'Sway' by Zachary Lazar
A novel conjures a powerful prism in which to view the potent, still-rippling contradictions of the late '60s.By Mark Rozzo LA TIMES
January 6, 2008
Little, Brown: 260 pp., $23.99
"HE was a pain in the arse, quite honestly," Keith Richards said not long ago of his late bandmate Brian Jones, with whom he, along with Mick Jagger, founded the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s. Amazingly, Jones -- the troubled blond waif who played a Vox Phantom Teardrop guitar as well as an untold number of exotic instruments on a slew of Stones records -- still has the power to rile people up: By name alone, the prolific indie band Brian Jonestown Massacre (a subject of the surprisingly resonant 2004 documentary "Dig!") suggests an enduring cultish fascination with the doomed musician, who was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969.
"Sway," Zachary Lazar's second novel (after 1998's "Aaron, Approximately"), places a fictionalized Jones in the midst of a triumvirate even more uneasy than the one completed by Richards and Jagger. By highlighting the little-known links among Jones; Kenneth Anger, the notorious filmmaker behind such oddball, darkly camp creations as "Kustom Kar Kommandos" and "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" (he is also the author of "Hollywood Babylon"); and Bobby Beausoleil, the would-be California rock star who became Charles Manson's murderous yes-man, Lazar has created a powerful, infernal prism through which to view the potent, still-rippling contradictions of the late '60s. It's no mean feat. Despite the era's nearly impossible richness, fresh insights are hard to come by. (Witness, if you must, Tom Brokaw's recent prime-time retread, "1968.")
In Lazar's telling, Jones, Beausoleil and Anger turn out to be strange mirrors of one another: compelling, sometimes annoying personalities driven by the times, making the most of its catch-as-catch-can hipster opportunism; spirited dabblers whose ambitions are thwarted or dwarfed by their cohorts in a period of zooming possibility; dreamers whose divergent fates -- death, prison, survival -- illustrate how the decade's long and winding road forked into many paths, not all of them leading to happiness or enlightenment or money-minting commemorative world tours. The connections that Lazar forges are not entirely whimsical, either: The Stones were apparently introduced to Anger's work through the London gallery owner Robert Fraser, a.k.a. Groovy Bob. And Anger did, in fact, cast an unknown Beausoleil as the Lucifer figure in his short film "Invocation of My Demon Brother." (Jagger would score the film.)
Told in appropriately kaleidoscopic episodes that veer from Los Angeles to London and beyond, "Sway" opens with a lazy afternoon at what seems to be the Spahn Ranch above Chatsworth, the Manson family's preferred hide-out, circa 1969. The ragged collection of hippies and Brentwood runaways holed up there doesn't make much of an impression on the wayward Beausoleil, a good-looking kid who briefly played with Arthur Lee before that Angeleno legend went on to form Love.
"It was like a lot of other places he'd been in the past two years," Lazar's narrator observes, in the first of many evocative passages that sum up the times. "[E]verywhere along the coast now there were groups of young people with nowhere to go and no money to spend. It was as if they were living in a fort or a tree house." But as with any fort or treehouse, there needs to be a bully. Here, it is Manson himself, who has an eerie way of getting inside Beausoleil's head: "Not bad," Manson tells his skittish sidekick when they take a drive to break into a house in Benedict Canyon. "Just driving around on a Thursday, getting high. Why don't you just cool off and relax?"
There's nothing relaxing, of course, about those words, which echo throughout "Sway." Lazar ingeniously elevates this innocuous catchphrase of the era to the level of creepy mantra. Similar words are tossed at an increasingly unstable Jones in 1967, after the famous drug raid on Richards' country house and during the Stones' subsequent journey to Marrakech. Anger uses them when coaxing his straight subjects -- including Beausoleil -- to appear in his homoerotic films. And, most famously, they're uttered by Jagger at Altamont on Dec. 6, 1969, as Manson and his followers faced murder indictments: "Everybody just cool out," the caped singer pleads, while nearby a member of the local Hells Angels kills a pistol-wielding black teenager in the crowd.
