didn’t just combine the two female characters into one.

Anyway I’m going on way too much again. The finale as mentioned piles on the sick sleaze; Bello’s “school” is in the woods and Magellan and Julia infiltrate the place, watching in disgust as a turkey doctor abuses a bound girl (Julia begs to be the one to kill this guy) and soon freeing all the women. It’s more lurid than action-packed, and indeed the climax itself is rushed; Magellan and Julia fly to San Diego, where Magellan intercepts Bello’s limo as it’s leaving his fortress. Magellan’s delivery of justice is rendered almost anticlimactic given how rushed it all seems – however the finale is memorable because Magellan flat-out murders Bello’s blonde floozy. I mean usually the “hero” will let the villain’s girl go, but not our Magellan. He says “Sorry, chick,” and shoots her in the throat! 

Also as mentioned, the novel ends with promises of future developments – Bello sneers that the Mafia has “plans” for Magellan, and Julia tells Magellan she’s coming along with him whether he likes it or not. They decide to head for Florida, for the hell of it; Magellan knows he’ll find Mafia business no matter where he goes. Here’s guessing if this plot thread ever picks up, but I’m not holding my breath. At least if past installments are any indication. At any rate, Icepick In The Spine is a fun if overlong slice of lurid ‘70s crime action, probably one of the best volumes in the series yet. However I have to tell you – there isn’t a single “icepick in the spine” in the entire novel!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Random Record Reviews: Volume 3

Even more obscure ‘60s/’70s records: 

Here are some more great but overlooked albums I’ve picked up over the years. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but if anyone’s curious my setup is a Pioneer PL-518 turntable and a Nagaoka MP-110 cartridge. The latter is a recent purchase and I can’t believe how great it is. I’d read that it was a “surface noise killer” and I can attest that it truly is. The first record I played on it was my copy of Spirit’s selt-titled debut album; on my other cartridge the surface noise was so bad at times that the music was obscured. But with the Nagaoka the surface noise was completely gone – I heard maybe one or two “pops” over the entire record. The cartridge is a definite bargain and shoots way above its price so far as performance goes.

1. The Bob Seger System: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man
Capitol, 1968

File this one under “most asskicking piece of acid rock by the artist you’d least expect;” I never would’ve thought of picking up something by the “Night Moves” guy…until I read this review by the ever-awesome Seth Man. I mean folks who knew Bob Seger could’ve rocked so hard, and in such a psychedelic vein? But I guess his “System” was of a piece with the other heavy Detroit acts of the day (The Stooges, MC5, etc), and this album doesn’t disappoint. “2 + 2 = ?” for example sounds like something that could’ve been on the Nuggets compilation, just a total blast of pre-punk aggression. Side 2 in particular is where all the acid heaviness lies; Side 1 goes for more variety, with the grooving rocker “Down Home” being a particular standout; damned if it doesn’t sound like The Stooges meets Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Top Track: My favorite is “White Wall,” well described by the Seth Man at the link above. It’s 5+ minutes of heavy psychedelic rock, the drums thundering and the guitars fuzzed to the max, Seger screaming with abandon.

2. Bodine: Bodine
MGM, 1969

Unjustly overlooked, Bodine came out to little fanfare and quickly faded into the aether. It’s my understanding that a shakeup at MGM caused this; the usual executive-level changes resulted in Bodine, which had only formed the year before, being dropped by the label shortly after the album was released. The record did get coverage in Rolling Stone, though, by none other than Lester Bangs, who delivered one of his typically-dismissive reviews of both this, Stained Glass’s Aurora, and Locomotive’s self-titled album, all in the same review – meaning he only gave a cursory appraisal of each. Bangs was correct though in his statement that all three groups sort of rode on the coattails of Buffalo Springfield, and that is sort of the vibe Bodine appropriates here. But there’s more variety, more of a country-funk atmosphere, plus cool production techniques; final track “Disaster” opens with a distorted guitar riff that pans across the channels. This was a great debut that promised more, but it was the group’s only release; I don’t believe it’s even gotten a CD release.

Top Track: My favorite is definitely the country-funkin’ “Easy To See,” which should’ve been a huge hit and played on FM rock stations of the day. Several tracks here could’ve become hits, but this one in particular stands out and has a groove that would appeal to the crate-digging DJs of today. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been sampled.

3. The Beach Boys: Surf’s Up
Brother Records, 1971

Ever since the ‘90s there’s been a reappraisal of the Beach Boys, in particular the work of Brian Wilson and how the group overlooked his genius; per the oft-told tale, Brian was stymied by the others in the creation of what he thought would be the ultimate psychedelic pop album, Smile, after which he retreated further and further into the safety of his bedroom, taking decades to get himself back together. But even back when this sort of “the Beach Boys were great” revisionism was beginning, the post-Smile material was overlooked. It seems that the Beach Boys enthusiasm was really more of a “Brian Wilson enthusiasm,” and the fact that the rest of the group picked up the slack – and continued releasing albums after Brian had retreated to his bed – was given short shrift. To tell the truth, I much prefer this later material, because the Beach Boys basically remolded themselves into a sort of psychedelic rock outfit, indulging in longer songs than the two-minute pop affairs Brian Wilson was known for; their last album in this vein, 1973’s Holland, is often aptly described as “quasi-prog.”

But this one is my favorite of all the Beach Boys albums. Here they found the perfect balance: we get a few Brian Wilson masterpieces, the titular track being from the aborted Smile, some attempts at actual rock, and a few psychedelic numbers that sound of a piece with other material being released at the time. Even Bruce Johnston’s typical schmaltz is likable here – the epic “Disney Girls,” which despite its treacle is a memorable number of overblown proportions. Surf’s Up flows like an album should, giving a more entertaining listening experience than I ever got from the much-ballyhooed Pet Sounds. And as ever the Beach Boys mastery of the production studio is in full effect.

Top Track: My favorite is definitely “Feel Flows,” a piece of psychedelic bliss by Carl Wilson. If this had been released by some no-name group at the time it would be regaled as a classic today (it even builds up to a distorted guitar solo straight out of Pink Floyd!), but you don’t even see this song on Beach Boys compilations. Also I need to give a shoutout to Al Jardine’s psychedelic-folk tune “Lookin’ At Tomorrow;” with its flangered acoustic guitar and fractured vocals it wouldn’t sound out of place on Skip Spence’s Oar.

4. Barefoot Jerry: Southern Delight
Capitol, 1971

This one’s similar to the self-titled debut album by Wilderness Road (reviewed in the first Random Record Review) in that it’s country-rock that sounds like country-rock, ie not just like country, like so many other similarly-tagged albums do. I guess the closest point of comparison would be the group Crazy Horse, and like Crazy Horse Barefoot Jerry suffered constant lineup changes which prevented them from gaining a solid foothold on the record-buying public. Comprised of a group of legendary Nashville studio musicians – some of whom had earlier performed together as Area Code 615, doing mostly-instrumental countrified covers of rock songs – Barefoot Jerry hit the ground running with an album that epitomizes the “cosmic country” tag, with even what sounds like a wah-wah’d pedal steel guitar appearing at one point. There’s a dopesmoking vibe that permeates the album; lead track “Hospitality Song” makes their inclinations clear, with an invitation to “Light up the pipe/Pass it around.”

