August 26, 2008

We haven't had that spirit here since 1969

“Onstage, they are all awkward, all except Brian. His face is almost feminine, pale and wide-lipped, but his hands are large, blocklike, and they handle the guitar like a shovel. He attacks the strings with wide up-and-down sweeps of the wrist, forms the chords with wide-stretched fingers, making his playing look more difficult than it is. He does this while standing still, not looking at the crowd, his face unaccountably stern.”
That quote comes from one of the best parts of Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a novel that maps that ever-popular topic, the death of 60s innocence. The decade was still innocent at that point, which was perhaps 1963, when Brian Jones was still the leader of the Rolling Stones, not yet cold-shouldered by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and when the 60s themselves had not really even started. Across the Atlantic, in New York, Kenneth Anger was also helping to invent the 60s by attaching his Crowleyite vision of a new Aquarian age to the outlaw imagery of a biker gang, transforming them into a story about the death drive, or “Thanatomania” (the film, of course, was Scorpio Rising). Six years later, the Hell’s Angels would act as security for the Stones at Hyde Park, London – a free concert that followed the death-by-drowning of Brian Jones – and then at Altamont Speedway in California, where the Angels, loaded on speed, LSD and beer, would kill an audience member, just after the Stones finished playing the song that Anger inspired them to write: “Sympathy for the Devil”. Only a few months before, there was a series of killings in LA – a pregnant movie star, her hairdresser, some others – and one of the killers was Bobby Beausoleil, a young man under the influence of Charles Manson. That same Beausoleil, a beautiful loser someone nicknamed Cupid, had once been cast in the title role in Anger’s next projected film, Lucifer Rising. By 1969, Anger was trying to talk Jagger into playing the part. When Jagger kept stalling, Anger turned what he had – some Beausoleil fragments, Stones footage, Vietnam war and hippie-occult imagery – into his most devastating film, Invocation of My Demon Brother (pictured above), an aggressive and hallucinatory collage that seems to get everything that's both attractive and repellent about those unendingly fascinating times into 11 startling minutes. And this novel Sway is either a close examination of the several threads of that film or an imaginative rewriting of this long paragraph.

Some of Sway reads like notes jotted down during viewings of Gimme Shelter or Godard’s One plus One – two of the key Stones films – or Anger’s eventual Lucifer Rising, but at other times, as in the Brian Jones excerpt above or a horrific description of the killing of Gary Hinman by Manson followers, Lazar displays a strong visual sense. Indeed, it’s less a narrative than a collage and at its best has a near-hynoptic feeling – just like the films of you-know-who. He’s also good on the shifting dynamics and personal politics of the Rolling Stones. By 1969, they were finally Mick and Keith’s band. Richards still has some heart -- he takes Jones' phone calls and listens to him -- but who is this vampire they call Jagger? In the end, with his dilettantish cynicism – think, too, of the last shot of Gimme Shelter, that bored indifference as he watches footage from Altamont – and his money obsession, Jagger seems the closest to any meaningful definition of evil (what did Rolling Stone say about Altamont? It was the product of "diabolical egotism"). Yes, he’s a man of wealth and taste, or just someone who knew how to read the times and what they demanded of their entertainers, without having any real belief in any of it -- “The sly,sophisticated con man who ... was just a bewildering reflection of all the people who were looking at him," as Lazar says.

