Kirk Bane: Review of Zachary Lazar’s Sway (Little, Brown and Company, 2008)
Sway, Zachary Lazar’s mesmerizing historical novel about the seamy underside of the Sixties, explores the intriguing link between seven legendary counterculture figures: Kenneth Anger, occultist, author, and underground filmmaker; Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, and Anita Pallenberg, the inner core of the Rolling Stones; and Bobby Beausoleil, aspiring rock star and Manson Family member. Lazar’s riveting subject matter includes nihilism, violence and murder, Satanism, drug abuse, betrayal, rock-and-roll, relentless promiscuity, and avant-garde cinema. Sway is a chilling and compelling story, skillfully told.
Lazar, who teaches at Hofstra University, is an exceptional writer. He’s also done his homework. Although Sway is a novel, it focuses on such unforgettable factual events as the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park and Altamont concerts, the recording of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the filming of Anger’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” the drowning death of founding Stone Brian Jones, and the savage Manson murders. The story takes place around the globe, in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Marrakech. In his acknowledgments, Lazar lists the sources he consulted while writing his book. These include Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Alice L. Hutchinson’s Kenneth Anger, Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, and A. E. Hotchner’s Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties. He also studied two classic documentary films: “Gimme Shelter” by the Maysles brothers and Jean-Luc Godard’s “One Plus One.” Clearly, Lazar understands his history.
Kenneth Anger authored the lurid Tinseltown chronicle, Hollywood Babylon, and directed such experimental films as “Fireworks,” “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” and “Scorpio Rising.” A friend of artist Jean Cocteau and sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey, he also moved in the Stones’ social circle. In “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” which contained footage of a Rolling Stones performance, Anger cast struggling musician Bobby Beausoleil in the lead. Beausoleil, of course, later joined Charles Manson’s sinister pack and participated in the robbery and vicious killing of Gary Hinman, one of the first Helter Skelter victims. Shortly thereafter, other Manson disciples carried out the bloody Tate-LaBianca slaughter.
Lazar has a keen eye for detail and fills Sway with vivid images and memorable passages. Consider three such powerful excerpts. Here is his striking description of the Stones at their creative apex:
They were the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band. Even a year ago, no one would have made such a claim, but now it seemed obvious. They had a backlog of more than two hundred songs. Country songs, blues songs, rock-and-roll songs. Mick and Keith didn’t know where they came from, only that the flow had been unstoppable in the last year or so…They’d written riot songs, war songs, murder songs, drug songs, and these had turned out to be exactly the songs people wanted to hear. It was toilet music, dirt music, the music of 1969.
Or take Lazar’s colorful rendering of Kenneth Anger’s Haight-Ashbury environment:
It was spring, 1966. Anger would go for walks in his new neighborhood, a slum taken over by young people, and try to make sense of the odd mishmash of deterioration and adornment: broken stairways with freshly painted railings, run-down porches crawling with morning glories or draped with a faded American flag. He saw young people holding hands and whispering to each other, or sitting on the sidewalk playing guitars, barefoot, the muscles moving solemnly in their shoulders and arms. In Golden Gate Park, he saw streams of soap bubbles drifting over the lawn, flashing prisms of light, and in the distance behind them there might be anything: a group of truant schoolkids, a girl with a German shepherd, a cross-eyed boy in black body paint juggling a set of knives. Everyone under thirty had decided to be an exception: a musician, a runaway, an artist, a star.
Lazar also imagines a frenzied jam session between Beausoleil and Charles Manson:
In his ruffled sleeves and top hat, (Bobby) bent over his guitar now, his legs crossed, listening through his hair for the underlying pattern in the endless, coiling melody Charlie was playing. Beside him, Charlie looked feral, his face and hair visibly grimy, black grit beneath his broken fingernails. He was moving through a strange progression of chords, his song at first a blur of lullaby and muted groans, then an improvised poem that, like the music itself, made no literal sense but was full of suggestions: a desert road, darkness over the Santa Susana Pass, a night ride into the city, clouds passing over Devil’s Canyon.
Students of the Sixties, pop culture buffs, and readers who prefer their literature dark will relish Lazar’s spooky, sordid tale. “Paint it, black,” indeed.
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