Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers, by Joe Hagan
No month stated, 2017  Knopf

I remember when this book came out a few years ago; the most notable thing about it was that writer Joe Hagan, who had personally been asked by Rolling Stone honcho Jann Wenner to write the definitive history of the magazine, had turned in a book so displeasing to Wenner that Wenner cut off all ties with Hagan, disavowing the book (and going on to write his own autobiography). Reading the 547-page doorstop that is Sticky Fingers, one can understand Wenner’s displeasure. While the book starts off on relatively sound footing, it soon becomes apparent that Joe Hagan’s goal is to write a modern-day The Lives Of John Lennon (a book that he even references in the text): a malicious attempt at cutting down his subject. But, as with Albert Goldman’s much-detested biography of John Lennon, the subject of Sticky Fingers ultimately comes off as okay – it’s the biographer who comes off like the bad guy. 

Sticky Fingers is at least shorter than Goldman’s epic of a character assassination, but it’s no less vindictive. What’s interesting is that the first half of the book seems relatively even-toned, until the knives come out in the second half. But, at least for this reader, the cumulative effect was that I became sympathetic to Jann Wenner. For, like Goldman in his Lennon bio, it soon becomes clear that, while Joe Hagan has interviewed many people for his book, he has only used their negative comments about Wenner. Just as The Lives Of John Lennon gave the impression that John Lennon was a marginally-talented narcissist who only stumbled into success through luck, so too does Sticky Fingers convey that Jann Wenner is a “star-fucker” and “groupie” who managed to run the definining magazine of his generation only by luck. 

The frustrating thing is that I was looking forward to the book. I’ve long been interested in the very early Rolling Stone, and over the years have picked up several original issues, the majority of the mass market paperback anthologies, and also in 2007 I got the Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-Rom, which features every page of every issue from the first one up through 2007. I also picked up two earlier “unauthorized histories” of Rolling Stone: Robert Sam Anson’s 1981 book Gone Crazy And Back Again, and Robert Draper’s 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, neither of which I’ve read. I’ve also picked up – and reviewed here – a few roman a clef novels about Rolling StoneRising Higher and Angel Dust

All of which is to say I’m very interested in Rolling Stone, at least the first several years of it, though I admit I lose interest once the ‘70s become the ‘80s and beyond. Reading Sticky Fingers, though, never once did I get the impression that Joe Hagan has ever liked Rolling Stone, and nowhere in the book does he capture the magic of flipping through those early issues of the magazine, the newspaper so brittle from the years as to split in half as you turn the page, to find nigh-endless interviews with rock personalities of the day, epic album reviews, psychedelic art, various feature stories, “dope world” communiques, and occasionally even poetry. There is a definite magic to the first ten or so years of Rolling Stone, and it’s clear why readers of the day “grokked” it, but Hagan can’t be bothered to tell us that. Indeed, when he does comment on the magazine, it’s in a derogatory or mocking tone. 

However, it’s to Hagan’s credit that about 85% of the book focuses on the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, the ‘90s and ‘00s only take up a few pages at the very end of the book. This is because the ‘60s and ‘70s were the prime years of the magazine, something everyone acknowledges. And too, Hagan does provide the occasional interesting backstory about some of the more famous stories from the magazine’s golden years, some of which had me accessing my CD-Rom to check them out. But one wonders if this same behind-the-scenes info is also in Anson’s and Draper’s books. 

For the most part, though, Sticky Fingers is a biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner…but, just as Albert Goldman’s Lennon bio was also about Yoko Ono, so too is Sticky Fingers also about co-founder Jane Wenner, aka Jann’s wife. (And a quite attractive wife at that, if you don’t mind a little toxic masculinity with your review.) As I say, it’s pretty incredible how similar Sticky Fingers and The Lives Of John Lennon are. We even start at Wenner’s childhood, with the same focus on Wenner’s mother as there was on Lennon’s mother in that other book – with the caveat that Hagan is much more enamored with Wenner’s mom than I was, as she comes off as the epitome of the self-involved “upper crust” narcissist. I did appreciate Hagan’s subtext (possibly unintentional, though) that Wenner’s mother decided late in life that she was a lesbian, just as Jann Wenner himself came out as gay later in his own life. 

While I have not read those earlier Rolling Stone exposes, one thing I know they both agree on is that Jann Wenner was not the best of bosses, sort of enjoying the high life with rock royalty and leaving his employees to do the brunt of the work. To which I say, “Who gives a shit?” Honestly, this sort of ignorace about the working world baffles me…it’s like these biographers have never had a real job outside of the journalism industry and don’t understand that this is essentially how it works in the corporate world. So yes, there’s a fair bit of bitching from Rolling Stone employees new and old, but again the humorous thing is, no one would know who any of these people are if they hadn’t worked for Rolling Stone in the first place. But then the same sentiment can be extended to Joe Hagan himself – I’d never heard of the guy previous to this book. 

Writing-wise, Hagan does for the most part keep his narrative moving, but the passive-aggressive tone soon becomes wearying. He also writes in that pretentious style favored by modern journalists; back in the ‘90s I remember getting a subscription to Esquire due to a bunch of frequent flyer miles, and I was immediately turned off by the highfalutin, desperately-trying-to-sound important writing style throughout. Unsurprisingly, Joe Hagan writes in that exact style, doling out sentences like, “When Simon and Garfunkel came to San Francisco to play the Community Theater in Berkeley in May 1966, they made a special trip to Berkeley to meet Ralph Gleason, whose collection of Lenny Bruce recordings, bequeathed to him by Bruce himself, was highly prized samizdat.” To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy: If you use words like “samizdat,” you might be a pretentious twat. Especially if it’s in a sentence that also has “Simon and Garfunkel” in it! 

As in Goldman’s Lennon-bashery, from the beginning of this epic tale we are to understand that Jann Wenner had no real part in anything that made Rolling Stone great, and any success he enjoyed was either due to someone else’s idea or due to a fluke. So then the origin of Rolling Stone itself is framed as Wenner perhaps ripping off some other underground magazines of the day, then straight-up using the printing plates designed for a defunct paper. Only occasionally will Hagan admit that Wenner might have come up with a good idea on his own, but just as soon as we’re told something positive, Hagan will undercut it with a biting comment – he does this throughout the book, increasingly so as we get a few hundred pages in. Again and again, any time we are told of a good deed Wenner has done, or any time someone else makes a positive comment about him, there will be a single-line sentence that undercuts Wenner. For example: 

Travolta was pleased [with Wenner’s screen test for a featured part in Travolta’s 1985 movie Perfect]. He characterized Wenner’s second screen test “one of the best I’ve ever seen…I’ve never seen a beast like this one on celluloid before.” 

At least that’s what he said in his “actor’s notebook” that Wenner published in Rolling Stone. 

