Thursday, December 21, 2023

Dakota #5: Chain Reaction

Dakota #5: Chain Reaction, by Gilbert Ralston
November, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Chain Reaction is so dull that I could hardly finish it. Really, I spent the last chapter and a half speed-reading, even though this is where the allegedly thrilling climax occurred. It lacks excitement and mystery, the cast of characters is ridiculously and confusingly large, and many scenes exist of filler dialogue telling us stuff we either already know or don't care about. Sort of if a writer was trying to stretch a 50-minute screenplay to a 180-page manuscript.Marty McKee

Man, first they cancelled ALF and now this! It’s the last volume of Dakota, friends, so I’m sure you all are shedding just as many tears as I am. 

Once again Marty McKee has succinctly captured my own thoughts – as mentioned before, Marty sent me his Dakota books, so I’m reading the same copy that he read. Like it’s a holy relic or something! Marty’s comment that “the cast of characters is ridiculously and confusingly large” pretty much sums up my major problem with Dakota. I sort of get what Gilbert Ralston was trying to do, like a family saga mixed with a hardboiled American Indian detective in “today’s West” sort of thing, but I don’t think it worked. As it is, Dakota comes off like a guy who needs to bring a few buddies along with him to the restroom when he takes a leak, and then calls his mom afterward to let her know how it all went. It’s like I wrote in my review of the first volume: Dakota is the only men’s adventure protagonist who regularly calls his mother, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the character and the series. 

The helluva it is, there’s material here for a good yarn…it’s just that Ralston’s insistence on straddling Dakota with legions of clingers-on robs the character of any ass-kicker potential. I’m not so much sure if Ralston was trying a different spin on the lone wolf ‘70s paperback action hero ethic than it was he just didn’t understand it. As Marty also noted, and I concured with, it seems evident that Ralston intended Dakota as the springboard for a TV series. It just seems very clear, given Ralston’s Hollywood background, the large group of characters, the lack of much violence and zero sex at all…I mean it’s not too hard to believe that’s what this series was intended as. After all, fellow Hollywood vet Paul Petersen attempted the same thing, around the same time, with The Smuggler, and that too failed to gain any traction outside of the paperback field. 

As Marty also noted in his review of Dakota #3 (here’s my review if you are super bored – and that installment of the series was mostly interesting because it seemed to be a rewrite of Ralston’s concurrent The Deadly, Deadly Art), Dakota is like “McCloud meets Nakia,” and again it’s not hard to see this might have been Gilbert Ralston’s exact intention. Nakia was a 1974 TV crime show with Robert Foster as an American Indian cop, and McCloud was a ‘70s crime show starring Dennis Weaver as a Nevada marshall assigned to the big city of New York…hey, what if you combined the two concepts into a series and hoped it got picked up for a TV deal? This would explain the tepid thrills, the “ridiculously large cast of characters,” the focus on Dakota’s home town as a central facet of the storyline, etc. 

Unfortunately, it still doesn’t make the series any good. Dakota is a far cry from the ‘70s-mandated lone wolf vigilante hero, though the potential is there for him to be one. We’re often told of how he’s packing a pistol, but rarely if ever does the guy actually use it. Instead, he’s more likely to let one of his many, many friends do the job for him. I mean like a fool I got my hopes up several times in the course of Chain Reaction; like we’re told at the start that Dakota has a .38 hidden in his “new Chevrolet,” same as he had one hidden in his original car back in the first volume…but it’s not really used. Later on he arms himself with a .357 Magnum, but again it’s his buddies who do the brunt of the fighting, one of them using a carbine Dakota has loaned him. 

So it seems clear Ralston was aware of the market he was writing for, he just couldn’t be bothered to do the job right. Once again the editors at Pinnacle understood what the series was supposed to be: the memorable cover art and the back cover copy all illustrate the novel’s most memorable sequence, of a naked American Indian woman hung by her thumbs while a pair of thugs torture her to death. “Hung By The Thumbs” is even emblazoned as the slugline on the back cover, like this was a grimy crime paperback from Leisure Books. But this scene is only vaguely brought to life in the very opening pages, Ralston cutting to brief sequences of this undescribed woman hanging by the thumbs, nude, and some guys passing a flame over her body – all very grim indeed, but hardly exploitative. 

Instead, the big focus of the opening pages is…Dakota’s buddy Joe Redbeard getting married!! Friends I kid you not. While the poor “Indian woman” is hung by her goddamn thumbs and being torture-killed, Ralston keeps cutting away from the scene, back to Dakota…who waits at the airport for his girlfriend Alicia (whom he still keeps begging to marry him – again, pretty much says all you could say about Dakota), and then he goes back to his overpopulated home to shoot the breeze with his many, many hangers-on. Hell there’s even a part where the Indian woman’s daughter has come here to Dakota’s ranch, unknowing that her mother is being tortured to death that very minute, and Dakota literally tells her to wait because first he has to attend Redeard’s wedding! In like a dozen pages you learn everything that is wrong about Dakota. You can almost hear the editors at Pinnacle sighing in exasperation. Like I said before, there’s no mystery why this was the last volume. 

Well anyway, it’s a few months after the previous volume; it’s Spring now, as we learn via some evocative word-painting that again indicates Ralston was attempting his own sort of Spoon River Anthology for the paperback crimefighter set. Dakota’s latest private eye job is courtesy the aforementioned daughter, a teenager from San Francisco whose dad was mysteriously killed and now she has this key in an envelope that was given to her by her mother – who, we readers know, is also now murdered. Dakota, forever putting off Alicia (it might be implied they have off-page sex, but you have to really use your own fevered imagination), takes the job and assembles his unwieldy cast of clingers-on and hangers-on to look into the mystery – and, like the previous volume, that’s pretty much all Chain Reaction is: a mystery novel. 

The opening “sweat mag” vibe is lost…and again Ralston blows his own potential with his refusal to cater to what we want. Those two torture-killing thugs? Dakota doesn’t even deal with either of them. Either of them!! Indeed they are pretty much red herrings on that front, and instead the narrative plays out as more of a mystery: Dakota gradually unravels a plot that connects these two thugs with the crime world guy who has been plaguing Dakota for volumes. The same guy who hired Guy Marten, the ineffectual professional assassin who first appeared in Cat Trap. Luckily Ralston goes back to the Marten subplot here in final installment Chain Reaction, but we don’t get any resolution on it (indeed, Marten by novel’s end is geared to becoming even more of a menace in Dakota’s life, given his advancement up the crime world chain), which indicates Gilbert Ralston did not plan to end Dakota here. 

Dakota gets some pals from previous volumes together and they head off to San Francisco – that is, after Dakota’s let his mommy know. (Not joking, either.) Here they follow the leads on the two thugs and gradually figure out it has to do with Dakota’s old archenemy. There’s occasional action, but again it’s Dakota’s buddies doing the shooting and stuff; Dakota just drives the car during one such scene. There’s another part where Dakota and his mini-army are jumped by some stooges and they get in a protracted fight, but Ralston again proves his lack of mettle in this field by writing so much of it passively, ie “Dakota was handling two of them,” and the like. Dakota does knock out one dude with a “savate kick,” at least, but even in the finale there isn’t much in the gun-blazing action you’d expect from this publisher; it’s more of a taut suspense-thriller vibe. 

But even here it lacks much bite. So without any spoilers, the deal is Dakota’s girlfriend is abducted by Guy Marten, working under the auspices of the aforementioned crime boss, Marvin Kintner. But since Alicia’s hardly been in the novel, this event doesn’t have much impact. Also, she’s not mistreated in any way, so there isn’t much impact in that regard, either. So to get the upper hand Dakota puts together a team (can you believe it??) to kidnap Kintner, and use him as a bargaining chip. It’s written like a heist, with the group breaking into the high-tech defenses of the guy’s place, getting him while he’s in bed with his floozie, etc. It’s an okay scene but again the thrill factor is undermined by the amount of people Dakota has working with him, plus there’s confusion because the names of all these people blend together and you often forget who is who. 

Spoiler alert, but there is no confrontation between Dakota and Guy Marten; the two don’t even meet face to face. As mentioned though Ralston clearly intended Marten to be a continnuing threat, as by novel’s end some crime-world bigwigs discuss moving Marten up the totem pole. Instead, as with the previous volume, the “climax” is more on a mystery tip, with Dakota putting pieces of the puzzle together and getting justice for the orphaned teen Indian girl who hired him. Speaking of whom, I thought she was going to be added to the menagerie of supporting characters, but Ralston indicates at the end of Chain Reaction that she might be moving away with other relatives…I doubt it, though. I bet if there’d been a Dakota #6 she would’ve been in it, probably getting married to Dakota’s young helper Louis Threetrees (marriages being another recurring gimmick of the series, btw…another indication of how Ralston just didn’t get it). 

So this was it for Dakota, and to tell the truth it’s a miracle it even lasted this long. Thanks again to Marty for sending me the books all those years ago (along with tons of others I’m still working through!), but if anything I found Dakota interesting as a failed genre experiment. But then, maybe Ralston didn’t even know it was an experiment. Regardless, now that I’ve read the series I really think Marty is correct – as theorized in the comment he left on my review of Dakota #2 – that the series was Ralston’s attempt at farming out a concept he’d failed to get produced in Hollywood.

Monday, December 18, 2023

UFO #2: Sporting Blood

UFO #2: Sporting Blood, by Robert Miall
June, 1973  Warner Books
(Original UK edition 1971)

I’ve mentioned before how crazy I am about that ‘60s/70s ultramod Spaced Out vibe, as displayed in such ‘60s sci-fi flicks as Barbarella2001: A Space Odyssey, and Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun. But in my mind the highest paragon of this ultramod “future 1960s” look would have to be Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO, which was produced for UK television in ’70 and ‘71 and used many of the costumes, sets, and props from the aforementioned Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (which was another Andersons “Century 21” production). 

To be sure, UFO is glacially paced, overly grim, and seldom if ever makes use of its colorful ultramod trappings. It’s almost as if all the colorful stuff was from the mind of Sylvia Anderson, from the silver “space age” suits worn by the characters to the purple wigs and miniskirts of the “girls” who worked at Moonbase. But Gerry Anderson sort of flew in the face of this, delivering a “grim and gritty” vibe that was more so just dour, with an often unlikeable lead character and plots that focused too much on loss, suffering, and despair. Only late in the series’ run, when many of the cast members had been replaced due to scheduling conflicts, did the producers bring more of a “fun” vibe to the show, but the earliest episodes – three of which are novelized here – are usually too “serious” for their own good. 