Meanwhile, we follow Anger's course from an L.A. childhood in which he gravitates toward an Aleister Crowley-esque text called "The Sephiroth" and experiences terror at any thought of the future. A sensitive boy growing up in a not particularly gay-sensitive time, he realizes that "people like him ended up living in residence hotels. They worked as floorwalkers in department stores, cooked their meals on a hot plate." As Anger embarks on his singular career -- cobbling together films that win the attention of Jean Cocteau (and eventually inspire the likes of David Lynch and John Waters) -- we find that he shares with Jones and Beausoleil an outcast quality that will become emblematic of the 1960s: "Everyone under thirty has decided that they're an exception -- a musician, a runaway, an artist, a star." (Variations on this riff turn up throughout.)
Perhaps the most compelling of Lazar's three intertwining story lines is that of Jones and his bandmates. We first find them in 1962, huddling in their squalid Edith Grove flat with their filthy socks drying on a radiator and struggling to work their way through the simplest of Chuck Berry songs. Jones is the glue that bonds the creative partnership of Richards and Jagger. As he teaches Jagger harmonica and steers the nascent Stones through their paces, we come to understand that this young man -- already a father -- will never again have so much power in the band. Jones is there at the crucial moment of inception: "They're trying to be serious and sarcastic at the same time." It's a duality -- adroitly pinpointed by Lazar -- that expresses so much of the '60s, which were as much about the idea of the put-on as they were about the celebration of innocence.
Lazar's vision of the Stones at their genesis is echoed in another haunting guitar-strumming scene in which Beausoleil attempts to accompany Manson's musical ramblings. Like the Stones, particularly Jagger, Lazar's Manson has a "way of miming his emotions, acting them out so that they came across as artificial and sincere at that same time." Connections like this abound in "Sway." If they sometimes feel forced, they are almost always pleasantly jarring: In the murdered Sharon Tate, we find a doppelgänger for Anita Pallenberg, Jones' imperious German girlfriend, who endures his beatings until finally leaving him for Richards, a blow that may have led to his death. In their brazen invasiveness, the Manson break-ins resemble the various police roustings of the Stones. And the bikers of Anger's cinematic and erotic fascinations resurface, in decidedly hellish form, at Altamont.
Then, of course, there's the spirit of Lucifer, who binds it all together: For Anger, he is the Satan of Blake, "a god of light, a child god, the fallen angel . . . finally coming back." But as the decade slouches toward its bummer of a conclusion, Lucifer reverts from red-hot symbol of Eros to grim avatar of Thanatos: Lazar's crowning irony is to reveal how the revolutionary '60s unraveled under the heel of a retrograde Satan. "That was how the Lucifer role had played itself out," Anger notes with a shudder when he hears that Beausoleil has turned cold-blooded killer. And he looks on with amazement while the Stones struggle, much as they did back in their cold flat, to lay down "Sympathy for the Devil," the ultimate invocation of the demon. "They spoke of evils wrought by humanity in the sway of a sly, sophisticated con man who in the end was just a bewildering reflection of themselves." In "Sway," the fun-house '60s are nothing so much as a hell of mirrors. *
Their Satanic Majesties
With its motifs of homosexuality, Satan worship, drug addiction, promiscuity, nihilism and general decadence, Zachary Lazar’s superb second novel, “Sway,” reads like your parents’ nightmare idea of what would happen to you if you fell under the spell of rock ’n’ roll.
That’s not to say Lazar has produced a cautionary tale. He sees the novelist’s job as understanding and conveying experience before judging it. And yet “Sway,” a study in amorality, is itself the work of a clear- and sometimes cold-eyed moralist. Lazar has taken territory, the 60s, where the individual blades of grass have long been trampled into the mud by legions of literary, sociological and critical boots, and found something new. What he evokes is unlikely to please either those who condemn the decade as a body blow to decency and authority, or those who celebrate it as a trippy carnival of raised consciousness and experimentation. Lazar’s is a book that has no time for preconceived ideas, that tells the reader exactly the things likely to disturb any cozy notions. He’s a bad-news bear and thus the most valuable kind of cultural commentator.
“Sway” is an elegant and intricate novel that switches between three stories whose players eventually intersect. The stories are that of the Rolling Stones, from their inception as a group of scruffy English R & B enthusiasts to Altamont; the repressed, closeted upbringing of the director Kenneth Anger, whose tamped-down obsession with devil worship and the homoerotic side of rebel glamour burst forth in underground films like “Fireworks” and “Scorpio Rising”; and Bobby Beausoleil, a sometime dealer and aspiring musician, one of the pretty, not especially talented young people who descended on Los Angeles in time to catch the implosion of the ’60s counterculture. Beausoleil lived on the fringes of the Manson family and, at 22, received a death sentence (later commuted to life) for the murder of Gary Hinman, another associate of the group.