Just like that, throughout the damn book. Speaking of Lennon, Sticky Fingers is even framed around him, opening in 1970 – well after Rolling Stone had become a success – with Jann and Jane Wenner enjoying a brief friendship with John and Yoko. We get the insider scoop that Wenner, despite Lennon’s specific demand, published Lennon’s long interview with the magazine as a book, Lennon Remembers, and Lennon never forgave him for it. Obviously a jerky move, but then again one could see Wenner’s point – the interview would have been the property of the magazine, for Wenner to do with as he pleased. Speaking of which, we get a lot of legal wrangling between Wenner and Mick Jagger over the use of “Rolling Stone,” with Jagger incensed in the early days that it infringed on his band’s name; wranglings which humorously took decades to be worked out between the two men. One wonders how Jagger feels now that this book, too, “rips of” the Stones for its title – but even then, “Sticky Fingers” is a lame title, as it has no real bearing on anything…other than being yet another dig at Jann Wenner, implying that his career has been the result of “sticky finger” thievery and backstabbing. 

Despite being 500+ pages, Sticky Fingers is very shallow in the research department. Again, it’s all written about on the surface level of an Esquire article. We’ll get cursory overviews of some of the more famous pieces that ran in Rolling Stone, maybe a little behind the scenes stuff…but that’s it. There’s no mention whatsoever of more minor figures from the magazine’s early days: no J.R. Young, no Smokestack El Ropo. Not a single mention of either of them – nor any confirmation of my pet theory that early contributor “Elmo Rooney” might have been Steve Martin, who literally portrayed Elmo Rooney in the ultra-weird Rolling Stone 10th Anniversary TV Special. (“Elmo Rooney” was probably really Charles Perry, who was also “Smokestack El Ropo,” but still – it’s a fun idea.) 

One of the things that drew Wenner’s ire upon the publication of this book is Hagan’s strange obsession with Wenner’s sexuality. In a way I can appreciate it, though…I mean Hagan has at least tried to cater to a “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” ethic. But the obsession with Wenner’s latent homosexuality and how it shaped Rolling Stone in its early days – even subconsciously! – gets to be as wearying as the constant single-sentence barbs. Indeed, coupled with Hagan’s other obsession (namely, the insinuation in Keith Richard’s autobiography that Mick Jagger has a small penis – something Hagan refers to several times in this book!), the reader begins to wonder if there’s a little “latency” in Hagan himself. Actually this might explain the increasingly vicious tone the book appropriates toward Wenner. 

On that same note, Hagan is really, really bothered that Rolling Stone was essentially “by white men for white men.” Of course, the white population of the United States was around 90% in 1970, but who cares about such trivialities – I mean Jann Wenner should’ve catered at least a little to the nascent albino trans population, for crying out loud! How dare he go for the majority of the population? I mean what was he, a businessman or something?? But boy, we do get a lot of today’s mandatory white male-bashing; Hagan most seems to be bothered by Joe Eszterhas, who wrote for Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s before heading to Hollywood. Hagan has it that Eszterhas was not only a chauvinist but that he also plain made up most of his stories. To which I say big woop; this is no different than what writers were doing over at the Men’s Adventure Magazines of the day. Kudos to Eszterhas for pulling it off in a more “respectable” periodical. Hagan also mentions that Eszterhas liked to carry around a buck knife, which he’d lay down on the table when in heated discussions in the editorial room – a WTF? note that made me laugh out loud. I think I’m gonna start doing that at the office. 

Hagan is so focused on his white male-bashing that he misses the forest for the trees. For, despite being “by white men for white men,” there were indeed women and “people of color” (in the modern parlance) at Rolling Stone, even in the earliest days. Chief among them would be Robin Green, the first female reporter, and Ben Fong-Torres, a Chinese journalist who was one of the main contributors for years and years. So hey, right there – opportunities for Hagan to expound upon “muh diversity.” 

But in another laugh-out-loud miss on Hagan’s part, we’re told that Robin Green was Jann Wenner’s “resident assassin,” the reporter Wenner would send when he wanted a hit piece on someone, and not really good for much else. And Fong-Torres was even worse, notorious for snooping through the personal belongings of his subjects and also publishing personal material in his stories – like stuff taken directly from a private notebook he spied in someone’s house. And it’s humorous – no doubt unintentionally so – that Hagan does essentially the very same thing in this book! According to Rolling Stone veteran Greil Marcus, Hagan took a particular story Marcus had given him about Jann Wenner and distorted it to make Wenner look bad; Marcus further declared Sticky Fingers to be a “vile” book. 

Anyway, while there was some precious “muh diversity” at Rolling Stone, even in the beginning, apparently Green and Fong-Torres weren’t the best representatives…or something. It just made me laugh, particularly given how incensed Hagan was at Jann Wenner’s race-and-gender faux pas in 2023, more on which anon. 

Despite all attempts to make him appear spineless and craven, Wenner still comes off in a positive light…in particular in a flap in the Rolling Stone offices after the publication of the Altamont special, in 1970. This was, in Hagan’s dramatic telling, a watershed moment in the paper’s origin, as the radical leftists in Wenner’s employ demanded that their boss trounce Mick Jagger for his part in the debacle and death at that festival…pushing Wenner to defy his “groupie” image and go after Mick Jagger himself. Wenner did so…after which, in typical fashion, the radical leftists wanted more: they wanted Rolling Stone to become overtly political, and essentially staged a coup. In a move modern-day executives at Disney and Boeing and etc should learn from, Wenner stood his ground and kicked the radical fuckers out. And Rolling Stone went on to its greatest success in the ‘70s, while those fired radicals faded into the woodwork. Certainly there is a lesson there, but Joe Hagan misses it…perhaps intentionally so. 

Otherwise the mistakes are for the most part minor, like when Hagan tells us that “the first Steve Miller Band album” was Sailor, when in reality it was Children Of The Future. Since stuff like this is admitedly outside the scope of the book, it’s forgiveable. But the goofs about Rolling Stone are a bit harder to swallow, given that this is supposed to be the “definitive story” – I mean, like on page 414 we get a scant few paragraphs on Tom Wolfe’s serialized Bonfire Of The Vanities, which ran for 27 installments in the mid-1980s in Rolling Stone. Not even broaching the plot or telling us much at all about the story or its reception, Hagan informs us that the protagonist is “a Wall Street trader,” Hagan unsurprisingly using the character as an opportunity to take yet another swipe at Wenner, lending the impression that Wolfe was serving up a veiled parody of his editor. There’s only one problem. In the original Rolling Stone serialization, protagonist Sherman McCoy was a writer. It was in the heavily-revised hardcover edition of the novel, published in 1987, that Tom Wolfe changed the protagonist to a Wall Street trader. Hagan has gotten this detail wrong. Which makes one wonder how much else in Sticky Fingers he’s gotten wrong. 

The appearance of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone after the Altamont issue was another factor that took the paper to its success, and Hagan writes of the increasingly fractious relationship between Thompson and Wenner. But otherwise there isn’t much here about Hunter Thompson that’s revelatory; I mean he comes on strong, burns out quick, and is soon a shell of his former self. At least this is how he’s presented here; Hagan has it that none of Thompson’s work after the mid-‘70s is worth the paper it was printed on. We do at least get another dig at Joe Eszterhas here, this time from Eszterhas himself (who likely regretted talking to Hagan, given how Hagan made Eszterhas come off in the book), who claims he tried to emulate Hunter Thompson. This is clear just from reading Eszterhas’s pieces, in particular one of his last stories, the infamous “King Of The Goons” hit-piece on Evel Kneivel. 

