Thursday, April 29, 2021

Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History

Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History, by Samuel Graham
November, 1978  Warner Books

Every few years I go through a Fleetwood Mac phase, in particular the “forgotten” early ‘70s albums. Everyone knows the Buckingham-Nicks era of Rumours and whatnot, but while I appreciate that era I often find it takes on the level of background music when I’m playing it. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t draw me in like the earlier stuff does. But then the Buckingham-Nicks era is “Fleetwood Mac” to most people, and Samuel Graham’s authorized biography of the band devotes half its contents to this most famous lineup. 

First of all, Fleetwood Mac isn’t a quickie cash-in, despite its brevity and the fact that it was published as a paperback original. It’s also not written for a juvenile audience, with plenty of adult language throughout, usually courtesy the interview subjects. It was however clearly published so as to capitalize on the sudden fame of the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation of the group, though Graham mentions that he’d seen Fleetwood Mac on tour in the US prior to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup. Otherwise Graham’s writing is good, and he seems to have had a rock journalism background. He relays the story succinctly, usually sticking to quotes from band members past and present and occasionally serving up his own opinions on things. 

The book is chock full of black and white photos, and more importantly the majority of Fleetwood Mac members from inception through 1977 all take part – save for notable exceptions Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. But even group founder Peter Green graces the book with his own thoughts and reflections, though to be sure the “authorized” bit means that Fleetwood Mac isn’t going to get into all the lurid details. There’s no mention, for example, of the Satanic German commune that supposedly brainwashed an LSD-dosed Green in 1969, forcing him to quit the band (a story that’s more legend than truth). Nor is there much dwelling on the famous break-ups and shack-ups of the Rumours era. Also no mention that gifted young guitarist Danny Kirwan was homeless at the time of this book’s publication; the last line of the book vaguely has it that he is “keeping a low profile.” 

The first page humorously informs us that Fleetwood Mac “took ten years to find their sound,” but really there was no searching involved. Each lineup was basically its own separate group, with only the rhythm section of John McVie (bass) and Mick Fleetwood (drums) staying consistent. Graham begins at the beginning, with gifted guitarist Peter Green splitting off from John Mayall’s group and, along with Jeremy Spencer and McVie and Fleetwood, starting up a new group. I’ll admit I’m even less interested in Fleetwood Mac’s early “blues” years than I am the later Buckingham-Nicks years, but honestly Graham doesn’t really spend much time here – he is aware that the majority of his audience wants to read about more recent Mac output. 

At any rate “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” was the version of the band for many years; even when the group carried on with various lineups in the ‘70s there seemed to be little interest in Britain. Whereas it was the opposite here in America; Fleetwood Mac started getting more radio airplay on FM stations as the ‘70s went on, to the point that Fleetwood Mac almost became an “American,” or at least “Los Angeles” band…which of course had the ultimate outcome of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining, and taking the group firmly into a sort of LA soft rock direction. Regardless Green’s original incarnation drew in a string of hits in the UK and Europe, with no less than the Beatles paying tribue to them in “Sun King,” which takes its guitar sound from the Mac single “Albatross.” (Something Graham doesn’t mention in the book.) 

I get more interested in Green’s original incarnation of the group when they begin to shuck the blues and go more for a rock vibe, particularly a heavy rock vibe – “Oh Well” and “The Green Manalishi” are two of the greatest tracks in all of late ‘60s rock. The latter, certainly the heaviest Fleetwood Mac ever got, is nearly proto-metal in its execution, and it’s my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all. Graham notes that it was inspired by a dream Green had (in later interviews Geen detailed that it was a green dog barking at him, and also that Green himself was “dead” in the dream), and these days its seen as his subconscious driving him to quit the band, given his “hang-ups” over money. Graham does dwell on this – the book is pretty disarming at times for an officially authorized venture – with McVie and Fleetwood nauseated by Green’s fixation on how “wrong” it was that the band was making money while others starved. 

“Manalishi was primeval in its force, driven by Fleetwood’s relentless drumming and Green’s power-chording and laced with eerie guitar solos,” Graham notes, in what will be his typical style of describing a song in a few lines. Given its brevity (173 pages, much of which is taken up by photos), Fleetwood Mac is not an in-depth study of the group’s musical output. For the most part Graham will deliver a few pithy lines, often letting his opinion be known. However when he does detail a song, even if briefly, he shows a definite skill for capturing the essence of the track…even if I don’t always agree with his opinions. I also appreciate that he isn’t so hung up on the lyrics, as most other vintage rock critics are. 

As mentioned, one person not present for the recollections is guitarist Jeremy Spencer; Graham states that Spencer was usually only present in the studio when it was one of his own tracks being recorded. Spencer was able to take over the group when Green quit in early 1970, resulting in the somewhat jumbled Kiln House, which veers from Elvis and Buddy Holly parody to very cool late ‘60s blues rock…the latter courtesy new member Danny Kirwan. A guitar prodigy (and protegee of Green’s), Kirwan is one of the more myterious elements of early Mac. By all accounts he was difficult to work with and difficult to know. Like Green it would turn out he had some mental issues which got in the way of his music career. Kirwan joined in ’69 at age 19, played most of the guitar on that year’s Then Play On, and per Graham “the genuinely creative moments” on Kiln House belonged to him, with the young guitarist “coming into his own.” 

Spencer’s absence from the book means that his own parting from the group is relayed by the other members – basically, while on tour in America, Spencer was accosted by a group of Christian cultists in Los Angeles and just decided to go join them in their commune, leaving Fleetwood Mac in the cold. This would be the Children of God cult, and if I’m not mistaken this was the same cult that River Phoenix’s family joined at the same time. It was probably also in the same area, so perhaps young River was one of the kids running around the commune when Spencer joined…though from Phoenix’s comments it wasn’t a nice place at all; his stories of children being forced into sexual relations in the commune was pretty chilling. In fact I believe he was making the connotation that there was no difference between how the commune treated children and how Hollywood did. 

Anyway none of this is actually in the book. And again, Spencer isn’t present to yield his own story. Graham does comment, in the “where are they now” finale of the book, that Spencer is “suprisingly” still with the cult, also noting that he released an album with them. Something else Graham doesn’t note is that, around this time, Fleetwood Mac released one of the greatest B-sides in rock. Another Kirwan number, this was “The Purple Dancer,” which was the B-side of the moody instrumental “Dragonfly.” Both songs were recorded during the Kiln House sessions but were not on the actual album; “The Purple Dancer” is notable for featuring the entire lineup, including both Kirwan and Spencer on vocals. A definite rockin’ track and, like “The Green Manalishi,” another indication of a direction the group could’ve gone. However “The Purple Dancer” was basically forgotten, and if I’m not mistaken it still hasn’t been released on CD…and the only long-play record it was released on was a 1972 Germany/Holland-only compilation titled The Best Of Fleetwood Mac

With Spencer gone, now 21 year-old Danny Kirwan took up the reigns of the group. Along with another new member, Christine McVie (nee Perfect), who had recently married John. She’d contributed some keys to Kiln House, and also handled the incredible cover art (definitely the best Fleetwood Mac album cover of all), but now she was an official member of the group. Also joining at this time was American guitarist Bob Welch, my favorite-ever member of Fleetwood Mac, though curiously I’m not so much into his solo work. (I do however love the first Paris album he did immediately after leaving Mac.) Together this lineup released what I consider not only the best Fleetwood Mac album, but one of the most unsung progressive rock albums of the early ‘70s: Future Games

