A CIRCLE OF FIFTHS in blood-red runes, a crimson web of sharps and flats, a faery ring on midnight black to mark the start of furtive rites—the cover of Adam Kadmon’s The Guitar Grimoire evokes the dark glamour of the power of music and promises the would-be adept the secret incantations to break on through to the other side. As a young musician coming into adolescence, I can recall a palpable sense of connection to the music of the past, an intimation that my generation’s performers lacked the duende and raw essence of the fallen Sixties giants: Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix. The Grimoire materialized on music shop bookshelves just in time to direct my youthful Weltschmerz into more productive channels. As the name suggests, the bestselling tome renders musical instrument self-study as a magician’s art, where diagrams of arcane scales and soundcraft promise the fleet-fingered apprentice a chance to cast a spell to reanimate the spirits of the musical dead.
In The Armageddon Rag, George R.R. Martin explores a similar complex of Sixties-era music, cultural nostalgia, and occult fantasy, all tossed into a bittersweet witches’ brew of a novel tracing the rise, fall, and reunion of the Nazgûl, a hard-rock band whose dark iconography and brooding lyrics capitalize on the Sixties’ “Go, Go, Gandalf” fetish for all things Tolkienian. And like the world of The Lord of the Rings, Martin builds undercurrents of corruption and black magic, with unscrupulous music-industry suits as Dark Lords whose contracts bind as violently as the One Ring.
In the Rag’s opening, aging novelist Sander “Sandy” Blair receives a call from his former editor at the Hedgehog, a counterculture slick turned mainstream fashion rag. The offer? Cover the murder of the Nazgûl’s former manager and promoter, Jamie Lynch, an assignment that puts Sandy at the crossroads between his former life as a roving music critic and his more respectable, but soul-deadening, career as a second-tier pop novelist struggling to meet a deadline for a book he doesn’t know how to write.
Indeed, some parallel can be seen between Martin himself and his protagonist at the cusp of a midlife crisis. After a string of award-winning fantasy and SF pieces, the then 35-year-old Martin took a chance on The Armageddon Rag, hoping to break into the mainstream through an experimental mélange whose recipe reads something like this: one part where-are-they-now rock doc, one part The Big Chill reunion piece, one part Satan-worshipping dark fantasy, one part pulp horror, one part stoner detective story, and one part road trip through the wreck of time.
If that sounds like a weird formula for a mainstream novel, you aren’t alone in your reservations. When the book first appeared in 1983, it was, despite nominations for the Locus and World Fantasy awards, a complete commercial disaster—bad enough, according to a 2005 Publisher’s Weekly interview with Martin, that he began writing for television and film to remain afloat artistically and financially. Only after more than a decade of pot-boiling projects and forays into shorter fiction would Martin return to original novels, gaining along the way the maturity and confidence to try his hand at epic fantasy and pen the wildly popular series, A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. A Game of Thrones).
But now that times have changed and Martin rules both the cable TV airwaves and the mass-market bestseller list, a reappraisal of his back catalogue seems warranted, especially for Thrones fans eager to devour more of the writer’s earlier work while waiting out the next installment in the saga of Westeros. Will newer Martin fans love The Armageddon Rag in the same way they love Game of Thrones? Probably not. But if they don’t mind a breezy page-turner of a rock-n-roll mystery—that is, one with a bizarre mix of orcs, demon possession, and acid flashbacks thrown in for good measure—they’ll probably have some fun with this one.
The blend of themes is quirky and delightful, but the most impressive aspect of the book is that they all hold together through the central idea of haunting, the notion that the unfulfilled affects and unreconciled traumas of the musical past echo into the present as a ghostly manifestation—a cultural repression built up to the point of phantasmagoric release. Sandy’s magical mystery tour through the demons and delights of the Sixties’ past appears as a series of recurring nightmares and road-weary reveries as he criss-crosses the nation to track down leads (and old lovers) in a Mazda RX-7 with the apt nickname of Daydream. Sandy’s phantom visions throughout the book focus on what the hell it all meant—the protests, the draft-dodging, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the “Clean for Gene” boosterism, the riots of ‘68, the sex, the drugs, and the descent into yuppiedom. His assignment takes him on a fractal trip through the American past, and Martin keeps a keenly nostalgic ear for how the music drove the many revolutions toward civil rights, but also, sadly, the twisted messianism of Manson and rock fandom. I found myself spellbound by the vividness and multidimensionality of Martin’s evocations; I could feel, at times, the competing forces of the past, present, and future pulling Sandy in every direction but homeward. But that’s the nature of nostalgia, after all, a home-sickness for a place that no longer exists—or which perhaps never existed.
Despite these cultural insights, the adventure of Sandy Blair reads like a supermarket murder-mystery with elements of the macabre and fantastical to color the otherwise formulaic plot. Sandy finds himself in over his head with the mystery; Sandy hits rock bottom and loses his girlfriend; Sandy gets his groove back and realizes the road trip and the Nazgûl assignment should be the real subject of his stymied book; Sandy saves the day from demonic baddies and reunites with all his buddies for a party, just like the old days. I suspect, too, that more than a few readers will roll their eyes upon the thirtieth Tolkien allusion or at some of the blither stereotypes of the Sixties variety on display throughout: the barefoot and pregnant utopian hippie, the militant socialist turned yuppie ad exec, or the fab-to-flab rock prima donna, among others.
Where the book fails most is in its adherence to Martin’s own more mature set of aesthetics, which he describes as a striving for “gray” characters, rather than Tolkien’s Manichean playbook of Heroes and Villains. Don’t get me wrong. Martin clearly shoots for some nuance with his characters, and he rounds out the ruiners with a redeeming motivation or mitigating circumstance. But compared to the author’s more recent depth of character and story, this earlier effort, workmanlike though it may be, isn’t as fully realized. Sandy and his buddies are mostly the Heroes of the tale, and nothing ever meaningfully challenges the reader’s understanding of that. And unlike his more recent work, Martin never upsets our assumptions that the characters we love best will be assured of safety. If nothing else, The Armageddon Rag attests to how much bolder and deliciously unpredictable a writer Martin has become over the years. (Fans eager to track Martin’s development should also check out his 1982 vampire novel Fevre Dream, an Anne-Rice-meets-Mark-Twain extravaganza set on a Mississippi riverboat in the 1850s, which was republished last year by Bantam.)
The lasting power and relevance of The Armageddon Rag will be in its idiosyncratic attempt to exorcize the latter-day cultural possession by the specter of the Sixties or resist the long, dark reverb of its siren song. A contemporary À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu this most certainly is not, but for the intrepid traveler in search of lost time, I say crack the spine, drop the needle, and let that rock-n-roll spirit take you back “home.”