Top Track: I guess I’d have to pick “Blood Is Not The Answer,” a number by singer-guitarist Mac Gayden, who went on to release a solo album that’s almost impossible to find. This was the only Barefoot Jerry album he appeared on, giving Southern Hospitality a different sound from the other albums that followed. “Blood Is Not The Answer” starts off almost like some Southern Gothic production number, going through multiple sections (as do most of the songs here – you can tell this album was put together by seasoned studio pros) until it builds to a rousing finale. Bonus note: Southern Hospitality was reissued alongside the band’s self-titled second album on a budget 2-fer titled Barefoot Jerry’s Grocery (Monument Records, 1975); it makes for a very inexpensive way to pick up the first two albums on great-sounding vinyl.

5. Cross Country: Cross Country
ATCO, 1973

Here’s another unjustly-overlooked album that turned out to be the sole release of a promising group. Made up of remnants of the earlier group The Tokens (aka the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” guys), Cross Country answers the unasked question: “What if Crosby, Stills, and Nash had guest-starred on Abbey Road?” To me this is the sound the group appropriates throughout, a slightly psychedelic foray into harmony vocals and sterling production. This is one of those albums I picked up on a whim, and it turned out that I played it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s another that got a dismissive Rolling Stone review, the reviewer (can’t recall his name and I’m too lazy at the moment to look it up in the Cover To Cover CD-ROM) implying it was a CSN ripoff that sounded like so many other albums of the day. I’d definitely disagree, and it’s better than anything the actual CSN did later in the ‘70s, coming off like the album they never released after Déjà Vu.

Top Track: I’d have to pick “Just A Thought,” as it epitomizes the “CSN meets Abbey Road” vibe described above. Every track is good, though, even goofy toss-offs like “A Ball Song,” which sounds ridiculous at first but has such a memorable melody that you’ll be humming it long after the record’s over.

6. Golden Earring: Moontan
MCA, 1974

Every classic rock fan knows “Radar Love,” of course, which has featured in innumerable movies and TV shows. I often wondered though what the rest of the album it came from sounded like. Moontan, originally released in Europe in 1973 and then a year later in the US (with the original cover shown here, which was quickly withdrawn due to the full-frontal nudery – and I’m lucky to have gotten a copy of this original release), provides everything you could want from a classic rock album. Long tracks, great riffs and grooves; the US release was re-jiggered from the original, dropping two “weaker” tracks and adding a long new one, “Big Tree, Blue Sea,” a remake of an earlier Golden Earring song that was given more of a progressive treatment. I hesitate to use “prog” to describe Moontan, as to me prog implies twenty-minute keyboard solos and other twee bullshit. While Moontan does have a slight prog vibe in the length of the tracks and the instrumentation, make no mistake – it rocks, and it’s a shame only “Radar Love” is known by the average rock listener.

Top Track: My favorite would have to be the 9+ minute “Vanilla Queen,” which again is everything you’d always want heavy progressive rock to sound like. It even features modern-sounding sampling toward the end, inserting dialog from a movie over the music. And bonus points for being one of the few – only? – songs to feature the word “bourgeoisie” in the lyrics and still rock hard.

7. Paris: Paris
Capitol, 1976

My favorite Fleetwood Mac era is the Bob Welch era, which began with 1971’s Future Games and lasted five albums, ending with the awesome-but-overlooked Heroes Are Hard To Find in 1974. Welch wanted to take Fleetwood Mac in a heavier direction at this point, to hopefully ride the wave of popularity enjoyed by Led Zeppelin and such. The others disagreed, so Welch, frustrated with Fleetwood Mac’s lack of success and business woes, left the group – and of course soon thereafter Fleetwood Mac went on to megafame with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, but that’s another story. Meanwhile Welch put together a power trio, with himself on guitar and vocals, and holed up in an outrageously garish studio in Los Angeles (one that had originally been built for Sly Stone) to record this album…which turned out to be ignored even more than his Fleetwood Mac albums had been.

Paris treads the same heavy-rockin’ proto-metal path as Randy California’s Kapt. Kopter and Neil Merryweather’s Space Rangers (both reviewed on my first Random Record Review), and like the California album it was recorded – by Welch’s own admission – under the influence of a ton of drugs. It’s a “mystery to me” (Fleetwood Mac reference alert) why this one still hasn’t been embraced, even by modern fans of this era of proto-metal heaviness. Welch hit the nail right on the head, coming up with riffs Led Zeppelin would’ve approved of, but augmenting the sound with production trickery, vocal and instrumental effects, and a progressive sheen. “Religion” for example initially sounds like a clone of Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” but turns into a psychedelic freak-out with tape edits and other special effects, resulting in a head music vibe.

But as mentioned the album didn’t do well, and Rolling Stone gave it a dismissive review (are you noticing a trend?), the reviewer complaining that the material was lackluster and Welch’s thin sort of vocal style wasn’t suitable for the heaviosity. On the contrary, I think he does a fine job, and besides his vocals are treated throughout the album (much like California’s are on Kapt. Kopter), further lending Paris a druggy vibe. And for that matter, the “light-voiced singer paired with heavy guitars” schtick sort of predates the sound of ‘90s alternative rock. Regardless, Welch must’ve taken the criticism to heart, as the second – and final – Paris album, Big Towne, 2061 (Capitol, 1976), went for a less aggressive approach, heavier on keyboards and predicting the direction of Welch’s future solo material. This first self-titled album though is highly recommended and one of my favorite “finds” of recent years.

Top Track: “Religion,” mentioned above, is great, but I’m really into “Beautiful Youth,” which has one of those classic heavy riffs that just gets stuck in your brain. And it grooves, just like the rest of the album.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Narc #9: Kill For It

Narc #9: Kill For It, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1975  Signet Books

The final volume of Narc is of a piece with the previous installments: a sort of ensemble affair that has more in common with the crime novels of the day than men’s adventure. And poor John Bolt, the series protagonist (who seems to have gotten yet another makeover on the cover – love the plaid pimp coat!), disappears for long stretches of the narrative while we focus on the stream-of-conscious thoughts of various one-off characters.

For once though we have an actual change so far as the series goes: Kill For It doesn’t take place in the usual boiling hot New York summer, but in the midst of a freezing winter. Otherwise there’s no pickup from the previous volume or any other volume, and Bolt is even more of a cipher in this one. I just realized that it’s taken me ten years to finish this series, but Marc Olden wrote the series in the span of only two years – while also writing Black Samurai and who knows what else. So doubtless he was a machine at this point, churning out pages to meet an ever-approaching deadline. The only problem is, eventually the readers begin to detect this…I mean how many volumes now have followed this template? Busy plotting, too many minor characters, and Bolt lost in the shuffle. It’s no surprise really that this was the last one, and I wonder if Olden minded, as he seems bored.