While this album is often dismissed (or more often just ignored), Graham thankfully is appreciative of it, but doesn’t get into too much detail. He relates the interesting story of how Welch joined the group – basically he just hung out with them one night, hit it off with them, and “didn’t play a note,” per his own recollection. Welch as ever comes off as the most well-spoken of the group, and his comments throughout the book are always insightful. I love the spaced-out vibe the guy brought Fleetwood Mac, as well as the murky progressive direction he took it in. This was very apparent in his first song for Mac, “Future Games,” which Graham calls “a treat.” Graham also calls Kirwan’s “Sands of Time” a “brilliant” number, however Graham never rolls out the “progressive” description. Likely because by the time this book was published, progressive was “prog rock” and would give the wrong impression to readers. But Future Games is certainly “progressive rock,” and if you’re bored you can check out my review of it here

Somehow this lineup managed to record another album, the following year’s Bare Trees (1972). I agree with Graham again, who considers this one “not nearly as rewarding as its three predecessors.” Bare Trees is I think stronger than Kiln House, but it comes off as directionless after the single-minded mellow cosmic effort Future Games. This album is of course notable for having the original and superior version of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady.” If you’re still bored you can check out my review of Bare Trees here

As mentioned the book doesn’t gloss over everything, so we’re told in flat terms that Kirwan got increasingly “weird” (Welch’s description) as time went on, culminating in various freakouts and hissy-fits while on tour. But one thing is glossed over: I’ve read that the incident that got Kirwan fired was the night he refused to go on stage, freaked out and tried to attack Welch, smashing his guitar in the process. This incident is not related in Fleetwood Mac. Instead we’re told, again by Welch, of one night where Kirwan refused to go on, “stood by the mixing board” throughout the show, and then complimented everyone on their performance when they came off the stage! At any rate Kirwan is “politely fired” and Graham informs us of his two solo albums, neither of which were released in the US – and neither of which, Graham states, reach the heights of his Fleetwood Mac material. 

We come now to the most forgotten Fleetwood Mac lineup of all: the strange conglomerate that released Penguin in 1973. “A really weird, out in the ozone kind of album,” Christine McVie describes it; Welch just calls it “obscure,” and presumably his comment was given in 1978. If Penguin was obscure then it’s even more so now. This was the lineup that included new lead guitarist Bob Weston and new “lead singer” Dave Walker…who only sang on two songs on the album! Walker was from Mac touring mates Savoy Brown, and, as related in the book, he was brought onboard to give the group some much-needed stage presence, something we’re informed they’d been missing since Green left. But it was clear from the get-go that Walker, with his bluesy wailing, was a poor fit, and his two contributions to Penguin, one a bluesy number and the other a country-rock thing, aren’t very memorable. 

Speaking of Green, Graham relates that he returned to the fold for one number, providing uncredited guitar to Welch’s spooky progressive number “Night Watch,” the definite highlight of the album. Actually Welch’s numbers are the saving grace of Penguin, all of them going into a sort of progressive rock territory. McVie meanwhile continued to develop the sort of soft rock vibe she’d perfect in the Buckingham-Nicks era. As for new lead guitarist Bob Weston, pretty much the only thing he’s remembered for is having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife, something which occurred during the tour for their following album, also released in 1973: Mystery To Me

As if quickly released to make people forget about Penguin, this one dropped Walker and featured what I consider one of the greatest Fleetwood Mac songs of all: Bob Welch’s “Hypnotized.” “The song’s ambience so embodied its title that it nearly had an aura to it, soothing the listener into a groove that one wanted to last forever,” Graham writes, further stating that in his opinion it is “the most brilliant music, period, that Welch has ever made.” He also claims that, judging from the poetic quality and topics of his lyrics, “Welch had the most far-reaching intellectual curiosity of any Fleetwood writer before or since.” But the Mystery To Me material is run through in two pages, climaxing with the American tour in which Fleetwood discovered he was being “cuckholded.” This led to Weston’s immediate firing and the cancellation of the tour, the group returning to England with the future in doubt. 

Graham also briefly details the legal squabblings that resulted in “The New Fleetwood Mac” which toured the US in ’74; this was a group put together by Mac’s manager, supposedly “to keep the band’s name alive.” This led to lots of lawsuits, some of which were still being worked out when this book was published. We get the band’s point of view on this, all of them still upset about the issue. Graham doesn’t tell us much about the “Fake Fleetwood Mac,” like the fact that they later released a couple albums under the name Stretch, starting with 1975’s Elastique. This isn’t even included in the otherwise comprehensive discography at the back of the book. 

The real Fleetwood Mac went on to release another album with yet another lineup: 1974’s Heroes Are Hard To Find, which saw the group whittled down to Welch, the McVies, and Fleetwood. “Not a bad record by any means,” Graham states, but I personally like it a lot, and rank it just after Future Games. There’s a sort of psychedelic vibe to the whole album, again courtesy Bob Welch; “Coming Home” could almost be Pink Floyd. It’s a shame this lineup didn’t stick together longer, but Welch decided to leave, exhausted from the past three years: “Faced with the prospect of making another Fleetwood record, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” he states. One thing not recorded here is that Welch wanted to take Fleetwood Mac into heavier territory – something he did himself with the power trio Paris. For some confounding reason Graham states that the Paris material was “commercialism…too often mired in pretension.” That first Paris album is a proto-metal psychedelic heavy rock masterpiece, there’s nothing commercial about it at all! 

So all of the above, from the origins of the group in ‘67 to Welch leaving in late 1974 – several albums and several lineups – takes up the first 115 pages of the book. The rest is devoted to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup and the two albums they’d released in that time. So clearly Graham was aware of what his audience at the time would be most interested in. But here is where my own interest began to wane. While I appreciate the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie lineup, I just don’t actively listen to it…I mean I even tried to play Rumours recently, and it quickly became just background music. And also it amuses me that Graham can call Welch’s Paris material “commercialism,” but rave about Rumours! 

The story is recounted here, same as it would be in the later Goodnight, L.A.: Mick Fleetwood, looking for a new Los Angeles recording studio after Welch left the group, heard “Frozen Love” from the then-obscure Buckingham-Nicks album, which had been recorded at this studio, and he immediately declared that he wanted Buckhingham and Nicks to join the group. Graham does not relate that Nicks was supposedly Buckingham’s “plus one;” he does relate that, at the time of the book’s publication, Stevie Nicks was so popular that she was seen as the face of Fleetwood Mac to most people…an image which she tries to shed in her interviews here, claiming she’s just a “member of the band.” Graham also enthuses over Nicks’s productivity in the writing department. 

One thing you won’t find mentioned is the oft-told tales of cocaine excess; drugs aren’t much mentioned (other than Green’s forays into LSD in the ‘60s), thus we aren’t told about the communal bowl of coke that sat on the mixing console during the recording of Rumours. Instead the focus is more on how Buckingham and Nicks so quickly became part of the group, and indeed their version is “Fleetwood Mac” in the minds of most. What makes this interesting is that Graham closes the book wondering how long this lineup will last! Given of course the incredible amount of lineup changes the band went through between 1970 and 1974, it’s no surprise he would wonder if this latest lineup would also be short-lived. 

Welch, astute as ever, comments on why he feels the Buckingham-Nicks lineup found so much success, when compared to the earlier lineups: “When I was with Fleetwood I felt above the audience, as if I knew something they didn’t know. If they feel that vibe coming from you, they get hesitant. What people want to see in a big commercial success is a reflection of what they themselves could be, a nicer, prettier version of themselves. When I was in the band we were distant, and people weren’t comfortable. Now they are.” Actually this all is a bit of a left-hand compliment now that I think of it – but I do agree that the Welch incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was a little too advanced for the mainstream, whereas the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation pretty much defined the sound of mainstream late ‘70s rock. 

Speaking of Welch, I appreciated how Graham would detail what happened to members after they left. Peter Green shows up periodically, with Graham documenting how he was even institutionalized at one point – again, it is at times a “warts and all” sort of book, with not much really hidden. And of course Welch had his biggest solo hit with a remake of “Sentimental Lady,” with his former bandmates backing him up. Curiously though Welch must’ve had a falling out with the group, as he was the sole member to not be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – hell, even Kirwan was! But this book was published long before the relationship between Welch and Fleetwood Mac grew strained. It’s made clear in the book, in fact, that Welch basically kept the group running for a long time, something Christine McVie herself states. 