There’s no denying Rolling Stone lost much of what made it special as the ‘70s wore on, and by the point in Haggan’s narrative where the magazine becane a slick and moved to New York my interest had waned – as had Joe Hagan’s. The ‘80s-‘00s are for the most part rushed through in a few hundred pages, or should I say I skimmed through a lot of it. I’ve never had time for Bruce Springsteen or Bono, and Jann Wenner was a big fan of both, hence there’s a lot of stuff about the two of them which I skipped. That said, the cover of “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is one of my favorite songs ever. I couldn’t care less what the Springsteen original sounds like.  Otherwise we just get a litany against Wenner for all the things Hagan accuses him of missing as the century neared its his reluctance to feature rap in the magazine, or how he missed out on the importance of MTV.  Yawn

As mentioned as the book goes on the knives increasingly come out, and we get a lot of stuff about Jann Wenner lying to people, or enjoying the high life while his poor employees must scrimp and save, or how he’d take credit for articles others worked on. Again, yawn. (Which rhymes with “Jann!”) We also get too much on Wenner’s sex life, with the curious tidbit that it’s his affairs with men that Joe Hagan most focuses on. (Hmmmm….) On the female front it sounds like the guy did pretty good for himself – I was especially impressed by his involvement with none other than Mary Microgram of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test, a book I read 30 years ago and keep meaning to read again. Aka Denise Kaufman, she was also in the all-female group Ace Of Cups, which was a favorite of Jimi Hendrix. 

But the absolute nadir of Sticky Fingers is the Afterword, in which Joe Hagan essentially pats himself on the back for not turning in the hagiography Jann Wenner apparently expected. And how does Hagan know Wenner expected such a thing? Why – because Wenner would take Hagan to concerts! And Wenner gave him Rolling Stone merchandise…a-and he even gave him the complete mono vinyl set of the Beatles discography as gifts! And Wenner showed Hagan photos of rockstars from Wenner’s personal collection! I mean, the craven bastard!! No wonder Joe Hagan felt justified in sharpening his knives and cutting that fucker up good! Seriously though, this last part is just unbelievable in its lack of self-perception; totally unaware of the ill-will he is engendering in his reader, Hagan basically congratulates himself on the great job he’s done with this book – and he’s also eager to tell us how Jann Wenner stopped talking to him after Wenner read the manuscript, shortly before it went to press. For Hagan stipulated that Wenner would not be able to make any edits to the book – cue another round of self-congratulations for this incredibly wise decision. 

Ah, but if you thought the knives were out in Sticky Fingers, just check out this hit piece from the September 2023 Vanity Fair. So in September of 2023 Jann Wenner published a new book titled The Masters, focused on seven rockers who in Wenner’s estimation were “masters” of the art – and Wenner had the absolute fucking gall to only write about white men. The horror!! In an interview with the pathetic New York Times Wenner further stated that “performers of color” were outside his area of focus, and further – gasp! – he said that female performers weren’t articulte enough in the rock field, or somesuch. 

There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the virtue-signalling world of modern journalism. Joe Hagan’s glee at finally getting to really dig into Jann Wenner is almost palpable in this Vanity Fair piece. 

The thing is…well, first of all, Jann Wenner has every right to say what he wants, and if I wore a hat I’d take it off for him, just for how he demonstrated the courage of his convictions. A rare sight indeed in today’s emasculated era. But Jann Wenner has the right to say what he wants because of the little fact that we live in the United States, and we have freedom of speech here. The PC Thugs of Hagan’s industry think they are arbiters of what is “permissible” speech. FUCK THEM. Jann Wenner is free to say whatever he wants, even if it ruffles feathers. If he is guilty of anything it is apologizing for his comments. Curiously, for a bunch of so-called “liberal” types who “just want to breathe,” these modern-day progressives are like sharks with blood in the water when they detect any weakness in their enemies. The woke battlefield is littered with the corpses of famous personalities who have said something “wrong,” apologized for it – and then been cancelled. Jann Wenner is just the latest example. If there is one lesson from any of this, it is never to apologize to the foaming-mouth radicals, and only to fight back. Sadly, only a very few understand this. Jann Wenner himself once understood this…like when he fired those in-house radicals in 1970. 

But the other thing is, Wenner really isn’t in bad company. I’m not sure if he’s been cancelled yet (which could be easy because he’s dead and not around to defend himself), but in 1948 the poet Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess put forward the notion that women could not be poets, that only men could truly write poetry; women, in Graves’s philosopy, were instead the muses who inspired poets. Thus in Graves’s estimation the only poets with a “voice” were men. This, essentially, is the same proposition Jann Wenner has put forward about rock music. And I can’t say I disagree with him. Obviously there are exceptions – glaring exceptions at that – but for the most part rock music is the product of white males. Sure, rock originated from rhythm and blues played by black musicians in the early 20th Century…just as much as it originated from the country music played by white musicians in that same era. But what it came to be – what most people think of when they think of “rock” – was mainly the work of white males in the 1960s and 1970s. Sort of like how Buddhism began in India…I mean, do you think of a person from India when you think of a Buddhist? 

And besides, all this race and gender identity politics bullshit is a modern obsession. Back in the glory days of rock, the musicians didn’t make a big deal out of being white, or being male, and nor did the listeners. Hell, if you listen to the Freeform Progressive Rock Radio of the era, you’ll notice that there was just as much soul and blues played as there was rock. But we live in an era of race obsession, no matter how absurd, thus Jann Wenner’s comments struck such a nerve. 

But then I could have just linked to Greil Marcus’s superbly-argued defense of Wenner.

Personally I think Wenner shouldn’t have backed down…and in fact his “faux pas” was another indication of how he has an innate sense of knowing the direction things are going. Fortunately, we are currently seeing pushback against race and identity-focused ideologies, particularly against companies that espouse these ideologies. As it turns out, most Americans don’t like being told how to think; Hagan’s industry is crumbling as a result of people cancelling their subscriptions to these woke propaganda outlets. In my mind, Jann Wenner’s only mistake was that he didn’t retain control of Rolling Stone and take the tone of the magazine into more of a populist direction. After all, the underground of today is the right. The left has become the establishment. In the ‘60s the FBI targeted hippies; today the FBI targets grandmothers who took selfies at the Capitol. And curiously a lot of those former hippies are now Trump supporters. Even I know a few people my age whose parents were hippies back in the ‘60s but who are now MAGA Republicans…and I hardly know anyone, so you have to wonder how many of them there really are out there. Rolling Stone, just as it had once before, could have become the voice of this new underground. 

If you think that sounds crazy, just remember that Donald Trump was himself once a Democrat. 

I bring up the dreaded topic of Trump because Joe Hagan himself does, in the closing pages of Sticky Fingers. We are told that Wenner was “interested” in Trump’s 2016 candidacy – cue more hue and cry from Hagan, who again displays his coastal ignorance by telling us that those dim-witted Trump supporters only vote for Trump because he’s famous. (FYI, they aren’t voting for him because he’s “famous.”) In Hagan’s mind, Donald Trump is the epitome of the fame-obsessed narcissism Jann Wenner has long been enamored with; there follows the most superficial appraisement of Trump that…well, it gives one an indication of why most Americans are so ill-informed, if they’re getting their “news” from people like this writer. 

