The Rose, by Leonore Fleischer
November, 1979 Warner Books
I’m not sure if The Rose is a well-known movie; I’d never heard of it until I discovered this tie-in novelization. But then, I’m not the world’s leading expert on Bette Midler. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single movie she’s been in…and to tell the truth, I’ve always confused her with Barbara Streisand. At any rate, Ms. Midler starred in this 1979 film, playing the titular character, a ‘60s rock star very clearly modeled after Janis Joplin. I’ve read that the film was originally going to be titled “Pearl,” before Joplin’s estate got involved, or something to that effect. But it’s clear as day that The Rose is a roman a clef about Janis Jopin – and in true roman a clef fashion, Janis Joplin herself briefly appears in the story.
But folks let me tell you – having read this rock novel masterpiece, I have no intention of ever seeing the movie. Veteran tie-in novelist Leonore Fleischer (who as “Mike Roote” turned in the similarly-excellent Prime Cut) clearly put her heart and soul into this book, to the extent that it is far more than a mere “novelization” and comes off like a genuine novel in its own right. The characters and settings are clearly defined, as is the era (the late ‘60s), and Fleischer has included lots of background detail and flashback material which certainly isn’t in the movie. She also isn’t straightjacketed by the ratings system, and features a whole bunch of explicit stuff that I’m positive didn’t make it into the film. As it stands, The Rose is better than the majority of the rock novels I’ve reviewed here, and I feel that watching the movie would tarnish the enjoyment I gained from the novel.
For one, there’s no way I could see Bette Midler as the character Fleischer delivers. The Rose of the novel is a small, almost elfin young woman in her mid 20s with “frizzy” blonde hair. And, let us not forget, “big tits.” Rose’s massive mammaries (“disproportionately large but firm and bobbing”) are mentioned frequently throughout the novel, Fleischer usually using the word “tits” to describe them – that’s how “rock novel” the book is, folks! For the first third of the book they are plainly visible, as she runs around the dingier parts of Manhattan in a skimpy tank top that leaves nothing to the imagination. “She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she made you catch your breath.” Born Marie Rose Foster in smalltown Lawrence, Florida, Rose escaped a hardscrabble, sleazy life to become the cream of the late ‘60s rock crop; now she flies around the world in her own Learjet, one with a giant red rose painted on the fuselage. She’s been at the top for 17 months, now, and the problem is she is exhausted.
The novel runs to 254 pages of small, dense print, and the first third of it occurs in mid-August, 1969 (no mention’s made of Woodstock, btw). We meet Rose as she’s returning to New York, from which her main office is run; part of the crux of the story is that Rose is a product, a product in great demand, and her “owner,” ie her manager, has been pushing her relentlessly to give the people what they want. Rudge is that manager, “An Englishman dressed as a cowboy.” I’m not even sure who played him in the movie and don’t care to find out; the Rudge of the novel is a fully-realized character, complete with a backstory that runs throughout the narrative, showing how he rose from his own hardscrabble roots in London to become the merciless, money-lusting driver of the present. But while he’s a prick he does clearly care for Rose; we don’t learn until late in the novel, but he became her manager after Rose’s mostly-disastrous first concert, which occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, after which Rudge freed Rose from a nightmarish life of heroin addiction and set her on the path to superstardom.
Thus Rose feels beholden to Rudge for the most part, but still she chomps at the bit for her freedom, for at least a little break from the relentless touring and recording. In just over a year she’s already done a handful of albums and toured extensively, and right now she’s about to start a new tour that will end in her hometown of Lawrence. She wants a year off after this, and Rudge goes ballistic. This is typical of how rock stars were treated at the time; Jimi Hendrix, who is mentioned occasionally but doesn’t appear in the novel, suffered at the relentless pace of his own manager, Michael Jeffery – who in fact pushed Jimi to do the European tour which turned out to be Jimi’s last. If he’d let the guy take a break, maybe enjoy the new studio he’d just opened, it’s possible Jimi would’ve lived many more years, maybe even still be alive today.