For those into the Buckingham-Nicks era, you won’t really find much trivia here. The tale of them joining is recounted, and rundowns of their solo album as well as 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and the just-released Rumours. Buckingham doesn’t have much to say, but Nicks is quoted several times, even admitting that she didn’t know much at all about Fleetwood Mac prior to joining, though she says she did see Christine McVie on TV once and was inspired by her. Otherwise, I was much less interested in this closing section than the earlier stuff. 

Fleetwood Mac goes for a pretty penny these days, so it’s definitely a collector’s item. I was lucky to get a copy via Interlibrary Loan. It’s pretty good for what it is – a brief but insightful look into the group and the various permutations it went through on the path to superstardom. But anyone expecting probing analysis of the music or sordid tales of excess will be disappointed.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Dakota #3: Cat Trap

Dakota #3: Cat Trap, by Gilbert Ralston
September, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Conventional plotting and characterizations take precedence over the action and sleaze factors, which barely exist. -- Marty McKee

I think one thing we can all agree on though is that the Dakota series is graced with some of the finer covers in the men’s adventure genre. This one, with its lysergic green cat statuette, is especially nice. The artwork is signed, but I can’t make out the signature. There seems to be an “S” and a “V” in there. I was wondering if it was either John or Marie Severin, but I’m not familiar enough with their art or signature styles to say. Anyway, it’s too bad Pinncale didn’t credit the artist on the copyright page. 

I have been somewhat looking forward to this volume of the series if only to get some clarity on the plot and its similarity to a standalone novel Gilbert Ralston published through Pinnacle at this time: The Deadly, Deadly Art, which came out in November of ’74. Both it and Cat Trap feature an assassin who worships ancient Egyptian feline god Bastet. It seems very strange that an author would devote two books to the same thing in such a short span of time. It turns out though that the whole Bastet thing factors much more heavily into The Deadly, Deadly Art than it does in Cat Trap, so perhaps Ralston didn’t feel he had explored the concept sufficiently here and thus decided to devote another novel to it. Because Marty was right on the money in his review when he commented that Cat Trap suffers from “a waste of a potentially memorable villain.” 

What’s very curious is that the plots for Cat Trap and The Deadly, Deadly Art are practically identical: a Bastet-worshipping hit man takes out his victims with a special poison that mimics heart attacks. Only a telltale red dot on the victim’s back is evidence of the poison injection. But the killer is given more narrative space in The Deadly, Deadly Art, and the whole Bastet worship thing is more elaborated upon. In Cat Trap it comes off as an afterthought, introduced as a compelling subplot but ultimately dropped and not really explained. Even more curious is that there was potential to make Cat Trap a sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art, as the Bastet worshipper Dakota goes up against is almost a clone of the villain in the other book. 

Marty in his review also notes that Dakota “has a very large supporting cast,” and that’s once again made clear within the first few pages of Cat Trap (how much you wanna bet Ralston had a different title in mind – another word for “Cat?”). As with the previous books in the series it’s clear Ralston wants to write a sort of family epic; he seems much more interested in the various supporting characters and their interactions than the action and whatnot the men’s adventure genre demands. Whereas the previous volume at least had a memorable sort of climax, this one’s comes off as perfunctory…and the few other action scenes throughout are over and done with in the blink of an eye. Well anyway, pages 2 through 4 are a nightmare of info-dumping, Ralston telling us the names of all the various people involved with Dakota near his family ranch in Carson Valley, Nevada, even up to and including “Caruso, Dakota’s pet raven.” And the damn bird isn’t even mentioned again. 

Indeed, Dakota’s personal entourage has gotten even more unwieldy. His father died at the end of the previous book, so now he lives with his mom, former local cop Bennedetti (plus Bennedetti’s wife and kids), young punk Louis Threetrees, and ‘Nam pal Joe Redbear, who figured in the memorable action climax of the previous book. In addition Dakota has a girlfriend named Alicia, introduced in the previous book and appearing again this time – Dakota’s such a “different” sort of men’s adventure hero that he even proposes to Alicia in the course of Cat Trap (she tells him “Not yet”), and hell there’s a part where he takes some other woman out on a date, just to get some info from her, and then drops her off back at her home so he can head back to his hotel and brood. And now that I think of it, there’s another part where Dakota stumbles onto a porn shoot, and the “actress” basically propositions him, and Dakota replies that he’d rather screw “a water buffalo.” 

Ralston piles on one-off characters and subplots in the first few chapters, making for a demanding read. What it boils down to is that two seemingly-unrelated men die of a heart attack on the same day in Reno, and Dakota is hired to look into it. In one subplot it’s an old ‘Nam commander who wants to find his son, and in another it’s a gambling casino that hires Dakota to find out what happened to one of its executives. But again all of this is very similar to The Deadly, Deadly Art, to the point that it’s humorous Ralston was able to sell Pinnacle practically the same book twice in the same year. I guess you could argue that Cat Trap has more action, comparatively speaking, but then again as mentioned as least The Deadly, Deadly Art had a better-developed villain. 

But in this book the villain is almost an afterthought. One of the heart attack victims died on a crowded street, and a witness overheard someone mutter something like “Bastet;” gradually (very gradually) Dakota will learn the whole connection with the ancient god. But as with the other book, ultimately we have here a professional assassin who pledges his kills to Bastet and uses a curare-tipped rapier to do his assassinating. As Marty notes, though, the villain is left so much in the background that he only appears twice, and the potential is not reaped in the least. Instead Dakota tassles with a couple low-level thugs over the plodding course of the novel. 

But Dakota is a private eye, and that’s really the vibe Ralston goes for…that is when he isn’t focused on the family and friends dynamics. Dakota flies around the country a good deal this time, meeting a host of characters who spout memorable dialog…which is another bone of contention I have with the series. Every single character delivers annoyingly glib dialog; Ralston had a Hollwyood background, which is very clear. But it’s too much of a good thing. I mean if one or two characters had some nice snappy dialog that would be fine. But when every character talks like they’re mugging for the camera it gets to be annoying – like for example the phrase “To hear is to obey,” which is uttered by two separate characters in the course of the book. Dakota himself continues to dole out the glib rejoinders; my favorite in that regard is when a hippie girl asks him if he’s an Indian and Dakota responds, “You want to see my tomahawk?”

Really though Dakota spends most of his time calling colleagues and flying to meet them to research on the ground. Here’s where that “sequel” potential is. One of Dakota’s contacts is a former New York cop named Cochran, who now works in San Francicso. He is familiar with a case in New York from a few years back where random people were dying of heart attacks, and it turned out to be the work of a professional killer named Guy Boyle Marten…who just happened to be a highfalutin snobbish type who worshipped Bastet. Yes, exactly like the art professor-professional killer who worshipped Bastet in The Deadly, Deadly Art…a novel which featured a New York cop as its hero. Man, all Ralston had to do was make that New York cop, Mack Bennett, the character Dakota works with in Cat Trap

It even works with the Marten connection; The Deadly, Deadly Art climaxes with what appears to be a random act of fate taking care of the villain, Brian Sattler…and we learn here that Guy Marten too is supposedly dead, victim of a random house fire. Marten even works for a sort of hitman staffing agency, same as Sattler did. And guess what – both Marten and Sattler live in Connecticut, where they work as teachers. It would seem clear then that these are the same characters, but Ralston never makes the connection. All he had to do was replace Cochran with Mack Bennet, and Marten with Sattler, and he would’ve had a fine sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art. Of course that book was published two months after this one, but such things are a regular occurrence in the world of paperback originals. 

