The Armageddon Rag, George R.R. Martin

Pocket, 1983, 399 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 0-671-47526-6

To youngsters like myself, born in the latter quarter of this century, the mindset and attitudes of the “sixties” are either ridiculous or alien. Granted, an impressive fraction of the values pioneered in that decade has endured and even entered mainstream society (often through unusual means, such as the philosophies underlying the Internet as we know it), but digging back through the easy clichés of the period, we find a movement that simply appears too strange to have been real. Free sex, communes, political riots, anticipation of a revolution, drug advocacy… no wonder the United States were so screwed up during these years.

Those were excessive years, and the return to the norm has been harder on some than most. Still, unless someone explains those years to us, the younger generation will miss out on a decade of experiences that could be useful to learn.

That’s what George R.R. Martin does in The Armageddon Rag, cleverly disguising it as a crime thriller with supernatural overtones. You may be fooled into thinking that it’s just a very good novel set in the early-eighties music industry, but it’s really a recapitulation of a generation, with some nostalgia and a lot of style.

The Armageddon Rag begins by hooking us as a good crime thriller: Sandy Blair, novelist in creative crisis, receives a phone call about the death of a rock promoter. But not just any promoter; the ex-manager of the Nazgûl, the best rock band of the sixties. And not just any death, but a gruesome murder with plenty of evidence to suggest that it was done by someone with a thorough knowledge of the band…

Before long, Sandy has chucked it all: The expensive Manhattannite girlfriend, the assorted apartment and the creative crisis, all for an article on the murder. But as he progresses further, not only does the events surrounding the murder get stranger and stranger, but Sandy is drawn further back in his own past sixties, filled as they were by rebellion, violence and barely suppressed pain.

All and all, the plot is a rather good excuse to systematically revisit the sixties through various archetypical characters. Sandy himself is the observer turned pro, the ex-journalist now novelist. Other friends haven’t fared so well: One revolutionary turned ad executive, another still living in an increasingly silly commune, another stuck in mental constructs far more restrictive, another turned college teacher, another (draft dodger) now claimed mentally ill by his domineering father… All facets of the children of the sixties, morphed by latter events.

Before long, we’re (maybe) deep in a supernatural plot to unleash demonic forces on the world. Or maybe not; it’s that type of novel. But the ambiguity isn’t too terribly frustrating.

It’s all quite fascinating, and unusually readable too. Martin is, after all, a Nebula and Hugo-winning pro, and The Armageddon Rag sucks you right in, holds you tightly thanks to some good plotting and doesn’t disappoint through the ending. Characters are sharply defined, the style is brisk and the details are telling. The music-related details are well done, bringing in evocative rock concert descriptions, believable lyrics and an overall feeling of authenticity.

Best of all, The Armageddon Rag doesn’t really show its age, whether it’s thirteen years after initial publication or thirty years after the main period of interest. Musically, it’s easy for a modern reader to imagine Nazgûl as sounding more or less like Rage Against the Machine on a good day. As far as the “spirit of the sixties” is concerned, it works rather well at presenting a particular point in time and the mindset associated with it, even though the concept of a “revolution” nowadays will be cause for more giggles than nods of approval.

It’s hard not to like this novel, both for what’s it’s saying and how it’s saying it. It’s a gripping read, and should appeal to a wide readership, whether or not the individuals were there during the sixties or not. Rock and roll will never die!

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