Another change from the usual template is we’re denied an opening action scene. Usually the opening sequences are the highlights of the Narc books, but this one’s pretty tame: Bolt and recurring fellow narc Kramer (aka the black one) kneeling in the snow, guns to their heads. Posing as buyers from Detroit, they’ve been burned by a multiracial trio that’s posing as cops, three members of a group who have been burning drug dealers in New York over the past couple months. Bolt and Kramer walked right into the trap, falling for the story that these three had a connection to some high-grade heroin, and now they’re in the snow with guns to their heads. There’s no action, no fighting; instead it’s on the suspense tip, as the trio decide to abduct Kramer and hold him for ransom, believing his cover story that he’s the brother of a high-ranking Detroit drugrunner who could afford to pay for his release.

The plotting is especially busy in Kill For It. We have this storyline, about the group that’s burning drug dealers, adbucting them and holding them for ransom, and we also have another storyline about a group of New York cops who raided the porperty clerk’s office a couple years ago, stole all the heroin and coke, and sold it through a Mafia fence for a cool three million. But the brains of this group, an older married guy named Lt. Hannah, hid the money somewhere, telling the others to wait until the heat cooled off before they collect their earnings. This is enough for two books but Olden jams the separate plots together; gradually we’ll learn that the dealer-burning group has its sights set on the cop-stolen three million, and even more gradually the two plots coalasce.

Meanwhile Bolt’s been left to collect the demanded $75,000 for Kramer’s release; his main concern is that the captors not learn Kramer’s really a Fed. The novel occurs over a twenty-four hour period, another notable difference from previous volumes, but for the most part Bolt spends the time simmering in the D-3 office or chasing various leads. There’s nary a hint of action throughout; even the finale plays off more like a low-key ‘70s crime thriller. While fretting over Kramer’s predicament, Bolt is approached by a hulking, hirsute New York cop named Ira Kraft, who asks Bolt for help – Kramer’s been working on that stolen heroin case, and thinks he’s traced it down to two cops, one of them retired and one still active: Ray Zwerdling, the retired one, who now runs a sleazy bar, and Lt. Hannah, who is still on active duty.

Bolt initially brushes Kraft off – and it is kind of confusing for the reader, so far as the names go, that Olden’s named this new character “Kraft,” while there’s also the subplot about poor abducted “Kramer” – but of course the two eventually work together. And in fact Bolt’s hardly around at all; we get a lot of stuff about the kindappers, including Billy Brazil, the moustached Cuban ringleader, and Gypsy Waller, the black one who strikes up a sort of friendship with the bound Kramer. These minor characters, as well as Zwerdling and his hotstuff Cuban girlfriend (that’s her on the cover), take up the majority of the narrative, as ever rendered via stream-of-conscious thoughts. We get a lot of lecherous dialog concerning Toni, the hotstuff Cuban gal, but the sleaze factor has been greatly reduced in Kill For It, along with the violent action.

It eventually develops that Toni is a plant; she’s married to Billy Brazil, who brought his gang up here from Florida after they abducted a retired lawyer down there. The lawyer was penniless, though, his rich lifestyle just a façade, but in desperation he told them that he’d once represented a group of cops who got away with stealing three million. Armed with the names of a few of the cops, Billy brought his gang up north to seek them out, capture them, and torture them for the whereabouts of the money. In the meantime I guess they decided to keep putting bread on the table by burning average dealers – as I say, the two subplots don’t quite gel. Since Zwerdling was one of the cops Billy knew the name of, he sicced sexy Toni on him, there to keep tabs on him and any other cops who came into his bar. 

There’s no real action until well into the novel. Billy’s men were armed with new .357 Colt Pythons, and Bolt checks various leads on where they could’ve gotten them. This leads him to a grungy tenement building in Spanish Harlem from which a heavyset Hispanic lady in her 50s sells guns. Bolt actually gets in a fight with this woman, and she almost gets the better of him – a sequence that’s both gripping and played for laughs. One of the lady’s sons, a dude in his 30s, comes out with a machine gun blasting on full auto, and Bolt takes him out – his first kill in the novel. Olden well captures the grit and grime of this hellish place, from the ever-present stench of urine to the multiple locks the people have on their doors to hide their criminal activities.

But other than this, the ensuing action is pretty threadbare. Later in the book Bolt and Kraft get in a shootout with one of the dirty cops and Bolt takes him out, his second kill in the novel. (He’ll only kill one more, in a shootout with the abductors in the finale.) Bolt gets the address of where Kramer’s held in a novel way; per the cover, he finds one of the abductors, baiting the guy with a hooker, has him strip naked, and takes him up to a snowswept roof and makes him kneel in the freezing cold. Soon enough the guy, a hotblooded Cuban, is quaking and crying and tells Bolt all he wants to know. But as mentioned even the climax is pretty low-key, with Bolt, Kraft, and recurring fellow narc Masetta (aka the Italian one) storming the apartment in which the kidnappers are holding Kramer – a scene again played more for tension, with one of the abductors holing up in a room with a gun to Kramer’s head, but eventually giving up and coming out with his hands up.

The actual finale is even more on a suspense vibe: Lt. Hannah has kidnapped Toni and is in the process of breaking her fingers to find out what she’s told the Cubans. Bolt dashes onto the scene with some other agents, Kraft, and a bound Billy Brazil – ie, Toni’s husband. This finale is unintentionally goofy because suddenly Bolt cares all about Billy and Toni’s relationship (meanwhile, Billy’s the sadist who kidnapped Kramer and was going to blow his brains out!), so he shames Hannah for having tortured the poor girl, threatening to put Billy in the same cell with him when they both go to prison. So here’s yet another sequence that doesn’t culminate in blasting guns or action or whatnot; Hannah merely gives up in exchange for Bolt not fixing it so that Billy shares a cell with him – Billy being known as a master torture artist and all.

And this is where we leave John Bolt; Hannah has given him the location of where the three million is hidden, info which Bolt will give Kraft per agreement – Kraft wants to climb the ladder as the guy who busted the dirty cops and found the three million – but for contrived reasons Bolt won’t give him the info until the following morning. Kraft says he’s going to sleep on Bolt’s floor that night. And that’s really how the novel – and the series – comes to a conclusion. So overall, I’d say Kill For It was my least favorite volume of Narc, which is not to say it was bad or anything – just too jumbled with plots, too lacking in action or thrills.

Anyway like I wrote above I really took my time reading this series; I found that, like The Butcher, it was best appreciated if you took long gaps between volumes, otherwise it would get a bit repetitive. I don’t exaggerate when I say a lot of the narrative of this one is given over to arbitrary trips into the thoughts of various one-off characters. The earliest volumes also had this, but they also had memorable action sequences and more-gripping plots, leading me to suspect that Olden was struggling to maintain his writing pace and wasn’t able to give these later volumes as much attention – the deadline was too quickly approaching. That said, the series always appropriated the vibe of your typical ‘70s crime thriller, which is to say it had coolness in spades, and despite the occasional “off” installment I still really enjoyed it overall.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Outlaw Blues

Outlaw Blues, by Paul Williams
July, 1970  Pocket Books

First published in hardcover in 1969, Outlaw Blues collects several articles Paul Williams originally wrote for rock magazine Crawdaddy, some of the articles having been edited for this collection. Crawdaddy started before Rolling Stone but never made the same traction; it was more of a fanzine in its look and design, and also was more focused on intensive music analysis than the far-ranging counterculture coverage of Rolling Stone. Williams started the magazine and was one of the chief contributors, but it seems that by the time this paperback edition was published he’d already started moving away from the rock scene.