Well anyway, Dakota ventures to San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut in the course of his investigation, finding the opportunity to hook up with Alicia again in SanFran. There’s zero hanky-pankery this time; more focus is placed on Alicia’s lingerie store being ransacked with “chemicals,” a note left on the scene for Dakota to “go home.” Dakota instead sends Alicia back to the ranch in New Mexico and continues his investigation, getting in a couple scrapes. There’s a humorous amount of “kicking” this time; both Dakota and the one-off thugs are prone to launching high kicks to the head, as if inspired by Black Belt Theater or something. But this isn’t an action-heavy series by any means. I mean honestly Dakota is at one point hooked up with a pistol…and he never uses it, instead giving it back to his contact and telling him to hang on to it. 

Ralston’s writing is fine; I mean he’s clearly invested in the characters and has a gift for dialog. But he seems to be writing more of a James Michener sort of novel than about “a modern Indian lawman in today’s West.” Also the glibness extends to the narrative. There are so many short, direct sentences that at times it takes on the vibe of a hardboiled parody. But in his focus upon characters and introspection Ralston overlooks the more racy demands of this genre. I mean even Jon Messmann stories move, despite the inordinate introspection and philosophising. 

This is especially clear in the climax. After shuttling around the country to follow leads, in particular a sort of hitman hirer named Gordo (not to be conused with Greedo), Dakota finally has a personal confrontation with Marten…who makes zero impression on the reader, and instead just escapes. So Dakota heads on home to the ranch…and meanwhile Marten closes in on the ranch with a few thugs, each armed with “machine pistols.” Their orders are to kill everyone in the ranch. Taking place at night during a snow storm, this sequence has the opportunity to be very memorable…a sort of prefigure of Prairie Fire. But instead Ralston barrels through the action in just a few pages, having wasted so much time on the pondering and the glib-dialoging. That said, at least Dakota shoots someone here – and so does his mom, toting a gun she gets out of the pantry! 

What’s worse, the ending is wholly unsatisfactory, with a certain character straight-up escaping…Dakota even giving him a thirty minute head start to get away! Of course this sets up the potential that The Deadly, Deadly Art could be viewed as the sequel to Cat Trap, but then that one takes place in New York and all the stuff with New York and Guy Marten took place before the events of Cat Trap. Still though, it’s pretty lame, sort of like the average Marc Olden novel, where the villain escapes and you know they’ll never be mentioned again. I mean I demand to see the villain’s head exploding in the finale of a men’s adventure novel! 

That’s pretty much it for Cat Trap. Two more volumes were to follow, and I’m going to suspect they will be more of the same. Still, I do really like the covers. And I’m thinking more and more that Marty’s correct and Dakota started life as scripts Ralston worked on for a proposed TV series. The ensemble cast, leisurely plotting, and lack of sex and violence are all pretty much in-line with a TV production of the era. We’ll just assume Lalo Schifrin would’ve done the soundtrack.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Spaced Out: Radical Environments Of The Psychedelic Sixties

Spaced Out: Radical Environments Of The Psychedelic Sixties, by Alastair Gordon
No month stated, 2008  Rizzoli

I’ve been obsessed with late ‘60s/early ‘70s “mod” design for a very long time – I mean if I had my way, my living room would be decorated like Barbarella’s spaceship. That “future 1960s” aesthetic you can find in sci-fi movies of the era, in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gerry Anderson’s UFO and Journey To The Far Side Of The SunMoon Zero Two, Barbarella, even Anderson’s Thunderbirds and etc. Alastair Gordon’s coffee table book Spaced Out documents this ultramod aesthetic, and it is eye candy of the first order. 

First, to admit: I don’t actually own this book. I mean I just refuse to spend $50 on a book, which is the pricetag Spaced Out carries. I know, I’m cheap. But I have checked the book out via Interlibrary Loan several times since it was published in 2008! And another admission: I’ve never actually read the book! Gordon includes (what appears to be) insightful commentary on the various fringe designers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the lifestyles of the people who tried to recreate “radical environments” at the time, but honestly folks I’ve never actually read it and instead just look at the awesome photos throughout. So for this review I’ll be shutting up and just letting the book speak for itself. I can hear your cheers even from here! 

The book is split in two halves. The first, which I find more interesting, is filled with the ultramod psycedelic-inspired d├ęcor and furnishings mentioned above. The second half gets more into hairy hippie territory, with lots of geodesic domes and whatnot out in the cheap showiness of nature. (Those hippies and their domes!) Also, it should be noted that there’s a fair bit of nudity throughout Spaced Out, from swingin’ ‘60s chicks in the first half to, uh, slightly more hirsute representatives of the female form in the second half. I only note this because my four year old really likes this book…he’s been looking through it every morning since I got it from the library this latest time. But to tell the truth I’d rather him see some swinging ‘60s gals than the crap that passes for kid’s entertainment these days. (I mean seriously, bring back Thundarr the Barbarian!) 

Oh and a final note – Gordon also briefly discusses the Haus-Rucker Co. from Germany, a design outfit that did some super-cool designs, including the “Flyhead” helmet (seen in a few photos below). There’s some promo footage Haus-Rucker shot in ’68 (complete with Iron Butterfly’s “Theme” on the soundtrack!) on Youtube; you can check it out here. In fact some of the photos included in Spaced Out seem to have come from this promo, or at least were taken at the same time. 

And now finally I’ll stop typing…here are a bunch of random photos of the contents of Spaced Out

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Soul Hit

The Soul Hit, by Charlie Haas & Tim Hunter
No month stated, 1977  Harper & Row

I learned about this obscure novel thanks to the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM. I was doing a search on “rock novels” (which is how I discovered Death Rock several years ago) and came upon a somewhat-positive review of the book. The review also mentioned that co-writer Charlie Haas had been responsible for the “hip” liner notes to be found in Warner Bros records at the time. However looking up The Soul Hit online it would appear the novel didn’t resonate much, as info is scant and there doesn’t even appear to have been a paperback edition – which is exactly what the book needed, as it’s already around the length of an average PBO of the day. 

So it only came out in hardcover, the back cover of which informs us that co-writers Hunter and Haas were buddies in college, both now live in Los Angeles, and both are in some degree involved with the entertainment industry. They make a fine writing team; it’s hard to detect two people wrote the book, so in that regard it reminded me of The Headhunters. I did notice that some chapters would open with elaborate scene-setting, usually detailing one-off or supporting characters, with the main plot being concerned with the investigation of a retired FBI agent into a music biz killing, so perhaps that was the line of delineation. At any rate the writing here is very good – very much in-line with your typical private eye yarn, but gussied up with a bit of a “literary” vibe at times. And definitely aware of the inner machinations of the record and radio business. 

The novel takes place in 1976 and opens in an AM radio station in San Luis Obispo, CA; the authors are already aware of how radio has changed so drastically, with the young jock, Barry Marsh, unable to voice too much “personality” and just sticking to the hits. This is a fun bit and comes off like the fictional equivalent of FM or Radio Waves, only it’s about the much less interesting (to me at least) world of AM instead of FM. (There will be another character who is an FM deejay later in the book, but the authors don’t bring the environment to life as much as they do here.) Barry spins some singles and then, his overnight shift over, goes to the local Y to let off some steam on the squash court. Then a sniper blows his head off. 

This introduces us to the hero of the tale: Ben Marsh, Barry’s “middle-aged” uncle, a retired FBI agent. He now lives in Oregon, tending to the peach trees on his estate. The authors bring this stuff to life with info on how to cultivate peach trees and whatnot, letting you know they’ve done their research. Marsh gets a call from another nephew – Barry’s brother – and flies to California for the funeral. The local cops haven’t made any headway, so Marsh does his own investigation. This leads to a nice bit where Barry’s girlfriend, a hippie chick who works at the college bookstore, lets Marsh into Barry’s apartment and they look around – and find all five hundred of his records smashed on the floor. This part even upset me…I mean the poor vinyl! The girl goes into the bathroom and Marsh hears some grating metal; Barry had a stash of coke hidden in the shower, payola from a PR guy from Colony Records. 