Make no mistake, though: I love the show, and could watch it over and over on permanent repeat, preferablly blitzed out on cheap blended whiskey. I’ve got the original DVD release but the discs are just gathering dust; I prefer to watch the high definition remastered episodes free with ads on Prime, and have watched the series through a few times over the years. There is something wonderful about this modtastic future that never was (the series takes place in the early 1980s), and I’d rather watch UFO than Star Wars or Star Trek any day of the week. 

The show didn’t make much of an impact in the US, where it played in syndication, but there was enough support behind it that the two novelizations Robert Miall had published in the UK in 1971 were brought by Warner Books to the US. However no changes were made to the text: we still have single quotation marks for dialog and British spellings are used throughout. This was the second of the two novelizations, and it’s interesting that Miall (of whom I know nothing) plants seeds for a third novelization at the end of Sporting Blood (the title has no bearing on the plot, by the way). 

This slim, 140-page book novelizes the episodes “Computer Affair,” “The Dalotek Affair,” and “Survival.” It’s worth noting that these are not comprehensive novelizations of the episodes; Miall leaves out scenes and often rewrites stuff to fit these three unconnected episodes together. But then, UFO was an episodic series to begin with; there was only the overall plot, of secret agency SHADO and its various high-tech craft waging an undercover war against aliens – all of it occuring in the “future ‘60s” of 1981 (or thereabouts – the show, as explained below, wasn’t always faithful to its own setting). 

The important thing to note is that the main appeal of UFO, the colorful ultramod setting, is not captured here by Miall. Rather, he has focused more on the “dour” aspects of the show, rarely if ever bringing to life the ultramod futuristic settings but instead focusing on the inner turmoil of the characters. He does at least cater the book to a male readership, with the main characters being the men on the show, and thus there is a narrative focus on the appeal of the shapely female SHADO agents (who themselves of course were another huge part of the show’s appeal). But then, there is very little racy stuff in the novel, with Miall never giving in to exploitation – I mean, the dude doesn’t even use the word “breasts” when describing Moonbase commander Lt. Gay Ellis (aka actress Gabrielle Drake – sister of singer Nick Drake): 

I mean that’s some serious restraint on the author’s part, friends. But then, Miall makes clear something the TV show only hinted at: the male agents of SHADO are damn horny, particularly given that they have curvy dishes like that sashaying around them in form-fitting catsuits and miniskirts…and there’s a friggin’ rule that prevents SHADO agents from becoming romantically involved with each other! In fact this is the plot of fist storyline “Computer Affair,” but then again it’s another instance where the show couldn’t seem to make up its mind, as there’s a lot of innuendo in the show that some of these agents were getting along in more than a professional fashion. 

Robert Miall treats everything with deadly seriousness; there is no camp here, no spoofery. We’re told the “girls” at Moonbase wear purple wigs, for example, but we aren’t told why. (Presumably costume designer Sylvia Anderson said the idea was the wigs were anti-raditation or somesuch…but then this begs the question why the men on Moonbase didn’t wear purple wigs!) Also the various SHADO vehicles are seldom described, and indeed Miall pulls an interesting trick throughout in that rarely if ever does he focus on characters who are operating these vehicles. Rather, the “action” is usually relayed from the perspective of whoever is commanding the mission from afar, watching viewscreens and sweating bullets in the hope that everyone survives. Again, the focus is on the grim and the dour, with very little in the way of fun escapism. 

Back to the glacial pacing of the show: it says something about how padded the average episode of UFO was that Miall is able to novelize a full episode in about 40 pages. I’m not sure how these three specific episodes were chosen for the novelization treatment, but Miall does a fairly good job of making them all seem part of a larger storyline, save for the issue that the aforementioned Lt. Ellis disappears from the text – because the actress was only in one of these three episodes, “Computer Affair.” Her disappearance from the rest of the text is due to a cold, it’s explained to us via dialog between SHADO honcho Colonel Ed Straker and his second-in-command Alec Freeman, and thus she must be quarantined from the safe and secure Moonbase. 

Speaing of Colonel Straker, he is the “unlikeable” main character mentioned above; while Striker (as portrayed by Ed Bishop), with his “bleached” white hair, is the character most associated with UFO, he seldom featured as the protagonist in early episodes, the three novelized here being prime examples. Only late in the series run, when Alec Freeman (George Sewell) was replaced by the uber-sexy Colonel Virginia Lake (aka Wanda Ventham, who would become the mother of actor Benedict Cumberbatch), did Straker take more of a Captain Kirk-esque place in the proceedings. In the earlier episodes, like the ones novelized in Sporting Blood, he mostly stays at his desk, barking orders, pushing his underlings, and looking dour. 

Another thing I want to point out is that not only was UFO episodic, but the episodes were broadcast way out of order from how they were produced; I follow this viewing order when watching the series. But even that viewing order conflicts with this novelization, which places “The Dalotek Affair” before “Survival.” Meanwhile for both the suggested viewing order and this tie-in novel, “Computer Affair” occurs first, yet per the Pop Apostle site I linked to above, “Computer Affair” seems to take place later than most other episodes, given references in the episode to the year. At the end of “Computer Affair” a character takes up a bottle of wine, looks at the label, and remarks, “1984, what a year,” or something to that effect. Clearly this means 1984 is in the past, so it must be at least ’85 (or they just serve really cheap wine at this particular restaurant – or hell maybe wines in this “future” have expiration dates!). Meanwhile “The Dalotek Affair” is stated as taking place in 1981. 

Anyway. The first forty pages of Sporting Blood are devoted to “Computer Affair,” probably one of the slowest-paced episodes in the entire series. In this one Alec Freeman is tasked with figuring out what’s going on at Moonbase, and ultimately determines there’s a blossoming romance between busty Lt. Gay Ellis and burly Lt. Mark Bradley (Harry Baird), one of the Interceptor fighter pilots on the base. Ellis happens to be white and Bradley happens to be black, but this is not a concern – in fact it isn’t even mentioned – for SHADO. Rather, it’s that this romance could conflict with duty and cause havoc. In fact race isn’t even mentioned in the book until the final story novelized, “Survival,” where Bradley is offered the opportunity to command Moonbase and is concerned his skin color automatically prevents him from this honor – a concern just as quickly dashed as it is raised. 

It's pretty slow going. Robert Miall proves posthaste that he is more interested in the inner turmoil of his characters, particularly that of Alec Freeman, than he is in catering to a sci-fi action vibe. The majority of this opening section keeps Freeman in center stage, which makes his sudden disappearance later on in the novel a bit bumpy for the reader. Here he flies in to Moonbase, ponders how friggin’ hot all these Moonbase chicks are, and then tut-tuts the burgeoning romance between these two young people who are trapped up here on a base separated from the Earth on a mission so secret that can’t even tell their closest family members about it. When another astronaut is killed during a fight against a UFO (the entire sequence as well from Freeman’s perspective, even though he’s safe and sound on Moonbase), it’s back to Earth for some computer-assisted psychological testing of Ellis and Bradley. 

Here we get some of the shrill and unlikeable Straker, who alternately bosses Freeman around and then worries over a UFO that’s landed in the wilds of Canada. Even the ensuing “Shado mobile” action is relayed from Freeman’s perspective. But humorously, just as in the actual episode, the Ellis-Bradley romance is passed off as being okay, and indeed the two don’t even kiss or anything…nothing more than an exchange of words…and also the two characters never even appeared in an episode together again! Miall even makes their romance less of a thing than the episode did; the episode ends with an Earthbound Ellis and Bradley in a restaurant, and Bradley’s the one who makes the remark on the wine bottle that’s dated 1984. Miall cuts this scene from the novel. 

This could be because the dates don’t jibe; Miall inserts dialog in the opening of the novel that “Computer Affair” takes place in November of 1981; Lt. Ellis makes the announcement that Mark Bradley was born in November of 1952, “twenty-nine years ago,” which would go against the “1984” reference in the actual televised episode. But then, Miall himself goofs; the second story novelized here, “The Dalotek Affair,” is set in April of 1981 – the date mentioned both in the episode itself and in this novelization – even though Miall has the story taking place after “Computer Affair.” 

Speaking of which, we are sort of thrust directly into “The Dalotek Affair,” not to mention we are suddenly given a new main character: Colonel Paul Foster, virile alpha male type who really was the closest thing to the show’s action lead. Memorably portrayed by Micheal Billington (who apparently was frequently short-listed for the role of 007), Foster when we meet him is commanding Moonbase in place of Lt. Ellis, who we are informed is still Earthbound due to a cold she picked up. Of course, none of this is in the actual episode. This story is my favorite of the three here, and the episode is good as well, if for no other reason than the majority of it takes place on the ultra-groovy Moonbase. This one concerns a mining combine called Dalotek which has insisted on getting to work on the moon, unaware – as is everyone in the world – that UFOs are a constant threat up here. 

But just as with Freeman, we here are often reminded how damn horny Foster is up on Moonbase, with all these chicks! And again all the groovy décor and escapism is ignored, Miall instead focusing on the dourness and the boredom of being stuck in this isolated base on a dead world. This is the closest the book gets to risque, though; one of the Dalotek people is a sexy babe named Jane Carson, and Foster is able to start something up with her even though she’s not on Moonbase and he has to drive across the lunar surface to see her. Miall changes a bit from the episode, though; in that, we know from the start that Jane does not remember Foster due to an “amnesia pill” she’s been given, and the entire episode is a flashback on Foster’s part. Miall ignores that and shows it all as it happens, but with a darker edge – in the climax, Jane does not know she’s about to be given an amnesia pill (so as to forget about SHADO and UFOs), and Foster, about to bed Jane, feels just a little guilty about it. I mean it’s basically a UFO roofie. 

Otherwise “The Dalotek Affair” is slight on the action front, as most every episode of UFO is. Again it’s more down to the turmoil and the arguing, with Straker in “one of his moods” and ranting and raving on Earth and Foster blaming the Dalotek people for causing various SHADO crashes on the Moon. It turns out to be an alien plot, of course – and here Robert Miall cleverly ties things together with the ensuing story, “Survival.” This one also stars Foster, and also is primarily set on the groovy Moonbase; the opening of the episode is very colorful in this regard, with Foster and a pal hanging out in an ultramod rec room and getting drunk before a window blows and Foster’s pal dies via decompression. Miall has it that this pal is the replacement astronaut for the one killed in “The Computer Affair,” and also the alien who shoots out the window was dropped by the UFO that inexplicably came and went in “The Dalotek Affair.” 