One thing I have to mention because it blew my mind is that Williams was only like 21 at the time, but he writes with such a keen insight that you’d never believe it. He definitely has a gift for writing, and throughout the first half of the book I was jotting down one memorable line after another. After a while I got worn out and just decided to appreciate the book and stop taking notes. While I really, really dig vintage rock criticism, I was unfamiliar with Williams’s work; he’s similar in a way to another unsung Crawdaddy critic, Sandy Pearlman (later of Blue Oyster Cult fame, or infamy), with probing, far-ranging analysis that almost comes off more like ego-strokery than actual reviewing. But it’s done so well! And I’ve gotta say, I like his work a lot more than overhyped Lester Bangs, whose “reviews” were mostly just bitch sessions. However like most of those early rock critics, Williams focuses a bit too much on the lyrics, at the expense of what the actual music sounds like; in one of the essays here he claims this is because it’s a waste of effort to describe how great the finale of, for example, “The End” by The Doors actually sounds. If you’ve heard it, then you already know how great it is, and a writer can’t help you. But I’d disagree with this. A capable rock writer can capture the sound of the music, recreating it in vibrant prose: James Henderson does it throughout Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age.

The first piece is the titular essay “Outlaw Blues,” which is dated December 1967 and is the gem of the collection. In this far-ranging, fantastically-written piece Williams looks at the then-recent spate of psychedelic albums, focusing in particular on Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones and After Bathing At Baxter’s by the Jefferson Airplane. He starts off on the Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds, though, arguing that he feels it’s one of the greatest rock albums of all time, something I definitely disagree with. He writes how the album was loved by critics but disliked by fans, comparing its lack of success with how well Beach Boys Party did in comparison, an altogether lame album that would be frowned upon by the hip hippies of the day. Williams argues though that it’s a great album, despite (or because of) its total lack of artistic aspirations, the same sort of back-to-basics rock that so many groups were just beginning to strive for in late 1967. He then goes into a tangent on overly-produced albums, ie psychedelic albums of ’67, and from there into a study of the Stones and Airplane releases.

First we get a track-by-track study of Their Satanic Majesties, which I greatly enjoyed as it’s always been one of my favorite Stones albums. Williams is a total fan of it, with none of the apologetic tone you’d encounter today nor any of the acidic dismissal you’d find at the time; Rolling Stone ran a track-by-track analysis when the record was released which was a total attack. Meanwhile I think it’s a great album and I’d rather listen to it that Sgt. Pepper’s any day, and speaking of which Williams is notable among early rock critics in that he hardly ever refers to the Beatles. And when he does it’s usually in a dismissive tone, or just for comparative purposes; he says, for example, that Their Satanic Majesties wasn’t so much a ripoff of Sgt. Pepper’s as it was inspired by it, and for that matter argues that Sgt. Pepper’s itself was inspired by “the final notes of Between The Buttons. Williams is such a fan of this unsung Stones album that he even likes the four tracks most critics (both then and now) usually state as being the worst: “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” “The Lantern,” “Gomper,” and “On With The Show.” In fact these tracks get more focus than the best song on the record (not to mention one of the greatest psychedelic rock songs of all time): “2000 Light Years From Home.”

From there to After Bathing At Baxter’s, another favorite of mine, probably my favorite by the Airplane. Williams loves it too, for one reason because “you hear new stuff each time you listen to it.” Here too we’re treated to a track by track rundown, Williams again even enjoying the track(s) other reviewers diss, like the long proto-Hot Tuna jam that occupies a lot of side 2. For that matter, Williams points out something I hadn’t even noticed on my vinyl copy – that no bands separate the tracks. The album is split up into large pieces, and as Williams notes the Airplane is so confident people will play the whole record and not just individual tracks that they didn’t even put bands on the record so you could jump to a specific song – something, Williams also points out, that must’ve really upset radio station DJs. “The value of a record now has nothing to do with when it came out,” Williams wraps up his essay, again going back to Beach Boys Party and why that earlier record is now reconsidered in a more positive light than it had been when released.

“Bleshing” follows, beginning with an appraisal of Donovan’s Sunshine Superman, which Williams deems “the most 1966 LP I’ve ever heard, better than Revolver.” From there to a look at the first album by the Buffalo Springfield, with Williams enthusing over the tightness of the group; there’s an ironic-in-hindsight bit where he says that the group is so unified that one can barely notice Neil Young on guitar. I say ironic because Williams likely didn’t suspect Young would go on to such a prolific and long-lasting solo career. Williams is prescient in that he suspects the recently-released Springfield single “For What It’s Worth” will be a big seller; now it’s become the cliched song you hear in practically every documentary, movie, or TV series set in the ‘60s. This piece finishes off with a look at The Byrds’s Greatest Hits album, Williams going on about how these classic tracks in a different order brings a new light to them. This latter piece in particular seems to have been written while Williams was seriously stoned.

“Tom Paine Himself” is the next essay, and it’s all about Bob Dylan. I’ve never really been into his music so I skipped this one.

“What Went On” is a series of dispatches from the ever-changing world of rock, ranging everywhere from newly-released “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” from Procol Harum to the death of mono. There’s also some interesting stuff on early rock radio, and also how rock now gets media attention, in particular Sgt. Pepper’s, though Williams complains that the pre-failing New York Times gave it a bad review because the reviewer had no understanding of rock music.

“The Night On Fire” is a long piece on the Doors’s first album, with a long dialog between Williams and Doors producer Paul Rothschild. First though Williams relates those sentiments I mentioned earlier: “Descriptive criticism is almost a waste of time, where quality is concerned.” In Williams’s opinion it would be a waste of effort to describe for you the rousing finale of “The End,” and I guess I see his point when it comes to mainstream or at least well-known pieces of music. But back in the day, before easy MP3 downloads or Youtube uploads, “descriptive criticism” was very important when you were trying to learn about some obscure album. Williams is overly focused on a particular Doors song, “Soul Kitchen,” especially the closing line “Learn to forget.” In Williams’s view, this line, casually tossed out by Morrison, takes on almost gnostic proportions.

The wide-ranging conversation with Rothschild is pretty interesting. We learn about studio recording techniques, and also the interesting observation from Rothschild that engineers are to producers what producers are to artists. There’s also some cool background material on the recording of the first Doors album, as well as observations on the Lizard King himself: “Jim is fascinated with the concept of death,” Rothschild states. We get the now-famous story on the recording of “The End,” Rothschild claiming it was the only time in his professional career when he was so caught up in the music unfolding in the studio that he forgot to pay attention to the recording levels and etc: “The muse visited us.”

The next piece runs to nearly 50 pages and is the second highlight of the book: “Brian,” all about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and his aborted attempt to make the ultimate psychedelic pop album, Smile. Like the previous piece, this one’s made up of an interview, this time with David Anderle, who’d been a member of the Beach Boys entourage for a while, even briefly running their record label. I have a strong suspicion that this piece played a key role in the creation of Glimpses; so many lines of dialog and situations here would later appear in that Lewis Shiner novel. But then, “Brian” became a key piece in the ensuing Smile legend, along with Jules Siegel’s “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God” (which itself mentioned a bit in this interview). Smile was what got me on a brief Beach Boys kick, back in the ‘90s; I’d never heard of it until a random review of a bootleg release in the All Music Guide, which soon had me finding Beach Boys bootlegs and putting together my own mixes of the album on cassette tape.