This stuff brings to mind Triple Platinum, and again the authors – likely Haas – show familiarity with how hit records don’t just happen, how it all comes down to the hustle. Also Marsh is pretty hip for an FBI guy, giving the girl back the coke after getting more info from her on where it came from. Eventually he ends up in Los Angeles, looking into the Colony PR guy, Jerry Vilella. Jerry met with Barry Marsh the day before Barry was murdered, so Marsh tries to figure out if there’s a connection. And there sure seems to be; Marsh finds the door to Vilella’s home unlocked…and Vilella himself lying on his bed, his head blown off. Marsh hears someone at the door and hides in the closet, watching as a hotstuff blonde comes in and, oblivious to the corpse under the sheets in the bed, starts to disrobe, though the authors aren’t ones to get into sleazy details. 

Her name is Carrie Voy, and she is the FM deejay mentioned above; Marsh continues to hide as she discovers Lenny’s corpse, freaks, and runs from the house. He tracks her down after the funeral and she will ultimately become his assistant in the investigation. Carrie is not only a memorable character with sparkling dialog – the authors in general deliver good, movie-esque dialog – but she also provides Marsh with another glimpse into the workings of the record business. I especially liked how she is halting and uncertain in her speech when meeting people, but cool calm and collected when on the radio. There also seemed to be a shout-out to famous WNEW-FM DJ Alison “The Nightbird” Steele here, with Carrie referring to herself on-air as “…the night light, Carrie Voy, flying on the air with the greatest of ease at ninety-three FM.” 

An interesting thing about The Soul Hit is that Marsh is older than the majority of the other characters, thus he adds a layer of reflection to everything; he notices things that younger people surely wouldn’t, and his appreciation of Carrie is altogether old-fashioned. The veteran reader knows where this is going, but the authors do a great job of making the relationship develop gradually and naturally. It starts when Marsh follows Carrie home after the funeral, and sees a thug in a suit barge into her house and threaten her with a gun. Luckily Marsh has kept his own gun (a .38 revolver) and comes to her rescue. After which Carrie is so concerned that she wants Marsh to basically stay in her place, even though he’s a stranger himself. 

Curiously this element though doesn’t go further; I kept waiting for the goons to show up again, but the authors pretty much forget about them until near the very end. Same goes for the cocaine Barry Marsh got as payola; Marsh follows this angle to the Colony Records office building, coincidentally running into a sexy “coca-skinned” stewardess who was apparently hired by Jerry Vilella to smuggle in cocaine. This subplot is built up a little and then abruptly dropped. Regardless Marsh’s visit to Colony Records is another well-delivered sequence, again bringing to mind Triple Platinum. He learns that Jerry was pushing a new single by Ovis Timbers, a sort of proto-Prince in that he’s a soul artist veering over into the pop charts: the “soul hit” of the title. 

Carrie acts as Marsh’s sort-of informant, preparing him with insider info on the music world; Jerry’s co-worker at Colony invites Marsh to a party that night being thrown for Timbers, and Marsh invites the coke-smuggling stew. He’s met her simply by walking into Jerry’s office and snooping around, and coincidentally she just happens to come by at that very moment to arrange payment for the coke she’s brought in! That night at the party Marsh “samples” the merchandise, feeling his mind blown…even though Carrie told him to “act cool” and say the coke “must’ve been cut.” But this will be it for the coke-smuggling subplot, with the focus instead on the gang war brewing around Ovis Timbers. His gang has promised to donate all proceeds to charity, and a rival gang claims it’s all b.s., and a ruckus develops. 

The vibe is very much of a private eye yarn; Marsh heads to the afterparty, and just as stews he’s with begin to disrobe (thanks to snorting some coke, apparently), he runs into one of the thugs who showed up at Carrie’s house. What makes this different than the average private eye yarn is that Marsh is a “shoot, then call the cops” sort of hero…which is exactly what he does after tangling with the thug. This introduces us to another memorable character, a police captain “older than Marsh” who has some very dry, acerbic humor. The two develop a somewhat-contentious working relationship, and Marsh is able to continue his own investigation, even keeping his gun. 

Meanwhile he sleeps in Carrie’s living room, the authors doing a good job of bringing this whole relationship to life. Carrie does the night shift, same as the Night Bird, thus her “dinner” is other people’s “breakfast.” This entails some domestic scenes of Carrie preparing meals while Marsh sits and listens to her. Nothing is rushed here, with Marsh sleeping on her couch, waiting around while she’s home so she feels safe, and then going off to investigate when she’s at the station. The authors also don’t do much to dwell on the age gap, nor the fact that Carrie’s previous fling was murdered just a few days before. In fact Marsh gives her time, and even later chastises himself for “his thoughts of love-making” when he watches her in action at the FM station one night. Regardless, Carrie as expected begins to develop feelings for Marsh, especially after he begins coming home with his ass kicked. 

This is another similarity to Mike Hammer or some other P.I. deal; Marsh gets taken through the wringer in the course of the book, captured a few times and beaten around unmerciful. At one point he’s captured by the rival gang and knocked around, then later some bikers get hold of him. This part is also cool because the authors show how records are made, the bikers running a bootleg operation. One thing I didn’t like though was that a lot of Marsh’s revelations and realizations were kept from the reader, with him doing stuff for seemingly no reason, only to explain why in the final pages. But ultimately everything is connected: the gang war, the bikers, the murders, and Ovis Timbers’s new single. While Timbers is more of a soul artist than a rock artist, the book still has the vibe of a rock novel, with lots of behind-the-scenes info and actual description of what the music sounds like, something that eludes most other “rock novelists.” This is especially pronounced in the description of Timbers’s hit single with its opening “fast bass run, low, crouching, insistent,” as well as in the concert Timbers gives in the novel’s climax. 

While the action was cool and the music biz stuff very interesting, I found myself most interested in the Marsh-Carrie relationship. Again, the initial thing that brought them together (the thugs threatening Carrie) is kind of dropped, but still the whole bit with Marsh staying with her so she’d feel safe was nicely handled. And of course she eventually comes to Marsh in the living room one night, leading to the expected shenanigans, though the authors as mentioned don’t dwell on any sleaze. But we do at least get a little resolution with those thugs, who happen to be at Timbers’s concert in the climax, along with the bikers, members of both gangs, and everyone else who has taken a shot at Marsh: “This place is more like a free fire zone than a rock concert,” our hero tells Carrie. 

I enjoyed The Soul Hit a lot, and can’t understand why it didn’t get more traction when it was released. The novel is graced with blurbs on the inner jacket: Ring Lardner, Joe Gores, and James D. Houston all provide glowing appraisals and opine that the novel is destined for success. But it doesn’t look as if it was to be. I’ve been too lazy to see if Haas and Hunter collaborated on anything else, but I certainly will one of these days, as The Soul Hit was an engaging read…and another one I never would’ve learned about if not for that Rolling Stone CD-ROM.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Butler #4: Chinese Roulette

Butler #4: Chinese Roulette, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

I took longer than expected to get back to Butler, but luckily Len Levinson again delivers a story that stands quite well on its own, only occasionally referring to past adventures. Actually the main volume referred to is the first, mostly just as a reminder of how Butler quit the CIA and started working for the Bancroft Institute, now dedicated to stopping the multinational menance known as Hydra. All of which is to say I didn’t feel like I had forgotten a chunk of the storyline going into Chinese Roulette

But then, Len goes for a zany, almost surreal vibe in this series, with Butler stumbling into plots and traps – that is, when not propositioning various women. As I’ve said before, Len is one of the very few men’s adventure authors who has his protagonists work for it; whereas the standard trope is the distressed damsel throwing herself into the arms of the studly protagonist, Len’s protagonists have to put in some serious effort to get laid. This will also at times entail several pages of entertaining dialog, as the protagonist will try his best to convince the girl they should do the deed. Today all this would be considered harrassment, I’m sure, but it’s done with such goofy glee that you can’t help but laugh. Also it furthers the image that Butler, instead of the muscular he-man of the cover, is really more of a loser; the finale in particular brings this home, with Butler being turned down by three women in a row and having to go to bed all by his lonesome. 

