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.

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