I have to say one thing about Williams: he’s not ashamed to admit when he’s wrong. This piece opens with both guys complaining about how they were “let down” by the recent release of Wild Honey, going on about how it was a huge step down from the potential of Smile. This piece is made up of two interviews, done months apart, and in the second half of the interview both Williams and Anderle are suddenly huge fans of Wild Honey, realizing it took a while for the quality of the album it to sink in. And more importantly, how the album predicted the back-to-the-roots movement other artists wouldn’t be getting to for a few more years. (Nicely linking back to the previous piece, we’re also told that none other than Jim Morrison dug the album!) For the most part, though, the majority of this long piece is devoted to Smile and Brian’s attempt to create a piece of art that would rival anything by the Beatles.

Since this is all so soon after it happened, the two are unaware – or just didn’t want to put it in print – that Brian was close to a breakdown at this point and would soon be under psychiatric care. Indeed, Anderele predicts that Brian will soon do “something big,” and that his genius will no longer just be limited to music, with forays into movies and whatever else strikes his fancy. Instead he’d get in bed and only rarely venture out of it. And the in-fighting with the other Beach Boys is downplayed, with Anderele merely stating that it was a “clash of personalities” which led to the dropping of Smile, that Brian just lost interest in it because he was sick of constantly having to explain it to the others. But the stuff on the actual recording of the album is fascinating, and as mentioned so much from Glimpses is here, from Brian doing “business meetings” in the pool to making impromptu music with his dinner guests.

Of course, many years later Brian released all the Smile sessions, giving fans the opportunity to piece together their own versions in higher fidelity, something Dominic Priore predicted might happen in Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!. I’ve listened to a lot of these mixes over the years, but this one, the Pocket Symphony Mix, is by far the best. It’s as if the story from Glimpses came true, that some modern Brian Wilson fan went back to ’66 and helped Brian complete the album that was eluding him. All the pieces were there, as this mix proves, it’s just that Brian needed a guiding hand to help put the pieces together, and no one around him at the time really “got” what he was trying to do. Perhaps my only criticism about this Pocket Symphony Mix is that it doesn’t feature “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” with the fuzzed out bass guitars, but its lack is a small price to pay considering how strong the completed album is. And it actually plays like an album, not just a decades-later fan reconstruction. Seriously, head to the link above and download it off the guy’s Google drive, it’s great.

Last up is “How Rock Communicates,” which like the above one on the Byrds seems to have been written under the influence. It rambles all over the place, Williams struggling to define how exactly rock communicates to the listener, bringing in references to many of the artists already discussed. Finally Williams gives up with: “How rock communicates is a mystery to me.”

I’m glad I picked this one up. It was a very entertaining read, particularly in the titular piece and “Brian.” Makes me wish more of these sorts of anthologies had been published in the day, in particular stuff by Sandy Pearlman – though you can find some of his material in Jonathan Eisen’s The Age Of Rock 2 (1970) and Twenty-Minute Fandangos And Forever Changes (1971).

Monday, July 13, 2020

Israeli Commandos #3: The Kamikaze Assignment

Israeli Commandos #3: The Kamikaze Assignment, by Andrew Sugar
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

I really enjoyed this third volume of Israeli CommandosAndrew Sugar follows sort of the same vibe he used in The Enforcer, focusing more on suspense and tension than outright action, but it’s all done very well. The characterization is a notch above the genre average, and there’s also a little bit of development for the overall series storyline – shame, then, that there was only one more volume to follow. Plus, there’s a part where our titular commandos are attacked by ninjas! 

Our protagonist this time is Dov Abrams, who starred in the first volume; Sugar seems to have developed the template of Abrams featuring in one volume and Gershon Yelinga, another Israeli Commando, featuring in the next – Yelinga was in the previous volume and mentioned in the first one, but we don’t hear a thing about him this time. I assume though he’ll return for the final volume. Otherwise Abrams is the central character, and he’s much more likable this time, less hot-headed. The plot also takes advantage of Abrams’s status as a famous heavyweight boxer – as we’ll recall, he’s known as “The Israeli Muhamid Ali,” which is just wrong on so many levels.

While Abrams is the central character, as with The Enforcer there are recurring characters who add to the storyline. For one there’s The Major, Abrams’s taciturn spy boss. There’s also Abrams’s boxing trainer and his entourage of sparring partners and the like. Most importantly there’s also Ronit, Abrams’s famous model girlfriend, Abrams being one of the few ‘70s men’s adventure protagonists with a steady girlfriend. Ronit gets to take part in this installment’s mission; there’s a humorous part later in the book where she informs a surprised Abrams that she’s suspected for a long time that he’s a secret commando for Israel, as it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out why he’s always calling for matches in unusual locations – locations which turn out to experience heavy terrorist-blasting action soon thereafter. Abrams wonders if this means that Ronit too will eventually be drafted into the commando network, but unless Abrams figures into the next novel we’ll never find out.

Abrams and Ronit are on vacation in the South of France and enjoying some fine dining when a pair of local racists come over and start badgering Abrams for being a famous Jewish boxer. This leads to a nice fistfight in the street, with even Ronit getting in on the act. This will serve as our only action sequence until much later in the novel, though. In fact this one might have the least action yet in the series, but as stated this doesn’t take away from the enjoyment factor. While I found the previous two volumes a little patience-trying, The Kamikaze Assignment moves at a fast pace and keeps you turning the pages. And as the title suggests, this one takes place in Japan; per The Major, a Japanese explosives expert with radical leanings has offered the PLO some newfangled guidance systems for mini-atomic warheads or some other such Maguffin, and Abrams’s mission is to head on over to Tokyo and get one of the prototypes before they can be shipped to Iran…and be used posthaste on Israel.

Abrams’ only cover for going to Tokyo is to challenge an upstart Japanese boxer, one who is well below him on the boxing totem pole…sort of like Apollo Creed challenging Rocky Balboa in the first Rocky. It is of course a highly unusual move, and further casts doubt on Abrams’ entire cover identity; both Ronit and his coach reveal later in the book that the only possible way Abrams could even want to challenge this guy was if it was because he needed to go to Japan on some sort of “secret” commando mission. As I say, the novel at least ends with Abrams’ entire team being aware of his secret operative status, which promises further series developments – something Sugar was known for in The Enforcer.

But one thing Sugar doesn’t bring to this series is the sleazy and lurid vibe of The Enforcer, which was almost fixated on breasts and nipples and the like, with hardcore sex scenes in the earliest volumes. Israeli Commandos is comparatively tame. Abrams’s few sex scenes with Ronit all occur off-page, and she’s barely exploited at all. I mean what the hell? This could potentially have something to do with the fact that Andrew Sugar supposedly became a woman sometime in the mid to late ‘70s; way back when I reviewed The Enforcer #1, a few people left varying comments that Sugar was really a woman, or that he was a man with a wife and kids, etc. Around 2012 I was briefly in touch with a guy who had met “Andrea” Sugar and who told me he’d been called as a witness in a trial Sugar had put together against Clint Eastwood, claiming that the Dirty Harry flick The Enforcer infringed upon Sugar’s series of the same title! This was in the late ‘70s and of course the trial was thrown out.