The same can’t be said of the start of the book, though, which features Butler and his latest flame, jet-setting Brit socialite Lady Ashley, having sex on top of a mountain in Colorado. Butler’s here for vacation, and he and Lady Ashley hit it off, to the point that Butler’s able to convince her to get it on before they ski down the mountain. Again, Butler’s the one that makes all the moves; I just find this aspect so interesting about Len’s work because you honestly don’t see it anywhere else. What makes it even more interesting is how realistic it is, compared to the genre trope mentioned above…yet at the same time, it’s one of the few realistic elements of the series. But anyway, Butler pours it on and convinces her to unzip her pants so they can do it while still clothed, here in the snow; “They humped each other shamelessly on top of the mountain.” Actually the XXX material here is pretty explicit, as are the few other sex scenes. 

Butler’s called away, though, some guys from the Bancroft Institute showing up and whisking him via helicopter to the Institute HQ “in the mountains of Big Sur.” Here we get a reminder that the Institute is devoted to liberty and stopping tyranny around the world, in particular the tyranny that is threatened by the evil global network Hydra. As I’ve mentioned before (and as Len himself did in the series recap he wrote for my review of the first volume), Len was a “Radical Socialist” at the time he wrote Butler. What’s fascinating to me is that the sentiments Butler espouses throughout are not in-line with today’s Left: he’s in favor of free thought, free speech, and fair elections, plus he’s not hung up on identity politics. So if that was the mindset of the Radical Left in 1979, then some shit has seriously changed. Butler comes off more like the kind of guy who would regularly ignore COVID mask mandates, if only to “shake up the Establishment.” In fact, Hydra sounds suspiciously similar to the Multinational-Big Tech Complex of today: “There appeared to be no shortage of maniacs and psychopaths anxious to gobble up all the wealth and power they could. They even cooperated with each other from country to country, bribing politicians, corrupting democratic processes, and enslaving populations.” 

Humorously Butler’s called in due to some dire emergency, yet Bancroft boss Mr Sheffield (whose face is still never seen, so that he comes off more like Blofeld than M) doesn’t really have much for Butler to go on: something’s up in Hong Kong, and Butler needs to go research it. That’s it; the “bubonic plague” threatened on the back cover won’t come up until much later, and Butler only even learns about it by accident. So he’s almost sent to Hong Kong on a fact-finding mission, which makes the whole “let’s pull Butler out of his vacation” schtick seem like pure sadism on Mr. Sheffield’s part. But then, I know Len would usually write these books quickly, sort of winging his way along as he went; I get the impression Len himself just wanted to write about Hong Kong, so for the most part Chinese Roulette comes off like a travelogue, with Butler sort of stumbling his way around. 

This “winging it” approach will also affect the supporting characters. Butler tells Mr. Sheffield that he’ll need a beautiful female agent to go along with him – not for his own sleazy needs, of course, but because a beautiful woman will be able to loosen up lips that Butler himself might not be able to. Butler requests series regular Wilma Wiloughby (who has a love-hate thing going on with Butler), but is told she’s on assignment elsewhere. Since Butler further demands that this hot female agent also be fluent in Chinese, Mr. Sheffield has little choice: he suggests Claudia Caribou, an Institute chemist based out of Hawaii. However, absolutely nothing will be made of Claudia Caribou in the novel, other than to become yet another object of Butler’s lust and someone for him to bounce ideas off of. She doesn’t even speak in Chinese to anyone! 

But there’s no use complaining, because the Butler-Claudia rivalry turns out to be as fun as the Butler-Wilma rivalry of past volumes. With the big difference here that Butler tries throughout the novel to get Claudia in bed. She turns out to be a mega-hot blonde, much to Butler’s surprise (he figured that as a chemist she’d be a dog), and within moments Butler’s hitting on her…only to be turned down again and again. Ultimately Butler will keep her locked up in their hotel room in Hong Kong, never letting her leave. A funny recurring joke develops that she’s like Butler’s pet, with the big difference that at least he’d take a pet out for a walk, whereas Claudia never leaves the hotel room. It would seem that Len ran out of interest in the character, though; after a lot of verbal sparring, Butler just keeps ditching Claudia in the hotel, at one point even telling her he’s decided she’s no longer necessary and can go home. 

However the focus is more on the zany; I still say Butler is a more explicit take on the “spy satire” series of the ‘60s, a la The Man From O.R.G.Y. and the like. So Butler and Claudia are verbally sparring on the flight to Hong Kong, and Butler gets all hot and bothered. He goes into the restroom, but is determined not to masturbate, as he swore that off when he was 18; he’ll either get laid or just suffer. So he looks out in the cabin, spots a “little oriental stewardess,” and calls her in to “help” with the toilet. She comes in and throughout Butler leaves his massive tool sticking out, which of course serves to get the stew hot and bothered herself. They pull an explicitly-rendered “quickie” at thirty thousand feet…and to make it even more goofy, it turns out the two have actually done this before: the stew remembers Butler’s “big one” from a previous flight! 

The stew, Mai Ling, serves to get Butler into the plot per se, but like Claudia she’s dropped from the narrative soon after. She invites Butler to a party at the famous Madame Wang’s that night, in Hong Kong. Butler’s never heard of Madame Wang, and is informed she is a wealthy businesswoman who owns the Kinki Corporation. Butler leaves Claudia in the hotel – after going out to buy her some books, including Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – and heads to the party with Mai Ling. Madame Wang turns out to be a sort of Dragon Lady out of older pulp, a ravishing Asian woman of indeterminate age who employs a legion of goons. On no basis other than this, Butler suspects she’s involved with the plot he’s here to investigate. 

The plot too is basically thrown into Butler’s lap; he runs into another familiar face: former CIA boss FJ Shankham, who is also here at the party. Butler’s cover is that he’s now a reporter for a paper out of Big Sur (a recurring joke that no one’s heard of the paper), and he goes around asking blunt questions which again don’t gel with the whole “radical leftist” thing…like asking a high-ranking official from China when China will allow free elections. He hammers Shankham with questions as well, and learns that a ship bearing vials of bubonic plague was recently discovered in the harbor. This will be the Hydra scheme Butler tries to prevent, and he literally only learns about it when asking his old CIA boss what he’s been up to. 

Meanwhile the focus is more on figuring out who Madame Wang is. There’s a nicely-done scene where Butler goes swimming in her opulent pool (during the party!) and surfaces to find the Madame watching him. Butler seems sure she’s involved in the plot, however of course still tries to bang her. No luck, so he heads home (after beating the shit out of one of her thugs, almost for no reason), where Claudia opines that Madame Wang was probably a whore – that’s why she’s now wealthy(!). But regardless, Butler goes around looking for people who might’ve known Madame Wang “back in the old days” to see if she really was a hooker…again, with nothing more to go on than an errant comment of Claudia’s. 

At this point it’s really a Hong Kong travelogue, with Butler shuffling around the city while getting in occasional fights. He still carries a .45, but only uses it rarely. The gun too entails recurring jokes, with Butler often having to explain why a reporter feels the need to carry around a gun. One of my favorites in this regard is when a cop finds him on the street with the gun and Butler tells him he found it under a car. Coincidence abounds, again proving how quickly Len wrote: Butler runs into a street kid and gives him a motorcycle Butler himself stole. Later Butler runs into the same kid, asks him if he knows any old pimps(!), and the kid says his old opium addict uncle would be just the guy for Butler to talk to, as he ran a whorehouse(!!). Even more coincidental – the old guy not only affirms that Madame Wang was once known as “Hong Kong Sally,” but he also loved her as a daughter! 