This book upset me so much that I actually looked online for a way to contact Jann Wenner somehow, to let him know Sticky Fingers was just a stupid hatchet job and “nothing to get hung up about.” It’s just a vicious screed that ultimately makes the writer look like the bad guy, without showing any true understanding of its subject – again, the similarities to Goldman’s Lennon bio are many and profound. And no doubt the fates of both books will be similar. Hagan seems to have a premonition of how his own book will be treated by history: toward the end of Sticky Fingers he mentions how upset Jann Wenner was with Goldman’s The Lives Of John Lennon when it was published in 1988, commissioning a rebuttal in the pages of Rolling Stone…yet Hagan notes it was all for naught, as Goldman’s book was “destined to be forgotten.”  Surely the same fate has already befallen Sticky Fingers

My only regret in reviewing Sticky Fingers is that I’m giving the book any visibility. So I guess I read it so you don’t have to. But if you do get the urge to read it, try getting it from your library – or maybe order a cheap remaindered copy on Checking there now, it seems there are a ton of such copies available for a pittance. Which is about all this “vile” book is worth.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
October, 1975  Bantam Books

I’m not sure how I’ve gone this long without reading Helter Skelter; supposedly it’s the best-selling True Crime book of all time, and it certainly had a landmark effect upon the reading public when it was first published in hardcover in 1974. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen the famous TV movie adaptation, but then I was only two years old when it came out in 1976, so I was a little outside the target audience. That said, I do recall seeing the beginning of it on TV sometime in the late ‘90s, landing on the channel right when the guy sees the corpses in the opening scene and then rushes off to puke; my buddy Ken quipped that a stagehand probably handed the actor a milkshake off-camera as he rushed by, so he could spit it out and feign puking. 

Well anyway let’s get back on track. I read The Family a few months ago – right during Christmas in fact! – and it really whetted my appetite for more Manson Family fun. Seriously though, there is some humor in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s and co-writer Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter, but it’s always very subtle, and nothing on the narratorial eye-rolling level of Ed Sanders (“ooo-eee-ooo” and such). But I was very happy to discover that there’s hardly any overlap between the two books; Sanders covers a wealth of material not here, and vice versa. And in fact I’d say reading The Family first, as I did, might even work better, as Sanders starts from the beginning of Manson’s criminal life and goes up to the Tate-Labianca murder trial (which isn’t even covered), while Bugliosi starts with the murders and then flashes back, before spending the majority of the text on the trial. 

This is because Bugliosi was the prosecutor on the case, and thus was in a better position than anyone to write the final word on Charles Manson and his fucked-up followers. And clearly he invested himself in the project; there is, as others have commented, an air of arrogance about Bugliosi’s narrative, with Bugliosi constantly right and others constantly wrong, but to tell the truth I didn’t mind it one bit. Indeed, it gives Helter Skelter a bit of a pulp vibe, with Vincent Bugliosi the crusader for justice and Manson his satanic archenemy, with the bumbling cops constantly getting in Bugliosi’s way. 

Bugliosi’s “arrogance” mostly arises over the incessant mistakes made by the LAPD. Perhaps in the mid 1970s it might have seemed surprising or hard to believe that “experts” could constantly make mistakes, but personally I found it one of many instances in which Bugliosi was ahead of his time. For, if we have learned nothing else in these past four years, it’s that “the experts” seldom know what the fuck they are talking about. It’s especially prescient in the parts concerning two different coroners working on the murders; one of them is so dense he keeps refuting his own findings when he’s up on the stand, only for Bugliosi to have to bring out the doctor’s own notes to show him what he’d originally stated. As for the detectives working the case, they’re either forgetful, stupid, or just plain have no idea what to do – possibly all of the above. 

The impression conveyed is that Bugliosi himself was the only person who “got” the case, who kept everything moving, who kept all the notes and kept track of everything. Who understood that “Helter Skelter” was Charles Manson’s philosopy of a race war armageddon, and the Tate-LaBianca (and other) murders were his way of kickstarting this armageddon. And who succeeded in convincing a jury of Manson’s guilt. But again, all this gives Helter Skelter a pulp vibe, which I really enjoyed; Bugliosi the criminologist who butts heads with the authorities in his determined pursuit of justice. If there is a hero in the Manson story, it would be Bugliosi – or Linda Kasabian, the Family member who turned against Manson on the witness stand. But then, Kasabian is herself the source of endless conspiracy conjecture, in particular that it was she who concoted the Tate murders, given that she was running a drug ring on the side with Charles “Tex” Watson (ie the guy who did most of the murdering at Tate and LaBianca). 

Even here it’s as if Bugliosi predicts the future detractors of the Helter Skelter narrative; he takes us through Linda Kasabian’s testimony, telling us at the end that she’s been on the stand for eighteen days, not once stumbling over her story, not once outted as a liar in cross examination. Bugliosi also admits she’s not the perfect little girl next door, and that she had her own issues with the law pre-Manson. But he also makes clear she is not a murderer, and that she’s the bravest of the lot because she turns on Manson. Bugliosi even takes apart the “Linda planned it” conspiracy theory in the final pages of Helter Skelter, and also skewers the “copycat murder” theory – most notably wondering how, if it was what really happened, why it wasn’t even brought up until the penalty phase of the trial, after Manson and his ilk were found guilty! And as Bugliosi also notes, the “copycat” idea was first floated in a Rolling Stone article by David Felton and David Dalton. Bugliosi makes a clear case that the “copycat killer” narrative had its origin in this very article, which took up practically the entirety of the June 25, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone. Titled “Year Of The Fork, Night Of The Hunter,” the article was collected in two 1972 paperbacks: The Age Of Paranoia, credited to The Editors Of Rolling Stone and published by Pocket Books, and in the memorably-titled (and scarce) Mindfuckers (review forthcoming), edited by David Felton and published by Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow imprint. 

To get back to my original point, though, there really isn’t much overlap between Sanders’s and Bugliosi’s books. Sanders almost pedantically covers the daily activities of the Family, throwing us into it with a multitude of characters with countless aliases, to the point that the reader is both confused and annoyed. He also focuses a lot on the roots of Manson’s philosopy, from Scientology to Stranger In A Strange Land to the Process. Hell, even a Satanic cult that drinks dog blood factors into the mix. Bugliosi doesn’t concern himself as much with explaining why Manson came to be, and in fact the Process stuff isn’t even broached until the final pages. To Bugliosi it’s all much more simple to explain: Manson was a depraved sadist who used prison psychology and psychedelic drugs to control easily-influenced youth, with the additional note that these youth themselves were already predisposed to violence and crime. 

When I read The Family I enjoyed it, though I got a bit fatigued toward the end. I had a suspicion that I’d enjoy Bugliosi’s book more. And that certainly turned out to be the case; no disrespect to Ed Sanders’s book, which is a fine read, but Helter Skelter is in a different league. It is masterfully told, Bugliosi and Gentry taking you through the long, twisting story with the pace never lagging. It is also structured differently than Sanders’s book; instead of starting at the beginning, Helter Skelter features a memorable opening set on the morning after the murders, with the discovery of the bodies and the ensuing panic and confusion. The reader is hooked from the first sentence: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.” The first quarter of the book retains this tone, reading almost like a crime novel. 