But anyway, this person told me that Andrew Sugar had become “Andrea Sugar” shortly before the trial, and made for a “handsome woman.” He didn’t know anything else about Sugar and was only called as a witness on the artistic aspect of the case, as he himself was a writer. What I found most curious is that nothing else was ever published by Sugar after the trial; the last thing credited to him is the 1979 Manor paperback The Cult Breaker (which curiously features a Clint Eastwood lookalike on the painted cover!), and so far as I can tell there’s never been anything by an “Andrea Sugar.” Prior to “the change,” Sugar had been fairly prolific (and always published under his own name), so I wondered why he would’ve stopped writing even if his gender had changed. I was going to do a post about this on the blog at the time, but just never got around to it, so these two paragraphs will have to suffice.

So off our heroes go to Japan, where Sugar doesn’t beat us over the head with the cultural differences or arbitrary travelogue stuff. The flight over begins the suspense and tension vibe that will continue for most of the novel, as Abrams is summoned to the cabin of the 747 and informed a bomb’s been discovered onboard. Abrams has been called because it’s known by the public at large that he grew up dismantling bombs and stuff, just part of the daily life of being a kid in postwar Israel. He defuses the bomb in a nicely-done scene, only for one of his entourage to die regardless, thanks to some cyanide in a mixed drink. Later at the airport there’s a bomb in a briefcase; at this point Abrams knows one of his people is a traitor, and of course it turns out to be some minor character we’ve never met before.

It’s more on the suspense tip as Abrams and entourage are hooked up with a training facility outside Tokyo, but his concern is how to get off the premises without their police security detail not seeing them. Abrams’s lack of training for the upcoming match – ie, the very reason the world thinks he’s even here in Japan – becomes humorous (intentionally so), and serves up another reason for his coach in particular to suspect that Abrams is here for another reason entirely. And here come the ninjas – one night Abrams and his group are roaming the camp grounds when Japanese men in black suits bearing swords come out of the shadows and attack them, leading to a taut action scene where Abrams and his boxer pals defend themselves with their fists. It’s not until later that Abrams is told they are ninjas, which he’s never heard of. The various attacks make Abrams suspect there are two different factions trying to kill him, and he turns out to be correct, but the main threat centers around the Eijiro Electronics headquarters, owned by the radical who plans to sell his missile tech stuff to the PLO.

There are interesting scenes throughout, like a late-night soft probe Abrams makes on Eijiro, where he discovers the grounds are guarded by giant mastifs in addition to high-tech sensing devices. Sugar brings something else to the series that he did The Enforcer: a theme, something you don’t often find in the men’s adventure world. The theme is “Israelis are born survivors,” and Sugar successfully displays it throughout, from Abrams’s childhood familiarity with defusing bombs to the various members of his entourage willing to put their lives on the line for Israel. It’s especially displayed in the taut (but brief) climax, in which a battered, beaten, and bloody Abrams gets in the ring with the Mike Tyson-esque Japanese boxer, about the only thing fueling Abrams his fiery will to survive.

The action doesn’t really pick up until Abrams and team make an attack on a terrorist hideout, a very well-done scene which has them setting up some oldschool tricks like wiring up a door so that it electrocutes whoever touches it. The biggest action scene is on the night of Abrams’s big match; he rightly suspects it’s the only day the police guard won’t expect him to try to sneak off the training compound – given all the attacks on his life, Abrams has been placed under 24-7 police guard. They hit the Eijiro facility, wiping out hordes of terrorist scum, with Abrams delivering brutal justice with a .357 bast to Eijiro’s face.

This is where most novels would end, but Abrams still has a heavyweight boxing match to attend! Even though his right arm has been so injured he can’t use it and he’s got shrapnel wounds on his ass. In a half-daze he’s driven to the arena, where he demands that his coach give him some painkiller shots and stitch up his ass wound, insisting that he can still fight. I thought Sugar would have the fight called off, but it really happens – and not to blow any spoilers, but it is very much in the Mike Tyson mode, as Abrams has that Israeli fire in him and basically destroys the dude, using just his left hook, in a couple seconds.

So if this is the last we’ll see of Dov Abrams, it’s at least a bad-ass way to go out. As mentioned there’s a lot of opportunity as Abrams’s entire entourage is now aware of his being an Israeli Commando, with the potential that they’ll now be able to help him out on his future assignments. But it seems that Sugar developed a revolving protagonist setup for the series, so I suspect this will indeed serve as our farewell to this particular Israeli Commando. Overall though, The Kamikaze Assignment was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Rising Higher

Rising Higher, by Robert Stuart Nathan
No month stated, 1981  The Dial Press

I knew there just had to be a roman a clef about Rolling Stone Magazine, but over the years, despite all my searching, I was never able to find one. I could already imagine it, something trashy in the Harold Robbins vein, focusing on an upstart rock magazine and the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I could never find such a novel, and after a while I figured the closest thing would have to be Norman Spinrad’s unsung blockbuster Passing Through The Flame. But then, in one of those flukes, I discovered this incredibly obscure novel, which, if you haven’t already figured out where I’m going, is a roman a clef about Rolling Stone!

Back in 2007 I picked up a nonfiction book on Rolling Stone titled Gone Crazy And Back Again, Robert Sam Anson’s 1981 study of the magazine, but never got around to reading it. The other month I discovered it in a box of other hardcovers and went online searching for info on it, which took me to this contemporary Washington Post article – which is where I learned of Rising Higher (by the confusingly similarly-named Robert Stuart Nathan). The uncredited Post reporter called the novel “unintentionally hilarious,” basically a “thinly-veiled” ripoff of Anson’s nonfiction book (which a few years previous to the hardcover had been printed as a series of newspaper articles), only transported into a shallow fictional context. Regardless of the strong criticisms there was no way I wasn’t going to buy the book, though, as it seemed to be all I’d been searching for. And I saw why I’d never heard of it before; I prefer my trash to be in paperback, and Rising Higher only ever received this 1981 hardcover edition. There was no paperback release, no other edition but this one. So safe to say it didn’t gain much of a readership. I’m not familiar with Robert Stuart Nathan, but he seems to be fairly prolific, so maybe this one was just a misfire.

To be honest from the get-go, the novel is a failure on many fronts. When it comes to a roman a clef, I think the first gauge to its success is whether the novel can stand on its own if you don’t know the real-world figures it’s based on. Take Robbins’s The Adventurers, which is sort of a sensationalized take on Onassis. You could read and enjoy the novel without knowing a thing about Onassis, as Robbins delivers his own world and his own characters. You cannot say this about Nathan’s novel, though. If I didn’t already know the famous Rolling Stone personages, I’d have a hard time understanding what was going on – most notably in the instance of Captain Billy Tiger, the novel’s analog of infamous gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter Thompson. In reality, Thompson was a larger-than-life character who defined the magazine in the ‘70s. In the novel, “Capt. Tiger” only appears a handful of times, in each instance defending his work against tyrannical magazine mogul Jed Roman (aka Jann Wenner)…and the only example we get of his work is a “puff piece” on…Barbara Streisand. WTF? 