Regardless, here’s the goof – when the dead astronaut is given a space funeral, it’s mentioned that the date is April, 1981. Meanwhile Miall had “Computer Affair” as occuring in November of ’81. At any rate this one’s plot is a prefigure of the ‘80s sci-fi movie Enemy Mine, concerning as it does Foster and the alien stuck together on the harsh terrain of the Moon and having to work together to survive. Before that though we have an angry Foster going Earthbound for a bit to seek out Jane Carson for a little nookie – only to be turned down cold, as she has no memory of him. (An incident which, as mentioned, occurs in the beginning of the televised “The Dalotek Affair.”) Then he goes over to his girlfriend’s place for some off-page lovin’, and here we get Miall’s one reference to the show’s groovy décor, Foster noting the “psychostyle painting” in his girlfriend’s apartment. 

Another interesting thing about “Survival” is that it was the last appearance of Harry Baird as Lt. Mark Bradley; any appearances after this were just recycled footage. What’s curious is that “Surival,” both the episode and here in the novel, features a go-nowhere subplot where Straker, thinking Foster is dead, offers Bradley the opportunity to command Moonbase. Bradley accepts…and does nothing but send out a Moon mobile that will ultimately discover Foster is still alive…and Foster will resume command of Moonbase. Bradley as Moonbase commander is never mentioned again, either in the novel or in the show, and given that Bradley wasn’t featured in any other episodes (other than recycled footage, that is!), it almost gives the indication that the dude got pissed off and quit. 

Anyway, “Survival” is also slow paced, and the Foster-alien journey across the Moon isn’t just rigorous for them; it’s boring as hell to watch, let alone read. As I say, UFO was incredibly static and probably would best be appreciated after downing a few tranquilizers. But man it looks great…though as mentioned many, many times now, the “look” of the show is the one thing Robert Miall fails to deliver. That said, he clearly intended to write another novelization at least: Sporting Blood ends with Straker and Freeman discussing their concerns about a SHADO agent named Roper (and Roper’s wife), and they also decide to send Paul Foster to the seabound SHADO vehicle Skydiver for “three months.” These are direct references to the episodes “Flight Path” and “Ordeal,” and presumably these would have been two of the stories that Miall would’ve novelized in a UFO #3

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Mad Peck Studios: A Twenty-Year Retrospective

Mad Peck Studios, by The Mad Peck
No month stated, 1987  Dolphin/Doubleday Books

You’d never guess from that eye-catching cover, but Mad Peck Studios is actually (sort of) a record review book. In fact that’s how I discovered this obscure and scarce trade paperback in the first place: searching the web for contemporary record review guides, because I’m always doing stupid stuff like that. I saw an image result of this cover and, of course, immediately looked into the book. I mean that cover is so appealing to the male gaze that, when I pulled up to the library drive-through window to get the copy of the book that had been sent to me via Interlibrary Loan, the librarian at the window – a young girl who was very cordial to me when I told her I had an ILL hold to pick up – stormed back from the holds shelf and angrily thrust the book out the window to me. No doubt she was offended by the wanton cleavage on the cover. 

The busty babe is The Masked Marvel, a repurposed superheroine who was previously known as “The Black Cat” in a Harvey comics series in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the early ‘70s Providence-based artist The Mad Peck, in true underground comix style, appropriated The Black Cat, making her costume a little more revealing and and also giving her hair more of a “long and straight” ‘70s style than the shorter cut she sported in the Harvey comics. He also turned her into a record critic…indeed, the dream girl of pretty much any horny male rock listener who ever drew a breath. 

The Masked Marvel was just one of the Mad Peck’s characters: there was also Dr. Oldie, a rock historian based on the Mad Peck’s own radio character, Frogman Jack (an actual frog), and I.C. Lotz, a PR gal turned record reviewer. These characters appeared in short comic strips in underground and rock magazines through the ‘70s and ‘80s, most notably Creem and, later in the ‘80s, Spin. Mad Peck Studios offers a sort of “greatest hits” of these comics, selected by the Mad Peck himself. 

Given the short space the Mad Peck had to work with, the art is usually busy and, once he had his record review schtick developed, the artwork is often overclouded by dense dialog text. In a way this book documents how the Mad Peck even got to the record review setup in the first place; the first quarter of the book is devoted to the art the Mad Peck did for various catalogs he would market in underground magazines; the Masked Marvel does not appear in these, and indeed her introduction is almost an afterthought, particularly given that she will become the character most associated with the Mad Peck. When she does appear, in four or six-panel stories, it’s often the character I.C. Lotz who handles the brunt of the narrative. 

In these early ‘70s appearances, published in an underground mag called Fusion, I.C. Lotz and Masked Marvel get involved in various topical events, like for example a serialized story where they foil a hippie terrorist airplane hijacking. This too is very much in an underground magazine vibe; the hippie terrorist is swindled by I.C. Lotz’s promise that she has some cocaine for him, and then The Masked Marvel pulls up her shirt to further confound him. These serialized stories are different than the later record review comics, but maintain the same oddball humor and topical references. 

By the late ‘70s the Mad Peck has figured out the kind of comic he wants to do, and these record review comics take up the majority of the text. What the Mad Peck does is similar to what J.R. Young did earlier in the decade: a piece of fiction in place of a typical record review. But unlike J.R. Young, whose stories were at times hardly even connected to the album itself, the Mad Peck instead has his fictional characters discussing the merits of the album (or lack thereof). What the Mad Peck really specializes in doing is cramming mentions of obscure or overlooked albums within these reviews; as I say, some of the comics are particularly dense on the text front. 

I found that these comics were best appreciated in small doses, which likely betrays their origin; it’s not like the Mad Peck had an entire comic to establish a plot, characterization, or etc. When you’re talking one comic strip a month it’s a different story. But I really liked the weird, insular world he created here with these recurring characters, and wished for a more comprehensive peek into it. Also, the idea of a masked crimefighter turned record critic is just so bonkers that it has to be appreciated, though I couldn’t help but notice that the Mad Peck seemed to lose interest in Masked Marvel as the ‘80s comics progressed, focusing more and more on Dr. Oldie. 

The Mad Peck sprinkles the text with captions and narrative explaining the origins behind this or that strip, or spelling out some of the more obscure references. Since the book ends in the mid ‘80s, with the Mad Peck’s characters losing their latest home – in this case, Spin – I’m uncertain what happened to these characters afterward. But as a fun look at the “anything goes” vibe of the era, Mad Peck Studios was a lot of fun…though I’m glad I just got it via Interlibrary Loan instead of shelling out the exorbitant dough copies now go for. 

Here are some random samples:

Monday, December 11, 2023

Assault #1: The Raid On Reichswald Fortress

Assault #1: The Raid On Reichswald Fortress, by J.M. Flynn
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

A short-lived attempt at a Dirty Dozen-styled action series, Assault only ran three volumes, and might have caused some reader confusion because it was credited to two different authors. Veteran writer J.M. Flynn handled this first volume, and the other two were credited to C.J. Floyd. I’m assuming then that Award Books didn’t consider this series along the lines of Nick Carter: Killmaster, as only one volume was published a year and the series was not credited to a house name. Speaking of which, Flynn gets some imprint in-jokery in, with the mention late in the novel of a character reading “a dog-eared French translation of a Nick Carter book,” though given that this novel occurs in the early 1940s, it must be one of those early 20th century Detective Nick Carter pulps. 

Whatever the story behind the series’ origin, Assault #1 proudly boasts its “in the tradition of” heritage, namechecking both The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare on the back cover. At only 172 pages, The Raid On Reichswald Fortress is a fraction of the length of E.M. Nathanson’s The Dirty Dozen, but like Nathanson, J.M. Flynn spends a goodly portion of the narrative focused on training, with the climactic “raid” almost an afterthought. Hey, it just occurred to me: E.M Nathanson, J.M. Flynn, C.J. Floyd…gee, do you think Award was trying to establish a trend? “Don’t just rip off the plot – rip off the author’s name, too!” 

J.M. Flynn was quite prolific, but in all the years of the blog I’ve so far only read and reviewed his Joe Rigg books, which were published by Leisure after this Award series and were credited to “Jay Flynn.” It’s been so long since I read the Rigg books that I can’t tell how Flynn’s narrative style here in the first Assault compares. He does have a gift for memorable opening lines, and tries to bring realism into his tale. He doesn’t deliver much on the action front, but he does cater to the genre demand for sex, with hero Sgt. Brendan Deasy Jackorowsky (aka “Mister Jack”) scoring with two ladies in the short course of the novel. However, given that Award was a slightly more upscale imprint than Leisure, there’s none of the “I want you in my ass!” raunch of the Joe Rigg books. The sex scenes here are more along what one might find in the Nick Carter: Killmaster books, if only a little more explicit. 

Flynn does bring a little more evocative scene setting to the opening than the typical men’s adventure novel, opening the tale with a young Mister Jack (I refuse to type out his long last name!) as a young man just out of the States, starting his life as a mercenary in the Spanish Civil War. From there he goes to a tenure as the overseer at a plantation in South America, then finally into a six-year hitch in the Marines to avoid prison time. We’re told in almost off-hand fashion of the “dirty tricks” Mister Jack pulls on the Germans as the action starts up on the European front, but again he rubs officials the wrong way and is sent back Stateside, where he becomes a drill sergeant – which is where he picks up the “Mister Jack” title. 

Luckily Flynn doesn’t spend the entire novel on this origin material. We get to the meat of the plot pretty quickly. It’s before the Normady invasion and Mister Jack is called in by an Army general to head up a special project that was dreamed up by the “Psych Warfare Department.” These guys claim that “suicide squads” are all the rage, and that condemned men might fight better and harder than normal soldiers. Given his past, with dirty tricks on the Nazis and his general run-ins with authority, Mister Jack is picked as the man to helm this project, even though he’s a Marine and it’s officially an Army deal, one that’s being run by the OSS. 