It’s not the intersections that matter so much here — the Stones being filmed for Anger’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother”; Beausoleil becoming one of Anger’s lovers and starring in the filmmaker’s “Lucifer Rising” — as the way the three stories echo one another. “Sway” is the tale of people separated by miles or class or intellect or possibilities of escape, all mining the same dark vein.
Too many novelists and critics and not-too-bright pundits have used the Manson murders and Altamont as convenient symbols for the collapse of the ’60s. What differentiates “Sway” from that ready-made sound-bite pessimism is that in Lazar’s view, those events are something like the decade’s fulfillment.
This is a novel about the ’60s in which the great political upheavals, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, civil rights, Vietnam and the assassinations are barely mentioned. The Beatles, who stood for the greatest sustained explosion of the utopian ideal in all of pop, are dismissed by one character as a group “from Liverpool of all places.” In contrast to the love-and-peace ethos the decade is remembered for, every early Stones gig here ends with a fight. Crowds seem to pack Midlands blues clubs for the sheer pleasure of trying to beat up the band. In “Sway” the freedom that is often vaunted as the cri de coeur of the ’60s is entirely stripped of its communal ideal. It is, instead, a way for people who have always felt themselves on the outside not to feel they have to fit in. It’s a freedom that can result in “Street Fighting Man” or “Scorpio Rising,” or in a group of murderous hippies invading two homes and slaughtering the inhabitants on the orders of a petty thief and failed rock star. Freedom, Lazar is saying, does not inevitably result in noble aspirations.
Lazar has taken a decade spoken of as being about movements and groups and tribes, and given sway to the isolate and the solitary. Brian Jones watches as the group he began is usurped by Keith Richards, the guitarist who barely speaks to anyone, and the singer, Mick Jagger, a student at the London School of Economics who seems a middle-class poseur. For all Anger’s acclaim he might still be the lonely boy in California trolling the docks. Beausoleil holds himself suspiciously apart from the Manson clan.
Lazar’s view of the Stones echoes the English music critic Simon Frith’s 1979 essay on the band in the collection “Stranded,” in which he identifies them as “petit bourgeois jesters, who’ve taken delight in standing morality on its head but retained a touchy egotism, a contempt for the masses that they share with any respectable small shopkeeper. Their rebellion has been a grand gesture, an aesthetic style without a social core.” Or, to put it another way, they will be helicoptered out of Altamont, leaving the terrified masses below on their own.
And yet, Lazar is not unconscious of a touch of heroism in the Stones’ adventure. You don’t compose “Gimme Shelter,” a living elegy for the decade that made you, possessed of both grandeur and dread, if your gaze is entirely inward. The song’s “every man for himself” ethos is not a rejection of compassion but the hardest realism possible, a blunt assessment of everyone’s chances in the aftermath of an era striking an iceberg. But Lazar is conscious of the price for abandoning adventurousness. The absent presence in the novel’s coda — a 2002 encounter between two people who inexplicably survived the era, Anger and Anita Pallenberg — is the Stones themselves, moneyed irrelevancies shortly to appear on another of their rumored final tours.
If there is a literary antecedent to “Sway” it’s Gordon Burn’s 1991 novel “Alma,” a masterpiece that provides another view of the era and is the greatest novel ever about pop culture. Its real kin, in ambience if not method, is Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 film “Performance,” in which Jagger starred. Like that picture, this brilliant novel is about what’s to be found in the shadows, the most terrifying crannies of twisted souls, the darkest gleaming gems.
Review: '60s icons of Lazar's 'Sway' embody the energy of the era
Saturday, January 12, 2008
By Zachary Lazar
LITTLE, BROWN; 255 PAGES; $23.99
Energy is eternal delight," wrote William Blake in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." This declaration serves as an epigraph to "Sway," Zachary Lazar's compelling second novel. Plunging his readers into '60s counterculture, Lazar merges episodes from the lives of the Rolling Stones, the Manson family and experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. But the novel's central character is that era's strange energy. Lazar's real-life figures are emblematic of a fascinating cultural shift: Something was being born, yet no one could say quite what it was or where it was headed. The energy Lazar evokes was far more powerful than any individual. Impersonal, indefinable, thrilling and dangerous, it seized people and brought them just to the brink - if they were lucky - of chaos.