As a document – or even an indictment – of the Woodstock Generation, the novel is also a failure. One does not get a good idea of the rock counterculture of the day. One also does not get an idea of what it would be like working in a guerrilla rock magazine environment in its early dopesmoking days. I envisioned a wild novel of roving rock reporters, with thinly-veiled analogs of the major rock groups interracting with them. I didn’t get that. Instead, I got a novel narrated by a cynical, entitled prick who seemed to have wandered in from some other book. And that’s the greatest failure of Rising Higher. The narrator, Nicholas Shade, is along the lines of the unlikable protagonist of another failed “rock novel,” The Armageddon Rag; you don’t ever get the impression that this dude even likes rock, and his constant pessimism and cynicism gets to be a drag. To the point that, after 296 pages of his bitching, I wished I could briefly transport myself into the world of the book so I could punch him in the face.

The book is also a failure as a rock novel. Now how can I say this without sounding like a sexist pig? The only two rock musicians we meet are both women – and they’re not even bona fide rock artists, at least not by my definition. One’s a bluesy Janis Joplin type and the other is a nightclub singer. I mean, couldn’t Nathan come up with a Stones analog? Some actual rock group who would go on some Led Zeppelin-esque hedonistic adventures? Speaking of the Stones, “Jagger” is mentioned repeatedly in the narrative, to the point that you wonder if he’s the only rock artist Nathan’s ever heard of. Otherwise, in true Roman a clef fashion, we’ll have casual namedropping of musicians throughout, ie “Joni was playing something on the piano,” or “I did a story on Neil,” and etc, but we never actually meet any of them. They’re always on the periphery, save for a late-novel appearance by…you guessed it, Mick Jagger, who says a couple of lines about the talentless chanteuse Jed Roman plans to turn into a mega star.

Rising Higher is also a failure so far as trashy escapism goes; it is written with a curiously reserved, almost bland tone, as if it were the product of today’s homogenized focus group world and not of the more hedonistic early ‘80s. The two female rock stars are barely even described, let alone exploited, and the few sex scenes all occur off-page. Even the rampant drug usage is treated matter-of-factly, with copious joints smoked in the office of Rising Higher Magazine, and the occasional mention of harder stuff (ie coke) being used by some of the more driven characters. That brings us another of the novel’s major failings – so much of the narrative is told rather than shown. This is particularly true of the magazine itself, and all the major rock events; earlier I referenced the “Woodstock generation,” but get this – Woodstock isn’t even mentioned in the novel. Nor are important plot-points like how Rising Higher even gets started. But we sure do get a lot of cynical, pessimistic navel-gazing from our buzzkill of a narrator.

Well, now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, on to the novel itself. Nathan never really outright states the dates but the novel seems to occur between March of 1968 (as evidenced by a mention of LBJ’s abdication speech being in the paper) and sometime in 1978, this latter date only determined due to the narrator’s vague reference early on that the events of his story started “ten years ago.” This span of years is of course the “Age Of Rock,” to quote the title of two awesome collections of vintage rock journalism Jonathan Eisen edited, but you’d never know it reading the novel. Rock is so peripheral to everything that I wondered why Nathan even bothered with the Rolling Stone conceit. The uncredited reviewer at Kirkus aptly summarized the novel as “lifeless,” further pointing out that “Nathan hasn’t even bothered to be inventive.”

I go off into this latest tangent because we never really understand why Nick Shade, a 23 year-old Time Magazine reporter who comes from money (his grandfather was an oil baron or somesuch), even leaves New York to work as an editor for new rock magazine Rising Higher. We know that he’s fond of newly-famous singer Carol Reese, a 19 year-old vixen who looks like young Elizabeth Taylor and whose record Shade spotted on the way to work one day. Basically he fell in love with the photo (of Carol in hot pants and leaning against a sports car) and I guess he must’ve liked the album itself; the entire setup is vague and not grounded in anything else. I mean, does Shade like any other groups? We never know, because he only mentions things via bitchery, like complaining that “Yummy Yummy” by the Ohio Express was at the top of the charts at the time.

Nick wants to do a profile on Carol for Time and, when the novel opens, he gets his wish; his lush of an editor comes into his office and tells him to go to Los Angeles and write the story on “the dumb singer with the big tits.” Imagine anyone at Time making such a statement today! Or in any other office environment, for that matter. The early quarter of Rising Higher takes place in a completely different world than our current one; Time is despised by the counterculture (and pretty much also by our narrator) for being “straight,” for actually defending the war in Vietnam and for supporting conservative values and politicians. What particularly draws Shade’s ire is how the reporters of the day misleadingly claim that peaceful protesters are violent anarchists, all to protect the establishment, and he’s especially sickened when the establishment politicians give orders to shoot protestors on sight.

And these are just harmless hippie protestors, so I can see his anger. I mean, it’s not like they’re burning churches, looting businesses, or shooting and killing innocent children. But as I say, it was quite strange reading Nick’s condemnations of the 1960s mainstream news industry in the year 2020, when reality is the exact opposite of the one Nick presents. With the exception being that the mainstream news still lies, of course. It’s just that now they’re lying for the other side. But heck, even the politicians in California are conservatives here, and Nathan eventually delivers a half-baked subplot in which Nick and his fellow Rising Higher shareholders attempt to back a left-leaning politician to change things up. In a further bit of prescience, the dude turns out to be gay, but of course this needs to be hidden.

Nick and Carol have instant chemistry, so we’re to understand, but it comes off more like an extended interview he does with her over the course of a few days, during which she begins to seduce him. This culminates in an off-page sex scene that takes place on a remote road on a mountain over the city, after which Nick and Carol begin a casual sort of romantic affair. The big problem here is we never understand why a famous and gorgeous singer like Carol Reese would be interested in Nick Shade – there’s nothing remotely likable about him. Practically every line of his dialog is a complaint or a condemnation. Of course he’s wealthy, but Carol doesn’t seem to be interested in that, only so much as it illustrates the huge class difference between them. At any rate, at a party with the rock glitterati – again, all of them on the periphery – Nick runs into a guy about his age with long blond hair who is busy rolling a joint. This turns out to be the casual, almost half-assed introduction to the novel’s main character/main villian: Jed Roman, aka Jann Wenner.

Jed wants to do a magazine for the counterculture and call it “Rising Higher,” which he says means how the entire generation will constantly be “rising higher” or something. No one in the course of the novel informs him that “Rising Higher” sounds more like an aviation magazine. Jed is about to start up in San Francisco and offers Nick an editorial role; less pay than he currently gets at Time – all employees will be paid the same in total socialist manner – but he will be able to do his own stories, write his own ticket, etc. Nick returns to the doldrums of Time and then after a page-filling trip back to the family mansion in Connecticut, he decides – pretty much off-page – to take Jed Roman up on his offer. Unbelievably, the action picks up a year or so later, with Jed now established in San Francisco and working on the twelfth issue of the magazine; we don’t even see how the magazine started (save for a brief flashback at the very end of the novel to the first issue rolling off the presses), we don’t see any of the early stories or coverage.