Then Bugliosi himself enters the narrative, apologizing to us for his sudden intrusion. This is because Bugliosi becomes part of the story, chosen seemingly at random to be the DA to prosecute the killers. At this point the second brunt of the narrative occurs, detailing how the murders occurred, how the Manson Family was finally tabbed as the perpetrators. And then the main portion of the text concerns the eight-month trial that ensued, Helter Skelter at this point becoming a legal thriller with a bird’s eye view of one of the biggest trials in “the annals of crime.” 

At 676 pages of small, dense print, Helter Skelter is not a quick read by any means. The cumulative effect is that the reader feels as if he has been as immersed in Manson’s world as Vincent Bugliosi was. And unlike Sanders’s The Family, which ran to only a little over 400 pages, at no point does the narrative become overwhelming. Bugliosi, who made a career of breaking information down for a jury to understand (and act upon), masterfully demonstrates his technique in the narrative. The only thing Sanders was better at was in the capturing of time and place, but then Sanders was part of the counterculture, whereas Bugliosi was not. Despite which, there is no indication of judgment or condemnation in Helter Skelter, other than of the murders, of course. The concept that Vincent Bugliosi was a staunch member of the establishment, sneering at these hippie types, is quickly dashed when one actually reads the book. 

Speaking of actually reading Helter Skelter: I mentioned in my review of The Family that while reading it I’d find myself going down various rabbit holes of research. As hard as it is to believe, there are still conspiracy theories about the Tate-LaBianca murders; I guess I first learned this when I read Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil (1987) about a decade ago. And today there are blogs and websites that will tell you, with nothing but conjecture, that the Tate-LaBianca killings were in retaliation for a drug burn, or that the killings were really “copycat murders” to get an imprisoned Family member out of jail, or that the entire thing was an MK-Ultra project courtesy the government. (Granted, the people who tell you MK-Ultra was involved will also tell you the Moon Landing was staged.) 

The funny thing is, Helter Skelter takes on the majority of these alternate theories…and knocks them down, one by one. Of course, the modern sentiment is that Bugliosi was a prosecutor with a narrative he was trying to push (ie, that Helter Skelter was the reason behind the murders)…and yet, this guy spent years of his life on this case, fully committed to it, going to the locations and actually speaking to the killers, which is more than you can say about some guy who runs a Manson blog. All of which is to say, I take Bugliosi’s word as the final word on this topic; his “helter skelter” argument, while nuts, makes more sense than any of the other theories, all of which fall apart when prodded a little. And remember, Manson himself was fond of saying “no sense makes sense,” hence trying to figure out why the Tate and LaBianca homes were chosen might be a fool’s quest. That said, Bugliosi’s conjecture makes more sense than anything else: Sharon Tate was living in a house once occupied by producer Terry Melcher, and while Manson knew Melcher no longer lived there (Bugliosi also recounts how Manson visited the property twice while Tate lived there), it’s likely he wanted to send a message to Melcher, as Manson had a grudge with Melcher over a potential recording contract. As for the LaBiancas, they had the misfortune of living across the street from a house where the Manson Family would often hang out the year before. 

But just to look at a few of these conspiracy theories. For one, when I read The Family I shared Ed Sanders’s suspicions about the young groundskeeper at the Tate estate, William Garretson. This is the guy who was mere yards away from the murders as they went down, yet claimed to have neither heard nor saw anything. Sanders muses that he might’ve been hypnotized, and on one of those aforementioned blogs I saw a post that stated, without a shred of supporting evidence, that Garretson had gotten his job because he was a boytoy of Rudy Altobelli, owner of the Tate property. And further, Garretson had just had sex with young Steven Parent, the 18 year-old who was murdered for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time (the official story being that he’d shown up late at night to try to sell Garretson a ball clock radio). According to this post, Parent had really come over to Garretson’s place for a late-night fling, and was on his way home when he ran into the killers. 

And yet in Helter Skelter we are told that Garretson was polygraphed extensively by the LAPD, and one of the questions he was asked was whether he’d ever had sex with any of the victims. Garretson answered “no,” and he passed the goddamn test. This is what I mean when I say Helter Skelter constantly skewers any alternate theories. Not only that, but we are told that the LAPD also extensively researched Garretson’s story about not hearing any screams the night of the murders; a cop happened to notice what volume Garretson’s stereo was at the morning after the killings, and sound specialists went in there one night and played the stereo at that volume while others off in the Tate house screamed and tried to replicate the night of the murders. (Boy, sounds like a fun night’s work, doesn’t it?) And here too Garretson’s story passed muster; the experts proved that you could not hear screams and such in Garretson’s house, no doubt given the tricky way sound played there in the canyon. 

Bugliosi even goes back to Garretson much later in the book, briefly detailing his time on the stand during the trial. Again his story is cleared. And yet a stigma hangs over him even to this day (he died in 2016, so isn’t around to defend himself), courtesy conspiracy theories that started with Ed Sanders and others. Conspiracy theories like that Sharon Tate and her friends were into the occult, hence the “hood” that was found over Jay Sebring’s face, and also several more hoods that were found in the loft above the living room – this material, also originating in Sanders’s book, was a particular source of conjecture in Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil

And yet even here the alternate theory is shot; while never mentioning Sanders by name, Bugliosi sarcastically refers to “a writer” who made up those hoods whole-cloth, as there were no such things found in the Tate home. Nor – again disproving Sanders’s musings – were there any sex films or orgy movies, other that is than a brief film showing Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski having sex. (A film, Bugliosi tells us, that the LAPD respectfully put right back where they found it after their search.) As for the “hood” on Sebring’s corpse – itself the source of more “satanic mafia” conjecture – Bugliosi explains that as well: it was a towel, not a hood, and it was thrown there by murderer Susan “Sadie Glutz” Atkins, who wrote “Pig” in blood on the door with the towel and then tossed it behind her on the way out, not looking to see where it landed. 

Stuff like this is just an indication of how successfully we readers are pulled into the story; Bugliosi treats us as if we are the jury, giving us all kinds of information that was never made available to the public. (Given that this book was published in 1974 and Manson Family conspiracy theories still linger, one wonders if those conspiracy theorists have even ever read Helter Skelter.) There’s a part in the book where Bugliosi reveals how President Nixon made an errant comment that Manson was guilty, while the trial was still underway, and Bugliosi suspects that, if the sequestered jury had even heard the comment, they would’ve been offended because Nixon had taken away their decision. Having handled so many trials, Bugliosi is aware that jurors soon relish being part of the proceedings, privy to information the outside world doesn’t know. I found this a very astute observation, as I somewhat felt this way when called as a juror in a Federal criminal trial last year – it was like being pulled into a completely alien world, one where I was treated with great importance and expected to make the final decision. 