Ultimately we meet the main villain of the piece: Professor Kee, a wizened old guy who doesn’t appear as much as he should. His intro is especially nice, where he tells Butler his thoughts on reincarnation. Butler ends up a victim of Chinese Water Torture, another well-done sequence where Len hammers home how ultimately horrific this torture would be…the effect of which is a little undone when Butler pretty much just walks it off after a few days of ceaseless water-torturing, having been sprung by an unexpected savior. Soon thereafter we get to another fun scene – several pages devoted to the explicit rendering of Butler going down on Madame Wang, who reveals that she has not had sex for 15 years, since she quit the hooker game. A wild, ribald, XXX sequence containing such unforgettable lines as, ”I’m going to put you on the floor and fuck you like a dog.” 

But honestly at 204 pages of small, dense print, Chinese Roulette sort of runs out of steam. This is mostly because so much of it has been devoted to Butler fumbling his way through his “investigation” that the climax, which sees him leading an assault party of Red Chinese soldiers against Professor Kee’s compound, almost comes off as perfunctory. That said, Butler does call someone a “rat bastard” here, as if unwittingly flashing forward to the title of a future Len Levinson series. But then action is never a central point of Butler; more focus is placed on the zany comedy, like Butler’s rival in the spy game: Geoffrey Stonehall, a James Bond spoof who drives an “Austin-Martin V8” and who mostly just jumps in and out of bed with various women – something which only furthers the rivalry between the two men, given whom Geoffrey gets to score with this time. 

In his series overview Len ranked Chinese Roulette as one of his favorites in the series. I enjoyed it – I enjoy all of Len’s novels – yet at the same time I thought the plotting was a little too laissez-faire for an action novel. Too much hinged on coincidence and improbabilities…but then, such things would only matter if you were looking to Butler to be a “straight” thriller, when in reality it is everything but. In this regard the cover art, nice as it is, is too misleading. To tell the truth, when I read these books I don’t see the guy depicted on the cover as Butler – I see Len himself. So maybe Leisure Books should’ve just gotten him to pose for the covers, same as he did for The Last Buffoon.

Monday, April 12, 2021

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer
No month stated, 2001  Villard Books 

Over the years I’ve become very interested in late ‘60s/early ‘70s FM rock radio, what was known at the time as “progressive freeform,” where DJs were free to spin whatever they wanted and could “rap” as long as they wanted. It was a platform that mirrored the rock scene of the day, with no commercial restrictions and “artist” DJs free to explore. In particular I’ve become almost obsessed with a DJ at WNEW-FM in New York: Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, who did the 10PM – 2AM slot and gave her sets an almost otherwordly vibe; she was so popular at the time that no less than Jimi Hendrix wrote a song about her.* 

I was born in the mid-‘70s, far away from any city, but in hindsight I realize now that the regional rock station I grew up listening to (WQZK 94.1 out of Keyser, WV) was pretty much still waving the progressive freeform flag, even in the mid-to-late 1980s. I heard songs on there you certainly wouldn’t hear on “classic rock” today, from the full-length “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers to all kinds of long progressive stuff…in fact recently I heard Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People” and had a flashback to how I’d always hear that on the radio as a kid and loved it. WQZK would also play Orson Welles’s “The War Of The Worlds” each Halloween, and every April Fool’s Day they’d claim to have “gone disco” and just play disco music the entire day. I took all this for granted as a kid, not knowing that this was aytpical of the average rock radio station (plus it was the only rock radio station in town!), but now that I’ve learned more about progressive freeform I realize that’s pretty much what the station was.** 

Anyway this is all just preamble to say that, even though I was born well outside of the progressive freeform era, I still got to experience it somewhat…and heck, if it wasn’t for WQZK, I never would’ve even gotten into rock (it’s how I heard “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and other Beatles classics as a kid). But over the years I have become more interested in original freeform radio, and again a big thanks to Javed Jafri for his Let The Universe Answer website, where you can find many vintage “airchecks” to listen to. It was through Javed’s site that I finally got to hear some Alison Steele airchecks, and I really enjoyed them – I love the “trip” she takes her listeners on, often mixing songs together for very cool segues (for example Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” into Tangerine Dream on this 1974 aircheck). 

I’ve searched high and low for a full 4-hour Alison Steele set, but no luck – I was in contact with a guy whose older brother recorded several of her shows in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on reel-to-reel, but unfortunately he wasn’t interested in digitizing or sharing them. It was through one of my periodic searches for more Steele airchecks that I came upon mention of Richard Neer’s FM, which focuses on WNEW-FM in the 1970s, with some detail about Alison Steele. Neer himself was a DJ at the sation, starting in 1971 and staying there for 25 years. Today he still works in radio (at least he does per the bio included in this book, but the book was published 20 years ago), but now he’s moved into AM talk radio. FM chronicles the progressive freeform rock radio era, with a focus on WNEW-FM and lots of stories about the various characters who worked there. 

I’ll admit that I was unfamiliar with Neer, as well as the other DJs he talks about, but regardless the book was still very entertaining, and very well written. Neer has a definite talent for pulling you into his story and making you feel like you’re there. It’s not dry history, either, with occasional detours into behind-the-scenes gossip and innuendo. In that regard I imagine the book would be very entertaining for people who actually got to listen to WNEW-FM back in the day. And for that matter, Javed also has an aircheck of Neer’s on his site – here. I enjoyed Neer’s book more than the earlier Radio Waves, mainly because Neer mostly sticks to the more-interesting ‘70s rather than the ‘80s of Radio Waves. And also because he uses actual station and personality names, unlike the pseudonyms Jim Ladd strangely decided to use in his book. 

Neer also does a great job of making this story both personal and historical; it opens with him and his buddy, Michael Harrison, interviewing for coveted roles at super-hip and super-popular WNEW-FM, in Manhattan. From here Neer will flash back to not only his own origins in radio broadcasting, but also detail – concisely and entertainingly – how progressive FM radio itself got started. Here we have the first line of demarcation between this and Ladd’s book; whereas Ladd, a Californian, gave San Francisco and Los Angeles stations a role of prime importance in the development of “rock radio,” Neer shows how, in most cases, New York stations were already there first. He does however occasionally jump over to developments at trendsetting San Francisco stations like KSAN, though; not giving as much behind-the-scenes info as Ladd does in his more-detailed KSAN material in Radio Waves, but still managing to show how differently each coast viewed rock radio. 

One of the biggest differences is that, in FM, KSAN and the other SanFran stations are basically presented as dens of dopesmoking “hippies,” whereas most of the New York talent comes off as straight-edged. Right off the bat Neer buzzkills any hopes that FM will be filled with anecdotes of doing a radio show in the middle of the night while stoned on prime grass; he informs us that he abstains from drugs. Bummer, man! I mean I just want to read like an R-rated version of WKRP In Cincinnati, with drug-fueled, high-libido radio personalities, is that so much to ask?? But anyway Neer informs us that this pretty much goes down the line, with most of the on-air talent at WNEW sticking to booze or nothing (as for Alison Steele, Neer informs us that he never saw her “intoxicated by anything more than a New York Rangers victory”). 