All this seems rather heavy-handed so far as setup goes, made even more strange given that Flynn makes a big deal out of the “instant hate” Mister Jack has for his commanding officer, portly old deskbound General Mose Barnum, who misses the days back in the Great War when he ran his own dirty tricks on the Germans. But here’s the thing – despite what Flynn tells us, Barnum and Mister Jack get along pretty much without any trouble. In fact, General Barnum even sneaks his way into the climactic raid, proving his own despite being over the hill. What I mean to say is, it seems Flynn was given this inordinate setup – have a Marine head up an Army job with a commanding officer he hates – but he only sort of catered to it. I mean General Barnum spends the first part of the narrative huffing and puffing at Mister Jack’s various “derelictions,” but then just looks the other way. There’s no tension or confrontation or anything. 

Anyway, as for the project Mister Jack will head up – of course, it’s the Dirty Dozen deal. Flynn’s given various dossiers of imprisoned soldiers and puts together a group of thirty who will ultimately become his “Assault Team.” Flynn only focuses on a few of them – the ones, of course, who will be chosen for this novel’s assignment. There’s Truman Belcher, a black guy who speaks perfect French. And Calvin Justice, a “non-gay” drag queen who was thrown in the brig and has been “raped more times” than he can count by his fellow soldiers because he looks so much like a woman when he’s in drag (a drag queen soldier – how prescient! In today’s Army he’d make general!). There are also a pair of “forage masters” from the South named Eastwood and Dixon who “forage” by stealing things. 

Flynn rather clumsily wields together two subplots: while first coming onto the job Mister Jack goes into the city one night and picks up a hotstuff brunette named Elaine. She claims to be engaged to a soldier who is overseas, but she hasn’t heard from in a while. Mister Jack rather easily breaks down her “I’m engaged” defenses and…she gives him a bj, folks, one of the stranger “first date sex scenes” I’ve yet read, particularly given that Flynn doesn’t go for full-bore sleaze in the details and leaves much to the reader’s fevered imagination. Humorously, Elaine will be there to fulfill the narrative’s need for random sex, as Mister Jack will occasionally head off-base to get some nookie, also successfully breaking down Elaine’s “I’m engaged so I’ll just give you a b.j.” defenses so that they engage in full hardcore shenanigans. As mentioned though the sexual material in the novel isn’t too raunchy, along the lines of “She made love fiercely” and the like. Hey, wasn’t that the title of a Monkees song?

Anyway, here’s the messy subplot-tying: one day Mister Jack is receiving a new batch of GI prisoners from overseas, guys who have ran afoul of the brass while stationed in Europe, and wouldn’t you know it but one of them’s Elaine’s fiance!! Indeed, he’s been arrested for murder. But man, Flynn does zilch with this setup…no spoilers intended, but Elaine’s fiance is out of the novel posthaste and Elaine never even finds out about any of it. In fact, Elaine herself is soon gone from the narrative, but (again apologies for the spoilers) she shows up at the end without much fanfare. The entire “fiance” subplot has no bearing on the plot, and to tell the truth it offended me on a personal level. 

Once his thirty men are chosen, Mister Jack and his second in command Charlie Bates head out to a base in the Nevada desert for even more training! This entails the forage masters rustling up game to eat, others on the team working on the buildings they’ll live in, and in general more training for their eventual dirty tricks missions on the damn Nazis. Finally the job comes up – did you guess it was going to be a raid on someplace called Reichswald Fortress? Some British OSS guys give Mister Jack the mission: it’s in the South of France, and the job entails springing a double agent named Annabelle who has gone missing and likely is being held in the fortress. Mister Jack and a select few of his team are to go in there and rescue her – or kill her if they can’t. They show Mister Jack her file photo and he sees that she is “all woman, with out-thrust breasts.” Ah, the days when you didn’t need to be a biologist to know what a woman is! Simpler times. 

Even here we are denied much action. The team heads over to London – where, coincidence be damned, Mister Jack bumps into Elaine again, for a little more hanky-panky – and then they move to France, where they split off in various undercover roles. The feeling is more of a caper as the crew, even old General Barnum, pose as locals and try to get the scoop on the fortress. The heavy lifting is done, unexpectedly, by the transvestite, as Calvin Justice poses as a local floozie and gets cozy with a Nazi official who is stationed in the fortress – including such memorable stuff as Justice getting the guy too drunk before he can successfully feel up Justice and realize “she” is really a he. 

More heavy lifting is done by Belcher, who poses as “a pimp from Marseilles” and gets intel on Reichswald thanks to the hookers he assembles for his stable. We get our first action scene when Eastwood and Dixon take on a German squad; this happens fairly late in the novel, which should give you an idea of how “action packed” The Raid On Reichswald Fortress is. In fact, the titular raid is over and done with in a page or two, Mister Jack and team wearing hoods with googles and “spraying” Nazis with submachine guns as they swoop in and rescue Annabelle. Of course, she will turn out to be Mister Jack’s second conquest, Flynn so casually dropping the sex scene into the narrative that you suspect he’s meeting an editorial quota. Even more humorous is that we have another vague-ish sex scene immediately thereafter, once Mister Jack has returned to the US and reconnected with Elaine. 

This was it for Flynn’s involvement with Assault, but by novel’s end we learn that Mister Jack’s team is now a “unified assault team” and is ready to go on missions across Europe at the behest of the OSS. We’ll see if C.J. Floyd retains the same setup and uses the same characters for the team members, or if he introduces new ones for each new assignment. I’ll also be curious to see if Elaine is established as Mister Jack’s main squeeze, which definitely is implied at the finale of The Raid On Reichswald Fortress.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground

Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground, by Joe Banks
No month stated, 2020  Strange Attractor Press

I try to refrain from making sweeping statements, but it seems to me that Hawkwind didn’t make much of an impact here in America. I mean, I’m 49 and have spent pretty much my entire life listening to rock music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even I only heard of Hawkwind probably around 1999 or so, in an off-hand mention in a review of Primal Scream’s album XTRMNTR (and there’s another group that didn’t make much of an impact in America – at least, no one I knew at the time had ever heard of them). 

Even then, it wasn’t until I discovered the Hawkwind reviews by The Seth Man (my favorite music reviewer ever, btw) at Julian Cope’s Unsung site, some years later, that I even bothered looking into the group. Seth Man focuses on Hawkwind’s early ‘70s output, and later I’d learn that this era is for the most part considered the Hawkwind, even though the band continued on (even to today), with multiple lineup changes. But about the only member I knew in the band was bassist Lemmy, who of course would go on to form Motorhead; indeed, if anyone in the US is aware of Hawkwind, it’s probably due to Lemmy’s connection with the band in the early ‘70s. 

But even that isn’t very well known; I know a guy at work who is big into the music scene, as is his wife, and he mentioned the other week that his wife had just read Lemmy’s autobiography (!!!. Now that my friends is a woman you marry!!). “So she probably knows who Hawkwind is,” I said. The guy gave me a blank look and was like, “Who?” He wasn’t even familiar with the term “space rock.” Presumably his wife would indeed know who Hawkwind is, given that she’s the one who read the book – and now that I’ve read this book, concerning Hawkwind’s rocky ride through the 1970s, I think one day I too might check out Lemmy’s autobio. He proves himself the most colorful character in a group solely comprised of colorful characters. 

Over the years I’ve heard all the Hawkwind albums from the classic era, but have failed to become interested in any of the post-Lemmy albums (which is to say, 1976 onwards). But still even then I didn’t know anything about the group, or the revolving lineups, or who anyone was. Wait, I also knew of Stacia, the statuesque, 6’ 2” beauty with the staggering bust who danced in the nude at Hawkwind concerts during the Lemmy era. Recently I got on another Hawkind kick and decided to finally learn a little more about the group. Joe Banks’s Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground served as the perfect overview of Hawkind, and by focsing solely on 1970 to 1980 Banks here gives us the glory days of the band over the book’s 400+ pages. 

Banks handles his subject in an interesting way: this isn’t a bland study of the group, but one that is broken up into different formats. There’s “Chronology,” which offers persent-tense detail on what Hawkwind is up to throughout the decade, and “Album,” in which Banks reviews each record released during the decade – and Banks proves himself a great reviewer in that he actually describes the music, a failing of many so-called “music reviewers.” In fact his style reminds me a bit of Seth Man’s. Then there are “Interviews,” in which Banks throws some questions at a few (surviving) Hawkwind members. Finally there is the periodic “Essay,” in which Banks will focus on a subject for a few pages, like how Hawkwind related to the political climate of Britain at the time, or Hawkwind’s relationship with the sci-fi New Wave (collaborator Michael Moorcock being another of those interviewed here). 

One thing I quickly learned was that Hawkwind honcho Dave Brock (vocals and guitar) doesn’t seem to have much time for these things: he’s not one of the people interviewed here, and all his comments in the book are taken from contemporary interviews. Brock also failed to appear in a BBC documentary that was produced several years ago (which Banks links to on his informative and comprehensive website for the book), due to his falling out with another founding member: Nik Turner (sax, flute, vocals). Banks doesn’t get into the details of this falling out in his book, but then again Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground ends in 1980. At any rate Turner died in 2022, so his falling out with Brock was permanent. It just seems strange that Brock does not appear in any of these band retrospectives, given that he started Hawkwind and is still running it. 

Regardless of Brock’s lack of involvement, Joe Banks carries the narrative along smoothly, as mentioned relying on contemporary articles and interviews. One thing I learned from this book was that Hawkwind were heroes of the British underground, often performing at free concerts and operating out of the Portobello Road area, where they presented themselves as one of the people. So I guess sort of like The Jefferson Airplane, at least insofar as their political/radical inclinations went, but Hawkwind certainly never became as wealthy or successful as the Airplane did. In fact you wonder how these guys even made a living: eventually their shows were known for elaborate light shows (not just the naked dancing girl), and they used all sorts of audio generators and other electronic gizmos that were outsie the realm of your typical rock group. This entailed a large touring company, which of course had to be paid for. 

Compounding the issue was that none of the members wanted to get on the “star trip,” and indeed most of them would shun the spotlight, content to let the slideshows and light shows and Stacia take the brunt of the audience’s attention at concerts. No doubt this is another reason Lemmy is probably the only member of Hawkwind an American fan might know off-hand, as Lemmy certainly had the star trip down pat, becoming a legend in his post-Hawkwind days. Otherwise even I, who had listened to the albums and collected some of them on vinyl over the years, couldn’t name a single other member of Hawkwind until I read this book. They were an eccentric group of characters to be sure, but we aren’t talking a John-Paul-George-Ringo group of different and memorable personalities. 