Unlike Sanders, where the tide of multiple-named Family members soon became overwhelming, as did their peripatetic wanderings, the story here unfolds with an almost relentless pace; evocative scene-setting in the opening quarter (the discovery of the corpses is especially well-handled…as is the darkly comic ineptness of the LAPD in mishandling the evidence), and the “good vs evil” motif of the trial is also entertaining and constantly gripping. And while Bugliosi clearly sees Manson as a force of evil – the Epilogue is essentially a condemnation of him as a modern Hitler – from the vantage point of fifty-plus years on I have to say Charles Manson comes off more like a buffoon than anything else. 

Maybe in 1974, with the fear of more Tate-LaBianca-style murders in the dead of night (Bugliosi often scares us by noting various Family members who have a proclivity to kill…and then warning us that they’re “still out there”), Manson might have seemed like a supernatural force of evil. Indeed, The Cult Of Killers was about this very concept. Seen from the modern perspective, however, Manson doesn’t so much seem malicious as he does a guy who relishes his brief moment in the national spotlight. The trial is the best indication of this, with Manson and his three female followers looking like fools as they throw tantrums in court, or talk about how Manson might be the reincarnation of Christ, and so on. That anyone took them seriously is yet another indication of how, despite the drugs and stuff, the ‘60s were just a more innocent time. 

Bugliosi himself feels no fear – though he frequently reminds us that he had reason to be scared – and indeed there are some funny parts where he has interractions with female Family members, calling two of them a “bitch” in confrontations. He also “raps” often with Manson during the trial, and, at least insofar as the text goes, Bugliosi displays how there was a respectful rivalry between the two of them, with another humorous part at the end where Manson himself has to defend Bugliosi in court, given that Manson asked to talk to Bugliosi after the trial and the defense lawyers thought it might be a breach. It’s curious, though, because when Manson does interract with Bugliosi in the book, he comes off as a harmless befuddled hippie, not the malevolent mastermind of the Helter Skelter plot…but then, that was probably inentional. Bugliosi also astutely notes how Manson could turn himself off and on, how he could be a different person for different audiences – particularly when there were cameras around. Or when impressionable, acid-fried young women and men were around. 

Also unlike in The Family the characters here are memorable, and Bugliosi actually does Manson a service by keeping him off-page for the majority. This gives Charles Manson even more of an “evil mastermind” persona, again no doubt intentionally; it’s his true-blue female believers Bugliosi most encounters, in particular future would-be Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme. (An act which occurred after publication of the book, though Bugliosi again sees the future by stating in the Epilogue how Squeaky is more than capable of evil, and is “still out there”). Bugliosi also seems a little taken with Susan Atkins aka Sadie Glutz, the former topless dancer who nonchalantly talked on the witness stand about stabbing Sharon Tate until she stopped screaming, and then turned “snitch” on Manson. And then changed her mind, to be condemned to death with the others. I got a chuckle out of Bugliosi’s random comment that most of Manson’s girls were flat-chested…except for Sadie, of course. 

As with his comments on Squeaky, Bugliosi demonstrates a strange prescience when discussing Leslie Van Houten. Given less narrative space than the other killers in Helter Skelter, Van Houten is ultimately portrayed as a spoiled rich girl with little concern for others. However, Bugliosi notes when quoting prison psych evals, Van Houten was “less devoted” to Manson than the other killers, and there was question of what exactly she did on the LaBianca killing (she wasn’t part of the Tate group): from her own account Van Houten “stabbed” Rosemary LaBianca, but was Rosemary already dead? There is a sort of question mark hanging over Leslie Van Houten in Helter Skelter, as if Bugliosi is unsure how to feel about her…which makes it interesting that Van Houten is the only one of the killers who is now free (released from prison in 2023). But then, Bugliosi also notes that Van Houten’s lawyer was better than the other defense lawyers. 

The other benefit of reading Helter Skelter so long after publication is to see how everything panned out – given that the death sentences were commuted to life per California Supreme Court decree, Bugliosi speculates that Manson and the others will be eligible for parole in seven years, and further speculates that while Manson might not get out, the girls probably would in twenty or thirty years. But it turns out that “life” really meant life, at least for Susan Atkins (who died of brain cancer in prison in 2009) and Manson himself (who died of natural causes in prison in 2017). This only leaves Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson, and given the savagery of their actions those nights I doubt either will ever be released from prison. Speaking of Tex I was very surprised to learn he was from nearby Denton, Texas. And Linda Kasabian had one of the sadder fates, essentially disappearing from public view before appearing in a few Manson docs in the late 2000s, ultimately dying penniless in 2023. 

It’s a credit to Bugliosi that he even got Manson and his followers convicted, as Bugliosi didn’t receive much help from the cops. Again the idea that “the experts” know what they are doing is put to the test as we read how evidence was overlooked, misplaced, or not even properly gathered – Bugliosi is particularly vexed that one of the techs failed to take blood samples from all of the pools of blood at the Tate residence, merely assuming they were from the same victim. Of course this has only served to inspire more conspiracy theory conjecture today. Speaking of which, another angle Ed Sanders mused upon was that Sharon Tate’s body was moved post-mortem, but not by her killers, intimating that Manson came back later to do so. None of that is mentioned here, and in fact we are told that the killers did indeed have rope with them, in the hopes of hanging their prey from rafters, thus bringing to life one of Manson’s Helter Skelter maxims. Bugliosi also refers frequently to the mysterious pair of glasses left at the scene, but this is another non-mystery, given comments Sadie made to an inmate that none of the killers wore glasses. 

I didn’t think I’d be as interested in the trial material, but it turned out to be just as fascinating as everything else – though admitedly I enjoyed the opening sequence of the book the most, with its brutal documentation of the discovery of the corpses, up to the capture of Manson and the killers. I almost wish the entire book had been like that. But then, Bugliosi as mentioned becomes part of the story itself, and to be honest once he was the protagonist of the book I could barely remember him not being in the book. He successfully brings you into the story, and I didn’t think he was arrogant so much as he was convinced of how right he was…and again, there’s a lot of subtle humor throughout, as he essentially bangs his head against the wall when confronted by errant stupidity, most notably by the blustering delay tactics of one of the defense attorneys. 

Again, this is not a quick read. It took me about a month to read Helter Skelter, but then I was reading other books at the same time. Well, not at the same time, but you know what I mean. I kind of wanted to savor the experience because I enjoyed it so much. And more than Sanders, Bugliosi brings home the loss of the victims; I was especially moved by his closing argument in the trial: “Sharon Tate…Abigail Folger…Voytek Frykowski…Jay Sebring…Steven Parent…Leno LaBianca…Rosemary LaBianca…are not here with us now in this courtroom, but from their graves they cry out for justice.” Helter Skelter is the enthralling account of how Vincent Bugliosi got them that justice. If like me you’ve gone this long without reading it – well, read it now! I loved it, and will probably read it again someday.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Black Samurai #4: The Deadly Pearl

Black Samurai #4: The Deadly Pearl, by Marc Olden
September, 1974  Signet Books

Marc Olden takes the Black Samurai series in a Blaxploitation direction this time; while previous volumes have been standard action stories without any true “blaxploitation” trappings, The Deadly Pearl is very much in the subgenre, with Black Samurai Robert Sand going up against a Superfly-esque pimp in the grungier areas of New York. One can almost hear the wah-wah guitar on the soundtrack. 

