255 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $23.99.
By Zachary Lazar.
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.
Gregory Leon Miller San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, January 12, 2008
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.
LOS ANGELES — Sara Jane Moore, a 1970s radical who tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford more than 30 years ago, was released Monday on parole from a federal prison in Northern California.
Ms. Moore, 77, who was serving a life sentence for trying to shoot Mr. Ford outside a San Francisco hotel in 1975, left the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., at 5:20 a.m. Monday, said a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington.
Officials did not disclose where she might be staying or details on the terms of her parole.
Ms. Moore, who had been involved with several leftist radical groups, including the Symbionese Liberation Army, later told interviewers that she regretted the attempt on Mr. Ford’s life.
“I was functioning, I think, purely on adrenaline and not thinking clearly,” she said a year ago in an interview with KGO-TV in San Francisco. “I have often said that I had put blinders on and I was only listening to what I wanted to hear.”
On Sept. 22, 1975, Ms. Moore stood among a crowd outside the St. Francis Hotel and was about 40 feet away from Mr. Ford as she aimed a .38-caliber pistol at him. But Oliver W. Sipple, a former marine who was standing next to her, knocked her arm upward as she fired, sending the bullet well over Mr. Ford’s head; it ricocheted off a building and slightly injured a person in the crowd.
It came 17 days after Mr. Ford, visiting Sacramento, had survived another attempt on his life, this one by Lynette Fromme, known as Squeaky, a follower of Charles Manson who is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison hospital in Texas.
Although sentenced to a life term and denied parole at least once before in the mid-1980s, Ms. Moore was given another chance at freedom under federal sentencing regulations that call for considering paroling prisoners after serving 30 years if they are not deemed a threat and have conducted themselves well.
Ms. Moore did escape for four hours from a federal prison in 1979, but Tom Hutchison, a spokesman for the United States Parole Commission, said it appeared nothing in her recent record blocked her release. The commission held a hearing in November to clear her release, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of her federal incarceration, he said.
Mr. Ford died on Dec. 26, 2006, at age 93.
Ms. Moore’s motives and background — she reportedly had had five marriages and was known to reveal little even to her lawyers — have remained murky.
A Secret Service study in 1999 of people who had tried or succeeded in assassinating public figures said Ms. Moore had “found herself caught in a swirl of turbulent social forces and causes” in a place and time fraught with tension among the police and left-leaning political radicals.
She had been an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and believed she would ultimately be killed by radicals.
“I was going to go down anyway,” she told The San Jose Mercury News in 1982. “If the government was going to kill me, I was going to make some kind of statement.”
Mr. Sipple died in 1989.