But then, Hawkwind’s music outweighs any personalities – it’s a heavy, spacey kind of rock that’s heavy on the effects and the overall trance-inducing vibe. The only problem I have with it is that I’ll hear a Hawkwind song and think, “This is great!” Then the next song will come on, and I’m like, “Didn’t I just hear this song?” What I’m trying to say is, variety is not key with Hawkwind, at least for the classic era of the early to mid ‘70s. To this day I still confuse “Born To Go” with “Brainstorm,” or etc – and not just them! Entire LP sides almost blend into one long track, but as Joe Banks successfully argues here, that’s the entire point! Hawkwind’s music was designed to take the listener into another realm (even without drugs), inducing a trance through repetition of its heavy psychedelic rock vibe. 

Another thing that sets Hawkwind apart from groups of the era was that Hawkwind was indeed psychedelic – and not “progressive,” as they are often categorized. As Banks also notes, in this regard Hawkwind had more in common with the krautrock bands out of Germany, in that they continued with the heavy psychedelic rock of the ‘60s but brought it into the ‘70s with all the production tricks of that decade. But they had little in common with true prog groups like ELP or Yes, and more in common with such German acts as Amon Duul II (which also had a revolving lineup, including a bassist who played in both ADII and Hawkwind in the early ‘70s). 

It's in the description of this music that Banks’s narrative style really shines. As mentioned, he describes the music, treading the line between insightful commentary and the colorful word painting David Henderson employed in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age. In fact it had me going back to the albums to listen to them again, though I have to admit that, despite his enthusiasm, Banks did not succeed in making me appreciate the post-Lemmy era of Hawkwind. I found myself skimming a lot of this material, as I’ve never been interested in the group’s attempts at capturing the punk or New Wave scenes, nor do I like the streamlined act in which Bob Calvert became their main singer. I mean, I like the dude as the crazed circus ringmaster who links tracks on Nektar’s Down To Earth, but not as the main singer in a New Wave-styled Hawkwind. 

Speaking of which, Banks makes much of Hawkwind’s impact on the emerging punk scene, which is another line of divergence for American readers. Punk just never had that impact here…despite Johnny Rotten’s infamous T-shirt, Americans today are a helluva lot more likely to listen to Pink Floyd than the Sex Pistols. In England though it seems that “punk” is still held in high regard, for giving a new boost of energy to the dying rock scene or whatever. Hawkwind, while never punk, is often cited as an influence on the scene, to the extent that even Johnny Rotten said there never would’ve been a Sex Pistols without Hawkwind. To which I say, “Who cares?” 

Joe Banks relates Hawkwind’s trip through the ‘70s in an amiable tone that is never too critical or apologetic. His enthusiasm for the band is clear, but also he can’t help but relate some of their poor choices – like, of course, canning Lemmy and Stacia. Also Dave Brock’s increasing control of the group is cast in a questioning light, especially given that everything was going fine previous to his changes in the lineup. Also the group had a rather strange habit of abandoning band members on tour – Banks relates in the later ‘70s portion of the book how Robert Calvert was abandoned during some tour, and caught Brock et al as they were leaving in a taxi, Calvert chasing after them while brandishing a sword. This is the closest the book gets to Spinal Tap territory, by the way. But also, in that BBC documentary I linked to above, there’s a part where Lemmy relates that he too was abandoned while the group was on tour in the US, just assuming he had wandered off somewhere to get some speed and taking off without him. 

What I find curious about this is that there’s also a scene where a Hawkwind member (“Liquid Len”) is ditched by the other members of the group in the 1976 novel Time Of The Hawklords, by Michael Moorcock and Michael Butterworth (though as Banks notes in the book it was entirely written by Butterworth); I’ll have a review of that one up once I’m finally able to finish it, as to tell the truth the novel’s a bit of a slog. The tidbit of a Hawkwind member being ditched by the others is entirely too coincidental and makes me suspect Butterworth was spoofing how Lemmy was ditched in the US, though it doesn’t happen to Lemmy’s character in the novel. 

Speaking of Lemmy and his amphetimines, Hawkwind was of course synonymous with drugs, and Banks treats this topic with candor – there is no apology or regret or any other stuff. About the only issue is that Lemmy was a speed and heroin user, and this didn’t jibe with the preferred drugs of the others. Hawkwind was a pot and acid band, which itself was notable for the ‘70s. This could be why their mid-‘70s output does not sound sterile and lifeless, like so many other groups of that era. The same, again, holds drue for the krautrock bands of the day. Another thing I learned from Banks is that British critics of the day also saw this similarity with contemporary German bands (krautrock was also never a “thing” in the US), but today hardly anyone mentions Hawkwind in the same breath as Can or the like. 

Joe Banks’s Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground goes a long way in fixing this; the story told here is memorable and entertaining, and makes one wish for a time machine – what it must have been like to see the group’s “Space Ritual” production in person. (And I share Banks’s incredulity that none of these shows were ever filmed for posterity!) Banks also does a good job of defining the various lineups and how they differed from one another, while still maintaining a “Hawkwind” vibe. Overall I definitely enjoyed the book, with the caveat that my interest waned as the ‘70s progressed (but then that’s pretty much true about everything ‘70s for me), and it had me listening to my Hawkwind albums with a renewed appreciation. I also appreciated the thoroughness Banks brought to the book, down to detailing every promo film made of the group in the ‘70s, as well as notable outtakes that were not released in the day – and speaking of which, the 2018 Record Store Day double-vinyl compilation release Dark Matter: The Alternative Liberty/U.A. Years 1970 – 1974 is highly recommended, collecting as it does some of the very outtakes Banks mentions in this book.

Monday, December 4, 2023

The Executioner #19: Detroit Deathwatch

The Executioner #19: Detroit Deathwatch, by Don Pendleton
June, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Don Pendleton hews closely to his template for this 19th volume of The Executioner, but then again if it isn’t broke why fix it? Pendleton’s repetitive structure clearly struck a chord with readers of the day, so he follows it to the letter in Detroit Deathwatch: the opening hit on some Mafia hardsite, the chapters focusing on various one-off characters, the inevitable chapter in which a member of law enforcement recaps everything that’s happened in the novel thus far, the periodic philosophical ruminations courtesy Mack “The Executioner” Bolan, and finally the big action finale. 

But still, it’s becoming increasingly easy for Mr. Bolan. Never does he feel any fear or sense of danger. The possibility of his being hurt or killed never enters the picture – it is others who will suffer at the hands of the Mafia sadists, and Bolan is the hero who must save them. The actual mechanics of waging an ongoing war against the mob come so naturally to Bolan that there is no strategy nor planning required; he shows up, he makes his various hits, he slips away into the night. He’s more a supernatural figure at this point than a flesh-and-blood human, despite Pendleton’s frequent claims that Mack Bolan was “just a man.” Bolan’s also kind of weird by this point, but I’ll get to that in a bit. 

First of all, there’s no pickup from the previous volume. No mention of the busty nurse Bolan essentially pressured into shacking up with him at the very end of the novel. Bolan when we meet him this time is already on the scene in Detroit, launching a waterborne strike against a Mafia hardsite. It’s cool if a little unspectacular, Bolan briefly using his boat as a decoy and then donning a wetsuit (quickly dispensed with) so he can go ashore and blow away a few goons with his customary Automag. The violence has been toned down, for the most part, save for a wildly gruesome finale. Otherwise Bolan only shoots a few hapless thugs here; again, there is no possibility of Bolan himself ever being hit in the melee. 

Pendleton throws a curveball in the works with the sudden appearance of Toby Ranger, the busty blonde Federal agent last seen in #9: Vegas Vendetta. She’s undercover as a bimbo in this particular mobster’s villa, but she’s just been outed and is on her way to her last ride when Bolan intervenes. Bolan calls off his hit and takes off with her to his safehouse in the city, presumably so as to keep her safe. But here’s where the weird stuff begins. Bolan, apparently inspired by his own actions at the climax of the previous volume, essentially pressures Toby into having sex with him – they’re both “professionals,” he argues, they have to live for the moment, so let’s do it. Of course it isn’t presented so bluntly, but still that’s kind of how it happens – and once again Pendleton fails to give us any juicy details. 

But man…next morning at the breakfast table it just gets stranger. Bolan starts talking about “the cosmic sprawl” and ruminating to himself how woman was referred to as a “helpmeet” in the King James Bible, and hey, Toby could be his helpmeet for now. I mean he just comes off as an odd guy. Later in the book he’s even quoting Emerson to himself (the poet, not the prog-rock keyboardist), and keeps referring back to the “cosmic sprawl” (whatever the hell that is) and the helpmeet thing – again, another part of Pendleton’s template is introducing a concept or theme and frequently referring back to it. But it’s all just so weird…I mean Toby’s even like, “What?” when Bolan breaks out his first “cosmic sprawl” utterance, and you’ve gotta figure she might be wondering if she made a mistake last night. I mean, at least Johnny Rock and Philip Magellan had the decency to know they were nuts. Bolan is completely on the level…and you know Pendleton is, too. 

But then, Toby herself is an oddball – another recurring gimmick, one that quickly grates, is her constant referral to Bolan as “Captain” something or other: Captain Virile, Captain Wonderful, Captain Granite; she’s got a name for every occasion, and it gets old. According to my review for Vegas Vendetta, it sounds like Bolan and Toby had more of a sparring relationship in that volume, but this time Pendleton presents them almost as soul mates. Toby Ranger is the type of woman who could bring a men’s adventure series to a halt: she’s such a perfect match for the hero that you wonder why he doesn’t say to hell with the whole mob-busting game and just marry her. And indeed, Toby tries to put her hooks in Bolan throughout the book, even begging that they go off to some “green pastures” to be together after this latest mission is done. 

And as for this particular mission: what starts as a typical Executioner strike turns into something a little more seamy, and along the lines of a plot in one of the Imitiation Executioners that proliferated on the bookstore shelves at this time: beautiful women being abducted and forced into prostitution by the mob. But whereas one of those Imitation Executioners would be a lot more explicit in this regard – see, for example, The Marksman #18, which concerned this very same subject – Pendleton keeps the subject mostly in the background. As ever, this stuff is just the MacGuffin that is used to link together the action scenes and the philosophical asides. 