It’s surprising director Al Adamson didn’t choose The Deadly Pearl as source material for his Black Samurai film; it certainly would have been cheaper to film than the installment he did adapt, The Warlock. Whereas that volume has a large cast, settings in Europe, and such crazy things as “lion men,” The Deadly Pearl is of a piece with standard Blaxploitation fare of the era, taking place in grungy urban locations and only featuring a few characters. There would’ve even been a part for Harold Sakata to play: one of the super-pimp’s main stooges is a hulking Asian martial arts master memorably named “Chink.” 

This one’s also different from the previous volumes in that Sand operates in more of a lone wolf capacity; the previous three installments had him working at the behest of his boss, ex-President William Clarke, going about the globe to stop some world-shaking plot. But when we meet up with Sand this time, he’s already in New York, about to beat the shit out of a pimp – and he’s here due to a guy named Foster, one of Clarke’s Secret Security guards. Foster’s 15 year-old daughter Rochelle has gone missing, and Foster suspects she’s been abducted, particularly by a group known to be involved in the sex-slave trade. Foster didn’t go to Clarke because Foster is black, and assumed the rich old Texan wouldn’t be concerned, hence his going to fellow black man Robert Sand. 

Olden gives Clarke the opportunity to argue in defense of his lack of racism, but this isn’t even the main source of contention between Sand and the ex-President throughout The Deadly Pearl. It’s that Sand is a free man, not a personal agent beholden to Clarke, and thus free to take up his own assignments. And only just now as I typed this did I realize that Marc Olden, himself a black man, has cagily worked in a free man/indentured slave angle with this subplot. But then, none of this stuff is really focused upon very much. The true focus of The Deadly Pearl is The Black Samurai kicking pimp ass in New York City. This means that the action is more smallscale than previous books – but then, Black Samurai has never been an action rollercoaster. Olden is at ever at pains to make Sand seem human, which ultimately comes off as ridiculous given how superheroic he is. 

This means that Sand gets nervous, or is concerned when confronted by opponents; the opening of the novel, for example, features Sand and Foster busting into a room in which a pair of drug dealers are holding a captive young girl, and Sand’s breaking a sweat over the odds, how he’s going to handle these guys, etc. Compare to contemporary kung-fu pulp like Mace, where the hero would wade through ten times as many opponents without trouble.

In these instances Sand will often flash back to some particular samurai training – always the highlights of each book – and pull off some trick outside the ability of a regular guy. But on the other hand, some of this can be too much. For example, later in The Deadly Pearl there’s a part where Sand knows Pearl (ie the Superfly-type pimp villain) has set a trap for him, with armed men waiting on a rooftop building to blow Sand away. So Sand goes to elaborate lengths to scale the building across from them, and then takes out a bow and arrow and waits patiently for the two would-be snipers to line up so he can shish-kabob them both in one go. There’s a great bit here where Sand flashes back to the grueling training under Master Konuma which saw him holding a notched bow for hours at various levels of intensity, until his arms hung uselessly at his sides. 

All of which is to say, Sand can stand there in the dark on a rooftop and hold a notched arrow without a single muscular tremor for hours if need be, until he has the perfect shot lined up. It’s cool and all, and yet another indication of his samura bad-assery, yet at the same time it seems a bit ridiculous. I mean, Mack Bolan could take both these guys down in a fraction of the time, sniping them from afar with a rifle. One almost gets the impression that Robert Sand is just an anacrhonism, determined to use the old ways even when better new ways are available to him. It also comes off as foolhardy, given that he’s expending energy on the whole “notched arrow” thing…energy he could be saving for his inevitable hand-to-hand fights. 

Speaking of which, hand-to-hand is the majority of the fighting in The Deadly Pearl, which again makes it interesting that Al Adamson didn’t get the rights to this volume. Robert Sand shows off his martial arts wizadry on sundry New York lowlifes, as usual greatly outmatching them. Which brings me to main villain Pearl: certainly the least impressive main villain in the series yet, Pearl is essentially a pimp with grand ambitions, well below par of the average Black Samurai villain. Olden attempts to bring him into the series mold by making Pearl a fencing adept, mostly using a sword that is hidden inside a cane. We get to see many sequences featuring Pearl – as always, Olden spends just as much narrative on his many villains as he does on hero Robert Sand – and Olden tries to make Pearl seem tough, usually cutting up his underlings or engaging in his daily fencing practice. But it’s clear the dude isn’t going to be a match for Robert Sand. I mean it would’ve been like Jimmie Walker as the villain in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off or whatever. Actually the villain in that one was Ed friggin’ McMahon, but I digress. 

This of course means that the colorfully-named Chink carries the brunt so far as “the heavy of the piece” goes, and Olden does a good job of making him seem menacing and sadistic. With a fondness for nunchucks, Chink is quite content beating people to death, setting up the inevitable confrontation between himself and Sand. One thing I’m happy to report with The Deadly Pearl is that Marc Olden doesn’t short-change us in the climax; there’s actually comeuppance for all the villains, and it’s well-handled throughout. But the battle between Sand and Chink, toward the end of the book, is sufficiently brutal, and also features a great start where Chink challenges Sand, who is holding a gun on him, and Sand cooly puts aside the gun and accepts the challenge. 

While Pearl isn’t much of a match for Sand in the physical arena, he’s still a good villain in the way that he’s almost like an evil variation of contemporary Blaxploitation paperback hero The Iceman. He doesn’t have the gadgets and weaponry of Iceman, but Pearl is similar in how he’s a successful pimp with a stable of women, one that he’s launched into a lucrative global enterprise. But as mentioned Pearl’s bit is that he abducts young girls, drugs them, and then sells them on the international slave market. Setting up a scenario in future volume The Warlock, Pearl’s main customers this time are the Chavez brothers, a sadistic pair who run their own sex-slave business in South America. 

Speaking of sex, poor old Robert Sand doesn’t have any this time around, but then again, Black Samurai isn’t the most sex-focused of men’s adventure series, either. Midway through the novel he does meet up with an attractive lady named Ursula who runs a shelter in the city, but Sand’s more concerned with getting info out of her. It’s only at the very end of the novel that we readers are assured some tomfoolery will be in their immediate future, as Ursula asks “little black boy” Sand back to her place(!). And yes, Olden does play on the race angle in this one (Ursula happens to be white), but for the most part it’s done in humorous fashion; as ever, there is no racism directed toward Sand, given his bad-assery (other, that is, than through Chink, who also is non-white…and, uh, who is named “Chink” himself, so he might be predisposed to racism). 