Anger was already pushing 40 by this time. His 1947 film, "Fireworks" - a dark and hilarious fever dream of sadomasochism and maybe the first great moment of gay cinema - won the admiration of Jean Cocteau. In 1964, Anger caused a sensation in the underground circuit. "Scorpio Rising," an anti-narrative stream of images involving biker gangs, drugs, gay and straight sexuality, Christianity and fascism, revealed Anger as an unparalleled chronicler of countercultures (Martin Scorsese and countless others have since imitated the film's combination of pop soundtrack and sheer kineticism). Steeped in the occult and obsessed with a private system of mythology to rival Blake's, Anger wanted to show "how the world was changing" with his next film, "Lucifer Rising." Anger's Lucifer, Lazar writes, "was a god of light, a child god, the fallen angel who after two thousand years of repression was finally coming back. He was the god of desire, illicit desire, the liberator, the revelator."
Initially cast as Lucifer, Bobby Beausoleil was a charming, beautiful musician with whom the director soon became infatuated. When the young man departed for Los Angeles in the early stages of filming, Anger waited in vain for him to return. In "Sway," Anger tries to persuade Mick Jagger, fresh from recording "Sympathy for the Devil," to take the role; Anger eventually made the film with someone else altogether. Ever resourceful, Anger saved his footage of Beausoleil and used it in his disturbing 1969 reflection of America in turmoil, "Invocation of My Demon Brother," which was scored by Jagger and includes brief footage of the Rolling Stones performing. In July 1969, Brian Jones - who had recently been fired from the Stones - died in his swimming pool. Beausoleil, meanwhile, had drifted into the Manson clan; he was arrested for murder in August. The Stones' disastrous free concert at Altamont, at which the Hells Angels killed a concertgoer, took place in December of that year.
Lazar offers several convincing sketches of the band in its early years. At first, Jagger's "chief talent ... is a lack of embarrassment"; onstage, "[t]he noises he makes have nothing to do with singing. But his sheer persistence is a provocation because it's clear that he isn't joking." Eventually, the band elicits enthusiasm that it neither anticipates nor understands: "The sound the girls make is the strangest they've ever heard, not the high screech of adulation but an eerily sexual keen, a thickening moan. ... Every gesture they make now is magnified, triggering panic and exaltation. ... They don't realize they're even making a gesture until the screams get louder, and then they have to just accept it: they're performing, they're putting on a show."
On their triumphant second tour of the States - after they've ditched Jones - the band is well aware of its effect. Lazar's depiction of this music's bacchic appeal is as deft and persuasive as any I've encountered:
"It was a series of vibrations amplified through electric circuits, a current of sound the crowd could feel on the skin beneath their hair, in the cavities of their chests, in their rectums and their groins. It registered in their bodies, in the pulse of their blood, but also in their minds, the part that was always changing, as senseless and illogical as a dream. The band was making sounds, the sounds were coming from the stage, but they were no longer themselves, the people in the crowd were no longer themselves, no one was even thinking about it anymore. They might be a nobody from Romford with the wrong kind of accent, or a mechanic's son with ruined teeth, or they might think all the time about what people had and what they were missing out on, but nobody was thinking about any of that while they were in its grasp. It was basic, energy and sound, life intensified for a few moments, its chaos made plain, the self slipping outside the body, joined in sound to other bodies. It was a feeling everyone had always craved, had always been warned about, a connection to something like the deeper self that used to be called the soul."
Lazar's first novel, the semiautobiographical "Aaron, Approximately," was published nearly 10 years ago. It's too early to pronounce "Sway" a departure - it's too early to say who Lazar is, exactly - but the two books share little beyond a taste for nonlinear narrative. One could object that the Maysles brothers have already documented the road to Altamont in "Gimme Shelter," or that Lazar borrows too heavily from the mosaic approach to storytelling favored by postmodern filmmakers such as Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros," "Babel"). But such complaints are forgotten as one succumbs to this richly imagined, hauntingly vivid novel, wherein everyone falls under the sway of someone or something, the culture itself appears spellbound and the pursuit of self finds ironic culmination in the loss of identity.