In fact the prostitution ring angle only enters the narrative via long “morning after” dialog from Toby, who explains that she’s been working undercover in an unofficial capacity, trying to track down her missing colleague Georgette – the “Canuck” member of Toby’s Rangers, also briefly seen in that earlier Vegas-based installment. Georgette was looking into a rash of disappearances concering super-beautiful women (Toby clarifies that these aren’t just gorgeous women…but “super” gorgeous ones!), and of course this being an Executioner novel the trail ultimately led her to the Mafia. But Toby thinks she was made and has been taken off somewhere, or maybe even killed. And she thinks it all happened in that very Detroit hardsite Bolan was hitting at the start of the book. 

Meanwhile we have the expected cutaways to one-off characters. We’ve got stuff from the perspectives of the mobsters themselves, none of whom will have much of an impact on the narrative. We also have stuff from the perspective of a cop who has been called into Detroit now that the Executioner has been spotted – and also legions of Mafia soldiers have entered the city, for precisely the same reason. This is another of Pendleton’s MacGuffins; we’re often told of these bad-ass killer Mafia hit teams congregating here or there, and when Bolan ultimately confronts them – that is, when he even does, as usually the hit teams are kept off-page – it’s such a cake-walk for him that you wonder why the element was even introduced into the narrative. Nearly 20 volumes in, it doesn’t create any sense of tension at all. At this point only a bored readership poses any threat to Mack Bolan. 

Oh and an interesting factoid for those out there like myself who dig such factoids: Bolan at one point in Detroit Deathwatch waltzes into a police station and pretends to be an agent (presumably Federal, as he isn’t wearing a uniform). It’s the name he gives for himself that’s interesting: Stryker. So, did Pendleton just pull this name out of the air, or did he borrow it from the contemporary Pinnacle series Stryker? A series that was written by William Crawford, ie the guy who served as “Jim Peterson” for The Executioner #16, which Pendleton claimed to never have read – and also stated in his interview in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction that he never even discovered who “Jim Peterson” was. So then, long story short, if Bolan’s “Stryker” name was inspired by Crawford’s series, that would be pretty ironic. I mean if that wouldn’t be an example of the cosmic sprawl, uh, sprawling, I don’t know what would be. 

Action is more sporadic this time around; we have the opening hit, then only a few scuffles here and there. Pendleton brings in a bit of a ‘70s crime-pulp vibe when Bolan and Toby fly to Canada and Bolan strong arms the manager of a stripper joint. But this Canada jaunt is over and done with in a flash and it’s back to Detroit – but again, Pendleton doesn’t much focus on the city or attempt to bring it to life. But then, that’s not really what you want from the book. Most of these installments could take place in the same cultural vacuum: “Detroit Deathwatch” could just as easily be “Dayton Deathwatch.” Especially given that the novel climaxes in the same location it started at: the Mafia hardsite along the lake. 

Here Pendleton gets more ghoulish and lurid than ever before in the series, with the reappearance of a “Turkey Doctor,” ie those Mafia sadists who specialize in torture while also keeping the “patient” alive and aware throughout. Pendleton rolls out all the stops here with a squirm-inducing passage in which Bolan comes across “turkey meat” in the sub-basement of the hardsite, mutilated and mauled but still alive and aware. It’s pretty crazy and not like much anything else in The Executioner, making Pendleton’s version of the Mafia seem almost as sadistic and depraved as the one in James Dockery’s The Butcher. So crazy and depraved that by novel’s end Mack Bolan himself is in tears. 

That said, the “green pastures” finale seems tacked on and hard to swallow after the few pages of nightmarish gore we just read. But the important thing is, Bolan’s about to get some good lovin’ again, which was how the previous book ended – so it’s nice at least to see that Pendleton has, for the moment, decided to add a little spice into the series. Speaking of which: if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go tell an attractive co-worker of mine that we’re both professionals, and the cosmic sprawl demands that she become my helpmeet. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll quote a little Emerson!

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Lives Of John Lennon

The Lives Of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman
July, 1989  Bantam Books
(Original hardcover edition November 1988)

Well friends, here’s the book that brought the blog to a standstill. Actually to tell the truth, this book alone didn’t bring the blog to a standstill; the Thanksgiving holiday also contributed, as I didn’t get a chance to go online at all last week. But also, this book is nearly 900 pages long, which really throws a kink in a two-reviews-a-week review schedule. I have to say, though, despite the stigma associated with it, I found myself very caught up in Albert Goldman’s notorious The Lives Of John Lennon, often putting aside stuff just to keep reading it. Time’s cover blurb “Compulsively readable” aptly sums it up. The question of course is how trustworthy the book is. 

First of all, a big thanks to a commenter named “Intrigued,” who recently left a comment on my review of Dakota Days suggesting that I read this book. It had been a few years since I’d read any books about John Lennon, and to be honest I wasn’t thinking about reading another, but Intrigued’s comment hit me at the right time and I found myself starting The Lives Of John Lennon a day or two after they left their comment. It’s a book I have thought about reading for many years. As I mentioned in my reply to Intrigued, I first heard of Albert Goldman’s book thanks to a 1988 skit on Saturday Night Live, aired when the original hardcover edition was published; it featured Phil Hartman as Goldman, who had an axe to grind with John Lennon because Goldman had originally been a Beatle – one who played the trombone – and Lennon pushed to have him kicked out of the band. I only saw that skit that one time (and it’s never on Youtube due to NBC’s lawyers), but it must’ve made an impression on me (I was 13 when it aired), as I’ve always remembered it. 

That a biography was actually the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit (with Jon Lovitz as Ringo!!) should be indication of how much of a ripple The Lives Of John Lennon made when it was published. It was quite the news item for a while, mostly because it was condemned as a savage attack on John Lennon, who was no longer around to defend himself from Goldman’s allegations. That was the impression I got, going into the book. But as it turns out, I didn’t think John Lennon came off too badly in Goldman’s book…I mean sure, other than the insinuation that he might’ve accidentally murdered Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, or that he might’ve also murdered some random British sailor during a mugging going wild in Hamburg…or even that he had a latent homosexuality (indeed, that he was “mostly bisexual”), and not only had a relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein but once attempted to rape him. Or hell, how he even would often “rape” female fans who were yanked willy-nilly from the audience for John to slam up against the wall and have his way with to get rid of his pre-stage jitters. Or how he’d kick around his little kid Sean, or claim his other son Julian was gay (while ignoring him most of his life), or how he’d beat on his girlfriend May Pang…or tons of other similar allegations in the book. 

Despite all that (and more!), I don’t think John Lennon came off to poorly in this book. Indeed it is a testament to his character – his true character, I’d say – that you still don’t want to finish this never-ending book because you know that when you do finish it, John Lennon will be dead. But it’s hard to take all of Goldman’s allegations without a big heaping grain of salt; he lists hundreds of sources at the end of the book, people who knew Lennon with whom Goldman (or his “researchers”) talked, but it soon becomes clear that Goldman has parsed the bad stuff and expanded on it. There’s no way in hell those hundreds of sources all said negative things about John Lennon. But then, Goldman had already proved this was his m.o., with the earlier Elvis, which so “displeased” Paul McCartney that he turned down Goldman’s request to be intereviewed for The Lives Of John Lennon

That said, Goldman is one helluva good writer. I personally loved his narrative style, alternately informative and bitchy, with a snobbery that comes off as wonderfully un-PC in today’s emasculated world. Minor asides, like calling out the “black bullshit” Lennon spoofs in the lyrics to “Come Together,” or the random, super-incidental note that the written Japanese word (ie, kanji) looks like “chicken scratches.” There’s another part that made me laugh out loud, where Goldman mocks the Black Panther party’s message – certainly dangerous ground for a mainstream writer to approach these days – and follows up a quote of a Black Power speech with, “Can you dig it, man?” And of course, we’re frequently informed of Yoko’s “chattering” in Japanese. 

Otherwise Goldman keeps the story moving; even when John Lennon friggin’ disappears from the narrative for like a hundred-page stretch toward the end, and Yoko becomes the star. In many regards this book could’ve just as easily been titled The Lives Of Yoko Ono, as John Lennon’s story, from roughly 1970 to 1980, is also Yoko Ono’s story. Even when John is off on his so-called “Lost Weekend,” Yoko is still there. In many ways the book is almost an extension of Fred Seaman’s later The Last Days Of John Lennon; Goldman actually makes much use of Seaman’s yet-published book here, with the caveat that Yoko doesn’t come off quite as malicious and malevolent as she does in Seaman’s account. At the same time, she isn’t the easily-confused housewife seen in John Green’s Dakota Days – another source Goldman leans on in The Lives Of John Lennon, though the Green stuff here is better; as Intrigued mentioned in their comment, we actually learn all the stuff about Green’s tarot-reading that Green himself didn’t tell us in Dakota Days

Like a fool, I failed to keep notes as I read this 877-page book of small, dense print; I just wanted to get caught up in Goldman’s mad tale, but now the whole thing is a damn blur and I’m having a hard time remembering a lot of it. But I tell you, I enjoyed the hell out of it while I was reading it! For the first 500 or so pages, at least. A couple hundred pages could’ve been easily cut, particularly the section covering the mid-late ‘70s, when John (as Goldman most often refers to Lennon…and I’ll follow suit) disappears. The book is nothing if not exhaustive…though “exhausting” might be the more accurate term. As mentioned Goldman lists a ton of sources at the end of the book, meaning that he could’ve given us the definitive bio of John Lennon, but instead he chose the low road and focused solely on the bad stuff, with the end result that the John Lennon seen here is alternately a self-destructive monster or a self-obsessed narcissist, one who jumps from one “mommy figure” to another without once displaying any backbone. 

Actually the book isn’t that comprehensive in one key area – humorously, we are told hardly anything about the main thing John Lennon is even known for: his music. Goldman brushes off entire albums with acidic wit – actually venomous wit – and even ignores lots of stuff. I mean let alone minor stuff, like the self-titled album by the group Elephant’s Memory that John and Yoko produced (and provided backup vocals on) in 1972, or even bigger stuff, like Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band, on which John played some serious psych-fuzz experimental guitar. (Say what you will about Yoko’s music, but she sure as hell had a knack for getting Lennon to play some serious rock guitar – just check out his last-ever recording, Yoko’s incredible 1980 disco-rock single “Walking On Thin Ice;” it was years before I learned the guitar on it was played by John.) 