I soon realised that Lazar's adoption of a you-are-there journalistic style -- really, 60s New Journalism -- was reminding me of something else. Of course: it's Stanley Booth's classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which documented the 1969 US tour and described the horror of Altamont so brilliantly, and also flashed back to the origin of the band, making pilgrimages to their "quiet towns and near suburbs" as Lazar calls them. So, compare and contrast. First, from Booth:
"'This is our first contact with the cats whose music we've been playing,' Keith said. 'Watching Little Richard and Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers every night was the way we were drawn into the whole pop thing ... That was when Mick really started coming into his own.'"
And then, Lazar:
"They're suddenly matched up with American stars -- Bo Diddley, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers -- people they have idolized. It happens so quickly that the band doesn't have time to parse the implications of this mistake ... Already, Mick can see what's happening. He can see that no matter what he does he's about to become the focal point of the band."
In my view, Kenneth Anger is the most problematic character in Sway. This time the source is likely to have been Bill Landis’ gossipy biography Anger – a book dismissed by both Anger and his more recent biographer, Alice Hutchison. As drawn by Lazar, Anger becomes a sad, needy, slightly ridiculous figure, the same pop culture bit player we read about in Ed Sander’s famously unreliable Manson story The Family or Stephen Davis’s Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods or Marianne Faithfull's autobiography -- a lurid footnote about rock'n'roll's decadent phase. Maybe, as an outsider with an unusual belief system, he’s a tougher person for any author to get to grips with than Jones or Jagger (and Lazar wisely doesn’t try to get into Manson’s head), but surely Anger and his body of work are deserving of more respect than lines like this:
"He believed that his films were lasting works of art, but perhaps this idea was evasive. Perhaps it was a way to justify being thirty-five and living in a metal shed on someone else's roof."
One more complaint: the dialogue can be unusually clunky. The only line I really bought was the suddenly freaked Jagger at Altamont (“Everybody just cool out”) and only because we all watched him say it in Gimme Shelter. Lazar works better when he puts sketches against other sketches, building an impressionistic whole. An almost mythic quality comes out of this loosely-assembled history, a quality accentuated by the lack of tangible landmarks. No Stones songs are named other than their Chuck Berry cover “Carol”, and no lyrics are quoted, although the content of some – “Sympathy for the Devil” obviously, but also "Paint it Black" and "Under My Thumb" – is alluded to. Aleister Crowley also goes unnamed, and instead Lazar fabricates a Crowley-like occult book that passes into Anger’s hands and also gets the attention of Anita Pallenberg, the woman who left Jones for Richards during one of the book’s best long sequences, a stoned holiday in Marrakech, 1967. Lazar's Crowley pastiches are fine but his THY WILL BE DONE could never be a subsitute for Crowley’s motto DO WHAT THOU WILT, just as Lazar's Altamont passages could never compare to Booth's. Other scenes in Sway will only mean something to those who have done the same reading as Lazar (and he does name his sources, including the Booth and Landis books) – he has Anger and Beausoleil looking at San Francisco’s Powerhouse but he doesn’t tell his readers that Beausoleil then named his band the Magic Powerhouse of Oz. In the case of the unnamed Stones songs and the Crowley text, it’s possible that there are legal or copyright reasons, but the Anger films are all named and described. Perhaps Anger can’t call up an army of lawyers as easily.

Also, as it's about music, Lazar has a book-related playlist here. There’s a lot of Stones, plus Neil Young’s Manson-inspired “Revolution Blues” and Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69”, the last coming from that strange moment of post-punk identification with the Manson Family. So there are other songs you could add: Psychic TV’s touching Brian Jones tribute “Godstar”, Current 93’s “Beausoleil” and Coil’s “Solar Lodge”, and maybe even something like “Cease to Exist” from that Manson album that used to circulate as Lie. Why were we all so fascinated by it? I guess that’s the question that Lazar’s been trying to answer.

One last thing: the Rolling Stones stopped playing “Sympathy for the Devil” after Altamont. The ban lasted for about five years. But when I saw them at Western Springs, Auckland, in 1995, they played it and I think Jagger even wore a top hat, the look he took from Beausoleil via Kenneth Anger, just like he did in 1969. Nothing sinister happened, no one died. It's all part of the act now, just simulation – the Stones impersonating their history, just as the grinning and drunk Keith Richards impersonates himself every night. In 1969 they became the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world and Brian Jones was only one of the casualties. As Booth says, at the end of his book, "I spent time with the Stones on later tours, and they were always good, but there never seemed to be so much at stake."