Overall The Deadly Pearl moves at a fast clip, taking place over just a few days. It really brings to mind the inner-city action of Olden’s contemporary Narc series, and I still say it was a helluva miss on Olden’s part that he never had his two heroes, Robert Sand and Jon Bolt, meet up at some point. One thing I did appreciate though was Olden’s indirect reference to the Fillmore East, where a few years before Jimi Hendrix had given his Band Of Gypsys concert; there’s a part where Sand is being chased through the darkened streets of New York, and he heads into an abandoned concert hall that was once the location of big rock acts. While Olden never actually gives the name, it seems evident he is referring to the Fillmore East, which closed down in 1971.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Men’s Adventure Quarterly #9

Mens Adventure Quarterly #9, edited by Robert Deis and Bill Cunningham
October, 2023  Subtropic Productions

I had no idea what to expect with this latest installment of the highly-recommended Men’s Adventure Quarterly, what with the theme of “Croc Attack.” I mean I’m a little old fashioned with my men’s adventure yarns, usually preferring the tried and true WWII commando or Nazi sadist stories. But leave it to editors Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham to once again prove how wide-ranging the original men’s magazines were in their efforts to titilate a male readership – I mean who would’ve thought there’d be enough men’s mag stories about attacking crocodiles to fill an entire trade paperback, let alone one so entertaining? 

So then “Croc Attack!” is more on the “adventure fiction” tip of the men’s adventure mag realm, more along the lines of the material in Cryptozoology, or in contemporary men’s mag anthologies like Underwater. It turned out to be more entertaining than I thought it would be; Bob and Bill have provided us with a variety of stories here, so that it doesn’t come off as repetitive at all. This I guess is what I’d initially feared, assuming that if you’d read one “croc attack” yarn you’d read them all, but once again we are pleasantly reminded of how creative those men’s mag writers of yore could be. The latter stories collected here, from the late ‘60s on, are in particular unusual and inventive. 

First of all, a big thanks to Bob and Bill for mentioning Glorious Trash along with the other sites/podcasts that have reviewed previous installments of MAQ. It is always a thrill when a new volume arrives in the mail, and I find myself immediately flipping through the book to see what’s in store. Speaking of which, Croc Attack has a nice feature: “How The Sausage Is Made,” in which Bill takes us through his process of touching up and refining the original men’s magazine artwork and layouts. This was especially revelatory, because I have to admit I’d never even noticed that the interior art reproductions in MAQ are in color, whereas the interior art in the original men’s magazines was almost always black and white; this is because Bill has added color, and as shown in the comparisons here he’s done a damn fine job of it. 

The special features this time are mostly themed around croc and alligator pulp, both in print and in film, and also there’s a feature on the Australian versions of men’s adventure magazines. These are all informative and engaging essays. There’s also a cool photo feature on “The Women Of The Astounding She-Monster,” with lots of cleavage-baring ‘60s models. I love how Bob and Bill have kept alive the “don’t let your wives see it” aesthetic of the original men’s adventure magazines. 

First up is “The Avenging Crocodile, by Brian O’Brien, from the June 1953 Man’s Day. Great intro from Bob to this one about how he hunted down info on this once-popular author. O’Brien writes in a more “factual” style than the typical men’s mag pulpster, but still this tale has an unintentionally humorous angle. Purportedly narrated by a British government official in Rhodesia, it documents a poor native fisherman who has had a few horrifying run-ins with a particular croc…one year it bit off his arm, then some time later it came back to bite off the other arm! It takes on an Edgar Allen Poe vibe as the fatalistic fisherman goes off to his doom. 

Continuing this strange theme is “Give Me Back My Arm!,” by Roy Baker and from the January 1957 Man’s Life. Bob delivers another great intro here detailing how he tried and tried to convince the artist to talk with him about his men’s adventure work, before losing the chance forever when the artist, Wilbur Halsey, died in 2015. This one, another first-person yarn, is a sort of men’s adventure morality tale, documenting as it does this moronically hard-headed narrator’s insistence on fishing in croc-infested waters in Montego Bay…with arm-losing results. 

We venture way outside the typical realm of men’s adventure magazines with “Gator Ground,” by author Robert Edmond Alter, whose Swamp Sister I picked up several years ago but still haven’t read. This one is from the June 1958 issue of Adventure. Alter’s prose is downright literary when compared to the genre norm, a Hemingway-esque tale about a teen in the Bayou who is determined to go out and kill “Old Dent-Head,” a mean old croc that is notorious in the area. But instead Old Dent-Head gets in a fight with another croc…and just might be trying to save the boy. This one’s certainly atmospheric, but just doesn’t seem at all like a men’s adventure yarn – but then, it’s a nice example of how these mags published such a broad variety of material. 

“My Bloody Battle With A Croc” is by Bill Gentry and from the February 1958 Escape To Adventure; it’s a short narrated by a “professional gator hunter” who makes his living in Africa, and tells us about the time he fought a big-ass croc with only a knife. 

I was surprised to see that even the “sweats” got on the croc bandwagon; next up is “Curse Of The Crocodile,” by Doug Stock and from the June 1961 Man’s Action. Another first-person yarn, this one is the first in the collection to get spicy, with the narrator hearing a story from a colleague about a “nasty bit of work” in Guyana who offers a stable of women “naked from the waist up.” But when the dude starts whipping the girls, the narrator’s colleague beats him up and runs off…and soon finds himself in the possession of a miniature crocodile. Bizarrely, the tale becomes a “were-crocodile” piece. This was a fun one and again proved out how unusual these stories could get. 

“Blood For The Crocodile” is by Alan Goodall-Smith and from the June 1961 Man’s Look. The narrator is in Nigeria and we open on some of the more lurid material in the book, with description on how “a white woman’s body had been found…badly mauled by a crocodile.” (“The face was an unrecognizeable hunk of raw meat.”) This one takes the expected sweats detour into the unpredictable, with a crocodile-worshipping cult soon entering the fray. 

My favorite story follows: “My Hand-To-Jaw Death-Duel With A Croc,” by Leon Lazarus and from the November 1970 For Men Only. This is sort of a proto-Shark Fighter; the narrator is a professional hunter who is offered ten thousand dollars to fight a croc on film. But the filmmaker, a South African named Schorn, is just as interested in getting film of an animal killing a man. Veteran writer Lazarus also brings a female presence into the tale – female characters are few in this volume of MAQ, by the way – in the presence of Schorn’s hotstuff wife Karen, who quickly develops a thing for the virile narrator. This one is very good, with the narrator fighting not one but two crocs, and Lazarus handles the action scenes well. The sex material however is so threadbare as to be humorous; when the narrator has the expected shenanigans with Karen, all we’re told is, “It went very well.” 

“The Worst Horror Story Of World War 2” is by Sol Principe and from the November 1971 Stag. This one merges croc-sploitation with horror, factually – almost dryly – telling of escaping Japanese soldiers running from the Allies…and straight into a croc-infested swamp. 

We jump back to ‘60s men’s mags with the final tale, “We Fought Monster Crocodiles,” by Frank S. Forrest and from the November 1963 Man’s Exploits. This one is also unintentionally humorous, as the majority of it is more focused on the narrator, a mining expert, telling us about his “sex-boat” girlfriend in San Francisco. We get a very long opening about how he likes to hit it and quit it (all vaguely relayed, of course)…but he keeps her around the next day because she serves up some nice scrambled eggs for breakfast! Finally we get to the croc stuff, which is almost breathlessly rushed through – basically, the narrator runs into some giant crocs, but his native guide saves the day. 

Overall this was a fun, inventive issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly, and highly recommended…as all of them have been. The next issue also looks good, with its focus on the Vietnam War!