So Neer is only 21 when we meet him, interviewing with WNEW Program Director Scott Muni, an idiosyncratic guy (and popular DJ himself) who likes to call people by the nickname “Fats,” even if they’re thin. Neer and buddy Harrison are already veterans of the rock radio biz despite their youth, having brought a regional station in Long Island into the progressive era. They’ve gotten such cred that even The Nightbird deigned to give their station an on-air interview; here we get our first glimpse of Alison Steele, informed that she is a ravishing redhead in her 30s with a penchant for wearing tight leather. In fact she almost sounds like she’s walked out of a Harold Robbins novel: “There was once a summer concert in Central Park when [Steele] wore a thin leather halter top, a leather bikini bottom, with high boots and a bare midriff. Boys were literally falling out of trees to get a better look.” Speaking of Robbins, Neer relates the time when Steele met with publisher Bob Guccione to explain to him why she refused to do any on-air commercials for Penthouse, and it reads almost exactly like something out of Dreams Die First

“Look,” [Steele] said, “I don’t care about naked women. I hate hair. The only hair on my entire body is on top of my head. Even my eyebrows are shaved, and I’ll leave it to your imagination what else. I can’t stand those hairy-looking women, spread-eagled in front of the camera. And until you do something about that, I won’t read your spots.” 

So as you can see, FM is at least a little like Radio Waves in that it comes off like a novel at times, complete with dialog from the various characters. I found this added to the enjoyment, though…and besides, I’ve searched high and low for a trashy paperback about a rock radio station, to no friggin’ avail. But then Neer doesn’t get very trashy here, other than the occasional mention of Steele’s somewhat-revealing clothing, or that DJs at WNEW got their own “groupies.” Neer doesn’t dwell on any of this, however he intimates that he had a few of his own; most memorable is his story of playing a bunch of jazz records late one night to impress a female fan. Another memorable sequence has a fellow jock in a “menage a trois” with a pair of female fans, while listening to his own broadcast on the radio…only to lose all focus when he hears an engineer screw up a segue on the pre-taped show. 

Neer of course gets the job at WNEW, first starting off as a weekend personality, with his main job being the Music Director. I was really interested in this and wanted to know more about it. Essentially, the Music Director chose the record library the DJs would select from – Neer gives a lot of behind-the-scenes info on how DJs at WNEW worked, and I was interested to read that the station didn’t really use engineers. Jocks would choose and spin their own records, thus perfecting the flow of their shows. But anyway it was the job of the Music Director to sort through piles of new records and file them away; especially interesting is the mention of “progressive” albums, ie ones to keep an eye on. 

I was hoping for some total music-geek stuff here, with mention of obscure acts that never made it big; for example, on Javed’s site you can hear a 1972 Alison Steele aircheck. Toward the end she plays a heavy psych number by a group called Road (the track is “Spaceship Earth,” and Road FYI featured Jimi’s former bassist Noel Redding). I’d never heard this song before and really liked it. But now having read Neer’s book, I can assume that Road was an LP that had been filed in the “progressive” bin (perhaps by Neer himself) and Steele selected it for that night. Her comments after it plays (“I bet that goes right on into the next track”) indicate that it was her first time hearing the song. Thus she must’ve pulled that one out of the bin and decided to play it. Anyway what I’m trying to say is, I wanted a little more info here on what made some records hits and others obscurities; “Spaceship Earth” is total psych heaviosity and right up my alley, but I’d never even heard of it, even though I collect records from the era. 

I’m focusing on Steele, because she’s what brought me to the book in the first place. But truth be told, she isn’t in the book very much. More focus is placed on other WNEW talent, like former horror host Zacherley. I’d heard of him just due to my interest in horror hosts many years ago, but I never knew he’d become an FM rock radio jock. He actually comes off as pretty normal, especially when compared to Jonathan Schwartz, a DJ who enjoys flaunting his writing career so no one gets the impression he has to work at the station…while meanwhile he has a penchant for eating food out of garbage cans. Another personality who makes an impression is Rosko, a black DJ who was outspoken on leftist political causes and in fact unwittingly provided Neer and Harrison’s entrance into the fold: Rosko was by far the most popular DJ at the station, but when he abruptly quit in 1971 he opened the door for new talent. 

Neer focuses so much on the various personalities that sometimes he himself is lost in the shuffle, and he almost comes off like a faceless chronicler of events. But he too was part of the scene, with his own shows and fans. We get a lot of good info on how shows were run in the ‘70s, and also how live concerts were broadcast, with Neer spearheading many of them. There are even some rockstar appearances; Neer had a nightly chat session with pre-stardom Bruce Springsteen, and another jock became lifelong friends with George Harrison. John Lennon also makes an appearance; a DJ named Dennis Elsas meets him at a recording studio, drums up the courage to ask Lennon if he’d ever like to come by for an interview, and is shocked when Lennon does indeed appear a few days later for a four-hour chat on the air. 

In addition to the California stations, we also read a little about WBCN out of Boston, in particular famous DJ Charles Laquidara, whose “The Big Mattress” show sounds like a lot of fun. A spoof of AM talk radio, it featured various personalities voiced by Laquidara himself. I’ve listened to a few of the aichecks at the link above and they’re a lot of fun; I especially like Laquidara’s drug-fueled alter ego Captain Squid. But as mentioned for the most part the focus is on WNEW, and, as with Radio Waves, Neer documents how the free reign of DJs gradually narrowed as the ‘70s progressed. Ratings became the be-all, end-all, with jocks constrained to only making idle chatter between hit songs. 

As with Radio Waves, I really lost interest in the book as the ‘70s became the ‘80s. But the changes at WNEW were already profound; various jocks had left or been fired, even Alison Steele. Neer, having moved into a management position, was put through an early trial by fire in 1978 when he was asked by management if he thought Steele should be let go; her extracurricular duties (TV commercials, voice over gigs, etc) were getting in the way of her nightly shows. More importantly, she had also clearly lost interest in the music, putting a record on and going out to talk to people in the studio. Neer relates how Steele was given multiple warnings, but when she left a stuck record on for eleven minutes one night her number was up. Neer has no choice but to say that the woman who basically helped start his career at WNEW should be let go. This will be it for Steele; she leaves without a word, and isn’t heard from again in the text until the very end, where we are informed she passed away in 1995 after a battle with cancer. 

To his credit Neer plows rather quickly through the less-interesting ‘80s and ‘90s. I say less interesting because at this point the freeform era had come to a close; WNEW was still freeform enough in 1980, Neer relates, that it could give special coverage to John Lennon’s murder, with long commentary by all the station jocks on what Lennon meant to them. But after this the creativity is reigned in by increasingly restrictive management demands, to the point that WNEW itself eventually drops the entire rock angle. As the novel progresses there is more focus on the politics of running a radio station, and I found all of it less interesting than the earlier ‘70s material. 

Overall though I found FM pretty entertaining. As stated Neer is a skilled writer and really captures the spirit of the day, making one wish that more airchecks survived from this era. The book is definitely recommended for anyone who’d like to learn more about progressive rock radio, and is the best one I’ve yet read on the topic. 

*This would be the posthumously-released “Night Bird Flying,” which came out in 1970 on The Cry Of Love, which was the first album put out after Jimi’s death. The story of it being inspired by Steele seems to have come from Steele herself; in fact, this is how I first even heard of Alison Steele. In 1995 I got the Hendrix CD Voodoo Soup, which featured a booklet with liner notes by Michael Fairchild. In these notes Fairchild relayed the story on “Night Bird Flying;” supposedly one night Steele was playing the song on her show and she received a call from Jimi’s former manager, Michael Jeffery (who himself was killed in a plane crash, in March 1973). Jeffery told her that the song had been inspired by her show. Interestingly, this story is not relayed in FM, even though the short chapter devoted to Steele is titled “Night Bird Flying.” While Hendrix is occasionally mentioned, we’re told that the only WNEW personality he had any contact with was Rosko. Hendrix was also a gifted artist, and a drawing has surfaced with what seems to be early lyrics for “Night Bird Flying,” along with a winged female figure that might be Jimi’s take on Steele’s likeness (not to mention a jutting phallus!!); you can read about it here

**Something I remember vividly from the mid-’80s is the incessant promo WQZK would play, announcing that they’d gone digital: “It’s final, we’re off the vinyl.” And then you’d hear a stuck record being yanked off the platter. I’ve searched high and low for audio of this promo over the years. No luck.