But even Beatles albums are dismissed with a sentence or two. Now this I could kind of understand; doubtless Albert Goldman realized that a study of Beatles music was outside the realm of his book, and indeed “only” the first 400 pages of the book are devoted to the Beatles era. But when Goldman does write about John Lennon’s music, often times he proves a very compelling case: like for example how the musical theme of the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” so often appears in John’s songs. But this book is not music criticism at all; more critical, really, as Goldman certainly isn’t a believer in Grandma’s rule (“if you can’t say anything nice…”). When he mentions a song, it’s usually to piss on it. That said, he does seem to like “I Am The Walrus,” and he also ranks John’s Plastic Ono Band as his best solo LP – but on the other hand, Goldman also dismisses “Imagine” as a shitty song. (Personally I’m not crazy about it either.) 

But even I, definitely no Beatles scholar, could see that much of what Goldberg writes simply is incorrect. For one, he has it that John was suffering heroin withdrawl during the recording of Get Back, making him even worse of a guitar player (Goldman really hammers it in that John Lennon has no talent with the guitar, btw); indeed, so disassociated from the sessions that he might as well not have been there. But reading The Lives Of John Lennon inspired me to finally check out Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary…8 friggin’ hours of the Beatles recording Get Back (don’t get me wrong – it’s awesome, one of the best things I’ve seen in years), and while John does seem a little out of it in Part 1, he’s truly on form in Part 2, once they’ve moved into the new Apple Studios. Five minutes of Get Back is enough to disprove practically everything Goldman claims; John’s rockin’ on the guitar, he’s creating and changing songs on the fly, he’s John Lennon

Well anyway. The Lives Of John Lennon starts with this excellently-handled opening sequence of New Journalism (ie nonfiction written as fiction) that takes us into “a day in the life” of John Lennon, circa 1979. He’s in his “tomb” of a room in the Dakota, coming out to enjoy “his favorite time of the day” (breakfast), and soon he’s declaiming on the topic of assassination to Marnie Hair, a Dakota neighbor whose daughter is roughly the same age as John and Yoko’s son Sean – and Marnie Hair was one of Goldman’s main sources for the latter half of the book. But this opening is not picked up on again in the book, sort of existing on its own, and indeed it presents a different, more relatable John Lennon than Goldman will give us in the actual narrative. 

The only problem is, this intro ultimately will undermine Goldman’s dark exegesis that follows. John is not presented as the heroin-ravaged, weak-willed, Yoko-controlled pawn as he will be, later in the book; nor is he shown to be the vindictive, hate-filled prick Goldman will strive to present him as. He’s just a world-famous guy enjoying some down time. Yoko also comes across slightly better here than she will later on; sure, in her intro she’s making her heroin contact and then “retching” in the bathroom after snorting some, but shorly after this there’s a cute bit (sorry, but there’s no other word for it) where she and Marnie Hair are sitting there and patitently listening to John expound on his assassination subject, and Yoko impishly keeps pushing John’s ashtray farther out of his reach, without his noticing. 

So what are we to take from this opening? It’s never picked up on in the ensuing narrative, never mentioned again. When we do get to the shut-in years, hundred and hundreds of pages later, there’s none of this “cute” stuff. What’s funny is, this opening is actually more in-line with what Robert Rosen presented in Nowhere Man – published later, but supposedly written earlier than Goldman’s book, and based directly off of John Lennon’s personal journals. For once again Rosen’s book can be seen as an alternate image to Goldman’s portrait of Lennon, same as it could be for Frederic Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon – but then, Seaman was one of Goldman’s sources. Where Goldman and Seaman present Yoko as this controlling force who is alternately bored with John or trying to cause him trouble, Rosen presents an altogether different side of her. But which one is real? 

Does it really matter? John Lennon has been gone now for longer than he was here. All of this was so long ago, and it’s clear that John Lennon’s legend will persist. People born decades after his death are still listening to his music. My six-year-old was born 37 years after John Lennon’s death; the other day, no doubt inspired by this book, I was playing The White Album for the first time in years, and my kid was playing with his toys and not paying attention, but when “I’m So Tired” came on he got quiet, sat and watched the stereo while the song played, and then finally announced, “I like that song.” Thus it seems clear that Albert Goldman’s attempt to cut John Lennon down could never succeed; his music will always prevail. Now I’ll admit, I did get kind of sick of John and Yoko and their unceasing tide of one obsession after another – the entire middle and latter part of the book becomes, to use the word again, exhausting. I mean these two are like a pair of social influencers before there was any such thing…a reality TV couple before there was reality TV. 

And really, the ‘70s stuff is what Goldman focuses on most in the book…likely because this is when John went out of the public eye, thus Goldman was able to go into a little more shall we say speculative fiction. I mean folks there’s a part, late in the book, where John has to go through Southeast Asia, all as part of Yoko’s latest obsession (traveling westward from the east so as to purify yourself or some other such money-wasting pursuit), and John, travelling on his own, has to stop in Bangkok. Here Goldman cattily informs us that John no doubt enjoyed himself some young boys there, because it’s legal and all; I mean the entire sequence is written as straight-up fiction narrative, John going to cathouses and whatnot. I actually laughed out loud at how brazen it all was. 

For it’s Goldman’s assertion from the start that John Lennon is deeply troubled: filled with rage and hostility, perhaps due to his refusal to accept that he’s “basically bisexual.” To Goldman’s credit, this is a full, comprehensive bio, starting with how John’s parents met, on to how John was troubled even as a toddler, getting kicked out of kindergarten at one point. There’s a heartbreaking scene where he’s forced to choose between living with his mom or living with his dad. His childhood was not pleasant, certainly, but again here one cannot help but feel sorry for little John Lennon, which again makes it odd that Goldman will go on to present the man as a monster – of sorts. I mean like I said before, despite Goldman’s best efforts he still can’t make John Lennon hateable. It’s my understanding that Goldman went into this book as a “fan” of Lennon’s, but then that doesn’t count for much. The guy who killed Lennon was also a “fan.” But it was Goldman’s claim that when he saw the true man behind the music, he lost his fandom. 

But it’s hard to tell Goldman ever was a fan in the first place; reading the book, you get the impression John Lennon was a barely talented twit who only managed to get a few good songs because other people pushed him to it. And also the guy who did all the peace rallies was only doing so to hide his penchant for beating up women. This is another of Goldman’s conceits; that John Lennon was a violent man, headed for a violent end, and his huge fame was only a brief detour before he headed for his inevitable fate. But the thing is, the book is just so well written I couldn’t stop reading it! Goldman doesn’t litter the book with footnotes or asides; it’s written in a gossipy tabloid manner, but with a definite comedic touch. As mentioned a dark one; another goofy conceit Goldman does throughout the book is “subtly” foreshadow John’s violent end, with sentences comparing John’s voice to a “fired bullet” and the like. Or even darker, a bit where psychedelic ’60s-era John has a trick car that plays random messages in the front seat, surprising people John’s asked to sit up there, and he’ll sit in the back and “die” laughing – or, as Goldman puts it, “John died in the back seat.” (John actually died in the back seat of a police car that was speeding him to the hospital.) 

I’m jumping all over the place in my review, no doubt due to not taking any notes as I read this behemoth of a book. Goldman makes the earlies days of the Beatles a more interesting topic than I thought it would be; his theme has it that John is an antisocial punk who finds only brief solace in rock music, soon putting together his own group. Paul McCartney then enters the narrative – and Paul is not as big a presence in the book as you might expect. It’s clear though that Goldman actually respects McCartney, casting him and his actions in good light throughout the book. Even with offhand minor mentions like how Paul will be the only Beatle who reaches out to John’s ex-wife Cynthia after the divorce. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Paul, even though barely into his teens, is already eager to show off his guitar-playing and singing skills, and soon wins his way onto the older Lennon’s group. 

Goldman, doubtless realizing tons of books have been written on this very subject, doesn’t get much into the nitty gritty of the Beatles. His forte is the realm of supposition; it’s the grayer areas he clings to, as he is free to fill in the gaps with his imagination. So we have it that John Lennon himself might have caused the death of original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, kicking him in the head after one of John’s frequent rages – an admission John supposedly made, himself, to Dakota neighbor Marnie Hair many years later. Then later we have the aforementioned note that John would often “rape” girls moments before going on stage for those big Beatles concerts, to calm his nerves, and also that he likely had a fling going with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. 

The actual music of the Beatles isn’t much dwelt upon, though I have to say I agree with Goldman when he considers Sgt. Pepper’s a little overrated, particularly when compared to Revolver. The former, as Goldman argues (and which is clear from the aural evidence), is mostly the work of Paul, and has his whimsy in full force. But then, Goldman also argues how Lennon and McCartney were such a strong team, one that Lennon turned his back on for no other reason than ego; Goldman also notes how Paul “pursued” John even up until the end of John’s life, trying to write with him again. I found this note particularly resonate, given how even today, over four decades after John Lennon died, Paul is still taking John on tour:

Where The Lives Of John Lennon really comes into its own is in the post-Beatles era. Here is where John’s life became even more hectic and surreal…and, not so coincidentally, this is when Yoko Ono became the main part of his life, instead of the Beatles. It’s essentially one madcap bit after another, and indeed John and Yoko in the ‘70s almost come off like the Rolling Stones in how they corrupt and cast aside anyone who comes into their orbit. It’s chapter after chapter of some new acquaintance or guru or assistant or lawyer or musician or whatever who becomes the greatest friend ever of the Lennons, before ultimately being dismissed for some infraction or other. But it’s all here: the Primal Scream era, the flirtation with radical leftist politics (though as Goldman notes, neither John nor Yoko were very political, given that neither of them had ever bothered to even vote in an election!), the so-called “Lost Weekend” in which John was separated from Yoko, and finally the reconcilliation, followed by five years of being a “recluse” (though as I said before, John Lennon sure as hell traveled a lot for a recluse). 