Like Jimi no doubt did, Rose feels that this relentless pace will wear her out permanently; if Rudge doesn’t give her a break, she swears she’s “going to be a cadaver.” Rudge won’t, uh, budge, and after a spat Rose cools out a little…mostly due to her ever-present bottle of Aquavit. Rose is a recovering junkie, and has sworn off drugs, save for the odd joint or two. Thus there isn’t as much “drug stuff” in The Rose as you’d expect, but Fleischer still captures the “high times” of the era, mostly courtesy Rose’s band, who enjoy smoking joints in her Learjet. Speaking of which, I hate to report this, but Fleischer is yet another of those rock writers who doesn’t tell us what the music sounds like; we know Rose has her original backup band, initially formed in her acid rock San Francisco days, but now that she’s a bigger star she also has an additional drummer and a horn player, and also someone on “keyboards.” (Keyboards are mentioned a bit too much for something set in the ‘60s, I felt.)
Case in point is Rose’s big concert in Madison Square Garden, that very night – she tells her guitarist to set his watch for twenty-five minutes, because that’s all Rose has in her. She puts on a show, and Fleischer capably displays how such a small girl, barely 90 pounds we’re told, embodies something so much greater in the power of her voice. But it’s still just focusing on her lyrics, with not much detail on what the band sounds like. Thus I was free to imagine they sounded like this or even this. (I ignored Cheap Thrills forever, only to finally get it on vinyl and realize it has some of the most mind-melting acid rock fuzz psychedelic guitar ever!) When her twenty-five minutes are up, Rose belts out a blues song that comes straight from the guts, then collapses on the stage. This part features a definite Joplin reference, as a floored Rudge exclaims, “I’m gonna buy her a Rolls Royce!”
Rose is truly exhausted at this point, but whether she or the reader realizes it or not, this will only be the start of her night; as mentioned, much of the ensuing novel occurs over the next several hours. First Rose is dragged by Rudge to meet with an Elvis Presley stand-in named Billy Ray, a famous good-old-boy country singer who surrounds himself with a bunch of redneck sycophants, all of them in matching outfits. Billy just gave a show of his own in New York and Rudge has worked out a meeting between the two superstars, as Rose has covered a few of Billy’s songs and, like most people her age, she idolizes the man. This makes for an uncomfortable scene, as Rose, still in the skimpy attire she wore for the show – a barely-there halter top, velvet pants so tight they had to be sewn on, and feathers in her hair – makes an immediate impression, openly hitting on the young guy in Billy’s place, going on about how she loves “young meat.” Unfortunately this young guy turns out to be Billy’s son, thus resulting in Rose’s complete embarrassment in front of the entourage. As a final slap to the face, Billy tells her he doesn’t like her remakes and doesn’t want her to record anymore of his songs!
A crying Rose rushes from the scene and commandeers Billy’s waiting limo. This is how she meets what will become the great love of her life, or at least one of the great loves of her life: the chaffeur is a young, good-looking guy named Houston Dyer. Fleischer skillfully handles the blossoming relationship between the two, also doling out Houston’s backstory so that much of it is inferred instead of outright stated. He’s a ‘Nam vet, we eventually learn…also later learning that he’s AWOL. At this point the novel becomes almost a sort of picaresque, set in the wild world of late ‘60s Manhattan, including even a bizarre foray into a bar filled with transvestites who idolize Rose! There’s also a part where Rose and Houston go into a diner in the “trucks and warehouses” section of the city, and Houston knocks out a slackjawed trucker who starts badmouthing “hippie” Rose after our heroine starts bantering with the assorted redneck scumbags.
Throughout Fleischer does an excellent job of capturing the vibes of time times. Writing the novel only a decade after the era, there is none of the revisionism or glossy-lensing one would encounter in a modern novel set in this time period. There are also none of the niceties you’d encounter in modern fiction; Fleischer at times is rude and crude, in true rock spirit, often objectifying Rose’s ample charms or going into explicit detail about her sexually-varied past. And the novel makes it clear: Rose was the town tramp back in Lawrence, sleeping her way through a legion of good old boys. One night she even “took on” the entire high school football team…on the field! This last bit is relayed to Houston to see if it will scare him off (it doesn’t), and Rose treats it like it’s a big secret, one that haunts her…we’ll find out that more people are aware of this “secret,” but it does truly haunt Rose…and the novel unexpectedly ends with a long flashback to the sordid events of that night.