As for the things that made the real Rolling Stone so popular, ie the long interviews with rock artists, the comprehensive record reviews, the far-ranging reports on the counterculture, there is nary a trace. It’s always, “I’d just finished a story on such and such,” with us never actually seeing any of it. The record reviews are only mentioned much later in the novel, and only then merely to illustrate another of the lame subplots (basically, that Jed is cooking up shady business with a sleazy label and has slanted the reviews to be overly positive for Ocean Records). As for famous early RS personalities like Joe Eszterhas, Ben Fong-Torres, Robin Green and the like, there’s nary a trace of them, either, save for Sam Carney, a sixty-year-old music biz vet who is clearly based on Ralph Gleason. The only other one we get is the Hunter Thompson analog, Billy Tiger, and as mentioned he’s kept to the sidelines and always defending his work when we do see him. There’s absolutely none of the craziness of the real Thompson, and indeed Capt. Billy Tiger is presented as a “pudgy” joke. What’s more frustrating is that we’re constantly told of these great pieces he and others have written, in particular an essay on the “Satanic” vibe of Altamont which was Billy’s first piece for Rising Higher. But we never get to see any of them or learn more about them – even a few excerpts would’ve been fun, and a way to spruce up the otherwise bland narrative.

Sadly though more focus is placed on Nick’s boring relationship with Carol Reese. She flies around the country on tour and returns to his place at whim, Nick wondering what she sees in him as she could have anyone, etc. There are also signs that she and Jed might have something going on, as they were an item before Nick met her. The early half of Rising Higher gives us about the most we get so far as the rock world goes. My favorite sequence has Nick visiting a recording studio where a new group called Majority is working on an album, produced by Ocean Records wunderkind Nigel Williams. However, Nathan is another of those rock authors either incapable or unwilling to actually describe music, for the most part just giving vague details and focusing on the lyrics. We do get the interesting tidbit that Majority does a “funk-country” tune, which made me think of the awesome track “Easy To See” by the obscure group Bodine.

More importantly for a novel on the rock culture, there are a few mistakes here and there. Most glaringly we’re told that Jed does a piece where he theorizes that The White Album will be the last Beatles album. The only problem is Nathan has the album coming out after Altamont…and the piece turns out to be correct, as the Beatles split up after its release. Otherwise though as I’ve stated the actual real-world rock stuff is only given passing mention. The death of Jimi Hendrix is given the most focus – but then, only a couple lines at most – after which the ensuing deaths of Janis and Jim are merely mentioned. The death of Janis is mostly used to illustrate the fear Nick has that Carol will be next, and true to every cliched rock story you’ve ever seen or read, Carol’s a mess at this point. Soaring on various drugs, so out of it she collapses in the studio and Nick has to be called in to take her home. This leads to a huge blowout among the three main characters, as Nick catches Jed having sex with Carol, after which he throws a hissy fit and leaves Rising Higher, returning to Connecticut. 

At this point it seems to be 1972, and we’re informed that a year later Jed goes to one of Carol’s concerts in New Haven – again, the only concerts we see in the book are courtesy the two female characters – and she’s terrible. She basically throws herself on Nick afterward and he’s like “No thanks,” and next we hear she’s broken down and in a funny farm, out of the spotlight. The action picks up again in 1976 and Nick’s back at Time and it’s like a decade has passed, which adds to the unintentional comedy the Washington Post writer mentioned. Nick gets word that Rising Higher, which has continued to thrive, is moving to New York, and that Jed has bought two floors of the Empire State Building for the new office space. At this point Jed, who was never a well-defined character to begin with (why he started the magazine, what drives him, etc, is never displayed), has become a coke-snorting maniac. He offers Nick the chief editorial role at the magazine and, for reasons he doesn’t understand, Nick accepts.

This bit is prescient in that it comes off more like something set later in the ‘80s; it’s all coke-fueled glitz and tawdry showiness, with Jed’s office cluttered with expensive toys. The unsubtle subtext has it that the equal, socialist environment of the San Francisco office has been replaced by the crass avarice of Manhattan; Jed explains to Nick that their readers won’t mind this change of location because “The Flower Children moved to the suburbs and now have mortgages.” Jed continues to spiral into madness, lashing out at employees, firing them for no reason, throwing temper tantrums. This would be enough for a plot but we have a return of the young liberal Californian governor subplot, which brings Carol back into the story; the politician’s handlers come to Jed for help, as the governor needs a sort of pretend girlfriend to fool the public into thinking he’s straight. It would need to be someone a little famous, but not too famous, so Jed suggests Carol Reese, who is eager to get back into the limelight now that she’s gone through rehab and gotten herself together.

At this point Nathan has to bring out another subplot about another female singer, and the reader easily confuses them: the other is Melanie Lerman, who ten years ago married a friend of Nick’s but is now divorced. She wants to make it as a “rock singer,” which Nick finds ridiculous “at this stage of her life” (seriously, there is no joy in this motherfucker). So we have to read his pissy condemnations of her various nightclub performances and studio sessions – because Jed, meanwhile, has fallen hard for Melanie, and plans to make her a star, even producing her album. This part at least has the bonus that we have a brief scene in Jimi’s Electric Lady studios, which is where Melanie records her album. But even here our narrator has to bitch: “We stopped in the lounge – an orange and purple room recalling psychedelia at its most garish – and then went into the studio.” So that his incessant complaining is complete he also of course has to let us know that Melanie’s recorded work is “awful.” It turns out to be a huge seller when it’s released, though, same as Carol’s comeback album. 

The novel builds to a muddled climax in which coke-fueled Jed pushes everyone away; he’s already fired Billy Tiger long ago, but there comes another bit here in the ’76 section where Billy comes into the new office and asks to write for the magazine again…and just meekly sits there while Jed rants and raves that Billy will never work for Rising Higher again. Some Hunter Thompson stand-in this is. Carol and Nick have a one-night reunion, meanwhile, but our narrator can’t be bothered with her anymore; he’s also apparently got a steady girlfriend now, herself a daughter of wealth, but Nathan only gives her like one or two lines and she makes no impression on the reader.

The novel ends with Jed revealing that he’d been dealing with Nigel Williams of Ocean all along, and the two plan to start a new enterprise that will release albums, movies, etc. And Jed’s selling Rising Higher. But our narrator at this point is sick of it all and quits for good. No wonder he’s sick of it, as never once has he seemed to enjoy himself in the course of the novel. Again I go back to the Armageddon Rag comparison, as this novel has been given the worst possible protagonist. One gets the impression that he’s doing the various characters a favor by even acknowledging them, yet in each instance the other characters are much more interesting – and much more likable – than he is. The pessimistic tone so permeates the text that by the end of the book you just want this guy to go away forever.

It’s a shame Rising Higher was such a letdown, as there was a lot of material to be exploited. About the most I can say is that I did read it, all of it, with no skimming. The tame melodrama at least kept me turning the pages, especially with the potential opportunity that I might get more rock-world stuff. But honestly it was few and far between. And sadly, the rock magazine stuff was even less central to the plot, with the majority of it relayed via off-hand dialog…or, more frustratingly, via interminable sequences focusing on the advertising budget and sales figures. Just so much missed opportunity, and as the Kirkus writer put it, not even inventive when compared to the real-world Rolling Stone story. It’s no wonder the novel quickly faded into obscurity.