It's those last five years that Goldman focuses on the most – again, because this is the most shadowy era of John Lennon’s life. What Goldman enthuses in doing is gutting the official narrative and twisting the knife; if the official story is that Yoko “asked” John to leave, the real story is that Yoko kicked him out because she wanted to be “royally laid” by a studio guitarist named Dave Spinoza. If the official story is that Yoko “just happened” to be at Elton John’s big NYC concert a few years later – the concert in which John made a surprise appearance – the real story is that Yoko called John beforehand and demanded specific seats. It’s like this on and on…John’s trip to Bermuda in the late ‘70s was, again, so Yoko could get him out of the Dakota so she could have some adulterous fun…or that “John’s idea” for he and Yoko to trade songs on Double Fantasy was really Yoko’s idea (an idea taken from Seaman’s book, where a lot of the later material here is sourced from). 

The thing is, it’s all gripping reading, despite how self-involved and annoying John and Yoko increasingly become as the book progresses: John losing more and more of his spine, Yoko becoming more of a junk-snorting harpie. There is as ever an element of dark comedy to it all, particularly when John is sent off on global jaunts to appease Yoko’s latest metaphysical obsession. We get the story, recounted in Dakota Days, where Yoko visits a witch in South America, as well as the big family trips to Japan. One that was new to me was that John and Yoko went to Egypt in the late ‘70s, with John walking around the pyramids and claiming he’d “been here before.” Again, there’s just a surreal, almost Spinal Tap vibe to the whole thing…with the caveat that there’s no rock anymore, by this point. Goldman focuses so little on John’s music in The Lives Of John Lennon that you could often forget you’re reading the bio of one of the greatest – if not the greatest – rocker of all time. 

This music blindness is just one of Goldman’s many misses. For example, he tells us unequivocably that John didn’t write any songs once he’d locked himself up in the Dakota. This of course is incorrect; John was always writing and recording stuff on tape. This is how the recent “last Beatles song” even came to be, same as the earlier “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love.” Goldman also misses out on a big, if relatively obscure, moment in the John and Paul story; in Goldman’s book, John and Paul basically don’t see each other again after the split of the Beatles. However they did see each other from time to time, even meeting up in the studio one night, during the recordings for John’s Rock & Roll album; back in the ‘90s there was a bootleg Beatles CD with the unforgettable title A Toot And A Snore In ‘74, documenting this (coke-fueled) recording session (if I’m not mistaken, Stevie Wonder was also present), which was the first and last time John and Paul were in the studio together since the Beatles breakup. Goldman doesn’t mention it. 

Actually, I found the stuff from this period the most interesting in the book otherwise. John’s life becomes even more crazed with the intro of Phil Spector, who “produces” John’s roots-rock album, but meanwhile John and cohorts just become increasingly drunk and stoned in the studio. Goldman has it, though, that the drugs bring out Lennon’s sadistic side, thus there’s lots of stuff about him treating girlfriend May Pang like a sex toy or beating her up and choking her. John Lennon certainly comes off poorly in this regard, and these sections would trigger the sensitive readers of today – and I haven’t even mentioned John’s frequent usage of the n-word. John Lennon’s basically a racist and sexist progenitor of the entire “#metoo” movement – but then, in Goldman’s confused narrative, he’s also kind of a loser, unable to muster the courage to ask women out and thus resorting to brutish means. Or, in one of the book’s more humorous bits, John has no idea what to do around women: there’s a part where his childhood obsession Brigitte Bardot invites him to her hotel room, and an anxious John drops a ton of acid beforehand (this is during the psychedelic Beatles era) and pretends to “meditate” the entire time, not saying a word to the sex goddess. 

To continue with my Stones analogy, of John and Yoko using and casting aside a revolving cast of innocents, May Pang would have to be the biggest victim here. One can’t help but feel sorry for her; young and somewhat innocent, she was essentially “set up” to be John’s mistress (by Yoko herself!), but the affair became more serious than anyone could realize. Indeed, John clearly seemed to fall in love with May, and here in The Lives Of John Lennon we get to see stuff that Rosen (I believe) only alluded to in Nowhere Man; that John continued to carry a torch for May even after returning to Yoko, and would come up with elaborate schemes to be with her while Yoko was out of the city. This is a nice antidote to Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon, which presented John as a cuckolded nitwit, his wife carrying on two affairs and John obvlious to it all. At least in Goldman’s account, John is getting his own side action. It’s also revealed here that the whole May Pang thing was concocted by Yoko because she’d set her sights on that aforementioned guitarist Dave Spinoza, and went to her own elaborate ends to ensnare him, complete with planning a big tour of Japan – which Spinoza backed out of at the last minute! 

One of Goldman’s main conceits is that John Lennon suffered from rage incidents throughout his life, going into fits and swinging and punching at anyone in his path, particularly women. There’s a lot of stuff about people treading on eggshells in his presence and whatnot. Judging from the greasy-haired, rail-thin weakling presented in the Get Back documentary, I personally doubt how much damage Lennon could do (and Goldman makes a huge production over John’s poor physical condition), but then that’s another thing from Seaman’s book I recall – that John was insanely jealous of muscular, fit men and had an irrational hatred of them. This irrational rage, Goldman argues, is why John became such a peace advocate; here Goldman uses John’s own words, from a late interview, of something to the effect that the most violent people are the ones who ultimately go for peace. 

Speaking of John and Yoko’s peace bed-in movement, one source I was bummed Goldman didn’t get in touch with was Len Levinson; as recounted in In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len handled the PR for the Toronto bed-in, and became friendly with John – to the point that John even gave Len a sort of impromptu performance on acoustic guitar. John Lennon comes more to life in Len’s short essay than he does in the entirety of Albert Goldman’s book. But then, even if Len had spoken with Goldman, it’s debatable how much of Len’s words would have been accurately used. This contemporary rebuttal by Rolling Stone really lays bare much of Goldman’s truth-stretching; the Rolling Stone piece even puts the majority of Fred Seaman’s book in question, and that book hadn’t even been published yet; particularly telling is Seaman’s uncle – who got Fred Seaman the job with John and Yoko – stating that his nephew hardly had much interraction with John. 

Again, it’s all so hard to tell what is true and what is fiction. Compounding the issue, here is an interview with Seaman, May Pang, and Yoko’s “archivist,” from when Seaman’s book was published; it’s from Joan Rivers’s short-lived show. These are people who served as Goldman’s key sources for the latter days of John Lennon, and it seems clear that in a way all three of them are disgruntled ex-employees. I especially love how Seaman keeps hammering home that he was beaten up by an off-duty cop who was on Yoko’s payroll, and Joan Rivers keeps refusing to pick up on this comment – probably hoping herself to evade any “litigious” action on Yoko’s part! But as mentioned in my review of The Last Days Of John Lennon, Seaman was ultimately sued by Yoko for that book. Albert Goldman, as his supporters often state, was not sued for his book – but then, in that Rolling Stone rebuttal I linked to above, Yoko herself says that she doubts she will sue Goldman. 

At any rate, Albert Goldman died in 1994 – while working on a bio of Jim Morrison, no less – so it’s debatable whether Yoko would’ve indeed taken him to court at some point. After all, she’d waited some years to sue Fred Seaman. What’s interesting is that Goldman seems to support Yoko throughout the book – she was her own creative person (seriously, a lot of the book is about her artwork and performance pieces), but after meeting John she was hated by all Beatledom for “breaking up” the band. But then as the book goes on, Goldman turns Yoko into this heroin-sniffing shrew from hell, sending John and Sean around the world on metaphysical jaunts not so much for spiritual cleansing but to get them out of the house so she can snort more heroin and shack up with two guys who are both, confusingly enough, named “Sam.” I mean it becomes so crazy, with John increasingly so spineless – even giving Yoko full legal authority for him – that it’s almost as if John is being put out of his misery at book’s end. 

That’s another thing. Goldman focuses on John’s killer for a few chapters, giving his history and what he did on the day of the killing. Beatles fans like to purge this guy’s name from the history books, which of course is a futile gesture – he will of course only and ever be remembered for this – but just a word of warning that you have to spend a lot of time in his shoes at the end. Goldman does not try to make him relatable, or to engender any sort of reader sympathy for him; he’s bound and determined to kill someone famous, and John Lennon just happens to be the target he finally settles on. 

No matter what book on John Lennon you read, his last day just comes as a shock. It’s just so senseless and comes out of nowhere, even though you know it’s going to happen; check the Joan Rivers interview above, and you’ll see the three interviewees claim that John himself knew it was going to happen. Goldman of course uses this idea as the impetus for the flurry of work John suddenly did in the studio in a few short months in late 1980 – and also, I’ve forgotten to mention that Goldman is very critical of John’s solo work (that is, when he bothers to mention it), claiming the piano melody of “Imagine” is hamfisted and childish and also noting that John’s solo albums did not sell in the expected numbers. He is of course especially critical of Double Fantasy, but also notes how the album was savaged by critics when first released. 

I’ve kind of just rambled all over the place in this review, but at nearly 900 pages there was a lot to digest in The Lives Of John Lennon. I can only say again that, for most of the book, I was greatly entertained – the writing was good, it was often funny, and I enjoyed the snobby vibe of Goldman’s narrative. The truth of it all I cannot say, but for the most part I treated it like a novel; I mean I didn’t go into the book expecting the real true picture of John Lennon. So for the entertainment value alone I’d say this book was a success. Until around a third of the way through, when as mentioned John sort of disappeared and Yoko and her various schemes and obsessions took center stage. This material just came off as too much and could’ve been cut – and speaking of which, supposedly Albert Goldman had a lot of positive things to say about John Lennon in his original draft, but the publisher cut it out so that the book would maintain the same mean-spirited critical tone throughout. I’m not even sure if that is true, but I recall reading it somewhere. 

I realize now that I am posting a review of a John Lennon book around Thanksgiving, which is fitting on a personal level. (BTW this review was supposed to post last Wednesday, but I wasn’t able to get it up in time due to vacation.) Back in Thanksgiving of 1997 I had one of the very few times in my life when I was depressed – I was 23, relatively new to Dallas, and had no family here, and it was the first Thanksgiving that I’d never gone home. So I went over to the North Dallas Half Price Books the day before Thanksgiving and bought a vinyl copy of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, the original US Apple pressing, for like two bucks. (They were basically giving away records back then – and yes, I still have my copy!) I played that record over and over that Thanksgiving day. It was just one of those albums that resonated so perfectly with how I was feeling at the time…and a record that helped me feel better. It’s also one of those records that when I hear it now, on the rare occasion I play it, it takes me right back to that first time I heard it. So this is just another indication that the true testament of who John Lennon was cannot be found in any book that is written about him – it is in the music he left behind.