But as mentioned Fleischer puts so much backstory into this novel, stuff I’m sure isn’t in the film – like how when Rose was 22 she finally decided to hitchhike out of Lawrence, thanks to a gay BFF of hers who’d moved to San Francisco and insisted Rose come be with him, and “on the way, [Rose] was obliged to fuck fourteen drivers and give blowjobs to eight as well.” We also learn that one of the many sexual legends about Rose is that she likes to “stick a tab of acid up her snatch so anyone who ate her pussy would go away tripping.” Note how that’s “anyone” who goes down on her; it gradually develops that Rose is a switch-hitter, with one of her longest relationships being a lesbian fling with a rail-thin jet-setting socialite namd Sarah. This occurred a bit over a year ago, and we learn that Rudge schemed to break off the affair because he hated Sarah. The phrase Rudge uses to describe Sarah would no doubt shock the readers of today. Indeed, I doubt a mainstream novel could be published in our modern era with such freedom of expression. We even get an explicit lez-sex flashback, with Sarah “reaching out with her fingers and her tongue, burying herself in the warm, moist body of The Rose, lapping the dew from her petals.” Bet that wasn’t in the film!
Rose’s sexual drive is often mentioned; Rudge in fact often mentions how “hungry for cock” Rose is after each concert, thus warns both Sarah (and later Houston) that she would only set herself up for heartbreak if she were to tag along on a tour. While Rudge is exaggerating things to get rid of Rose’s lovers (he prefers her single and thus easily controlled), we later see he wasn’t totally stretching the truth; when Rose whines about this latest tour, Rudge tells her to “just think of all the cock you’ll be getting.” This stuff is of course humorous, just due to how over the top it is, yet again Fleischer has a subtext in play: Rose is empty, and is, so to speak, filling herself up. She is very much a three-dimensional character, with a short fuse and big mouth; she comes off like a temper-tantruming “rock queen” one moment and a caring maternal figure the next. At any rate, Houston becomes her main squeeze for the majority of the novel, easily seeing through Rudge’s attempts to scare him away – this leads to a laugh-out-loud part where, on the band’s jet, Rose freaks out, not knowing where she is, how “all these damn clouds look alike,” and then passes out. Without missing a beat, Rudge toasts Houston: “Welcome to rock ‘n’ roll.”
Rose is as mentioned at the top of the rock heap, but unfortunately we don’t see her interracting with other rock stars of the day, except via flashback. We know she’s a fan of The Who (a group Rudge wanted to manage, we’re informed!), and also as mentioned Janis Joplin exists in this book. One wonders if Mona Drake also exists in the world of this novel, meaning that there would be two pseudo-Joplins and one real one. The extended flashback to the Monterey Pop in 1967 is where we see the most of this action; Rose’s no-name group has somehow been invited to attend, and she watches starstruck from backstage as various groups perform. In particular Rose is floored by the two women present: “Gracie” Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, who seems so sophisticated and makes Rose feel like smalltown trash, and of course Janis Joplin, who puts on such a show that Rose realizes she herself doesn’t have a chance of capturing the audience.
Again, not sure if this made it into the film, but Fleischer successfully explains how Rose was able to achieve rock stardom. After the Monterey show, in which Rose gave a somewhat-stumbling performance due to the pills and booze she took to calm her nerves, Rose ended up living on the streets as a heroin addict. Rudge, who had offered to manage her right after her Monterey performance but was turned away when Rose refused to fire her band, tracked Rose down, got her off the streets, and got her off heroin – hence her devotion to him. The narrative jumps ahead a few weeks at this point, so we can see Rose performing in various venues while on her “last” tour. Despite Houston’s presence, she gets back into the same, depressed funk: zoned out when not on the stage, on a terminal bummer trip. Houston, who argues with Rudge to give Rose a break, often takes the brunt of Rose’s tantrums, including a goofy part where she slaps Houston and he takes off, and a frantically-apologetic Rose chases after him into a “Turkish bath,” complete with Rose making ribald comments about the many exposed male privates she encounters therein. A very humorous scene, and one I doubt packed this much of a punch in the movie – that is, if it even happened in it.
The final third of the novel occurs in Lawrence, Florida. Splitting off from Rudge and Houston, Rose has her limo driver take her down south alone, where she’s frantic to see if the townspeople remember her – and if they know that she’s “somebody” now. One of Rose’s biggest nightmares is that she’ll go home and find that nothing has changed, that no one will remember her or be aware of who she is. And this is exactly what happens – she goes into a drugstore run by an old man she remembers well, and he has no idea who she is. In other words, Rose, the superstar, remembers everyone…but no one remembers Rose. This leads to a bunch of wacky stuff, like Rose dropping twenty thousand on a brand-new Ferrari at a car shop owned by one of her old boyfriends; she hands over the bundles of cash and then proceeds to smash the car apart right in the show room. As the novel races for its conclusion and Rose becomes increasingly deranged, the reader becomes aware that she is not headed for a happy ending.
Rose has taken her tantruming to a new level, resulting in Rudge making the power play of telling her she’s fired, and he’s no longer her manager. This occurs just as her show in Lawrence is about to begin, the fans growing increasingly restless. Rose once again runs away from the situation. When the relationship with Houston also ends, shortly thereafter, Rose is completely lost…and turns to the heroin she’s just been handed by an old dealer. Rose shoots up for the first time in over a year, in a phone booth that happens to be right across from the football field upon which she once “took on the entire team.” But as we see in the flashback that ensues, it was more like rape. After this Rose is taken to the concert – Rudge’s ruse just a desperate act to get Rose to shape up – where she puts on her greatest performance ever. Rose will experience a fate identical to Lance Macon’s, rock star protagonist of another rock novel from 1979, Triple Platinum. It’s a sad end to the tale, as the reader has grown very fond of Rose, but Fleischer’s just getting started – she also lets us know that Houston, who has decided to return to active duty, most likely won’t be coming home from Vietnam!
Throughout Fleischer carries the novel along with skill and panache, though I did think she was a bit guilty of hopping perspectives between paragraphs, resulting in a bumpy read at times. And also she has a penchant for referring to the same character by multiple names in the narrative, which can be confusing. Otherwise she does a superlative job, and certainly evokes the spirit of the era; judging from the clips I’ve seen online of the film version, the producers didn’t really get the look of the late ‘60s…the film seems to have a generically gauzy “late ‘70s” vibe. Not true here; this is a world of hippies and “heads,” where Rose in her skimpy concert attire traipses through New York “like some hippie fairy tale princess.” Fleischer does deliver a few anachronisms, though none of them are too bad. For one, she has a brief scene in “Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios,” in Manhattan. It’s actually “Electric Lady” studios, and also it wasn’t even opened yet in the time this scene is set; Rose records her latest album there in August of 1969, whereas in the real world Electric Lady didn’t open until August of 1970. But stuff like this is minor, and hell, I thought it was cool the studio was even mentioned – though all we see of it is Rudge sitting in the control room and arguing with Rose.
There has been a spate of rock novels recently, from David “Cloud Atlas” Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue to Taylor “Seventies rock is a fun place to tell a story in, but it is dominated by white males” Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (never question the racism and sexism of our progressive elites, folks). I picked up both novels at the library, thumbed through them, found exactly what I expected. The heart of rock did not beat in either book; rock is not refined, it doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings. Modern mainstream novelists are either incapable or unwilling (same difference, really) to turn out something on the level of Leonore Fleischer’s The Rose. (Just like any modern mainstream rock band would be incapable of writing a song like “Under My Thumb;” they’d be stymied by the label and their inability to even conceive of a song so sexist.) But the heart of rock beats strongly in this book – skip all those doorstop banalities of recent years and seek yourself a copy of this unjustly-overlooked tie-in paperback.